Sermon: Pentecost 6 / Proper 11 – “Weed or Wheat?”

ChosenThis 85 year old couple, having been married almost 60 years, had died in a car accident. They had been in good health the last ten years mainly due to her interest in health food, and exercise. When they reached the pearly gates, St. Peter took them to their mansion which was decked out with a beautiful kitchen and master bath suite and Jacuzzi. As they “oohed and aahed” the old man asked Peter how much all this was going to cost. “It’s free,” Peter replied, “this is Heaven.” Next they went out back to survey the championship golf course that the home backed up to. They would have golfing privileges everyday and each week the course changed to a new one representing the great golf courses on earth. The old man asked, “What are the green fees?” Peter’s reply, “This is heaven, you play for free.” Next they went to the club house and saw the lavish buffet lunch with the cuisines of the world laid out. “How much to eat?” asked the old man. “Don’t you understand yet? This is heaven, it is free,” Peter replied with some exasperation. “Well, where are the low fat and low cholesterol tables?” the old man asked timidly. Peter lectured, “That’s the best part, you can eat as much as you like of whatever you like and you never get fat and you never get sick. This is Heaven.” With that the old man went into a fit of anger, throwing down his hat and stomping on it, and shrieking wildly. Peter and his wife both tried to calm him down, asking him what was wrong. The old man looked at his wife and said, “This is all your fault. If it weren’t for your blasted bran muffins, I could have been here ten years ago!”

There is a good bit of speculation on what heaven will actually be like and quite a bit more speculation on who actually gets to go, but I was wondering, would you allow me choose whether or not you get to go to heaven?

When we were younger I suppose we all had to endure that humiliating ritual of choosing sides, especially when it came to sporting events during recess or P.E. The teacher always chose the captains of the teams and it seemed that the captain was always Mr. Jock and he always had his jockettes that he would choose first. When the good picking was over, you knew that he and his buddies were no longer choosing who they wanted on their team, they were instead choosing who they would rather be stuck with. If it were up to them, they would likely not choose the losers, but force them to sit on the sideline, which they did anyways because there was no way on God’s green earth they intended on jeopardizing the balance of world power which hung on the outcome of this particular bout of dodge ball.

Now, perhaps you wouldn’t mind me picking or not picking you for a dodge ball game, but again I ask you, would you allow me choose on whether or not you get to go to heaven? If you are smart, you will answer that question with a resounding, “NO!” I am so desperately in need of God’s grace myself that I don’t want anyone or anything getting between me and it; however, what I find so curious, is that we don’t want someone choosing for us, but we are quite often more than willing to choose for others.

In our parable today, Jesus tells us that he is the sower of the seed and that the seed are the righteous – the children of God. The weeds that were sown with the good seed are the unrighteous – the children of the father of lies. And on God’s appointed day, He will send his angels to clear the field of weeds and throw them into the fire.

Unfortunately, there are days when we mistakenly believe that we are either God or the angels. That we have the knowledge, the right, and by golly the responsibility to go into that field and pull some weeds, because we know who they are. If God is too busy taking care of other business, then we will happily step in. Sometimes we step in for what we consider noble reasons, “That person is a heretic! Burn them at the stake!” While at other times our reasons aren’t quite so noble.

Author Stephen Covey tells the time that he was taking the subway through New York City on a nice quiet Sunday afternoon. There were a few other passengers on the car with him, but not many and all were simply enjoying the peace of the day. However, at the next stop a man and his two sons burst onto the train raising all kinds of ruckus. The boys ran absolutely wild up and down the car, screaming, shouting, wrestling – destroying the peace of that Sunday afternoon. I guess Covey thought the father of these two terrorist was a weed that needed pulling, so after a particularly noisy moment he turned to the father and said, “Sir, perhaps you could restore order here by telling your children to come back and sit down.”

Have you ever been in that place? So certain that you were right and the other person wrong? That you could look at someone with all confidence and judge them? Of course you have. We all have. We mistakenly think that we have the infinite knowledge and wisdom of God to make these sorts of snap decisions, but how often are we wrong?

After Covey told this weed to get the terrorist under control the man said, “I know I should do something. We just came from the hospital. Their mother died an hour ago. I just don’t know what to do.” Covey had not snatched out some weed worthy of the fires of hell, instead he had only further bruised a broken heart that was in desperate need of the love of God.

Consider the fact that Jesus knew all along that Judas Iscariot was going to betray him. He knew that Judas was a weed among the wheat, but Jesus never through him out. Instead, Jesus washed Judas’ feet, just as he had washed Peter’s, James’, John’s, and all the rest. Judas betrayed Jesus unto death, yet Jesus never condemned him, but how many have we renounced for offenses that were far more trivial by comparison?

In the parable that Jesus tells us today we are neither God nor angels. Because we are not God, then we are not the judge. Because we are not angels, we are not the ones called to go into the fields and pull the weeds. We are however, the grain of wheat and if our work is not to judge or reap, then what is it? Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”

What is our work? Jesus said, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last.” One of the desert fathers said, “If a man settles in a certain place and does not bring forth the fruit of that place, the place itself casts him out, as one who has not borne its fruit.” For me, this brings to mind a rather unpleasant thought: if we are not producing good fruit, could be that we are the weeds? I don’t like that thought.

St. Josemaria Escriva writes, “The Lord’s field is fertile and the seed he sows of good quality. Therefore when weeds appear in this world of ours, never doubt that they spring up because of a lack of correspondence on the part of men, Christians especially, who have fallen asleep and have left the field open to the enemy—Don’t complain, for there’s no point; examine your behaviour, instead.” If the weeds are truly growing amongst the wheat, we must consider that the fault might be ours. That we are the ones not producing the good fruit.

Only God chooses who goes to heaven and thanks be to God for that! But we do have a role to play and that is to produce good fruit. The person that you’ve discounted, cast off, considered a weed in this world that must be yanked out, might just need someone – and not just any someone, but you. They just might need you to help them produce the fruit in their own life; therefore, be brave, have patience, and persevere in loving them, bringing glory to Our Father in Heaven.

St. Francis stated our work best when he prayed, “Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; for it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life. Amen.”

 

YOU MAKE THE CALL  🙂

Sermon: Pentecost 5 / Proper 10 RCL A – “Tending Soil”

Tending GroundA priest decided to fashion a new spin on the parable of the sower and have it speak to the vices of the world. To do this he decided that he would use a visual demonstration to make his point for him, so he took four earthworms and placed them into four separate jars. The first worm was put into a container of alcohol, the second into a container of cigarette smoke, the third was put into a container of chocolate syrup, and the fourth worm was put into a container of good clean soil. At the conclusion of the sermon, the priest reported the following results: the first worm in alcohol – Dead. The second worm in cigarette smoke – Dead. The third worm in chocolate syrup – Dead. “D E A D. All dead,” he declared. However, holding up the fourth worm from the good clean soil he dramatically pronounced, “Alive!” He then asked the congregation, “What can you learn from this demonstration?” A little old woman in the back quickly raised her hand and said, “As long as you drink, smoke and eat chocolate, you won’t get worms!” It may be that I need to study my Bible a bit more, but I somehow suspect this was not the point Jesus was trying to get across with this particular parable.

In fact, if the unfortunate priest had a read a bit further, he would have discovered this is one of the few instances where Jesus provides a clear interpretation of the parable. The soil represents the heart. The birds snatching the seed away represent the devil who is snatching the Good News out of the heart of one who hears before they have the opportunity to grow and flourish. The seed that fell on rocky ground represents one who hears the word of God, but has no depth and therefore withers and dies producing no fruit. The seed that fell among the thorns is like one who hears the word of God, but the worries of this world overwhelm them before they can grow. Finally, there is the seed that fell on good ground. It grows. It flourishes. It produces. The Word of God grows within the good soil, within the heart of the believer.

If we are ones where the seed has been planted in good soil, then we may wonder what this parable has to do with us. It seems to be only about those who have not yet come to faith. But we know that scripture is multivalent, that is, it has many levels, so not only does this parable speak to those who have not yet come to faith, it also speaks to the believer.

Think about the sometimes odd progression of dreams. At first you’re walking through this very pastoral scene with little sheep milling about and munching the grass and then, casually turning your head to one side, you see a four slice electric toaster careening towards you with a very scary clown laughing off in the distance. Just about the time you are going to duck to avoid the toaster from smashing into your face, you turn into a duck. Let’s see Freud work that one out! As erratic as that may seem, the human heart in its relation to God, can have the same erratic behavior.

For example: you leave here today and in your heart you feel the presence of God. You feel at peace and my goodness what an amazing sermon that was! It’s all good! As you are headed home you catch the first red light up here and all of a sudden that “Blankety Blank Blank” rear ends you because he was so dang busy texting on his stupid cell phone that he couldn’t be bothered with watching where he was going. In that instant, that bird, the enemy of God’s people, snatched that seed right out of your heart.

You just finished up your prayers on Monday morning and you know in your heart that God really heard you. Soon afterwards the dog starts barking and you know its the mail lady. You go out and greet her with a smile, she hands you a few letters returning the smile, and “Oh. I wonder what the bank wants? What do you mean ‘Insufficient Funds’ and its only the 11th of the month. What am I going to do!” And the worries of the world, like that thorn bush, just choked the joy of God right out of you.

The soil of the heart can be a fickle thing; however, sometimes it doesn’t change as quickly as some crazy dream. At other times it happens more slowly like the seasons of the year.

I’m not sure if it is the case in this part of the state, but in the western part, if you do any digging you will soon discover that the ground is full of rocks. Anyone who cuts hay or gardens knows that one of the first chores of the new season is to go out into those fields and “pick rocks.” It may seem that someone has played a dirty trick on you by throwing rocks onto your land, but what has happened is the rocks have worked themselves to the surface. It’s like a bag of potato chips. All the whole chips – the ones that are the good scoopers – are at the top of the bag and the crumbs, the bit that you know you’re going to tip the bag up in your mouth in order to get, are all at the bottom. It’s counterintuitive, but the larger chips work their way up and smaller ones down. Same principle applies to rocky ground. The soil continues to settle downward, making the larger rocks seem to rise to the surface. Those that like to garden know that you regularly have to clear the ground of the rocks that have worked their way to the surface or you’ll end up with a field full of rocks.

The soil of your heart works in a similar manner. The seed, that is the Word of God, is planted. When it finds the good soil, it will grow and produce good fruit. However, if you do nothing to tend that soil, over time the rocks will work their way to surface and the once fertile soil becomes rocky. It has no depth and can no longer support life. Same is true with the weeds and thorn bushes. If you don’t tend the soil on a regular basis, then the weeds and thorns begin to encroach on the good soil and can eventually completely choke if off, leaving soil unfit for growing anything.

St. Paul wrote, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” St. Josemaria Escriva stated it this way, “The world, the devil, and the flesh are a band of adventurers who take advantage of the weakness of that savage you have within you. In exchange for the poor bauble of pleasure [that is the world] which is worth nothing, they want you to hand over to them the pure gold and the pearls, the diamonds and the rubies, drenched in the living and redeeming blood of your God–the price and the treasure of your eternity.”

The world, the devil, and the flesh want to destroy the good soil of your heart. Whether when the seed was first planted or over time, the enemies of God seek to bring death in places where God has sown life. So how do we defend ourselves?

It – as should everything – begins with God and His providence. His protective care of His people. Speaking of the Lord, the Psalmist declared:

If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
 if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning
 and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me,
 and your right hand shall hold me fast.

The Lord’s providence, His protective care watches over our hearts wherever we may go. We defend ourselves against the world, the devil, and the flesh by asking the Lord Our God to continue in the love and care for us, but it doesn’t end there, because we must also do our part. We cannot buy or through our own works attain salvation, but we must be vigilant in tending the good soil of our hearts, so that we can continue to produce good fruit. We must remove ourselves from areas of temptation and sin, and we must practice those exercises, which assist us in being faithful in our daily walk: prayer, study, Communion, fellowship. And when we fail – Yes, we will fail brilliantly with abounding flare and the wreckage to prove it – but when we do, again consider the words of Escriva: “So you’ve failed? You – be convinced of it – can never fail. You haven’t failed; you’ve acquired experience. Forward!”

Our Father has placed a seed in the good soil of your heart. Guard that soil. Tend it. Water it. Keep it clear of predators and those things that do not belong. Then produce fruit worthy of God’s glory.

Sermon: “Carrying Donkeys”

aesops_donkeyOne 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.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus said, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.” He then goes on to say that the people criticized John the Baptist for his severe asceticism and criticized him for being a friend to the outcast and sinners. Both at either end of the spectrum and both criticized. What would the critics have preferred? What could John or Jesus have done to not be criticized by anyone? Absolutely nothing. Why? The philosopher Voltaire stated it like this, “If God created us in His image we have certainly returned the compliment.” The people wanted God’s message to be the message they wanted to hear, not the one that God wanted to give them.

We can find ourselves in a similar predicament. If we preach the Gospel message too strongly, then we will be referred to as Bible thumping fundamentalist. If we soften the message to make it more palatable, then we will be labeled apostate liberals. If we try and hold these two things in tension, then it will be lukewarm fence-sitters. What are we to do? The answer lies in following in the footsteps of John and Jesus, which was to disregard the clamoring of their detractors and seek to do God’s will and to please Him alone. Jesus said, “for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.”

If we try and please everyone in the way that we present and live out the Gospel message, then we will end up carrying a donkey that will eventually drown in a river. It just won’t work. But if we seek after God’s will and do as He asks, then we will accomplish much. In doing so, we will still have critics, but God won’t be one of them.

Thomas à Kempis wrote, “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.”

Keep God before your eyes. Seek to do His will. And let others carry the donkey.

Sermon – “Our Enemies”

love-your-enemiesPaul W. Chilcote, the visiting Professor of Practicing Evangelism at Duke University tells the story of the first time he met Jürgen Moltmann, a great German theologian. Then a graduate student, Chilcote describes how, over lunch, he told Moltmann about his life as a student at the university and his studies under Frank Baker. At the name of Frank Baker, Moltmann stopped Chilcote and offered a story about Frank and his wife Nellie.

During World War II there was a prisoner of war camp for captured Germans on the northeast coast of England. Frank and Nellie Baker served a small Methodist circuit of churches in the area and felt compelled to minister to captured German soldiers, so, with permission of the prison commander, each Sunday the couple would invite a few of the German prisoners to church to “share in Word and Sacrament” and then have them to their home to share dinner. Moltmann told Chilcote that this “small thing” took place each Sunday for the duration of the war.

Completing his story, Chilcote then says, “This world-famous theologian paused, looked at me intently, and said, ‘One of those soldiers was a young man named Jürgen Moltmann. And I want you to know that the seed of hope was planted in my heart around Frank and Nellie Baker’s Sunday dinner table.’”

Jesus said, “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” During World War II, Frank and Nellie Baker had sufficient reason to hate those German soldiers, but instead, they lived out this teaching of Jesus and changed the heart the enemy. Can we do the same? Yes. We may not always succeed, but we can most certainly try.

In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul expands on these words of Jesus. They are good words to live by:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.  Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Our enemies may not always turn out to be great theologians like Jürgen Moltmann, but they may end up being our friends. However, we will never know unless we extend to them the hand of love. This does not mean that they won’t try and snap it off, but we are called to love.

Sermon: Pentecost III / Proper 8 RCL A – “I’m a Dork”

youre-a-dorkSo, I am a dork. It’s true. I’ve tried not to be a dork, but it always ends in an epic fail. I think dark socks with sandals are OK. When there is a movie coming out that I’m really excited about, I’ll research movie theaters within a hundred mile radius, just to determine which one will provide the best viewing experience. About a week ago I found this really cool app for my phone that scans the square QR codes you see on some products and then launches your browser to the indicated web site. Yeah, I’m a dork. I don’t know if you have to be a dork to cheer at movies, but when I’m at home by myself watching, say Rocky, and I catch myself sitting in my chair throwing punches with Rocky at Apollo Creed, I kind of feel like a dork then too.

In fact, I have cheered at a number of movies. It’s a bit uncomfortable when you’re the only one in a crowded theater that does, but the folks around me just look at each other and say, “What a dork.” There was that scene at the end of the Matrix when Neo stops a barrage of bullets just by holding up his hand and saying, “No.” I cheered. Harry Potter defeats Voldemort. I cheered. Heck, I probably even cheered when I saw Snoopy defeat the folding chair in “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.”

And I remember a scene from the movie The Untouchables that made me cheer. The movie was about Eliot Ness and his team as they try and bring down Al Capone in Chicago. Ness is played by Kevin Costner and he meets this incorruptible Irish cop named Jimmy Malone played by Sean Connery. Malone wants to make sure that Ness really wants to get Capone, so he pulls him into a church for a private word. Malone says to Ness, “You said you wanted to know how to get Capone. Do you really want to get him? You see what l’m saying? What are you prepared to do?” Ness responds, “Everything within the law.” Malone fires back, “And then what are you prepared to do? If you open the ball on these people, you must be prepared to go all the way. Because they won’t give up the fight until one of you is dead.” Ness, “I want to get Capone. I don’t know how.” “Here’s how you get Capone,” says Malone, “he pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to hospital, you send one of his to the morgue! That’s the Chicago way! And that’s how you get Capone.” I watched that scene – I cheered. Gave it one of those, “Yeah!”

I’m certain that I’m not the only one that cheers at movies or at many things for that matter. We all have those things we get excited about. Here recently it’s been the World Cup, but for some, when the stock market goes up they cheer. Playing golf and we sink a long putt. Cheer. Maybe it is something like the birth of a grandchild. Doing well on a test. Getting your driver’s license. These things make us smile and they make us cheer.

Consider this parable of Jesus, “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me – cheer with me – I have found my lost sheep.’” I guess since they didn’t have the multiplex theater in Jesus’ day that this was the sort of thing folks got excited about. Then Jesus goes on to say, “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

What I find so interesting is the disconnect between the things we find to cheer about and the things that Heaven finds cheers about. I’m not saying that its wrong to cheer at a movie, the birth of a child, or any of that, that’s part of being joyful, it’s part of being alive, but let me ask you this: we read the story of Abraham being called by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. Most folks dislike that story, but there towards the end the angel of the LORD called from heaven, “Abraham, Abraham! Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”

When you heard that, did you want to cheer? Did you want to cheer because God spoke from heaven? Or because he provided a substitute for the sacrifice of Isaac? Did you want to cheer because Abraham loved God so much that he was prepared to give it all up, no matter the cost?

How about this – Jesus walked on water. At least for a few steps, Peter walked on the water. Jesus saved Peter as he was sinking. Did that make you cheer? Ever been as excited about telling someone about how Jesus fed 5,000 as you were about telling them the latest tidbit of gossip?

Have you ever gotten excited about sharing the love of God? Saint Therese De Lisieux wrote, “How terrible, I thought, that no act of love is ever made in hell! And I told God that I was ready to go there myself, if it pleased Him to contrive, in that way, that for all eternity there would be one loving soul in that abode of blasphemy.” She was so excited about the love of God that she was prepared to exchange the glories of heaven for the fires of hell, so that there would be one soul in hell proclaiming the love of God.

Do you get excited when you see others living out their Christian faith? Do you want to cheer them on? The apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” When you see someone pouring out their life for the faith like you pour out a glass of water, do you encourage them? Do you cheer them on?

Would this be the kind of life you want for yourself? St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, wrote, “To defend his purity, Saint Francis of Assisi rolled in the snow, Saint Benedict threw himself into a thorn bush, St. Bernard plunged into an icy pond. You… what have you done?”

Again, is this the kind of life you want for yourself? A life that is prepared to give it all up? A life that’s not afraid to try and walk on the water? A life that plunges into the icy pond? A life that gets excited about their faith and cheers for the things of God? If you answer, “Yes”, then the question to you is the same that Malone asked Elliot Ness, “What are you prepared to do?” And once you’ve answered that question the next question is the same, “And then… what are you prepared to do?”

To ask, “What are you prepared to do for your faith?” is essentially asking, “What are you prepared to sacrifice?”

If you want your family to thrive, to be happy, and so on, you must sacrifice of yourself. If you want your world to be a better place, you have to sacrifice of yourself. If you want this church to grow and be a holy place, you have to sacrifice of yourself. You have to want it. You have to be excited about your faith and you have to make sacrifices of yourself.

If that is what you truly want, then what holds you back? What prevents you from being that beacon on a hill? If I were to make a wager, I would say that the answer is fear. Fear is what holds us back, because we are so afraid that the world will look at us and say, “God, what a dork!” And you know what? They might, but there will be some who will want what you have and they’ll want to know how they can have it for themselves. They will welcome you into their lives and in doing so will welcome God into theirs. Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

Don’t be afraid of being a dork. You have within you something mighty to cheer about. You have within you the ability to show Jesus to the world. It begins by answering that question: What are you prepared to do? What are you prepared to sacrifice?

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Sermon: Pentecost RCL A – “Shhhh”

1028simonandjude8It is beautiful and fascinating to watch people use sign language. All the words, letters, expressions wrapped up in not vocalization, but the movement of the hands. It can be done quite beautifully for music and if done properly, even though you may not understand what is being said, you still get a sense, a feeling of the message being conveyed.

In contrast, have you ever watched two people who are separated by a bit of distance in a noisy room trying to communicate with one another? It looks a bit silly. Like a game of charades gone terribly wrong.

Today in the book of the Acts of the Apostles we read how the apostles were all in one place, suddenly the wind began to blow, divided tongues of fire descended upon the disciples, and they began to speak in various languages.

It is sometimes the custom at some churches on the Day of Pentecost to re-create this event by arranging for a simultaneous reading of one or the other of today’s Scripture lessons in multiple languages.   Depending upon the linguistic gifts of members of the parish community, someone of Hispanic heritage might read the text aloud in Spanish.   Others may join in with their high school French or German, while a recent immigrant from a far-off land speaks in his or her native tongue.   The idea of course is to remind everyone of the Day of Pentecost, when people “from every nation under heaven” heard the disciples proclaim the Good News “in the native language of each.” Although fun the problem is that no one is understood. It ends up making about as much sense as those two folks in the noisy room trying to communicate, or using a biblical example, it takes on more the character of Babel than of Pentecost.

Do you remember the Tower of Babel from the Book of Genesis? It takes place very early on in human history. After the flood the sons of Noah went out with their wives and repopulated the world. As the tribe grew they stayed together and one day decided to build for themselves a great city. They said, “come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord saw this and decided that this was not a good idea. His response, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” It wasn’t that God wanted to make the challenge more difficult, this was not the divine version of the “Survivor” TV show, instead God understood that if the human race were able to complete such a task, because of pride, it would soon believe that it no longer needed God. So God said, “Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other,” at which point the people gave up the city, gathered by languages, and dispersed. The place became known as Babel, which sounds like the Hebrew word that means “confused,” and my goodness I think we have been confused and tongue-tied ever sense.

What can be misunderstood will be misunderstood.   But Babel, that first clash of cultures and failure to communicate, is more than a explanation of the differences among nations and languages.   It is an apt description of the human condition itself, because the truth is we often do not understand one another even when we speak the same language.   How many arguments have you had with someone over miscommunication? “You say tomato, I say tomato” and all that silliness? Instead of hearing and understanding one another, it is all just a lot of noise. It is as though we were those two people giving goofy hand signals and no one understands anything. It happens on personal levels and and it happens on global levels.

We can point to Babel and say, “Aha,” it’s God’s fault that there are wars and so on, but sense we don’t even get along with each other that argument falls apart. Perhaps Babel was when the languages and tribes were divided, but perhaps it also demonstrates something else to us – how we, through our own pride, have lost the ability to communicate with one another. And not only the ability, but the desire. We just don’t want to put out the effort. Too much work. It’s better to stay in my own little world and let the rest figure it out on their own. However, to act in such a way, to say such things is to announce that Pentecost never occurred. It is to declare that the spirit of Babel is still at work in the world and not the Spirit of God. But you and I know that this is just not so.

On that first Pentecost the Spirit of God comes down upon the disciples, resting on each of them and thereby bringing them—and us—together once again.   The disciples get a crash course in the language of God.    It is fair to say that after Pentecost the days of Babel are over.   The great differences among us, in communication and dialogue, culture and background, wealth and poverty, are scattered in “the rush of a violent wind.” As Acts tells us, the differences are burned away by tongues of fire.   As St. Paul teaches, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” It does not matter now whether we are Parthians and Medes of old, or Americans, Europeans, and Iraqis of today, and this is made possible through the Holy Spirit of God.

That is what is supposed to have happened at Pentecost. We were all given the same Spirit. So, how is that we still fail to understand each other?   Why does not everyone speak the same language?   Or at least understand the world in the same way?   Is the promise of Pentecost hollow and without meaning?   Good questions.

What happened at Pentecost is important to who we are as followers of Christ, but the reality of Pentecost is universal.   The disciples addressed not just believers but the peoples of the whole known world, and they spoke in a multitude of languages.  What they said wasn’t Babel. It made sense, because they spoke about God in the language of God. Just as Jesus opened the Gospel message to Cleopas and Luke on the road to Emmaus, so the apostles, through the power of the Spirit, revealed this same message to the throngs gathered in Jerusalem.

Yet, perhaps the greatest miracle of Pentecost had nothing to do with all those languages. Perhaps the most remarkable event of that first Pentecost is that the people gathered at Jerusalem actually heard the disciples. In the middle of all the hustle and bustle of the city and the babel of their own lives, not only did the people hear the disciples speaking in their own language, they also heard them in their hearts.  Now, as then, all nations and peoples yearn and need to hear the Gospel message, but we live in a world that does not like to listen.

We don’t like to listen and truly hear what each other has to say and we don’t like to take the time and truly listen to what God has to say, so instead of being drawn together by the Spirit of God, we are pushed apart by all the noise, by all the babble.

What is God’s response to all this racket? From our gospel reading we learn that the disciples are gathered together in a locked room. They are afraid. Confused. What do we do? Where do we go? What’s next? All this racket. Noise. Babel. Suddenly Jesus appears and says to them, “Shh. Shalom. Peace be with you.”

That word Shalom – Peace – in this context is not as simple as you might thing, for it is the culmination of the messages of all the prophets. It is the summation of the Gospel and it is the equivalent of Jesus’ words from the cross, “It is finished.” It is God – through Jesus – stating that there is now nothing between Him and us. No longer does sin separate us. Now there is atonement. Redemption. Salvation. Jesus is announcing that peace has been achieved between God and humankind and when you and I realize this, when we truly hear this message as they did on that first Pentecost, then our babel will be transformed into Pentecost.

No. I’m not so naïve as to believe that we will establish world peace, even Jesus said that there would be wars and rumors of wars; however, if you, through the power of God’s Holy Spirit, through prayer, and through study will truly listen, not just with your ears, but with your heart as well, then you will have the opportunity to experience this peace in your own life. It’s going to take a bit time and work, but it can be yours.

Sermon – “Arrogant Jesus?”

toonIt is a statement that offends many. They consider it religious arrogance: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Do you see any arrogance in Jesus? As he weeps at the tomb of his friend Lazarus is he declaring his superiority? When Jesus washes the feet of the disciples is he displaying a sense of entitlement? As he hangs naked, beaten, bruised, bleeding, dying on the cross, is this presumption?

No. Jesus is not being arrogant, superior, or presumptuous. So what we must consider when others believe that he is, is that what they are seeing of Jesus is those who act in His Name being arrogant and presumptuous. They believe these things about Jesus because they believe them about us.

Jesus said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Are we showing the Father? Do we stand alongside a world that weeps for its sorrows and pains or do we stand above it, claiming superior knowledge and rights? Do we exhibit the nature of the One we claim is in us or do we demand to have our feet washed? Do we take up our cross and bear it or do we refuse to get our hands dirty? Do we show the world the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ or do we show them the God according to “I”?

I believe that if we as a Christian people do the things that Jesus did, then the world will once again be witness to the God and Father that Jesus demonstrated. It is then that the world will begin to see Jesus and us in an entirely different light. If we continue in the works and ways of Jesus then the world will begin to know for themselves that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. It is only then that they will also come to the saving knowledge of Jesus: through Him all may come to the Father.

Thomas a Kempis understood Jesus to say this to him, “Follow Me. I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Without the Way, there is no going. Without the Truth, there is no knowing. Without the Life, there is no living. I am the Way which you must follow, the Truth which you must believe, the Life for which you must hope. I am the unbreakable Way, the infallible Truth, the unending Life. I am the Way that is straight, the supreme Truth, the Life that is true, the blessed, the uncreated Life. If you abide in My Way you shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall make you free, and you shall attain life everlasting.”

Our journey through this life will lead us to eternal life, but it is our responsibility to show others that single path that leads to the Father. There is no pride or arrogance involved. It is a path of humility and obedience, but we are called to show it not just to those who think or look like us. Jesus said, “if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” We show the path that leads to eternal life, not just to those who think or look like us, but to all, so that all might come to the saving knowledge of our Lord.

Sermon: Easter V RCL A – “I Will Proclaim”

pointDo you remember the name Harold Camping? He died this past December, but for many years was the leader of Family Radio Worldwide. His claim to fame was that through complex mathematical formulas he predicted that on May 21, 2011 the rapture, that is God calling his people home, would occur and the world would end as we know it. Now, if it had occurred and all of you were still here after the rapture, I wouldn’t be surprised, but since I’m still here, I figure he was wrong. For the record, Camping also predicted that the world would end on Sept. 6, 1994 and that didn’t happen either. He wrote that off as errors in his computations. Jesus said, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” My logic says, if the angels don’t know the hour or day, then someone with a calculator and a Bible won’t be able to figure it out either.

However, leading up to May 21, 2011, atheist across the country were having all sorts of fun by having “end of the world parties. Although Mr. Camping was wrong, I still don’t know that it is a good idea to mock him and I’ll tell you why: people have been looking for Jesus return for 2,000+ years. They have been praying for his return for 2,000+ years and for good reason. The author Anne Lamott summed it up, she wrote, “We are Easter People, living in a Good Friday World.” We are an Easter people believing in the resurrection, old things passing away, new life, the promises of the Good News, but the world around is in shambles. Some see the world around us and they interpret its condition as the end, “How could we go on anymore?” So in the midst of the shambles, folks want to see the Lord’s return so badly, that they begin to look for it even more closely and want it so much that they even make the mistake of trying to predict it. In a way, it is an act of desperation.

Harold Camping and the others who have predicted Jesus return through this desperation are not alone. Consider the apostles in our Gospel reading today: Jesus has already shared the Last Supper with his disciples, he has predicted his death, he has told Peter and the others that they will deny him.. essentially he is giving final instructions and saying, “Goodbye.” For the apostles, their world is spinning out of control, their world is turning into shambles, so Thomas says to Jesus, “Give us directions on how we can follow you.” Philip wants Jesus to show them the Father. In both cases, instead of breaking out a map or showing a photo, Jesus responds, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” “If you have seen me then you have seen the Father.” For the apostles that still sounds a bit cryptic, because they did not fully understand Jesus’ purpose, what his mission was all about. That understanding would not come until later, but the events surrounding Stephen that we read about today are key to this understanding.

You will recall that after Jesus’ death the apostles went about preaching and teaching; however, as more folks came to belief in Christ it became more difficult for these few followers to care for them all, so they elected seven others – the first deacons – to assist in the ministry. One of those seven was Stephen and he was very passionate about his work. Not only did he do the work of a deacon, but he also proclaimed the Gospel message. Just as the religious leadership did not want to hear it from Jesus, they didn’t want to hear it from this young upstart either. So it came to pass that on one particular day Stephen gave them a great tongue lashing. He said to them, you have always been disobedient to God, you have always limited God, and you have persecuted the prophets that God sent. The crowning jewel of this tongue lashing comes when Stephen tells them, you murdered the Son of God.

It is hear that scripture records an amazing scene, “Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’” For his perceived “blasphemy” they stoned him to death.

In believing and proclaiming the Gospel Stephen, the first martyr of the church, saw the place that Thomas had asked Jesus for directions to and he saw the glory of the Father that Phillip had wanted to see. What Stephen was witness to was the Good News. Jesus’ Kingdom was not bound to an earthly realm. You don’t need directions on how to get there or a photograph to know the Father, you only need one thing. Care to take a guess? Jesus – and that is the Good News.

What kind of person do you think of when you consider a person like Stephen? He knew that because Jesus claimed to be the Son of God it got him crucified, but here Stephen is making the same claims. Don’t you think he had to know that it would incite the religious leaders once again? Was he like one of those street preachers you imagine in Time Square, standing on a milk crate, flailing a Bible around shouting at those passing by, but in the case of Stephen knowing what he said could get him killed? Was he on a suicide mission, simply begging for death? Or was he being the light of the world. That city on a hill that can’t be hidden? Was Stephen a hero? Was he someone whose character and behavior we should model and follow?

Now please don’t think I’m picking on anyone in particular this morning. I’m not. Instead, I’m being very equitable and picking on us all, because we are all guilty of something specific in our Christian walk. Folks like Thomas and Philip ask to see God, others like Harold Camping and his followers want to see God so badly that they predict dates when they actually will, but they are not the only ones? The world is in shambles all around us and folks, whether directly or indirectly, ask us those same questions: “Can you show me the way?” “Can you help me to understand and see God?” Indirectly they may pour out to you the turmoil within their souls, their anxious thoughts, and personal concerns; but when they do, what we are all guilty of is being too polite. How many of you have heard this, “Faith or someone’s relationship with God is a personal matter.” “I don’t want to force my religious views on anyone.” “I might make them angry if I talk about God.”

I asked you if you thought Stephen was some sort of madman or a hero and the correct answer is that he is a hero. We should emulate his behavior, which means we shouldn’t always be so polite and say or do what is considered socially proper when it comes to our faith – It is THE Good News and that Good News is not there just so we can have some comforting words to say at someone’s deathbed or worse, their funeral! The Good News is for today. It is for the living and is for sharing. If someone happens to get angry and throws a few rocks then so be it. I love what St. Josemaria Escriva said on this, “If they break our skulls, we shall not take it too seriously. We shall just have to put up with having them broken.” You are living testimonies to the Good News and it is worth sharing.

Scripture says that Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit and we too are filled with that same Spirit, which will allows us share the Good News of Jesus Christ as boldly and as unapologetically as Stephen did. The world did not end on May 21, 2011 or today – at least not yet! – so there are many who still want and need to know the way to Jesus. They want to see the Father. You, each and everyone of you, can provide them with directions.

The Psalmist declares, “My mouth will tell of your righteous deeds, of your saving acts all day long— though I know not how to relate them all. I will come and proclaim your mighty acts, Sovereign LORD; I will proclaim your righteous deeds, yours alone. Since my youth, God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds. Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come.”

Don’ let that simply be something you read or hear. Let it be something you live. A way of life. Be aware of the many opportunities that the Lord provides you to share your faith and then grasp those opportunities and proclaim the Good News that is within you.

Sermon: Wednesday – “What’s in a Name”

roseRomeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2:
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

Moses went up on the mountain to see that wondrous sight of the burning bush. When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, and the Lord called out to him by name, “Moses! Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.” “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground… I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”

God appeared to Jacob again and blessed him. God said to him, “Your name is Jacob, but you will no longer be called Jacob; your name will be Israel.”

The Lord called out to the Prophet Samuel when he was still a young boy, “Samuel! Samuel!” Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Jesus called His disciples by name. Jesus looked at one who would become his disciple and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter).

For four days a man lay dead in the tomb, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” and the dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.

On the day of the resurrection, Mary Magdalene turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him, “Teacher!”

The Lord called Moses by name and he led the Israelites out of slavery. Jacob was called by name as the father of nations. Samuel – called by name as prophet. Peter as an apostle. Lazarus was called out of death. Mary was called into the understanding of who Christ truly is.

Jesus tells us that – in the end – he will clothe in white those who are victorious in Him and will walk with them. Jesus declares, “I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels.”

The Lord knows each and every one of us by name and he has known us from the beginning. The Psalmist declares, “You have searched me, LORD, and you know me. For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” The Lord knows us in the fullest sense..

In our Gospel reading to day Jesus says, “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”

There are times for all of us when we wonder if God thinks on us. Remembers us. There are presently over 6 billion people on the planet, can he know me as an individual? Yes. The Lord knows each of us by name and he calls us. He calls us to serve Him. He calls us to follow Him. He calls us out of darkness. By name, he calls us out of death. The Lord Your God is a great God. Have peace in knowing that you are His, precious in His sight.