Sunday, June 16, 2019

Sermon; Trinity Sunday 2019


Water is in the form of a liquid, a solid, or a gas (steam).
Light takes the form of a beam, a wave, and heat.
An egg is made up of its shell, the white, and the yolk.
A clover is a plant made up of three parts to the one flower.
A person describes themselves as Me, Myself, and I.
A woman may be a mother, daughter, and self.
And holy matrimony is made up of two people and the marriage itself.

These are just some of the ways in which people have tried to describe the Trinity – that great and holy mystery of three in one and one in three. And, generally speaking, they are all heretical in one way or another. Because while they do describe three aspects of one thing, none of these three aspects can ever completely be completely the other thing. A shell is an aspect of an egg, but it can never be a complete egg. And this is why explanations of the Trinity break down.

Our understanding of the Trinity, however, goes beyond the examples I gave. Whereas an egg is present as the shell, white, and yolk, the shell is not a complete egg, the white is not a complete egg, and the yolk is not a complete egg, even though they share some of the properties of a complete egg. On the other hand, God is present as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And within those three persons, or substances, the Father is completely God, the Son is completely God, and the Holy Spirit is completely God. The three are in unity and complete. But we must also remember that the Father is not the Son is not the Holy Spirit and they are completely differentiated. Completely different and completely unified, three in one and one in three.

So what do we actually DO with the Trinity? That is, other than end our prayers, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen” What does the Trinity have to do with us today, and what can we learn from this great mystery?

For starters, we can understand that the Trinity is relational. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while individual members of the whole are also unified in relationship with each other such that their individualism is completely bound together in unity. They are self-differentiated, but they are also completely selfless. This is something that humans can never do or be because we are selfish beings. Oh, not always; there are times we commit selfless acts. The J2A group, and several adults, selflessly gave of their time and effort as they raised money and then walked Friday night and into Saturday morning. But we can never be completely self-differentiated AND completely selfless as the Trinity is.

The Trinity gives us an example and goal of what humanity could look like if we could live in good, holy, and complete relationships all of the time. We will probably fail at this more often than we succeed, but the invitation, the example, and the goal is there. So while we do try to live into where God is calling our relationships, as well as other aspects of our lives, we do fail. As Eucharistic Prayer C says, “We are sinners in your sight.”

We have failed to be in relationship with God. We have failed to care for God's creation. We have failed to respect the dignity of every human being. These and other failings remind us that we are sinners in need of redemption.

Through prophets and sages God called us to return. In the life of Christ we have an example of what a life lived with God could and would look like. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit we are drawn deeper into relationship with God. The triune God is inviting us to participate in the divine life. That invitation should challenge us to become both humble and grateful. Humble because the Holy Trinity loves us enough to want us as part of their life. Grateful that the Holy Trinity has shown us the way to salvation. And all of this is reflected in what we do here: In our worship of God with our heartfelt praise, blessing, and thankfulness.

Following up on the understanding that the Trinity is relational, we can come to understand that it is in the worship of God where we reflect the divine entity most clearly. The world may be broken by sin. We may have fallen away from God. We have sinned in so many ways that one may wonder why God still wants anything to do with us. But the invitation is continually there. God really does desire our return into his loving embrace.

So while we and creation may have lost the image of God's complete goodness, love, and mercy, God has not. The goodness, love, and mercy of God remains intact in the Trinity. And when we come together in worship, when we participate in and partake of these holy mysteries, we, for a brief moment, are one with the Trinity. We are one in relationship with our fellow worshipers and one with the triune God, three in one and one in three.

We have had a lifetime of participating in our own selfish desires. Those desires have left scars on the world, the people around us, friends, family, and ourselves. Those desires have led, or will lead, us to force those around us to bend to our will or to change into our own image. Just look at how humanity has treated the environment and others, or how corporations conduct business.

But God, through the Trinity, is asking us to live life differently. In the Trinity we can see lives lived selflessly. In the Trinity we can see relationships that are both differentiated and united; bound in love with no other desire than to just BE.

Using the Trinity as our guide we open ourselves up to being changed from the sinful, fallen creatures we are, into the people we were created to be – caretakers of God's creation living in union with our Creator.

The Trinity isn't so much a doctrine to be described – being like water, or light, or a clover, or an egg – as much as it is a way to live and love.

How would our lives be different if we lived a life based in this Trinitarian theology of selfless unity? How would our lives be different if we lived “Out There” like we worship in here?

I can only answer those questions for myself. And my answer would have to be, “Better.”

May the love of God the Father create in us a desire to live selflessly and in unity.

May the wisdom and grace of God the Son grant us the strength and courage to pursue his will in all that we undertake.

May the fire of the Holy Spirit kindle in our hearts the flame of burning love for him, this world, and our fellow human beings.

Amen.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Sermon; Pentecost C; Gen. 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-21


Welcome to Pentecost, that great day of celebration when the apostles were filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. It was on this day that they began speaking in other languages and Peter reiterated the prophecy from Joel that God would pour out his Spirit upon all flesh, that sons and daughters would prophesy, that young men would see visions, and that old men would dream dreams. The Spirit of God would be poured out upon men and women to do great things. Pentecost is one of the three great feasts in the Church year. But before we get here, we need to go back to Genesis.

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. As the people migrated from the east, they settled in Shinar where they began to build a city and tower in honor of their greatness. As they were building the tower, God came down to see what they were up to. After witnessing the people in action, God their language and scatters the people over the face of the earth.

We know that this isn't how different languages actually developed, but it is a really good story. Like all good stories that aren't factually true, however, it contains elements of a larger truth within it. And who better to tap into those larger truths than John Chrysostom. He makes three points about this passage that are as equally true and applicable today as they were when he originally wrote.

First he says that this passage points to humanity's inability to recognize our limits; that we are always lusting after more. This doesn't happen overnight, but in stages. The people wanted a better place, so they moved out and settled in Shinar. That place wasn't grand enough, so they built a city. And because they wanted to announce their greatness to the world, they built a tower in the midst of the city. But that tower eventually was abandoned and fell into ruin. This is a tale of truth as to how we keep chasing after the things of the world only to have it fall into disarray.

Second he says that this story reflects our human tendency to use the privilege given us for evil purposes. Adam & Eve used their privileged place in the garden to see themselves as gods. The people in this story used their privileged place to create monuments and again attempt to elevate themselves to the position of gods. We continue to work to elevate ourselves to the place of gods where we have power and control over others. Whites have used their privilege to enslave blacks and sentence Native Americans to live in the very worst places and conditions of the country. Various peoples have attempted to commit genocide against other peoples. Humans have used their privilege to run to extinction various animals and clear-cut forests into oblivion. We were to be caretakers of creation and a blessing to others; but instead we have decimated the environment and abused our fellow humans.

And third, Chrysostom says this story reflects the inflated ego of humanity. He said that people want to be remembered through the ages, so they build grand towers to their honor. And when asked about their building projects, they most likely reiterate that it is to have their names remembered by future generations – that this tower belongs to so-and-so. But Chrysostom points out that this tower doesn't belong to so-and-so the great, it belongs to so-and-so the miser, despoiler of widows and orphans. This tower's expense was toward selfish reasons and helped not one-cent toward the benefit of fellow humans.

This story reflects the insatiability, abuse of privilege, and greed of humanity. But there is a corrective, and that corrective is the Holy Spirit.

We are now fifty days after Easter – Pentecost. The disciples have been, if not in hiding, living inconspicuously. On this day they are gathered all together in one place. Suddenly a violent wind rushes in and tongues of fire appear, a tongue resting on each of the twelve apostles; whereupon they each began to speak in other languages. People from various parts of the world heard the commotion and gathered around to see what was going on. Some onlookers passed it off as a drunken revelry.

“These men are not drunk,” Peter says, “but it is the fulfillment of prophecy and God's Spirit is being poured out.”

Note the contrast between the story of Pentecost and the story of Babel.

Chrysostom said the Babel story reflected humanity's need to always lust after more, to continually push outward. In the Pentecost story, note that the apostles have gathered together in one place. Unlike the people of Genesis, they are content to sit and wait upon the Lord. They have not used this time to get organized, form a mission statement, and march out in conquest. Instead they have taken the time to stay in one place and pray.

Unlike their counterparts in Genesis, they have not used their privilege for evil purposes. And they are privileged. They have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. They have been given the ability to speak in other languages. They could have used this privilege to condemn the people of Jerusalem. Instead they use this privilege to acknowledge that God is seeking the salvation of all people.

And third, whereas the people of Babel exhibited inflated egos by desiring a great tower to bear their name, the apostles do the opposite. They do not take credit for this miraculous ability to speak in other languages. They do nothing to take credit for what is happening. Instead, Peter, speaking for the group, essentially says, “this is the Lord's doing. This is the fulfillment of prophecy and it is God who is doing a new thing.”

These two stories ask us to reflect on why we are here. Are we hear to build a great tower in our name and honor as a memorial to ourselves for future generations to admire? Are we here to use our privilege in an attempt to make others into our own image or eliminate those with whom we disagree? Or are we here to pray and discern how God is calling us to be in this world? Are we here to not proclaim our own greatness, but to speak about God in a language other people can understand?

If the former, we are doomed to failure. If the latter, then we will draw together people from all walks of life and varying languages as we fulfill the mission of the Church to reconcile all people to God.

This is the day of Pentecost. How will you speak to those around you, and how will your language draw in rather than scatter?

Amen.

Monday, June 03, 2019

Sermon; Easter 7C; John 17:20-26


Today's gospel passage is the conclusion of the Farewell Discourse – that long monologue that runs from the time Judas leaves to betray Jesus to the time Jesus and the disciples leave for Gethsemane. This is a long passage running 4-1/2 chapters long. And today's passage comes from not only the Farewell Discourse, but specifically from what is called the High Priestly Prayer that brings to an end the Farewell Discourse. Today's passage encompasses the final third of that prayer. It is here that Jesus is preparing his disciples for his imminent departure. Liturgically speaking, we are in the same boat as his disciples as we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension last Thursday – we are being prepared for his departure.

“Little children, I am with you only a little longer. I give you a new commandment that you love one another as I have loved you. Do not be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me.”

These are some of the words Jesus speaks to his disciples in his last hours. As I said, the Farewell Discourse ends with the High Priestly Prayer of Chapter 17. This prayer focuses on Jesus asking the Father to glorify the Son so that the Son may glorify the Father. This prayer confirms the Son is co-eternal with the Father. This prayer asks that the Father be present in Jesus' disciples. And this prayer asks that those disciples, and all who come to believe through them, may become one just as the Father and Son are one. And this is where we are today – at the close of the High Priestly Prayer.

In this final section of the prayer, Jesus widens its scope to move beyond the eleven remaining disciples to all those who come to believe by way of evangelism. But even in this widening, the goal is always unity – unity in God and unity among believers. “I ask that they may become one; As you are in me and I in you, may they be in us; that they may be one as we are one.”

Over the course of this Ester season I've preached on not being afraid and seeing how things can change as long as we keep the resurrected Christ as our focus. I've preached on not fearing outsiders and doubts as we reach out our hands in love. I've preached on not fearing persecution or death as Christ has given us freedom to live without fear. To live fearlessly as members of the community of God. To allow God to change us into holy people. When we live fearlessly, recognizing that God changes not only us but the world around us through us, we are that much closer to not only the kingdom, but the unity for which Christ prayed.

People have heard me refer to John as “the gospel of the walrus” because it sounds like that song at times: “I am he and he is me and we are all together.” Today's lesson, and all of Chapter 17 for that matter, can sound that way. But that really only scratches the surface of this passage and chapter. It then becomes our duty to explore and dig deeper into the pages of scripture.

In today's passage, and in all of Chapter 17, Jesus prays for unity among the eleven disciples and also among those who come to believe through their word. This is deeply significant, and not simply because John is focusing on unity, love, peace, and all those nice things we hope the Church will be.

Last Wednesday I was at a clergy meeting with Bp. Sutton. The point of the gathering was to discuss the book, “A Door Set Open.” The book's focus is how the Church can/should change while still being focused on mission and hope. Throughout the book the question is asked, “What is the mission of the Church?”

In our discussion someone said that a parish can become so inwardly focused that it has no external mission; but a parish can also become so focused on mission that it offers no internal support. This comment stayed with me as I got back to the office to work on the sermon. It occurred to me that this High Priestly Prayer of Jesus is saying the same thing.

“The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one as we are one.” This is part of Jesus' prayer for unity. When we are living in unity in the Father and the Son, we are expressing the glory of God. Remember, though, unity is not conformity.

When we pray with and for each other, we are in unity. When we remember to care for each other, we are in unity. When we visit the sick and home-bound, we are in unity. When we stand with each other in good times and bad, when we apologize to others and forgive others, when we live as if we were in the kingdom of God now, we are in unity.

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” This is part of Jesus' prayer for mission. We do not belong to the world, but we are in the world. And, just like the disciples, we have an obligation to tell the world of the Good News of God in Christ.

There are, of course, a variety of ways in which to do this, and I'm sure you can come up with a list. Some of those ways of evangelism are less effective than others; such as standing on a street corner with your big floppy bible yelling at people to repent of their sinful behavior, or telling people they should come to church because we've got nice people. But when we can articulate how the mission of our parish aligns with the mission of God and how they both intersect with the needs of the world, we will be more effective evangelists.

All of this is also reflected in our own mission statement to Worship, Welcome, Serve, and Encourage. Through these acts we become unified in God and community. Through these acts we go forth in mission. Through these acts, we become God's representatives on earth. We are as ready as we will ever be to go forth in the name of Christ.

As this Easter season winds down, let us hold to the prayer Jesus prayed for us before his departure. Let us remember that in our unity we can live fearlessly, and in our mission we can change the world.
May we be one as he and the Father are one.

Amen.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Sermon; Easter 6C; John 14:23-29 & Rev. 21:10, 22 - 22:5


We are coming to the end of the Easter season. While we still have two more weeks, this is the last Sunday (and the last few days) with the resurrected Christ physically present on earth. This Thursday is the Feast of the Ascension where we recognize and celebrate the Son's return to the Father. So even though our time with Jesus on earth is coming to a close, we are looking forward to our own eternal time with God.

What might this look like, this eternal time with God? Jesus gives us an indication in today's gospel.

First and foremost remember, it's about love. If you claim to love Jesus, then you will keep his word. That word, basically, is to love others as he has loved us. By doing that we are upholding our end of the covenant and God the Father will love them that love others. And not only love them, but the Father and Son will make their home with them. This is an image and promise that God will dwell here with us.

Jesus reinforces this image when he says that he is going away and coming to you. He is looking forward to both his Ascension and his return. When that happens – that is, after he ascends to the Godhead and after he makes his return – the kingdom will then be realized and fulfilled on earth as it is in heaven.

All of this is reiterated in the reading from Revelation today.

John has a vision of the holy city. This is the city of peace, the city of God. The radiance of the glory of God is its light. He notes that its gates will never be shut by day, but also that there is no night. Nations and people will enter it.

Note, though, that those nations and people, the people of God, are not taken up into the city. They are not taken up into heaven. Instead it is the holy city of God that comes down to us. As in the gospel when the kingdom of God is realized/fulfilled when the Son and Father make their home with us, Revelation puts forth the same idea that the kingdom of God will be realized as the holy city of Jerusalem comes down to earth from heaven. This is the ultimate manifestation of “on earth as it is in heaven.”

This is the vision given to John of the end of the age.

If we are going to look forward to the end, though, we should probably also look back to the beginning. Think back to the beginning when God planted a garden. In that garden was the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It was from the tree of knowledge that Adam and Eve ate. If you remember the ending of that story, God was worried that they would also eat from the tree of life and live forever, so they were expelled. God then protected the garden with cherubim and a flaming sword.

And now we have a vision of the end of the age. We have Jesus telling us that he and the Father will come live with us. We have a vision of the holy city of God coming down from heaven to be on earth. And within that city is the tree of life. That which was barred from us in the beginning is now made available to us at the end.

This tree of life produces a different fruit each month, and its leaves are leaves of healing. In other words, this tree will never lie fallow. This tree will produce nourishing fruit for ever and it will heal all.

These are all nice images: Father and Son coming to dwell with us and the holy city of Jerusalem coming down from heaven with its tree of life, food, and healing leaves. But is there more to this than simply a nice, peaceful image? I think there is.

Part of what we try to do with scripture is to make it relevant in our lives today. Scripture is not merely static words written on a page reflecting what life was like thousands of years ago. That's called a history book. Scripture is the living story of the relationship between humanity and God. It's the living word of God that tells the story of how we today are trying to live into a faithful relationship with God. So we need to constantly ask, “What does this story mean or look like for us today?”

With that in mind, what does this vision from Revelation look like for us today?

This vision of the holy city with the tree of life, its twelve kinds of fruit, and its healing leaves is also a vision of the holy Church.

There are a few places in scripture where both Peter and Paul reference the cross as a tree. It is that tree, the cross, in which we are given life. Christ crucified, died, and risen is the tree of life through which our hope rests. And that hope, that life, is found here, in the community of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

The tree produces a different fruit each month. John didn't specifically say it, but it is that fruit which nourishes and feeds the people of the holy city. As I pointed out earlier, this tree never lies fallow; it produces fruit year-round to nourish the people.

In the Church we are also recipients of year-round nourishment. While not exactly a one-to-one comparison, we have fruit produced every season for our nourishment. These seasons are Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and the Season after Pentecost. In their own way they nourish us throughout the year. And the life giving body that is the Church never lies fallow.

The leaves that are for healing are often seen as the words of Christ or the pages of scripture. It is here, in the church, where we most often break open, dig into, and examine scripture; hopefully to our benefit and for our healing. And, because I'm an Episcopalian, this can also refer to the pages of the BCP. The words and prayers in that book have often helped heal many people over time.

Revelation gives us a vision of the holy city of God coming to earth. We don't need to wait for some future time in the sweet by-and-by to see its presence, for it is present in the here and now in the form of the holy Church.

As we come to the end of the Easter season, may we come to see this place as a place of life. May we come to see this place as a place of nourishment. May we come to see this place as a place of healing. And the more we strive to live lives that emulate the love of Christ, the more this place will indeed reflect the holy city of God, providing year-round nourishment and healing.

Amen.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Sermon; Easter 5C; Acts 11:1-18


In general we are not fond of change. Think about the angst we suffer when our computers run an update and things are changed from what we are used to. Think about Sheldon Cooper who has to sit in the same spot on the couch or has to eat oatmeal on Mondays and not French toast. What happens if we are forced to change pews? A new BCP has all kinds of people worried. And I'm still upset about having to change from knickers to those black pants. In general, we don't like change.

Change can be good or bad. Good change can be badly implemented. And ultimately, I think all change, to be effective, must appeal to the heart. If we aren't emotionally comfortable with the change, it most likely won't be successful. The “We've always done it this way/We've never done it that way” argument against change is more often than not an emotional response based in fear of losing identity or purpose or power or all of the above.

This is what's going on in the reading from Acts today. There is a group of people who understand that they belong to God and God belongs to them. This is how it has always been since Genesis 12 – God chose Abram and Abram chose God. And we see examples of this in other places where, in order to be part of God's circle, you had to meet the requirements of the gatekeepers to enter that circle. One example of this is over in the Book of Ruth. Ruth, a Moabite outsider, forsook her own history and heritage when she told Naomi, “Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” In other words, the circle of God was a closed system.

Jesus, however, did a new thing. He may have changed how God was doing things, and he definitely changed how people were understanding how God was doing things. In the eyes of his Jewish followers, this primarily meant that Jesus was the Messiah, the Savior. But that change, although hard for some to grasp, ie the religious leaders, still seemed to mean that outsiders had to become Jewish in order to enter the circle of God. It was still a closed system. So when Peter begins mingling with Gentiles, the leadership of this new movement had a hard time. “Why do you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”

“We've never done it that way before.”

In response Peter tells them about a vision he had and his interpretation of it. He was in Joppa and a sheet filled with animals appeared, along with a voice telling him to kill and eat. The animals given were unclean according to the Law. Peter, being a good, law-abiding Jew, had never eaten an unclean animal, so he declined. But a voice from heaven says, “What God has made clean you must not call profane.”

This happens three times. This is significant. Three times Peter denied Jesus. Three times Peter had the chance to stand up and be counted. But this thing with Jesus was new, they had never done it that way before, and he was afraid of the consequences.

Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. Three times Peter said yes. And three times Jesus said to Feed, Tend, and Feed his sheep. This was a new way of doing things, especially when we remember that Jesus said he had other sheep that didn't belong to this fold. I'm not sure Peter knew yet what this change would look like, but it was coming.

And today we hear of Peter's three-fold vision where God has cleansed that which was formerly profane. Peter is seeing that God is changing the way we've always done things. He is seeing that God is doing something we've never done before. That something is to keep the circle but make it porous and ever-expanding. That something is to allow us to open our eyes to see all people as part of God's family. That something is to see all people as clean, not profane.

This is a change that scares us. This is a change we fear. We spend a lot of time making sure we follow the rules. Some people spend a lot of time also making sure other people follow the rules as they interpret them. Christians in general have gotten a reputation that says we work to make sure only the right people make up the circle of God. But, as Peter found out, that's looking at it the wrong way.

Several years ago there was an artist who wanted to be edgy and provocative. He displayed a photographic piece in which a crucifix was submerged in a tank filled with blood and urine, and he called it, “Piss Christ.” You may remember this.

The levels of rage from various Christian groups and Christian law makers was through the roof and they succeeded in having it removed from whatever art gallery it was displayed in. It was edgy. It was certainly provocative. And it reminds me of today's lesson.

A group of believers wanted Peter to stop associating with Gentiles for fear of being profaned. A group of believers wanted a piece of artwork removed for the same reason – that it was profaning the crucifix (in particular) and their religion (in general).

In both of these incidents, the people opposed to the artwork and those opposed to Peter, held to the view that the profane contaminates the clean. They hold to the idea that the profane has power over the clean. And on some level, we all have that view; which is why we want to keep God holy and separate from that which defiles.

Theologian Richard Beck wrote an Advent meditation on this very thing several years ago where he argued that when we do that, we limit the power of God to cleanse us. We limit the power of God to heal us. We limit the power of God to make holy that which we think is profane.

God (and equally Jesus) doesn't work the way we think. That which we think is profane has no power over God. In fact, it is God/Jesus who has power over the profane. It is God/Jesus who makes the profane holy. The darkness doesn't overcome the light – the light scatters the darkness.

This change in theology – God is greater than the profane – is a change we need to work on. It is a change we need to make not in our heads but in our hearts so that we no longer recoil in horror at the sight of what or whom we classify as profane.

Like Peter did, we need to put holes in the circle, welcome the outcast, sinner, profane, and unclean, and let them know that God chooses to make them holy. We need to find a way to change our thought process that tells us the profane contaminates the holy into a thought process that tells us the holy cleanses the profane. For some, though, this is a change to fearful to contemplate.

But this is Easter where the biggest profaning act, death, has not only been destroyed but made holy. This is Easter when things which were cast down are being raised up and where life is changed, not ended.

Will you allow God to change you, or will you allow fear to keep the God of change at bay?

Amen.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Sermon; Easter 4C; Acts, Revelation, John, and primarily Psalm 23


Over the past few weeks I've been preaching on fear. In short, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus destroyed not only death, but it showed us how to live a live completely focused on the will of God without fear. It showed us how to live fearlessly in a world driven by fear.

The readings today – Acts, Revelation, John – are not specifically focused on fear; but they do, in a way, touch on the results of living fearlessly. In Acts, we are reminded that we are not to fear death because the power of Christ is greater than death. In Revelation we are reminded yet again that even though the world will kill those faithful to the Lord, death does not have the last word. In the age to come, life and love will have the last word and God will wipe away every tear. And in John, Jesus assures his followers that he is the great shepherd of the sheep and those whom he protects will never perish.

All this doesn't mean we will not face trials and tribulations. It doesn't mean we won't die a physical death. It goes deeper than that. It means we need to no longer worry or live in fear in this mortal life. We will not perish.

Christians were martyred, but did not perish. Churches have been bombed, but have not perished. Faithful people in all times and in all places have faced all kinds of trouble and tribulation, but the faith did not perish.

All of this is beautifully summed up and attested to in the 23rd Psalm.

The psalm opens up with a metaphor about who God is: The Lord is my shepherd. Obviously God is NOT a shepherd. But the metaphor invites us to see God with different eyes. A shepherd cares for his sheep. A shepherd protects his flock. A shepherd leads his flock. These are but some of what God does, and it allows us to draw closer to God with an image we can understand.

I shall not want . . . I shall not be in want . . . I shall not lack. The psalmist is looking back to Israel's time in the wilderness. Despite all their grumbling, all their misgivings, all their times of faithlessness, and all their fears, they lacked nothing. They had bread, meat, and water. They had protection. If we look at our lives, our times of wandering in wilderness, we can probably also see that we lacked nothing, or were not in want.

He revives my soul is a statement on the restoration of life. Abraham and Sarah, old and childless, finally begat Isaac. In a family line likely to die out, God restored life. The Israelites escaped slavery, moved to freedom, and life was restored. The widow's son, Lazarus, the little girl, and Tabitha/Dorcas in today's reading had life restored. The reviving of our soul is more than just a feeling of goodness, it is a restoration of life.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil. I've thought about this line for a long time and wondered what it might pertain to. What, exactly, is the valley of the shadow of death?

In Isaiah 40, the prophet writes that every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain made low. Luke references this passage when he describes the mission of John the Baptist. In other words, it's a theme in a variety of places in scripture – these valleys and mountains.

Think back to fairy tales, time in the woods, or a child going to bed. When the sun goes down the shadows lengthen and bad things happen. It's when your mind becomes agitated and monsters come out. Metaphorically speaking, the light of God is being blocked, creating shadows and fear, causing us to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

This line is challenging us to face our fears, to know that darkness cannot overcome the light, and to be not afraid. What do we fear? Are we willing to look for ways to let God's light shine? And, when we find ourselves walking through the valley of the shadow of death, walking through hell, can we be courageous, fear no evil, and remember to keep walking instead of stopping and being overcome by the darkness?

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me. Again, this could have a variety of meaning. For us today, though, we need to look back at John and Revelation. Revelation gives us a vision of the end of the age where angels, archangels, prophets, apostles, and martyrs are gathered around the throne of God. Jesus talks about giving his followers eternal life. These images are reinforced and represented in the psalm with a table that provides life.

Those who trouble me is a wide-open category. In our wider vision, this could be anyone who is actively opposed to the gospel, or who is apathetic to the gospel, or any other situation. But in all of this, we must remember that we draw strength from this community and these sacraments, especially the sacrament of Holy Communion. A table is spread in the midst of those who trouble me. It's here where we are gathered, and it is here at this table, where we are comforted and strengthened, pardoned and renewed.

Your goodness and mercy shall follow me; I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

This final verse is the result of all of the above. We are those who see God as the one who cares for and leads us. We recognize that, despite the problems we face – wanderings, doubts, struggles – we shall not want, we shall not lack. We have faith that through Christ our souls will be revived. We are learning to walk without fear through the valleys and shadows this world casts upon us. And we remember and draw strength from this table that feeds us.

This psalm and these readings are more than comforting words in times of trial and tribulation. They are a challenge to live fearlessly in the presence of God.

May we leave here in the hope and power of the resurrection, living fearlessly for the Lord, knowing that, no matter what the world says, we are beloved members of the community of God.

Amen.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Sermon; Easter 3C; Acts 9:1-20; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19


In the short-term it unites us. Going back to tribal days, fear of other tribes and/or outsiders made our tribe more cohesive. In more recent times, fear of the USSR drove our push to the moon. And I'm sure there are other examples. But again, these are short-term situations. In the long run, fear divides.

It's out of fear that whites put up barriers to full equality between themselves and blacks, Hispanics, and other people of color. It's out of fear that men refuse to see women as fully equal and capable. It was out of fear that McCarthyism took hold in this country. It's out of fear that organizations refuse to deal with abuse. It's out of fear that we would rather build walls than educate and feed people. Fear of the Other eventually leads to finding the Other in Us, thereby leading us to continually divide and separate, creating new Others to make Us feel better. Fear divides. And ultimately, fear kills.

Fear of aliens. Fear of Muslims. Fear of Jews. Fear of Americans. Fear of any other group. When we feel threatened by others, we become fearful of them and it allows us to be okay with finding ways to punish and eradicate them.

We see this in today's scriptures. But, fortunately, we also see the other side.

In Acts, Saul, on authority from the high priest, was rounding up people who belonged to the Way. That is, he was on a mission to arrest anyone who professed to follow Christ. Imprisonment was a certain outcome. Torture may have been an outcome. Execution was a possibility. And all of this was done because those in power were afraid.

Speaking on behalf of Saul and the high priest, those people were a threat to our way of life. Those people worshiped a false god. Those people were the cause of all our problems. So Saul and the religious leaders looked to eliminate what frightened them by any means necessary. Sound familiar?

That very irrational and imaginary fear also led to a very rational and real fear by those being persecuted. After Saul's encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, the disciple Ananias also has an encounter with the Lord. “Go and lay hands on Saul so he might regain his sight.”

I can just imagine the reaction.

“Um . . . what? Dude, I don't think so. You do know that this guy us rounding us all up to execute us, right?”

This fear of Ananias is real. Saul is a very real threat. He (Ananias) may very well have heard of the execution of Stephen. But God is now asking him to literally step in front of a person who has the authority to arrest and possibly execute him in order to live into the commandment to love your enemy.

Ananias has a choice to make. He can either continue to live in fear and let that fear continue to divide humanity; or he can take an incredible risk, an incredible leap of faith, and reach out his hands in love. Obviously he chooses the latter, and it is this act that pretty much changed the course of Christianity. Or, maybe more properly, set the course of Christianity.

And on Saul's side, there was the very real fear of not only change, but of going against everything he understood about God. His entire faith system was being upended. There was the very real fear that he himself would be classified as an outcast, as a threat to be eliminated. He also had a choice. He could choose to remain as is, holding onto his pride and his system of belief, or he could step out in faith, opening himself up to a new thing. The first choice would continue to divide. The second choice would begin the process of closing those divisions.

Granted, we're dealing with human beings here, so that process is taking awhile to accomplish. But I hope that we are working on it.

Amid all that fear, though, there is hope. Amid all that fear, a seed of love and inclusion is planted.

In the reading from Acts, that seed shows up in Saul's willingness to take into account that he just might be wrong. It shows up in Ananias' willingness to visit a sworn enemy in the name of Christ and minister to him. This is the beginning of the breaking down of walls instead of building them. This is the beginning of unity over division. This is an example of what love instead of fear can accomplish. And the scales of fear which blinded more than his sight fell off his eyes.

Were does all this lead us?

In the gospel it leads us to listen to the voice of Christ telling us to feed, tend, and feed his sheep. Remember that those sheep of Jesus aren't only Episcopalians. They aren't only Christians. They are also all those we don't even know: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” Jesus is telling us that his flock is bigger than we know, and we must feed them, not fear them.

In the reading from Revelation, John sees myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands surrounding the throne of God and singing. He also hears every creature in heaven and on earth singing the praises of God and worshiping. This does not come about because of fear. This doesn't come about because we built walls to separate and divide. It doesn't come about because we've exterminated those not like us.

Rather, this comes about because the love of God draws all creation into his loving embrace. It comes about because we have learned to love, not fear, others. It comes about because, as Saul will eventually write as Paul, “Christ has broken down the walls which divide us.” It comes about because humanity has finally learned that love unites.

As we move forward through the Easter season, let us remember that the Resurrection of Christ gives us the freedom to live without fear.

Amen.