Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Sunday, May 12, 2019

YEAR C 2019 easter 4

Easter 4, 2019
Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

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

So, today is what we call “Good Shepherd Sunday.”  The fourth Sunday of Easter is always called Good Shepherd Sunday.  And, in January, when we celebrate St. Timothy Sunday here at St. Timothy’s, we will also have a gospel reading with Jesus saying that he is the Good Shepherd.  So, twice a year, every year, there’s an opportunity to talk about the Good Shepherd.  Which is why this time, I’m going to talk about something else.

Dorcas.  That’s kind of an unfortunate name—to our American ears, at least.  In Aramaic, her name is Tabitha, which means gazelle, which is lovely.  But, when it gets translated into Greek, she becomes Dorcas.  We press on.

If you look over to your left, you’ll see our lovely window, depicting Dorcas and the widows.  It’s unclear at first glance whether this is Dorcas after she was raised back to life, or if it is Dorcas distributing clothing to the needy before she fell ill and died.  However, as with all good art, further study provides additional clues.  The woman on the right is carrying a basket of pomegranates.  In Greek mythology, the pomegranate is tied to the myth of Persephone and the arrival of spring, which is the rebirth of the earth each year.

For Christians, the pomegranate is a symbol of the resurrection and the hope of eternal life.  The pomegranate is associated with the Resurrection of Jesus and his followers, rather than the annual resurrection of crops.  If you look around the room, you will see lots of pomegranates and lillies in our stained glass windows.  These are symbols of resurrection to new life, which is why we decorate the Altar with lillies at Easter.  So, yeah, the overwhelming pollen at Easter can be rough, but something would be lost if we just put bowls of pomegranates up there.

Back to Dorcas.  So, given that the woman with the pomegranates is holding the hand of the woman in blue, it seems this is after Dorcas has been raised from the dead.  And the woman in front of Dorcas is showing the widows and orphans the tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made, as a reminder of why Dorcas was so beloved in the community.  There is one man depicted in the window, on the left side, holding a shepherd’s crook.  (I got nothing on this guy.)

So this window was donated in 1905 in memory of Emma Dielhenn.  My German instincts tell me to pronounce that name as Deel-hen.  But this being Ohio, the name is pronounced Dillon, at least here in Massy-own.  And, just a few blocks from here, you can find Dielhenn Avenue, which is named for the Dielhenn Petticoat Co., which employed many city residents. In 1908 the “Dry Goods Reporter” declared that Dielhenn Petticoat was America’s leading petticoat specialist.  So, you can see why our Dorcas window—featuring a woman who was known for making robes and clothing—is dedicated in memory of Emma Dielhenn, right?  Here endeth the history lesson.

Now back to the text.  Tabitha, or Dorcas, was known for her acts of charity, and is one of the first female disciples mentioned by name, after the resurrection.  She fell ill and died.  Her friends gathered together to prepare her for burial, and they call a prominent pastor, Peter.  He comes right away when he receives word.  And then, those who gathered and are in mourning tell stories and share mementoes of Dorcas’ time among them.  It sounds very much like what we do today, doesn’t it?  When someone we love dies, we gather together, share stories, call the pastor?

Then Peter sends them all outside, and he kneels down and prays.  We don’t know the content of his prayers, or what he was asking.  But eventually, he turns to the body and said, "Tabitha, get up.”  And, as we heard, she opens her eyes, sees it is Peter, and he helps her up, calling the saints and widows, showing her to be alive.

SO many interesting things about that little section!  First, we specifically heard, “he turned to the body and said . . .”  Luke, the writer of Acts, makes it clear that she is not in this body.  It is just a body.  This is not Dorcas.  This is a body.  And then, he calls her by name, and she rises from the dead.  Now I won’t stand here and tell you that I understand all this, where she went when she wasn’t in the body, or how calling her by name brings her back to life, but I will say that this sounds a lot like what will happen to each one of us when the new heaven and new earth are proclaimed.  Jesus will call us each by name, and we will rise with all the others to a new life.

And then there’s that phrase, “calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive.”  What saints?!?  We had heard mention of widows earlier in the story.  But to what saints was Peter showing her?  It suggests that it’s not just the people in the room, doesn’t it?  Like maybe he’s showing Dorcas to the saints who have gone before?  Or showing her to the saints who will come after?  To me and you?  Again, I have no answers here, but Luke—unlike Mark—was careful with language, so it certainly means more than showing her to the people in the room.

Last week, I didn’t know anything about Emma Dielhenn.  And I still don’t really know much.  But I know that someone dedicated this window to her memory.  And because of that, I learned that the Dielhenns made one of the best petticoats in the country.  But the only reason I know anything at all is because of this window.  So the phrase, “In memorium” there is really most appropriate, right?  By memorializing this window, future generations are remembering and talking about Emma Dielhenn on this fourth Sunday of Easter.

And this window also honors someone named Tabitha, (or Dorcas, in Greek).  There are fifteen sentences about her in the book of Acts.  Out of 31,102 verses in the Bible, she got 8.  Ask most Christians to identify Dorcas in the Bible, and there are not many who could tell you.  Before I started as your rector, I could not have told you off the top of my head who she was without looking it up.  It’s kind of an obscure story, within the context of the whole of our scriptures.

Our beautiful window here focuses our attention on her good works and acts of charity.  The main focus of this window is showing the “tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.”  And that seems right, because we honor her for what she did before her death.  She wasn’t just some random person raised from the dead by Peter.  She was a disciple of Jesus, who used her wealth and privilege to help the people around her who needed help.  And we are reminded of those good deeds when we look at this window.

But that’s not why we know her name.  We only know the name Dorcas because she was raised from the dead.  She did laudable deeds, but we only know about those deeds because of God’s deed of raising her from the dead.  We honor her in the window for what she did before her death.  But we only even know her name because she was resurrected..

The point is not what she did with her life.  The point is that she was raised back to life.  Which is just like you and me.  Some people do great things with their lives.  Get streets named after them, and windows dedicated in their memory.  But lots of us just struggle through difficult lives, just trying to keep breathing, to keep living, to rely on the kindness of strangers.  And in God’s eyes, not one of those people is any less important than any other person.  As we heard in today’s gospel reading, not one will be snatched out of the hand of Jesus.

And at some point, like Dorcas, every single one of us will be just a body.  Waiting for Jesus to turn to us, call us by name, and say “get up.”  And then Jesus, the Good Shepherd, will call all the saints and widows to show them that we too are alive.
Get up—you are alive.

Amen.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

YEAR C 2019 easter 3

Easter 3, 2019
Acts 9:1-6
Psalm 30
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-19

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

Sometimes the gospel reading on a given Sunday gives you a little gift.  One little sentence that jumps out at you, even if it’s not the point of the reading.  And today’s little gift from the gospel is this: 

When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.

Put on some clothes, and jumped into the sea.  What is up with that???  I mean I’ve done my share of fishing, but I have always worn some clothes while doing so.  And I have done my share of swimming, but I have never put clothes on before jumping into the sea.  Simon Peter, the naked fisherman, realizes that he is in the presence of the resurrected Jesus, and he obviously loses his mind.  He is so overwhelmed by the realization, that he’s doing his own version of throwing his arms in the air and running in circles.  Puts on his clothes, and jumps into the sea.  It’s what any reasonable person would do, right?

But, let’s back up.  Right before today’s collection of odd things, Jesus appeared to the disciples including Thomas, the doubting one.  You remember that from last week.  After that, John’s Gospel kind of comes to a close: “Jesus did other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written here.  But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Son of God.”  It’s like a fade-out, and you expect the whole book to be over.  But then the lights come back on, and we get the 21st chapter of John’s Gospel, the final chapter, most of which we heard this morning.

And as the lights come up, Peter says to the others, “I am going fishing.”  They say, “We will go with you.”  This feels odd, for lots of reasons.  Fishing for these men would mean throwing nets into the water, and pulling them back into the boat.  Probably not easy for Peter to do alone.  And based on the list, there were six others who would be getting in the boat with Peter.  Seems a little crowded already, so maybe it’s better that they don’t catch anything after fishing all night. 

So what are they doing while not catching fish?  Maybe they’re discussing last week’s appearance of Jesus.  Or maybe they’re talking about what life will be like, now that Jesus is risen, but not there with them, like he was when they walked the streets of Jerusalem together.  Or maybe they’re just talking about the fact that they used to catch a whole lot more fish when Jesus was telling them how to do it.

And, suddenly, after daybreak, there’s Jesus standing on the shore, asking if they’ve caught any fish.  They say no.  He tells them to try the other side, and voila’ more fish than they can haul in.  Just like old times.  Except it seems the disciples still don’t make the connection, until John says to Peter, “It is the Lord!”  So maybe that explains why Peter jumps into the sea.  He knows that fishing with Jesus can lead to so many fish that the boat sinks.  Maybe he was just afraid of the potential boatload that fishing with Jesus might bring!  (Now hold on to that thought for a minute, as we skip ahead.)

Jesus then cooks breakfast for them.  He feeds them, that is.  And then after he feeds them, Jesus has a conversation with Simon, aka Peter.  Jesus asks him, “Do you love me more than these?”  Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”  Jesus says, “Feed my lambs.”

Jesus says to Peter, “Do you love me?”  Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”  Jesus says, “Tend my sheep.”

Jesus says to him, “Do you love me?”  Peter feels hurt because Jesus has now asked him the same question three times.  And Peter says, “Lord you know everything; you know that I love you.”  And Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.”

Three times Jesus prompts the profession of love from Peter.  And three times Peter answers that he loves Jesus.  Three times Peter affirms his love for Jesus.  And what is the opposite of affirming something?  Denying, right?  Just a few weeks ago, while Jesus was on trial before Pilate, Peter stood in the courtyard outside.  And three times someone asked Peter if he was one of Jesus’ disciples.  And all three times, Peter denied knowing him.  Three times Peter denied Jesus, and the rooster crowed.  Today, Jesus comes to Peter, and redeems this triple denial.  Today, Jesus seeks out Peter, and leads him to redemption.  Jesus has come to Peter and brought him back to life.  Why do I say that?  Brought him back to life?

Well, take a moment and put yourself in Peter’s place.  (I don’t mean fishing in the nude; I mean after the denials.)  Imagine how devastated he is by now.  Think back to Peter’s bold claim that all the others might fall away, but  “I will lay down my life for you.”  And Jesus tells Peter, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.  And, then, he does.  There in that courtyard, on the night Jesus is on trial, Peter is outside the building, lying to escape laying down his life for Jesus.  Not once.  Not twice.  But three times.

Any of us who did what Peter had done would feel we were unforgivable.  We would probably think there is no chance to be forgiven for that kind of denial at that most important moment.  Even Jesus himself saying “you’re forgiven” is not enough.  But three times?  Is that enough?  Jesus sends Peter a strong message with the three questions.  He doesn’t yell at him.  Doesn’t embarrass him in front of the others.  Doesn’t make him feel bad.  Doesn’t even ask him if he is sorry for what he has done.

Jesus asks Peter if he loves him; then tells Peter to feed and tend his sheep.  Three times he asks him the same question, and Peter gets it right all three times.

 Except, well, not really . . . Jesus does not ask Peter the same question all three times.

As you have heard me say, the Greek language has more than one word for love.  In English, love is love, and the context is the only thing that can give us more information.  In Greek, the three main kinds of love are eros, philios, and agape.  You can get a sense of their meaning by how we use them.  Eros gives us erotic love, maybe we could say romantic love.  Philios gives us brotherly love, or love for our neighbor, as in Philadelphia.  And then agape is usually thought of as the perfect selfless love, the kind God has for us.  Agape love is what we see in John 3:16, where God so loved the world, unconditionally, that He gave his only son.

So, here’s the big thing:  the first two times, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you agape love me?  Do you perfectly and selflessly love me?  Would you lay down your life for me?”  And Peter responds with, “Lord, you know that I philos love you.  I love you like a brother.  I love you as my friend.”  The first two questions and responses are the same.  “Do you love me selflessly?”  “Lord, you know I love you as my brother.”

But the third time Jesus asks the question, he changes it.  The third time, Jesus doesn’t ask Peter if he loves him with that perfect love, that agape love, the love that would lay down one’s life, would never deny or abandon him.  No, the third time Jesus asks Peter, “Do you philios love me?  Peter do you love me as a brother, a companion, a friend?”  And Peter’s response is the same as the first two times.  Peter says, “Lord, I love you as my brother.” 

Jesus, in this third question, comes to meet Peter where he is.  He does not ask Peter to become perfect.  And, he does not keep asking until Peter makes a promise Peter knows he cannot keep.  It’s not as though, after the resurrection, Peter suddenly becomes able to live up to his promise to lay down his life for Jesus.  Amazingly, what seems to have changed is Peter’s ability to see himself as he really is.  He does not claim to love perfectly.  He does not claim to love as God loves.  What Peter tells Jesus is that he is able to love Jesus as a brother, friend, and neighbor.  And that’s where Jesus meets him:  where Peter is.  Where Peter lives.  Where Peter knows himself to be.

And that is exactly what Jesus says to you and me this morning.  We all make lofty promises to God about how selfless we will be.  About how we’re willing to change our ways, and lay down our lives, and love God perfectly.  And, of course, it’s only a matter of time until the rooster crows for you and for me.  And what is God’s response to us?  Jesus asks us if we love him; and Jesus enables us to feed his sheep.  That’s not an order, not a command.  Notice, it is a response to love.  We love Jesus, and he gives us the ability to feed his lambs, tend his sheep.  With what, you ask?  Well how about the boatload of fish for starters?  Jesus shows us how to fish, gives us the resources, and enables us to love our neighbors.

And Jesus does one more thing: just as Jesus gives bread to the disciples on the shore that morning, he offers bread to you and me here this morning.  Not merely bread, but the body and blood of the risen Lord, giving us the strength to feed God’s sheep.  So now, let’s all put on some clothes and jump into the water, and Jesus will meet us on the shore, with the bread of life, at this altar.  Because Jesus comes to meet us where we are.

Amen

Sunday, April 28, 2019

YEAR C 2019 easter 2

Easter 2, 2019
Acts 5:27-32
Psalm 150
Revelation 1:4-8
John 20:19-31

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

Each year, the Sunday after Easter—which is called the Second Sunday of Easter, for reasons I won’t go into—each year, we get this same Gospel reading we just heard, about Thomas.  Happens every year.  And you’ve heard me talk about Thomas before, since he’s kind of the lead character in this story.  But this year I want to talk about something else.  I want to talk about that locked door.

Last Sunday, as we gathered together for those beautiful joy-filled services on Easter morning, reports began to trickle in about a horrific series of bombings in Sri Lanka.  Gruesome and awful and despicable acts.  So many people killed on the most holy day of the Christian year.  The killers intentionally chose the day and places where they could do the most damage to the most Christian people at one time.  Our brothers and sisters in Christ, slaughtered in their houses of worship.  In the very places we call sanctuaries, because they are supposed to be safe from the world outside.  It is frightening to think about as we gather in our own sanctuary at St. Timothy’s Church.

And we had similar thoughts and feelings after the killings in the church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and after the shootings during Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina, after Pittsburgh, Christchurch, and now Poway, California.  And after any fatal act of violence in public places.  In what we think of as safe places.  We hear about these tragedies, and we get scared.

By nature, we humans want to understand things.  And when we don’t understand, we become frightened.  We can’t understand how someone could kill other people who have gathered together for worship.  These killers are not like us, and that frightens us.  And it’s not just when people act violently that we react with fear.  We always fear the other.  Those who are different from us.  Who don’t look like us.  Who don’t worship like we do.  Who don’t love as we love.  The unknown is frightening.

When human beings get scared, we build walls and fences; we lock our doors; we cover our eyes.  Whatever it takes to keep out the things that scare us, that is what we will do.  And that is what the disciples are doing in this gospel reading we just heard.  They are hiding in the dark, in a locked room for “fear of the Jews.”  And to be clear, we need to remember that it was their fellow Jews who handed Jesus over to be killed just a week before.  The disciples themselves are Jews.  So they’re not afraid of “the Jews;” they’re afraid of a particular group of Jewish people—the ones who might hand them over to death, like they did to Jesus.

Miraculously, even though the disciples have locked the door and are hiding, Jesus still comes and stands among them.  They have locked out the people they are afraid of, but Jesus still shows up.  And at first glance, this seems like a solution to our own fear, right?  We could come together on Sunday mornings and lock the doors for fear of those bad people, and Jesus still shows up, right?  Problem solved.

But that creates a different problem.  Because if we lock the door and keep Jesus all to ourselves, then what?  How can we tell people about the love of God in Jesus if we’re hiding in the church with the doors locked?  I mean, I don’t doubt for a second that Jesus will show up, because I believe with every fiber of my being that Jesus is present in the bread and wine that we share at this Altar.  And Jesus himself promises to be with us any time two or three are gathered in his name.  So, yes Jesus is here with us today.  Just like he was there with the disciples hiding in the locked room.

But what about the others?  Can we lock the door for our own safety without locking out the ones who need Jesus?  There are no easy answers here.  It’s not simple, and if we think it is, we’re not paying attention.  We live in a dangerous world, and it’s getting more dangerous every day because we just keep turning up the volume of hatred and distrust.  Everyone who disagrees with me is wrong, or evil, or even an animal.  And the more we talk like that, the more we turn up the volume on the hatred dial, the more dangerous the world becomes.  Which means we then need to lock more doors, build more barriers, keep more people out.  It’s like the only solution is for each person to get their own hermetically sealed vault.  Which, when you think of it, is exactly what a coffin is.

God wants you to have life, and have life abundantly.  You were not created to live in a coffin.  You were created to be raised up out of a coffin.  To die to sin and be resurrected.  Each and every day, and on the last day.  God created you to live.  God put you here to have life in this world—that world outside those red doors.

But in these scary times, it’s hard to believe that God understands, isn’t it?  It’s hard to believe that Jesus knows how frightened we are.  It’s hard to believe that Jesus knows how we suffer.  But then, like Thomas, we see those nail-scarred hands and we remember.  Jesus knows what it is like to be afraid.  Jesus knows what it is like to die a horrific death at the hands of misguided and cynical people.  Jesus has suffered and died in this world.

And Jesus has been raised up from that death, and will raise you and me up as well.  Those same nail-scarred hands will reach down into every coffin, real or imagined, and pull us up to resurrected life.  Though this world is filled with fearful things, we need not fear death, because Jesus has overcome death.  God has swallowed up death forever, and one day we will all be reunited in a land where there are no walls, where there are no locks, and where there is nothing to fear.

Amen

Sunday, April 21, 2019

YEAR C 2019 the festival of easter

Easter, 2019
Acts 10:34-43
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:19-26
Luke 24:1-12

But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.


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

There’s a lot of talk in our country these days about truth.  And a lot of talk about lies as well.  Truthiness, fake news, alternative facts, slips of the tongue.  It’s hard to know who’s really telling the truth.  And because of that, it’s sometimes extra hard to get through a holiday meal with your family.  But this is not new, this questioning of the truth.  In our Gospel reading on Good Friday, we heard Jesus say, “for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”  And then Pilate responds, “What is truth?”

So, in Greek mythology, there’s this woman named Cassandra.  Perhaps you’ve heard of her.  I won’t trouble you with all the specific and racy details—that’s what 8th grade English class is for—but the long-short is, Cassandra ends up with a prophetic gift that is also a curse:  though she is able to see the future accurately, nobody will ever believe her prophecies. She foresaw the destruction of Troy because of Helen’s arrival, but no one believed her.  She warned the soldiers of Troy about the Greeks hiding inside the giant Trojan horse, but nobody believed her.  Cassandra could see the truth, and no one believed her.

In the Gospel reading we just heard, from Luke, the women go to the tomb.  “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them,” so that’s at least five women if not more.  As you may have noticed, conspicuously absent from this group are any of the 11 men we call The Disciples.  (Just saying.)  At the tomb, these women see two figures in dazzling white who remind them the words Jesus had told them:  that on the third day he would rise again.  And after they remember, they run back and tell the disciples what they have seen.  Jesus is alive!  And as we heard, “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”  That’s Luke’s version.

In Mark’s version of this story, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, and she goes and tells the disciples, who “were mourning and weeping.  But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.”  In Matthew’s version, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary and says go and tell the others I will meet them later.  And in John’s version, Jesus calls Mary Magdalene by name, and then she recognizes him.  She runs and tells the disciples “I have seen the Lord!”  John doesn’t tell us how they react, but in the next verse they are hiding in a room with the door locked, so, I think we can guess the answer.

In all four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, and sometimes to other women as well.  And in none of these four gospels does anyone believe her.  We could say that Mary Magdalene is like the Cassandra of Christianity.  Blessed with knowing the truth and cursed with never being believed.  What she tells the disciples is true.  Even though no one believes her, it’s still true.  But in Luke’s gospel, the reading we just heard, there’s something else.  As we read, “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb.”  Peter gets up and goes to see for himself.

Even though—like everyone else—Peter thinks the words of the women seemed an idle tale, for some reason he still gets up and runs to the tomb.  He looks inside, and sees that—far from an idle tale—the women have spoken the truth:  Jesus is alive!  And then . . . and then . . . then he goes home, amazed at what had happened.  It’s a bit anticlimactic, isn’t it?  He sees the evidence that Jesus has been raised from the dead, and . . . he goes home.  But of course, Peter comes around, eventually.  From thinking it’s an idle tale, to seeing for himself, to going home, to eventually . . . well you’ve heard of St. Peter’s Church in Rome right?  You’re familiar with the Pope, right?  He’s kind of a big deal.  Yeah, Peter came around.

But here’s the thing.  Mary Magdalene and the other women, like Cassandra, they have seen the truth.  And like Cassandra, nobody believes them.  And the story could have ended there, right?  Everybody says, “Oh those ladies and their idle tales.”  Lights fade; story’s over.  But for some reason, Peter goes to the tomb.  For some reason, Peter believes just a little bit more than he disbelieves.  Which might tempt us into thinking that it’s Peter who makes the difference in this story.  That we’re all supposed to say, “Phew!  Thank God for Peter!”

But consider this question:  without the women’s description of what happened, without this so-called “idle tale,” would Peter ever have gone to the empty tomb?  Would he have thought to go to see if anything had changed since that night Jesus stood before Pilate?  I mean, that’s the last time Peter saw him, right before he denied knowing Jesus three times.  And let’s remember that only the women stayed with Jesus till the end.  (Unless you count that John was there with Jesus’ mother, as told in John’s gospel . . . written much later by . . . John.)  As best we can tell, the disciples all skipped town and went into hiding.  Peter is considered one of the greatest figures in Christian history.  And yet, it’s entirely possible that without the women’s testimony, without this Cassandra named Mary Magdalene, there would be no Christian faith.  At all!

Mary Magdalene is rightly called the Apostle to the Apostles.  And we can see why in today’s reading.  She first proclaims to the Apostles what they then proclaim to all the world.  Peter only goes to the tomb because he has heard what the women had to say.  And only because he believed a little more than he disbelieved.  Which leads us to you and me, as we gather together on this Easter morning here in Massillon.

When I told all of you, “Alleluia.  Christ is risen,” you said to me, “The Lord is risen indeed!  Alleluia.”  It’s true.  I heard you say it!  And, sure, if you’re really honest with yourself, you might be thinking, “Yeah, I said it, but really?  It does kind of seem like an idle tale, and I don’t really believe it.”  And yet, here you are.  For whatever reason, you are here today.  Maybe because your parents or your spouse made you come.  Maybe because you like to look at the lovely windows.  Maybe because you felt like there just wasn’t enough pollen overwhelming your own home this morning.  Or maybe, just maybe, it’s because right now you believe just a little more than you disbelieve.

But what about the women and the fact that no one believed them?  Well, as I keep saying, it turns out their description of what happened to them is no “idle tale.”  Whether or not someone believes the truth doesn’t make it any less true.  And those of us who have experienced the love of God in Jesus, we are like the women in this story.  Even if no one believes our idle tale, we have to keep on telling people, because it is true.  We must keep telling people this good news: that God brings life out of death, and freedom to the captives, and hope to the hopeless, whether or not anyone ever believes us.  Why?  Because if we keep on sharing what seems to some an “idle tale,” then one day, like Peter, they just might get up and go and see for themselves.  And that is all the reason we need.

Along with this Cassandra of Christianity—Mary Magdalene—we must keep telling people that the resurrection of Jesus proves that everything is different, that God loves everyone, that death is not the last word.  And the only reason any of us ever gets up and goes to see for ourselves is because we ourselves hear the not-so-idle tale, and because—at some point—we believe a little more than we disbelieve.  May God give us the courage to be bold in our testimony—like Mary Magdalene, like Mary the mother of James, like Salome’, like Joanna, and all the other women who were the first to proclaim this glorious truth:
Alleluia!  Christ is risen.  The Lord is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Amen

Friday, April 19, 2019

YEAR C 2019 good friday

Good Friday, 2019
Isaiah 52:13–53:12
Psalm 22
Hebrews 10:16–25
John 18:1-19, 42

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

This evening, I say to you what I have said before.

We Episcopalians do not tend to be an emotional lot.  But we do tend to be an earthy lot.  Or, better yet, an incarnational lot.  We use physical things, like ashes and water, palms and smoke, wine and fire.   We bless common things for common use, like books, and vehicles, and buildings.  We are attached to this world, with all its joy and pain, laughter and tears, births and deaths.  That is to say, we tend to embrace life in this world, and take it as it comes to us.

In small ways, the structure of our Liturgy is intended to remove temporary or fleeting emotion from our worship.  The collection of the offering is intentionally separated from the sermon; the prayers are read from a text, rather than extemporized; the readings are assigned; the Creeds are ancient.  We do not shape worship; we are shaped by it.  We stick to the books, and the calendar, and the lectionary, and the sacred vessels.  We do not change them; rather, we trust that over a lifetime, they will change us.  And they do.  Oh how they do!

Every year, we hear this reading, this Passion of our Lord.  Some years it strikes us as something we’ve heard many, many times.  And other years, we hear it as the most powerful story ever told in all of human history.  There is nothing a priest can add to this story on this night without facing some risk of minimizing its power for others.  The agonizing and empty death of Jesus means many things to many people, and year to year, we might disagree on what it all means.

But I trust that we agree on this: Jesus died for each of us.  For all of us.  For everyone who has ever lived, and everyone who is yet to be born.  And as our Church Year takes us through the cycle of birth and death and resurrection, year in and year out, we are slowly being molded into a people who, with God’s help, can proclaim hope in the midst of death, life in the midst of isolation, and salvation in the midst of everything.

Amen

Thursday, April 18, 2019

YEAR C 2019 maundy thursday

Maundy Thursday, 2019
Exodus 12:1-14
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Psalm 116:1, 10-17
Luke 22:14-30

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

A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.  

Most of your life, you have probably heard the other reading on Maundy Thursday.  That other reading is from the gospel of John, where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, and tells them to love one another.  We get the name for the day, Maundy Thursday, from the latin mandatum, which means Commandment.  And that’s because in that other reading—the one from John—Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment: that they love one another.  But this reading—the one we just heard—is from Luke’s gospel, and it is the second option for our Maundy Thursday service, though it is not often used.  As you heard, this reading focuses on the Last Supper.  The final time Jesus will eat a meal with his disciples before going to the cross.  And I just want to focus on one thing tonight.

Jesus tells his disciples that he has eagerly desired to eat this Passover meal with them before he suffers, because he will not eat it again until the kingdom of God has been fulfilled.  This is huge moment for Jesus, and he is telling his disciples how important it is.

And a dispute arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.  

What?  How can this be?  Jesus tells his disciples to share the first cup among themselves, because he will not drink it again until the kingdom of God has been fulfilled.

And a dispute arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.  

Are the disciples not listening to Jesus?  What is going on?  Jesus is having what is literally the last supper on this night.  This is the start of our Eucharist, the very beginning of Holy Communion.  He gives his disciples bread and tells them that it is his body, given for them.  And he gives them a cup of wine and says it is his blood, a new covenant. And also tells them that the one who will betray him is seated right there at the table with them.  And so they began to ask one another, which of them could do such a thing?

But a dispute arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.  

This is crazy.  This is ridiculous.  And it’s easy for us to judge those disciples in the room that day.  It’s easy for us to think, “I would be listening intently to Jesus, not fighting with the other disciples.”  But, we are disciples of Jesus.  When he says all these things, he is saying them to us.

Could it be said that a dispute also arose among them as to what color to paint the Sunday School room?  Or, a dispute arose among them as to which one of them came to church most often?  Or, a dispute arose among them as to just whose pew was whose?

We are disciples of Jesus.  When he says all these things, he is saying them to us.

May God give us the presence of mind to hear to the words of Jesus.
May God give us the desire to serve one another in love.
May God forgive us when disputes arise among us.
May God be merciful to us.
May God save us.

Amen

Sunday, April 14, 2019

YEAR C 2019 palm sunday

Palm Sunday, 2019
Luke 19:28-40
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 23:1-49

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

Palm Sunday is always so difficult to grab hold of.  It’s like two different events happened, in the same service, and in the worst possible order.  We’re used to stories starting off sad, but turning out alright in the end.  Two weeks ago, for instance.  The Prodigal son returns home to find a welcoming father.  What seems doomed gets redeemed.  That’s how stories are supposed to go.

But every year, when it comes around, Palm Sunday takes this flow from bad to good and stands it on its head.  And I find it jarring every year, even though I know it’s coming.  We start off the service remembering the triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  It’s like a big victory parade, with people laying their coats on the ground, waving palm branches, and shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!”  People shout, “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!" ”  Everything is going great, right?

But there are some clues that everything is not going great, actually.  First of all, look at what Jesus is riding on.  Not a chariot, not a camel, not even walking on his feet.  No, Jesus is riding on one of the least glamorous animals imaginable:  a gangly little colt, in today’s version.  Just imagine for a moment if the team that won the Super Bowl each year had a parade where they rode tiny horses.  Picture General Patton addressing the troops from a horse as tall as his waste.  And this is a case where the distance of time doesn’t change anything.  A tiny horse meant then what a tiny horse means now.  Jesus is not riding in on a glorious stallion to overthrow the Romans.  He is riding into humiliation.  In fact, he is riding to his death.

And there is an irony in the people’s excitement and cheering.  They are acting like their savior has come to town—which he has.  They are cheering as though salvation is at hand—which it is.  To the crowd, they are finally going to be on the winning side.  And—though that is all true, in hindsight—this story is not going where they expect, to say the least.  They want a conqueror who will throw off their earthly oppression.  But that isn’t what they’re going to get.  This is not a conquering hero.  (Their first clue might have been the tiny horse.)  And that was how we started together this morning:  Cheering on the one who has come to save, expecting to finally have someone in our corner.

And then, seemingly out of left field, we get this second Gospel reading.  As though we have compressed Holy Week into one half hour, and now we can move on to Easter.  We kind of don’t know what to do with this service today, do we?  It feels disjointed, or schizophrenic.  The pieces don’t seem to go together.

I sometimes find it helpful to think of Palm Sunday as something like the overture in a musical.  We’re getting a glimpse into how the first act will play out, on Thursday and Friday of this week.  And for that reason, missing the first act—Maundy Thursday and Good Friday—is sort of like showing up for a play during intermission, and only experiencing Act 2.  Or, like picking out just the marshmallows when eating a bowl of Lucky Charms.  You really have to see the entire play.

But here’s the thing I want to say, and it’s about the two crowds today.  We have the ones who praise, and the ones who condemn.  And, deep down, we all want to just be in the praising group.  Someone else is yelling “Crucify him!” right?  I mean, we’re the ones holding the palm branches, so we can’t possibly be in that second group.  Right?

The truth is, you and I are both.  We each have a place in both these groups, and we cannot hide behind our palm branches.  One minute we clamor for an autograph; the next minute we condemn to death. 

This is what happens when human beings gather as a crowd.  Some kind of mob mentality takes over.  And a group that gets caught up in excitement so easily turns into a crowd that becomes violent.  Somehow our gatherings are unstable, unpredictable, an unsafe place to be the guest of honor. 

The guest of honor can so quickly turn into the sacrificial victim.  Jesus is lifted up in praise when we start, and lifted up onto a cross 10 minutes later.  A crowd of admirers becomes a crowd of killers in the blink of an eye.  It’s the crowd, right?  One person wouldn’t act like this.  Not normally.

But that suggests that living in isolation is the solution.  It is not.  It is important that we see that the problem is not the crowd.  A crowd is dangerous because it consists of a lot of us.  The problem isn’t them.  The problem is me; the problem is you.  And that problem is just magnified when we gather into groups.  “But this is madness!” you say.  Yes, you’re right.  When the story is about us, it is madness.  For whatever reason, a crowd of us can turn frightfully bad.

So enough about you and me.  Let’s talk about church.  What does the Church think of you and me?  Well, all too often, people want to make the story about you, not Jesus . . . And that is bound to end badly, as we just saw.   In making the story about us, many religious leaders head down this same path.  They make Christianity about you.  Your money.  Your family.  Your ability to change, straighten up, and fly right, to live your best life now.  The pressure is on you to make things better.
And . . . sometimes people do . . . and sometimes people don’t.  But either way, if it’s up to us, we are in trouble.  If it’s about us and our capacity to believe, we’re in trouble.  If it’s about us and our ability to behave, we’re in trouble.  When our story is only about us, it ends in death . . . or maybe even a gruesome crucifixion.

The thing to focus on is Jesus.  Because, we might praise; we might condemn to death; or, like today, we might do both.  Who’s to say?  We are a fickle people, and it is impossible to know what we will do.  Which is why it’s not so important that we join God’s story; what matters is that Jesus joins our story.  Jesus breaks into our world with his story.

And the story of Jesus, that’s a story we know.  The story of Jesus redeems.  Though the story about us ends in death, the story of Jesus ends in resurrection.  Maybe our story only makes sense when it can be read alongside the story of Jesus.  Our version ends in death, and Jesus’ story is life.  We need the Jesus story.  We need the story that ends the way stories are supposed to end.  With life.  With redemption.  With forgiveness.

Simply put: You and I need for our own story to be about Jesus.  Because we need for God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  Left to our own devices, we will end in death, and in violence like the crowd, and in condemnation as before Pilate.  Even if we start off by singing All Glory Laud and Honor, it ends the same way—’Twas I Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee, I crucified thee.

As crazy as it sounds, our own story is not about us; our own story is about Jesus.  Because, in baptism, we are united into the death of Christ.  And that means that we are also united in the resurrection of Christ.  And that means, our story is about Jesus.  It’s one long story that needs both parts to have the right ending.  It begins with us, but it ends with Jesus.  And in clinging to how this story ends, we find life and peace and forgiveness. 

And as we gather at this Altar today, may God give us the faith to put our trust in Jesus, the one who turns our tragic stories into something beautiful, joyful, and filled with the only hope of redemption: our Lord Jesus Christ.

Amen.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

YEAR C 2019 lent 5

Lent 5, 2019
Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Phil 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8

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

So the first thing you’re probably wondering is, “what on earth is nard?”  And the second thing you’re wondering is, “how much is 300 denarii?”  And you’re probably also wondering, “what does Jesus have against feeding poor people?”

Let’s go through these, one at a time.  Nard is an oil that comes from the plant called “spikenard,” which grows in India.  You can take the root of this plant and mash it up and get oil from it.  It’s expensive stuff, and always has been, partly because it is difficult to make, and partly because it has such a wonderful smell.  (But you’d think the name “nard” would make it just a little less valuable.)

In the Roman Empire, there was a coin called an “as.”  It was minted out of bronze, weighing 1/6th of a pound.  One denarius was worth ten asses.  (Hey, I’m just reporting the facts here.)  And a denarius would be equal to a day’s wages for a farm laborer.  So, 300 denarii would be about a year’s salary.  That means, if the jar of nard could really be sold for 300 denarii, it would be worth about, say, $25,000 today.  You could buy more than a few meals for people with $25,000, rather than pouring it over someone’s feet and wiping it with your hair, am I right?

Now we will have to come back to Jesus’ seeming disregard for poor people, but that's a whole different sermon, so come back in three years for that.  First, I want to mention a few things about this particular story.  There are not many times when something appears in all four gospels.  For example, the birth of Jesus only shows up in two of the four gospel books, and it is radically different in those two cases.  Even the resurrection of Jesus from the grave is not in all four gospels.  (The original version of the gospel of Mark doesn’t have a resurrection . . . someone decided they had to add one later . . . I guess it is kind of an important part of the story.)  But the point is, very few stories make it into all four gospels.  And this one, with the nard, and the denarii, and the woman, and the poor people, this story is in all four gospels.

So, why does that matter?  Why is it so important that this story gets recorded each time?  Well, I suppose it’s obvious:  all four gospel writers thought this was an important thing to tell us.  The nard, the poor, the woman, all that.  But it’s also worth noting that the story is different in the different gospels.  In Matthew and Mark, the scene is set in Simon’s house, and an unknown woman pours the nard onto his head.  In Luke, they are gathered in the home of a Pharisee, and a woman (who is a “known sinner”) pours the oil on his feet while crying, and uses her hair to wipe off the oil.  In today’s version from John, the event takes place in the home of Lazarus, who has just been raised from the dead, and Mary, his sister, pours the oil on Jesus’ feet, wiping the oil with her hair.  (Incidentally, mixing these four stories together is what led Pope Gregory in 591 to bizarrely declare that Mary Magdelene was a prostitute, a baseless claim from which she has never fully recovered.)

So, given that there are differences in the four versions of what happened, it is useful to look at the differences, which may help us see what John wants us to see.  

First off, the setting.  In the previous chapter of John, Lazarus has just been raised from the dead, by Jesus.  And now, six days before Passover, Jesus is back at the home of Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, rather than at Simon’s house, or the home of some Pharisee.  It is clear that John wants us to connect this scene to the raising of Lazarus.  Or, at least, remind us that Jesus has just raised Lazarus from the dead.  Plus, by having Mary pour the oil on his feet, and dry them with her hair, John is also connecting us to the Passover meal that’s about to happen, when Jesus will wash the feet of his disciples at the last supper.  For John, this scene we heard acts as a hinge, or a pivot point, moving us from the raising of Lazarus to the death and resurrection of Jesus.  And so why does that matter to us?

Well, John tells us that Jesus loved Lazarus.  Do you remember what Jesus does before he raises Lazarus from the tomb?  It’s the shortest verse in the bible: John 11:35 Jesus wept.  Jesus loved Lazarus, and he raised him from the dead.  Today’s story connects the raising of his beloved Lazarus with the resurrection of Jesus.  Can you see what that means for you?  I’ll give you a hint:  Jesus loves you too.

Okay, so what about the poor?  “You will always have the poor with you.”  Some version of that line is in all four gospels here.  But in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it is “the disciples” who suggest the money could’ve been given to the poor.  Only in John do we get this mention of a specific disciple: Judas.  And, John adds this bit about Judas’ being a thief who would have stolen the money anyway.  So John makes the scene into something where it’s better that the money never went to the poor, because Judas would have just taken it anyway.  But something gets lost in Judas’ being portrayed as a thief here.  And that something is:  us.  You and me.

What I mean is this:  you and I probably think of ourselves as the kind of people who would never steal from the collection plate.  We’re not like this Judas, who would use his pretend concern for the poor as a way to pocket money from the offering.  And for that reason, we just might miss an important thing that’s going on in this story.  

Judas raises a legitimate concern for the poor (which I hope you would share, given your commitment to seeking to serve Christ in your neighbor).  $25,000 could buy a lot of blankets and food for people living in our community.  Mary’s crazy oil pouring is a huge waste!  That is just bad stewardship!  Times are tough; we need to watch every penny.  And $25,000 is a LOT of pennies!  What could possibly be helped by pouring all that liquid gold on Jesus’ feet?

I’ll answer that in a minute.  But first we have to deal with the angels in the room.  One of my favorite authors, an Episcopal priest named Robert Capon talks about angels in one of his books.  He’s not talking about little cherubs like on Hallmark cards.  No, when Robert Capon talks about angels, he’s talking about the principles that we put above actual persons, and to which we sacrifice them.  The kinds of things like romance, or family, or even religion.  A good example is Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”  Two star-crossed lovers end their lives for the angel called Romance.  Or religious zealots killing innocent people all over the world in the name of the angel Religion.  These angels, like Religion and Romance, are not bad in an of themselves, mind you.  In fact, for the most part we consider them good things.

But these angels are things you can’t argue with.  People are no match for the force of Patriotism, or Love, or Religion, or Partisan Politics.  You cannot reason with the angels.  They want people’s blood, and all too often, they get that blood.  We invoke lesser angels all the time; we call them principles, or common sense, or doing the right thing.  We all appeal to these angels, and we all get sacrificed to them as well.  You experience this in your daily life:  the angels of Job Performance, Good Grades, and a Clean House, the angels of Expectations, Community, and Good Behavior.  If you don’t measure up, or if you’re suspected of not measuring up, you are crushed and cast aside.  Better to just be rid of you in the name of some angel.  On paper, the angels are good, lofty, and—well—angelic.
 

A desire to feed the poor is a good thing.  It can spur us to action.  Concern for the poor can help us adjust how we spend our money.  Concern for the poor is the kind of thing that could make a person say, “What are you, nuts?  $25,000 worth of nard could feed the poor!”  Can’t argue with that.  Right?  The angel Compassion has come to town.  And Judas has handed out her calling card.

So . . . back to the question:  What could possibly be helped by pouring all that liquid gold on Jesus’ feet?
I’ll give you the answer from John’s words:
The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.


Jesus is worth everything to Mary.  Jesus is the one who has brought her brother back to life.  Jesus is the one who loves her, and who will bring her back to life.  A jar of expensive perfume, poured over the feet of Jesus?  That is a mere token of what she owes to him, what we each owe to him.  She does this as an expression of love, and from these feet the house is filled with the fragrance.  These feet—which will soon feel the nails of crucifixion—these same feet fill the house with the fragrance of perfume.

So, two questions . . . Why did Judas object to Mary’s extravagance?  Maybe his concern for the poor, or maybe because he was a thief.
Why did Mary anoint the feet of Jesus?  The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.


We can think of Judas as business as usual, the tired, old penny-pinching, selfishness
masquerading as concern for the poor.  Appealing to common sense, and morality, but based in self-preservation and greed.  Turning inward.
We can think of Mary as a new way of being.  A way that throws everything at the feet of Jesus, knowing that he will turn it into a fragrance that will fill the world.  Pouring out our most treasured possessions for the one who redeems them—and us—and brings all things to fullness, through the way of redemption, which we will walk together in Holy Week.


The soon-to-be nail-scared feet give off the sweetest scent imaginable.  The overflowing abundance of God fills the room, and we hear it when we come forward this morning.  When you hear the words, “The gifts of God for the people of God,” then you will know.  The fragrance of Jesus fills the room; the extravagant abundance of God overwhelms us.  The bread of heaven and the cup of salvation are here, to offer us life and forgiveness. 


Amen

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Massillon Ecumenical Lenten Service, 2019

MACA Combined Lenten Service
April 3, 2019
Forty Corners C.O.G.
1 Corinthians 13

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

Through this Lenten season, in these Wednesday night services, we’re focusing on 1 Corinthians 13, which is all about love.  The way the pastors split things up, I was fortunate enough to end up talking about love, wrongdoing, and truth.  So you can imagine the other pastors’ jealousy!  Here’s the snippet I ended up with:  Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  (Some translations say “rejoices in the right,” but since the Greek word is alathea, I’m going to stick with “rejoices in the truth.”)

So, I don’t know if any of you have noticed, but there is some political division in our country these days.  Maybe it’s just me . . . and everyone I’ve ever met . . . but we do seem divided.  Like irreconcilably divided.  Each person says the others are doing things wrong, and that they alone have the truth.  And include myself when I say each person says that.  I have the truth, and you are all a bunch of wrongdoers.  Across both sides of the political aisle people point and say, you are wrongdoers; I have the truth.

And in these divided times, I am so grateful that we all come together week after week through Lent to worship our creator and redeemer.  Because I know we’re not all on the same page when it comes to politics.  I mean I’ve seen the bumper stickers!  But for these couple hours on Wednesdays in Lent, we keep choosing to gather together to share a meal, provide hospitality to our neighbors, and raise our voices together in song. There is unity here, and that is good.

When we all gather in our own worship silos on Sunday mornings, it’s easy to begin to think that the other churches are doing it wrong, and that my own church has the truth.  When you compare the worship at St. Timothy’s last Wednesday and the worship experience we are sharing tonight at Forty Corners, they could hardly be more different, right?  And yet, it is the same God we worship, the same risen Jesus we follow, the same Holy Spirit who gathers and sanctifies us.  In God’s wisdom, there are many varieties of worship styles, which means there’s a place for everybody.  The Church is God’s gift to us, with a place for every person of every time and place.  Nobody is “doing it wrong,” and nobody exclusively has the truth.

And speaking of doing it wrong, let me go to the Greek text for a moment, which every preaching professor tells you never to do.  The original Greek that gets translated as “wrongdoing” is adikia.  And, interestingly, Adikia was the Greek goddess of injustice and wrong-doing. She was usually depicted as an ugly, barbarian woman with tattooed skin. Her opposite number was Dike’ (or Justice) who was sometimes depicted beating her with a club.  Justice beating wrongdoing with a club.  That makes sense.  Wrongdoing and Justice are opposites.  So, in this section of his letter to the Corinthians, we would expect Paul to say, “Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in Justice.”  But instead, Paul writes, “Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth.”

Why is that?  I mean, the opposite of wrongdoing is behaving.  And the opposite of truth is falsehood.  Wrongdoing and truth are not opposites.  Like, we expect someone to say, “I prefer Pepsi to Coke,” but we do not expect someone to say, “I prefer Pepsi to pretzels,” right?  What is it about love that makes it not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rather rejoice in the truth?

This question got me to thinking about the kind of love Paul is talking about in this portion of his letter to the Corinthians.  If we back up a little bit, to the end of the 12th chapter of this letter, Paul is addressing their squabbles and infighting.  That’s the section where he says different believers have different gifts.  Some are teachers, some are apostles, some are healers.  And he finishes that chapter by saying, “And now I will show you a more excellent way.”  (I love that sentence!)  And now I will show you a more excellent way. And then we get chapter 13, all that stuff about love.  But what kind of love?

At the risk of getting a failing grade from my preaching professor, I feel like I need to explain that there are three kinds of love in Greek.  There is brotherly love called philia, from which we get Philadelphia.  And there is romantic love called eros, from which we get our word erotic.  And there is the kind of love Paul is talking about here, which is agape’ love, or unconditional love.  This is the kind of love God has for us.  This is the kind of love that never gives up, never dries up, never goes away.  No matter what.

And so that kind of love, that unconditional love, does not rejoice in the wrong but rejoices in the truth.  Notice that there is no condemnation in that statement.  I think there’s a temptation in the church to focus on what we think God condemns.  If you and I were writing this passage, we might naturally be more apt to say, “Love condemns wrongdoing, but Love does not condemn the truth.”  But that’s not how love works—not this kind of unconditional love at least.  There is no condemnation in love. 

And that’s why there is nothing about condemnation, or disappointment, or rejection in this passage.  There is only love.  We don’t know what love condemns.  Or if love condemns.  But we do know what love does not rejoice in.  And we do know what love does rejoice in—and that is the truth.

In these divided times, let us come together in love and truth.  Let us choose what we rejoice in, rather than what we condemn.  May God give us the grace to treat one another with love, to rejoice in the truth of the Gospel, and to lay down our lives in service to our neighbors.

Amen.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

YEAR C 2019 lent 4

Lent 4, 2019
Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

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

For those of you who don’t know, I used to play in a band called Lost And Found.  You may have noticed those words in today’s Gospel reading when the father says, “he was lost and is found.”  I played in that Lost And Found band for 29 years.  So I’ve been writing songs about this passage, and talking about it, and debating it, and thinking about it, a lot.  For. twenty.  nine.  years.  But this is only the second time I’ve ever had the chance to preach about it.  So, for the next three and a half hours, please just try to relax . . .

You’ve certainly heard the parable Jesus gives us from today’s Gospel reading before, right?  We often call it “The Prodigal Son,” though a better name for it is,“The Waiting Father,” because the one who does the important things in this story is the father.  The father welcomes  home the wayward son, of course.  But he also welcomes the angry brother.  The father does the important things, but the sons shed more light on the gospel, in some ways.

Just to refresh your memory, the younger son says to his father, give me my half of the inheritance.  The father does, the kid blows all of it, and decides to come home and ask for forgiveness.  So he crafts a little speech.  You know, prepares his pitch, so that his father will welcome him home to live as a servant in the house.  But notice, he doesn’t decide to go home until he has the speech prepared.  He could have decided to just show up at home and see what happens, but he doesn’t.  No, first he builds his argument as to why the father ought to welcome him.  For why he is worthy of forgiveness.

So, he has his speech prepared.  He has practiced it.  And he heads home.  And as we heard, “But while he was still far off . . .” and let me interrupt myself here and say, that phrase is one of my favorites in all of scripture.  In some ways, it says everything you need to know about how God feels about you.  Anyway, “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”

First thing I want to say here is cultural.  In that place and in that time, men—fathers—did not run.  It would be considered humiliating for a man to be seen running.  Men stood.  Men waited.  Fathers did not pay attention to things that were far off.  That idea is so foreign to us, that it’s hard to grasp, actually.  But suffice it to say, the father is willing to be absolutely humiliated in his eagerness to welcome home this child.

And then, this is where the order of things comes into play.  Because the father runs to the son, kisses him and welcomes him.  Only then does the son clear his throat and deliver the speech he has so carefully prepared.  And the speech he thinks is so important, so crucial to being welcomed home . . . well, the father doesn’t even seem to hear it.  It’s like, what part of “treat me like one of your hired hands” don’t you understand, father?  You forgave me before I apologized.  I said treat me like one of your hired hands, and you put a robe on me and throw a party.  Don’t you even care about my carefully prepared speech designed to woo you over and allow me to sleep in the basement?  Nope.

And then we come to the older son.  When he finds out why they’re celebrating, he refuses to go in, which tells you something about his personality, right?  Because, first of all, who bases whether or not they go to a party on whether the person made some bad decisions?  It’s a party, man!  Wanna come to my birthday party?  I don’t know; have you ever cheered for the University of Michigan?  It’s a party.  Live a little.

So the older son refuses to go in, and the father comes out to plead with him.  Again, fathers in that time and place did not plead with children.  And then the older son gets to try out his acting chops, and delivers a speech to the father, which is essentially: I’ve been good, he’s been bad, but still you welcomed him.  In other words: All my hard work, trying to earn your love, doesn’t seem to make you love him any less.  You see how crazy that is when you put it like that?

But if we’re honest, you and me, we can understand how he feels can’t we?  I mean, here he is, working away day after day and being the model child, and his loser brother spends half the money and gets welcomed back like a prince!  What kind of world is that?!?  It suggests that the way to earn your parents' love is to waste money and go crazy right?  This is not how life is supposed to work, thank you very much.  You work hard you get rewarded; if you’re a partying loser, you’re supposed to stay lost.

Both brothers had a speech prepared to justify themselves.  The younger brother’s speech was designed to inspire pity in his father, which didn’t work, because the father had already welcomed him home by the time he delivered it.  The older brother’s speech was intended to justify his anger and maybe even get his brother thrown out, which didn’t work, because the father had already given everything to both brothers.  Neither speech mattered in the least.  And the only result is that one brother decided not to join the feasting and dancing.  His loss, right?

But here’s what I find most interesting about these brothers, because it shows us something about ourselves.  They were both accepted and forgiven all along, and yet neither one of them could truly believe it.

The Prodigal son is welcomed by his father who raced out to meet him.  But then he still delivers his speech, because either he doesn’t believe it, or because he’s still trying to earn his way back in.  And the father completely ignores the speech.  “Father, treat me as a servant.”  “Yeah yeah, here put on this robe.”  “Father, I am not worthy to be called your son.”  “Yeah yeah, son, but did you try the olives?”

Flash to the grumpy older son: “Come in to the party, son.”  “You never gave me a goat.”  “Uh, come celebrate with us.”  “Not if that son of yours is gonna be there.”  He’s so angry, he can’t even call him by name, or even, “my brother.”  You tell that son of yours that he’s not my real brother.

You see how this is?  Neither son can believe in grace.  Neither son can believe in forgiveness.  Neither son can be truly happy because they are stuck inside their small worldview, thinking the father must think like they do.

The one says, if I can’t forgive myself, then surely my father can’t either.  The other says, if I won’t forgive “that son of yours” then my father shouldn’t either.  Both of them assuming that the father is as petty and self-centered as they are, and neither of them able to enjoy the banquet.

And if I’m honest, I think this way too.  When I look at myself, I think, “Surely God could never forgive me.”  And when I look at others, I think, “Surely God better not forgive them!”  We can’t help it, honestly.  It’s just something about how we are.  The good news of forgiveness just doesn’t make sense to us.  There’s got to be a catch somewhere.  But, I promise you, there isn’t.  God’s forgiveness is unconditional.  God’s welcome to you is without exceptions.

The stubborn, crazy, and unconditional welcome we hear in this Gospel story is the story of Jesus’ love for you.  Because of Jesus’ love for us, God will not turn us away.  And today I have the honor of inviting you to feast on that unconditional love.  Because as we gather on this day, here in this place, I can tell you, a banquet is about to happen.  And while we are still far off, Jesus runs to meet us here, in the bread and wine.

It is a feast in honor of the ones who were lost and now are found, and for the ones who are both lost and found at the very same time . . . me and you.  You are invited to this feast.  You can decide you’re not worthy, but you're still invited.  And you can decide that other people are not worthy, but you and they are still invited.

So I encourage you to put aside any speech you might be working on today—any explanation that keeps you away from the party, because it seems as though God is not going to listen to our excuses.  Everything is prepared.  Come to the banquet!  

Amen

Sunday, March 17, 2019

YEAR C 2019 lent 2

Lent 2, 2019
Genesis 15:1-12,17-18
Philippians 3:17-4:1
Luke 13:31-35
Psalm 27

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

Well, as often happens in Lent, we heard some very unusual—and possibly confusing—readings just now.  It can be hard to know what to make of them, really.  In particular, that first reading from Genesis about Abram (who will eventually become Abraham), and the gospel reading we just heard, with Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem.  But those two lessons go together quite well, actually, once we understand what’s going on.  So, let’s try to see if we can understand what’s going on.

So, let's start that reading from Genesis.  God is speaking to Abram in a vision (whatever that might mean).  And God says, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.”  And Abram asks, “how am I to know that I shall possess it?”  Like, you know, how can I be sure, God?  And God could say, “Because I said so!”  Or, “How dare you doubt me?”  But instead, God chooses to give Abram something he can understand.  Something that will make sense to him, if not to us.  And so God is going to make a covenant with Abram.

At which point we must stop and talk about covenants in the culture of that time.  The verb used when making a covenant there is “cut.”  You would cut a covenant with someone.  And, as we saw, the reason for that is because a covenant involved cutting an animal in half.  And the point of cutting an animal in half was this:  the weaker party, or the one who is asking for something, would walk between the two halves of the severed animal and pledge that if they break the covenant, then may the fate of the animal be theirs as well.  Sometimes both parties would walk through and make the scary pledge, but always the weaker one.  So, you offer to lend me $100; we cut a three year old heifer in half, I walk through the middle and say, “If I don’t pay you back, may my fate be like that of this animal,” though that’s a bad example, since a heifer is surely worth more than $100.  But you get the point.

As we heard, on that day the Lord cut a covenant with Abram.  And in the making of that covenant, God passes through the severed animal, rather than Abram doing so.  We don’t know specifically what is up with the smoking fire pot and flaming torch, but we can tell in the context that they are representative of God passing through when the covenant is made.  This is important, because we would expect for Abram to pass through, or at least Abram and God together.  But here we have only God making the pledge.  Only God being vulnerable and willing to take a chance.  Only God’s life being put on the line.  God doing for Abram what he cannot do for himself.  It is the exact opposite of what we would expect, because God’s ways are not our ways.

Now, let’s look at today’s gospel reading from Luke chapter 13.  Or, wait, let’s back up to earlier in Luke’s gospel.  There is a very important hinge moment further back in the gospel according to Luke.  In the 9th chapter, verse 51, we read:  “When the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  This is a key turning point in Luke’s gospel.  Everything from here on out is Jesus on his way to Jerusalem; on his way to Jerusalem, where he knows he will be killed.  Setting his face toward Jerusalem means setting his face toward death.

Then, many things happen along the way, and Jesus tells a lot of parables, and then eventually we get to today’s reading.  Some Pharisees come to Jesus and tell him to flee because Herod is looking to have him killed.  Jesus calls Herod a fox, which is particularly notable because just a little later he imagines himself as a hen protecting baby chicks, the very ones that a fox would be looking to snatch away.  But Jesus will not die in Herod’s Galilee; he must die in Jerusalem, the holy city.

We don’t know what to make of the statement that a prophet cannot die outside Jerusalem, since Moses and Jeremiah—two chief prophets—did not die there.  Some say Jesus is talking about himself in the third person, or there’s an issue with the definite article.  But no matter.  The important thing to know about this is that Jesus is not stating some incorrect historical “fact” about other prophets; he is referring to his own death, not someone else’s.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  Jesus knows what will happen to him if he continues on in this way.  He’s known it since chapter 9, back when he set his face toward Jerusalem.  The Pharisees come to him and tell him to run.  And nevertheless, he persists.  Knowing he will die, refusing to run away, refusing to rally his followers to rise up and fight.  What do we even call this?  Suicide?  Fatalism?  Surrender?

No, we call this courage.  This is the courage of vulnerability.  The courage of sacrifice.  The courage of laying down one’s life for others.  Or passing through the split heifer.  Of course, we don’t recognize this as courage these days.  In our own time, when someone hits us, we are supposed to hit back twice as hard.  In our own time, when someone questions our behavior, we are supposed to insult them and belittle them.  In our own time, courage means self preservation and selfish ambition . . . not selfless sacrifice.  It’s hard for us to see the courage in laying down one’s life for others.  We see this kind of courage as weakness, because we do not recognize it.  At least not in our own time.

We are teaching people that victory comes from crushing our opponents.  We are teaching people that to be captured by our enemies is failure.  We are teaching people that we must crush the weak and disadvantaged, and defeat those who differ from us.  At least that’s the message we are seeing and hearing.  Because winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.

And yet . . . God passes through the split heifer.  For us.  Jesus continues to Jerusalem.  For us.  We get a very different message from today’s scripture readings than from the world around us.  That story of Abram and God, that gospel reading we heard from Luke, they both show us a different way.  And it is certainly not the way that we see in our world today.  Because God’s ways are not our ways.  The courage of vulnerability we see in these readings makes us uncomfortable, because we don’t want to be that way ourselves.  What would people think?  How would people treat us?  Could we even survive?

It’s hard to think about, isn’t it?  But that’s because we’re trying to put ourselves in God’s place—rather than Abram’s place—imagining ourselves walking through the split heifer when it should be Abram doing that.  We’re trying to put ourselves in Jesus’ place, imagining walking on toward Jerusalem, knowing that he will be killed by the religious leaders of his time.

But you and I are not the Lord.  You and I are not Jesus.  No, you and I are the tiny chickens that Jesus longs to gather under his wings.  And that’s probably even harder to think about, right?  That definitely does not fit with our self image, I’m sure.

We are not called to be Jesus.  But we are called to follow him.  We are called to trust him.  We are called to be gathered under his wings.

As we saw in these lessons today, when the stronger party takes the weaker role by choice, it makes no sense to us.  And yet God continually sacrifices for our benefit.  This is never more clear than when we consider the Eucharistic Feast of Communion.  Where Jesus offers us his own body and blood, so that we can be strengthened for our journey, forgiven of our sin, and reassured of our salvation.

Though we do not understand God’s ways, may we always be grateful that God’s ways are not our ways, and that Jesus has the courage of vulnerability to lay down his life for the living and the dead.  For sinners who need redemption.  For the tiny chickens in need of his shelter.

Amen.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

YEAR C 2019 lent 1

Lent 1, 2019
Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Romans 10:8b-13
Luke 4:1-13

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

We say that today’s Gospel reading is about temptation, and I suppose it is: The Temptation of Jesus.  But, in the end, it is really more about the identity of Jesus. Jesus has been out in the desert for forty days and forty nights.  And the tempter comes and offers Jesus some relief if he will just go against . . . well, go against what it means to be the Son of God.  But Jesus refuses at every turn.

So the point of this sermon could be, Jesus is very good at resisting temptation, even when he’s hungry and exhausted.  But that is not the point I want to make.  Or, the point of this sermon could be, Jesus is like us: tempted in every way.  But that will not be the point either.  No, the point of this sermon is going to be about rocks and bread.  Yes.  Rocks and bread.  There’s your exciting spoiler.

As we just heard, Jesus is out in the wilderness.  He has been fasting.  He is hungry.  The devil, or satan, or “temptation” comes to him and says, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”  If you are, then you will . . .  The oldest trick in the book, right?  The implication is, if you don’t command this stone to become a loaf of bread, you are not the Son of God.  It is a challenge, sure, but a false challenge with no way out (if you believe the challenger).  Either you do this thing, or you are not who you say you are.  It is not a question; it is a trap.  The only way to deal with it is to sidestep it, right?  And that’s what Jesus does.  But he sidesteps it by way of pointing to something much bigger.

In response to the tempter, Jesus quotes Moses, when he was chastising the people for their lack of trust in God.  In the 8th chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses reminds the Israelites how God has watched out for them, protected them, instructed them.  He reminds them that when they were hungry in the desert, God gave them manna in order to make them understand that “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”  They want bread, the thing they are familiar with.  Instead, God gives them something they have never seen.  In their smallness, and their focus on mere survival, they crave what is familiar.  Instead, God gives them something that is so out of their experience that they actually call it, “what is it?” which is what the word manna means.

God continues to give them this new food, all the way to the Promised Land.  And although Israel’s trust in God during their wandering was shaky at best, Jesus in his complete trust knows that God will provide, and by quoting Moses in the desert, Jesus uses the moment to remind the tempter that God has provided food in the past—for 40 years . . . in a desert!

But, of course, there is more here.  Much more.  “The people do not live by bread alone.”  Animals live by bread alone; but people don’t.  For animals, life is all about food.  Getting food, storing food, beating up the other animal for food.  And once the food is gone, they start again.  Food food food.  If you’ve ever had a dog, you know what I’m talking about.  A dog cares about food, and getting outside to get rid of the food through . . . exercise.

This is the way animals are: constantly in search of their next meal.  But people do not live by bread alone.  Oh sure, we might survive on bread alone.  But surviving is not living.  Merely surviving is not what God created you to do.  Surviving is thinking too small.  God created you to live, to interact with other people, to love and laugh, and weep and mourn.  Bread is something that must be replaced every day.  But living is something entirely different than just surviving.  You do not live by bread alone.

So what about stones?  Luke uses stones 3 times, in an interesting and consistent way.  We have today’s example connected to changing a stone into bread.  And a few verses before today’s gospel, John the Baptist tells those who have come for baptism, “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham’.”  And a little less than 40 days from today, we will hear the Pharisees tell Jesus to order his disciples to stop praising him.  To which Jesus will answer, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out."

In Luke, we have stones not turning into bread, stones not turning into children of Abraham, stones not praising Jesus.  So what’s the connection?  Well, in all three cases, God could turn these stones into something else, but God does not.  Why not?  I think it’s because God intentionally does not deal in flashy miracles to accomplish God’s purposes.  God does not reach down and move people and things around by forcing them to be something they are not.  The power of God is shown in drawing things into perfection, rather than in becoming something they were never meant to be.

Instead of an awesome overwhelming undeniable display of power of shock and awe, God sends a baby in a feeding trough.  Rather than some ruler who appears atop the mountain, commanding people to bow down and worship with his  arms raised in victory, Jesus appears atop a cross, nailed to the wood, arms open in defeat. 

Sure, God could use rocks to accomplish what needs to be done, but stones have their own role to play, in revealing our salvation.  Stones should not be turned into bread, or into children of Abraham, or into choirs singing praises to Jesus.  The big moment for stones comes much later in the story, when a stone is rolled away to reveal the empty tomb.  Stones have their own place in revelation: to reveal our salvation.  Let stones be stones, and bread be bread.

And, of course, bread has its place in our ongoing story as well.  Jesus is not going to turn some stone into bread.  You might say, Jesus is going to turn himself into bread:  the bread of life, the bread that is blessed, broken, and shared.  When the tempter tries to get Jesus to turn a mere stone into mere bread for mere survival, he is showing the smallness of his thinking.  “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”  Oh please!  There is a much bigger future for a stone; and there is a much bigger future for bread; we should not confuse the two.

And because of stones and bread, there is a much bigger future for us, together.  You and I do not live by bread alone.  We do not find life alone.  We live in community.  We were built for community.  A community that gathers to share bread because the stone has been rolled away.  We find life in the bread shared in community, because Jesus meets us in the breaking of the bread.

The Tempter thinks too small, and assumes we do as well.  But we know from God’s Word the true power of stones and bread:

The stone is rolled away to reveal the glory of the resurrection.  It is the curtain that rises to reveal the hope of eternal life, for those who mourn.  And the bread, through the power of the Spirit in our community, becomes the body of Christ, the bread of heaven.

And after we gather at this altar, we will go out into the world taking Christ’s victory with us.  Not by some cheap parlor trick of having been turned into loaves of bread.  And not with some awesome conquering power to forcefully rule over the kingdoms of the world.  We go out into the world to share this good news: that a baby has been born into our messy world, that God has submitted to the worst that is in us on the cross, that the stone has been rolled away from the empty tomb, that Jesus has come to us in the bread and wine, and—because of all of that—the tempter has no power over us.

Jesus has overcome the power of death and the devil, and you and I together proclaim that good news, with the saints who have gone before, and those who are yet to come.  The stone will be rolled away, and the bread of heaven awaits us this day.

Amen.