Sermon: Epiphany 3 RCL B – “Encounter”

keep-calm-and-encounter-jesusBoudreaux lived across the bayou from Clarence, who Boudreaux did not like. There was no bridge or other easy way to cross the bayou so the two would argue by yelling across the bayou.

Boudreaux would often yell across the bayou to Clarence, “Clarence, if I had a way to cross dat bayou, I would come beat you up!”

The threats continued for many years.

One day the state built a bridge across the Bayou.

Soon after the bridge was built, Boudreaux’s wife, Clotile, says “Boudreaux, you’ve been talking about going across dat bayou to beat up Clarence all dese years. Now that they have dat bridge, what are you waiting for?”

So Boudreaux decided it was time to go see Clarence, so he started walking down to the bridge.

Just as he was getting ready to cross the bridge, he looks up at the sign on the bridge, reads it, and goes back home.

When Boudreaux gets home, Clotile asks “Mais, Boudreaux, did you go beat up Clarence?” Boudreaux said, “Mais no Clotile, dat sign on dat bridge says ‘Clearance 13 feet 3 inches’. Mais, Clotile, Clarence don’t look dat big from across de bayou!”

There are times when we all look out over the bayou and think that Clarence isn’t all that big. It is a common mistake and folks have been warning us against for years. Thoughts such as, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” and, “Don’t judge another until you walk a mile in their shoes” Unfortunately, it is quite often how we operate. We get these preconceived ideas that we apply to situations and people. You see a man wearing a camel hair coat with a leather belt, who eats locust and wild honey and you think to yourself, “There’s a freak.” Turns out – prophet of the Most High God. See a sharp dressed man walking down the street with a briefcase in one hand and a cell phone in the other and you think, “Successful. Upstanding citizen.” Turns out he’s a mean drunk and last night he beat his wife to within an inch of her life.

It is the same way when folks have an encounter with Christ for the first time. Think of the stoning of Stephen that we read in the Acts of the Apostles. Who was there? “They dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul… And Saul approved of their killing him… Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. Saul was breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.”

Saul had an idea about this Jesus: He was a madman, a heretic, a liar, and deceiver. A destroyer of truth. This Jesus deserved the death he received and now his followers deserve nothing less. Cut out the disease and let it die. But then Saul encountered Christ. Not the Christ he had been told about or the Christ that he had conjured up in his mind. He encountered the Risen Lord:

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting”

Saul – that is the great disciple Paul – had an encounter with Christ. The scales that had blinded him from seeing who Jesus truly was fell from his eyes, he believed, he was baptized, and he proclaimed the Word of God. In the end, it cost him his life, but that didn’t bother him. As he said, “I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.”

The Gospel reading from last week and this week are about Christ encounters, first meetings with Jesus. Last week it was Philip and Nathanael. This week it is Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John. When they met Jesus for the first time, when he said to them, “Follow me,” they already had this idea of who they thought he was. How? From the time they were old enough to understand the Torah – God’s Holy Word – they were taught about the long awaited Messiah. They believed he was going to be a great leader and military genius. Another King David and Moses rolled into one, but on steroids. However, like Paul would later understand and so many others since then, the apostles would grow to know that the Christ is so much more than they had originally believed.

You are fully known by God, but to know God – even a little bit – requires much more from you than simply looking across the bayou and yelling at him. It actually takes walking with Him, and not just talking to Him, but listening to Him as well. To know God requires that you not only break bread with Him, but that you also suffer with Him, die with Him, and rise victorious with Him. Therefore, you too must have a Christ encounter, so that you might be joined to Him and made one with God.

What is so amazing about this Christ encounter is that for it to occur you don’t have to be up on the holy mountain or cloistered away in a nunnery or monastery. Jesus encountered the disciples on the shores of the sea. Paul was encountered on the road to Damascus. Mary Magdalene was encountered in adultery. Matthew was encountered at work as a tax collector. Lazarus was encountered in the grave. St. Josemaria writes, “What amazes you seems quite natural to me: God has sought you out right in the midst of your work. That is how he sought the first, Peter and Andrew, John and James, beside their nets, and Matthew, sitting in the customhouse. And – wonder of wonders – Paul, in his eagerness to destroy the seeds of Christianity.”

Your encounter with Christ is not something that must follow a specific formula, nor will it happen at a specific time or under certain circumstances. Jesus said, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” The time and place are determined by God, because it is in that time and in that place that God desires to use you. Yes, some are called out for other service, but most are called to serve God where they are. Paul teaches us, “Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.” In most instances, we don’t serve God in some yet to be disclosed location, but instead we serve Him right where we are, in the midst of our lives. Writing on the topic of conversion St. Cyril of Jerusalem declares, “You are standing in front of God and in the presence of the hosts of angels. The Holy Spirit is about to impress his seal on each of your souls. You are about to be pressed in the service of the great king,” and in all likelihood that service will not occur in a stone basilica made of marble and gold. Instead, it will occur in the office where you work, the home where you raise your children, the dusty streets and back alleys of your own neighborhood. It will occur in the general messiness of your life, because that is where – through you – others will encounter Christ.

We are made one with Christ where we are, so that we might be used by Christ, where we are. You don’t have to be ordained or travel around the world in order to serve God, because you can serve Him by living your life for Him, right where you are.

St. Jean Eudes was a 17th century French missionary. The following was his prayer for his people, and you may not like it, but let’s pray it anyways. Let us pray: I implore Jesus to annihilate you entirely and to establish Himself perfectly in you; to draw and consume you completely within Himself; to be all in you, that one may no longer see anything but Jesus in your interior or exterior life, in time and eternity; to dwell in you, live and function in you, suffer and die in you, and adore and glorify Himself in you in whatever way He desires. Through the intercessions of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary and in Jesus most Holy Name we pray. Amen.

Sermon: Advent 4 RCL B – “Man on a Necklace”

CrucifixA man enters the Confessional box.  He notices on one side a fully equipped bar with Guinness on tap.  On the other wall is a dazzling array of the finest Cuban cigars. Then the priest comes in.  “Father, forgive me, for it’s been a very long time since I’ve been to Confession, but I must first admit that the Confessional box is much more inviting these days.”  The priest replies, “Get out! You’re on my side.”

It is quite interesting being a priest. You see the world from a different angle, because so often folks want you to see their “good side.” It’s not often that when you are all dressed up in a clerical collar that you can meet someone for the first time and come away actually knowing much about them. There are those rare occasions when someone begins talking and it seems they’ve lost the “Off” switch, but for the most part it comes down to respectful pleasantries. You also get various reactions from people as you walk along. There’s always some who give you a hearty, “Hello, Father,” but there are others that avert their eyes. They don’t want to be seen by a priest or they have a certain disdain for clergy to the point that they won’t even recognize you as a person.

Some priests don’t think that it is necessary to walk around looking like a priest, but I do, whether the world accepts it or not. It is a way of constantly reminding folks that there is another way.

Of all the looks you get along the way, the oddest ones come from folks who have never really seen a priest up close. They give you more than the once over and particularly stare at the dog collar. I mention this because I got this certain look while around several youth in their early teens. A girl – maybe fourteen – looked at me and my collar, then noticed the crucifix that I wear. Her eyes lit up a bit as she leaned in for a closer look. “Nice necklace,” she said, “it has a man on it.” “It has a man on it.” Now, it is one thing to not really know much about priest, but this girl – this fourteen year old girl – did not know that this man on my necklace was Jesus. She didn’t know the story or anything about Him. Her friend sitting next to her looked up and said, “Oh, that’s God” and I was thankful for her input, because at the time I was a bit too flummoxed to say anything.

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” His name will be Jesus. He will be great. Son of the Most High. David’s ancestor. He will reign forever. He will be… a man on a necklace.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “For those who are great and powerful in this world, there are two places where their courage fails them, which terrify them to the very depths of their souls, and which they dearly avoid, these are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ.” Yet, there will be no fear of the Lord as long as he remains a man on a necklace. He must move into the world and call people to righteousness, but not only call, He must also be heard. His message must not only proclaim another way, but demonstrate that other way through lives changed, the hungry fed, the lame healed, and the blind given their sight.  This man on a necklace must take on flesh and blood.

The word “incarnation” refers to God, in the person of Jesus, taking on human form. Taking on flesh and blood. For you and I to live an incarnational life means that Jesus is born within us. And this is what must occur if the world is to know Jesus as more than a man on a necklace. We are called to be His body in the world today.

How do we make such a transfiguration in our own lives, going from simply being observers of the world around us to living as incarnational disciples, intentionally putting flesh on God? I like St. Josemaria’s answer, “Don’t fly like a barnyard hen when you can soar like an eagle.” It takes courage, but that courage is within you. As he says again, “Courage! You can! Don’t you see what God’s grace did to that sleepy, cowardly Peter, who had denied him to that fierce, relentless Paul, who had persecuted him?” To go from observer to incarnational disciples requires that we profess the words of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The words that she spoke on the day that the angel of the Lord came and visited her, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” But we must not only profess those words, we must also allow them to breathe life into us, a life filled with the Holy Spirit of God.

The Blessed Virgin Mary was probably about fourteen when she said “Yes” to God – about the same age as the girl who liked my necklace with the man on it – but it was Mary’s “Yes” that changed all of creation. It was her participation in the incarnation of God that gave God flesh and blood in this world. It is your “Yes” to God that continues this great work, that continues God’s incarnation.

I’m not preaching works – what we do for God – over faith, but there must be action behind our words. Brennan Manning writes in The Rabbi’s Heartbeat, “The Christian commitment is not an abstraction. It is a concrete, visible, courageous, and formidable way of being in the world forged by daily choices consistent with inner truth. A commitment that is not visible in humble service, suffering discipleship, and creative love – or as in the language we’ve been using ‘a life that is not living incarnationally’ – is an illusion. Jesus Christ is impatient with illusions, and the world has no interest in abstractions.” As Manning says in this work and also in the Ragamuffin Gospel, “If you want to know what a person really believes, don’t just listen to what he says, watch what he does.” Don’t kid yourself, the world is watching. Just like they watch someone wearing a clerical collar, they also watch someone who claims to be a Christian. Some will watch so that they can find fault and criticize, but many others will watch because there is something within you, that they would like in their own lives. Show it to them. Show them the Incarnate Son of God. Show them Jesus.

We have much to do as long as people only see Jesus as a man on a necklace; therefore, say to the Lord, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word,” then “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything Jesus has commanded us. And surely He is with us always, to the very end of the age.”

Sermon: Advent 2 RCL B – “Repeat”

Gospel of MarkThere is the story of a new priest who came to town. The first Sunday he preached one of the best sermons folks had ever heard. Everyone was excited, believing that things were looking up for their church. They all complimented him on his wonderful and inspiring words. The following Sunday the new priest preached the exact same sermon to the letter. Folks looked a bit bewildered, but it was so good, they all thought it was worth hearing a second time just not two Sundays in a row. However, since he was new no one said anything other than that enjoyed the sermon. The third Sunday, once again the priest preached the exact same sermon. The Sr. Warden didn’t think they could take a fourth Sunday of this sermon, so after everyone had exited the church she had a word with him. “Father,” she said, “that’s a good sermon you preached.” “Thank you,” he replied. “However,” she continued, “you have preached the same sermon three times now. We’ve all heard it and were wondering when you were going to go on to a different subject.” “Ma’am,” he responded, “when you all start acting like you’ve heard it, I’ll preach something else.”

Each year at this time we start over in telling the story of Jesus. Beginning with his birth, we enter into his ministry, his death, resurrection and ascension. Along the way we will look at the various miracles, teachings, and events in the life of Jesus. Each year we get a different Gospel writer’s perspective – over the next year our Gospel readings will come primarily from the Gospel of Mark.

Mark probably received most of the information for his Gospel from Peter, while Peter was imprisoned in Rome. What we will discover about Mark and or Peter in this Gospel is that Mark is straight forward and to the point. He doesn’t sugar coat anything and can sometimes seem hard and even offensive to some, even though God’s Word is never offensive.

Yet, as we start the story again we might get the impression that we are a part of a nursery rhyme, “The wheels on the bus go round and round….” However, the Church understood something then that maybe we don’t consider in this context: repetition is the mother of all learning. Repetition is the mother of all learning. Repetition is the mother of all learning… Sorry.

Musicians know repetition. How many times do they play the scales? After playing those scales long enough, they don’t have to think about how to play a D-flat, their fingers just know. Athletes call this muscle memory. If you hit the exact same backhand hundreds of times in tennis practice, then when that same backhand shot comes at you in a tournament, then you don’t have to think, “Oh, how am I going to hit that?” Instead, the muscles simply respond.

In a similar manner, we cycle through the Gospels. Not just because they are the story of our Savior but so that we begin to live and respond in a manner that is consistent with His teachings without having to stop and ask ourselves every step of the way, “What would Jesus do?” Like the musician or the athlete whose muscles respond instinctively, our souls will respond in a similar fashion so that we may be like Jesus. Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” It is why we study the events of Jesus life over and over again, so that we might become like him in all things.

Is there a danger of falling away, of thinking we don’t really need to cover the same ground again – “Oh, I know this story. I know how it ends.”

No one knows exactly who said it first, but it is most often attributed to some classical pianist and now restated in various forms by everyone from golf pros to ballet dancers, “If I don’t practice for a day, I know it. If I don’t practice for two days, my wife knows it. If I don’t practice for three days, the world knows it.” Is there a danger of not staying engaged with Holy Scripture? Yes there is. Without remaining engaged, things begin to fall apart.

The opening stanza of the poem The Second Coming by William Yeats:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The poem is not speaking of the Second Coming of Our Lord; Yeats was one who thought Christianity had run its course and was therefore irrelevant, yet the poem does seem to speak a great deal of truth – “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.” That is a truth for a world and a life without God, for under those circumstances, the center is nothing more than what we can cobble together with our own clumsy hands and try to keep spinning like a clown at the circus trying to spin all those plates on sticks. At first it looks good, but after a while it all begins to crash. Broken plates and broken dreams.

“Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.” True for a godless world, but not true for a world or a life with Christ at the center. Jesus says, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” And it is through Christ that things do not fall apart and the center does hold.

Paul wrote to the Colossians, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.  For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Christ is the center that holds all things together; therefore, we must not only annually repeat the cycle of entering into his life and teachings, but daily seek Him where He can be found within the pages of Holy Scripture.

The collect for the day a few Sundays back stated, “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.” The way to accomplish this is repetition, repetition, repetition. It’s not the “same old, same old.” It is new every day. And every day we can draw closer to Him.

St. John the Baptist declares in our Gospel reading today, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Seeking God in His Holy Word is one of the greatest ways we can prepare the way of the Lord and make straight paths into our own souls.

Sermon: Christ the King RCL A

christ-the-king

A priest tells the story of the time during the 70’s that he was living in a monastery in New York. It seems that while living there he had numerous millionaire friends who enjoyed his company and would invite him out. He recalls on one occasion being invited to a swank restaurant and a Broadway play. During the intermission, he and his friends went out for some fresh air and engaged in a rather highbrow conversation regarding the play.

As he was going about trying to impress his friends with his intellectual savvy he noticed someone walking toward him who was “not one of the beautiful people.” Her clothes were a bit tattered, her shoes worn, and her nylons had holes. As she approached he also noticed that she was peddling the Variety magazine for $0.75, so in a gesture of extreme generosity he handed her a dollar and casually waved her away, eager to wow his friends a bit more.

And then she said, “Father?” The priest writes, “In those days, I knew I couldn’t distinguish myself by my virtues, so I distinguished myself by my clothing; I always wore the collar, ‘Father, could I talk to you a minute?’ I snapped, ‘What? Can’t you see I’m busy? Do you make a habit of interrupting people in the middle of a conversation? Wait over there and I’ll speak to you when I’m done.’ She whispered, ‘Jesus wouldn’t talk to Mary Magdalene like that.’ And then she was gone.”

Later, he wondered what this young woman would have thought if she had wandered into his church the following Sunday to hear him preach on the love of God. He asked, “How could she believe in the love a God she can’t see when she couldn’t find even a trace of love in the eyes of a brother wearing a clerical collar whom she could see?” He noted, “A shriveled humanity has a shrunken capacity for receiving the rays of God’s love.” (From The Furious Longing of God, Brennan Manning)

Cindy Jacobs, self described Prophet to world influencers, conducted a prayer service for the economy in New York and in twelve other locations around the country. As part of that prayer service, she and many others gathered around and laid hands on the 7,000 pound bronze bull near Wall Street. Never mind the fact that the picture gave me the willies when I saw it (images of another “Golden Calf” in the time of Moses popping into my head) and never mind the fact that nowhere is Holy Scripture does Jesus ask us to go and pray for banks and what not, but I had to ask myself: how many of the poor and dispossessed of New York did they literally have to step over in order to get there?

In another event, a church raised tens of thousands of dollars to send a dozen members on a mission trip to New Orleans to help rebuild after hurricane Katrina. A worthy cause, yet within their own community there are literally hundreds of homeless people with over 25% of them being children. In their 100 year history, that church never raised anything for a mission trip within their own community. How many could have benefited from such an outpouring of Christian good will?

“Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, `Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”

Today is the feast day of Christ the King. It is the last Sunday of the Season of Pentecost and of the church year. This day completes the Christian journey through the life of Jesus Christ on earth and in heaven, which began with the preparation for the birth of Jesus in Advent.

When you and I think of Kings, we often think of absolute rulers. They attain power by raising and leading armies into war against other countries. They demand obedience. They are the lawmakers and enforcers. They expect to be served and waited on hand and foot. In many respects we see them as tyrants. A quick glance at the history of monarchs will only confirm this. Yet the King we come to worship today is not like this.

Jesus said, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” I am among you as one who serves. That is our King and that is the example he sets for you and I to follow.

As a Christian people, I watch you all serve everyday in many different capacities. You are following the example of Christ; however, there is one very important aspect of this serving we must keep in mind: so often we think in order to serve Christ the King we must go to the ends of the earth and fulfill great schemes – lay hands on the Wall Street Bull or go on mission trips to far off places – however, I would suggest to you today that Christ the King, Christ our King, is no further away than the next person you encounter. I can take ____ hand and at the same time take the hand of Christ the King – for the Kingdom of God is within them.

The problem arises when we get so wrapped up in our own lives or doing those things that we believe are serving the King that we miss him when he is standing right in front of us.

The first summer of seminary for almost all seminarians usually involves taking CPE, Clinical Pastoral Education. For almost all seminarians this is a dreaded experience, lots of complaining and rolling of eyes. When I entered into my CPE class, I brought this attitude with me. New age hocus pocus that’s going to get me in touch with my feelings. Bleh!

The idea of the course is to put you in the context of pastoral ministry and caring for those in need, while at the same time hopefully teaching you to not bring your own set of issues, opinions, prejudices, etc. to ministry events. Some of you may think I need to retake the course, but I did learn a few things. One event in particular shaped a good bit of how I approach every opportunity God presents to me for ministry. It was a routine visit to the hospice unit – if you can call what I did a visit.

It was expected that we would spend at least a half hour on each call, so when I arrived I spoke to the patient briefly, read a Psalm, and said a prayer. However, when there was no response from him, I sat back in my chair and spent the next twenty-six of my mandated thirty minutes planning my weekend and preparing a shopping list. When my time was up, I stood briefly at the foot of his bed, said “God bless you,” and got on with my life. He died a few days later. Other than the nurses that were caring for him, I was his last visitor.

Now, if you have a couple of unpleasant names running through your mind that you would like to label me with because of my actions, then feel free, but I can assure you that every time I recall that event, I call myself much worse. Each time I recall that event, I also beg the man’s forgiveness.

CPE may be some new age hocus pocus, but it taught me perhaps the most valuable lesson in ministry: when you are with someone, you must be fully present to them – they are Jesus. They are Christ the King. To be present is much more than sitting in a room and consuming oxygen. Being present means emptying yourself for the sake of the other. It means sacrificing your life for the life of another. Remember the words of Archbishop Ramsey, “You will never be nearer to Christ than in caring for the one man, the one woman, the one child.”

Therefore, instead of seeing the people that God places in your immediate path as obstacles or hindrances to you obtaining your own goals, be present to them, take them by the hand, and see them as Christ the King. Like Jesus, be among them as one who serves. See those souls as an opportunity for you to pour out the love and grace of God upon them in the same manner that God has poured out His love and grace upon you.

Sermon: “Servant”

The story in this sermon is one that probably every preacher in America has told at least once.  I still like it and hope that you enjoy this Wednesday Sermon.

Lent Devotional

Brennan Manning states, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” And it was D. L. Moody who wrote, “Of one hundred men, one will read the Bible; the ninety-nine will read the Christian.”

Bill has wild hair, wears a T-shirt with holes in it, jeans and no shoes. This was literally his wardrobe for his entire four years of college. He is brilliant. Kinda esoteric and very, very bright. He became a Christian while attending college.

Across the street from the campus is a well-dressed, very conservative church. They want to develop a ministry to the students, but are not sure how to go about it. One day Bill decides to go there. He walks in with no shoes, jeans, his T-shirt, and wild hair. The service has already started and so Bill starts down the aisle looking for a seat.

The church is completely packed and he can’t find anywhere to sit. By now people are looking a bit uncomfortable, but no one says anything. Bill gets closer and closer and closer to the pulpit and when he realizes there are no seats, he just squats down right on the carpet. (Although perfectly acceptable behavior at a college fellowship, trust me, this had never happened in this church before!) By now the people are really uptight, and the tension in the air is thick.

About this time, the minister realizes that from way at the back of the church, a deacon is slowly making his way toward Bill. Now the deacon is in his eighties, has silver-gray hair, a three-piece suit, and a pocket watch. A godly man, very elegant, very dignified, very courtly.

He walks with a cane and as he starts walking toward this boy, everyone is saying to themselves, You can’t blame him for what he’s going to do. How can you expect a man of his age and of his background to understand some college kid that looks like a rag-a-muffin sitting on the floor in the middle of the aisle?

It takes a long time for the deacon to reach the boy. The church is utterly silent except for the clicking of the cane. All eyes are focused on the deacon. You can’t even hear anyone breathing. The people are thinking, The minister can’t even preach the sermon until the deacon does what he has to do. And now they see this elderly man drops his cane on the floor.

With great difficulty he lowers himself and sits down next to Bill and worships alongside him so he won’t be alone. After a minute of stunned silence, the minister says, “What I’m about to preach, you will never remember. What you have just seen, you will never forget.”

In our Gospel, Jesus said, “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

One of the true signs of the Christian life is the person who humbles themselves and becomes the servant of all. As Jesus said, “I am among you as one who serves.” Of one hundred men, one will read the Bible; the ninety-nine will read the Christian. When they read us, let them read the story of those who were not afraid to get out of the pews and sit on the floor. When they read you, let them read the story of one who became like Jesus.

Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,

he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.”

Sermon: “Image”

imageAfter church on Sunday morning, Little Johnny suddenly announced to his mother, “Mom, I’ve decided I’m going to be a minister when I grow up.” “That’s okay with us,” his mother said, “But what made you decide to be a minister?” “Well,” Little Johnny replied, “I’ll have to go to church on Sunday anyway, and I figure it will be more fun to stand up and yell at folks than it will be to sit still and listen.”

When we were kids, we all had some image of what we wanted to be when we grew up. The Apostle Paul writes, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.” As children and even as adults we have dreams and aspirations of who we want to be, but Paul adds, “When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” That does not mean that we set aside that childlike faith that Scripture speaks of, but it does mean we grow in our understanding of who God is, so that His image may increase in us.

In our Gospel reading today the Pharisees had come to Jesus questioning as to whether or not a person should pay taxes. They wanted to trick him by either getting him into trouble with the people or the Romans. Jesus didn’t fall for it. Instead, he asked to see one of the coins that was in use at the time that was minted with the image of the Emperor stamped on it. Why? Because it was ultimately the Emperor’s coin. His image stamped on the coin was a claim to his ownership. Therefore, when questioned on whether or not to pay taxes, Jesus says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” It’s Caesar’s coin, so give it to him, but also give to God what is God’s.

It’s one of those parables that can speak to us on many levels. It speaks to us about our relationship to the government, taxes, and even of stewardship, but it also speaks to us about those images we hold of ourselves. That coin had Caesar’s image on it. It represents him and so it represents the world. There are aspects of our lives – of our image – that are representative of the world. We live in it; therefore, we have to live and work with it. Because of this reality, there is really no escaping giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but in doing so, we do not want to exchange our Godly image for a worldly one. As Paul teaches to the Romans, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” into the image of Christ Jesus.

St. Bonaventure declares, “In all your deeds and words you should look upon this Jesus as your model. Do so whether you are walking or keeping silence, or speaking, whether you are alone or with others. He is perfect, and thus you will be not only irreprehensible, but praiseworthy.” You were created in the image of God; therefore, give to God what is His and you will be praiseworthy.

When God created you He stamped you with his image, so just as the coin that bears the image of the Emperor belongs to Emperor, you who bear the image of God belong to God, not in the sense a slave belongs to a master, but as a child belongs to a loving Father.

Yes, give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s. Bear His image in your life.

Sermon: Pentecost 18 / Proper 23 – “One-On-One”

onepersonThe former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey stated, “The glory of Christianity is its claim that small things really matter and that the small company, the very few, the one man, the one woman, the one child are of infinite worth to God.” He goes on to say, “Amidst a vast world with its vast empires and vast events and tragedies our Lord devoted himself to a small country, to small things and to individual men and women, often giving hours of time to the very few or to the one man or woman.”

Have you ever noticed this? How Jesus spends a good bit of time with individuals or just a couple of folks? Sure, there are the large crowds, but think of the hours alone with one or two people. There was the Lady of Samaria, Nicodemus, Lazarus, Mary and Martha, the man at the pool of healing, Simon Peter. Jesus, God, spent one-on-one time with all of these.

For a God that desires for none to perish and all to be saved, this might seem an odd way of going about it; however, upon closer inspection, it seems to be working.

In the beginning of his ministry, Jesus called Peter and Andrew, two fishermen. Today it is estimated that there are more than 2 billion Christians in the world, not to mention all the ones between those first to today. It would seem that Jesus does not need and advertising firm or slick marketing campaigns to increase his flock. He needs only one person that cares and believes and is willing to tell another, who in turn is willing and confident enough to speak to a few more.

Many believe this work of conveying the Christian faith is the exclusive responsibility of the ordained. Those who supposedly have the proper credentials for engaging in this type of work.

There is a story about one of the many Billy Graham crusades. Apparently Reverend Graham was to speak at the revival on a Tuesday, but he arrived on a Monday so he attended the Monday night service incognito and sat on the grass at the rear of the crowd. Because he was wearing a hat and dark glasses, no one recognized him.

Directly in front of him sat an elderly gentleman who seemed to be listening intently to the Monday night preacher. When the preacher invited people to come forward as an open sign of commitment, Billy decided to do a little personal evangelism, some one-on-one as Jesus did. He tapped the man on the shoulder and asked, “Would you like to accept Christ? I’ll be glad to walk down with you if you want to.” The old man looked him up and down, thought it over for a moment, and then said, “Naw, I think I’ll just wait till the big gun comes tomorrow night.”

This story underlines how, in the minds of many, ministry and evangelism are the tasks of the “Big Guns,” but it is truly the ministry of us all to make the Kingdom of God known. One person at a time.

In our Gospel reading today, the king said to his servants, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.”

Today, we are the King’s servants. We are the ones who are to go into the streets and invite others to the banquet. The Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’  But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?  And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”

You are the King’s servants, therefore, go into the main streets and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet. By so doing, you will be caring for and loving the one man, the one woman, the one child who are of infinite worth to our God.

Sermon: Pentecost 17 / Proper 22 RCL A – “Listen”

listentogodBack when the telegraph was the fastest method of long-distance communication, a young man applied for a job as a Morse Code operator. Answering an ad in the newspaper, he went to the office address that was listed. When he arrived, he entered a large, busy office filled with noise and clatter, including the sound of the telegraph in the background. A sign on the receptionist’s counter instructed job applicants to fill out a form and wait until they were summoned to enter the inner office.

The young man filled out his form and sat down with the seven other applicants in the waiting area. After a few minutes, the young man stood up, crossed the room to the door of the inner office, and walked right in. Naturally the other applicants perked up, wondering what was going on. They muttered among themselves that they hadn’t heard any summons yet. They assumed that the young man who went into the office made a mistake and would be disqualified.

Within a few minutes, however, the employer escorted the young man out of the office and said to the other applicants, “Gentlemen, thank you very much for coming, but the job has just been filled.”

The other applicants began grumbling to each other, and one spoke up saying, “Wait a minute, I don’t understand. He was the last to come in, and we never even got a chance to be interviewed. Yet he got the job. That’s not fair!”

The employer said, “I’m sorry, but all the time you’ve been sitting here, the telegraph has been ticking out the following message in Morse Code: ‘If you understand this message, then come right in. The job is yours.’ None of you heard it or understood it. This young man did. The job is his.” They weren’t listening. They weren’t listening to the message that was right in front of them the entire time.

Our parable today could be summed up in one simple phrase, “How many times do I have to tell you ____?” Little Johnny got in trouble once by answering that question. His response, “Once more might do the trick.”  We’ve all heard it or said it, “How many times do I have to tell you to turn off the lights?” “How many times do I have to tell you to clean your room?” “How many times do I have to tell you that chocolate and peppermint don’t go together?” Maybe that one is just me.

In the parable, Jesus is talking to the Pharisee, the religious leaders. We have the owner of the vineyard who is God the Father, the vineyard that represents the people, and the caretakers of the vineyards who are the religious leaders.  The parable tells us that God gave the care of the vineyard – his children – into the hands of the caregivers – the religious leaders.  He gave them freedom. He entrusted the people’s spiritual well being to them, but over time, the religious leaders got it wrong, so God sent His prophets to bring correction. Yet, like the applicants for the telegraph job, the religious leaders weren’t listening to the message that was right in front of them the entire time. So time and time again they didn’t properly respond to that message.  God says, “How many times do I have to tell you?”  When they failed to listen to the prophets, God sent His one and only Son to say it again.  But as we know, the religious leaders will end up killing Him.  So what was this message that God kept trying to get across to His children?  We heard it this morning in our Old Testament lesson: The Law. The Law given to Moses and written on the tablets of stone by the very finger of God was the message, but they did not hear it as it was intended.

Instead, the religious leaders took the Law of God and interpreted it. For example, we have the US Constitution. Even with the amendments its not that long of a document, but all the various laws that come from the interpretation of the Constitution go on for volumes and volumes. The religious leaders of Jesus’ time and before did the same thing with the Law of Moses. Instead of teaching it as God intended, they interpreted it and used it to enslave the people and get around the true intent of the Law. Today, Jesus spoke to the religious leaders using a parable to condemn them for their actions. In two more chapters, He is crystal clear, “Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!… Woe to you blind guides!… You snakes!  You brood of vipers!  How will you escape being condemned to hell?”

I can’t imagine the religious leaders intentionally unleashing this kind of wrath upon themselves, but it happened just the same.  Why?  Because they weren’t listening.  Jesus said to them, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written, ‘The people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’  You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.  You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”  God asks, “How many times do I have to tell you?” The Law is not about rules and regulations that can be numbered and written down in books. The Law is about justice, mercy, faithfulness. The Law is  about the heart and that is what the religious leaders were not hearing.

Now you may be thinking to yourself, “This is the religious leaders problem. This here is Fr. John’s issue – not mine.  God will smite him if he goofs, but I’m off the hook on this on.” Please allow me to retort: 1 Peter chapter 2, “As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Peter goes on, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

The things of God are not secret knowledge locked up in the heads of the ordained. As Luke says, “The kingdom of God is within you.”   This is not just an issue for religious leaders. It is for God’s chosen people, His royal priesthood, His Holy Nation, and His special possession. It is for you and it is within you. The Gospel of Thomas has been classified as heretical by the church and perhaps by quoting from it I make myself a heretic, but it would seem to contain some truth.  In it, Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God is within you, not in buildings and mansions of stone.  When I am gone, split a piece of wood and I am there, lift a stone and you will find me.” Understanding the things of God is not some secret knowledge. The knowledge of God is within the heart of every believer – you need only to listen.

The words of Jesus teach us that the Law of God was not originally intended for scholars and theologians, for books, and ivory towers. The Law was for the heart.  It was not about whether you could recite it verbatim, but can you live it. Paul said in the letter to the Philippians, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” He wants to know Christ by listening to the things of God, not up here – in his head – but here – in his heart. The boxing great Rocky Marciano reportedly once said, “Hit the heart and the head will follow.” He also said, “Why waltz with a guy for 10 rounds if you can knock him out in one?” We can try all sorts of ways to know God, but the quickest way to this knowledge is to listen with our hearts.

Thomas a Kempis wrote, “O God, You Who are the truth, make me one with You in love everlasting. I am often wearied by the many things I hear and read, but in You is all that I long for. Let the learned be still, let all creatures be silent before You; You alone speak to me.”

Say to God, “You alone speak to me.” Then listen.

Imitation of Christ Project – Bk. 1, Ch. 1

IOC Ch1
“The Philosopher in Meditation” by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

IMITATING CHRIST AND DESPISING ALL VANITIES ON EARTH

“He who follows Me, walks not in darkness,” says the Lord. By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus Christ.

The teaching of Christ is more excellent than all the advice of the saints, and he who has His spirit will find in it a hidden manna. Now, there are many who hear the Gospel often but care little for it because they have not the spirit of Christ. Yet whoever wishes to understand fully the words of Christ must try to pattern his whole life on that of Christ.

What good does it do to speak learnedly about the Trinity if, lacking humility, you displease the Trinity? Indeed it is not learning that makes a man holy and just, but a virtuous life makes him pleasing to God. I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it. For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God? Vanity of vanities and all is vanity, except to love God and serve Him alone.

This is the greatest wisdom — to seek the kingdom of heaven through contempt of the world. It is vanity, therefore, to seek and trust in riches that perish. It is vanity also to court honor and to be puffed up with pride. It is vanity to follow the lusts of the body and to desire things for which severe punishment later must come. It is vanity to wish for long life and to care little about a well-spent life. It is vanity to be concerned with the present only and not to make provision for things to come. It is vanity to love what passes quickly and not to look ahead where eternal joy abides.

Often recall the proverb: “The eye is not satisfied with seeing nor the ear filled with hearing.” Try, moreover, to turn your heart from the love of things visible and bring yourself to things invisible. For they who follow their own evil passions stain their consciences and lose the grace of God.