Sermon: Advent 1 RCL A – “Separating the Darkness”

Michelangelo is painting the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling when he sees a woman praying the rosary. He decides to take a break and lies back on the scaffolding so the woman can’t see him and says in a loud voice, “I am Jesus Christ. Listen to me, and I will perform miracles.”

The woman is intent on her beads and prayers and does not look up.

Michelangelo figures that she is hard of hearing, so he shouts, “I am Jesus Christ! Listen to me, and I will perform miracles!”

With head bent, the woman continues praying, so Michelangelo shouts, “I AM JESUS CHRIST! LISTEN TO ME!”

The woman yells back, “Would you shut up? I’m talking to your mother.”

As you know, last Sunday, a group of us went down to the city and saw the Sistine Chapel Exhibit. Being together and seeing the images close up was a treat. 

The construction of the Sistine Chapel was completed in 1483 and consecrated by Pope Sixtus IV, but Michelangelo’s work did not begin until 1508. When it started, it took him four years. That is remarkable in itself, but when you consider a few more details, it seems impossible. The chapel is 132 feet long, 44 feet wide, and 68 feet high. With the arch, the ceiling—Michelangelo’s canvas—is over 12,000 square feet. 

Ten years after it was complete, not everyone got it. For example, a visiting bishop wrote, “Among the most important figures is that of an old man, in the middle of the ceiling, who is represented in the act of flying through the air.” That old man flying through the air is supposed to be God.

Finally, due to a mistranslated word, it was long believed that Michelangelo painted the ceiling while lying on his back. As it turns out, he did it standing and even wrote a short poem about how uncomfortable it was.

I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s pointing at heaven,
my brain’s crushed in a casket, my breast twists like a harpy’s.
My brush, above me all the time, dribbles paint so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!
My haunches are grinding into my guts, my poor [back side] strains to work as a counterweight…
my spine’s all knotted from folding over itself.
I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow.

On our way home from the exhibit, Marianne asked us each which was our favorite image. For me, it is the one on the front of your bulletin, inspired by Genesis 1:1-4— “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness.” In the picture, God is looking up and separating the light from the dark. It is as if he were pushing the darkness asides so that the light could be revealed. 

How is this relevant for us today? Because the bringing of light into the darkness is what the Season of Advent is all about. 

[Light first Advent candle]

As we light the first candle, it does not provide much light, but it is only the beginning.

You all know I’m a Stephen King fan and my favorite Stephen King book (I won’t scare you by telling you how many times I’ve read it) is The Stand. The setting is a world where 99.99% of all human beings have died—very uplifting. At one point, two individuals, Larry and Rita, must find their way out of New York City, and they choose to walk through one of the tunnels. There is no electricity, so the tunnel is dark and jammed up with cars, and… let’s just say it is a scary place. They’ve lost their lights (naturally) and are blindly stumbling through the pitch-black tunnel. Rita suddenly stops, and Larry asks her what is wrong.

Rita says, “‘I can see, Larry! It’s the end of the tunnel!’

“[Larry] blinked and realized that he could see, too. The glow was dim and it had come so gradually that he hadn’t been aware of it until Rita had spoken. He could make out a faint shine on the tiles, and the pale blur of Rita’s face closer by. Looking over to the left he could see the dead river of automobiles.”

St. Matthew tells us:

“The people dwelling in darkness
    have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
    on them a light has dawned.” (Matthew 4:16)

Like Rita and Larry, the people had been in darkness so long that they may not have even noticed that light was coming into the world. Like the dawn that comes slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, but the light is there. The people only needed to recognize it. And recognizing the light is not always easy, especially when our souls are in a dark place.

For many individuals, the holiday season is not a happy season. They can put on a smile at the office party or be cheery while around others, but inside… they are not so good. Instead of being a time of joy, it is a time of regrets or loneliness. It is a time for missing those we’ve lost: spouses, other family members, and friends. It is also a time when we may experience the loss of ourselves and all the what-ifs. At such times, our souls can begin to feel like Michelangelo’s body as he painted the Sistine Chapel: tortured, hunched, crushed, unbalanced, bent out of shape, and worse. As a result, just as this time of year has greater darkness, a darkness of a spiritual nature can seep into our souls and spirits. Like walking through that tunnel, our souls stumble along, unable to see what is around us. For some in that place, even if the light does begin to shine, like Larry, who had spent so much time in that dark tunnel, they aren’t able to recognize that the light has started to shine. 

We know that Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” So, when we encounter someone in that spiritually dark place, we can quote that off to them, thinking that should be enough, but the last thing a person in a spiritually dark place needs from you is for you to start preaching to them. No. What they need from you, more than anything is for you to be that candle. Don’t tell them about the light, be the light. You can’t simply “fix” them so, it may be that you can only sit in that dark place with them, but you can be a sign of hope. Your presence will tell them what Rita said to Larry: “I can see, Larry! It’s the end of the tunnel!” 

If you are a person who is in that dark place, then I encourage you to look around you here because I see many candles burning brightly who would share their light with you. You are loved by God and by God’s people. Your soul may be in a dark place, but you do not have to be alone. I read, “Hope is faith holding out its hand in the dark.” You do not have to be alone in the dark. Perform one small act of hope: reach out.

God is still separating the light from the darkness, and he invites us all to participate in this great work. When the work begins, it may be only a dim glow, one small candle’s worth, but it will be there—a sign of hope—and we can know that it is only the beginning of all that Our Father longs to give us.

Let us pray: Father in heaven, our hearts desire the warmth of your love, and our minds search for the light of your Word. Increase our longing for Christ our Savior and give us the strength to grow in love, that the dawn of his coming may find us rejoicing in his presence and welcoming the light of his truth. We ask this in the name of Jesus the Lord. Amen.

Sermon: Proper 13 RCL C – “Eternal Inheritance”

Photo by Jacques LE HENAFF on Unsplash

A wise Israelite living some distance from Jerusalem sent his son to the Holy City to complete his education. During his son’s absence, the father became ill, and feeling that death was near, he made a will, leaving all his property to one of his slaves, on the condition that he should allow the son to select any one article which pleased him for an inheritance.

As soon as his master died, the slave, elated with his good fortune, hurried to Jerusalem, informed his late master’s son of what had taken place, and showed him the will.

The young man was surprised and grieved at the news, and after the allotted time of mourning had expired, he began to consider his situation seriously. He went to his teacher, explained the circumstances to him, read him his father’s will, and expressed his bitterness about the disappointment of his reasonable hopes and expectations. He could think of nothing he had done to offend his father and complained loudly of the in-justice.

“Stop,” said his teacher; “your father was a loving man with great wisdom. This will is a living monument to his good sense and far-sightedness. May you prove as wise in your day.”

“What!” exclaimed the young man. “I see no wisdom in the bestowal of his property upon a slave; no affection in this slight upon his only son.”

“Listen,” returned the teacher. “By his action, your father has secured your inheritance if you are only wise enough to understand it. When your father knew that his time was near, he thought to himself, ‘My son is away; when I am dead, he will not be here to take charge of my affairs; my slaves will plunder my estate and to gain time will even conceal my death from my son, and deprive me of the sweet savor of mourning.’ To prevent these things, he bequeathed his property to his slave, knowing full well that the slave, believing in his apparent right, would send you the news quickly and take good care of the inheritance, which he did and has done.”

“Well, how does this benefit me?” The son interrupted impatiently.

“Ah!” replied the teacher, “wisdom I see rests not with the young. Do you not know that what a slave possesses belongs to his master? Has not your father left you the right to select one article of all his property for your own? Choose the slave as your portion, and by possessing him, you will recover all that was your father’s. Such was his wise and loving intention.”

The young man did as he was advised and gave the slave his freedom afterward. But ever after, he was quick to say: “Wisdom resides with the aged, and understanding in length of days.”

(This illustration is from Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East: Ancient Hebrew, Vol. 3)

There are many morals to this story, but the one that struck me was that the young man was so consumed with the treasures that he thought he had not received that he was blind to the treasures that were his from the beginning. This may also be a problem for all of us, especially considering that our treasures are not limited to money and wealth. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Our treasures are whatever consumes our hearts and distracts us from God, so like the young man in the story, we can become so caught up in worldly treasures that we become blind to the true and eternal treasure that we already have. We come to believe that the present—the treasures that are here and now—is all there is and all that matters, and while consumed with it, we neglect the other.

The Venerable Bede’s History of the English Church and People tells the story of St. Paulinus, a Roman missionary to the Anglo-Saxons, and how he tried to convert the English to Christianity. Paulinus visited King Edwin in the year 627. Edwin and his followers worshipped pagan gods and had no concept of a better afterlife to look forward to. Edwin was impressed with the ideas of Paulinus but decided to hear the views of his advisors before deciding whether to convert to Christianity. One of the advisors spoke in favor of Christianity and put the case like this:

“Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thanes and counsellors. Inside, there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. So man appears on earth for a little while, but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”

What Edwin’s advisor has come to understand is that this life, although it is all that we can truly know, is not all that there is; therefore, it should not be of the greatest importance to us, nor should we give all that we have to make this world more comfortable for ourselves be our greatest goal.

This is a part of what Jesus is talking to us about in our Gospel. The rich man wants Jesus to mediate between him and his brother over the family inheritance.  Jesus’ response, “this is not my concern.”  Then Jesus tells the parable of the man who had a bumper crop one year, so he built for himself storage to keep it all, and finally said to himself, “I’m set. I can take life easy from here on out.”  Jesus’ response, “Fool!”  Jesus calls him a fool not because he was successful and wealthy—that was not the issue—Jesus calls the man a fool because he planned as though the life he was living was all there was.  To use the analogy of the sparrow that flew through the banquet hall, the man did not plan for what would happen after he flew out the other door.  He had this life all worked out—his treasure and his heart were in the here and now—but he had made no plan for what would happen to him after he died.

Jesus’ concern is not a matter of treasures. Instead, it is a matter of the heart – “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  We are not being asked to go off and live the life of a desert monk, but we are being asked to live our lives with the understanding that there is more to come. Like the young man who thought he had inherited nothing but had inherited it all, you and I must also recognize that our inheritance—that which makes us rich beyond compare—is not what we can see, feel, or count. Our inheritance, as St. Peter tells us, gives “us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.”  That is where our hearts should be, and no amount of earthly treasure should distract us from it. 

We are allowed, and it is God’s desire that we have other interests and concerns. Things and occupations that give us joys and challenges and peace and more. God has blessed us with these things so that we might have an abundant life, but we must look within and ask, “Have I placed my hope in them? Has my heart been so consumed by them that I have neglected God?” If you answer yes, consider where you will be when the sparrow flies out the other door and correct your heart, so God is first.

Let us pray: Loving God, you speak to us through all of life. Please help us to trust you and to trust that what you desire for us lies in the deepest part of our hearts. May we always center our lives on you and hear joyfully your call to be your companion. Help us to follow our desires to live our lives as best we can and to serve others with the unique treasures you have given us. Amen. 

Sermon: Easter 2 RCL C – “God Ain’t Dead”

Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, c.1500

There is a painting that shows the charred debris of what had been a family’s sole possession. In front of this destroyed home, standing in deep snow, stood an old grandfather dressed only in his underclothes with a small boy who is clutching a pair of patched overalls. It was evident that the child was crying. Given the way they were dressed and the fact that nobody else was around you could tell they didn’t have anyone else or anything else except the clothes that were on their back and each other. No Red Cross person was going to drive up and offer them food, clothing, and shelter. Now, if you were the grandfather, what would you say to the weeping child to comfort him? All is lost. We’re done for. We’ll never make it. Or would you just start crying yourself?

The artist of this particular picture wasn’t much on despair, because beneath the picture were the words which the artist felt the old man was speaking to the boy. They were simple words, yet they presented a profound theology and philosophy of life that exhibited true hope. The grandfather said, “Hush child, God ain’t dead!”

From our Gospel, Jesus had appeared to the disciples, but Thomas wasn’t there. When the others tell him that they have seen the Lord, Thomas becomes upset and agitated, “I won’t believe the Lord is risen unless I see him myself and place my hand in his side.” Did he doubt the power of God? Did he not believe Jesus when he had said, “I will rise again?”

No. I don’t believe that was the way Thomas was looking at these events. Instead, I think Thomas had looked upon the blood-stained cross, he had seen or at least heard of the gaping wounds that had pierced Jesus’ body, he had placed all his hope in Jesus, and now without question, he knew Jesus was dead. All was lost. We’re done for. I can’t possibly believe that he is raised from the dead unless I see him myself, because I can’t get my hopes up again. I can’t be hurt like that again. Someone needed to lovingly turn to Thomas and say, “Hush child. God ain’t dead.”

In 1972, NASA launched the exploratory space probe Pioneer 10. According to Leon Jaroff in Time, the satellite’s primary mission was to reach Jupiter, photograph the planet and its moons, and beam data to earth about Jupiter’s magnetic field, radiation belts, and atmosphere. cScientists regarded this as a bold plan, for at that time no earth satellite had ever gone beyond Mars, and they feared the asteroid belt would destroy the satellite before it could reach its target.

But Pioneer 10 accomplished its mission and much, much more. Swinging past the giant planet in November 1973, Jupiter’s immense gravity hurled Pioneer 10 at a higher rate of speed toward the edge of the solar system. At one billion miles from the sun, Pioneer 10 passed Saturn. At some two billion miles, it hurtled past Uranus; Neptune at nearly three billion miles; Pluto at almost four billion miles. By 1997, twenty-five years after its launch, Pioneer 10 was more than six billion miles from the sun.

And despite that immense distance, Pioneer 10 continued to beam back radio signals to scientists on Earth. “Perhaps most remarkable,” writes Jaroff, “those signals emanate from an 8-watt transmitter, which radiates about as much power as a bedroom night light, and takes more than nine hours to reach Earth.”

The Little Satellite That Could was not qualified to do what it did. Engineers designed Pioneer 10 with a useful life of just three years. But it kept going and going. By simple longevity, its tiny 8-watt transmitter radio accomplished more than anyone thought possible. After more than 30 years, the venerable Pioneer 10 spacecraft sent its last signal to Earth on Jan. 23, 2003, having traveled 7.6 billion miles.

So it is when we offer ourselves to serve the Lord. God can work even through someone with 8-watt abilities. However, God cannot work through someone who quits.

That is not saying that there are no times when the wise decision is to quit. There are our bad habits. There are times when we realize that we are in the wrong. Sometimes it just makes sense not to continue in a direction and at other times it is a matter of coming to peace with a situation. There are all sorts of legitimate reasons for quitting a particular activity; however, fear, despair, disappointment, level of difficulty, and so on are not. Why? Because “God ain’t dead” and if God ain’t dead, then there is always hope.

Imagine, after trying something once, we say, “I’ll never do that again!” What about falling in love? What would happen after the first time you fall in love and had your heart broken you said, “I’ll never do that again.” What would you miss out on? How lonely would you be?

What if the first time you said a prayer and God answered by saying, “No.” How would things work out if you were to say, “I’ll never do that again?”

What if the Lord had not appeared before the disciples again and Thomas had remained in his denial? “I’ll never do that again. I’ll never believe unless I see him.”

In truth, we can find ourselves in similar situations all the time. It happens to us personally. It happens to us in our jobs. It can even happen in the church. Along with Thomas, we say, “All is lost. We are finished. I’ll never do this again. I quit.” But God responds, “Hush child. I’m not dead!” In other words, there is hope.
What do we mean when we say, we have hope?

Václav Havel, the first president of Czechoslovakia following the fall of communism, wrote

“Either we have hope within us or we don’t. It is a dimension of the soul, and it is not particularly dependent upon some observation of the world. It is an orientation of the spirit, and of the heart. It transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond horizons. Hope is a deep and powerful sense and it is not the same as joy that things are going well or the willingness to invest in opportunities which are obviously headed for success. But rather, it is an ability to work for something because you believe in it. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that it makes sense regardless of results. It is hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and to continually try new things.”

That is what we mean by hope. It is the kind of hope that declares, no matter the situation, “God’s not dead.” When I find myself in a position of losing hope, I recall a certain incident with Jesus. There was a father whose child was very sick. The father brought the child to Jesus’ disciples, but they could not heal the boy. Finally, Jesus arrives on the scene and the father says, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Jesus responds, “‘If you can?’ Everything is possible for him who believes.” In other words, “Hush child. God ain’t dead.” Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

When you find yourself in times of losing hope then let that be your prayer, “‘I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.’ Help me to regain or to hold onto my hope that is in Christ Jesus the Risen Lord.” In the midst of that prayer remember—God ain’t dead!

Let us pray: O God, in whose image we all are made, give us hope that through the work of our hands, and with Jesus as our model, we may glorify you now and always. Amen.

Sermon: Proper 27 RCL B – “Desperation to Hope”

Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

A fisherman was at sea with his heathen buddies when a huge storm came out of nowhere and was close to destroying their small ship. His friends begged him to do anything, even pray, but he said to his buddies, “It’s been a long time since I’ve done that or even gone to church.” Finally they were desperate for anything, so he said O.K. and prayed, “O Lord, I haven’t asked anything for you for fifteen years, and if you help us now and bring us to safety, I promise I won’t bother you for another fifteen years!”

Merriam-Webster defines desperation as “1) loss of hope and surrender to despair and 2) a state of hopelessness leading to rashness.” The Latin origin word defines itself: de spes / no hope.

As we are all aware, desperation can lead to all sorts of poor choices and wrong behavior. Everything from oversharing in attempts to gain some sort of attention, to acts of violence: the cornered animal can no longer run, so it will turn and fight or attack. As Winston Churchill said, “Beware of driving men to desperation. Even a cornered rat is dangerous.” When we become desperate, our rational selves duck under the covers, leaving us vulnerable to our own emotions. However, just as the word defined itself—de spes / no hope— it also defines the solution.

You have all probably heard the Greek myth of Pandora and her box. According to the mythology, Pandora was created by Zeus as punishment for Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and bringing it down. Pandora was the first mortal created and was gifted with beauty, elegance, life. She was very desirable, but she was also given her box that she was told by Zeus to never open. Curiosity got the cat and it got Pandora as well. She opened it to take a peak and all the evils of the world flew out before she could slam it closed again. Here, there are a couple of different endings, but it seems that there was only one thing that did not escape: hope. All the evils ever created (anger, lust, greed, gluttony, etc) were released into the world to inflict harm on all mortals who would be weighed down in their grief, because there was no hope: it was still trapped in Pandora’s box.

Holy Scripture tells us of similar events: “Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.  And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.” And a little further on, “Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” (Revelation 12:7-9, 12) All the evils set loose in the Devil’s great wrath, but where is the hope?

I know I’ve shared it with you before, but it is the poem, The Coming, by R.S. Thomas that just never seems to leave me alone:

And God held in his hand a small globe.
Look, he said.
The son looked.
Far off, as through water, he saw a scorched land of fierce color.
The light burned there, crusted buildings cast their shadows
a bright serpent, a river uncoiled itself, radiant with slime.
On a bare hill a bare tree saddened the sky.
Many people held out their thin arms to it,
as though waiting for a vanished April to return to its crossed boughs.
The son watched them.
Let me go there, he said.

The Devil, that serpent radiant in slime pours out his great wrath, stripping us of hope, but the Son said, “Let me go there,” and in doing so, hope is freed from Pandora’s box, it is released into the world through Jesus. St. Paul teaches us: “Remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Ephesians 2:12-13) We have been given the hope of God, but do you know what’s funny? Remember those heathen fishermen caught in the storm? Story tells us that in their desperation they tried everything to save themselves and it was only then that they decided to place their hope in God and pray. Isn’t that odd… and we do the same thing.

Have you ever been in some desperate situation and done all you know and can think to do and only then say, “Well, as a last resort, might as well try God.” God gave himself that we might have hope, but we so often only look to him when things become desperate. As crazy as this might seem, why not go to him first? Seeking his will and his guidance before the situation becomes desperate and even if the circumstances continue to deteriorate, you will still not enter into that sense of desperation, because you know that he is with you, bringing you peace even in the midst of the chaos. How do we get there? How do we enter into that peace and that place of hope?

Jesus “sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’”

How do we enter into that peace and hope of God? We take our two copper coins, all that we have, and place them into God’s hands. We do this, not when everything is falling down around us, but at the very beginning, even when life is grand and we’re walking on sunshine. We give him our two copper coins, so that come rain or shine, we are confident and even courageous in knowing that our God, “who neither slumbers nor sleeps,” is watching over us.

“Today we read in our Psalm:
Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth,
for there is no help in them.
When they breathe their last, they return to earth,
and in that day their thoughts perish.
Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help!
whose hope is in the Lord their God.”

Put your two copper coins in the treasury that is God and discover the peace and hope that your soul is… desperate for.

Let us pray: O God, our Creator, you are our hope and light. We are your people, a people of hope. Bless us, O Lord, and send your Spirit upon us. It is through our love and caring, that you give us hope, and we bring light to each other. Help us, O Lord, to keep our hope centered on you and may we bring light to each other. May your love inspire us, and your light sustain us. May a future full of hope bring us closer to you. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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