Sermon: Lent 2 RCL C – “Work and God’s Glory”

The podcast is available here.

Forbes magazine ran a list of some of the most interesting excuses for missing work. Things like:
– I just put a casserole in the oven.
– My plastic surgery needed some “tweaking” to get it just right.
– I had been at the casino all weekend and still had money left to play with on Monday morning.
– I had a gall stone I wanted to heal holistically.

My two favorite:
– I woke up in a good mood and didn’t want to ruin it.
– I accidentally got on a plane.

From our Gospel reading: “Some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.’”

The reading speaks very clearly about the mission and work of Jesus, and, “On the third day” is a clear reference to the resurrection when this work was complete. However, in reading this passage, I was really struck by the idea of work, the work that Jesus was accomplishing, which called to mind the work we each perform. And, when I say ‘work,’ I’m talking about our jobs: teachers, lawyers, laborers, pilots, mothers, EMTs, you name it.

Some of you all are retired and some have not yet entered the workforce, in addition, a sermon on work may seem like an odd topic, but given that we spend at least a third of our lives working, perhaps the topic isn’t too odd after all. And, what we must understand—contrary to popular culture—is that the primary purpose of our work is not our income. “Fr. John done went and lost his mind!” Nope. And I’ll say it again: the primary purpose of our work is not an income. If that is true, which it should be, then what is?

From our Gospel, Herod was already looking for this trouble maker, Jesus, to kill him, and the Pharisees told Jesus of Herod’s intent. For me—and maybe I’m just a softy of a boss—but having someone threatening to kill you seems like a fairly legitimate excuse for missing work, but Jesus wasn’t buying it and didn’t let it deter him. He said to the Pharisees, “Look. I can’t be bothered with that. I’ve got things to do. I’ve got work to do.” And this work has nothing to do with money. That is not what motivated Jesus. On the night before he was crucified, Jesus prayed, “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’” Again, Jesus prays, “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.” The soul purpose of Jesus’ work was not a salary, it was “to glorify the Father.” Question: if the soul purpose of the work of the one whom we claim to follow was to glorify the Father, then shouldn’t this be the guiding purpose of our work as well?

Don’t misunderstand, I know that we have to eat, put a roof over our heads, care for the family, all the other responsibilities we have, but we must also keep in mind the parable Jesus told about the man who had a surplus crop. He built himself extra barns to store it in and said to himself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ Jesus said, “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

In the work we perform we are to have as the guiding purpose of that work the same guiding purpose as Jesus—the glory of the Father: for the love of God. If God chooses to bless us with an abundance… well, that is a sermon for another day. However, the fruits of making the glory of God our primary purpose of work are numerous: there is commitment and pride in doing a job well, there is joy in knowing that all our works —menial or great—are for God, there is resolve in knowing we serve God, society, and one another, and so much more.

My friend St. Josemaría Escrivá writes, “Let me stress this point: it is in the simplicity of your ordinary work, in the monotonous details of each day, that you have to find the secret, which is hidden from so many, of something great and new: Love.” (Furrow #489) What does this look like?

A deacon whose faith had been revitalized during a service came to the priest to tell her he was now ready to live for Jesus and available for service. The priest prayed with him, thanked him, and assured him that he would be called upon. Later that same night a widowed mother in the church called the priest and said she was desperate for a ride for her young son to the hospital the next day for a long-scheduled appointment with a specialist doctor. The hospital was 50 miles away in the city, and her ride had fallen through. The priest, smiling to herself at the seemingly providential provision of God, called the deacon and asked him to take this task. At first, the deacon protested that he would have to take a half-day off of work, but relented under the priest’s gentle reminder that he had wanted to serve.

So the deacon arranged the time off work and went to the woman’s house the next morning. The mother was unable to go because of her other children, so he carried the little boy out to his pickup and set him down beside him in the seat. When they had driven awhile, the boy said, “You’re God, aren’t you?” The deacon said, “No, of course not. Why would you say that?” The boy said, “Last night I heard my mother praying to God to send someone to take me to the hospital. I thought you must be God.” The boy was quiet for a minute, and then he said, “If you’re not God, then you work for him. Right?”

The deacon responded, “Now more than ever, son. Now more than ever.”

In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul writes, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.”

No matter your calling in this world: whether you’re volunteering, working for a salary, studying for a test, let all your efforts be seasoned with love and perform this work with joy and to the very best of your abilities, with your soul purpose being the glory of God.

Let us pray:
O Lord, my God,
Creator and Ruler of the universe,
it is Your Will that human beings accept the duty of work. May the work we do bring growth in this life to us
and those we love and help to extend the Kingdom of Christ. Give all persons work that draws them to You
and to each other in cheerful service.
We unite all our works with the Sacrifice of Jesus
in the Mass that it may be pleasing to You and give You glory. We pray
Your Blessings upon all our efforts.
With the Saints as our example and guides,
help us to do the work You have asked
and come to the reward You have prepared.

Sermon: Lent 1 RCL C – “Dirt, Greed, Sex, and Other Temptations”

The podcast is available here.

Coming quickly on the heels of “Hey, Siri”, the Apple virtual assistant that allows you to ask everything from the weather forecast to “Why is the sky blue,” is the virtual assistant from Amazon: Alexa. Alexa is this little device that you can setup in your home and she’ll do everything from tell you a joke to arm your security system. As she is from Amazon, she’ll also help you shop and let you know when your packages are delivered through her notification system. For example, you ask Alexa, “What are my notifications?” and she’ll respond, “You have one new notification: such and such is in.” Such and such can be anything from the title of a book to a 12 pack of canned mackerel. “You have one new notification: 12 pack of canned mackerel is in.” Hold that thought…

Just like any other book, theological books will often have catchy titles in order to get you to take more than a cursory look, especially when it comes to exceptionally dry topics such as moral and ethical theology, which is more a logic game than anything. Well, as it turns out, Janie ordered a book from Amazon on just that topic, so when I got home on Monday, Alexa had a new notification. I asked: Alexa, what are my notifications. She answered: You have one new notification: Dirt, Greed, and Sex is in. After spewing coffee across the kitchen, I told Alexa, You’ve know idea!

Dirt, greed, and sex are in, they are always in, and in one form or another, they are what draw us from God and into a life of sin; and they have managed to bring down so many, because they always wanted more or something that they couldn’t have. To one degree or another, that is true for all of us.

I look at the sins that Jesus was tempted with while in the wilderness: turning stones into bread, authority and power over the nations of the world, throwing himself off the pinnacle of the temple… I look at these sins and realize they are not the sins that would really trip me up. They are above my pay grade and I know it, but as one of my friends in Montana liked to point out, the Devil only has so many tricks, the problem is that we so often fall for them, time and time again. So if that is true, then perhaps the temptations of Jesus are in fact my temptations.

Turning stones into bread, I’m not looking to accomplish that unless Harry Potter teaches me a spell of transfiguration, but I am guilty of seeking ways to serve myself instead of relying on God to provide. I have no aspirations to rule the world, but there are times when I would be very pleased to have free reign over my own microcosm of the world, taking what I want and doing with it as I like. And I’m not going to throw myself off one of the downtown towers, but I can be easily tempted to abuse the gifts that God has given for personal gain. So, in truth, we are all tempted as Jesus was, but those temptations are tailor made for each of us. Whether it be dirt, greed, sex, or so many other forms, the one who tempted Jesus will come after us, and if he is not successful at one time, then he will come calling again. As the Scripture said after the Devil tempted Jesus, “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” He is relentless in his pursuit of you and although his tricks may be limited, he’s got one tailor made for you that will fit perfectly. So, when he comes our way, how are we to overcome the temptations as Jesus did?

From Jesus example, I think there are three main areas of focus, and the first is not to argue with the Devil. He’s been at this business of deception a lot longer than you have and he knows all the tricks and when we begin to argue with him, instead of defeating him, we more often than not will end up justifying our actions. Simple example: Hey, Fr. John, have a cookie. I can’t, trying to drop a few. But you did already. You weighed this morning and you were down several. One cookie won’t hurt. Think of it as a reward. And… one box of Girl Scout Cookies later, I am sufficiently rewarded. Eating a cookie isn’t a sin (thanks be to God!), but when we are tempted to sin, we can’t win by arguing, that is only entertaining the idea even more, instead, as soon as we recognize the temptation, we must quickly and without hesitation dismiss it and move on.

The second way of overcoming the temptation is to listen to the voice that is speaking to us and learn to discern who it is directing us. This can at times be difficult, for as Paul teaches us “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” At times, the voice that is directing us can sound very much like God, when in truth, it is not. Discern and test what you hear against what you know of the nature of God. Is this word, are these actions in concert with the Word of God and the teachings of Jesus, or is there some subtle discord?

Finally, and this is what makes the first and second way to overcome temptation possible: fall deeper in love with God. St. James spells it out nicely: “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.  Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” Enter into a deeper relationship with God and God will do the same for you. He will be near to you on the day of battle and assist you in overcoming evil.

Alexa is right: dirt, greed, sex, and many other temptations are in, so don’t argue with the Deceiver, listen for the voice of the Lord, and draw into a deeper relationship with Him who loves you and was able to overcome all temptations. From St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” So that on the day of trial, you may stand.

Let us pray: Holy Michael, the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; and do you, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who wander through the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

Sermon: Ash Wednesday

The podcast is available here

One of the fables of Aesop tells the story of a man, a boy, and a donkey. An elderly man was traveling with a boy and a donkey. As they walked through a village, the man was leading the donkey and the boy was walking behind. The townspeople said the old man was a fool for not riding, so to please them he climbed up on the animal’s back. When they came to the next village, the people said the old man was cruel to let the child walk while he enjoyed the ride. So, to please them, he got off and set the boy on the animal’s back and continued on his way. In the third village, people accused the child of being lazy for making the old man walk, and the suggestion was made that they both ride. So the man climbed on and they set off again. In the fourth village, the townspeople were indignant at the cruelty to the donkey because he was made to carry two people. So the boy and the man strapped the donkey to a pole by his feet and began to carry the donkey. Unfortunately, when they came to a bridge, the boy tripped, sending the donkey into the river below where he drowned.

We would like to say that we aren’t like this, always trying to please others, but there is something in our makeup that seeks the approval of others.  So often, we have this fear of failing in the eyes of those around.  That’s the reason why, when you do something really well, it’s not the 100 compliments that keep you up at night, but that one criticism can keep your mind running until 4:00 a.m.  We seek the approval of others, and in doing so, we become hypocrites (the origin of that word means ‘actor’).  We become actors on a stage and our lives become spectacles and productions for others, seeking the audience’s approval.  That’s what Jesus was speaking about in our Gospel.

Jesus said, the hypocrites/actors like to practice their piety, their holiness before others, as on a stage, “so that they may be praised by others… so that they may be seen by others… so as to show others” how holy they are.  But Jesus tells us that when we practice our holiness there should only be one who observes us, and that is God.  When we perform as actors, we will very often end up not only carrying the donkey, but looking like one as well.  Whereas, when we practice our faith before God alone, he observes our efforts—feeble as they may be—and rewards us.

My friend Thomas à Kempis writes, “Who are you, then, that you should be afraid of mortal man? Today he is here, tomorrow he is not seen. Fear God and you will not be afraid of the terrors of men. What can anyone do to you by word or injury? He hurts himself rather than you, and no matter who he may be he cannot escape the judgment of God. Keep God before your eyes, therefore, and do not quarrel with peevish words.”

During this Season of Lent, do not be concerned about the opinions and actions of others.  In faith, seek only God’s approval, follow the narrow path that God has placed you on, and humbly walk in his ways.

Let us pray: Lord God, Father of mercies, to You we look, in You we trust. Bless and sanctify our souls with heavenly benediction, so that we may become Your holy dwelling and the seat of Your eternal glory. And in this temple of Your dignity let nothing be found that might offend Your majesty. In Your great goodness, and in the multitude of Your mercies, look upon us and listen to the prayers of Your poor servants exiled from You in the region of the shadow of death. Protect and preserve the souls of Your poor servants among the many dangers of this corruptible life, and direct us by Your accompanying grace, through the ways of peace, to the land of everlasting light.  Amen  (The Imitation of Christ, Bk. 3, Ch. 59)

Sermon: Epiphany 7 RCL C – “Absurd Generosity”

The podcast is available here.

A highly successful businessman was once asked to make a substantial donation toward an urgent charity appeal. The businessman listened to the case presented then said, “I can understand why you approached me. Yes I do have a lot of money, and yours is an important cause. But are you aware that I have a lot of calls upon my money? Did you know my mother needs 24 hour nursing care?”

“No we didn’t” came the reply.

“Did you know my sister is struggling to raise a family of eight on her own?”

“No we didn’t” came the reply.

“Did you know I have one son in a drug rehab clinic and another doing voluntary work overseas?”

“No we didn’t”

“Well, if I don’t give them a cent, what makes you think I’ll give it to you?!”

Today, in our first lesson, we hear the end of the story of Joseph and his brothers. It is a familiar story, but as a refresher: Joseph was daddy’s boy. Scripture says that his father, Jacob, loved him more than the others and even gave him a special coat of many colors and Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him. Then, Joseph had dreams: one where sheaves of wheat were bowing before him and another of eleven stars bowing before him. Joseph’s brothers and father all understood the implications of the dream: one day, all of them would come and bow before Joseph. Needless to say, the brothers cared little for baby brother, so when an opportunity presented itself, they made plans to kill him, but one of the brothers did not want to shed his blood, so they sold him into slavery instead.

Joseph eventually ended up in Egypt. He started as a house servant, but ended up in prison. While there, he rightly interpreted the dreams of two of Pharaoh’s servants who had been imprisoned. One of those servants would eventually be released and returned to his station. When Pharaoh had a dream that no one could interpret, the servant remembered Joseph’s gift of interpreting dreams, shared that info with Pharaoh, who then called for Joseph to come and interpret the dream. He did: there would be seven years of prosperity followed by seven years of famine. He encouraged Pharaoh to store up food during the prosperous years so that they would have provisions during the famine. Pharaoh was so impressed that he made Joseph number two in all of Egypt.

It all played out just as Joseph had seen, and when the famine came, it was severe and everyone was starving, including Joseph’s family. However, they learned that Egypt had plenty of food, so they went there to trade, not knowing they would be coming to their brother. In the end, they bowed before him, still not knowing that this Prince of Egypt was their brother. In today’s reading, Joseph has finally revealed himself to his brothers and says, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now be distressed… be very distressed, and angry with yourselves you fools, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to crush you. What makes you think I would give you a single cent… a single grain of wheat.” Well, that’s how it ends in my head (reason #793 as to why I’ll never be a Saint).

Jesus said, “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

It would be very easy to take these words and turn them into some moral code with which we could measure our goodness by. This person hates me and I gave them a good review—check. This guy cussed me out, but I waved the sign of the cross over him—check. Someone stole from me, so I dropped off some of my old clothes at the thrift shop—check. Look at me Jesus, I’m doing what you said. But we know that Jesus was not into writing moral codes. He was interested in changing hearts of stone into hearts of love. In saying love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, give without counting the cost… in saying these things, Jesus was teaching about a radical generosity of spirit. A spirit that says, I don’t care if you hated me, sold me into slavery, left me for dead, I choose to love you, bless you, pray for you, not withhold anything from you as Joseph did with his brothers.

Commenting on this passage, N.T. Wright says, “The kingdom that Jesus preached and lived was about a glorious, uproarious, absurd generosity. Think of the best thing you can do for the worst person, and go ahead and do it. Think of what you’d really like someone to do for you, and do it for them. Think of the people to whom you are tempted to be nasty, and lavish generosity on them instead.”

I would really like to be that person. The one who could do those things, but… but…

Once a snake chased a butterfly and chased her day and night. Fear gave the butterfly strength, it beat its wings and flew farther and farther. And the snake did not get tired to crawl on its heels. On the third day, a weakened butterfly felt that she couldn’t fly anymore, she sat down on a flower and said to her pursuer, Before you kill me, can I ask you three questions?

It’s not in my habit to provide such opportunities to victims, but oh well, we will consider this as your death wish, you can ask.

Do you eat butterflies?


Did I do something bad to you?


Then why do you want to kill me?

I hate to watch you fly!!!

I cannot have that absurd generosity of Jesus, because there is a serpent that hates to see me fly, that hates to see me love, that hates to see me give, bless, turn the other cheek. There is a serpent that relentlessly pursues me, seeking to destroy the good that is within me. And, unfortunately, I have a tendency to listen to him. As St. Paul writes, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” That evil, that serpent, hates to watch us fly, hates to see us striving to be holy as our Father in Heaven is holy, so contrary to this call of the serpent to be greedy and hateful, we must actively and intentionally practice this generosity of spirit that Jesus is calling us to. It is achieved by abandoning ourselves to God the Father in the same manner as Jesus did, for even as he hung upon the cross, he still loved, he forgave, he turned the other cheek, he blessed, he gave—not just his coat—but his very life.

It is as Mother Teresa said, “Love, to be real, must cost, it must hurt, it must empty us of self.” Therefore, she says to us, “Give yourself fully to God. He will use you to accomplish great things on the condition that you believe much more in His love than in your own weakness.” The serpent pursues us, but if we will abandon ourselves to God and his love, then in spite of our own weaknesses, we too can possess this glorious, uproarious, absurd generosity.

Let us pray:
God, our Father,
You redeemed us
and made us Your children in Christ.
Through Him You have saved us from death
and given us Your Divine life of grace.
By becoming more like Jesus on earth,
may we come to share His glory in Heaven.
Give us the peace of Your kingdom,
which this world does not give.
By Your loving care protect the good You have given us.
Open our eyes to the wonders of Your Love
that we may serve You with a willing heart.

Sermon: Absalom Jones

Prior to the Revolutionary War, our denomination and the Methodist were still a part of the Church of England, so all the clergy, whether they practiced as a Methodist or not, were also a part of the Church of England. However, during the war, it became very unpopular to be associated with anything English, and so many of the Anglican / Church of England clergy fled back to England or to Canada. This left a void in the colonies, because there were so few priest who could provide the sacraments; therefore, some of the Methodist who opted to remain in the colonies—in the words of an Anglican priest—began, “to ordain themselves and make priests of one another. This I remember,” he recalls, “they called a step—but I considered it a prodigious stride; a most unwarrantable usurpation, and a flagrant violation of all order.” He didn’t like it, but this set into motion the eventual formation of the Methodist Church as a separate denomination in 1795.

In the midst of all this, a former African slave, Absalom Jones, and his friend, Richard Allen, began ministering to the needs of the black population of Philadelphia, utilizing St. George’s Church as home base. They were successful… too successful in the eyes of the white members, who eventually forced the black congregation to sit in a section of the balcony. However, one day, Absalom and Richard sat in the wrong section and were forcibly removed, so they left St. George’s and took the entire black congregation with them. They went on to form the Free African Society. At the same time, the Church of England in America was breaking away and in 1789, became the Episcopal Church. So, the Free African Society was a part of the Episcopal Church as were the Methodist, but just to make sure you’re thoroughly confused now, this is also the time when the Methodist began their formal break from the Church of England and from the Episcopal Church, once again, leaving everyone to decide who’s side the would join: the Methodist Church or the Episcopal Church.

The Free African Society also had to decide, but even here there was a split. Richard Allen wanted to stay with the Methodist and Absalom Jones wanted to go with the Episcopal. They agreed to go their separate ways on this decision, but continued to work together.

All of this left Absalom Jones in charge of the Free African Society. So he petitioned the Episcopal Church to become a church of the denomination and this was granted. The following year, he was ordained a deacon and in 1802 he was priested. The first black priest in the Episcopal Church. He remained a priest at the church that was formed, St. Thomas’, and while there, doubled the size of the congregation and baptized 1,195 individuals.

Also of interest: Richard Allen would eventually leave the Methodist Church with several members, along with a few members from Absalom Jones’ Episcopal Church and go on to form the first African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, the denomination of our friends over at St. Stephen’s.

Clear as mud?

Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Given the amount of fracturing we see in the Church, you would think that we don’t do a very good job at loving one another, but running through the veins of every denomination is the blood of Christ. We may appear different in so many ways, from the color of our skin to the ways we worship, but together, we are The Church, the mystical Body of Christ.

Sermon: Epiphany 5 RCL C – “Words”

The podcast is available here.

A lawyer had a wife and twelve children and needed to move as his rental agreement was coming to an end for the home where he lived, however he was having a difficult finding a new home.
When he said he had twelve children, no one would rent to him because they were afraid that with so many children the home would be destroyed. He could not say that he had no children, he could not lie, after all, lawyers cannot and do not lie.
So, he had an idea. He sent his wife for a walk to the cemetery with eleven of his children. He then took the remaining one child with him to see homes with the Real Estate Agent.
He liked one of the homes and the agent asked, “How many children do you have?”
He answered, “Twelve.”
The agent asked “Where are the other eleven?”
With a sad look, the Lawyer answered, “They are in the cemetery with their mother.”
And that’s the way he was able to rent a home for his family without lying.

Nathaniel Hawthorne writes, “Words—so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become, in the hands of one who knows how to combine them!”

I want to talk about one particular word: if, but before I get there, I have to give you the backstory and why this word is important to us.

John’s Gospel seems to indicate to us that Jesus, walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, saw Peter, and called him, to which Peter dropped everything and followed Jesus. However, Luke provides us with a good bit more detail of their meeting.

We know that Jesus was going from place to place preaching in the various synagogues and at some point he came to the synagogue in Capernaum. Peter was from Bethsaida, but he lived in Capernaum, and given that he was Jewish, it is very likely that he attended the synagogue there (at the time there was only one). Given that Jesus will very soon go and stay at Peter’s house, it stands to reason that Peter would have heard Jesus preaching in the synagogue and would have witnessed the healings and the casting out of demons—which came out screaming at Jesus, “You are the Son of God.”— that Jesus was accomplishing.

Leaving the synagogue, Jesus then goes to Simon Peter’s house where he healed Peter’s mother-in-law (I’m sorry, I can’t help myself: Why did Peter deny Jesus three times? Because Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law. Moving on….). That night, while at Peter’s house, many more were brought to Jesus and were healed. Again, Peter was witness to all these things. Later that night Jesus goes off to a quiet place to pray, but the people find him and want him to continue performing miracles so they try and hold him, but Jesus says, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.” He leaves, and scripture says, “He continued proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea.” This is where our Gospel reading picks up. We don’t know how much time has passed, but Jesus is clearly walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee near Capernaum, because Peter and his fishing crew are there on the beach tending their nets after having fished all night.

The people, learning that Jesus was there begin to gather, so much so that he is unable to speak to them properly. To solve the problem, Jesus used Peter’s boat to go a short ways from shore and then began to teach. That sounds a bit unusual, but near Capernaum, there are a number of small inlets that form these perfect amphitheaters, so it would have been possible for Jesus, a short ways from the shore, to have been heard by everyone present, even while speaking in a normal voice. After teaching, he tells Peter to go out to the deep water and cast the nets. Peter’s response, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” And there’s our word: if. “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

I don’t know how many times I’ve preached on this text, but I’ve always interpreted this text and read that “if” in the same way. How does that look? Peter is saying, Look, Jesus, you don’t know anything about fishing. I do. My father was a fisherman and my father’s father was a fishermen. In fact, we’re fisherman all the way back to Adam, so you really don’t know what the heck you’re talking about, but look—he’s almost whining at this point, because he’s tired and he wants to go home, put his feet up, and have a nice kosher brewsky—if you want us to go out again, we’ll go out, but preacher man, its pointless. However, after spending some more time with this text, I think that is an entirely inaccurate picture. And you know what? I’ma tell you why.

Peter has heard Jesus preach. Peter witnessed first hand the healing of his mother-in-law. Peter saw many other healings and heard the demons coming out shrieking, “You are the Son of God.” Peter did not say, “Hey, preacher man, you ain’t no fisherman and you don’t have a clue what you’re asking.” So, what did Peter mean when he said, “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” For starters, and it is curious, but the version of the Bible we use for our readings, NRSV—New Revised Standard Version—is about the only version that includes that “if.” And, if you go back and look at the original Greek, it is not there. Instead, most of the other versions say, “At your word I will let down the nets.” Maybe this is just me being tedious this week, but for me, there is a heck of a difference between, “If you say so” and “At your word.” If, to me, implies contingencies, options, a way out. Not only that, it also suggests that you begrudge the one asking. “At your word” implies great faith in the one who is giving instruction. For Peter, “At your word,” says, I have heard the preaching and seen the miracles, there is no doubt, and the great catch of fish was the final piece to Peter not only having faith in Jesus, but beginning to truly understand what he would later be able to confess and articulate: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

Now, again, you may think I’m making a big deal out of one little word, but here’s the thing, I think we like the word “if.” Why? For the same reasons I stated a moment ago. “If” gives us contingencies, options, a way out, and at times, it can state our displeasure at being asked.

I told you a few weeks back that my superhero would be Roland Deschain from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. At one point in book five, Roland is making plans with Father Callahan. Roland asked if Father Callahan thought the plan would work. Callahan responded, “Mayhap. If all goes well.” Roland’s response, “If… An old teacher of mine used to call it the only word a thousand letters long.”

Jesus asks us to do things—whatever they may be—in the same manner that he asked Peter, and we can say to Jesus, “If you say so,” and in saying that, we are conveying a clear message, I’m keeping my options open in the event I need a way out, and oh, by the way, I’m not too pleased with being asked. But, now, try it the other way: Jesus asks you do do something and you respond, “At your word,” and without hesitation you act. Through your faith in the one speaking to you, you do not need options or a way out, and through your love and obedience to your Savior, you respond to his request.

Like Peter, you have heard the teachings of Jesus and you have witnessed the miracles in lives changed. When he comes to you, he is not a stranger, he is the bridegroom approaching the bride, and he knows you just as intimately. When he asks, whatever he asks, say to him, “At your word I will do as you ask.”

The Lord declares:
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
    and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

We are the instruments of his hand, and through his word and our actions, his works are accomplished.

Let us pray: We adore You, O God, present in the holy Eucharist, as our Creator, our Preserver, and our Redeemer. We offer You all that we have, all that we are, and all that depends on us; we offer You our minds to think of You, our hearts to love You; our wills to serve You; our bodies to labour and suffer for Your love. We are Yours, we give ourselves; we consecrate ourselves to You, We abandon ourselves to You, we wish to live and die for love of You. Amen.

Sermon: Epiphany 4 RCL C – “Magic”

The podcast is available here.

Thibodeaux and Boudreaux entered a chocolate store. As they were looking at the candy, Thibodeaux stole three chocolate bars. When they left the store Thibodeaux said to Boudreaux, “I’m the best thief, I stole three chocolate bars and no one saw me put them in my pocket. You can’t beat that.”

Boudreaux replied: “You want to see something better? Let’s go back to the shop and I’ll show you real stealing. I’ll steal while the shopkeeper is watching me and he won’t even know.”
So they went to the counter and Boudreaux said to the shopkeeper: “Do you want to see a great magic trick?” The shopkeeper replied: “Yes” Boudreaux said: “Give me three chocolate bars.” The shopkeeper gave him three chocolate bars and Boudreaux ate all three. The shopkeeper asked: “But where’s the magic in that?”

Boudreaux replied: “Look in Thibodeaux’s pocket.”

My twelve-year-old mind still loves magic. I like to pull up the Youtube videos and watch the street magicians and see the reactions of those watching. Even those funny videos with folks hiding behind a blanket with their pets watching, then ducking out of site when the blanket is dropped. The cats could care less, but the dogs… priceless.

David Blaine, one of those Harry Houdini amazing magicians who started out as a street magician says, “Magic is not about having a puzzle to solve. It’s about creating a moment of awe and astonishment. And that can be a beautiful thing.” I like that, because it says that we don’t have to know how to pull a rabbit out of a hat in order to create magic, we simply need to participate in or be witnesses to “a moment of awe and astonishment.” Therefore, watching two people fall in love is not magic, but it is magical… just ask them. The birth of a child is the same, and even our gathering here today is magical, in that we come together with all our many histories, hopes, dreams, troubles, etc., but in spite of all these differences, we come together as a family in worship of the One True God. That is not magic, but it is truly magical in the picture that it creates… especially if we photoshop a few of you out!

Leading up to Jesus’ public ministry, which we are reading about now in our Gospel these past few Sundays, Jesus was preparing. He didn’t just walk on the scene and miraculously know all the Hebrew Scriptures. He had to study. And one of the greatest evidences of this study came at his temptation in the desert. Three times the devil came to him.

“If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

The devil showed him all the peoples and kingdoms of this world and said, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.  If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”

“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here,” from the pinnacle of the Temple.

In response to temptation one, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3. Temptation number two is put down with Deuteronomy 6:13 and number three receives Deuteronomy 6:16.

In the temptation in the desert, the devil came to Jesus and said, “Hey, Jesus, give us a magic trick.” In response, Jesus said, “Hey, stupid, if God wants magic tricks, he’ll read Harry Potter.”

Jesus did not come to perform magic tricks, God had something completely different in mind, and it would create “awe and astonishment,” but it was not magic.

Today, in our Gospel reading, Jesus is in his hometown, Nazareth. He has gone into the Temple and read from the Scroll of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” Then he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The people are amazed, because they know him as Joe’s boy, but something in the way they are responding allows Jesus to discern their true motives, so he says to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” Put another way, Jesus said to them, “Doubtless you will ask me to turn stones into bread, to perform acts of God like in the days of Moses, or to show some other sign of power… of magic.” Jesus discerned that the people would ask of him, would tempt him in the same manner as the devil did in the desert, but just like with the devil, Jesus tells them that God has something entirely different in mind, and he does so by reminding them of two events in their history.

The first story comes from the First Book of Kings and the next is from the Second Book of Kings. In the first Jesus reminds the people that during a great famine, of all the people God could choose to miraculously feed, he did not choose a Jewish person, he chose a Gentile, the “widow at Zarephath in Sidon.” In the second incident, Jesus reminds them of all the lepers God could have chosen to heal, again he did not choose a Jew, he chose “Naaman the Syrian.” Not only was Naaman a Gentile, but a Syrian, a true enemy of Israel. That would be like someone from the Las Angeles Rams intentionally scoring points for the New England Patriots. And just like the Rams fans would want to tear apart that player, the people wanted to tear apart Jesus for reminding them and insulting them in such a way, but what it came down to was that Jesus was saying to them, “This isn’t about magic tricks and it is not about only you the Jews, this is about everyone, and I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.”

When they thought Jesus would perform a few magic tricks for them, they were more than pleased with him, but they did not want to hear about this new thing that God was doing and they certainly did not want to be reminded of their past failures, so instead of humbly receiving Jesus’ rebuke, they tried to throw him off a cliff.

My twelve-year-old mind still loves magic and everyday I am guilty of asking Jesus to perform some magic for me and when he tells me no, and that instead he wants me to cast aside my earthly desires in exchange for his holiness… well, to be honest, my twelve-year-old mind sometimes pitches a tantrum. I want the rabbit. Jesus wants my life. Not so that he can mark one more point up for the team or rule over me with an iron fist, but so that he can transform me into his likeness: holy and eternal.

My friend Thomas à Kempis writes, “The world, which promises small and passing things, is served with great eagerness: I – Jesus – promise great and eternal things and the hearts of men grow dull… for a small gain they travel far; for eternal life many will scarcely lift a foot from the ground. They seek a petty reward, and sometimes fight shamefully in law courts for a single piece of money. They are not afraid to work day and night for a trifle or an empty promise. But, for an unchanging good, for a reward beyond estimate, for the greatest honor and for glory everlasting, it must be said to their shame that men begrudge even the least fatigue.”

Put another way, we love the magic tricks whether they come from the world or the Lord and we will go to great lengths to receive our share of all the rabbits pulled from the hat, but what the Lord is offering is quite different. What the Lord offers does not vanish in a puff of smoke. It is eternal, but often times requires us to set aside our pride and recognize that his ways are not our ways and that in order to follow him, we are the ones that must change.

When you truly listen to Jesus with your heart, he will quite often tell you things that you don’t want to hear. Listen to him anyways and heed his words, remembering the words of the Psalmist: “Happy are those whom you discipline, O Lord, and whom you teach out of your law.” Listen to him and heed his words, and in “a moment of awe and astonishment,” if you allow it, the Lord will transform you. And that can be a beautiful thing.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, we offer you our thoughts: to be fixed on you; our words: to have you for their theme; our actions: to reflect our love for you; our sufferings: to be endured for your greater glory. We want to do what you ask of us: In the way you ask, for as long as you ask, because you ask it. Lord, enlighten our understanding, strengthen our will, purify our hearts, and make us holy. Help us to repent of our past sins and to resist temptation in the future. Help us to rise above our human weaknesses and to grow stronger as your sons and daughters. Amen.

Sermon: Epiphany 3 RCL C – Heroic Hearts

The podcast is available here.

Last weekend, while at a retreat for the search and nomination process for the next Bishop, they asked us who our spiritual heroes were.  I didn’t even have to think about it and you all know them by now: Archbishop Michael Ramsey, Thomas à Kempis, and St. Josemaría Escrivá.  But that conversation got me to thinking about heroes.

If I had to choose a superhero – and I’m not entirely sure if he is classified as a superhero – I would go with Roland Deschain, the gunslinger in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.  But when it comes right down to real people for a hero, I have to go with those who place themselves in mortal danger while protecting others.  There are the firemen, police, rescue workers, but the one that came to my mind first was the soldier.  And some soldiers have such a heroic heart that they inspire those around them, even when all seems lost.

There was Marine commander who was once surrounded and the chances of survival weren’t good, but he shouts to his men, “All right. They’re on our left, they’re on our right, they’re in front of us, they’re behind us … They can’t get away this time.”  To which he added, “Now we can shoot at them from every direction.” 

A few millennia before, King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans stood up against 150,000 Persians led by Xerxes.  Before the battle commenced, Xerxes sent an envoy to Leonidas to try and convince him to surrender.  The Persian envoy told Leonidas, “Our archers are so numerous, that the flight of their arrows darkens the sun.”  Responding to the envoy, Leonidas said, “So much the better, for we shall fight them in the shade.”  Leonidas was under no delusion as to how this battle was going to end, but he, like that Marine commander,  had a hero’s heart.

So, how do we define a hero?  Felix Adler, an American Jewish leader provides us with a pretty good definition: “The hero is one who kindles a great light in the world, who sets up blazing torches in the dark streets of life for all to see by.”  That is what the Marine and Leonidas and so many others have accomplished.  They provided a light, a rallying point and a direction for those around them.  The same is true for our Gospel reading today.  Jesus set up five blazing torches in this dark world as rallying points that give direction to all who see them.  

He returned to the region of Galilee and began teaching in the synagogues and on a particular day, he retrieved the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah and read from it:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Returning the scroll to its place he declared, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Those five blazing torches of his mission and ministry were set: 1) bring good news of the Gospel to the poor, 2) proclaim release to those captive to sin, 3) give sight to those who could no longer see God in the midst of a broken religious system, 4) set them free so that they might experience and share the joy and love of the Lord, and 5) proclaim to the people, “You are God’s beloved children and he desires you.”  And then he said that on this day, these things have been fulfilled.  Not “might be,” “could be,” “if your good little boys and girls then may be,” but have been fulfilled.  Done.  And like the Marine Commander and Leonidas, these torches were set by Jesus, not just as a guide for himself, they were set “in the dark streets of life for men to see by.”  They were set as a guide for us, for our mission and ministry.

So often we read that passage from our Gospel and think that it is solely about Jesus, but remember his words to us, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”  We now are the ones who are to bring the Good News, proclaim release from sin, give sight to the blind, show freedom in Christ, and through our words and actions let a dark world know that they are the beloved children of the Living God.  We are to be the ones with the hero’s heart and continue the work of Jesus, by setting out these same blazing torches.  And with one voice, we all declare, “I ain’t no hero”… but you are.

From way back in my education comes Homer’s Iliad and OdysseyIliad focuses on the Trojan War and the fall of Troy and the Odyssey covers the ten year journey home of Odysseus, also known as Ulysses, the King of Ithaca.  You may recall he encountered the sirens and the cyclops and had all sorts of other grand adventures.  After returning home and killing off a few enemies that have risen up in his absence, he is restored as king.  It is from here that the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson decided to pick up the story in his poem, Ulysses.

Now, I would like for you all to actually believe that I sit around reading Homer and Tennyson for pleasure, but the truth is, I heard a snippet of Ulysses in an episode of Frasier and decided to read it.  In the poem, Ulysses is king, but much older and unhappy.  He wants to explore again as he did in his youth, so in the end of the poem he calls to his friends: 

Come, my friends, 

‘T is not too late to seek a newer world… 

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down: 

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles, 

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew. 

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ 

We are not now that strength which in old days 

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; 

One equal temper of heroic hearts, 

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will 

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Perhaps we aren’t heroes and we certainly aren’t Jesus, “that which we are, we are,” but we are not relying on ourselves for our courage.  That comes from God alone.  St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”  We may not have been born heroes, but as a gift from God, we have been given this Spirit, these heroic hearts so that for the Kingdom of God, we are able to “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”  As the beloved children of God, we can say with the Psalmist, “With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can mortals do to me?”

The story is told of a group of people in Kansas who after a long drought came together to pray for rain.  As they met, they discovered only one young girl had brought an umbrella with her.  With our heroic hearts, we are the ones that bring umbrellas when we pray for rain.  With our heroic hearts, we are not afraid to stand before the nations, shining the light of Christ.

After all this talk of heroic hearts, I’m almost afraid to do this, but I want to change the vocabulary.  Because you see, instead of having “heroic hearts,” we should desire “saintly hearts.”  Why?  Felix Adler, who gave us the definition of a hero: “The hero is one who kindles a great light in the world, who sets up blazing torches in the dark streets of life for all to see by.”  But then he adds, “The saint is the person who walks through the dark paths of the world, themselves a light.”  Therefore, you do not simply have heroic hearts, you have saintly hearts, because as Jesus says, “You are the light of the world,”

With your your saintly heart burning brightly and strong in will, strive to seek and follow the Lord, to find the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed, and do not yield to the enemies of God, even if you have to fight in the shade of their arrows, for this is the year of the Lord’s favor and in Jesus you have seen the Lord’s word fulfilled.

Let us pray: O Lord, You have mercy on all, take away from us our sins, and mercifully set us ablaze with the fire of Your Holy Spirit.  Take away from us the hearts of stone, and give us a human heart, a heart to love and adore You, a heart to delight in You, to follow and enjoy You.  Amen.

Sermon: The Conversion of St. Paul

The podcast is available here.

The Conversion of St. Paul by Caravaggio

The sixth chapter of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah begins: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.”  He goes on to describe the angels in attendance who were singing:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

the whole earth is full of his glory.”

However, because he had seen the Lord (no one can see the Lord and live), he cried out: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”  Then he reports, “One of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.  The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”  Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”  And he said, “Go….”  And Isaiah went to the Israelites as the Lord commanded him.

Although Paul’s encounter with the Lord was different, it was also very similar.  The great light and glory of the Lord appeared around him and he fell to the ground in fear.  However, unlike the message that Isaiah was given, Paul was told to go to the Gentiles and proclaim the Good News, “to  open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”  In a very real way, the Lord said to Paul the exact same words as he spoke to Isaiah: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah said and Paul said and so many others have said, “Here am I; send me!”

From the beginning, God has been calling all people back into relationship and making that relationship possible and eternal through Jesus, the only begotten Son.  This is a message that you have all heard and responded to.  The Lord called and you responded, but there is more, for Jesus also said to us, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Jesus is asking… he is asking us, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”  For a variety of reasons, that can be a scary question to answer, because we do not know where it will lead or who it will lead us to.  And to my knowledge, there is really only one way to overcome the reasons and the fears and that is to have a passion for souls.  Without any judgment, to look at them, to love them, and to desire eternal life for them.  This passion for souls is one that is always seeking ways to reveal God to those who are lost or broken or simply unaware of his great love for them.  And it is a passion that must burn brightly and therefore must always be tended, nourished with the Word of God, prayer, and the blessed sacrament of the Eucharist.  Build up within yourself this passion for souls, and when the Lord asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”  Say with Isaiah and with Paul, “Here am I, send me!”