Travel: Italy (Travel Day One and it was close to 48 hours long!)

Travel and travel and travel… I almost missed only one flight when I messed up the time zones. Fortunately I was sitting next to the gate when I realized it was boarding, otherwise, I would have only made it as far as New York / JFK.

Any way you slice it, it is a long trip. The backside gets sore, there are NO comfortable sitting positions for an 8.5 hour flight, and the boredom sets in to the point where you’re simply watching the miles click off, but then you hear the engines begin to slow and your ears begin to pop as the altitude decreases and suddenly, those 8.5 hours are a distant memory.

Following the flights, we took a 1/2 hour train to Rome. Between the graffitied walls and towering apartment buildings, you may catch a glimpse of something far more ancient but mostly it will be the orange poppies that grow all long the tracks that will draw your eye.

The 1/2 hour trip (and a WILD taxi ride through the narrow streets of Rome—made Enid drivers look like Mario Andretti) and we arrived at the Roma Termini, which is the main train terminal in Rome. I kept expecting a NY subway but…

It’s an airport on wheels and a zoo but once you figure out the system you will get to where you want to go, which in our case was Florence.

The ride includes a series of tunnels and each tunnel is like a small jump further and further into the country and farmlands. Hay, other crops, and vineyards (we’ll have more of those later this week) and with a train that clicks along at about 120 mph, you cover the 200 miles rather quickly.

We did do some touristy things but for the most part were a bit pooped out, so we walked the streets and just enjoyed being in Italy. What is so remarkable is when you take into consideration how long these places have been around. For example, I decided to take a picture of a beautiful statue of Christ crucified high on a pillar. Near the base was a plaque. The statue was erected in the year 1338.

In addition, throughout the old city there are small niches, mostly at corners, with images of the Blessed Virgin Mary and/or Jesus. These are two of the images that worked out:

What an amazing day and perhaps the most moving bit occurred as Heidi, Scott, and I were sitting at the Cafe’ Cibreo enjoying a light snack and a beverage (they were having a white wine and I was enjoying an iced coffee). Heidi stopped in mid-sentence and said, “We’re in Italy!”

Yep. That about sums the day up. We’re in Italy and… yeah.

Sermon: Easter 5 RCL C – “Confirmation Bias”

A man wants to enter an exclusive club, but he doesn’t know the password. Another man walks to the door and the doorman says 12, the man says 6, and is let in. Another man walks up and the doorman says 6, the man says 3, and is let in. Thinking he had heard enough, he walks up to the door and the doorman says 10, he says 5, and he isn’t let in. What should he have said?

I actually thought about not giving you the answer but then I figured you would spend the rest of the sermon trying to figure it out. The answer: three. Instead of doing math, you should have counted. The word twelve has six letters, the word six has three letters, and the word ten also has three.

Ever found yourself in one of those situations where you know you know the answer—what’s right/wrong, how something works, etc—only to discover that you didn’t know as much as you thought? I’ll answer that one for you: yes. You have found yourself in that very situation. We all have.

We can end up there for any number of reasons but we can become solidified in our thinking through what is known as confirmation bias. The easiest definition I came across says, “Confirmation bias happens when a person gives more weight to evidence that confirms their beliefs and undervalues evidence that could disprove it.” (Source) For example: I believe the earth is flat (for the record, I do not)… I believe the earth is flat and I can go out on the internet and other reliable sources (haha) and find data to support this belief. Not only can I find data, but I can also find other people who believe the earth is flat and so we all come together and form a community. Within that community, I find support and friendship. People who believe what I believe and who will further help me to prove my beliefs. We feed off one another. Confirmation bias.

Another example: Leave it to Beaver. Wally and Ward Cleaver are outside cooking on the barbecue. Wally turns to his dad and says, “Whenever we cook inside, Mom always does the cooking. But whenever we cook outside you always do it. How come?” To which Ward replies “Well it’s sort of traditional, I guess. You know they say a woman’s place is in the home and I suppose as long as she’s in the home she might as well be in the kitchen.” If I held that particular belief I suspect that my lifespan would be considerably less than it is presently, but if I did, I could go out and find all sorts of documentation supporting this attitude and belief, and all sorts of people who support this belief—men and women—and not only that, I can also go to the Bible and find many different texts to support this belief! You may try and counter my arguments and your arguments may be better than mine but confirmation bias rules the day. I’ve got documentation, statistics, my support group, and the Good Book itself backing me up. I believe… I know “X” to be true and you can’t change my mind.

Ultimately, these confirmation biases, with regard to our faith and our relationship with God and one another, cause us to put up barriers, barriers that deny those outside of our circle and even ourselves access to God. If you do not believe as I believe then you are cut off. If I do something that is outside of what I believe, then I am in danger of cutting myself off. In today’s Scripture readings, we see how this works. There were two examples of it in our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles and one in our Gospel. The first was Peter.

From our studies in the past, we know that for the Israelites, there were all sorts of laws governing food, and what was clean and unclean. They had their Law, traditions, teachings, etc. that would support them—confirmation bias—yet Peter saw a sheet descending that contained all sorts of animals, both clean and unclean and God said to Peter, “‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’” Peter knew what he knew and even though God Himself had just told Peter that it is OK, Peter had been so committed to his bias that he could not accept God’s words, so God corrected him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter had been holding onto a truth and even when God presented him with a new truth, he did not at first believe it. However, he did eventually come around to this new understanding/belief and was then able to apply it to other situations, specifically the gentiles, which leads to the second example.

Following the vision of the sheet, Peter was called by God to Joppa where he baptized the members of a family. Hearing this, we are told “when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’” These “circumcised believers”, Jewish converts to Christianity, knew what they knew and were still under the impression that only Jews could be followers of Christ and receive the Holy Spirit. Within their community, this was a well-supported belief and they had all the confirmation they needed to uphold it, so they set up barriers to others, denying them access to God, but when Peter came along with new information and the truth, they heard and believed. “They praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’”

The third example of the confirmation bias comes from our Gospel reading and it is of one who heard the truth but refused to believe: Judas. It seems that Judas had some very clear beliefs on whom the Messiah was going to be and Jesus did not fit the bill. Even though he was witness to the miracles and heard the teachings, these truths about God and who Jesus is had no effect on Judas and so instead of being transformed by these truths, he remained rigid in his beliefs, not only placing barriers before others but even denying himself access to God leading his spirit to such a place of despair that he went out and hanged himself.

The truth can set us free from those things that bind us but our stubborn hearts can lead us to death.

When we look more closely at the events we can begin to see ourselves. Are we ones like Peter who can have the truth spoken into our biases and allow that truth to break down the barriers of our lives or are we ones like Judas whose barriers are so unyielding that the truth cannot enter in and be heard? Do we hold to our beliefs like the “circumscribed believers” did originally or will we also allow the truth to break down barriers giving all who seek access to God?

Jesus commanded us to “love one another” and he said, “Behold, I make all things new.” For us to love one another and to live into this new creation, then we must tear down the barriers instead of fortifying the ones we have and erecting new ones. Even if someone is in error, it is not our job to deny them access to God because it is God who will speak the truth to them and correct them. Hear the truth, break down the barriers, and let God be God. He does not need us to protect him. If he did, then he wouldn’t be God.

If someone is in error and they hold some very strong beliefs—keeping in mind that you might be the one in error!—then no amount of arguing is going to persuade them otherwise and most likely, all your arguing will simply push them further away. So instead of “getting in their face,” show them God and allow His words and wisdom to open their eyes so that they may see and know the truth.

Let us pray: Loving Father, faith in Your Word is the way to wisdom. Help us to think about Your Divine Plan so that we may grow in the truth. Open our eyes to Your deeds, our ears to the sound of Your call, so that our every act may help us share in the life of Jesus. Give us the grace to live the example of the love of Jesus, which we celebrate in the Eucharist and see in the Gospel. Form in us the likeness of Your Son and deepen His Life within us. Amen.

Sermon: Easter 4 RCL C – “Light”

There was a very poor Christian man living in the countryside of China.  When it came time for his prayers, he always wanted to make a sacrificial offering to God so, because food was scarce, he would place a dish of butter on the window sill.  One day his cat came along and ate the butter and then went on to develop the habit of eating the butter, the offering to God.  To remedy this, before his time of prayer, the man leashed the cat to the bedpost.  This man was so revered for his piety that others joined him as disciples and worshipped as he did. Generations later, long after the holy man was dead, his followers continued to place an offering of butter on the window sill during their time of prayer and meditation.  And, in addition, with no idea why, each one bought a cat and leashed it to the bedpost.

Traditions.  Sometimes our traditions make sense and sometimes it seems we’re all just tying the cat to the bedpost.  (For the record: The Queen would not appreciate this tradition.)  When it comes to the traditions of the Church there are some who see our traditions as an integral part of our worship and others who see them as baggage from a superstitious past.  I for one am a firm believer in traditions because worship of our God should involve the entire person and all the senses.   G.K. Chesterton writes, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors.  It is the democracy of the dead.  Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”  Tradition is not just about what we think ought to be done, but what we as a Christian people collectively throughout the history of the Church believed should be done.  Not simply for the sake of doing them—tying the cat to the bedpost—but doing them because they give greater depth and meaning to our faith.  Many of our traditions are not only Christian but Jewish as well.  From the practice of the Last Supper that evolved out of the Passover Meal, to the celebration of Pentecost, which was originally the feast of Shavuot in Judaism.

Our Gospel reading today provides another example: “At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem.  It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.”  For us, we read that as just one of the many Jewish Feast days, but for the Jewish people it is tradition, and if we look a bit more closely, we discover that it is about our tradition as well.

We know that the Israelites had been taken into captivity on a few occasions and we also know that the land of the Israelites was occupied by various foreign armies.  A couple of hundred years before the birth of Christ, the occupying armies were the Greeks.  At first, things were at least peaceful.  The Jews were allowed to continue their worship of the One True God, but then along came Antiochus Epiphanes who changed everything, which included the profaning of the Temple and trying to force the Israelites to worship the Greek gods.  This didn’t go over so well and eventually led to rebellion against the Greeks with the family of Maccabees/Israelites leading the fight.  The Maccabees prevailed and afterward, they worked tirelessly to restore and rededicate the Temple and the worship that took place there.  

As part of that first Dedication, all the ornaments that God originally prescribed had to be in place, one of which was the Golden Lampstand that we learn about in Exodus, chapter twenty-five: “You shall make a lampstand of pure gold… six branches going out its sides… you shall make seven lamps for it.”  And this light was to signify the very presence of God.  A bit further on in chapter twenty-seven we are told about the oil for the lamp, “pure beaten olive oil”, which took eight days to prepare.  However, this left the Maccabees in a quandary.  They wanted to dedicate the Temple as quickly as possible, but they only had enough oil for one day.  They could use what they had, but the lamp would go out before the end of the festival or they could use regular oil, which would have worked but would have been against God’s law or they could just wait until the proper oil was ready.  We find their decision in the Talmud (the Rabbinic oral tradition) Shabbat 21b: “And there was sufficient oil there to light the candelabrum for only one day.  A miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum from it eight days.  The next year the Sages instituted those days and made them holidays.”  Tradition.  The tradition is known as the Festival of Lights or… Hanukkah.  Hanukkah means, dedication.  As you know, the eight-day festival is celebrated every year in the winter, generally near Christmas and all this places our Gospel reading into context: “At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.”

With that in mind (some may mark this up as a happy coincidence but I’m more in favor of calling it a God-incidence): what did John tell us in the prologue to his Gospel?  John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.”  In the chapters leading up to our Gospel, Jesus has saved the woman whom the Pharisees were going to stone to death for adultery, He has told them that He speaks for the Father and that He speaks the truth, He has told them that before Abraham, “I am” (he was), He gave sight to the man born blind, and declared Himself the Good Shepherd but before all this, what did Jesus say about Himself?  Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Now, put that all together…

“At that time the festival of the Dedication—the Festival of Lights—the miracle of light—took place in Jerusalem—the very City of God. It was winter—it was the coldest and darkest time of the year, and Jesus—the Light of the World, the light that the darkness will not overcome has—is walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon—he is walking in the very place where God commanded the Israelites to continuously burn a light to signify His presence.”  On the day we are reading about in our Gospel, the True Light of God, Jesus, has entered the Temple, God’s “home” on earth and it is this light, the light of Jesus, that still burns today, but what does that have to do with us and our traditions?

The Golden Lampstand was in the Temple in Jerusalem, but as we know the Temple was eventually destroyed in 70 a.d., so in order to demonstrate the light of God’s presence an eternal lamp/light is hung over the tabernacle (the niche for the Torah scrolls) in every synagogue.  This eternal light is known as the Ner Tamid.  Its use is based on the exact same texts as those used for the Golden Lampstand.  And we continue this tradition with the Sanctuary Lamp that burns above our Tabernacle/Aumbry but our Sanctuary Lamp is not just a cat tied to the bedpost.  It signifies to us the very Real Presence of God, of Jesus in this place… but wait, there’s more!  That Sanctuary Lamp also reminds us of who we are: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

God gave the Israelites a commandment to have an eternal flame signifying his presence in the world and so they built a lampstand and filled it with oil just as he prescribed.  Yet the light that this lampstand emitted was only a sign of God’s presence.  At the feast of the Dedication when Jesus arrived at the Temple, the Light of God, the very presence of God was truly there.  And now, just as the Israelites were given a commandment, so are you, “Let your light shine” for it is indeed the light of Christ and it is a light that the darkness still seeks to overcome but through your faithfulness and perseverance it will burn ever brighter.

Let us pray:
The light of God surrounds us,
The love of God enfolds us,
The power of God protects us,
The presence of God watches over us,
Wherever we are, God is,
And where God is, all is well.

Sermon: Monica

Saint Augustine and His Mother, Saint Monica (1846), by Ary Scheffer

St. Francis de Sales died in the year 1622 and although a bishop he is perhaps best known for his work as a spiritual director.  His book, Introduction to the Devout Life, received criticism from the clergy because Francis believed that it wasn’t just the clergy or religious that could become saints, but the laity as well, which was a novel idea at the time. 

In a collection of letters, The Consoling Thoughts of St. Francis de Sales, the first sentence of the 21st chapter, “How Much God Loves the Saints, Notwithstanding Their Defects and Imperfections”, Francis writes, “To every man, however holy he may be, there always remains some imperfection.”  He goes on to say, “We do no injury to the saints when, in recounting their virtues, we relate their sins and defects; but, on the contrary, those who write their lives seem, for this reason, to do a great injury to mankind by concealing the sins and imperfections of the saints, under pretense of honoring them, not referring to the commencement of their lives, for fear of diminishing the esteem of their sanctity.”  A bit further in the chapter he says, “Our miseries and weaknesses, however great they may be, ought not to discourage us, but ought rather to humble us and make us cast ourselves in the arms of divine mercy.” (Source)  With that understanding, it is no wonder that the last word he is reported to have spoken was, “humility.”

Why this talk of St. Francis de Sales on the Feast of St. Monica?  

Monica was the mother of the great theologian St. Augustine of Hippo.  Much of what we understand about the Christian faith comes from his teachings/writings, but he attributes his faith to the prayers of his mother, as he says, “who for a little space was to my sight dead, and who had wept long years for me that in your[/God’s] sight I might live.”  For her devotion to God and the prayers for her son, she is seen as a great and holy woman—and she is!  Yet, as St. Francis de Sales wrote, “there always remains some imperfection.”  Could such a great and holy woman have imperfections, she who is the patron saint of wives, mothers, conversion, and… alcoholics?  Why alcoholics?

Augustine tells us in his Confessions, that in her family, Monica was the one assigned the chore of bringing the dinner wine up from the cellar.  In secret, she innocently began wetting her lips with the wine but over the years the habit grew to her downing entire glasses of wine before coming up.  A servant, much out of line, caught her in the act and referred to her as a “wine-bibber.”  Monica was so taken aback that she stopped drinking from that day forward.  

Does knowing this defect make her less of a Saint?  Does it take away from her holiness or, as St. Francis de Sales asks, does “beholding the defects of the saints while admiring their lives, [allow us to] learn how great is the goodness of God, who forgave them.”  Does it not also allow us to see that our own defects are not the end of us but are instead those things we must pray to overcome, and in the process of the struggle, allow them to teach us humility and compassion for others who struggle?  Yes, our defects teach us to say to the Lord, “Your grace is sufficient for me, for your power is made perfect in my weakness.” (cf. 2 Cor. 12:9)

Monica and the lives of all the capital “S” Saints demonstrate to us that the path to holiness is not always smooth but that it is passable for those who are humble, confronting their own defects and persevering in the daily struggle to be holy as our Father in Heaven is holy.

Sermon: Easter 3 RCL C – “The Disciple”

Photo by Delphine Ducaruge on Unsplash

He played Damien’s father in The Omen, he rode a Vespa through the streets of Rome with Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, and in To Kill a Mockingbird, he told Jem, “Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”  The number of awards he won for his acting, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, are too numerous to name.  All that but there was a day when Gregory Peck was standing in line with a friend, waiting for a table in a crowded Los Angeles restaurant. They had been waiting for some time and the diners seemed to be taking their sweet time eating so new tables weren’t opening up.  Peck and his friend were still back in the line a ways when Peck’s friend became impatient and said, “Why don’t you just tell the maitre d’ who you are?”

Gregory Peck responded with great wisdom. “If you have to tell them who you are, then you aren’t.”

I don’t know if you all saw it or remember it, but the picture on the bulletin last week (it was Jesus by Leonardo da Vinci) generated a great many interesting comments during the coffee hour, some of which guaranteed eternal damnation for the speaker, but aside from that, Jackie Johnson asked an interesting question unrelated to the picture of Jesus.  On the Friday following Easter, she had read the lesson in the Forward Day by Day that is also included in our Gospel today: “[Jesus] said to [the disciples], ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’”

The “disciple whom Jesus loved”: Jackie wanted to know who this person was and it is a good question.

There are five instances when the “disciple whom Jesus loved” appears in the Gospel of John.  It doesn’t appear in any of the others.  The first occurrence takes place at the Last Supper.  Jesus tells the disciples that one of them will betray him.  Peter wants to know who.  “The disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him.  Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, ‘Ask him which one he means.’  Leaning back against Jesus, [the disciple whom Jesus loved] asked him, “Lord, who is it?”

The second instance occurs at the foot of the cross.  There are several women there including Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Scripture says, “When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, ‘Woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple [whom he loved], ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.”

Three days later, at the resurrection, Mary Magdalene discovered the empty tomb, “So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!’”  We know that Peter and this disciple then ran to the tomb to see for themselves.

Next is the occasion we read today: seeing Jesus on the beach, “the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’”

And the final occurrence is just a few verses on.  Peter has been restored to Jesus after denying him three times and is now talking with him.  Jesus has just told Peter how it is he will die, then “Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them…. When Peter saw him, he asked, ‘Lord, what about him?’  Jesus answered, ‘If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.’”

The disciple whom Jesus loved: near to Jesus physically and spiritually and one who was also a close confidant.  Remained with Jesus while Jesus was in pain.  Was given Mary as his mother and was given to Mary as a child.  Ran to see the empty tomb and be a witness to the resurrection.  Recognized Jesus when all others were only focused on their daily life.  Designated by Jesus to have a special purpose, even eternal life.  Who was this disciple?

We know that it was the person who wrote what we know as The Gospel of John, because the second to last verse of the Gospel, referring to this disciple reads, “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.”  Even though it is called the Gospel of John, some believe that the disciple whom Jesus loved could possibly be Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, or Mary Magdalene, or James, the brother of John, or perhaps some unknown disciple, but this is all more modern scholarship and in my opinion, a gimmick for selling books.  Those such as St. Augustine and others who were much closer to the time of Jesus have always named the disciple whom Jesus loved as being John the Apostle, the brother of James.

If that is the case, then why would John not just come out and say it?  Maybe he just held the same opinion as Gregory Peck, “If you have to tell them who you are, then you aren’t.”  Perhaps it was humility.  Perhaps it was this or perhaps it was that.  We don’t really know, but maybe it was the way he felt about himself in relationship to Jesus.  He believed in his heart that he was a person who Jesus truly loved.  Charles Spurgeon writes, “If [John] had any courage, if he had any faithfulness, if he had any depth of knowledge, it was because Jesus had loved these things into him. All the sweet flowers which bloomed in the garden of his heart were planted there by the hand of Christ’s love, so when he called himself ‘that disciple whom Jesus loved,’ he felt that he had gone to the root and bottom of the matter, and explained the main reason of his being what he was.” (Source)  

John could think of no other way of understanding himself and the changes that had occurred in his life than to say that he was one whom Jesus loved.  Did he think he was the only one?  No.  He wrote earlier in his Gospel, “when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”  John did not believe that he was the only one Jesus loved.  He knew that Jesus loved all those that had been given to him.  So what if, in not naming himself but saying, “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, John was wanting others to see themselves also as ones whom Jesus loved?  More specifically, what if John wanted us to see ourselves as the disciple whom Jesus loved and to realize that all the sweet flowers that bloom in our hearts are the result of Jesus’ love for us?  What if, instead of trying to figure out who the disciple Jesus loved was, you come to realize that it is you?  You are the disciple whom Jesus loves.  You are the one who is near to Jesus physically and spiritually and who is a close confidant to him.  You are the one who remains with Jesus while he is in pain.  You are the one whose mother is Mary.  You are a witness to the resurrection.  You are one who recognizes Jesus when all others are focused on their daily lives.  You have been given a special purpose by Jesus and you have the promise of eternal life.  No, “What ifs?” You are the disciple whom Jesus loves.  

Our Gospel tells us that Jesus built a fire beside the sea and then prepared breakfast for his disciples. When all was ready, “Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’” And then, “Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.”  As the disciple whom Jesus loves, you also are invited to this meal.  To break bread with the one who loves and defines you.  Gather around the fire of the Holy Spirit and enter into this great love and come to know yourself as the disciple whom Jesus loves.

Let us pray: God of Goodness, we come into your presence so aware of our human frailty and yet overwhelmed by your love for us.  We thank you that there is no human experience that we might walk through where your love cannot reach us.  If we climb the highest mountain you are there and yet if we find ourselves in the darkest valley of our lives, you are there.  Teach us today to love you more.  Help us to rest in that love that asks nothing more than the simple trusting heart of a child.  Amen.

Sermon: Easter 2 RCL C – “God Ain’t Dead”

Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, c.1500

There is a painting that shows the charred debris of what had been a family’s sole possession. In front of this destroyed home, standing in deep snow, stood an old grandfather dressed only in his underclothes with a small boy who is clutching a pair of patched overalls. It was evident that the child was crying. Given the way they were dressed and the fact that nobody else was around you could tell they didn’t have anyone else or anything else except the clothes that were on their back and each other. No Red Cross person was going to drive up and offer them food, clothing, and shelter. Now, if you were the grandfather, what would you say to the weeping child to comfort him? All is lost. We’re done for. We’ll never make it. Or would you just start crying yourself?

The artist of this particular picture wasn’t much on despair, because beneath the picture were the words which the artist felt the old man was speaking to the boy. They were simple words, yet they presented a profound theology and philosophy of life that exhibited true hope. The grandfather said, “Hush child, God ain’t dead!”

From our Gospel, Jesus had appeared to the disciples, but Thomas wasn’t there. When the others tell him that they have seen the Lord, Thomas becomes upset and agitated, “I won’t believe the Lord is risen unless I see him myself and place my hand in his side.” Did he doubt the power of God? Did he not believe Jesus when he had said, “I will rise again?”

No. I don’t believe that was the way Thomas was looking at these events. Instead, I think Thomas had looked upon the blood-stained cross, he had seen or at least heard of the gaping wounds that had pierced Jesus’ body, he had placed all his hope in Jesus, and now without question, he knew Jesus was dead. All was lost. We’re done for. I can’t possibly believe that he is raised from the dead unless I see him myself, because I can’t get my hopes up again. I can’t be hurt like that again. Someone needed to lovingly turn to Thomas and say, “Hush child. God ain’t dead.”

In 1972, NASA launched the exploratory space probe Pioneer 10. According to Leon Jaroff in Time, the satellite’s primary mission was to reach Jupiter, photograph the planet and its moons, and beam data to earth about Jupiter’s magnetic field, radiation belts, and atmosphere. cScientists regarded this as a bold plan, for at that time no earth satellite had ever gone beyond Mars, and they feared the asteroid belt would destroy the satellite before it could reach its target.

But Pioneer 10 accomplished its mission and much, much more. Swinging past the giant planet in November 1973, Jupiter’s immense gravity hurled Pioneer 10 at a higher rate of speed toward the edge of the solar system. At one billion miles from the sun, Pioneer 10 passed Saturn. At some two billion miles, it hurtled past Uranus; Neptune at nearly three billion miles; Pluto at almost four billion miles. By 1997, twenty-five years after its launch, Pioneer 10 was more than six billion miles from the sun.

And despite that immense distance, Pioneer 10 continued to beam back radio signals to scientists on Earth. “Perhaps most remarkable,” writes Jaroff, “those signals emanate from an 8-watt transmitter, which radiates about as much power as a bedroom night light, and takes more than nine hours to reach Earth.”

The Little Satellite That Could was not qualified to do what it did. Engineers designed Pioneer 10 with a useful life of just three years. But it kept going and going. By simple longevity, its tiny 8-watt transmitter radio accomplished more than anyone thought possible. After more than 30 years, the venerable Pioneer 10 spacecraft sent its last signal to Earth on Jan. 23, 2003, having traveled 7.6 billion miles.

So it is when we offer ourselves to serve the Lord. God can work even through someone with 8-watt abilities. However, God cannot work through someone who quits.

That is not saying that there are no times when the wise decision is to quit. There are our bad habits. There are times when we realize that we are in the wrong. Sometimes it just makes sense not to continue in a direction and at other times it is a matter of coming to peace with a situation. There are all sorts of legitimate reasons for quitting a particular activity; however, fear, despair, disappointment, level of difficulty, and so on are not. Why? Because “God ain’t dead” and if God ain’t dead, then there is always hope.

Imagine, after trying something once, we say, “I’ll never do that again!” What about falling in love? What would happen after the first time you fall in love and had your heart broken you said, “I’ll never do that again.” What would you miss out on? How lonely would you be?

What if the first time you said a prayer and God answered by saying, “No.” How would things work out if you were to say, “I’ll never do that again?”

What if the Lord had not appeared before the disciples again and Thomas had remained in his denial? “I’ll never do that again. I’ll never believe unless I see him.”

In truth, we can find ourselves in similar situations all the time. It happens to us personally. It happens to us in our jobs. It can even happen in the church. Along with Thomas, we say, “All is lost. We are finished. I’ll never do this again. I quit.” But God responds, “Hush child. I’m not dead!” In other words, there is hope.
What do we mean when we say, we have hope?

Václav Havel, the first president of Czechoslovakia following the fall of communism, wrote

“Either we have hope within us or we don’t. It is a dimension of the soul, and it is not particularly dependent upon some observation of the world. It is an orientation of the spirit, and of the heart. It transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond horizons. Hope is a deep and powerful sense and it is not the same as joy that things are going well or the willingness to invest in opportunities which are obviously headed for success. But rather, it is an ability to work for something because you believe in it. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that it makes sense regardless of results. It is hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and to continually try new things.”

That is what we mean by hope. It is the kind of hope that declares, no matter the situation, “God’s not dead.” When I find myself in a position of losing hope, I recall a certain incident with Jesus. There was a father whose child was very sick. The father brought the child to Jesus’ disciples, but they could not heal the boy. Finally, Jesus arrives on the scene and the father says, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Jesus responds, “‘If you can?’ Everything is possible for him who believes.” In other words, “Hush child. God ain’t dead.” Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

When you find yourself in times of losing hope then let that be your prayer, “‘I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.’ Help me to regain or to hold onto my hope that is in Christ Jesus the Risen Lord.” In the midst of that prayer remember—God ain’t dead!

Let us pray: O God, in whose image we all are made, give us hope that through the work of our hands, and with Jesus as our model, we may glorify you now and always. Amen.

Sermon: Easter Sunday – “Listen”

The Isenheim Altarpiece (1512–1516) by Matthias Grünewald (c. 1470 – 1528)

Mark Twain wrote, “No sinner is ever saved after the first twenty minutes of a sermon.”  Today we’re here to put that theory to the test.  No.  Not really.  If I hit the twenty-minute mark, you can tell me to shut up and sit down, but this is the Super Bowl and the World Series and the Stanley cup and the Master’s Golf Tournament of sermons all rolled into one.  It’s the one I’m supposed to knock out at the park and wow everybody with.  No pressure.  None whatsoever.  

In fretting over that, I’ve also thought about all the pessimism and skepticism in the world today and wondered how a few words of mine could make a difference. What can I say to you that will change anything?  Not just that, but in order to be heard above the clamor of everything else, I’m going to need something to grab your attention.  What could it be?  

Well, if I just wanted to get a lot of attention, then I could stand up here and tell you that as a priest and as a church we really don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead.  That would get some attention.  That would even get my bishop’s attention!  The Facebook post would go off the charts and I’d probably even get a few “love letters” from people threatening to send me to meet Jesus.  Yes.  I could say that Jesus never rose from the dead and everyone would be up in arms, but if I say, “Jesus rose from the dead,” no one really gets excited.  There are no angry posts on Facebook, the Bishop is not called, we can all go back home to our lives, and nothing and no one is actually changed.  So the question is this: what would it take for this message—the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the resurrection to eternal life—what would it take for this message to actually change your life?  Today’s Gospel reading helps us in the right direction.  

Mary Magdalene went to the tomb. The stone was rolled away, so she runs and tells Peter and John who then get into a foot race to the tomb (John wins).  They look inside and see that the tomb is empty and the cloth that Jesus had been wrapped in was set to one side.  They saw all this, but they didn’t know what it meant, so what did they do?  Our Gospel reading tells us, “Then the disciples returned to their homes.”  They were probably confused more so than they ever had been. They were probably wondering who stole the body.  They were also wondering how they could continue after the death of Jesus and wondering where do we go now?  He’s dead.  He’s gone.  We’re here and everybody either hates us or thinks we’re freaks.  The best thing we can do is just to go home.  Go back to what we’re doing before we even knew the tomb was empty or even before we ever met him.  For the most part that’s you and I.  We hear this message, we know it intellectually, we read it every year.  I would wager that most everyone is very well aware of this basic Christian message: “Christ has died.  Christ has risen.  Christ will come again.”  It’s a very simple proclamation but so many hear it and then they just go back home.  The message hasn’t changed their lives, but then we have the second part of our Gospel reading today.

Mary Magdalene has experienced the exact same thing as the disciples.  She had witnessed the miracles and the teachings.  She had been there for the trial, the crucifixion, the death, and the burial, but the one difference between the disciples and Mary is that on that morning, Mary heard Jesus call her name.  She had a very real and personal encounter with the Risen Lord.  And now everyone says, “Oh, Father John, you’re just preaching like an evangelical minister this morning!  Going to tell me I need a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  Yes, you do.  It’s true.  But if that’s all I tell you then you’re just gonna go back home, not changed, so what is it you need to hear in order to believe this message of the Gospel so that you don’t just go back home unchanged? 

If I was one of those really great passionate charismatic orators I might be able to tell you a story, give you an example, share my testimony about how God has changed my life or the life of so many others.  I might even for a minute or for a day or season convince you to follow Jesus, but after doing this for almost twenty years I know that there isn’t anything I can preach that will ultimately turn a person’s heart.  That was true even for Jesus.  Judas heard every one of Jesus’ sermons and those sermons didn’t do him a lick of good.  So what we do here on days like today is provide opportunities for souls to encounter God in hope that those souls won’t simply go home, but will instead stop and listen for God to speak their name just as he did with Mary.

When you decided to come to church this morning this is not what you were expecting to hear. You were probably expecting to hear Jesus Christ is risen today.  Hallelujah.  You would hear it then maybe go out to brunch, an Easter egg hunt, take a nap, but in the end, you would just go home.  Would your life be changed?  Would you stop everything to follow Jesus?  I don’t know.  But today, I don’t believe I can convince you, so instead of trying, I’m going to ask you to do something.  I know, the preacher asking us to do something probably wants us to give money.  Give Jesus $100 today and make a downpayment on that heavenly mansion.  No.  It’s nothing like that.  Instead, I’m just asking that you go home and listen.  Close yourself off in your room and sit quietly by yourself and say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”  And then, listen.  Listen for the voice of God.  At first, you’ll probably think you’re crazy, but then somewhere in that silence, you will hear God speak your name and you will know that on the third day Jesus Christ rose from the dead and that all who call on his name will be saved to eternal life.  You will know and you will be changed eternally.

Let us pray:
For Your mercies’ sake, O Lord our God,
tell us what You are to us.
Say to our soul: “I am your salvation.”
So speak that we may hear, O Lord;
our hearts are listening;
open our hearts that we may hear You,
and say to our soul: “I am your salvation.”
After hearing this word,
may we come in haste to take hold of you.

Sermon: Great Vigil of Easter – “This is the Night”

The Sacrifice of Isaac (mid-1750s) by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (1727 – 1804)

In her book, When God is Silent, author and Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor speaks to clergy about preaching.  At one point she addresses how we should go about preaching on some of the more difficult passages, such as the one we read: the sacrifice of Isaac.  Barbara says, that the Bible is full “of such raw and powerful stories.  Maybe we should preach more of them and where they are obscure, troubling, or incomplete, perhaps we should leave them that way.  Who are we, after all, to defend God?… The discord—like the silence—is God’s problem, not ours.  When we try to solve it, we are no longer being courteous.” (p.115-116)

When it comes to her advice and that passage of scripture of Abraham and Isaac, very few have taken Barbara’s advice.  They launch into long explanations of how this is only a myth and not an actual event or attempt to break down Abraham’s thought process or the psychology of Isaac or anything else so as to avoid or distract us from what the story tells us.  I’m guilty of all of the above because when taken at face value, all that remains is God telling Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”  Abraham did not argue or weep or bargain.  He was obedient.  In the end, because of his obedience, Isaac was saved.  In his letter to the Hebrews, Paul summarizes what took place and how it was viewed, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son.”

We can finagle, whitewash, and analyze the incident all we want to make it easier to swallow, but the Scripture itself is clear: God tested Abraham by asking him to deliver his son up as a burnt offering so that God could determine whether or not Abraham was faithful.  

I do not believe that there is a parent in the room who would even consider it.  In fact, I believe that every single one of us—parent or not—would fail that test.  We would unapologetically tell God, likely in some rather colorful language, “No!  What you ask is impossible.”  If that were the end of it, we would all be lost, but Jesus refuses to lose us.  

Jesus says, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”  

Jesus says, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”  

Jesus says, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!”  

Jesus says, “It is finished.”

“This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.” 

In order to prove our faith, we will never be called upon to sacrifice anyone or anything, for this is the night that the sacrifice that was made once and for all restores us to God. 

Alleluia.  Christ is Risen.

The Lord is risen indeed.  Alleluia.

Sermon: Holy Saturday – “The Ancient Homily”

In some places, the author is listed as unknown, but in others, it is attributed to St. Epiphanius, Bishop of Cyprus (403 A.D.).  Whatever the case, it is an ancient sermon and speaks of the Harrowing of Hell, when Jesus descended into the dead following his death and prior to his resurrection.  It is of Jesus speaking to Adam, the first human.

Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and He has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and Hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, He has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, He who is both God and the Son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the Cross, the weapon that had won Him the victory. At the sight of Him Adam, the first man He had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone, “My Lord be with you all.” 

Christ answered him, “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying, “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.

“I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by My own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in Hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the Life of the dead. Rise up, work of My hands, you who were created in My image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in Me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.

“For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

“See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in My image. On My back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See My hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

“I slept on the Cross and a sword pierced My side for you who slept in Paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in Hell. The sword that pierced Me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

“Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly Paradise. I will not restore you to that Paradise, but I will enthrone you in Heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am Life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The Bridal Chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The Kingdom of Heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.”

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