Sermon: Proper 22 RCL C – "Head or Heart?"

Luke 17:5-10

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, `Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, `Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, `We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'”

A man named Johnny was walking along a steep cliff one day when he accidentally got too close to the edge and fell. On the way down he grabbed a branch, which temporarily stopped his fall. He looked down and to his horror saw that the canyon fell straight down for more than a thousand feet. He couldn’t hang onto the branch forever, and there was no way for him to climb up the steep wall of the cliff.

So Johnny began yelling for help, hoping that someone passing by would hear him and lower a rope or something. “HELP! HELP! Is anyone up there? HELP!”  He yelled for a long time, but no one heard him. He was about to give up when he heard a voice.  “Johnny, Johnny. Can you hear me?”  “Yes, yes! I can hear you. I’m down here!”  “I can see you, Johnny. Are you all right?”  “Yes, but who are you, and where are you?”  “I am the Lord, Johnny. I’m everywhere.”  “The Lord? You mean, GOD?”  “That’s Me.”  “God, please help me! I promise if, you’ll get me down from here, I’ll stop sinning. I’ll be a really good person. I’ll serve You for the rest of my life.”  “Easy on the promises, Johnny. Let’s get you off from there, then we can talk.”  “Now, here’s what I want you to do. Listen carefully.”  “I’ll do anything, Lord. Just tell me what to do.”  “Okay. Let go of the branch.”  “What?”  “I said, let go of the branch.  Just trust Me. Let go.”  There was a long silence, Finally Johnny yelled, “HELP! HELP! IS ANYONE ELSE UP THERE?”

It would seem that Johnny was lacking a key ingredient with his new found relationship with God: faith.  As Christians we speak of faith all the time.  When things are going wrong folks always say, “just have a little faith.”  It has got to be in the top ten sermon topics for priest.  You can’t even read the bible without running into discussions on it.  The words of Paul, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  In other words, everyone who has faith in Jesus will be saved.

In our Gospel, Jesus speaks of faith, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” 

So if everyone is talking about it, then what is it?  What is faith?

Paul says, “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.  This is what the ancients were commended for.  By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.”  That’s nice.  Everybody understand faith now?  Maybe we should break it down a bit more.

Faith is believing in what we cannot see, but it comes in two different varieties, C. S. Lewis broke it down for us as “head faith” and “heart faith” and it is best broken down in an example:  Head faith, Lewis says, is when he goes in for a surgery.  He can trust the anesthesiologist because he understands through the intellect the workings of the body they’ll put the mask over his face, start pumping in the gas that will put him to sleep, and after he is asleep – and only then – will the surgeon begin the operation and the cutting.  Because he is deeply asleep he knows that he will experience no pain.  The intellect is sound, right up to the point when they lay him on the table and actually put the mask on him.  It is then that his emotions, his “heart faith,” takes over.  Fear kicks in and his heart says, “Oh my goodness what if this doesn’t work?”  “What if I’m not asleep when they start slicing into me?”  “What if I can feel everything, but can’t tell them?”  The head was good, but the heart took over and left him a nervous wreck.

The same is true in our Christian walk.  When all is well with us our faith is strong, but when we find ourselves hanging off a cliff with a thousand foot drop below and only an invisible voice in our heads saying, “Trust me,”  then our emotions ramp up and our heart begins to doubt.  We begin to doubt.  “Is God really out there,” we whisper to ourselves.

There is a dramatic difference between the head and the heart when it comes to believing in what we cannot see.  Deciding which one will rule our souls – head or heart – will also make a dramatic difference in our Christian walk.  We came across this passage last week in our Wednesday night study of the Ragamuffin Gospel: “If a random sample of one thousand American Christians were taken today, the majority would define faith as belief in the existence of God.  In earlier times it did not take faith to believe that God existed – almost everybody took that for granted.  Rather, faith had to do with one’s relationship with God – whether one trusted in God.  The difference between faith as ‘belief in something that may or may not exist’ and faith as ‘trusting in God’ is enormous.  The first is a matter of the head, the second a matter of the heart.  The first can leave us unchanged, the second intrinsically brings change.”

If head faith is greater than heart faith, then how do we go from one to the other?  How do we go from remaining the same, to being transformed in Christ?  It is a matter of rephrasing that simple question.  Instead of asking, “Do you believe in God?” ask, “Do you trust in God?”

“HELP! HELP! IS ANYONE ELSE UP THERE?”  No, there’s not.  Trust in Him.  The Psalmist says to the Lord: “The Lord is trustworthy in all he promises and faithful in all he does.”  And what does the Lord promise?  Do this for me… Turn to page 779 of your Book of Common Prayer.  What does the Lord promise?  Let’s say together Psalm 121:

I lift up my eyes to the hills; *
    from where is my help to come?
My help comes from the LORD, *
    the maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved *
    and he who watches over you will not fall asleep.
 Behold, he who keeps watch over Israel *
    shall neither slumber nor sleep;
 The LORD himself watches over you; *
    the LORD is your shade at your right hand,
 So that the sun shall not strike you by day, *
    nor the moon by night.
 The LORD shall preserve you from all evil; *
    it is he who shall keep you safe.
 The LORD shall watch over your going out and
                              your coming in, *
    from this time forth for evermore.

Have faith in your head.  Stop simply believing and start trusting, for the Lord himself watches over you.

Sermon: The Holy Guardian Angels

In 1986 Billy Graham wrote a book about angels. In it he recounts a most amazing story. John Paton was a missionary in the New Hebrides islands. One night the warriors from one of the local tribes surrounded the mission headquarters, planning to burn the Patons out and kill them. As you can imagine, John Paton and his wife were terrified, and prayed all through the night that God would save them. When daylight came they were astonished to see the warriors leave without attacking them.
A year later the chief of the tribe became a Christian. During the course of their conversations John Paton asked the chief about that night. What had kept the warriors from burning down the house and killing them?  The chief answered this question with a question of his own, “Who were all those men you had there with you?”  Paton replied, “There was no one other than my wife and I,”  The chief strongly disagreed.  He told Paton that he and his warriors had seen hundreds of men standing guard around the mission headquarters, men with shining clothes, holding drawn swords.
If you have ever been to the beach you’ve seen the seagulls as they run back and forth as the waves come crashing along the shore.  You’ve probably also seen young children imitating the seagulls, running back and forth trying outdistance the incoming waves.  If you run out too far, then you get soaked.  If you stay high on the beach… well.. where’s the fun in that.  However, at just about any given point during the day there is a certain distance that if you just stand there, on occasion, the waves will sometimes come up just enough to touch your feet, but most times they come up short.
Now, picture if you will that you are standing in that perfect spot, but instead of the waves being the ocean they are heaven.  It is the power of God working around you.  As you stand there you always know that it is very near.  It’s currents and waves are working powerfully around you all the time.  You can hear it and sense it.  Occasionally it seems to recede from you, while at other times it draws very near, but then there is that occasion when you “Know” deep down inside that heaven has actually touched you.
In the story of John Paton and his wife, like a wave on the seashore, for a brief time heaven touched them.  The angels could actually be seen guarding the missionaries through that dangerous night.  These waves of heaven happen all the time, but when we “know” that we have been touched we call them miracles.
How do these miracles occur?  The most honest answer: It’s a mystery.  But there are three ways that I believe they come about.  The first is through God acting directly.  At the wedding in Cana of Galilee, it was Jesus – God – who turned the water into wine.  God acted directly.  Second, miracles come about through his angels, his messengers, like in the story of the missionaries.  Throughout Holy Scripture we are told of the works of the angels, bringing messages such as the one to the Blessed Virgin; but it is also implied that we each have a guardian angel, for Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father.”  It is these guardians that we celebrate today and many times their actions also bring about miracles – touches from heaven.
So miracles come about through God’s direct action and his angels, but I would suggest to you that the third source of many of God’s miracles is you.  Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”  Jesus says, that we too can perform miracles.
Miracles are mysteries as are the angels of God, but when you witness a miracle consider the source.  Was it God or was it the person standing next to you.  If neither of those two sources seem fitting, then consider the words of St. Paul, “Let brotherly love continue.  Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unknowingly entertained angels.”

Sermon: Proper 19 RCL C – "Tax Collectors and Sinners"

Luke 15:1-10

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Bishop Daniel Sylvester Tuttle, the first missionary Bishop of Montana, writes about the winter of 1867-68 that he spent in Virginia City.  He loved the people, but felt oppressed by what he described as the prayerlessness and godlessness.

For example, he had Sunday School teachers, of them he writes, there was “a Quaker, a Baptist, and two Methodists.. and one ‘churchman.’”  Even though these were the best he had, one of the these was an absolute drunk and another was a habitual gambler.  The vestry was worse, he writes, “Of the vestry of St. Paul’s church which we got together, one vestryman, high in civil office, got into an altercation with a lawyer over some matters retailed by gossip, and would have shot him dead had not a friend near by struck up the pistol.  One was a Unitarian.  Another, the most godly of them all, and the one on whom I most leaned for Christian and churchly earnestness, became involved in a dispute, and missed, by the smallest margin, the fighting of a duel.  Still another was an appallingly steady drinker.”  In early February he wrote to his wife saying… “Before I went to choir meeting Major Veale, my only faithful churchman here, called.  He and I are putting our heads together about the election of a new vestry at Eastertide.  We mean to cut down the number from nine to seven.  We mean to throw out at least drunkards and violent swearers.  Aside from him the other six, at the best, will have to be Unitarians, moderate drinkers and decent world’s men.”  Now if that was the Sunday School teachers and Vestry, then can you imagine what the rest of the church must have looked like?

The church is an interesting creature.  We would all like to think that it is entirely made up of saints and angels, but like Bishop Tuttle discovered this is far from reality.  On any given day you can look at the church and see the glory of God or the scandals that threaten to bring it down.  As Michael Ramsey, the 100th Archbishop of Caterbury states, “The Church is not the society of those labeled virtuous.  It is the mixed community of sinners called to be saints.”  So, in the Church, there are days when we can all say with Shakespeare, “Hell is empty and all the demons are here.”  

Thing is, it has been this way from the very beginning.  At one point in the Acts of the Apostles, Peter is debating with the leaders of the infant Church.  At issue is the fact that these leaders do have faith in Christ – they are Christians – but they are also Jews as were almost all of Jesus early followers.  However, because they are Jews, they have not abandoned the idea that the followers of Jesus must also be followers of the Law of Judaism, part of which was the requirement of circumcision for the men.  The leadership asked Peter, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”  This may not sound like much to us today, but back then it was a very big deal.  They are asking him, “Why are you associating with sinners?!”  

In our Gospel reading today, we have the same problem.  “All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”  At another time Jesus will be seen eating and drinking with similar types, and the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”  If these same religious leaders had been around Bishop Tuttle they would have asked, “Why do you hang around drunkards and violent swearers.  And by the way, what’s up with that vestry?”   However, Jesus answers them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”  Jesus ate and drank with sinners, because they were the ones who were in need of repentance.  They were the ones who needed salvation.  

You and I also share a meal with each other every week.  We bless the bread and the wine and it becomes for us the Body and Blood of Christ.  But did you know, when you come forward to the Lord’s altar and share in that heavenly banquet, like Jesus, Peter and the other Apostles, like Bishop Tuttle and all the rest, that you are also sharing a meal with sinners?  Did you know that each and everyone of us who comes to this altar is in need of that salvation?  Each of us – comes to this meal – not because we are saints, but because we are sinners in need of redemption.  In need of forgiveness.

You all probably know that each summer I have the opportunity to go to Camp Marshall and serve as the Chaplain of Grace Camp, a camp for 3rd through 8th graders who have a parent in prison.  Each year we have some returning campers from the previous years, but we also have new campers who are unsure of their surroundings or even why they were chosen for that specific camp.  It was in my second year serving that I decided to start the camp off a bit differently.  Instead of tap dancing around the issue that they all had a parent in prison, I just came out and said it, “You are a part of this camp because everyone of you has either your mom or your dad in prison.”  No sugarcoating.  No hiding the elephant in the middle of the room.

At first, some of the kids were horror struck.  Looks of shock.  Embarrassment.  Some looks of anger were shot up at me – even by some of the counselors, but then it began to register: we ALL have a parent in prison?  I don’t have to hide this??  I am free from the stigma and the labels that are associated with this?  You mean to tell me that I can come here, be a kid and have fun?  And I get to answer, “Yes!” 

The Church – OUR Church – is quite similar.  Like those kids, we all have something that we hide.  Something that we would rather others not know about us, but the truth is unavoidable: we are all sinners in need of redemption and forgiveness.  Each and every one of us… Period.  We can’t act like the Pharisees during the time of Jesus, because we are the tax collectors and sinners.  There’s not a one of us who can get to thinking we’re any better than another, because we’re not.

By knowing and understanding this, we become like those kids at Grace Camp or those tax collectors and sinners who sat at Jesus’ table or those drunkards and violent swearers that were on Bishop Tuttle’s vestry; we no longer have to feel as though there is some stigma or label on us, as though we were the only sinner in the church.  By knowing and understanding this, we can no longer say to ourselves, “I’m not good enough for this.”  Nor can we say that someone is not good enough for us.  There was one of those funny cartoons that recently got passed through cyberspace.  It showed the fracturing and divisions of the church throughout history.  From one church, to hundreds of denominations and schisms – for the record, it is now estimated that there are 41,000 different Christian denominations throughout the world.  However, while pointing at one of the fractions the teacher declares to the students, “And this is where our church came along and finally got the Bible right,” to which one of the students replies, “Jesus is so lucky to have us!”  NO!  Jesus is not lucky to have us, “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  Knowing and understanding this – that we are all tax collectors and sinners – gives us a freedom to be true to God and to one another.  As my friend Heidi, the Dean of the Cathedral, said: it helps us to understand that we are all in the “pig sty” together and all in need of God’s saving grace.

I said earlier that the Church is a very interesting creature.  She has some tremendous moments of glory and others of absolute disgrace.  From Jesus to Peter to Bishop Tuttle to us today, the Church has always been this way and until the day of the Lord’s coming, it will always be, for the Church is the meeting place between a very Holy God and very sinful man, which can make for a very messy business.  Yet, what we must not forget is that at the heart of this meeting place is the God who became man, Jesus, and it is through Him that all of our messy business is redeemed.

Sermon: Proper 18 RCL C – "I Hate You"

Luke 14:25-33

Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, `This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

This week I read the Gospel last Sunday evening so that it would start percolating.  After just one reading I immediately had an idea – Who can I get to preach for me this Sunday!  My goodness – “Hate” everyone!  So much for loving your neighbor and turning the other cheek and all that other happy business!  Or is it?

I think you are all probably aware that nowhere in the Gospel does Jesus preach hate.   Many people “use” the Gospel to preach hate, but it is not what Jesus intended.  In this passage, Jesus is using a Semitic exaggeration which, at the time, was a popular way of expressing an idea.  Think of it in terms of one of our popular expressions, “It’s to die for.”  “A Heath Bar blizzard from DQ is to die for!”  Well, a Heath Bar blizzard is a tasty creation, but is it really worth dying for?  The word Jesus uses is properly translated as hate, but it means that we should have no ties that bind us or limit our freedom in serving God.  So a better translation of the word hate would be, “love less than.”  Jesus is saying, “You cannot be my disciple unless you love everything else less than you love me.”  That is a difficult teaching, for some Jesus may have well meant hate as we understand it, because loving Jesus above our own will, desire and plans is not always an easy task.  

Ivan the Great.  Russian leader during the 15th century.  He became so consumed with his military campaigns that he didn’t stop to take a wife and produce an heir. His advisors became concerned, so they find for him the daughter of the King of Greece to marry.

The King of Greece was delighted and the marriage was agreed, on one condition – Ivan must become a member of the Greek Orthodox Church.  Following his instruction in the faith, Ivan and 500 of his most skilled soldiers made their way to Greece for the baptism and the wedding.

Upon arrival in Athens Ivan was to be baptized into the Orthodox Church. His soldiers, always loyal to their leader, asked if they could also be baptized. After a crash course in the Orthodox faith, they too were ready for baptism. Ivan and his guard would be baptized together in a mass baptism, to be attended by huge crowds from all over Greece.  The baptism was to be by full immersion.  Imagine the scene: five hundred soldiers in full battle gear wading into the Mediterranean for baptism.

However, at the last minute there was a problem: the Church did not allow professional soldiers to be members.  If they were to be baptized into the church they would need to give up their occupation.  This was unacceptable to Ivan and his soldiers, so a compromise was reached.  As the priests baptized each soldier, the soldier would draw his sword and lift it high above his head.  Then he would be baptized – all of him… except for his fighting arm and sword.

St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?  Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.”

Those soldiers said, “We will be baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, except for this one part of me – this one arm and my sword I’m going to keep for myself.”

When Jesus tells us that we must “hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself,” what he is actually saying is that we must not allow ourselves to be distracted from him.  We are not to place anything between Him and us – not a fighting arm, another relationship, our own desires, etc., etc., etc.,  Nothing.  Why?  God answers this himself.  It is part of the Ten Commandments, “I the Lord your God, am a jealous God.”  His love for us is so complete that he can not tolerate anything coming between us.

For many, this type of life sounds as though we as Christians are to walk around all day long singing Kumbaya and doing nothing else.  However, the result – the life – of loving God above all others is quite different than we would expect.  

There was a boat way out in the Pacific ocean that encountered a horrendous storm in the middle of the night and was capsized.  Near by was an island and when daybreak came there were two men lying on the beach – the only survivors.  As they pulled themselves together they discussed what they should do and concluded that they should pray – go figure.

However, the first man got the idea that perhaps one of them might be more righteous than the other and that God might hear the prayers of one over the other, but maybe not answer any of their prayers if they stayed together.  So, the first man devised the plan where they would split the island and each was to stay on his side.  The second man calmly agreed, they shook hands and went their separate ways.

On the first night the first man prayed for something to eat.  The following morning he came into the most remarkable grove of fruit trees imaginable.  Everything a person needed to keep alive.  Not only that, a small cove on his side of the island provided an abundance of fish that he easily caught with his bare hands.  For the second man there was nothing.  He did find an old piece of nearly rotten fruit on the beach that he tried to choke down, but it was hardly enough to keep him alive.

Several weeks later the first man decided that he did not want to be alone on the island, so he prayed that the Lord would send him a wife.  That night there was another shipwreck and the lone survivor was a beautiful woman.  They were perfect companions and got along famously, but for the second man, again nothing – he couldn’t even find a volleyball that he could name Wilson.  His conditions were perfectly dreadful. 

Well the months went by and the first man and his wife decided they might try and pray to be rescued and wouldn’t you know it, the following morning a boat floated up in the cove.  It was all gassed up and ready to go.  So they swam out to it, fired up the engine and headed off.  Suddenly there was a voice from heaven.  It was God.  “Are you going to leave the other man behind?”  “Sure,” said the first man, “Look at him.  He is obviously some heathen.  Here I have prayed and received everything I asked for and he has received nothing.  He must be some great sinner to have you treat him so terribly.”  “On the contrary, he has also had each of his prayers answered, even though he has prayed the same thing everyday.  In fact, if it weren’t for him, you would surely be dead by now.”  “Oh,” says the first man, “what was his prayer?”  “He prayed that all YOUR prayers be answered.” (Found this story here.)

Jesus said, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple,” and we are to “hate” in the same manner as man who had nothing “hated” the man who received everything.  When we love God so completely, we don’t have to ask God to outline his will and plans for our life.  Instead, when we love God completely, we are fulfilling his will and plans for our lives.  Then our actions – our very lives – reflect the love he has for us, back into the world.

Our God is a jealous God.  When Jesus says that we are to “hate,” he is saying we must put him first.  On the surface, that sounds very difficult.  How can I give up loving my father or my mother?  My spouse and my friends?  However, if we love God above all others, what we will soon understand, is that we will love those individuals in our lives far more than we ever have in the past.  For in loving God completely, we learn what it means to be truly loved; and instead of trying to discern God’s will for our lives, what we discover… is that we are living it.

Sermon: Martyrs of New Guinea

I confess to being a fan of the movie.  I’ll give just about any movie one chance, but if I find one that I really like, then like some three-year-old, I will watch it over and over.  Keeping the Faith.  Harry Potter.  The Matrix.  Even, The Devil Wears Prada.  However, when I need a little humor and a bit of action, I will reach for A Knight’s Tale.  There’s jousting and sword play.  A beautiful princess and an evil Count.  Our hero, William Thatcher – who goes by the fake name Ulrich, grew up very poor, but decides to follow the advice of his father and changes his stars.  Although illegal, he takes on the role of a knight and has his grand adventure.  He even has a herald and it turns out to be none other than an aspiring young author – Geoffrey Chaucer.

Chaucer’s primary role is to introduce William Thatcher at the jousting tournaments.  As you can imagine, they are quite extravagant.  Concluding one particular introduction he states, “And so without further gilding the lily and with no more ado, I give to you, the seeker of serenity, the protector of Italian virginity, the enforcer of our Lord God, the one, the only, Sir Ulllrrrich von Lichtenstein!”

So, what does this have to do with anything today?  At one of the final jousting matches, Chaucer once again introduces Ulrich and he begins by saying, “My lords, my ladies, and everybody else here not sitting on a cushion!”  …and everybody else here not sitting on a cushion.  All you common people who most won’t remember.  Faces in the crowd.

Think about it for a second.  When you consider Queen Elizabeth I, you know her father, Henry VIII and perhaps her brother and sister, but do you know who it was that brought up her breakfast each morning?  No and you never will, but that doesn’t mean that this person was of so little insignificance as to be forgotten.  And, in the eyes of God, this server of breakfast is an equal to the Queen of England.  The Apostle Paul states, “there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”  Or, as Chaucer said in A Knight’s Tale, we “are all equally blessed.”

A few weeks ago we celebrated the life of that great Saint, Bartholomew.  He was the one who was martyred by being flayed alive.  I like to refer to Saints like this as Capital “S” Saints.  Saint Bartholomew.  St. Luke.  Etc.  Today, however, we do not celebrate one of those capital “S” saints, instead the ones we celebrate today are known simply as the Martyrs of New Guinea, which consisted of eight missionaries and two natives – no names given, who were put to death because of their faith during World War II.  Common people.  Faces in the crowd.  Yet Jesus says, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”  Of those eight nameless missionaries and common natives, “not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight.”  “Christ is all, and is in all.”  They are as equally blessed as those Saints we know by name and who are depicted in stained glassed windows.

The word “saint,” with a capital “S” may never appear before our names.  We may never  even have a day set aside for us like the Martyrs of New Guinea, but we also are as equally blessed as they, for as Christ was in them, He is in us.

Sermon: Proper 17 RCL C – "Love Bade Me Welcome"

Luke 14:1, 7-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Little Johnny was having a tough day in his fourth grade math class which ended with him standing toe-to-toe with his teacher who did not look at all pleased.  Behind them was the blackboard covered with math problems that Johnny hadn’t been able to finish. With rare perception Johnny said, “I’m not an underachiever, you’re an overexpecter!” 

Little Johnny is almost always a wisenheimer.  He is an expert at turning any situation to his own advantage; however, he may have been onto something here, because there are overexpecters in the world and often they turn their own expectations on others.  Take for example the parent who vicariously lives through their child and tirelessly pushes them to succeed even when there is no enjoyment in the exercise for the child.  Or the employer who demands everything, but instead of assisting an employee to succeed they set them up to fail—these are overexpecters.

We can also be overexpecters of ourselves.  Take for example some of those poor folks on America’s Got Talent – have you seen this one?  My goodness, my silly dog can sing and dance better than some of those folks.  I will give then credit for courage though.

Our Gospel reading today also speaks of overexpecters, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.”  It’s a bit like when James and John requested to sit at the right and left hand side of Jesus when he comes into his kingdom.  They were overexpecters of themselves, which falls into our discussion a few weeks ago about how humility is truth – the truth about who we are and who God is.

Today, Jesus teaches us how to avoid such situations, “when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.”  It is a good lesson that can be applied to many aspects of our lives.  However, when it comes to our relationship with God, I don’t know that many are actually overexpecters of themselves.  When I was considering our text, I wasn’t really struck by the seating order.  What resinated with me was the wedding banquet and more specifically the invitation to the wedding banquet.  I don’t know about you, but I’m not so concerned about where I’ll be seated.  More often, my concern is whether or not I’ll even get invited!

What if you received an invitation?  Let’s say that it was miraculously delivered to you by an angel and the invitation was to join Jesus at a banquet.  Not only that, but you were going to receive the seat of honor at his right hand, just like James and John had requested.  Do you take it?  Do you feel worthy to sit at the right hand of God?  Are you someone deserving of such an honor?

In our relationship with God most of us are not overexpecters.  If that invitation arrived, we wouldn’t go prancing around the post office declaring that Jesus has finally recognized what we had known all along.  Instead, only an arrogant few would think they deserved that seat of honor, a few more might think they could at least get in and sit at the kids’ table, but most… most would believe that they were unworthy to have even been invited.  Everyone always talks about that mansion in the sky, pearly gates and the golden streets, but there are days that I think that if I can just get a cot in some dark room in the basement, I’ll be happy.  But that is not how it works, because we are all invited.  Yes, we must have humility so that we can recognize our need for God’s grace, but there must also be a willingness to accept that grace. 

George Herbert, the Caroline divine and great Anglican poet, felt this same unworthiness and wrote a poem with the simple title “Love” where he expressed it.  In the poem, “Love” is the name Herbert gives to Jesus. 

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
     Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
     From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
     If I lack’d any thing.
“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
     Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? ah my dear,
     I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
     “Who made the eyes but I?”
“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
     Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
     “My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
     So I did sit and eat.

Jesus invites him into the banquet, yet in his perceived unworthiness he believes that he cannot accept, “I am so unworthy that I cannot even look at you.”  Jesus asked, “Who made your eyes?”  “You Lord, but I have tainted them with my sin.  Send me where I deserve.”  “I could,” says Jesus, “but I have redeemed you.  I have made you worthy to enter into the joy of the Lord.  Come and eat.”  And so he did.  He accepted the Lord’s invitation.  He accepted the Lord’s grace.

Think of the parable of the prodigal son: The young man decides he wants to live on his own, so he asked and received from his father his inheritance.  He goes off to a distant land and squanders it all.  With nothing left he was starving, so he goes to work for a landowner feeding pigs and wishes that he could at least eat some of the food that he was feeding the pigs.  So he says to himself, “I will go home to my father, because there even the hired hands eat well.”  As he draws closer to his father’s house, his father sees him.  He rushes out to greet his son, but the son declares, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”  How does the father respond?  “You’re right!  Get out of my sight you miserable ingrate.”  No.  He ordered that the finest robe be put on his son.. and a ring.. and shoes.  He ordered a feast with music and dancing.  Why?  “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again.  He was lost and is found.”

The son had to humble himself and return to his father, but not only that, he also had to receive the grace his father was extending to him in order to return – not as a slave – but as a son.  If he had persisted in his insistence of unworthiness he could not have returned as a son, but not only that, can you imagine the sadness the father would have experienced had he not been able to love his son as he so desired?

We are like the son.  We are not worthy to sit at the table with Jesus, yet he invites us all, because through his redeeming work on the Cross, we are made worthy.  Worthy to be called the sons and daughters of the Living God.

In his poem “Love,” George Herbert says, “Love took my hand.”  Jesus took his hand desiring to lead him into the feast, into the joy of the Lord, and Herbert allowed him.  Today, love has taken your hand and his greatest desire is to lead you also into the feast and the joy of the Lord.  You have been made worthy.  Accept it.  Accept the invitation.

Our gospel reading today ended at Luke 14:14.  I was a bit disappointed when I saw verse 15, because I thought it should have been included.  It says, “When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, ‘Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.’” — You are the ones being spoken of.  You are the ones that are blessed.  God’s grace is extended to you.  All you must do is accept it and enter into the joy prepared for you by your Father in Heaven.

Sermon: Proper 16 RCL C – "Blinded by the Little Things"

Luke 13:10-17

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

Before I start I do have a few announcements: “The sermon this morning is titled: ‘Jesus Walks on the Water.’ The sermon for next Sunday is: ‘Searching for Jesus.’”  “Next Thursday there will be tryouts for the choir.  They need all the help they can get.”  “Don’t let worry kill you. Let the Church help.”  “Thursday night will be a potluck supper. Prayer and medication to follow.”  “A bean supper will be held on Tuesday evening in the church hall. Music will follow.”  “Weight Watchers will meet at 7 PM at the Presbyterian Church. Please use large double door at the side entrance.”
I’m sure you figured out that those aren’t really our announcements, but they are announcements that have appeared in church bulletins.  It’s amazing how one misplaced word here and there can cause such a big deal.  In fact, we are all aware that it is often the little things that will either make or break a situation.
Elmer Bendiner in his book the “Fall of the Fortress” tells the story of a B-17 bombing run over Germany during WWII.  The mission ran into a barrage of flak from Nazi antiaircraft guns.  That was not unusual, but on this particular occasion their gas tanks were hit.  The shells should have exploded on impact and knocked aircraft out of the sky, but didn’t.  When the plane landed, the crew discovered that the plane had been hit – not once, but eleven times.  The miracle: none of the shells had exploded.
After some investigation, the Captain of the flight learned that the shells had been extracted from the wings and fuel tanks and sent to the armorers to be defused.  Curiously the armorers told him that Intelligence had picked them up.  They could not say why at the time, but the Captain eventually sought out the answer, because when the armorers opened each of those shells, they found no explosive charge. They were clean as a whistle and just as harmless… all but one.
The one contained a carefully rolled piece of paper. On it was some handwriting in Czech. The Intelligence people scoured the base for a man who could read Czech. Eventually, they found one to decipher the note.  Translated, the note read: “This is all we can do for you now.”
That was all the Czech, who were forced labor at a Nazi armory, could do to help the war effort – not pack the shell with explosives, but that “one little thing” saved the crew of that mission. I have to wonder how many more that never even knew.
One little thing.  All it took was one small stone from young David’s sling to bring down Goliath.  One simple touch from Jesus to give sight to the blind.  One voice crying in the wilderness to make known the coming of the Lord.  One little bite of an apple to damn all of humanity.  It often only takes one little thing to make or break a situation.  Those little things are important, but while keeping our eye on them, we can’t lose site of the big picture either. 
It is this – so focused on the details that you miss the big picture – that Jesus encounters quite often.  On one occasion, the Jewish leaders were complaining that the disciples were not keeping the purity laws by not washing their hands the proper way before they ate.  Another time the the disciples picked some grain on the Sabbath and the scribes and Pharisees were right there to point out that they had once again broken the law.  At that time, Jesus said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me,  teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”
In today’s Gospel, we run into the same problem, which reminded me of the time I went to see a tele-evangelist, Jesse Duplantis.  Yes, I’ve seen some of these programs.  It seems that at the end of each service there is a time to come forward and be healed or blessed.  However, Rev. Duplantis had the healing service up front.  He said, “There’s no point in you sitting all the way through the sermon feeling sick and tired if I can heal you now.”
In our Gospel, the woman who had been sick for eighteen years comes to Jesus.  It’s the Sabbath.  The Law of Moses says, “You shall do no work on the Sabbath.”  Yet, Jesus heals the woman.  The leader of the synagogue was “indignant.”  He says, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”  Jesus responds, “You hypocrites!” – There’s no point in this woman sitting all the way through the Sabbath feeling sick and tired if I can heal her now.
From the disciples washing their hands to the healing of this woman, Jesus is saying the Jewish leaders, “You are so wrapped up in the little things that you’ve missed the big picture.  You remember to wash your hands, but you fail to honor your Father and your Mother.  You don’t lift a finger on the Sabbath, but you have forgotten to love the Lord your God with all your heart, body and soul.”
Did this way of applying the Law hurt them in any way?  Yes.  Jesus, God Himself, walked among them and they were so hung up on the little things that they didn’t notice.  They were so concerned with proper hand washing or whatever, that they failed to understand his teachings or to even recognize the miracles for what they were.  All these little things  blinded them and ended up souring their relationship with the Lord. 
A young child went on a long road trip vacation with his family.  In order to pass the time he decides to look for the license plates of all fifty states.  At the end of the trip you can ask him if he saw Old Faithful.  “No,” he says, “but I did find Delaware in the parking lot.”  Did you see the Statue of Liberty, “No, but can you believe someone was there from Oregon.”  It might have been fun, but look at all the wonders and glories he missed.  Look at the time he missed with his family.  He became so obsessed with one little thing that nothing else mattered.
The Pharisees and the scribes did the same thing in the time of Jesus.  They were focusing so intently on minor details that they missed all the glory and wonder that was taking place around them.
Do we fall into the same trap?  Consider this: Granma, in her will, leaves Jenny her heirloom brooch.  Sister Betty also wanted that brooch, but because Aunt Jenny got it, Betty and Aunt Jenny become angry with one another and don’t speak for ten years.  What was more important, the brooch or the relationship.  The brooch.  Right? 
Little Sally picks up a toy that little Johnny had been playing with half an hour ago but hasn’t looked at since; however, when little Sally picks it up Johnny pitches a major fit and the two are fighting.  Good thing adults don’t act like that. 
You all know of situations like these and you may have even experienced it yourself.  One little – and I might add, often stupid – little thing comes between two people and the relationship sours almost instantly, taking years to repair if ever. In the mean time, look at all the damage and all that has been done.
We can act the same way in our relationship with the Lord.  Like the Pharisees and scribes,  we can get hung up on small things.  We then place a value on it that supersedes the value of our relationship with God.  Or, like little children, we scream, “Mine!”  I want this and I don’t care whether God says I can or even should have it.   By doing so, we set God in a backseat position to our own will and desires.  The result: Our obedience toward God falters, we distance ourselves from the relationship with Him, so that we don’t have to respond to Him, and ultimately the relationship sours – not because of His attitude toward us, but because of our attitude toward Him.
Sometimes little things are truly important and significant, life changing even, but sometimes the little things are just that – little things.  When in doubt, ask God to help you discern which is which.  He will.  If we do this, we will realize the difference between what is important and what is not.  We will discover the difference between our own self seeking desires and the desires of our Heavenly Father.

Sermon: Blessed Virgin Mary

Virgin Mary, John the Baptist and Child Jesus II
William Adolph Bouguereau (1825-1905)

For the most part, except for the high churchmen of the Episcopal / Anglican church, the Blessed Virgin Mary is politely forgotten.  The more Protestant churches during the Reformation basically demonized her and during the 16th century statues of her were burned or hacked to pieces after they had been paraded through brothels.  Question is, “Why?”  As Martin Luther stated, “Mary suckled God, rocked God to sleep and prepared broth for God to eat,” but for the most part she has been pushed aside.  As one theologian put it, “we drag Mary out at Christmas and then pack her safely back in the crèche box for the rest of the year.”  However, Holy Scripture is a testament as to why that shouldn’t be so:
  • Annunciation
  • The nativity and the visitation of the Magi
  • At the dedication with Simeon and Anna
  • Found Jesus in the temple
  • Present at the first miracle
  • At the foot of the Cross with John
The list is impressive.
From these events and the related scriptures, it is very clear that Mary’s role and position is being elevated, not only by Scripture, but by God.  I don’t press anyone into believing this,  but I have to ask the question, “If Mary appeared in the Gospels so much and was so significant to the life of Jesus, then shouldn’t she also be important and significant to me as well?”
Consider this, at the foot of the cross when Jesus was crucified scripture says, “When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.”  Many scholars agree that in saying to John, “Here is your mother,” that Jesus was speaking to us all and declaring his mother to be the Mother for all believers.
Now, I’m not naive enough to believe that we are all of the same opinion on the significance of the role of Mary, but I do believe that we should be able to recognize in her something worth aspiring to and should also see her as one, who like all the other saints, can assist us in our daily lives.
She is known as the Mother of God, Queen of Heaven, Bride of Christ, Mother of Mercy and by so many other heavenly titles.  She can assist us by interceding for us in our daily prayers and by standing beside us in our times of trial.  She understands the sorrows of the world better than any, especially after having stood by the cross and experienced her own deep sorrow in witnessing the death of her son Jesus.
Today, on this feast of the Mother of our Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, I encourage you to consider her not only as an example to follow, but as the mother of us all.  She is full of compassion and mercy.  It is good to speak to her and to call out to her as one of her children, for in the time of your deepest need, she will embrace you in the same manner that she embraced the very Son of God.

Sermon: Transfiguration

Peter, James and John were the only three people to witness one of the greatest events of human history – the Transfiguration.  For a few brief moments, they witnessed God in all his glory.

Moses saw something similar, but with one major difference.  You’ll remember that Moses was up on the Mountain and it was there that he received the Law.  Afterwards, as a way of knowing that God would truly be with him and the Israelites, Moses asked God to reveal himself.  He said, “Show me your glory.”  The Lord responded, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”  Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock.  When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by.  Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”

And there is the that major difference in the story of Moses and the story of the Transfiguration, “… my face must not be seen.”  To look upon the face of God was to die.

Yet, in our Gospel reading we read, as Peter, James and John were watching, Jesus “was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory…”  Peter, James and John saw the face of God.  They saw what not even Moses was allowed to look upon.  Our Gospel said that following the Transfiguration that Peter and the boys were “terrified.”  They were terrified because they knew they had seen the face of God and they feared they were about to drop dead.

Why didn’t they?  Answer: Jesus.  The prologue to John’s Gospel begins to explain this, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” … but it is Jesus himself who provides the answer a bit later in John’s Gospel, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”  God revealed himself and his full nature – his glory, his grace, his truth, his love – in the person of Jesus.  And through that revealing, that revelation, we became his sons and daughters.  Peter, James and John did not drop dead when they witnessed the glory of God… WE do not drop dead when we witness the glory of God, because we are His.  He is in us and we are in Him.  As Jesus stated in his prayer on the night before he was crucified, “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.”

The Transfiguration is a picture of who God truly is, but not only that, it is also a glimpse of who WE truly are, for the glory that is in Jesus… is also in us.