5 Pentecost • July 5, 2020
Genesis 24:34-38. 42-49. 58-67 • Psalm 45:11-18 • Romans 7:15-25a • Matthew 11:16-19
In the Name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Again, welcome back! If you’ve been wondering what church will look like in the future, this is it. A combination of zooming and in-person participation will likely be the norm for the foreseeable future. Social distancing and wearing masks will probably last for a year or so—a vaccine, at the earliest, will be produced in January and it will take six months to get most of us immune to the virus. So that means next June before we can again have Good Shepherd’s marvelous coffee hours. This is my optimistic estimate.
The good news for us is that we have discovered how to have close relationships via the Internet. Who knew! I never would have thought it possible, yet we are still church, in every sense of the word. And for that I am profoundly grateful.
In today’s Gospel Lesson, we find a compilation of five distinct sayings of Jesus, parables that Matthew has grouped together in the midst of an ongoing story.
“To what will I compare this generation?” he asks, and then answers his own question with a vivid description of sulky children, kids who just don’t want to play. His group wanted to play “wedding,” but they wouldn’t have it; then they tried to play “funeral” and they wouldn’t play that game either. To play is to be engaged, to connect, to participate, to listen. Unless one is willing to listen, the good news cannot be heard. Because the notion of the kingdom of heaven is difficult to get under one’s belt, it requires being engaged in the inquiry. And “this generation” wouldn’t play. Do you get the sense that Jesus is sad about the resistance he is encountering? Do you hear his disappointment that they won’t listen?
The next saying makes a similar point—whatever he and his old master, John the Baptist, did was interpreted to discredit them. John was an ascetic, living sparsely with no comforts. It was used as evidence that he was possessed by a demon—why listen to a crazy guy? Jesus did the opposite, using dinner parties as the venue for his teaching, and they called him a drunkard and a glutton—why listen to a depraved person? They found excuses to not engage, not to do the work of learning how to see the kingdom.
Matthew adds another line to this saying, one that I suspect was originally a stand-alone. But it fits. “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds,” he says. This is a version of the saying with which he warned his disciples against false prophets. How can you tell who should be listened to? “By their fruits you shall know them.” Just look and see the results; that will tell you clearly everything you need to know. Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.
The third saying deals with how it is that the Gospel is so hard to grasp. Thinking is hard work. Notice that we are always having thoughts; there’s a conversation going on all the time in our minds—“roof brain chatter” the Asian gurus call it. Notice also that these thoughts we are having are all familiar thoughts—opinions and judgements and things we long since figured out. This is not thinking; it is having thoughts. To think is to create something new, and that is hard work. Interestingly, that is what infants do all the time. They think. They collect sights and sounds and feelings, and then work out what they mean.
“I thank you, Father … because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” If we will return to being an infant, to wondering what on earth is going on, what can things mean; if we will shed our already-knowing, our freeze-dried explanations, the infinite wisdom that we have accumulated over a lifetime; if we will become as a little child—the Father will reveal all things. Our smarts will not save us; only our open-minded listening.
The fourth saying sounds to me like Jesus musing, almost to himself, about his relationship to the Father, and the work he has been given. “Whatever I have, it has come from the Father who knows me. And my job is to show the Father to those whom I choose.”
And finally, the fifth saying: This has come to be known as the “Comfortable Words.,” and they used to be part of the Eucharist every Sunday as I grew up. It is an invitation and a promise. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” This is addressed to each of us, for no one is free of heavy burdens. The invitation is to come to Christ for rest. How to get the rest? “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.”
The yoke that Jesus is using as a metaphor is a wooden pole, shaped to go across a person’s shoulders. It is used to carry heavy burdens. Jesus is inviting us to replace our burdens that are weighing us down with his burden. This burden is a commitment to love and care for others, and to learn from Jesus. It is an invitation to come before him as an infant, open to learning what the world cannot teach. “For I am gentle and humble in heart,” Jesus says, “and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Amen
4 Pentecost • June 28, 2020
Genesis 22:1-14• Psalm 13 • Romans 6:12-23 • Matthew 10:40-42
In the Name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In today’s Gospel Lesson there are two distinct sayings of Jesus. Both sayings have the word “welcome” in them, and I suspect that is why Matthew put them together. But they make quite different points.
First, he addresses being welcomed by another person. It is not as simple as it might seem. He says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
For example, when we receive a phone call from a salesperson, and we like their pitch and welcome the call, we are welcoming not only that person but also the company they work for, the company that sent them. Perhaps you remember the Fuller Brush Man, who went door-to-door selling household goods, and was usually welcomed. Welcoming him meant that you were also welcoming the Fuller Brush Company that sent him.
It’s the same idea here, except that there is another one involved—the Father. This is the chain of “sendings”—God sends Jesus, who sends us. To welcome us is to welcome Jesus, which is to welcome the Father.
Jesus speaks elsewhere of a similar chain, this time of love. “As the Father loves me, so I love you, go and love one another.” Everything flows from the Father, through Jesus, to us, and beyond to whomever we deal with. Whether loving or being sent, it all cascades down from the Father.
I suspect Jesus is saying that we can have confidence. Others will discover God just by welcoming us. We are, after all, ambassadors of God; to welcome us is to welcome the God who sent us.
The second saying of Jesus in this passage speaks of rewards. We are often told by very wise people that to do good without the expectation of a reward is where virtue lies. Altruism—doing good for the sake of doing good—is the best way to live, some have told us.
We even have a lovely hymn that begins, “My God, I love thee not because I hope for heaven thereby…” This is a pretty sentiment, indeed. But it is not very faithful to the gospel. Whether you love God hoping for heaven, or you love God because you hope God will make you rich, or you love God trusting that he will protect you, or you love God because you are afraid not to—what counts is that you love, not the motivation.
This is equally true in human relationships. Whether you avoid killing that irritating motorist because you fear the law, or because you love humanity—neither motivation makes any difference. What counts is that you refrain from murder. Please, I know you are not murderous! I’m just trying to make a point, that what you do is what matters, not your motivation.
G.K. Chesterton famously said, “This is the greatest treason, to do the right thing for the wrong reason.” Nonsense! What counts is doing the right thing, whatever the reason.
Human beings, people like us, actually do act in the expectation of some benefit for ourselves or for those we care about. How could this possibly be wrong—it is reasonable and appropriate to expect a reward as the result of our actions. And so it happens. Smile, and you are likely to get a smile back—a reward. Yawn, and you will get a yawn back—a reward.
Jesus is never a moralist. He never tells us how to be good. “You have the Law,” he says, “obey it.” And he just doesn’t have anything more to say about being good. And indeed, we do know right from wrong; we know the laws, the statutes. the ordinances, and the canons; and we also know all those unwritten codes of behavior that we learned at our mothers’ knees.
Instead of being a moralist, telling us how to be good, Jesus is interested in our profiting, and in our being rewarded. Profit is about increase. Jesus is concerned “that we may life, and that more abundantly.” The good news is that it’s possible to be truly alive, lively, overflowing with vitality.
Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.” This is not necessarily very good news. Prophets, those who see and speak the bald, unadorned truth, are not always well-received, even today. The prophets before Jesus, and Jesus himself who was also a prophet, were usually persecuted. This is not the kind of reward that we would welcome. But the true reward of the prophet is the ability to live in the truth, not the mist of mythology or story. And if we welcome true prophets, true truth-tellers, we likewise will have the clarity of the prophet. The same is true of the righteous—those who do right; they receive the reward of a clear conscience.
And he says, “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” Here is the great leveling of the Gospel—God is no respecter of persons and all will be treated equally, whether great king or little child. To contribute to the aliveness of another, even a little child, even so little a matter as a cup of cold water in the heat of the day, is to receive the kingdom of heaven.
3 Pentecost • June 21, 2020
Genesis 21:8-21 • Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17 • Romans 6:1b-11 • Matthew 10:24-39
In the Name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
My friends, we should talk a little about how the Gospels were written, what methods were used—especially by the first three, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Synoptic Gospels. In knowing how they were written, we can discover a marvelous access to the meaning that Jesus intended in his stories and parables.
The first Gospel to be written was by Mark. I was written after Jesus death and resurrection—40 years after Jesus, but perhaps earlier. Mark was not one of the Twelve, but was probably the person named Mark in Acts of the Apostles as an associate of Paul and Peter. Some scholars think there is evidence that Mark’s Gospel was strongly influenced by Peter, himself, perhaps even dictated in parts by him.
When Matthew and Luke sat down to write their Gospels, the certainly had Mark’s Gospel on the table in front of them. 90% of Mark appears in Matthew, and 50% appears in Luke—almost direct copies of Mark’s words. So Mark is the foundational gospel, simple, direct, and wonderfully straightforward.
But Matthew and Luke had another source sitting in front of them as they write their accounts of Jesus time. It was called “Q” by the German scholars in the 19th Century—the German word for “source” is “Quelle” and so this primary source became Q.
Q is lost now, but it is thought to have been a list of the sayings of Jesus. A fifth gospel was found in 1945 in Egypt. The Gospel of Thomas is also just a list of sayings, with a few short stories. Thomas is useful because it shows us what Q looked like—a list of sayings of Jesus.
So Matthew and Luke compiled their three sources: Mark held the basic story, Q contributed the sayings (the parables and stories), and then Matthew and Luke had their own spoken traditions, or perhaps written ones, that they included in their Gospels. They look like this:
You may well ask, “So what? How does this help us understand what Jesus was trying to say?” Today’s Gospel Lesson gives us a beautiful example of how this can help us better understand Jesus.
Matthew is telling the story of Jesus sending his twelve apostles out on the road for on-the-job training—the story we heard last week. Into this story he packed a whole series of separate saying that sounded similar to him. In this particular passage, I can find 10 separate sayings—mostly one-liners, the memorable part of a teaching, the “punch line,” if you will.
If you separate each of the sayings from the adjoining ones, there will be an aphorism, or a parable for you to ponder. Jesus says, “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master.” Sometimes, particularly younger disciples, will want to exceed their teacher’s accomplishments. No, Jesus is saying, put your energy into learning what your teacher has to say; you don’t need to be in competition with him.
Another saying: “If they have called the master of the house the Devil, how much more will they malign those of his household.” A warning to expect trouble if we follow the Master.
Again, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” This does not sound like “Jesus meek and mild!” No, not at all. So ask yourself who’s he talking about? It is pretty clear who can kill the body—robbers and murderers, government authorities like the police and the armed forces, your neighbors or family members if you enrage them. But Jesus seems to be speaking about people who take offense to the good news. Okay. But then who has the power to destroy body and soul in hell? Ah! That would be God! Now, what does he mean by “fear?” I think he means something like “respect.” Just as you should fear a pot of boiling water and treat it with respect. Just as you should fear the power of a cop, and treat her with respect. So also, we should treat our Father in heaven with respect and choose him over any other authority.
Another parable: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Most of us think from time to time that we are insignificant, unimportant, somewhat worthless. This is very human, a common thought. Jesus is saying that there are no insignificant parts of creation—the Father values us all.
I leave it to you to detach the sayings that Matthew and the other Evangelists have grouped together in their narratives. The word of life is to be found in each of these sayings if only we are willing to spend a little time with each of them, pondering them in our hearts so that they can reveal their message, directly from the mouth of Jesus.
Trinity Sunday • June 7, 2020
Genesis 1:1-2-4a • Psalm 8 • 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 • Matthew 28:16-20
In the Name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we celebrate the doctrine of the Trinity—that God is Three in One, and One in Three. Since the Third Century, this doctrine has been central to Christianity and you will notice that the Nicene Creed is divided into three paragraphs, each celebrating one Person in the Trinity. Also, every collect in our Prayer Book ends with an ascription to the Trinity.
The doctrine, as such, is not found in Holy Scripture, but once you know the doctrine, you can find reference to it. Two of those references are in the lessons this morning. In Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, he concludes it with what we now call The Grace, saying, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” There they are—Christ the Son, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit. Paul may have written this casually, and not as a doctrine, but he got it right.
In the Gospel, the resurrected Jesus sends his disciples out in his Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” This may not have been Jesus actual words—scholars think it was added a century of so later by some scribe—but it certainly declared the mission of Jesus’ followers accurately, that we should let others in on the Word of Life.
But what is all this three-in-one business? How can God be a singular God, but with three persons? Here is a parallel example: Supposing a woman who has parents marries and has a baby. She is simultaneously a daughter, a wife, and a mother. The Greek word persona means mask, and in the Greek theater the actors wore masks to indicate what kind of character they were playing. The woman acts differently around her husband than she does around her parents—she in effect has a different face for each. And she has quite another one for her baby. Yet all of these persons are contained in one single human being. She is three in one!
So also with God. You can see in Genesis that the Father created the world in the first lesson this morning. He sent his Spirit out over the void, and “Then God said, let there be light.” The Father created the world by speaking the Word, whom John identifies as the Christ. The three-in-one appears again.
This is the accepted doctrine, correct in every way, but it is all very rational and brainy. It is all about God, which is fine, but we want not just an idea of God, but God himself, or God herself, the reality of God. We want to experience God. We want God to be part of our lives. We want God to be alive in the world in which we live. We want the experience God himself.
Our former bishop used to continually ask us, “Where have you seen God at work?” It is a good question, but I found it a hard one to answer. It becomes much easier to answer, however, if we ask it in the context of the three Persons of the Trinity. For example:
Where have you seen the Spirit? I saw the Spirit at work in Lafayette Park in Washington DC, full of citizens protesting for justice. Some trouble-makers came and tried to start a riot. But the Spirit moved through the protesters and stopped them, saying, “It is not about that. It is about justice.” That, it seems to me, was the Spirit of God in action.
You know the Spirit as she manifests herself in this congregation. You experience her every time we come to church and meet our friends. It is the Spirit that binds us together, even in the face of ZOOM meetings! That spirit is the third Person of the Trinity, the Spirit generated by the Father and the Son.
Where have you seen the Son? Where has the Christ shown himself? Christ showed himself in Florence Nightingale, the woman who left a comfortable life in England to minister to the sick and dying soldiers during the Crimean War. A gentle English woman who invented sanitation and hospital care at a whole new level, she transformed nursing and made it into the profession it now is.
I saw Christ this morning in the faces of the policemen, nurses, and doctors who conducted covid-19 testing this morning, and in the city official who allowed a person without insurance to be tested anyway.
As for the Father: Who is the one to whom you speak in the dark of night, the one who hovers near you when you are sick and afraid, to whom you appeal for help when you are out of resources? This is, for me, the Father who loves me, who will turn any circumstance to my benefit, and who will transform any defeat or humiliation into victory.
The Trinity is a powerful way to see God: The Spirit moving among us; the Christ saving us; the Father, the source of all. Blessed be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.
Pentecost • May 24, 2020
Acts 2:1-21 • Psalm 104:25-35. 37 • 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 • John 20:19-23
In the Name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pentecost—fifty days after the Resurrection. Originally a Jewish feast held fifty days after the Passover, it celebrated the ecstatic experience of the disciples after Jesus ascended into the heavens. The ecstasy described in the lesson from the Acts of the Apostles is wonderful—the sound of a roaring wind in their ears, their vision clouded with a red mist such that fellow disciples looked as though they had flames over their heads, and spontaneous, babble sounds ushering forth from their mouths, speaking in tongues.
Group ecstasy in church was apparently common in the early church—Paul speaks of it frequently in his letters, as though it were an ordinary part of Christian worship—but it died out fairly quickly. Revived at the end of the Nineteenth Century in America, several varieties of “pentecostal” churches were founded, and in the 1950s the Pentecostal movement spread to some Episcopal and Roman Catholic parishes. It seems to have died out now in the liturgical churches, but the Pentecostal Church itself remains alive in America and is growing very strongly in Latin America.
So, on that first Pentecost, the disciples spilled out onto the street, still babbling away in their ecstatic language, which some strangers took to be their own native languages, and the scoffers sneered, “They are full of new wine! A bunch of drunks, and early in the morning, too!” But Peter did what the Early Church frequently did—he referred back to the Hebrew Scriptures, saying that this was the fulfillment of a prophecy in the Book of Joel, chapter 2, verse 8. In it, God declares,
I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.
The teachings of Jesus struck devout Jews as being novel, radical even. So the Christians in the first Century tried to gain legitimacy by seeing the events that occurred as being foretold by the prophets, by Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and even Joel. As it turned out, this practice was quite useful, for they forever tied the Hebrew Scriptures to the Christian experience. And what we call the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, are not only the foundation of our faith, but a rich heritage stretching back thousands of years, connecting us with our forebearers in a powerful way.
The Spirit which moved the disciples on Pentecost was no new thing. The Bible opens in the Book of Genesis with the creation of the world. In the beginning there was nothing, “…a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The word in Hebrew for wind is also used for spirit—ruach—and this passage is frequently translated as “the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.” Ruach is also used to mean breath, so that wind, spirit, and breath are all pretty much the same.
You and I have a spirit. To have a spirit is to have breath—we are alive, and spirit is a word to describe life. Groups have a spirit. Good Shepherd has a spirit that is larger than any of our individual spirits, a spirit a bit different from any other Episcopal parish. Large, casual groups have a spirit—in a great stadium, when your side wins, you are impelled to rise from your seat with a great shout; you are moved by the spirit of victory. Spirit, of course, is not a thing; it is aliveness of one kind or another. On occasion, there are evil spirits, an aliveness intent on destruction and decay.
And then there is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God. Paul says, in Galatians, that the fruit of the God’s Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This is a pretty good description of how one behaves when the Spirit of God abides in a person.
And in the Gospel for today, Jesus come into a locked room—this is following the Resurrection—and after greeting them and saying that he was sending them out just as the Father had sent him out, “he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ He gave them God’s Spirit, which is the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation.
So we celebrate the Spirit of God today, and give thanks for that spirit of forgiveness and truth, which yields in us a disposition to be better to those around us, so that we are a blessing to them, and they to us.
Seventh Easter • May 24, 2020
Acts 1:6-14 • Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36 • 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11 • John 17:1-11
In the Name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I heard on the radio the other day that there is widespread emotional distress abroad in the land, and that citizens are suffering at record rates. Our Bishop has indicated something of the sort as well. So perhaps it would be good to listen closely to what Peter is saying to us in his letter that was read a few minutes ago—the Second Lesson.
He says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” The fiery ordeal he refers to is not a virus, of course, but persecution of some kind, perhaps from the Romans or perhaps from the leaders of the Jewish communities of which they were members. Christians at that time were still a sect of the Jews, somewhat deviant since they claimed that Jesus was Messiah, and not always welcomed.
But they were definitely under siege and in trouble. He says, in effect, “Where’s the surprise? It’s just another test.” I want to suggest to you that the corvid-19 shelter-in-place orders, and the possibility of infection, sickness, and death—these are just another test. You and I are all of a certain age; this is not the first test we’ve been faced with. There was Hurricane Sandy; and 9/11; and various previous illnesses and economic challenges—a host of them, if you live long enough.
But James is suggesting something pretty radical. He is saying that these tests are not given to us for no purpose. He says, “…rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.” Here is an invitation to not be the victim of the test, but to claim it. And in claiming it, to link it with the sufferings of Christ, thereby giving it meaning.
Peter has the clear notion that we are in God’s hands, in good times and in bad, and that the only thing to be afraid of is the devil. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer that the Father will save us from the time of trial, or as another translation says, that God will not bring us to the test. We hate being tested! And rightly so, but we are tested and we will continue to be tested. The bigger problem is evil. As the next request in the Lord’s Prayer says, “…deliver us from evil.”
Evil is a profound fact of life. The Scriptures see evil as an active force, and evil is often personified as “the evil one,” or “the devil.” You can see evil every day in news broadcasts and newspapers. We seem impelled, from time to time, to do things that damage others, to be shoved into dividing and separating ourselves from others. Not only on the personal level, but nations are divided against nations, and we are caught up in the midst of the trouble.
Peter says, “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.” If I remember my Greek correctly, “devil” is one way to translate “the evil one,” or simply “evil.” So devil, the evil one, and evil all refer to the same thing.
In the face of the evil one, Peter encourages us to “Resist him, steadfast in the faith,” and he goes on to say that we are not alone. Many of our brothers and sisters are facing the same trials. There is strength in solidarity, in knowing that we at one with many others who have the same problems to deal with.
And then Peter gives us a promise, and it is the consistent promise of the Gospel—our suffering will not last forever. I have noticed that, in the middle of a severe illness or stress of some kind, it seems that it will never end; I cannot even remember what it was like to be whole. But in fact, nothing lasts forever.
Peter promises that “after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace…will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” The promise is not only that the time of testing will end, but that you will be stronger for it.
My father, now long dead, once said to me in the middle of some difficulties I was having, “The ladder to success is made up of rungs of failures.” This was cold comfort at the time, but he was speaking to the same profound truth that Peter is promising—that facing the trials that are attacking us, and claiming them, is where growth comes from.
The evil one would have us refuse responsibility for our condition; he would encourage us to throw the blame on others; he would have us become the victim. This is the ultimate degradation, the destruction of the soul, killing any human dignity.
Please remember that Jesus, in his time of trial, when he desperately wanted to avoid the cross, asked the Father to “take this cup from me;” then he faced the trial and took it on. And in claiming his test, he was given the crown of resurrection.
To God be the power forever and ever. Amen.
Sixth Easter • May 17, 2020
Acts 17:22-31 • Psalm 66:7-18 • 1 Peter 3:13-22 • John 14:15-21
In the Name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jesus made a promise in last week’s Gospel. He said, “I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” And we spoke about how it is that his promise is being fulfilled in our remarkable civilization that our ancestors and we have created—a world where healing is a miraculous art, poverty has been nearly eradicated, wars and murders reduced to a fraction of former years—indeed, a world where more people die of overeating than of malnutrition.
In this week’s Gospel reading, John gives us a clue about how this happened. He reports that Jesus said, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth….” An advocate is someone who works on our behalf, who is dedicated to our welfare, a counselor. The word is usually applied to lawyers, but it can mean anyone who works for our well-being.
The spirit of truth! Jesus did not leave us with “The Truth” but rather a particular spirit, an inclination, a desire to seek the truth, to look yearningly for that which is real. The spirit of truth is a spirit of curiosity, a spirit of inquiry. This is the very basis of the sciences, a spirit that always is searching for the truth. And it is the sciences that have made these huge advances in our welfare.
Human beings—all of us—have both an advantage in dealing with the world, and a disadvantage. The advantage is that we know things, we have knowledge that we have acquired over the space of our lives and from those who came before. This knowledge is powerful, for it gives us control of parts of the world that make a difference. For example, we know that social distancing will slow the spread of viruses and fewer of us will get sick. We know that a savings account, even a small one, will be a useful cushion to as we manage our finances. We know a lot of things!
We also have a huge disadvantage—we know things. The same thing that is advantageous to us is also a huge disadvantage in that it blocks learning anything new.
There’s a story about a young man who came to a revered monk asking for him to be his teacher. The young man went on at length explaining to the old monk about his desires, and how he picked the monk for a teacher, on and on. The monk said nothing, but placed a teacup in front of the young man as he continued to speak, and began to pour the tea. He continued to pour until the cup was full and overflowed—and kept pouring. The young man jumped up and said, “What are you doing?” The monk said, “You cannot learn anything from me; like this teacup, you are full of knowing, and there is no room for anything new.”
The spirit of truth includes within it a sort of skepticism about what we know, about those things of which we are so very certain, about what we believe, and what we are convinced we remember perfectly. I say “skepticism,” but perhaps it would be better to say “wondering.” An open attitude toward other people and the way things are, wondering if I got it right, wondering if it is really the way it strikes me, wondering…. With wondering, certitude and prejudice fall away and we are open to new ways of seeing other people, new interpretations of what we know.
When Peter was preaching to the people in front of the Areopagus at the altar to the Unknown God, I wonder how many of his listeners were open to the new interpretation of that God that Peter was offering. He was offering a God who “is not far from each one of us.” A God in whom “we live and move and have our being.” I wonder how many could hear beyond their already fixed understanding of religion and its purpose.
They were being offered a God who is immediate and available to being known, a God in whom we move and live and have our being—just as a fish moves and lives and has its being in the ocean. Much better than gods made of silver and gold, gods constructed out of the imagination of artists.
I invite. you to make wondering a habit, to have a gentle skepticism about everything, and especially a skepticism about what we know and what we are so certain of. I invite you to welcome into your life the spirit of wondering, a dedication to seeking, an openness to new truths. Our wonderful world, a world far beyond the imagination of our forebearers— this world is a result of the spirit of truth. Thanks be to God for the gift of his Spirit.
Fifth Easter • May 10, 2020
Acts 7:55-60 • Psalm 31:1-55, 15-16 • 1 Peter 2:2-10 • John 14:1-14
In the Name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jesus made a promise in today’s Gospel that is quite astounding: He said, “I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.”
Here is a gifted healer of bodies; here is one who could cleanse people of what today we could call psychoses and crippling neuroses; here is a teacher of such power that he shifted the small, local, national religion of the Jews into a position to become the dominant religion of the world; here is a visionary who could see the world transforming into a place where “caring” could replace “forcing” as the thing that moves people.
Jesus is promising that you and I can do greater things than he did! And in fact, his promise has been fulfilled—in part, if not fully. Our physicians routinely produce miracles of healing. Our mental health professionals routinely produce miracles in their patients’ ability of cope successfully with the trials of life. In our time, fewer people die of malnutrition than die of overeating. Social violence—wars and murders—kill the smallest percentage of the population in the history of mankind.
Our current crisis—the covid-19 virus—is nothing like the black death, the bubonic plague, when upwards of 200 million people died in only four years back in the fourteenth century. More importantly, we knew the cause of the current pandemic within two weeks of its outbreak, and measures for combatting it were put in place fairly quickly, despite governmental dysfunction in major capitals.
All this is vastly more that Jesus could ever have accomplished, just as he promised. We still have major problems, of course, but we have been empowered to deal with them. Speaking as the Christ, the Messiah, Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” This is a message for our present circumstance, locked-down in our houses, afraid to get close to our neighbors, cautious of even the slightest personal contact.
People will say that our mastery of the natural world has come through science, not faith healing. They will declare that it was the industrial revolution that gave rise to the world’s great prosperity. They will say that it is the product of our technology-driven economy. And they will be correct. The work of generations of engineers and chemists and biologists has produced our enormous capacity to feed and shelter and heal each other.
This is the Christ at work. The Christ is not a single human being, but God incarnating in multitudes of people. Christians have a secret, a mystery we have been given—to know the source of humanity’s great benefits, to know that it is the Christ, God acting in God’s world.
Let me change the subject for a minute. We have inherited a nasty confusion in our language. In the First Letter of Peter, the epistle which was read this morning, Peter wrote, “…you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.” He calls the members of the Church a royal priesthood. The confusion is in the word “priest.”
Peter wrote in Greek, and the word that he used for priest is “hieros.” It means the person responsible for conducting sacrifices—before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, the priests took live birds and beasts and killed them, roasting the meat on the altar as an offering to God. A hieros is a person who offers sacrifices to God.
Jesus shifted the practice by offering himself as the blood sacrifice, and you and I are called to be priests, offering (as we say in the Eucharist) “our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,” Now comes the confusion, because the word in English, “priest”, is a simplification of the word presbyter, another Greek word which means “elder.”
So we have two quite different functionaries—on the one hand a person who offers sacrifices to God, and on the other hand a member of the Bishop’s council of elders who manage parishes—both called by the same word. My apologies for the confusion that we have inherited. But it is important to realize that all of us Christians are called to function as priests in the sense of those who offer sacrifices to God.
What kind of sacrifices? James says that we are “God’s own people, in order that [we] may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light.” It is about the light. About seeing clearly what God is doing in the world. Our job as royal priests is to simply be clear that it is God who is acting in the world through the technological revolution.
Does that mean that all is well? No, of course not. All is not well. We are in the middle of a health crisis, and we are about to enter another crisis of significant proportions, an economic crisis—we are on the edge of another great depression, with twice as many people out of work as there were in the Great Depression of the ’thirties. How well the managers of the economy are able to work us out of this difficulty is yet to be seen. But we clearly are in trouble.
My friends, let us continue to do our job of praise and thanksgiving, of seeing clearly that God is working in the world, and of promoting love and cooperation among our associates and friends, of caring for one another. This is the sacrifice that God requires of his priests. For, as James says, we are not just anybody, we are God’s own People. Amen.
Fourth Easter • May 3, 2020
Acts 2:42-47 • Psalm 23 • 1 Peter 2:19-25 • John 10:1-10
In the Name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This day is traditionally called “Good Shepherd Sunday” because of the Gospel reading. Jesus compares himself to a shepherd whose work is to look after a flock of sheep. The flock is kept secure at night in a sheep pen, but the shepherd leads them out to green pastures and running water during the day.
But, he says, the sheep will not follow just anyone. They will follow only their particular shepherd, and they will follow because they are familiar with his voice. Thieves and robbers they will not follow because they don’t know their voices.
The disciples’ response was, “What? What are you talking about?” So Jesus shifted the metaphor. “I’m the gate to the sheepfold. You can get to safe pasture only by going through this gate, through me.”
So Jesus gives two approaches to accessing the abundant life the Gospel promises. Listening to the “voice” and using Christ as the “gate.” The voice and the gate, two metaphors, two figures of speech, to salvation.
How then does one learn to listen to the voice of Christ, to distinguish clearly what is Christ’s voice and what is not? I suppose that one learns what his voice is in the same way we learn the voices of family members and associates—by listening to them repeatedly, by familiarity with what they say and how they say it. So, step one would be to read the Gospels, listening for the voice of Christ, distinct from the voice of the writers of the Gospels. For example, the voice of Luke, when he tells about Jesus’ ministry, is different from the voice of Jesus as he speaks his parables and stories.
Familiarity is the key. I’ve noticed when listening to televangelists and others who speak in God’s name that I can gradually hear the difference between their opinions and the authentic expression of the voice of Christ. I am able to hear the difference only by having become familiar with the voice of Christ in the first place, as Jesus spoke it.
Jesus says that others come to steal and kill and destroy—in other words, they come for their own self-interest, not for the welfare of the listeners. When listening to speakers who claim to speak for God, what are the results of their speech? Do they produce harmony and love, growth in understanding, or do they produce division and condemnation?
Jesus came, he says, so that we can have abundant life. Abundant life for everyone who will listen to his words, take them in, examine them, and apply the words to their lives. The Christ is profoundly not concerned with people’s past, with their being good. He loved the disreputable, the outcast. He spoke equally to soldiers and thieves, fraudulent tax-collectors and prostitutes. Their past was of no concern to Christ, only their willingness to repent, to turn around, to do right in the future.
“I came,” he says, “ that you may have life and have it abundantly.” There is no condemnation here, only acceptance of who they are, only love for the person, only a straight-arrow dedication to the truth, to what’s so. He valued people who looked at their lives and acknowledged their misdeeds. And his standard response was forgiveness.
In years past, there were edition of the Gospels that printed the words of Jesus in red, with the rest of the text in black type. This had a real value of helping the reader notice the difference between what Jesus said, and what the writers of the Gospels said about Jesus. I invite you to entertain the possibility of reading a short passage from the Gospels every day. In invite you to look for those passages that record what Jesus said.
The writers of the Gospels had a list of the sayings of Jesus that they fitted into their story of Jesus’ ministry. I invite you to begin to hear clearly what the voice of Christ sound like, so that when others speak you can distinguish between what is the voice of Christ and what is the voice of other-than-Christ. Amen.
Third Easter • April 26, 2020
Acts 2:14a, 36-41 • Psalm 116: 1-3, 10-17 • 1 Peter 1:17-23 • Luke 24:13-35
This is the familiar story of the encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus. Two things in the story stand out for me now that we have been sequestered in our homes for almost a month during the covid-19 crisis: First, the two disciples on the road did not recognize the Christ for some considerable time. And second, it was when they sat down to dinner with him that they did finally recognize the Christ.
It seems to me that the Christ shows up around us frequently, but we don’t recognize the presence of the Christ and his or her actions that impact us. Remember that “Christ” is not a person, but a title, and a job description.
Think for a moment of a President of the United States—the current on or any previous one. And let’s say that you go down to Washington to meet the President. Whom do you see when you walk into the Oval Office? Is it a human being, George or Barak or Donald or whomever you are going to see? Or is it the President of the United States. Well, both, of course.
It is a regular human being that you are going to see, but one who is invested with an office, a job to do, and a title. So it was with Jesus. He was a regular human being with particular skills and knowledge, a teacher and collector of followers. And was invested with a mission to announce the coming of the kingdom of God. He was the man Jesus, and he also embodied a mission, just like the President is both a human being and embodies the office and work of leading the country.
This is what it means to incarnate some being, to put into the flesh of a human being some other entity. In the case of Jesus, it was to embody the godly being of Messiah, of the Christ.
Now, I would like to suggest to you that there are many Christs in the world, each of whom is carrying out the work of salvation—not salvation in some abstract sense, but the salvation of particular people in particular circumstances. For example, if you are sick, the skill and dedication of a nurse or a doctor could be your salvation. Or if you are in danger of being mugged, a policeman could be your salvation.
Life is a risky business, as we are reminded in this viral crisis, and to have salvation available is critical. I want to suggest to you that there are many Christs who save us from many dangers. And I want to suggest that you are one of them, and that what you do is a Godly work, the work of a Messiah, the work of a Christ.
Like the Christ on the road to Emmaus, however, Christ is rarely recognized. We have filed Christ away in the person of Jesus, too high and lifted up to be part of our ordinary lives, and forgotten that he has called us follow him in his work. And this means doing the work of the Christ, the work of being a Christ for others.
St Paul recognized this when he said in his letter to the Galatians, “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” The spirit of Christ is something we can put on, something we have adopted. In doing so, we are still the same person, fully human, but doing Godly works.
At our baptism, when we committed ourselves to Christ, we promised to “seek … Christ in all persons” and to “serve” him, “loving our neighbor as our selves.” This is exactly how it works—looking for Christ in others and, for ourselves, claiming nothing except to serve the Christs we find.
But how do we recognize the Christ in others? There is a clue in the Emmaus story. The disciples recognized the Lord at dinner, when he broke the bread. Breaking the bread in a First Century Jewish meal was what the master of the house did. It was an act of service to take a loaf of bread and break it into pieces and to pass it around to everyone else.
The Christ is whoever serves us, whoever feeds us, whoever helps us solve a problem, whoever opens us to new possibilities for our lives, whoever empowers us—in short, whoever saves us.
So here is the mystery of the Christ: That we are called to serve, and that we are called to recognize God our Savior in those who serve us. The road to Emmaus is the road of our lives, meeting and recognizing the Christ who walks with us. Amen.