Sermon: Lent 5 RCL A – “Institutionalized”

You all know that I’m a fan of Stephen King, but many people won’t pick up anything he’s written. Too scary for most, although much of what he writes isn’t what you think it is. To illustrate the point, King tells a story. He says, “I was in a supermarket down here in Florida, and I came around the corner, and there was a woman coming the other way. She pointed at me, she said, ‘I know who you are! You’re Stephen King! You write all of those horrible things. And that’s ok. That’s all right. But I like uplifting things, like that movie Shawshank Redemption.’ And I said, ‘I wrote that!’ And she said, ‘No, you didn’t. No, you didn’t.’” Well, he did write Shawshank Redemption, which is a fantastic story. This week, I was reminded of a particular scene in the movie version.

An old prisoner, Brooks Handlin, has learned that he will be paroled, but instead of being overjoyed, he begins acting very erratic, even threatening to kill another prisoner. It seems odd to most, but Red—another of the characters—understands. Red says, “Brooks is just institutionalized. The man’s been in here 50 years… 50 years! This is all he knows. You know what I’m trying to say? I’m telling you, these walls are funny. First, you hate them, then you get used to them. Enough time passes, you get to depend on them. That’s institutionalized.”

In reading our first lesson today, you would think that Stephen King wrote it—the Valley of Dry Bones. To understand what Ezekiel was writing, we must go back in history.

In Deuteronomy, the Lord says, “If you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today—that is, follow the Law—the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth.” (28:1) A few verses on comes the “but.” “But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you.” (28:15) There follows a litany of curses that will befall the people if they break God’s commands, one of which states, “The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You shall go out one way against them and flee seven ways before them. And you shall be a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. And your dead body shall be food for all birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth, and there shall be no one to frighten them away.” (28:25-26) In those days, the victor in a battle would shame the ones they conquered by refusing to allow the bodies of the dead to be retrieved and buried. Those bodies were to lay where they fell as a sign of defeat. God said, if you break my Law, this will happen to you.

We know that the people were disobedient, and in 587 b.c., God had had enough, and the promised curses fell upon the people. Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the Babylonians, sent in his army, sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and took the people into captivity and exile. During the battle, 4,200 people were killed.

Ezekiel was a prophet and a preacher in Jerusalem. He was there in 587 when the Babylonians attacked, and he went with the people into exile. While in exile, he continued to preach and to have visions. What we read today is one of those visions. It began, “The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones.” There is no indication in the text that this valley of bones is the land surrounding Jerusalem, but it is safe to assume, given that Ezekiel was there and saw the dead. It is also safe to assume that the Babylonians would not have allowed the dead to be removed from the battlefield so that the Israelites would be further humiliated. So, in his vision, Ezekiel, who was in exile, stood amongst the dried bones of the dead. 

While there, God spoke, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” As he spoke, the bones began to rattle. They put on flesh and skin. Everything was restored except for one thing—life. The Lord spoke to Ezekiel again and said, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” 

There is a Hebrew word for breath—rûah. There is also the word hārûah—The Breath. Breath is what those corpses needed to have life, but only The Breath—the very Spirit of God that breathed life into the first man, Adam—can give life-giving breath. Both of these words are in what God commanded Ezekiel to do-call on The Breath that life might be restored to those who had been killed, yet not only them but to all. Everyone. 

God allowed the Babylonians to conquer the Israelites. It was the fulfillment of the curse that God promised for disobedience. Ezekiel’s vision of The Breath breathing new life into the dead is the sign that God is lifting that curse and restoring the people. For those in exile with Ezekiel, this message is one of great hope because their exile was not only an exile from the land but also an exile from God. Now, they have been given new life. 

It is that same new life that we are given. The Breath of God is breathed into us, and we are no longer dried-up bones. Through Jesus, we are fully alive beings in relationship with our God. Yet, we so often still hang around in that valley of dry bones, clinging to our former life. Thomas Merton referred to this clinging as the life of the “old man.”

“For the ‘old man,’” Merton writes, “everything is old: he has seen everything or thinks he has. He has lost hope in anything new. What pleases him is the ‘old’ he clings to, fearing to lose it, but he is certainly not happy with it. And so he keeps himself ‘old’ and cannot change: he is not open to any newness. His life is stagnant and futile. And yet there may be much movement but change that leads to no change. The more it changes, the more it stays the same.

“The old man lives without life. He lives in death, and clings to what has died precisely because he clings to it. And yet he is crazy for change, as if struggling with the bonds of death. His struggle Is miserable, and cannot be a substitute for life.” (A Year with Thomas Merton, p.84) 

More simply put, Merton is saying that we are like Brooks Handlin in Shawshank Redemption. We are “institutionalized.” We’ve lived so long in that valley of dry bones that it is all we know. We’ve gotten so used to living that “old man” life that even though we want to change, we cling to… death.

Standing at the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus “cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to [the people], ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’” Jesus, The Breath of God, breathed new life into Lazarus, and Lazarus left the tomb, the valley of bones, and removed all that had bound him to it. We are invited to do the same.

Come out! Come out of the valley and enter into this new life. Merton wrote, “For the ‘new man’ everything is new…. The new man lives in a world that is always being created and renewed. He lives in this realm of renewal and creation. He lives in life.” Come out and live in life. It is a gift to you from God.

Let us pray:
Breathe in us O Holy Spirit, that our thoughts may all be holy.
Act in us O Holy Spirit, that our work, too, may be holy.
Draw our hearts O Holy Spirit, that we love but what is holy.
Strengthen us O Holy Spirit, to defend all that is holy.
Guard us, then, O Holy Spirit, that we always may be holy. Amen.

Sermon: Wednesday in the Fourth Week of Lent

Photo by Karl Raymund Catabas on Unsplash

Cultural anthropology is the study of various cultures and identifies their differences. One categorization method is to determine whether a culture is driven by guilt, shame, or fear. 

A guilt culture focuses on law and judgment. Most individuals living in such a society will want to have a good conscience. Am I following the laws of the land and the moral law acceptable to most? A shame culture seeks to have honor to avoid the shame of dishonor. Am I being looked at favorably by those around me? And a fear culture is one where the individual lives under physical intimidation. Am I going to be physically hurt for my actions?

In the United States, we live under the first—guilt culture. Throughout history, we have developed the law of the land and built a moral law based on what we understand as Biblical teaching. The fear culture can be seen in states like North Korea or Iran. The people fear retribution, so they do what is expected. In countries like Japan and China, the cultures are based on shame/honor—a fear of losing “face.” 

In the Middle East today and in the time of Jesus, this shame/honor culture was and is the driving factor in how people behave. I admit, this is a new way for me to read and understand Holy Scripture, but the evidence of Jesus’ words and those of Paul and the others suggest that Jesus was far more interested in honor than he was in establishing set moral laws. 

Jesus said, “The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son, so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.” Jesus did not say, “Whoever does this and does not do that (law/judgment) will receive eternal life.” Jesus said, “Whoever believes my words and honors me and honors the Father will receive eternal life.” So the question is, how do we honor Jesus? Answer: we do what Jesus had been doing. What had Jesus been doing?

Leading up to these words, Jesus had healed a paralytic who had been crippled for thirty-eight years. Being a paralytic, being sick, it was assumed that the man or his parents had sinned greatly. Being sick put great shame on the man. Jesus healed him and gave him his honor back. Similarly, Jesus healed a boy who was near death.  There was the Samaritan woman at the well. She had experienced great shame—five divorces and now living with a man. Given the culture and the animosity between Jews and Samaritans, Jesus honored her simply by speaking to her. Still, in talking to her, he took her shame and restored her honor within herself and her community. 

In the end, Jesus endured the shame of the cross (cf. Hebrews 12:2) to remove our shame and, in turn, bestowed upon us the greatest honor—He made us God’s children.

How do we honor Jesus? By working to restore the honor of others, which is the fulfillment of our Baptismal Vows—seeking to serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves, striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being. We honor Jesus and the Father by giving honor to those we encounter.

Sermon: Wednesday in the Third Week of Lent

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

The Five Monkeys Experiment. Five monkeys were placed in a pen together. Dangling from the ceiling was a rope, and a cluster of bananas was at the top of the rope. One of the monkeys spots the bananas and begins to climb the rope. Immediately, the experimenters spray all five monkeys with freezing cold water for five minutes. Once they recover, a second monkey gives it a try, and again, they are all sprayed with freezing water. Afterward, none of the monkeys tried for the bananas, and the experimenters never used the water again.

After some time, one of the five monkeys is replaced. The newcomer sees the bananas and starts to climb the rope but is quickly pulled back down by the other four. The newcomer tries several times, but the result is the same, so he eventually stops trying. 

Over time, all five of the original monkeys are replaced with newcomers. None of the monkeys in the pen have ever been sprayed with freezing water, but anytime a new monkey is introduced into the enclosure, it will be attacked if it attempts to climb the rope. 

If the monkeys could respond and were asked why they refused to climb for the bananas and attacked any that tried, even though they had no knowledge of the freezing water, they would likely respond, “Because we’ve always done it this way.”

Regarding the Law, Moses said to the people, “Take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children.” And the people obeyed, teaching the Law from one generation to the next. Jesus believed that the Law was good, for He said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill,” but he was very critical of the way the Law was being taught. 

No–in no way shape or form am I comparing God’s Chosen People to monkeys, but the way they taught the Law was similar to those monkeys in the pen. The first generation knew the “Why” behind their actions—climb the rope and get sprayed by freezing water—yet subsequent generations only behaved in a certain way because it was how they had always done it. The teaching of the Law was done similarly. All it accomplished—when it worked, which wasn’t very often—was to conform the people’s actions to how they had always done it, but it did nothing to draw them nearer to God, which was the original intent of the Law, and this is why Jesus was so critical.

We know that sin separates us from God, so God gave the Law that we might know sin. St. Paul teaches us, “If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” (Romans 7:7) Therefore, the Law was to be taught and obeyed, not to avoid or fear God spraying us with freezing water, but so that we could have the means to draw closer to Him. Jesus’ words and deeds, His life and death, all declared that what the people were doing was not working, so through His death and resurrection, Jesus fulfilled the Law. In doing so, He restored us to God and made us one with Himself and the Father.

We follow the Law by following Jesus. Not out of fear, but out of relationship… out of love.

Spend some time considering your relationship with God. Ask yourself, “Am I following Jesus because ‘This is the way we’ve always done it’ or because I’m in love with Jesus?” The answer may help you draw nearer to our God.

Sermon: Lent 3 RCL A – “Forget”

Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well by Paolo Veronese

If a company were to commission a study on forgetting things, which company would be the most likely candidate? I would tell you, but I’ve forgotten. No. It is 3M, the parent company of the Post-It Brand, the maker of those brightly colored sticky notes, technically called “repositionable pressure-sensitive adhesive sheet material.” It is estimated that 50 billion of those little sticky notes are created yearly, and I’m a significant contributor to their use.

In the study, it was learned that 56% of men rely on their spouses to remember important things, and over 50% of the women stated that their spouses forgot something important. (Never mind the fact, according to the same study, women are more likely to lie about forgetting something.)

On average, we forget four things daily, totaling 1,460 items per year. A spokesman for Post-It said, “Our days are so jam packed full of tasks whether at work or at home, it’s no surprise people find it hard to keep track of everything. With much longer working hours, financial concerns and just busier lifestyles, even those with the best memory can stumble when it comes to remembering even the most simple of things during a hectic day.”

The top five things forgotten:
– Forget what you went into a room for
– Misplacing keys
– Forgetting things on your grocery list
– People’s names when you’re introducing them
– Where you put your pen (Source)

We forget things; however, forgetting certain things helps us remember others. There’s quite a bit of science behind it, which does not pertain to forgetting where you put your keys or the effects of dementia and other diseases of the mind, but we forget these additional items because we don’t really need to remember them, and in forgetting, it makes our memories more efficient.

So, with all that talk of memory and forgetting, let’s test yours. Where did Abraham’s servant meet, Rebekah, a wife for Issac? He met her at a well in Haran. Where did Jacob first meet his wife, Rachel? He met her at a well, also in Haran. Where did Moses first meet his wife, Zipporah? He met her at a well in Midian. Do you see a pattern? And today, Jesus meets a woman at the well.

Most women would come to draw water early in the morning or late in the evening, but this Samaritan woman went to the well at noon, the hottest part of the day. Why? As Jesus points out, she has had five husbands, and the man she is with now is not her husband. She likely came to the well when she hoped not to encounter anyone else so that she would not be condemned, criticized, and made to feel ashamed. However, when she arrives, she is met by a Jewish man.

Jews and Samaritans do not associate, and a Jewish man would never address a Samaritan woman. Never. Yet, Jesus says to her, “Give me a drink.” From there, the conversation goes back and forth. Why are you talking to me? How will you draw water? Are you greater than Father Jacob, who dug the well?

She came to the well hoping to avoid others because she knew she would be condemned. Seeing a Jewish man, she probably expected to be ignored entirely or severely condemned. Yet, Jesus spoke to her and pointed her closer to the truth about herself, who He is, and what He has to offer: living water. At first, as she listens, she desires this water that Jesus offers because she believes she will no longer have to return to the well and endure the shame that others pour upon her, but then she begins to understand what Jesus is offering.

Remember Jesus’ words from last week? “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” The woman begins to understand that Jesus is not talking about water that can be drawn from a well in the ground. She says, “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” At that, the woman realizes that the well of the Living Water is Jesus, Himself.

Just then, the disciples return. As for the woman: she “left her water jar and went back to the city.” She forgot her water jar. When she forgot it, was it just one of her four things she was going to forget that day, and all she needed was a post-it note to remind her, or did she forget it because it was something she no longer needed to remember? Not only did she forget her water jar, but she also forgot how others condemned her and that many likely hated her. She forgot the criticisms and the shame she felt because, instead of running away from and avoiding the people of her community, she did just the opposite—she ran to them. Finding them, she said, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

She came to the well that was Jesus and drank deeply of the Living Water. The waters of redemption and salvation, of love, mercy, grace, compassion, and more. She drank, and in drinking—like Rebekah, Rachel, and Zipporah—she met her spouse by a well.

In the 19th chapter of his Revelation, St. John writes,
“I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out,
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to clothe herself
with fine linen, bright and pure”—
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.’”

The woman at the well believed and, in believing—she who had had five husbands and was currently living with a man who was not her husband— became a Bride of Christ. She discovered and was wed to the only One who could bring her true happiness and the peace she had been searching for her entire life.

We, each of us, are like the woman at the well. Condemned by Satan, ashamed of our sins, and criticized by our own thoughts and others, but like the Samaritan woman, we can forget our water jars. We can leave behind the bitter poisonous water and come to the Living Water of Jesus, and we can choose to drink the Living Water that is freely offered. In drinking, we are joined to Christ as His Bride. In drinking, we become a new creation. In drinking, we are redeemed and saved and can experience the Messiah’s love, mercy, grace, and compassion.

Forget your water jar. Don’t write yourself a post-it note. You don’t need to remember it. Forget it. Drink the Living Water from the well that is Jesus and enter into this new and eternal life given to you by God.

Let us pray:
Come, all who are thirsty
says Jesus, our Lord,
come, all who are weak,
taste the living water
that I shall give.
Dip your hands in the stream,
refresh body and soul,
drink from it,
depend on it,
for this water
will never run dry.
Come, all who are thirsty
says Jesus, our Lord.

Sermon: Wednesday in the Second Week of Lent

Photo by Gianna Bonello on Unsplash

1984 is George Orwell’s great dystopian novel. It deals with how a totalitarian state—Big Brother—can control the people. One tool used in controlling is newspeak—the language used to convey ideology and history. It is described as “a purposefully ambiguous and confusing language with restricted grammar and limited vocabulary used in Oceania [the state] to diminish the range of thought. For example, in newspeak, the term “plusgood” replaced words better and “great.” The goal: if you can control the language, you can control the individual’s thoughts. I’m sure we could study this and prove that it is at play in our world today, but we won’t go there. So why talk about it?

Today in our Gospel, Jesus said he came “to give his life a ransom for many.” In our minds, the word “ransom” has a particular meaning, a payment for the release of an individual, and Jesus uses ransom to describe the work he accomplishes on the cross. However, throughout the scriptures and the Book of Common Prayer, many other words are used: sacrifice, atonement, propitiation, oblation, satisfaction, reconciliation, and others. The sentence in the Rite One service that we’ve heard on Sundays combines several of these: “Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” (BCP, p.334)

These words can become confusing. In addition, these words have led to different theories on what was accomplished on the Cross.

There is the Ransom Theory, Satisfaction Theory, Christus Victor Theory, Penal Substitutionary Theory, Governmental Theory… the list goes on. When we study each one, we can think, “Well, that sounds right,” and we will feel so until we read the following theory. It gets confusing and, in some cases, contradictory. However, instead of seeing them as such, it is better to understand them in the same way we understand the four Gospels.

With the Gospels, there are times when they can seem confusing and contradictory when compared one to the other, but they are, in fact, pieces of a mosaic. Only when they are brought together will they create a complete image. The same is likely true with the various theories of what took place on the Cross. Each highlights one piece of the mosaic, one piece of the truth, and it is not until they are held together that the entire truth is made evident.

Unlike Orwell’s newspeak, which seeks to define an idea with the least number of words, the death of Jesus and the work He accomplished on the cross uses many different words. In the end, with all the words we use to describe the event, we are left with a highly nuanced event, depending on how we look at it, and that is the purpose—it is a mystery. Christ’s death upon the Cross and all that was accomplished is far beyond our understanding because we lack the intellect and the language to define or adequately grasp it. Therefore, perhaps the best thing to say is what St. Paul said to Timothy, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” (1 Timothy 1:15) If we know nothing else, this one piece of information is all we need to be saved.

Sermon: Lent 2 RCL A – “Condemn and Save”

Photo by Matt Unczowsky on Unsplash

The best I can tell, this is a true story…

A family was sent out into an area to do missionary work, and there were very few services or access to some foods, one of which was peanut butter. This family must have been somewhat like me; I love some peanut butter, so they made special arrangements with a friend Stateside to send over an occasional jar of peanut butter to have with their meals. Soon the news of this regular supply leaked to the other missionaries in the area, and they became quite irritated. Apparently, all the other missionaries considered it a mark of spirituality if you did without those things that the local people could not have or have access to. The other missionaries said, “We believe since we cannot get peanut butter here, then we must not have it with our meals, we must contextualize, we must be like the native people, we must sacrifice for Christ. We must bear the cross by not having peanut butter.” Personally, I think Jesus would have liked peanut butter, but that’s just me. Anyhow…

The young missionary family did not give in to the legalistic pressure and had the peanut butter secretly shipped in and ate it with their meals. However, I suppose they went out with peanut butter breath, and it was discovered they were still eating it, so the pressure grew more and more intense—all for a jar of peanut butter. Ultimately, the family was so discouraged by petty legalism that they left the mission field in disgust.

Thank goodness those other missionaries could keep the faith by not eating peanut butter. If they didn’t stop it there, those radical missionaries might have started ordering some lovely plum jelly to go with their peanut butter.

This week in my studies, something small about our Gospel kept my attention. Jesus said, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” I’ve always looked at that statement and focused on the result—Jesus came to save us and accomplished this work through the Cross. When I read it this week, I kept returning to the two words, condemn and save.

You know the definition of the word condemn, but so that we’re thinking the same, from the Oxford Dictionary, condemn means to criticize something or someone strongly, usually for moral reasons, and can include sentencing someone to a particular punishment, especially death.

If we use Jesus’ words with that definition, Jesus said, “The Father did not send me to sentence the world to death but to save it.” Understanding this, St. Paul can say, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1)

Jesus did not come to condemn. He came to save. Again, St. Paul tells us, “For in [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:19-20) When Jesus said that he came to “save,” we can understand that He came to reconcile us to God.

Put together, Jesus said, “The Father did not send me to sentence you to death but to reconcile you to Himself.” So the question is: if this is why Jesus came, then why do we still condemn one another over everything and anything, including a spoon full of peanut butter, instead of seeking ways to be reconciled with God and to be reconciled with one another? Answer: It is far easier to condemn someone than it is to save them, to be reconciled with them. To condemn someone only requires words. To save or be reconciled to them is going to cost you something.

On the sixth day of creation, the Book of Genesis declares, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’” “God said…,” God spoke us into creation, and He can just as easily condemn us and speak us out of creation. To condemn is easy; it only requires words, but to save…

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16) “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

To condemn is easy. It only takes words. To save… that’s going to cost you something. St. John says to us, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16), and a few verses on, he says, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” (1 John 3:18)

God the Father could have easily condemned us. He could have spoken, and it would have been over. Instead, he chose to pour out His grace by giving His son so we might be saved. That grace—that salvation—was costly to God, for it was accomplished through a deed: the death of His Son on the Cross.

In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “Grace is costly, because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a person his life, and it is grace because it gives a person the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: you were bought at a price, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us” (p.47), and when we condemn others, we cheapen the grace that has been shown to us by the Father.

The Psalmist writes:
Be still before the Lord
and wait patiently for him.
Do not fret yourself over the one who prospers,
the one who succeeds in evil schemes.
Refrain from anger, leave rage alone;
do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil.
(Psalm 37:7-9)

As Christ Jesus has not condemned us, we should not condemn others. As Christ has saved and reconciled us to the Father, we should give of ourselves so that we might be reconciled to God and to one another. This is not easy work, it will likely cost you something, but it is God’s work.

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,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Sermon: Wednesday in the First Week of Lent

Visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon  by Jacopo Tintoretto circa 1555 

During the Season of Lent, readings are assigned for each day (for example, today is Wednesday in the First Week of Lent), so I thought we would break from our lessons on the Saints and see what is being said on these days.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus spoke of two historical events: Jonah and Nineveh and the Queen of Sheba coming so that she might hear the wisdom of Solomon. We’ve looked at the story of Jonah and Nineveh before, but what of this Queen of Sheba?

The Biblical account in 1 Kings 10 tells us that the Queen—she and her people are reported to have worshipped the sun—had heard of Solomon’s great wisdom and came to see and hear for herself if the rumors were true. With her, she brought a great entourage and gifts. After spending time in Solomon’s courts, we are told she said, “The report was true that I heard in my own land of your words and of your wisdom, but I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it. And behold, the half was not told me. Your wisdom and prosperity surpass the report that I heard. Happy are your men! Happy are your servants, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom! Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and set you on the throne of Israel! Because the Lord loved Israel forever, he has made you king, that you may execute justice and righteousness.” (1 Kings 10:6-9) Then, Scripture says, “she turned and went back to her land with her servants.” From there, other texts pick up the story, including The Glory of Kings, which comes to us from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

The Glory of the Kings tells us that the Queen bore Solomon a son, Menelik, who traveled to Jerusalem when he was twenty-two to meet his father. Solomon met him and was overjoyed. He tried to get Menelik to stay in Jerusalem, but the young man wanted to return home to modern-day Ethiopia. Desiring to honor him, Solomon sent many nobles with him and Israel’s greatest treasure, the Ark of the Covenant. (The Ethiopian Church, to this day, declares that the Ark is held in the Church of Maryam Tsion in Aksum, Ethiopia.) Menelik went on to become Menelik I, and it was the line of kings established through him that ruled Ethiopia until 1974, known as the Solomonic Dynasty of Ethiopia because those “kings were seen as direct descendants of the House of David, rulers by divine right.” (Source

Jesus said, “The queen of the South [The Queen of Sheba] will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon and see, something greater than Solomon is here!” Jesus said, “One who worshipped the sun came and heard the wisdom of God through Solomon and praised God for such wisdom. On hearing such wisdom, she returned home and took with her gifts of gold and spices, but she also took with her a far greater gift—the knowledge and the love of the One True God. She heard, and she believed.” 

Jesus was condemning the nonbelievers of his time because they were not only hearing the word of God but were being visited by one greater than Solomon—God Himself in the person of Jesus—and yet they did not believe.

Some, in the time of Jesus and even today, were so convinced that they were right that they became unteachable. Unwilling to have God speak a greater truth within them. Like the Queen of Sheba, be open to what God is saying to His people so that you may know Him in even greater ways.

Sermon: Lent 1 RCL A – “Gift from the Devil”

Hattie May Wiatt lived in Philadelphia in the late 19th century and died as a little girl. She must have known how sick she was because she left her life savings to Grace Baptist Church so they could build a bigger building for the children’s Sunday school. Her gift: $0.57.  Accepting this gift, the church contributed toward her vision and bought a piece of property. This went on to become Temple College, which later became Temple University and the Temple University Hospital.

No matter how small, a good gift can make a significant difference. A bad gift can also accomplish much. Take, for example, this one. [Holding up a small box.]

It doesn’t weigh much, the box is attractive enough, it doesn’t rattle when you shake it, and I know what it is. How? I’ve received it countless times throughout my life. I’ve received it and opened it more times than I care to remember. This is a gift from the Devil. As the Devil holds this gift out to me, it is a temptation. When I take it from him, I’m on a slide that can lead to sin.

You see, when the Devil holds it out to me, I still have the opportunity to say, “Away with you, Satan!” But when I take it, I concede to the possibility—perhaps even the inevitability—of sin. 

Once in my possession, I may place it on a shelf somewhere, but in my heart, I know I’ve likely already lost the battle. I didn’t renounce it outright, so it has power over me. Remember St. Augustine’s prayer? “Lord, Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” He wanted what he prayed for, but it still had power over him.

After a time, I may take this gift off the shelf and nonchalantly fiddle with it a bit. “Oh, Lord, I didn’t know I even picked this silly thing up. I’ll just put it right back up here on the shelf. I’m in control.”

Then comes the day when I make a poor decision to open the box. “Lord, I’m just looking to see what’s in here. Nothing more. I’m proving to myself that it has no control over me,” but even as I am assuring the Lord of my conviction, I look down in the box and say in my heart, “Isn’t it so pretty.” From there, it is only a matter of time, which is actually the case from the moment I accepted it from the Devil’s hands.

If we examine our lives, I’m confident that we will discover that the ground around us is littered with opened little boxes like this and that the shelves are overflowing with others that are unopened, just waiting for a more opportune time to remind us of their presence. If we are honest with ourselves, we can say with certainty what sin each of those boxes contains. And, if we look with a sincere and discerning heart, we will likely discover that the gifts in each box may differ from one to the other but are also remarkably similar—slight variations on a common theme. Finally, in completing such an exercise, we may learn that all those boxes fall into three main categories: lust, greed, anger or pride, gluttony, despair, and so on. That may sound odd, but it is what happened to Jesus.

In the first temptation, Jesus was tempted to satisfy his flesh, his physical needs, and his wants. In the second, it was a temptation of pride—taking advantage of his status as the Son of God. Finally, Jesus was tempted to have the world at his command instead of the Father’s. If you want to simplify those, you could say that Jesus was tempted with lust, pride, and greed. Yet, Jesus never accepted the gift from the Devil’s hands. He never even glanced at it except to rebuke it, and He remained without sin.

If the Devil, in his arrogance, would go after Jesus, the very Son of God, in such a way, don’t you think he’ll try the same tactics on you as well? Nod your head, ‘Yes.’ So, spend some time discovering what gifts the Devil gives you, then as a disciple of Jesus, one who wants to be like him, learn from Him and be prepared so that when the gift is offered, you know how you will rebuke it—“Away with you, Satan!”

“‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you…. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” (James 4:6b-8a, 10)

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

Sermon: Ash Wednesday

Photo by Isabella and Zsa Fischer on Unsplash

The day before Ash Wednesday brings to an end the parades of Mardi Gras (French for ‘Fat Tuesday). Those celebrations likely have their history in some of the pagan festivals of Europe, but when those festivals came to France, they became more closely related to the Church. When they went to England, they became Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day. Here, at St. Matthew’s, we get the best of both—and now that we’ve done it two years in a row, making it a time-honored tradition—we’ll have to call it Gumbo Day. When these festivals traveled south to the Caribbean and further into Brazil, they became known as Carnivale. Of all the names given, this one perhaps describes it best.

The word carnival comes from the combining of two Latin words: carnem (“flesh”) + levāre (“lighten, raise”)—carnem vale meaning, “Farewell to the flesh.” Farewell to those things that separate us from God. It is this definition that inspired Thomas Merton, in 1953, to write in his journal: 

Carnivale, farewell to the flesh. It is a poor joke to be merry about leaving the flesh, as if we were to return to it once again. What would be the good of Lent, if it were only temporary?

Jesus nevertheless died in order to return to His flesh; in order to raise His own body glorious from the dead, and in order to raise our bodies with Him. “Unless the grain of wheat, falling into the ground, dies, itself remains alone.” So we cast off the flesh, not out of contempt, but in order to heal the flesh in the mercy of penance and restore it to the Spirit to which it belongs. And all creation waits in anguish for our victory and our bodies’ glory.

God wills us to recover all the joys of His created world in the Spirit, by denying ourselves what is really no joy—what only ends in the flesh. “The flesh profits nothing.” (A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals, February 19)

“What would be the good of Lent if it were only temporary?” What would be the good of Lent if all the practices we establish for our lives in order to draw nearer to God during this season were cast off on Easter Sunday? What would be the good of Lent if we returned to Fat Tuesday lives?

One of the things I give up most Lents is social media—all that scrolling. I’m not sure how much time I spend on it, which tells me it is probably too much. I also know that I’ll pick it back up again after Easter. It is something I enjoy. That’s a Lenten practice that I think can be temporary, but what if I decided that I would also spend more time in prayer or more time reading the Word of God? Should that be temporary? “Oh, it’s just a Lent thing. Only temporary.” I’ll give a bit of time to God for a few weeks, but when the season is over, I can quit that silliness. That’s not how it is supposed to work. Our Lenten practices should bring about permanent changes, transformations in our lives.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.” Remember that you are God’s, and your life with Him is not temporary. Let your Lenten practices become—not just something you are doing for a season, but instead, let them become a part of who you are.

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