Thank you for you interest in our sermons. We will unfortunately not be updating them over the summer, but they are available upon request.
Thank you for you interest in our sermons. We will unfortunately not be updating them over the summer, but they are available upon request.
What a lot of images today in both the reading from Hebrew Scriptures and in our Gospel—an abundance of sheep—both fat and lean, some goats, God, the Great Shepherd and a glimpse of Judgement Day. Happy Christ the King Sunday!
Once every three years, this familiar Gospel reading comes around on Christ the King Sunday. It’s the last Sunday of every church year, and in Matthew, it’s the last opportunity Jesus has to teach his gathered disciples what’s most important—most worth remembering. The next chapter in this Gospel begins with Judas’ betrayal, and it’s all downhill from there. This final parable Jesus uses in his teaching may be the most important of all. We’ll best pay attention!
Are you up for a check-up? How do you all feel about going to the doctor? Truth be told, I don’t like it much—Peter will tell you that I have to be pretty sick or sore before I make an appointment. But I do have an annual check-up. Much as I hate to go to the doctor, I think that my annual check-up is important—and so does Medicare, because they pay for it. My doctor is great—she really listens. She listens to what my body is telling her in m heartbeat and my cough. She also poses questions, listens to my concerns and offers suggestions. I try to be truthful in my answers and listen attentively to her suggestions, even if they make me uncomfortable, because I know my doctor wants what’s best for me—she wants my body to be well and in tune so it can carry me gracefully through the last decade or so of my life. I want that, too.
The parable of the sheep and the goats offers each of us a chance to do a bit of a spiritual check-up–a kind of tune-up. Are we in tune with the sheep or are we hanging out with the goats? What needs to change?
There seems to be in life a constant struggle between head and heart.
Our head wants us to be in charge. In control. It calculates. It manipulates. It wants to be comfortable and safe. Number One and in power, often at the expense of others.
Our heart, on the other hand, is where compassion lives. The heart cares. It’s able to let go. To listen to others. To leave its comfort zone and do the hard thing. To let others succeed. To go second—or even last.
We can all recognize people whose heads really dominate their hearts—they are the bullies, the abusers, the bad bosses…. They are the goats—or maybe they are the fat sheep in the passage from Ezekiel—the ones butting the weaker sheep and taking their food. And if we are honest, we wouldn’t be sorry if they went the way of the goats in the parable!
We also know people whose hearts take the lead in a big way—the “Mother Teresas” among us. The ones who really listen. The ones who meet us where we are and encourage us. Those who are not afraid to leave their comfort zones to help others. Those who seem to know just what to say or do to make things seem better. Those are the sheep!
Matthew seems to see everything in black and white—you are either a sheep or a goat–you are either blessed or doomed to eternal damnation. My own lived experience tells me that this is too easy. Life is much more a blend of various shades of gray. There are days when I fall into the sheep category, but I certainly have my goat moments. I suspect I am not alone in this. Part of this spiritual tune–up might be to see where we are on the sheep/goat spectrum.
One thing I noticed about Matthew’s sheep is how surprised they are when they learn that they had met the King in disguise when they were welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, and visiting prisons and hospitals. They didn’t plan to meet him there. They simply were doing what came naturally. Their hearts were tuned to the ways of their Shepherd King.
I have sung in choirs and choruses as long as I can remember. When you are part of a chorus, being in tune with each other is really the most important thing—your diction can be perfect, but if you are out of tune, the whole thing falls flat—literally. Each of our voices has a slightly different timbre, so singing in tune takes paying attention, careful listening and lots of practice. It’s interesting—you can be singing the correct note, but if your vowel sounds don’t match, or if you have a wide vibrato like a solo singer, you can actually sound out of tune! When those vowel sounds match, your tone is straight—when you are singing in tune with others, you can sometimes even hear ghostly “overtones”—musical tones that are a part of the harmonic series above the note you are singing. With Holly’s help, I’ll demonstrate….listen and see if we can make the overtones…. [Holly Sargent came up to the pulpit and we tuned our voices]
We can apply this tuning concept to our spiritual lives as well. To quote an old hymn, we can “tune our hearts to sing God’s grace.” Like musical tuning, it takes deep listening to hear the still, small voice of God. It takes attention—attention to how we live. It takes a willingness to change from the frequency the world offers to God’s frequency. And then, staying in tune takes practice—practicing the ways of being that Jesus teaches us.
In this noisy, complicated and broken world of ours, this is not easy. Even Mother Teresa had trouble staying in tune—her private writings, shared a decade after her death in “Come be my Light” reveal her struggles and her doubts.
St. Augustine called the church “a school for sinners”—that’s true. We are a community of imperfect Jesus followers. The teachers here are also students. We feast at the same Table. We help in the tuning process—to listen, to care, to teach and to learn—and to practice prayer, forgiveness, and compassion—all skills that will help us recognize Jesus in the most unexpected places beyond this building.
When God sends each of us out into that complicated world to bring light and to be light to those on the edges—to bring the good news of God’s mercy, healing and love to all who cross our paths, it’s important to be tuned to God’s frequency for that most important work.
My friends, when we each are tuned to sing God’s grace, when we recognize Jesus in the faces around us, when we see Him in the faces of those we are serving, when we see Him even in ourselves, when we hear and experience those overtones of grace, it’s a beautiful thing. Strive for it.
I suspect that most people don’t draw comparisons between All Saints Day and New Year’s Day, if they spend any time thinking about All Saints Day at all. New Year’s, at least, is a recognized holiday, and the semi-formal end of the winter holiday season as a whole. It’s hard to overlook a day that you get to stay home from work, after all.
But it occurred to me this week that both days share a sort of odd distinction. They’re both defined in our culture by what happens the night before. Their eves are what we truly celebrate, not the days themselves. New Year’s Eve is when people make plans and stay up too late (unless, like me, as often as not you just watch TV until you’re tired and then go to bed). And of course, it’s Halloween that gets all the decorations and costumes and junk food.
Halloween, in case you didn’t already happen to know, gets its name from a corrupted form of All Hallows Eve, with “hallow” being another term for a holy or sainted person. It’s not entirely clear how our present observance of the day came to be. Various European pagan cultures had commemorations of death, spirits and/or the harvest in the autumn, and it was the church’s habit to take such festivals and plunk their own celebrations on top of them. (See also: Christmas and Easter.) Some cultures came to believe that souls were liberated from Purgatory for a couple of days to visit their old homes around this date.
For whatever reason and from whatever origins, we now have our present traditions and practices. It’s now a free-form extravaganza that encompasses all things spooky and gives children and grown-ups alike an excuse to wear costumes. There’s no real attention paid to the actual All Hallows Day in our popular culture at all.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that I’m going to bat for the actual day itself, our day within the church to celebrate all holy people, followed immediately by All Souls Day. It is a chance to reflect on the sacred nature of every single child of God, which is something I think we should spend as much time doing at every opportunity that we can.
I believe that under the best of circumstances. Unfortunately, I don’t think the present circumstances are anything close to the best.
I regret how often I find myself returning to a similar theme. But some things need saying over and over and over. And so here I am again, thinking about things I’ve discussed a time or two before.
I think of that great multitude John describes assembled before the throne of God. The vast array of them all. The far-flung corners of our world from which they all came. The glorious chorus of their voices lifted together in praise, every one different but every message the same. The color and sound that represented all the saints of God, their unity in which robes wrapped around a magnificent diversity.
It is clear from recent events that we are a far distance from heaven.
Chances are good that, not so long ago, you saw people assembled in Charlottesville to protest against a racially diverse nation. Perhaps you saw among them people wearing garments or carrying flags that signaled allegiance with the Ku Klux Klan or the Nazi movement. Perhaps you, like me, were dismayed by how these events were discussed by some of our leaders.
Perhaps you wish ours was a nation more like the kingdom of heaven. Perhaps you wish we could see the saint in our fellow human easier than we do.
The instructions for sainthood are entirely separate from where a person is born, or what language they speak, or what they look like. They’re not necessarily easy, but they are available to everyone.
Who is blessed? The meek. Those who mourn. The poor in spirit. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers. Those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.
Jesus seems totally unconcerned about where a person is from. He breathes not a whisper about how dark their skin happens to be, or what their accent sounds like, or what number they press to hear instructions in their preferred language. Something tells me Jesus didn’t care about that kind of thing at all, and wouldn’t if he lived here today. In fact, something tells me Jesus would be pretty upset with people who did spend their time and energy caring about such things.
Frankly, I think Jesus would be very upset with those people.
We aren’t really asked for much by Jesus, when you stop to think about it. When you break it down, what he wants from us is pretty simple.
Jesus wants us to care about the right things. Jesus wants us to care about those who suffer, those who need our help, and not a whole lot more. Jesus wants us to remember that God created us all, and does not have time for human divisions. In fact, Jesus wants us to remember that human divisions are against everything that God wants for us.
I’m guessing we would all immediately recognize that it would be ridiculous for God to make eternal judgments of us based on our Halloween costumes. Star Wars theme? In! Doc McStuffins? Out! Preposterous, right?
But from the perspective of eternity, our human complexions and languages are hardly less ridiculous.
Say “hola” instead of “hello”? Pray one way instead of another? Have more or less pigment in your skin?
The person handing out Kit-Kats to the unicorns and Kylo Rens and football players and clowns doesn’t decide who gets a treat based on the outside appearance. The “trick-or-treat” is all that counts. It’s a small thing, but a joy we can look forward to year after year.
No more so does God care about what we look like. Or how we sound. Or where we were born. These are no more meaningful than what we wore on one night at the end of October. God cares about what was inside.
Did you care about what was righteous? Did you work for peace, and make space in your heart for the poor? Were you meek and merciful?
That’s all that matters. Happy All Saints Day.
I’m going to start this morning with a quick poll. I’m going to ask for a show of hands, but nobody needs to be anxious about revealing the true answer about themselves. I’m pretty sure you’re all in the same boat out there.
Please raise your hand if you’ve ever spoken Mesopotamian with someone.
No? Not a lot of hands out there?
Let’s try another one, then. How about Phrygian? Anyone out there doing their crosswords in Phrygian? Maybe you’re a little rusty and sometimes need to pull out your Phrygian-English dictionary? Raise those hands so I can see them!
No for Phrygian, too?
I am, of course, being silly. Our separation from those languages is not merely one of geography, but of time. I am not a linguist, so I can’t say with any authority which languages are the modern equivalents of Parthian or Cappadocian. But if I were to ask if anyone out there had heard someone speaking Farsi or Arabic, I suspect a few of you would raise your hands. After all, there was nothing even remotely resembling modern English being spoken back then, either.
Whenever we talk about the miracles of Pentecost, we tend to focus on the profusion of languages. For example, members of Christian denominations described as Pentecostal often engage in the religious practice of speaking in tongues. As far as I know, no churches place flames atop members’ heads. It’s the languages we remember, and which occupy the most space in the description of the event in Acts.
On one hand, I wonder a little why that would be so. After all, fire appearing on people’s heads is far more out of the ordinary than hearing different languages.
In fact, it seems a little bit on the nose. Like “attention, everyone! A miracle is happening!” so they don’t miss it.
After all, for the Jews gathered in Jerusalem from all the nations under heaven, what they were hearing didn’t necessarily sound miraculous. It simply sounded like home.
Admittedly, they didn’t necessarily expect to hear the language of Egypt or Crete or Asia when they spent time in their holy city, except perhaps in little pockets or neighborhoods. But it was a big city, after all. And perhaps it seemed unusual that the language of Parthia was being spoken by Galileans, but who knows what cultural craze had struck Jerusalem?
So perhaps that’s why the flames were there. This is a miracle! You’re hearing the language of home because of the Holy Spirit! Jerusalem sounded like everyone’s hometown because of a miracle.
What better way of welcoming everyone to hear what the Spirit was saying than to put it in the words they heard as children? What better way of telling the assembled people that they were all children of God than to reverse the curse of Babel? No matter where they came from, no matter how diverse their languages, everyone could hear the same thing.
Many listeners. Many languages. One message. One Spirit.
Among the things I loved when I lived in big cities was, like the Jerusalem of Jesus’ time, you could meet people from everywhere and hear languages from around the globe simply sitting and commuting to work or strolling down the street. It makes living in a place like Boston or New York magical.
But we live in an amazing time, even if nobody speaks Phrygian any longer. My spouse Dan does a lot of driving to and from work, which means lots of time listening to the radio. The other day, here in northern New England, he reported hearing a French woman singing a song in English about loving a man who lives in Africa. The world pours its culture right into our cars, only a dial away.
The beauty of humankind is wrapped up in a kind of contradiction, made gloriously whole at Pentecost. All the spices and songs and stories, every kilt and sari and kimono — it all makes this life more wondrous and rich and joyful. Even if hot foods give you heartburn and you prefer lyrics you can actually understand, imagine the duller world we’d inhabit if there was no option even to try things beyond our own horizons.
And yet no matter how far-flung the location you could ever find yourself visiting, the message of our faith doesn’t vary. No matter what language is spoken in the kitchen where your meal is prepared, no matter who dyes or cuts the cloth of the garments you might choose to wear, no matter the instruments playing the tunes you hear around you, God’s love is the same. Christ’s message is the same. Our mission is the same.
Is there injustice? Fight it. Is there poverty and suffering and strife? Work to alleviate it. Are there people who mourn, who live on society’s margins, who believe themselves cut off from the love of anyone? Comfort them, welcome them, love them.
No matter what corner of the globe, the Spirit speaks the same thing to everyone. And today we are reminded that the Spirit’s words reside within us. The Spirit rests on us like flame on a matchstick. The Spirit blows around us and through us and out of our mouths.
The Spirit made the tongues of flame appear to make clear to everyone assembled that the familiar languages they were hearing were no coincidence or (as some people guessed) drunken ramblings. They were a message from God, delivered in words they could understand best. We may not have fire bursting forth from our heads these days, but let us help the world understand the message anyhow. Let us communicate it in ways that sound like welcome to everyone.
Humanity is beautiful and vibrant in its diversity. It is something to be cherished and celebrated and protected. But poured out onto us is one Spirit, one love, from one God. May our lives reflect this truth. Amen.
Spend enough time with small children outside, and it’s bound to happen sooner or later.
The kids will likely hear it before you do, their younger ears being better at hearing distant noises than those of us with more years behind us. But then even us grown-ups will catch the distant low hum, or (even more exciting!) a faint chopping thrum. And the kids’ eyes will immediately start scanning the skies.
An airplane! Or maybe even a helicopter!
And their eyes will probe the blue expanse above until they find that moving speck, often with its trail of white behind it. It’s almost a reflex, something ingrained. Where is the plane? Which corner of the sky holds it? Once they hear the sound in the air, looking for its source is the automatic response.
If, as I suspect, many of you have witnessed small children scanning the skies for aircraft, perhaps you share my impression. The wonder of seeing something flying, and the impulse to find it seem almost involuntary. Even in this day and age, human flight is such a marvel that children (and maybe even adults) like to see it when it happens.
With that in mind, I feel like perhaps the angels who showed up at Jesus’ ascension were a little bit unfair. If we, who have never lived in a world without airplanes, still gaze skyward when we hear one, how much more would people in Jesus’ day be drawn to stare into the air as they watched someone fly away? Nobody flew at all in those days! Wouldn’t you stare, too?
And yet, the angels ask anyhow: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
Isn’t it obvious? Jesus just disappeared into the sky! He just rose up to heaven in front of their very eyes! Even after all the time he’d spent during his ministry, and all the miraculous things his followers had witnessed, human flight was something particularly amazing. Who could possibly expect them to stop watching, looking for one last glimpse?
Now, I’m not entirely sure how familiar angels are with human nature. Frankly, I suspect we’re rather odd to them. In the perfect realm of heaven, our fascinations and squabbles must strike them as strange and foreign much of the time. I can imagine that peering upward at a disappearing Christ would never have occurred to them.
But no matter how strange or inexplicable the disciples’ behavior may have been in that moment from the angels’ perspective, I don’t think they really wondered why they were doing it. I think their question had more meaning to it than mere curiosity.
“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” It’s not that it hadn’t been understandable to watch Jesus as he rose, even after he faded from view. It’s that hoping to see Jesus from that point forward meant looking somewhere else.
They could still see him if they wanted to. But looking upward was the wrong way to find him. He could only be seen in another direction.
“All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world,” said Jesus in our reading from John. He is praying for his disciples shortly before his departure, and asking for God’s protection. But he is also letting them know something about themselves.
“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
Just as Jesus and the Father are one, so now Jesus and his disciples are one. And so, when the angels ask those disciples why they are still looking upward to see Jesus, what they’re trying to tell them is that Jesus can still be seen, but they’ll have to look for him in each other.
It can be easy to miss things that are right in front of us if we don’t know how to really see them.
This is Memorial Day weekend, as anyone who had to drive north on I-95 over the past couple of days could remind you. It’s a holiday weekend that signals the unofficial start of summer. But of course, it means much more than that.
For those of us who live in this area year-round, it’s a kind of reawakening. The place we have seen buried under snow, then mud over the preceding months becomes a place people drive for hours to be. Its loveliness is revealed all over again. The new and returning faces help us to see the beauty around us once more.
Beyond the local reminder, however, Memorial Day is about something far deeper. It’s more than flags and parades and grilling out. It’s about remembering those whose lives were given in service to our country.
When we do so, I hope we look deeper than the mere words. I hope we think about what it truly means to lose your life for your country. About the true costs of war, no matter how just the cause it prosecutes. About the loved ones lost, about the ones left behind to grieve. Let us reflect on their legacy, and remember Christ’s call to us all to be peacemakers.
Let us also remember it’s not only those whose lives were lost who have sacrificed in service to our country. War can leave wounds that are not visible to the eye. It’s important to truly see the veterans around us, and remember that they may have experienced hardships most of us could never imagine. This weekend in particular, consider reaching out to them with love and gratitude.
The angels promised the sky-gazing disciples that Jesus would come back the same way he left. But they clearly told them not to spend their time staring up and waiting around for it to happen. How it will look and when it will occur isn’t really what we ought to be spending our time thinking about.
Instead we should look at each other, and see the Jesus among us. Not only the presence of Christ in those who follow his teachings, but in opportunities to put those teachings into meaningful practice. We should look at the world around us, appreciate the blessings we have, but work to share God’s blessings with those who have experienced too few of them in their lives.
And this weekend in particular, we should remember and honor those whose lives were lost, those whose lives were changed, while striving for a better world in which no more such losses must be suffered. Amen.
Sometimes you can almost hear the tone of voice Jesus uses when you read his words in the Gospel.
Something about the way his teachings are phrased, or the way he addresses someone, makes it easy to imagine how he sounded when he said it. We don’t have any idea how his voice actually sounded, of course. Tenor or baritone, what its timbre and pitch were… these are filled in by the stereo system in our minds. But the inflection, that I think we might be able to hear with our mental ears pretty accurately sometimes.
The exchange we see between Phillip and Jesus is one such time.
“Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’”
I can picture Jesus pausing to give Phillip a look before replying.
“Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?”
Really, Phillip? Really? Have we spent all this time together, up to and including my death and resurrection, and you are still wondering when you’re going to see the Father?
I really can almost hear the exasperated tone as I read the words again. Really?
If you have children of a certain age, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve seen the movie “Moana.” My whole family loves it, and my kids have insisted on listening to the soundtrack so often that I can sing the entire score by heart, including the songs that aren’t in English.
In one particularly charming number, the title character meets Maui, a demi-god responsible for a string of miracles that made humans’ lives better. He mistakes her flustered frustration at his bravado for blushing fandom, and launches into a song all about his grand accomplishments. As he begins, he sings “yes, it’s really me. It’s Maui, breathe it in.”
I can’t help imagining a similar reaction to Phillip’s query when he asks when they’re going to see the Father.
“Right here, Phillip. In front of you. This whole time. Take a good, long look.”
(If you’ve spent enough time with small children, you know how their entertainments can worm their way into your brain.)
Jesus then goes on to explain very clearly, once again, that the words he’s been speaking and the work he’s been doing have been from God, and so in seeing Jesus his followers have been seeing God, too. Phillip’s expectations of seeing the Father, a blazing encounter with the divine, were the wrong way of looking at things.
Jesus goes on to say that, if nothing else, they could look on his works to know that God was present in all that he had done. One can take that to mean the miracles he worked, which I would think must have been pretty convincing. If someone walked on water or raised dead people before my very eyes, I’d be inclined to give their claims some serious consideration.
But that interpretation doesn’t carry so well into the present. The events described in the miracles are an article of faith for those who weren’t eyewitnesses to them; it’s circular to use them as a basis for justifying the faith you’d need to believe they happened in the first place.
Thankfully, I don’t think Jesus means healing lepers or turning water into wine, or at least not those things alone. I think he means all the lives he touched. The souls he healed. The people who saw a Father who loved them, and cared about them, through the compassion of the Son who came to deliver that love to them, no matter how outcast or lowly their status.
We don’t often see miraculous works done before our very eyes these days, though I’m certainly not standing here telling you they never happen. (In matters like those, every person’s faith is their own.) But we can often see mercy, compassion, dedication to justice, and love in the works of those in our lives. And that’s when we can see God.
Today happens to be a day when we celebrate people in our lives who play an important role in them, specifically mothers. It is a blessed, joyful thing to lift up in our hearts the special place mothers have in our lives. Many of us learn our earliest lessons about love, grace, faith, and courage from our mothers. For those of you marking a happy occasion today, may your day be full of warmth and light. And for those whose day today is difficult because of the death or separation or broken relationship, may you find peace and comfort.
But of course, there’s no specific role that a person has to fill in order for God to inhabit it. There’s no place in our lives that cannot be oriented around God, so long as we choose to have God there. And there’s no person who cannot show God to another.
All of you gathered, mothers or mothered or motherless, all of you can show others through your own works what God looks like. You can do this for your families. You can do this for friends, for co-workers. For people you know personally, professionally, or hardly at all. You can bring God into the lives of your most intimate friends, or people you scarcely meet.
All it takes is a will to center God in all that you do. All it takes for people to see God in you is for your works to be full of energy for justice, mercy for those cast aside, compassion for the suffering, and love for those you come into contact with. In the off chance that you can work miracles, I’m sure that would probably help, too.
Today is a special day for many. A day to express our love and gratitude for special people in our lives. No matter the make-up of our families or the details of our daily lives, however, all of us have the power to show God to those we meet. Now, let’s go do it. Amen.
“Where have you been?”
It’s something you hear people ask when they encounter someone who hasn’t learned some especially big or fascinating piece of news. “Have you been under a rock? In a cave? On Mars? How could you not have heard this by now?”
The implication, of course, is that sometimes a story is so huge it’s impossible to imagine anyone with access to new information not knowing it. The only explanation that makes sense is that somehow they haven’t been able to get any news at all.
This is the reaction that Jesus gets when he encounters two of his followers on the road to Emmaus. He sees them talking, and asks them what they’re talking about, looking so sad.
“Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” asks the one called Cleopas. It’s a reaction we can, I suspect, imagine quite easily.
“This is the only thing anyone in the city has been talking about! How could you not know?”
Of course, we know exactly where Jesus had been all that time. As the central figure in the events as they unfolded, he knew quite well all that had happened. But these two didn’t know they were talking to Jesus. They just thought they were chatting with a really clueless traveler.
Now, we live in a world where the firehose of news never, ever shuts off. Breaking news in Bangladesh can show up seconds later in a Twitter timeline or news feed. Smart phones mean ceaseless access to updates and analysis with every new second. Like almost all developments in human civilization, this has its good bits and downsides, too. If you’re a news junkie (or in relationship with one), you may understand how distracting this constant stream of information can be when it comes to focusing on the world right in front of you.
But Jesus and his new friends were strolling along a road in a vastly different society. No iPhones or Androids. No cable news networks or evening updates. No newspapers or magazines. Not even a printing press, so no pamphlets or fliers or handbills. Nothing but good old word of mouth.
Yet even a couple of millennia before Instagram and Ted Koppel, some stories were so big everyone heard about them immediately anyway. I don’t know the Roman Empire had its own version of “going viral,” but some news still spread that way. And there was no bigger news than what had happened with the Crucifixion, and now the news of the Resurrection.
In fact, if you look at the entire span of human history since then, it’s hard to think of a bigger story. Even perspectives from outside Christianity, skeptics of all stripes, must surely concede that it’s had an enormous impact since then. For good or ill (and there’s no honest discussion of Christianity that does not acknowledge that a tremendous amount of ill indeed has happened in the name of the church), the events that led to the foundation and spread of Christianity have shaped the world like scarcely any other.
But… is this still news any longer?
That’s what “gospel” literally means, if you trace it back to its roots in Old English. “Good news.” And the news it contains is all about Christ, culminating in the events we celebrate this season.
But is it “news” any longer? Having transpired a couple of thousand years ago and shaped the entirely of Western civilization since, it’s pretty hard to argue that it’s “breaking.” Yet even old stories can still be newsworthy, if they still happen to be timely.
The Gospel is still good news if it still matters in the time we’re telling it. If it’s still relevant in the lives of people who hear it, it’s still news. If it still has an impact on the way people view the world, how they move within it and interact with people around them, then it’s still worth telling.
So… is it?
You could argue that a miracle the likes of Jesus’ resurrection is always relevant. And I wouldn’t say you’re wrong. For some people, Christ’s death and resurrection are reason enough on their own to keep telling the story.
However, I suspect there are many people who would hear about a miracle that happened 2000 years ago and wonder why they should care today. What does it matter to the lives they live now? What reason would we give them to pay attention to the words of the Gospel that’s still timely?
The reason I would give is that Jesus’ life and mission matter no less today than in the days when he still walked this earth. That his words show us the way to a better life for ourselves, and for the people around us. That his love for every last child of God, and his expectation that we share it, is as relevant as the moment when he sat down at that table in Emmaus and blessed the bread before he broke it.
Are there still poor, oppressed, struggling and suffering people in this world? Then Jesus’ life still matters. Is there still injustice, cruelty, greed and corruption in the world around us? Then Jesus’ teachings still matter. Are there those in need for reconciliation and compassion we encounter in our day-to-day lives? Then Jesus’ example still matters.
When a broken relationship is restored because we freely acknowledge the wrongs we’ve done, or freely forgive the wrongs done to us, Jesus’ life is made new in the world again. When we put aside our own gain, and instead help those we see in need, Jesus’ ministry makes new change in the world. When we hear voices that seek to divide us from each other, that would deepen the separation between the powerful and the powerless, and raise our own voices in opposition, Jesus’ own voice speaks again through us.
Our times cry out for the good news of Jesus’ life, perhaps now more than ever.
Despite the magnitude of its impact on human history, there are still so many who do not know the true story of that life, and why it still matters to us. They’re not living in a cave somewhere with their fingers stuck in their ears, but people we meet and know and love. As we celebrate the joy of Easter, let’s remember that there are many whose lives would be made so much better if they heard a story about love, mercy, justice, and forgiveness. As you leave this place, I urge you to go out and tell it to them through word and deed.
The doors were locked, for fear. Even though Mary Magdalene had told the disciples that she had seen the risen Jesus, they are still locked away in fear. It isn’t really all that hard for us to imagine that, is it? Last Sunday we experienced glorious worship as we gathered among the lilies with the light of Christ burning brightly, singing together to proclaim Christ’s resurrection.
And then we returned to our everyday life and watched or experienced things that brought us to a place of fear. The death of a loved one – a concerning diagnosis – a frightening job loss – North Korea, Syria, and all the other places in our world that are scary.
John’s story of the events of Easter evening is read every year on this second Sunday of Easter. Every year we read with particular interest the statement about the disciples being locked away for fear. The preacher seeks to put this reading in a current context by identifying what has us locked away for fear – and it is never very difficult, for there is always something about which we are afraid. I’m not sure that there has been a time since John penned these words that they were not current and relevant. Fear is all around us – it has always been that way and I doubt that it will change anytime soon. We continue to yearn for peace.
But I’m not sure we are defining peace in the same way that Jesus did on that first Easter evening. I wonder if what we long for is not the peace of God but rather is security – the assurance that life will go on the way it always has – that we will have all we need – that nothing will threaten the safety and order of our lives – that we will live securely rooted in place with ample resources and relationships. There is nothing wrong with wanting this for ourselves and our loved ones. Physical security is not bad – but it might not be what we should hold as our first priority. For security sometimes involves upholding a destructive status quo. Security may involve compromise with ideas that threaten the vulnerable. Security may not always be peaceful.
In his paper on “The Church and the Peoples of the World”, delivered in Denmark in 1934, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer dealt with the Peace Question with these words: “There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture. It can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security…. Peace means to give oneself altogether to the law of God, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God.”
For Bonhoeffer, security would have been staying the US in 1939. It would have meant going along with the Nazi takeover of the church. Instead of security, Bonhoeffer chose peace, returning to Germany to continue to speak the Gospel and to work for the overthrow of the government that was abusing the brothers and sisters of Jesus. Peace required Bonhoeffer’s life. Peace demanded that Bonhoeffer give himself altogether to the law of God, in faith and obedience laying his destiny in the hand of Almighty God.
This is the peace which Jesus bestowed on his disciples on that first Easter evening. It is to this peace that God has called each of us to give ourselves. This peace does surpass our human understanding. It is so countercultural that we can never truly comprehend what it means to live in this peace. But as John continues his story of that first Easter, he tells us more about this life of peace. John tells us that Jesus gave his disciples three gifts to help them on their journey. The first gift was himself—he showed them his wounds, marks that identified him as the one who hung on the cross and marks that proclaim the presence of the divine in the midst of suffering. Then he gave them his Holy Spirit – just as God breathed life into the first human body, so now Jesus breathes life into the new body, the church. This new life, the new breath, enabled the disciples to accept Jesus’ gift of mission and purpose – “As the Father has sent me, so I send you. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Jesus sent the disciples out to continue the work he had begun on earth – and he sent them out with power and authority to accomplish the task he had given them.
Like those first disciples, we have received these gifts from our risen Lord. We have seen the marks of the crucified Christ – we have received his broken body and shed blood. We have had the Holy Spirit poured over us in the waters of our baptism and have heard his command to let our good works glorify God. We have heard the call to mission – to go and tell the good news of Easter to all the world. In all that, we, too, have received the peace of God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is in that peace that we face the challenges of our world – a world of growing tension and division as people see those who differ from themselves as threats, rather than brothers and sisters – a world experiencing an increasing separation based on economic status, where the poor increase in number while the rich increase in wealth – a world whose very existence is threatened by the greedy misuse of resources regardless of the effect on the environment.
The gifts Jesus has bestowed on us – peace, ability, mission, forgiveness and reconciliation – cost Jesus greatly. On the cross, Jesus gave his life for the world, that all may know the love of God. As we stand again in awe and gratitude for that gift, let us go from this place newly empowered to be Christ’s body in and for the world, working that all may know God’s shalom – God’s wholeness – God’s peace.
Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known,
and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you,
and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
When it comes to passages from Scripture, it’s probably not all that useful from a spiritual or theological perspective to use popularity as a guide.
This isn’t to say that every passage is equally laden with insight or guidance for every person who reads them. Depending on your particular situation or background, you may find one chapter or verse deeply meaningful that another person simply doesn’t respond to the same way. Our individual hearts or minds may take away different lessons from the same reading, and some may stick with us more or grab us with more power than others.
But whether or not many people know or love a specific passage doesn’t necessarily correlate with how much it has to teach us. I suspect that some of Jesus’ more direct instructions about justice, or his expectations for how we use whatever wealth we may have, may not number among the best beloved passages in Christendom, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve our attention. Frankly, the opposite is probably more true; I suspect some of the harder truths are ones most of us would just as soon skip.
Yet even those lengthy lists of “begats” that seem like they’re little more than historical filler might mean something most of us could miss. My late mother-in-law came to Christianity after having been raised in the Jewish faith, and seeing the genealogy of Jesus helped remind her of his own Jewishness, and thus affirmed her bond within her relationship to him.
There’s wisdom everywhere in Scripture, even in those obscure books you may never had explored beyond hearing their names in Sunday school.
However, with all that said, this morning our lesson holds perhaps the most famous and beloved Bible verse of all. I suspect if you surveyed Christians across the country, the one they’re most likely to know by heart is John 3:16. According to the blog at Bible Gateway, a widely-used online tool for looking up passages from Scripture, it’s the most-read verse on their website. (In case you really are curious about the least popular verses, according to Bible Gateway they’re 1 Chronicles 23-27. Apparently, most of us aren’t all that interested in the organization of priestly officials under King David.)
John 3:16 — “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
It’s not hard to see why those words are so deeply cherished. They make clear, in terms anyone can understand, the depth and intensity of God’s love for humankind. That God loved us all so much as send to us the most precious gift imaginable. We may not fully understand the divine nature of God’s relationship with Christ, but we can understand very well the love a parent feels for a child, and why giving a child surpasses all other examples of generosity or charity.
John 3: 16 is well-known and well-loved for a good reason.
On the one hand, there’s something nice about discussing a passage everyone is likely to know. The story surrounding the specific verse is pretty familiar, as well. One of the religious leaders of Jesus’ time has come to meet with him in secret, and Jesus is laying out a new theology for him. Nicodemus is initially thrown off by the birth metaphor Jesus uses, but Jesus explains that a second birth isn’t literal, but spiritual. Once again, I suspect many of you here may know the story well. It’s a famous enough passage that “born again” is used by many Christians as a way of describing their own relationship with God.
But like all things familiar, it can be hard to see these famous words with new eyes. What new lessons are there to be discerned? What new angle can I find into what these words have to teach us?
As it happens, we’re in the season of Lent. We read these words during the season devoted to self-examination, to reflecting on our own relationships with God. While commonly associated with the idea of giving up some pleasure, guilty or otherwise, Lent is meant to bring our attention back to God, and to laying aside things that may be hindering our walk toward the kingdom of heaven.
So that leads me to ask – is there something you love God enough to lay aside?
Not caffeine or chocolate or reality TV shows, or some other frivolous thing. (By all means, if your choice this Lent is to do without something along those lines, please don’t take me to mean doing so is silly or meaningless. Any practice that orients our attention to God day by day is worthwhile, even if it’s something like skipping your latté.) But is there something deeper than needs to be let go? Is there some burden you carry that is past time to put down? Is there some grievance or grudge that pulls you toward its own gravity, and diverts your energy and attention from living the life God calls us all to live?
God’s own example is, of course, impossible to match. We’re not sitting around a spiritual card table, upping any kind of ante. I am not standing here suggesting we all collectively renounce our relationships with family members and set up hermitages where we do nothing but read the Bible and pray.
However, I also think the enormity of God’s gift to us is not an excuse to laugh the whole notion of sacrifice off entirely, or tell ourselves that seeing what it’s like to live without gluten until Easter is what this season is all about. I’d challenge you to dig deeper than that.
True spiritual work is hard. I sometimes fear we don’t say that aloud often enough, and that we too often shy away from making statements like that in church nowadays. But that doesn’t make it less true, and if we’re not going to say it in church, then where? And if not during Lent, then when?
God loved us all so much that God departed from heaven, took human form, and lived a hard human life telling hard human truths. God had the whole span of human history to choose from, and showed up in a society without many material comforts, and among an oppressed, occupied people to boot! God loved us in extravagant excess of anything we can hope to match.
But I challenge you to try your best. I challenge you to look within this season, and find those barriers and burdens that it’s past time to live without. I urge you to consider what you truly value in life, and where God fits among the distractions and follies of this fallen world. And, beyond that, what you may do to know God better, and thus better do God’s work.
God so loved the world that Jesus came to live in it. God loved us so much that we have the example of Christ’s life among us to follow. And by loving us that much, God gave us an example to follow that leads to eternal life.
Sometimes there is no mountaintop handy when you need one.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, every time we needed to know the right thing to do, we could climb up a mountain and find out directly from God? Should we take a new job? Is that person the one we’re supposed to marry? Should we pick Emma Stone in this year’s Oscar pool?
That used to be the model for receiving divine insight. Mountaintops are where God makes plain what God wants people to know. Mountaintops figure prominently in both of our readings today.
Both passages are pretty famous within Christian scripture.
It’s hard to think of a more iconic moment or location than Moses ascending Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. The Commandments themselves are considered by many to be one of the earliest examples of law itself within human society, and are often depicted as a foundation for the legal traditions that have arisen since then. Within Judaism, Sinai is arguably the most important physical place of all. It’s not for nothing that you find its name on major hospitals nationwide.
While perhaps not quite as central a moment as Moses receiving the law, the transfiguration of Jesus is nonetheless pretty major, as well. What precisely happens isn’t entirely clear, and what is meant by “transfiguration” itself is subject to interpretation. The appearance of Moses and Elijah are generally understood to represent the law and the prophets, which together form the basis for the entire Jewish religion. Appearing alongside them and then remaining is taken by some to mean that he is surpassing them in spiritual importance, though that view is clearly quite Christocentric.
What’s pretty clear, however, are the words “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” God’s opinion and instruction seems hard to mistake.
The pattern seems straightforward. Climb a mountain, get God’s word, and climb back down. For those of you with pressing spiritual questions, I suggest we form a hiking group and plan a trip up Mt Agamenticus this spring. We can each take turns waiting for God to tell us what to do.
Assuming you found that joke funny, the humor was that we all know that’s not how God works in human lives these days, or at least not consistently. If I were to survey Christians (or, really, people from any number of faith traditions) worldwide, some of them may literally have had mountaintop contacts with the divine of their own. Far be it from me to say it never happens, and if anyone here wants to go seeking a spiritual connection in the outdoors, a mountaintop is probably a good place to start.
But there’s certainly no guarantee of one. You can go up and come back down with nary a whisper, and God very rarely speaks to people nowadays in actual audible sentences, or with instructions literally carved into stone.
On the one hand, there’s something liberating about that. If you hear God’s voice telling you precisely what you should be doing, there’s not much room for free will. I suppose there’s always the tactic my kids use when I’ve given them very clear instructions indeed, which is pretending they didn’t hear me. However, it’s probably pretty risky to claim you didn’t catch what the Creator was saying if it happens to you directly.
On the other hand, there’s something so comforting about knowing exactly what you should do in a given situation. Life is riddled with uncertainty, and that uncertainty is one of the hardest parts of being a grown-up. Even if they chafe or disobey, my kids can at least rely on knowing what I want them to do from one moment to the next. Realizing that we have to figure out things on our own is a big, and not entirely easy, step toward adulthood.
As Episcopalians, we don’t traffic much in rigid certainty, either. Some corners of Christianity offer a more cut-and-dried approach to God’s word – biblical literalism some might call it. Not so much here, where we often view scripture through an historic lens, and give our own God-given reason a role in biblical interpretation. I’m not going to stand here and tell you exactly what you should think the transfiguration truly meant. I urge you, instead, to ponder what it means and draw your own conclusions.
What we are left with in place of certainty is faith. True faith, at least as I understand it, takes a bit more effort.
Faith means that, when we want to know God’s will, we strive to discern it. It means we believe that we can find it, by the grace of God, if we bend ourselves diligently to the task, but often it cannot be found on the surface. It means abiding in those moments when God’s will for us is not easily known, with only the belief that we will eventually find it to sustain us.
This can be especially hard when times are troubling, as many find them in our country now. It seems every day the news is more troubling. As a parent of three biracial children, my mind at the moment is consumed by the two men who were attacked in Kansas City, one killed for the crime of having dark skin and speaking with an accent. It is difficult, even painful, to dwell with events like these and wonder where God can be found. But ours is an assurance that, even within our grief, God is present. God’s voice is subtle, but never stops speaking.
We read passages like the ones from this morning because within the words we find guidance for our own lives. Certainly, I think it’s best to abide by “thou shalt not steal” and the remaining Commandments. They’re a very good place to start. But for the subtler questions of our lives, there are other answers to be found. I do wonder if sometimes within our tradition we lose sight of the role scripture really should be playing. At the risk of sounding out of place, I’ll encourage you to read the Bible more if you don’t. There’s good stuff in there!
But it’s not a literal instruction manual, and I can’t promise you simple answers to questions you find yourselves asking. Heaven knows I ask my own share of questions, and have to turn to faith in place of certainty myself much of the time. Yet even if God doesn’t give us proclamations from mountaintops that often any longer, we join together this morning in the belief that answers are still there for those who truly seek them.