Sermon: Proper 19 RCL B – “Build or Burn?”

Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

Jane Austen is the author of Pride and Prejudice.  Mark Twain was not a fan of Jane Austen and is reported to have said, “Everytime I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig Jane Austen up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

The American academic and Shakespearean scholar, Duncan Spaeth, stated, “I know why the sun never sets on the British Empire: God wouldn’t trust an Englishman in the dark.”

Someone once asked Ghandi: “What do you think of Western civilization?”  Ghandi replied, “I think it would be a good idea.”

A young Hollywood wannabe was once bragging to the the great actress Miriam Hopkins.  The wannabe said, “You know, my dear, I insured my voice for fifty thousand dollars.” Hopkins responded, “That’s wonderful. And what did you do with the money?”

Bessie Braddock served in the English Parliament for twenty-five years.  Encountering a somewhat intoxicated Winston Churchill, she said to him, “Winston, you’re drunk.”  Not thinking much of Bessie Braddock, Winston replied, “Bessie, you’re ugly, and tomorrow morning I’ll be sober.”

It seems that insulting someone has been around for a as long as there has been language and I’m guessing even the caveman new a thing or two about putting one another down.   Growing up, I would have to say that my ability to insult someone was limited to that witty comeback, “Yo mama!”  I may have improved since then.  Many have and some even make a living at insulting others.  For example, if it weren’t for the insults, the twenty-four hour news stations would run out of something to say within the first five minutes.

At times, the insult is just folks who give each other a hard time, and if they ever cross the line, an apology will follow, but it seems the insult has grown into a way of life.  Not the sign of some quick witted response, but an assault to tear down and destroy.  And when the words are no longer sufficient, threats and violence will ensue.

I remember years ago reading Ray Bradbury’s great dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451.  Seems it was one of those required readings, so I just muscled my way through it without much thought, but I reread it again just a few weeks ago and was amazed.  A bit too close to reality.  Neil Gaiman (sci-fi and horror author) wrote the introduction to the edition I ordered and although I don’t normally read the introductions to books—don’t necessarily want someone telling me what I’m supposed to think about a book I’m about to read—I did read this one, because of who wrote it.  In it, Gaiman wrote, “When I reread it as a teenager, Fahrenheit 451 had become about treasuring books and the dissent inside the covers of books.  It was about how we has humans begin by burning books and end by burning people.”  I had to underline that, because it is so true.  As the story goes, those who would read were first insulted, then persecuted, then… burned.  As I read the story, I came to a line that made me stop reading.  I had to get up and walk around for a bit before continuing: “Those who don’t build must burn.”  We see a lot of burning these days.  The events of twenty years ago that we remembered yesterday provide the perfect example, but in truth, we do the same thing everyday when we decide to burn instead of build. 

We burn others by cruelly insulting them from our hearts.  By speaking or even thinking of how to bring them lower.  By raising our voices in angry confrontation.  By dismantling the works of others for our own perceived benefit, in order to exert and promote our own opinion, or simply for the heck of it; but our ability to do so is not a sign of our strength.  It simply shows our capacity to burn.  Why?  “Those who don’t build must burn.”  Those who don’t want to take the time and find the courage to build and create, those who become jealous and feel threatened by others’ successes, those who are simply too lazy to create, and so on… those are the ones who will burn, because it is much much easier to burn than it is to build.  

Jesus has been going from town to town.  He has been teaching, healing, feeding, and loving.  Jesus has been building up the Kingdom of God.  He asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  In doing so, Jesus is not fishing for compliments.  He is secure in the knowledge of who he is, but he is evaluating the work.  Are the people… are you beginning to understand who I am and what we are building?   It sounds positive.  The disciples answer, some say you are “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”  That is good, but Jesus wants to know what those who have been closest to him think.  Are they grasping even more of the truth than the crowds, so he asked them specifically, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”  Yes!  The work is being accomplished and we are building something here, but don’t tell anyone about what you know of me.  Why?  Because there are those who aren’t building anything and if they discover too soon, they will try and burn it all down before the time has come; and Jesus knew who those were that would burn: the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes.  He also knew that they would eventually succeed, so he tells his disciples, you are not to be like them.  You are not to follow their example of burning.  Instead, you are to follow my example, by building: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  You as my disciples are to follow me in building up the kingdom of God, because we’re not building something that moths and rust can destroy or something that thieves can break in and steal.  No.  We are building something eternal.  What did Jesus say, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  Destroy this temple, burn it to the ground, and I will build a temple that not even death can destroy.  He did and we are to follow, taking our cross, being crucified with him and being raised to a new and eternal life that not even death can touch.  And we not only build up ourselves, but we are to build up one another.

1 Thessalonians 5:11—“Encourage one another and build one another up.”

Ephesians 4:29—“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up.”

Romans 14:19—“So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”

1 Corinthians 14:26—“Let all things be done for building up.”

Not only does this apply to those we know and love, but Jesus also makes it clear that this applies to those that hate us: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:44-45)

Am I preaching on this today because I know of a problem within this body of Christ?  Absolutely not.  I see nothing but love and compassion among you, but what I do see is an increased desire within society to insult and to burn.  It is like an infection that is going unchecked and unless we are aware of it and the symptoms, then we become susceptible, and then we become those who burn, no longer building up as Christ has called us to.  As St. Paul teaches, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  

From the poem, Ulysses, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Come my friends, tis not too late to seek a newer world.”  Let us be the ones that build and in the process, join with Jesus in the great work of making all things new.

Let us pray: Lord, make us instruments of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let us 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 we 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.F

Journal: August 20, 2021

My question for today: exactly when did they start using super glue to seal up the single serve string cheese? I can only imagine these things going in some small child’s lunchbox. I finally broke out a knife and slit it along the side and there may have been a few choice words along the way. Now that I’ve got that off my mind…

Movies: started several, finished none. Oy. Next.

I continue the Camino prep / exercise. After going at it strong for a week I gained two pounds. Rrr. Ok. Fine. I’ll just keep at it knowing that the process works. Exercise and burn more calories than you take in. That’s how it is supposed to work, although it can be as frustrating as opening a single serve string cheese! Each day I have to tell myself the Nike slogan and then put on my Brooks and do it. I will definitely get there.

When Christians fight one another: a disgrace. As Charles Spurgeon wrote, “Satan greatly approves of our railing at each other, but God does not.” There are more than enough studies out there showing that the Church is in decline and there are also several studies that show one of the greatest contributing factors is the way Christians treat other Christians. Yep. That’s right. The greatest harm to the Church is not from the outside, but from within. Think about it: you see fighting in your home, at work, on the TV, in social media and you think to yourself, “I’ll go to church, because there I will find peace and unity.” But instead of finding peace and unity, you find more upheaval, more of the same, more of the world. Who needs that?! Not me. “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.” — Brennan Manning.

The Christian is to remain humble. The Christian is to see themselves as the greatest of all sinners and their brothers and sisters as souls to be loved. The Christian is to build up and not tear down. The Christian does not wave a flag, the Christian carries a Cross (a Cross that is for you to be crucified upon so that you might die with Christ and Rise with Christ.) The Christian is a candle in a dark cave, seeking out the lost and showing the way to freedom, fresh air, and The True Light.

“Finally, brothers (that includes you sisters, too!), whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me (I was going to delete that bit, because it is not always what you see in me) practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9)

My goodness! He went and got all preachy on us.

What I learned today (and have known, but wanted to say): I also believe in miracles.

Thought for the day:

StTeresa of Calcutta

“These are the few ways we can practice humility:
To speak as little as possible of one’s self.
To mind one’s own business.
Not to want to manage other people’s affairs.
To avoid curiosity.
To accept contradictions and correction cheerfully.
To pass over the mistakes of others.
To accept insults and injuries.
To accept being slighted, forgotten and disliked.
To be kind and gentle even under provocation.
Never to stand on one’s dignity.
To choose always the hardest.”

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.

Article: 365 Days of Easter

treeBorn a Jew, Billy Crystal may not have the best insights into the Christian faith, then again, he may have it pretty well worked out. With regards to Easter, in his book Still Foolin’ ‘Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys, he writes, “Two thousand years ago Jesus is crucified, three days later he walks out of a cave and they celebrate with chocolate bunnies and marshmallow Peeps and beautifully decorated eggs. I guess these were things Jesus loved as a child.” Leading up to Easter, a quick glance around the stores will only confirm his conclusion, but perhaps there is a bit more to it.

When we think of Easter, we often consider it to be that one glorious Sunday of celebrating the Lord’s resurrection. Yet for many, Easter is a season – Eastertide – lasting 50 days. If they had been around, Jesus very well may have enjoyed a chocolate bunny and Peeps, but what he “loved” as a child and as an adult, were the people of God. What did he hope to accomplish through this love? Redemption and adoption. “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Galatians 4:4-5). No. Easter is not simply about sugary confections. Easter is the time we celebrate the resurrection of Our Lord, the conquering of death, and the receiving of our full inheritance as sons and daughters of God. So is this great gift something we should only celebrate for day? For only the fifty days of Easter? What would our lives look like, what would the church be like, how would our world change if we lived into the resurrection not just for one day or 50 days, but 51 days? 150 days? 250? What would happen if we lived into the resurrection of Our Lord 365 days a year?

Jesus declares, “I am resurrection” (John 11:25). This is not an event held in suspension to be celebrated for a few hours on a specified day. Instead, it is an event that should permeate everyday and every aspect of our lives. Yet, like so many opportunities in our lives, daily living the resurrected life requires choice and intentionality. Daily living the resurrected life requires us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus without hesitating or questioning where He might be leading. It requires us to boldly say with Mary, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Finally, daily living the resurrected life requires us to love. In Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging, Brennan Manning states, “For me the most radical demand of Christian faith lies in summoning the courage to say yes to the present risenness of Jesus Christ.” What is the “radical demand of the Christian faith”: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). That command is not for the faint of heart! It takes great courage to truly love, because to truly love means to risk everything.

Make the decision. Be bold. Say, “Yes,” to the risenness of Jesus. Not just for a few hours or a day, a week or even a year, but every day. Every day, live the resurrected life God has blessed you with.

Sermon: Easter Sunday RCL A – “See and Understand”

photo-14Old Blind Broussard and his Seeing Eye dog were sitting on the dock behind Pierre’s Oyster Bar and Bait Shop when Thibideaux pulled up.

“Hey Broussard, I ain’t seen ya in a while. Where ya been?” Thibideaux asked as he tied off his boat.

“Thibideaux my friend, I ain’t seen you in a while either. I’ve been on an adventure!” Broussard replied.

“What kind of adventure can a blind man go on?” Thibideaux asked.

“Well, I went bungee jumping,” Broussard replied.

“Bungee jumping? For true? How was dat?” Thibideaux asked.

“It was lotsa fun, but I can’t go no more,” Broussard said as he patted his dog on the head.

“Why’s dat? Did ya hurt yer self?”

“No nothin like dat,” Broussard said, “It just scared the hell outta my dog!”

Scripture tells us that Jesus and his disciples “came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man – I don’t think it was Broussard – and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, ‘Do you see anything?’ He looked up and said, ‘I see people; they look like trees walking around.’ Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.”

So often in Holy Scripture, blindness is used as a physical infirmity that is pointing to a spiritual infirmity. In the passage, Jesus was demonstrating that the people understood a bit about who he was, but not fully. I don’t know that it is necessarily a compliment to be compared to trees walking around, but it shows that we can on occasion be a bit thick.

In the resurrection account from John’s Gospel that we read this morning, we also have an apparent case of spiritual blindness. Peter and John have their foot race to the empty tomb. Not finding Jesus, but only his grave clothes, they leave. Following close behind is Mary Magdalene. She is standing there alone, staring into the empty tomb and crying. She sees two angels sitting at the head and foot of where Jesus had been lying, when suddenly she hears a voice behind her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” She turned, but did not recognize Jesus, she thought he was the gardener. So turning and peering once again into the empty tomb she says, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” At which point Jesus speaks her name – “Mary!” – and then, in the speaking of her name, she knows her Teacher. She knows Jesus.

What was it though that prevented her from recognizing him right away, after all, she had been with him for quite some time? Two reasons are obvious and both point to her seemingly physical blindness and her certain spiritual blindness.

The first reason was that she was crying. Through her tears she could not see. Like the blind man that saw only trees, demonstrating those who only partially understand, Mary had only partially understood the things that Jesus had been saying before his crucifixion: “as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” “I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.” “After three days I will rise again.” She had heard these words of Jesus, but she did not understand.

The second reason for not recognizing Jesus was the simple fact that she was not looking at him. Where was she looking? Except for a quick glance over her shoulder, she was looking into the grave. She was looking into death.

It was only when Jesus called her by name – “Mary!” – that she was able to come out of the darkness of her blindness and the scales were shed from her eyes that she was able to see clearly. The prophet Isaiah wrote, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” In that instant the full Light of Christ came pouring into Mary’s soul and she truly saw – understood – all that Jesus had spoken of Himself.

Mary Magdalene is not the only one who experiences spiritual blindness. We too often suffer from this unfortunate malady and for the same reasons as Mary. First, we cannot see clearly, we fail to understand, because we try and look at the world through our own tears. We see the pain and suffering of others and of ourselves and we think, “This is it. This is as good as it gets.” But like Mary, we also forget the teachings of Jesus, “I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” “Behold, I make all things new.”

Second, our spiritual blindness is also caused by the fact that we aren’t looking at Jesus. We are also staring into the grave. We are looking into our past and what has been. We consider our lives and we believe that all is lost. We will never be “good enough” to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. We see our own death and fail to recognize that the empty tomb that we are staring into has nothing to do with death! That tomb, the tomb of Jesus, is all about life – eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord!

The Lord our God knew you before the world was even created. From that day forward – like Mary – He has been calling out to you. Calling you by name. Calling you out of the darkness, out of your own blindness, and into the light. Why are you still crying? Why are you still staring into the tomb? The prophet Isaiah declares:

“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the LORD rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.”

Allow that glory, that light, to shine upon and in you. Hear your name being called and be free of your blindness so that you too can walk in the full light of Christ. Once you are filled with His presence, once you see and understand, then allow that glory to shine through you to others. St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, writes, “light up all the ways of the earth with the fire of Christ that you carry in your heart.” Let the light of Christ free you from your blindness, then allow that same light to shine through you so that others may see and give glory to your Father in Heaven.

Sermon: Palm Sunday RCL A – “Be Strong. Be Courageous.”

catIt was George Burns who said, “The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending, then having the two as close together as possible.” I think you would agree that today the space between the beginning and ending should be even shorter. Truthfully, not much more needs to be said, the liturgy and the readings have spoken for themselves, yet that still won’t stop me from saying a few words.

Following the Exodus from Egypt and their wanderings in the desert for forty years the Israelites came to the Jordan River and it is near that place on Mount Nebo that Moses dies. Following his death, Joshua became the leader of the Israelites and would be the one who would finally lead them across the Jordan River and into the land that God had promised. Several days prior to the crossing the Lord spoke to Joshua telling him that if he and the Israelites followed the Law that had been given to Moses, then they would be prosperous. During this particular discourse – three times – the Lord said to Joshua that during the days ahead he should be “Strong and courageous.” At the third time the Lord said, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” Days later the people would cross the Jordan and conquer the first city they came to – Jericho. From there Joshua and the vast numbers of Israelites went out into the Holy Land as God had commanded.

There is an interesting similarity to that event and Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem that we read about today. We often get a vision of Jesus traveling up to the gates of Jerusalem and there being met by the people waving palm branches, but as it turns out the crowd has been with him for quite a while. In fact they had been with him for about seventeen miles. Scripture says, “As Jesus and his disciples were leaving [a certain city], a large crowd followed them.” What was that certain city? Jericho.

I found it kind of interesting that Joshua and the Israelites set out from Jericho to conquer the Promised Land and that Jesus also set out from Jericho to conquer the eternal promised land. It made me wonder if in leaving that place and heading to Jerusalem and the cross if Jesus was also comforted by those words that the Lord had spoken to Joshua, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

The Israelites, then Jesus, but they are not the only ones who must travel that road, for it is one that we too must travel spiritually. Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” To be Jesus’ disciples we too must head out from Jericho and take that road to Jerusalem, knowing all along where it leads. Knowing that in the end we will be crucified with Christ, but also knowing that this road leads through some very barren, desolate, and rugged areas. Places where there is no water or nourishment. Places where you can be robbed, beaten, killed. Places where you can very easily lose your way and become lost. Therefore as we travel along that road we must stay near to Jesus. We must keep our eyes firmly fixed on him and where he leads, for He is the Way. If along the way you should become fearful, then listen closely and you too will hear the comforting words of Our Father, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Jesus said, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Even on the darkest of nights, you are not alone. Be strong. Be courageous. God is with you.

 

 

Sermon: Lent III RCL A – “Forgiveness, Pt. 3 – Obedience, Guilt, Imitate”

images-19The new priest is nervous about hearing confessions, so he asks an older priest to sit in on his sessions. The new priest hears several confessions, then the old priest asks him to step out of the confessional for a few suggestions… The old priest suggests, “Cross your arms over your chest and rub your chin with one hand.”… The new priest tries this. The old priest suggests, “Try saying things like, ‘I see, yes, go on, and I understand, how did you feel about that?”  The new priest says those things, trying them out. The old priest says, “Now, don’t you think that’s a little better than slapping your knee and saying, ‘No way! What happened next?'” – I’m not sure if this would be a good time to encourage you all to go to confession during Lent or not.

It is in the fifth chapter of James that we hear specific instructions on healing: “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil.”   A few verses later, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”  James is showing us that there is often a link between sin and sickness, therefore he encourages us to confess our sins to each other.  Often, when we hear these instructions we think of the confession between a penitent and a priest, but James is also talking about Christian speaking to Christian as a means of accountability.  For example – if you have a problem with ___, then you can confess this to a trusted friend or even a group of trusted friends who will in turn hold you accountable.  They do this not so they can beat you over the head when you slip and fail, but so that they can support you in your time of weakness and give you encouragement when you hold strong.

So we confess our sins to God and to a priest for absolution.  We confess to one another for accountability and encouragement, and finally we confess so that we might receive forgiveness from the person who we injured.

Back in the day before I was the saint that you see standing before you today, I had a favorite expression for someone who had injured me in someway when asked if I would forgive them.  I heartily responded, “I wouldn’t spit on them if they were on fire.”  That left very little room for reconciliation and Jesus was not amused.  Yet finally I heard that call from St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”  I understood that I must learn to forgive as I have been forgiven.  For me, I also discovered that there were three main reasons that compelled me to forgive: obedience, guilt and imitation.

Take obedience.  Some folks choose to go to work out of obedience, which can sometimes be closely linked to fear.  Obedience in that they know what is expected of them and fear that they will be fired if they don’t.  The same line of thought applies to forgiveness.  Consider Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant: a servant owed a great debt to his master and yet was unable to pay when his master called in the debt.  He therefore begged his master for forgiveness and the master forgave the debt and let him go; however, when that servant went out he encountered someone who owed him a debt and demanded that it be paid.  When the man said he couldn’t pay the servant had him thrown into prison until he could.  When the other servants saw what had happened they went to the master and reported it.  The master recalled the servant and said to him, “‘You wicked servant; I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.  Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’  In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.”   Jesus concludes by saying, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”  There are times when we may also forgive someone out of obedience to the command to forgive and out of fear of the repercussions of not forgiving.  Is that forgiveness?  Yes, as long as it is from the heart.  As long as we truly forgive.

Second, we may choose to forgive out of guilt.  Take for example the parable of the father who had two sons.  The father went to the first and said, “‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’  ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.  Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.”  Jesus asked those who were listening to him, “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”  “The first,” they answered, but the question for us is: what turned the first son’s heart?  Probably a number of things, but I suspect it started with guilt.  “Dad asked me to do this [grumble.  grumble.]”, yet off he went.  In a similar manner – because of guilt – we may choose to forgive.  If I am being hard hearted and not wanting to forgive, but then look at an image of our crucified Lord and recognize the price he paid for my sins that I might be forgiven… guilt.  Plain and simple.  The guilt of my own sin and understanding the price paid by Jesus for those sins, will compel me toward forgiveness.  Is that forgiveness.  Again, yes, as long as it is from the heart.

So we can forgive out of obedience and guilt, but I would suggest to you there is an even better way: imitation.  Why do you do something in a particular way?  Oh, that’s how my dad always did it.  Why are you a dentist?  Oh, my mother was a dentist.  We imitate the behavior we see from others.  In the first paragraph of the first chapter of the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, “‘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.”

Ephesians 5:12 (NIV), “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”  “Follow God’s example” is also translated in other versions as “Be ye therefore imitators of God.”  That word “followers” / “imitators” is translated from the Greek word “mimEtai” (μιμηταὶ)  It is where we get the word “mimic.”  What is it we are to imitate / mimic as dearly loved children of God?  “When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left.  Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’”  That is what we are to imitate.  We forgive, because Jesus forgives.

If you forgive from your heart out of obedience or guilt, then you have done as Christ commanded.  You have forgiven because you have been told to forgive and know that you must, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that; however, in being a follower / imitator / mimic of Jesus you will forgive – not because you have been told to do it – but because you want to be like Jesus.

Is that asking too much?  Is it to hard to want to be like Jesus?  If so, then to paraphrase George Herbert, set it up there as a mark, something to aim for “since he shoots higher that threatens the moon, than he that aims at a tree.”  Forgive by any means you can summon, but seek the higher way of imitating Christ.

Sermon: Lent I RCL A – “Forgiveness, Pt. 1 – Where to Begin?”

forgive-tumblr

The Beatitudes.  Blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, peacemakers, and the persecuted.  Have you ever read those and thought to yourself, “I am so going to hell!”  There are days when I think that my ticket is already stamped.  This notion  of going to hell is only confirmed when I consider the seven deadly sins.

Pride.  How could I possibly be prideful when I’m the humblest person I know?  Greed?  Yeah.  Here’s a good one, lust.  You know what I think of when I think of being lustful?  Roy Orbison.  No.  Not Roy himself, but that song of his, “There she was just walking down the street, singing do wah diddy diddy dum diddy do.  She looked good, she looked fine, and I nearly lost my mind”  What is wrong with me?  Sloth?  Wrath?  Gluttony?  Please!  Just look at me.  I couldn’t come close to measuring up to a single one of the Beatitudes, but give me the seven deadly sins and I’m batting 1,000.  I am most certainly going to hell and my only consolation is that I can look around the congregation and know that I’ll at least have several friends with me!

In our Gospel today Jesus was able to overcome all the temptations that the Devil threw at him – worldly pleasures, fame, power, everything – but if you were to set a double beef cheeseburger, large fries and an ice cold Coca-Cola down in front of me, I’m fairly certain that I would commit at least half of the seven deadly sins.  If you set that same double beef cheeseburger, large fries, and ice cold Coca-Cola down in front of somebody else, I would probably break the other half.

I know it is Lent and we aren’t suppose to be having any fun in Church, but I’m sure you see the point as it would apply to a wide range of sinful activity that’s a bit more serious than a double cheeseburger.

St. Peter implores us, “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.  Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”  As a Christian people, that is the goal, but so often we end up in the same boat as St. Paul, “I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

Pride is at the top of the list of the seven deadly sins, because it takes a great deal of humility to admit that we have sinned.  Think how difficult it is to go to confession, how much humility it takes to confess your sins to another –  many can’t even make themselves practice this sacrament, but if we do humble ourselves, we can recognize that we have sinned, that we have damaged our relationship with God.

But the committing of the sin is not the saddest part?  We can discuss the fact that we have sinned.  We can identify times in our lives that we committed horrible acts.  We can identify times in our lives when someone committed horrible acts against us.  We will gladly beat ourselves up time and time again for something we did wrong even if it was years ago.  I can stand up here, point you out, and say, “You are a sinner.”  With the exception of the very proud, most, in humility will hang their head in agreement and defeat.

During the Ash Wednesday service we recited the 51st Psalm and we can agree with the words David wrote, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.  Against you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.  Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother’s womb.”

But you know what?  That’s not the sad part.  The sad part is that in the next sentence after I have said you are a sinner – in the very next sentence – I can tell you that you are forgiven – you are forgiven – and the sad part is… you won’t believe me.

Jesus said, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”  Again “Jesus said, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’” And again, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”  Peter declares, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”  St. Paul writes, “Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.”  St. John confirms, “I am writing to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of Jesus’ name.”  All that and many still won’t believe those words, “You are forgiven.”

Not only that, but believing that we are forgiven is almost as difficult as it is for us to forgive others.  That whole bit about “forgive, that you may be forgiven.”  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others.”  Yeah, there are days when I definitely don’t want to pray that!  Do you really always forgive others?

Forgiveness, in every form, is key to the teachings of Holy Scripture.  We know that it is a large part of our Christian identity, but what does it really mean?  I should probably spend Lent beating you over the head with your sins, but most of us don’t need any help with that.  So I’ve decided that during this Holy Lent we are going to look at the various aspects of this rather illusive topic.

To begin with, you have an assignment for this week: think about forgiveness.  No.  Not about who you should forgive or anything like that, but consider your ideas about forgiveness.  What do you think Jesus means when he says we should forgive?  How can we forgive ourselves?  Next week we will begin with many of the myths out there about what true Christian forgiveness is all about and see if what we believe is right or wrong.

In the meantime, consider these words Mahatma Gandhi: “The weak can never forgive.  Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

 

Sermon: Matthew 5:21-37

telemachus1

Foxes’ Book of Martyrs tells us the story of Telemachus, a Christian monk who, in 391 AD, went on a pilgrimage to Rome. While there he noticed crowds flocking to the Coliseum to see gladiators do battle. He followed them in, only to witness a sight that repulsed him.

Emperor Honorius was celebrating his triumph over the Goths. Gladiators armed with spears and swords reenacted the battle.  After their reenactment the bodies of the dead were dragged from the arena and its bloodied surface covered with a fresh layer of sand.

In came a new series of gladiators. Some were armed with swords and spears, others with nets. The crowd watched with excitement as they sought to outdo each other. When a gladiator was wounded, his opponent would loom over him, waiting for the crowds verdict on whether to slay him or let him live. So great was the bloodlust that at times wealthier spectators would climb down to get a better view of the execution.

Telemachus watched with horror as people died, battles raged and the crowds cheered. Prompted into action this bald headed, robed figure found his way onto the arena floor. He ran toward two gladiators locked in battle, grabbed one of them and pulled him away. He exhorted the two gladiators to abandon their murderous sport. He appealed to the crowd to not break God’s law by murdering.

The response was anything but favorable. Angry voices drowned out Telemachus’, demanding that the spectacle continue. The gladiators prepared to do battle again, but Telemachus stood between them, holding them apart, urging them to reconsider. Driven by the anger of the crowd and their rage at Telemachus’ interference, the gladiators cut Telemachus to the ground, as the crowd threw missiles at him. Telemachus was killed.

Legend holds that when the crowd saw the little monk lying dead in a pool of blood, they fell silent and then began leaving the stadium, one by one.  Because of Telemachus’ death, three days later, the Emperor by decree ended the Games.

In this brief history we can see the work of a saint, but what struck me today was the crowd.  Most, I would hope, were opposed to the violence of war and murder.  However, having entered into the arena they were swept up in the event.  They cheered on the violence and encouraged the murder of the innocent monk.  They voluntarily subjected themselves to witness these horrors, they engaged a temptation, and in the process became complicit in then sin.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus makes several statements where he ups the standard, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, `You shall not murder’… But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”  He speaks in a similar manner with regard to adultery, lust, swearing and more.  Like the crowd in the arena, these are offenses that we voluntarily subject ourselves to.  We walk into them knowing full well what we are doing.  Someone might anger us, but they don’t cause that anger to swell into a rage.  I may see a pretty girl walking down the street, but she is not the cause of lust rising up in me.  However, like those in the crowd, when we engage with a temptation instead of immediately walking away, then we may fall into sin.

St. Josemaria Escriva put it this way, “Do not enter into dialogue with temptation.  Allow me to repeat: have the courage to run away and the moral strength not to dally with your weakness or wonder how far you can go.  Break off, with no concession!”

When temptations arise in your life, do not entertain them.  Do not consider the “what ifs.”  Immediately set the temptation aside, not giving it the slightest edge.  In this way we can all live holier lives.