Sermon: Easter 4 RCL C – “Shepherd and the Sword”

Winston S. Churchill said, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it;” which is perhaps why author Dan Brown wrote in The Da Vinci Code, “History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books-books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe. As Napoleon once said, ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon?’”

Today, in order to fully understand our Gospel, we need a history lesson, so sit back and I’ll do my best not to bore you.

In the year 336 BC, Philip II, King of Macedon (northern Greece) was assassinated and his 20 year old son, Alexander, ascended the throne. Over the next 12 years, Alexander would go on to create one of the greatest empires in history. It spanned the territory from Greece to Egypt to India, and the Greek culture and language spread across the region. However, the young king, who we know as Alexander the Great, died at the age of 32 and the power plays began soon afterwards. Four of Alexander’s generals began fighting for control, which lead to civil wars that fractured the once great empire.

The Ptolemies took control of the south (Egypt) and Seleucid (Syrians) took control of the north, which left a small Mediterranean country in the middle: Judea. Eventually the Syrians would prevail in the area and begin a plan of assimilation, for it was believed that all the political tensions and rebellions would cease if the Greek way of life was instituted across the empire.

In the year 175 BC, Antiochus IV became king of the Syrians and continued this plan of assimilation and began enforcing it in every area of life, including religious. Many of the Jews in upper society had already conformed to the Greek way of life, but there were some who would not tolerate the eradication of their faith. In response, Antiochus gave an ultimatum: conform or die. (You can read a more detailed version of these events in 1 & 2 Maccabees, which is contained in the Apocrypha.) To prove his point, Antiochus marched his troops into Jerusalem and desecrated the Temple. He had everything torn down and profaned, including the altar. There, on top of the altar, he sacrificed a pig and then had a statue of the Greek god Zeus erected.

As the oppression of the Jews continued into the smaller villages, the Syrians came to Modi’in, where the Jewish priest Matthias and his five sons lived. The Syrians attempted to force Matthias to practice the pagan worship, but Matthias’ sons were having none of it. They rose in rebellion and killed the soldiers. Matthias’ son, Judah, became their leader and took the nickname “Maccabee,” which means, “The Hammer.”

Under Maccabee, the rebellion grew and in the Jewish month of Kislev (December) they were eventually able to retake the Temple in Jerusalem. They proceeded to restore the Temple and its furnishings, including the Menorah – the sacred lamp stand – that the Syrians had broken. The Menorah, with its candles, represented the light of God in the world, but after it was restored, it was discovered that there was only enough oil for one day and it would take eight days to make more of the prescribed oil. However, the Maccabees believed that it was important to light the lamp as quickly as possible. They did and a miracle occurred: one day’s worth of oil lasted the full eight days until new oil could be made. From that point on, the Jews have celebrated the eight day Festival of Light: Hanukkah, which means “dedication.” It is the Feast of Dedication when the Temple was restored and rededicated to the One True God.

Our Gospel reading today began with, “At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple…” We’ve said it before, the seemingly minor details that the Gospel writers include are always important, and help us to more fully understand the message being taught. It wasn’t a coincidence that Jesus showed up on this day. He is about to make a point that will push the religious leaders over the proverbial edge.

They begin by asking Jesus if he is the Messiah, the long awaited savior. Just a few verses after our reading today, Jesus will say, “If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me.  But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father,” and that is what he is saying here. If you don’t believe me, then look at what I’m doing; but then he adds, but because you are not of my flock, then you still aren’t going to believe.

He prefaces these comments with, “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me…,” and he concludes with, “The Father and I are one.”

About two centuries before the events of our Gospel reading took place, Antiochus set up a statue of the Greek god Zeus in the temple and said, “You will worship this god or you will die.” Maccabees and the Jewish people defeated him and for the last two centuries have held an eight day celebration every year celebrating that defeat and the restoration of the Temple. While this celebration is taking place, Jesus comes to town and states, “The Father and I are one.” Yes. I am the Messiah, but not the one you expected, for not only am I the Messiah… I AM the Son of God. I AM God. This Jesus is doing exactly what Antiochus attempted two centuries ago. He is trying to supplant the One True God. That went over about as well as prime rib at a vegan party. The very next verse, which the lectionary omitted, states, “The Jews took up stones again to stone him.”

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”

I have come to bring a sword. Jesus claim to be God has been messing up folks lives for centuries, and it will continue to do so until the end. We’ve been reading bits of the Book of Revelation these past few weeks. Here is a passage that never show up in the lectionary, “Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war.  His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself.  He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God.  And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses.  From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.  On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, ‘King of kings and Lord of lords.’”

Those words make me cheer. Makes me feel like a Marine or something knowing that this is my God. For others, it scares the knickers right off of them, others laugh, and still others get angry.

This Jesus claims to be God, and through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we know that he is God. He comes with a sword to divide. Yet, this Jesus is the Good Shepherd and he is our shepherd. “He is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” This Jesus comes with a sword to “tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” and he comes to lead us beside still waters. To guide us along right pathways. To comfort us. To prepare a table for us. To anoint our heads with oil. To provide an abundance. This Jesus is King of king and Lord of lords, and he will never leave or forsake us. As he tells the religious leaders, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

Sometimes, I think we lose sight of who Jesus truly is. We see him as this cute controllable cuddly Teddy bear. Today, we are reminded that this Jesus came to turn the world on its head, to divide with a sword. He brings out the very best and the very worst in people, yet for those who believe, he gives the power to become children of God. This is your Shepherd. This is your God.

Let us pray: O God, by the humility of Your Son, You have raised up a fallen world; to Your faithful people give a lasting joy so that those whom You have rescued from the danger of eternal death may enjoy endless happiness because of You. Through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sermon: “Do You Love Me?”

A sales rep had been struggling to meet the sales projections in his appointed region, so the manager called him in for a meeting. After a lengthy discussion the manager and the rep stood looking at a map on which colored pins indicated the company representative in each area. The manager finally said, “I’m not going to fire you, Wilson, but I’m loosening your pin a bit just to emphasize the insecurity of your situation.”

In Chapter 10 of John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.  The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.  I am the good shepherd.”

We also know that, on the night before he was crucified, Peter denied Jesus three times. In a way, he acted like the hired hand. The wolf came, there was trouble, and he spiritually fled from Jesus out of fear for his own life. We can’t criticize Peter for his actions, because that could have just as easily been anyone of us in a similar situation. But for Peter, by today’s standards, he would have had is pin pulled out of the map and ground to dust. Yet Jesus responded in a different way.

Today, we have Peter and Jesus walking alone. Peter denied him three times and we know that Jesus is now restoring him by asking him three times, “Do you love me?” Peter responds, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you,” “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you,” and finally, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus doesn’t say, “OK. Good answer.” Instead, Jesus says, “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,” and finally, “Feed my sheep.”

Jesus is the Good Shepherd and by today’s standards, Peter should have been fired, but instead Jesus makes Peter a shepherd. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, but he is asking Peter to now share in this ministry of caring for God’s people, and he concludes by saying to Peter, “Follow me.” Do what I have been doing and don’t be afraid any longer.

What is Peter’s reward for obedience? Again, from the world’s perspective, it is a real winner: “‘Very truly… when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.)” Jesus is saying, “Be a shepherd of God’s people, follow me, and your reward will be that you shall die a most violent death.” Tradition holds that Peter was crucified upside down in Rome. And to that we all say, “Sign me up!” However, in saying to Peter, “Follow me,” Jesus is also saying, follow me in caring for the children of God, but also follow me through death, for death has been conquered once and for all. Follow me, for there is nothing to fear.” — “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more.” (Luke 12:4)

The one that denied and should have been fired has been given a roll in the ministry and eternal life. That was then, this is now, but the task and reward are the same. Jesus says to each of us, “Feed my sheep. Follow me.” Without hesitation or fear, we are called to be like Peter. Care for the children of God and follow Jesus. We have been commissioned. Fear not.

Sermon: “Go!”

This sermon was preached at St. Stephen’s AME Church.

A man enters the Confessional box.  He notices on one side a fully equipped bar with Guinness on tap.  On the other wall is a dazzling array of the finest Cuban cigars. Then the priest comes in.  “Father, forgive me, for it’s been a very long time since I’ve been to Confession, but I must first admit that the Confessional box is much more inviting these days.”  The priest replies, “Get out! You’re on my side.”

It is quite interesting being a priest. You see the world from a different angle, because so often folks want you to see their “good side.” It’s not often that when you are all dressed up in a clerical collar that you can meet someone for the first time and come away actually knowing much about them. There are those rare occasions when someone begins talking and it seems they’ve lost the “Off” switch, but for the most part it comes down to respectful pleasantries.

You also get various reactions from people as you walk along. There’s always some who give you a hearty, “Hello, Father,” but there are others that avert their eyes. They don’t want to be seen by a priest or they have a certain disdain for clergy to the point that they won’t even recognize you as a person.

Some priests don’t think that it is necessary to walk around looking like a priest, but I do, whether the world accepts it or not. It is a way of constantly reminding folks that there is another way.

Of all the looks you get along the way, the oddest ones come from folks who have never really seen a priest up close. I was at the grocery store just a few weeks ago and the you man bagging my groceries asked, “Are you a pastor or something?” It was all because of the dog collar. Some will give you more than the once over and particularly stare at the dog collar. I mention this because I got this certain look while around several youth in their early teens. A girl – maybe fourteen – looked at me and my collar, then noticed the crucifix that I wear. Her eyes lit up a bit as she leaned in for a closer look. “Nice necklace,” she said, “it has a man on it.” “It has a man on it.” Now, it is one thing to not really know much about priest, but this girl – this fourteen year old girl – did not know that this man on my necklace was Jesus. She didn’t know the story or anything about Him. Her friend sitting next to her looked up and said, “Oh, that’s God” and I was thankful for her input, because at the time I was a bit too flummoxed to say anything.

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” His name will be Jesus. He will be great. Son of the Most High. David’s ancestor. He will reign forever. He will be… a man on a necklace.

As long as Jesus is seen only as a good moral teacher, then there is no access to eternal life. As long as he is viewed simply as the epitome of enlightened humankind, then there is no sustaining Truth. As long as Jesus is only a man on a necklace, there is no salvation. As long as we, His disciples, do nothing, then we are not fulfilling his final commands: Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

The Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?  And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?

So, what are we to do?

One of my favorite stories of the Desert Fathers – those men who lived in the deserts of North Africa during the 300s and dedicated their lives to God – tells of the time Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’

The founder of Opus Dei, St. Josemaría Escrivá, writes in his first saying in the book The Way, “Don’t let you life be sterile. Be useful. Blaze a trail. Shine forth with the light of your faith and of your love. With your apostolic life wipe out the slimy and filthy mark left by the impure sowers of hatred. And light up all the ways of the earth with the fire of Christ that you carry in your heart.”

The Episcopal Church has been around since 1789. Since then we have had 27 Presiding Bishops – the ecclesiastical head of our denomination. In 2015 we elected the 27th, The Right Reverend Michael Curry. He is the first African American to hold that position. If you were to ask him what is the most important aspect of the church, Bishop Curry would answer it in one word without hesitation: Jesus. He is passionate about this and believes the church is called to be the Jesus Movement in this world.

He spoke to us recently via an online video and began by recalling the words of the angel at the empty tomb of Jesus, “This Jesus of Nazareth whom you seek, he is not here, he has been raised as he said he would be and he has now gone ahead of you to Galilee.  There you will see him.  It is in Galilee that the Risen Lord will be found and seen for he has gone ahead of us.”

Bishop Curry goes on to say,

Galilee.  Which is a way of talking about the world.

Galilee.

In the streets of the city.

Galilee.

In our rural communities.

Galilee in our hospitals.

Galilee in our office places.

Galilee where God’s children live and dwell there.

In Galilee you will meet the living Christ for He has already gone ahead of you.

The church can no longer wait for its congregation to come to it, the church must go where the congregation is.

Now is our time to go.  To go into the world to share the good news of God and Jesus Christ.  To go into the world and help to be agents and instruments of God’s reconciliation.  To go into the world, let the world know that there is a God who loves us, a God who will not let us go, and that that love can set us all free.

Bishop Curry concludes, “This is the Jesus Movement, and we are The Episcopal Church, the Episcopal branch of Jesus’ movement in this world.”  Today I say to you, “We are the Jesus Movement. We are the Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church branches of the Jesus Movement in Enid, Oklahoma. Go. Light up all the ways of the earth with the fire of Christ that you carry in your heart. Go. Make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Go. Teach them to obey everything that Jesus has commanded us. Go. And remember, He – the Great I Am – is with us always, to the very end of the age. Amen.

Sermon: Easter 3 RCL C – “Renew”

A preacher retired and moved to the country to enjoy a relaxed life practicing his favorite pastime: yard work. Needing a lawn mower, he rode his bicycle into town to shop for one. On the way he saw a sign advertising a mower for sale. He stopped at the house and a young boy came out to greet him.

The preacher asked about the lawn mower, and the kid said it was behind the house. In the backyard the mower was already running and the engine was sputtering along at idle speed. The preacher increased the speed and mowed a few strips. As he tinkered with the mower, the boy asked the preacher about the bicycle. He said he hadn’t ridden in a few years, but he really wanted a bike. Seeing each had something the other wanted, they decided to make a swap. The boy hopped on the bike and immediately tottered over. The boy looked nervous, but the preacher said, “Keep trying. It’ll all come back to you!”

Later in the day, the boy had gotten the hang of riding his new bike and was riding around town when he spied the preacher pulling on the engine starter rope. The kid stopped and watched for a couple of minutes. He asked, “What’s wrong?”

The reply came, “I can’t get this mower started. Do you know how?”

The kid said, “Yep.”

“Well, how do you do it? Tell me!”, the preacher yelled.

The kid replied, “You have to cuss it.”

The preacher rose up indignantly. “Now you listen here. I am a preacher and if I ever did cuss, not saying I have, I’ve forgotten how to do it after all these years.”

With a wise look on his face well beyond his years, the kid said, “Preacher, you keep on pulling that rope and it’ll all come back to ya.”

I think I was living in Dallas at the time, because I was in a very crowded place – a restaurant or a mall. I was walking along, minding my own business when I suddenly caught the scent of a woman’s perfume. I thought my knees were going to buckle. No, it wasn’t that the perfume was all that remarkable, probably just some dime store variety, but I had this girlfriend in high school and it was the only kind of perfume she wore. I looked around to see if I could spot her, knowing full well that more than one person had worn that brand of perfume. Yet, in that single smell, it all came back to me. All the fun of high school and thinking you were in love. All the memories of friends, hanging out, going to parties, and just being a stupid teenager. It all came back.

I’m weird when it comes to movies. Any movie will probably do, but when I find one I like, I don’t mind watching it again. There are however, some that I’ve watched many times and never seem to get tired of them: Harry Potter – especially 7.1, Lost in Translation, Station Agent, and the Swedish version of the Girl with Dragon Tattoo (I, as a priest would never really watch that, but I’ve heard it’s really good. It stars Noomi Rapace, not quite a Scarlett Johansson huba-huba, but close.) When it comes to these movies, the opening music begins and I’ll just settle in and smile. It all comes back. I know the entire story. I can quote the lines. Happiness.

On the night before He was crucified, we know that Jesus and his disciples shared the Last Supper. Following the meal, he taught them many things, and prayed for them, but just before he prayed he said to them, “You believe at last! But a time is coming, and has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home. You will leave me all alone.” We know that shortly following these events, he was arrested. At his arrest, we also know that Jesus statement was fulfilled, the disciples fled. One of them, probably Mark, was so afraid that he ran off naked.

These past few weeks we have been reading about the events following his resurrection: the women discovered the empty tomb and how He appeared to the disciples on two separate occasions while they were holed up in the upper room.

Soon afterwards, the disciples must have decided that it was safe to leave, and fulfilling what Jesus had said, they went home, returning to the Lake of Tiberias, also known as the Sea of Galilee. Why? Probably because they did not know what else to do. They knew that Jesus had risen from the dead, but they didn’t yet know what that meant.

So today, we find Peter and the gang sitting by the Sea of Tiberias. Since he didn’t know what to do, Peter decided to go back to what he knew – fishing. The rest of them said they would go, but in doing so, you can feel their disappointment. The last three years had been so amazing. They had walked with the Lord. Witnessed so much – lives changed, miracles, new ways of understanding God, and now… now it was back to the nets and the boats. Back to the way things were. And just to pour a little lemon juice in a paper cut, they fished all night and didn’t catch a thing.

As the sun was coming up, someone called to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” Our translations puts a question mark after the sentence, but knowing who said it, I wonder if it should have been a period. Anyhow, he asked if they had any fish, and you hear the answer, “No… does it look like we’ve caught any fish. Oy!” But then they are told to cast their nets on the other side of the boat and they caught so many fish they couldn’t haul them in.

It happened for the disciple whom Jesus loved, John, first: it all came back to him. The voice. The miracles. Purpose. Mission. Life. ”It is the Lord!” When John said this, it also all came back for Peter: “When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.” It all came back to them and they were restored to Jesus. They were renewed.

There are some, but I do not think there are many who intentionally walk away from God. For most who find themselves distant from the Lord, it has more to do with life, busyness, or simply out of the discipline of what a life with God entails. Whatever the case, there is an emptiness, a dryness that grows between us and our God, which is really unfortunate; but just as that perfume or movie or whatever the “trigger” may be has the potential to bring back memories and emotions, the same is true in our relationship with God, if only we will look up from all the distractions of the world, that busyness, and allow ourselves to once again catch a scent of the Jesus. If we will allow His voice spoken to us through prayer and His Holy Word to remind us of our true First Love. ”It is the Lord!” — Let it all come back to you.

St. Josemaría Escrivá writes, “What a strange capacity man has to forget even the most wonderful things, to become used to mystery! Let’s remind ourselves… that the Christian cannot be superficial. While being fully involved in his everyday work, among other men, his equals; busy, under stress, the Christian has to be at the same time totally involved with God, for he is a child of God.” (http://www.escrivaworks.org/book/christ_is_passing_by-point-65.htm)

Let it all come back to you and rediscover how near your God truly is. Rediscover what it is to be a child of God and renew your purpose in Him.

Let us pray: Glory to you, O Lord our God, Your love calls us to be your people. By sharing our many and diverse gifts we share in your mission. We ask you, Lord, to shape us into a community of faith. Nourish us by your word and sacraments that we may grow into the image of Jesus. Through the power of your Holy Spirit, heal us that we, in turn, may heal the wounded. Form us to be instruments of love, justice, and peace in our land, and send us to proclaim your saving work. Renew us, Lord, that we may renew the face of the earth. Amen.

Sermon: Bonhoeffer

A man was painting the home of an 89 year-old lady in Spokane. She had a large family Bible prominently displayed on the coffee table and remarked that it was 116 years old and a priceless heirloom. the painter commented on how remarkable that was, and added, “It doesn’t matter how old the Bible might be, what’s on the inside is what matters.” She immediately replied, “Oh, I know. That sure is the truth. Why, we have family records and births and marriages and deaths that go so far back, all recorded in that Bible; we could never replace them.”

Episcopalians may be accused of being the “frozen chosen” or because of the the Book of Common Prayer, “Those Who Read to God,” but no one can ever accuse us of not reading our Bibles. I think we read more Holy Scripture on a Sunday than any other church out there.

In the study of Holy Scripture I know of some that set themselves out a plan for reading the entire Bible in a year, some three years, and others – well others are pretty much like that lady having her house painted, it’s a good book to have around to record family relations or press flowers, but other than that… I suppose we all have favorite books of the Bible, but I’ve also heard folks say that if it’s not printed in red (meaning the words of Christ) they can’t be bothered. It is also true for many that they, with perhaps the exception of the Psalms, don’t read any of the Old Testament. Their reasoning, “I don’t like the God of the Old Testament.” That is essentially an old heresy, Marcionism, in a new wrapper. Marcion believed that the God of the Old Testament was an evil creator God who the God of the New Testament, through Jesus, came to destroy.

Yet, what we learn through studying the Gospels is that Jesus was a big fan of the Old Testament, he quoted it about 80 times in the Gospels, the most memorable being when he had been in the desert 40 days and rebuked the devil. Seems that Jesus had been considering Deuteronomy when the devil came along, because all three of those rebukes came from that book.

For us, the Old Testament also helps us to have a greater understanding of God and how all that took place points to the need for a Savior. This is what Jesus was referring to in our Gospel today when he said, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” If we are to properly know God, to know Jesus, we must study both the old and the new. The God of the Law and the God of the Law revealed and fulfilled. The same God, but a more complete and accurate picture.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who we celebrate today, understood this. He wrote, “My thoughts and feelings seem to be getting more and more like those of the Old Testament. It is only when one knows the unutterability of the name of God that one can utter the name of Jesus Christ; it is only when one loves life and this earth so much that without them everything seems to be over that one may believe in the resurrection; it is only when one submits to God’s law that one may speak of grace. It is not Christian to want to take our thoughts and feelings too directly from the New Testament.”

The Holy Bible is more than a collection of Sunday school stories and nice sayings. It is the history of our God. In the Old and the New Testaments, it is the place to discover Him, know Him, and to be known by Him.

Sermon: Easter 2 RCL C – “The Space”

There was a large group of people. On one side of the group stood a man, Jesus. On the other side of the group stood Satan. Separating them, running through the group, was a fence.

The scene set, both Jesus and Satan began calling to the people in the group and, one by one – each having made up his or her own mind – each went to either Jesus or Satan. This kept going. Soon enough, Jesus had gathered around him a group of people from the larger crowd, as did Satan. But one man joined neither group. He climbed the fence that was there and sat on it. Then Jesus and his people left and disappeared. So too did Satan and his people. And the man on the fence sat alone.

As this man sat, Satan came back, looking for something which he appeared to have lost. The man said, “Have you lost something?” Satan looked straight at him and replied, “No, there you are. Come with me.” “But”, said the man, “I sat on the fence. I chose neither you nor him.” “That’s okay,” said Satan. “I own the fence.”

On the first Sunday after Easter we always read the account of Doubting Thomas, and I still believe that Thomas gets a bad rap. Yes, he doubted, but it wasn’t long before this that Jesus said he was going to return to Judea and all the disciples were responding in fear, “You can’t do that! They just tried to kill you and you want to return?” Yet it was Thomas who said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” That took a lot of courage, so instead of picking on him, I would like us to consider another aspect of our text today. You can actually see it.

Jesus appears to his disciples the second time. Thomas is present. Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

If you look at you insert, you will see Jesus’ words: “Do not doubt but believe,” then there is a period, followed by a closing quote mark, a space, and finally, the word “Thomas” begins the next sentence. Today, I would like us to not consider the words of the text, but instead, that one space. That small space between the time Jesus stopped speaking and Thomas responded, because that one space of time is the most critical moment in Thomas’ entire life. It is the time of decision.

For those of you who know the movie, The Matrix, it is red pill / blue pill time. For those of you who don’t know the movie, The Matrix, it is truly a decision between eternal life and eternal death.

Not all of our decisions are so vital. British prime minister Herbert Asquith once spent a weekend at the Waddesdon estate of the 19th-century Rothschild family. One day, as Asquith was being waited on at teatime by the butler, the following conversation ensued:

“Tea, coffee, or a peach from off the wall, sir?”

“Tea, please,” answered Asquith.

“China, India, or Ceylon, sir?” asked the butler.

“China, please.”

“Lemon, milk, or cream, sir?”

“Milk, please,” replied Asquith.

“Jersey, Hereford, or Shorthorn, sir?” asked the butler.

Life and death are not hanging in the balance with such decisions; however, the decision in that space – that space between the invitation of Jesus to believe and your response to that invitation is vital, and although sitting on the fence is an option, it is not advisable.

Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and out of slavery. Following their forty year trek through the desert, they came to the Jordan River. However, due to his disobedience, it was not Moses that led the people into the Promise Land. That duty fell to their next leader, Joshua. At a certain point, Joshua summoned all of Israel and had them renew the covenant that they had made with God. In concluding, he said: “Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River, and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”

Choose this day whom you will serve. That’s one of those verses you will find printed on coffee cups, cross stitched on pillows, and painted on door plaques, but it’s a bit weightier than a simple catch phrase. “Be decisive. Right or wrong, make a decision. The road of life is paved with flat squirrels who couldn’t make a decision.” The author of that is unknown, but since Leslie posted it on Facebook, it must have been somebody important who said it. Joshua said, Choose this day whom you will serve—either God or something else—but don’t be indecisive.

It is a bit lengthy for a sermon quote, but it is too good not to share. From C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity: When the author walks on to the stage the play is over. God is going to invade, all right: but what is the good of saying you are on His side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream and something else—something it never entered your head to conceive—comes crashing in; something so beautiful to some of us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left? For this time it will be God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature. It will be too late then to choose your side. There is no use saying you choose to lie down when it has become impossible to stand up. That will not be the time for choosing; it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realized it before or not. Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last forever. We must take it or leave it.

Yes, Thomas doubted, but in the space provided, he made a decision. The time is now. Make your’s.

Let us pray: Breathe into us Holy Spirit, that all our thoughts may be holy. Move in us, Holy Spirit, that our work, too, may be holy. Attract our hearts, Holy Spirit, that we may love only what is holy. Strengthen us, Holy Spirit, that we may defend all that is holy. Protect us, Holy Spirit, that we always may be holy. Amen.

Sermon: The Annunciation

For the record, it is only 268 days until Christmas, so today we consider the Annunciation.

After the presentation of Jesus in the temple, Mary and Joseph encounter the prophet Simeon. Simeon blesses God for allowing him to see the Savior and from his words we have the Song of Simeon, which begins: “Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised.” Following this, Simeon speaks directly to Mary, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”

“… and a sword will pierce through your own heart.” Your own soul. We see Mary kneeling at the foot of the cross while watching her son die and we understand that this is what Simeon was speaking. Yet this sword piercing her heart is also speaking of the great faith that Mary must have.

At the Annunciation when the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary and told her that she would bear the Son of God, her response was simple, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” Through her great faith Mary continued to repeat these words for each step the Lord called her to: “Yes, Lord, let it be done to me. Let your Son be conceived in me. Let them hate me because they think I’m an adulteress. Let me go to Bethlehem. Let me flee to Egypt. Let me return to Galilee and raise Him. Let the sword pierce my soul as I watch him die.”

Mary had faith that allowed the sword to pierce her own heart because she realized that the claims of God on her Son were far greater than any other human claim or attachment. That piercing would be the pain that her motherly love had to experience in order to surrender to God.

Karl Rhaner, a 20th century German theologian, writes that the piercing sword is the way of faith. He says, “Faith is like a sword that pierces and divides as it penetrates to the center of the believer’s heart. Faith is the enduring of this sword. Faith is the readiness to live on in hope when conflict threatens and allows us to entrust ourselves unconditionally to God. It is faith when we accept the blow of the sword in our existence, the sword of the question that finds no answer; the sword that all life in pain ends in death; the sword that not even love dissolves all contradictions in this life; the sword of the leave-takings, disappointments, sickness and isolation.”

And it was this sword, this faith that Mary demonstrated while she knelt at the foot of the cross and watched her son die. What is this faith? There really is no simple definition, because it involves many things. It is the beginning our of salvation. It is that internal light that guides us to God. Faith requires understanding – we must deepen our knowledge in order to deepen our faith.

Faith is also a human act – not only is our intellect involved, but so is our will. A free will that decides to conform to the life God has chosen for us.
Finally, and more importantly than any of these, faith is a grace given to us by God. Before the internal light first shines. Before we begin to seek understanding. Before we study, act, or choose, God through the power of the Holy Spirit must be moving in us. Before any of it, God’s grace must be born in us. And grace incarnate, grace in human form came in the person of Jesus Christ.

We live out this faith when we stand alongside Mary at the Annunciation and declare with her, “Let it be done to me according to your word,” because in those words we take our life and hand it to God as Mary did.

Sermon: Easter Sunday

The Rev. Fred Craddock tells about a friend and his family who were missionaries in China and were at some point put under house arrest.

One day the soldiers arrive and tell them that they could return home to America and had twenty-four hours to pack. One stipulation: they could only take with them 200 pounds of their belongings.

The husband and wife and their children had lived in China for years. What would they decide to bring? They took their scales and began to weigh and soon after the arguments began. We can’t possibly leave without this… But what about that… Oh, wait, we forgot this…. The children wanted their toys and the parents wanted their few valuables. They chose and chose and weighed and weighed until they had exactly two hundred pounds. Typewriter, vase, essential clothes. Two hundred pounds to the ounce.

When they met the soldiers at the airport the commander asked, “Ready to go?”

“Yes.”

“Did you weigh everything?”

“Yes. 200 pounds exactly.”

“Did you weigh the children?”

“The children? No. I didn’t weigh the children.”

“Weigh the children,” he said.

Weigh the children, and in a piercing moment of clarity you finally discover that which is of most importance.

The women returned to the tomb where Jesus was buried, but when they arrived, they discovered that the stone had been rolled away and the body of Jesus was not there. Then the two angels appeared to them and asked, ”Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”

Betrayed and handed over to be tried, scourged, put to death, and then rise again. All this Jesus did for them and for us – for you. But why? Why did Jesus do all of these things and endure so much? I’ve given this some thought and I think I’ve got a few answers for you.

Jesus did all these things so that you and I would go to church on Sunday mornings and feel guilty when we don’t. He took the abuse of the soldiers and others so that we would read our Bibles everyday. He allowed the crown of thorns to be placed on his head so that we wouldn’t do things like cuss and watch dirty movies. He endured the scourging so that he might vigorously oppose whatever we vigorously oppose, and to stand with the Democrats or the Republicans or whoever shouts the loudest. Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord has risen indeed, so that we might all be nice people, smile at one another, and get along.

Yes, we’ve figured out exactly why Jesus suffered, died, and rose again, but we forgot to weigh the children. When we get so wrapped up in the little things, we forget that which is most important, and in the process, God becomes very small. God is no longer about eternal life, but is instead perceived as a task master intent on us following established rules. When we forget that which is most important, God is no longer interested in making all things new and transforming our lives, but is instead only a genius at pouring on the guilt and shame. When we mistakenly understand our faith to be about what we do for God, instead of what God has done for us, then we are essentially rejecting the work of God’s Holy Spirit in our lives. And God becomes even smaller.

Weigh the children. Seek that which is of most importance. Go to church and read the Bible. Yes. Good. Stop cursing and watching dirty movies. Absolutely! Oppose the injustices of this world. By all means. Democrats… Republican? I got nothin’. Run away. But when it comes to understanding the “Why?” of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, understand that these are the vases, books, toys, etc., but these are not the children.

Julian of Norwich, in her Revelations of Divine Love, wrote, “This is the reason why we have no ease of heart or soul, for we are seeking our rest in trivial things which cannot satisfy, and not seeking to know God, almighty, all-wise, all-good. He is true rest. It is His will that we should know Him, and His pleasure that we should rest in Him. Nothing less will satisfy us… We shall never cease wanting and longing until we possess Him in fullness and joy.”

The “Why?” of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is so that He could seek and find the lost. So that His Father could become Our Father, so that we could become His children through the forgiveness of our sins. He came so that he could destroy the works of the devil. He came that we might have abundant life and life eternal.

A fun – but as it turns out, untrue – story about the great golfer Arnold Palmer. Legend has it that he was invited to play several exhibition rounds of golf in Saudi Arabia with the king. Following all the events, the king was so impressed that he wanted to give Arnold a gift. Arnold said that it wouldn’t be necessary, that he had enjoyed his time. The king was not pleased with the answer and insisted, so Arnold said that a special golf club would be nice. The king was delighted. The following day, a messenger delivered an envelope to Palmer. It contained the title to a golf club. A 465 acre, thirty-six hole golf club.

When it comes to our King, we are thinking too small. For we think He only wants us to practice our faith, when instead He wants to transform our lives and the world around us. He wants to set us on fire with His love so that we might set the world ablaze around us.

Weigh the children. Your life with God – the life He wants for you – is about far more than anything you could ask or even imagine. Weigh the children and in a moment of clarity, discover how God wants to transform your life.

Let us pray:
God our Father,
by raising Christ your Son
you conquered the power of death
and opened for us the way to eternal life.
Let our celebration today
raise us up and renew our lives
by the Spirit that is within us.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sermon: Great Vigil of Easter

“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?” – Cicero

This is the night we remember how our lives are woven into the lives of our ancestors.

So what makes this night special? To discover the answer we must go far back into the history of God’s people. Just prior to the Exodus from Egypt and the Israelites captivity there, you will remember the ten plagues. The tenth was the death of the first born. The Israelites were told to sacrifice a lamb and to take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and lentil of their house so that when Death came, it would pass over their houses. The Israelites did as the Lord commanded and lived. This is the night that we remember how God caused Death to pass over the Israelites.

God commanded the Israelites to commemorate this night each year with a seven day celebration. The Mishnah is a book of Jewish Law dating back to around the year 200 and it outlines how the laws and holidays are to be observed, including the seder meal, which is eaten on this night in Passover. As part of the ritual, the youngest child is assigned the role of asking some very specific questions, which provides the father with the opportunity to retell the Exodus story. The first question given for the child to ask is, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” and the father proceeds by answering, “This is the night…,”and tells the history of the Israelites salvation.

As a Christian people, we have taken that same idea as the pattern for this night for the telling – in the words of Paul Harvey – “the rest of the story.” For telling how Jesus brought salvation to all through his death and resurrection.

Therefore for us…

This is the night the faithful people of God gather. We come to light a fire in the darkness, to kindle a flame that reveals the content of every shadow, and to light a candle that represents the light of Christ returning from the shadow of death and into the light.

This is the night that we hear God’s holy word as it proclaims to us how he has saved his people throughout history, how he parted the sea so that his people might be saved from their enemy, how he has made an everlasting covenant with his people and proclaims that we will be His people and He will be our God.

This is the night when we renew our Baptismal Covenant, reaffirming the means by which God saved us. As St. Paul writes to the Romans, ”Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life”

This is the night that we celebrate the great Eucharistic feast to receive the food of our salvation.

This is the night when we begin the great fifty days of Easter leading up to the giving of God’s Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

This night is considered the Queen of Feasts and it is the night that we prepare for the great celebration of Easter, the resurrection of our Lord.

Why is this night different from all other nights? This is the night that Jesus conquered death once and for all and it is the Eve of our Salvation. As the Psalmist declares, “This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our sight.”