The Reconciling Work of Baptism

A man was once rescued off a desert island after 20 years all alone.  As the rescuers came ashore, he ran out to meet them, so very excited to see another human being for the first time in two decades.  “Come, come!” he shouted with joy, “You must see the civilization I’ve built during my isolation.”  He brought them to a row of three buildings.  The first building, he pointed to proudly and said, “This is my home.  It isn’t much, but I built is with my own two hands.”  At the next building, he brought them inside to show them all around.  “This is my church.  In 20 years of being lost on this island, I’ve found my faith in God brought me hope when it was easy to feel hopeless.”  Finally, they stopped out front of the third building.  The man pointed over his shoulder and said, with a bit of a scoff, “This is the church I used to go to.”

On the night before he died, Jesus prayed over his disciples.  He prayed that they might be protected by the Father.  He prayed that they might be guided by the Spirit.  And, he prayed that they might be one as Jesus and the Father were one.  Despite the prayers of Jesus himself, somehow, from almost the very beginning, the Church that tries to follow the Way of Jesus has been broken.  Paul’s letters to the Corinthian Church were written to address, among other things, disputes over who was worthy to receive communion that threatened to tear it apart.  The letters of John were sent to deal with a group of Christians who claimed to be the only true believers and were willing to cast all other followers of Jesus into outer darkness.  By the early fourth century, Christians were killing one another, each claiming to understand the nature of Jesus better than everyone else.  Fast forward to the 2001 edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia and the number of different Christian denominations in the world was counted at a whopping 33,830 (thirty-three thousand eight hundred thirty).  I know of a few new Anglican denominations that were founded in the United States since then, so that number only continues to grow.  We are so very far from the dream Jesus articulated in that prayer at the Last Supper, it is lamentable.

As William Reed Huntington, my spiritual mentor from the turn of the 20th century, would ask, what kind of damage have we done to the Kingdom of God when we spend our time and energy fighting amongst ourselves over things that the world sees as frivolous like music, vestments, candles, debts versus trespasses, or the age of baptism?  How can the Church possibly be an agent of blessing in our communities when we are so caught up in being right that we are willing to walk away from those whom Christ would have us call sisters and brothers?  As we heard in the prayer Jesus prayed, our unity as Christians is meant to be a symbol for the world of just how deep and wide God’s love is for the whole creation.  Our disunity keeps the world from knowing that out of love, God sent Jesus, the very Son of God, to live and die as one of us, thereby saving us all from death in sin.  I’m pretty sure that all those who live outside of the Christian faith can see is yet another group of human beings who have totally lost the ability to live together in our differences.

Even as our disunity may feel disheartening, there are glimmers of hope on days like today.  As we welcome into the Body of Christ Turner Hawkins this morning, we do so hopeful of a future in which all Christians are able to work together toward the building up of the Kingdom of God.  [At 10 o’clock,] In just a few moments, we will act out that hope of unity by making a lifelong commitment to young Turner.  Mother Becca will ask us, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support this person in his life in Christ?”[1] In the split second between that question and the answer “We will,” I hope we can ponder for a moment about what that promise really means.  As a child in a military family, young Turner will likely know several different congregations in his lifetime.  His family may worship in an Episcopal Church in Montgomery, Alabama, but he’ll spend plenty of time at his Presbyterian pre-school.  He’ll be raised alongside children whose families are Baptists, non-denominational, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, you name it. The promise we make today is not merely on behalf of the 10 o’clock crowd who will bear witness to this joyous event, but we commit alongside godparents, alongside grandparents, Vicki and David Cole, and their usual 8am crew, alongside Episcopalians and Anglicans, and alongside Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Christians around the globe who may one day be called upon to support Turner’s growth in the knowledge and love of the Lord.

I am under no illusion that this simple promise is going to fix the shredded fabric of the Body of Christ that is denominationalism.  Today’s baptism will, I hope, have a profound impact on Turner and his family, but it can’t bring all of Christianity back under one roof.  It can, however, have an impact on us as individual disciples of Jesus.  What if supporting Turner in his life in Christ means modeling behavior that can lead us back toward unity?  We can model unity by holding our identity as Episcopalians with humility.  We can change the way we talk about those who live out their Christianity differently than us.  Rather than looking down our noses at “those evangelicals” or “those Baptists” or “those Roman Catholics,” perhaps we can show Turner what it means to work toward unity.  We can seek ways to work alongside our siblings in Christ in tackling larger issues in our community like poverty, hunger, racism, addiction, and income inequality.  We can show Turner what it means to be one in Christ by loving our neighbors, striving for justice and peace, and respecting the dignity of every human being.

In baptism, each of us given the gift of the Holy Spirit whose mission is to lead us into all truth.  On this day, as we rejoice in Turner receiving that same gift, may we strive toward unity and work to make the church that Turner inherits something closer to the dream Jesus had for it as he prayed for his disciples on that most holy night.  Lord Jesus Christ, help us to be one as you and the Father are one so that we might be models of your love in a world that desperately needs it.  Amen.

[1] Book of Common Prayer, 1979, 303.

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Guest Sermon – With God’s Help

Today was Senior Sunday at Christ Church in Bowling Green.  One of our high school seniors, Braxton, offered the homily at 10am.  Here’s the text.


First I want to thank Father Steve and Ms Karen for the opportunity to speak on behalf of the youth and graduating seniors today. It is truly an honor-it doesn’t mean I didn’t procrastinate on it, but it truly is an honor.

As I think about the lessons for today I am reminded that the disciples had to wait for Gods instruction on what to do and where to go. Can you imagine having to wait for information?!?  How lucky are we today that we have Google for any answer. You can Google for a career path , but you can’t Google to find what’s in your heart. Our faith and our church teaches us to care for ourselves and our salvation, to care for others, and to care for our land and nation.  But how do we do that? What is our purpose? Our passion? Steve Jobs says “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice”. We have to listen to that inner voice. The voice that guides us  that tells us the The will of God. Whatever you do, it always helps to have a plan. If you are going to build a business, one of the first things you need to do is to get together a business plan.  You lay out your strategy you intend to follow. You find that plan and then you follow that plan if you want to be a success. I can relate to this with my years of football at SWHS. A coach has a game plan. In fact, they get very intricate with that. They have all of the plays laid out. They know exactly where they are going. They know what the offense is going to do. What the defense is going to do. A large degree of success by an athletic team can be determined by the coach’s game plan.

This is the same for life. whatever path you choose , it always helps to have a plan. God has a wonderful plan for your life, The will of God”. When you see that phrase in the Bible it is talking about God’s plan. God’s purpose. God’s plan. What God has intended for you. The very greatest life you could ever live is a life lived according to the plan of God. If you can find the plan of God, His will, and if you will follow His will in your life, then indeed you will have a successful life.

We are a success-oriented society. Some people think that if they can ever get to the point that they can be the CEO of a successful company they will have succeeded . Others view success as having financial stability. Or perhaps success is excelling in your particular field. If you try to be THE best or one of the best of all of the people in your field, then you’re going to be a success.

In recent weeks after Easter we leaned that Jesus had recently physically left the disciples after the resurrection, departing to heaven with the promise of the Spirit’s coming and a mission of witness to be fulfilled. They had been charged to remain in Jerusalem for this day and they would be covered in power of God. They would  be called to witness to Jesus. This was their mission-the purpose of their calling. They were to witness to Christ Jesus before the nations far and near.

They were hardly prepared for such a grand task. They certainly did not feel prepared but their faith in God gave them what they needed to go places and do things they never could have imagined. That is were we are today. Are we ready to go into the word on our own merits? Leaning on the faith we have grown up knowing, What Father Steve, Ms Karen, Deacon Kellie have taught us and what we practice in EYC God will help us to become the successful people were meant to be.

Today is a day of celebration. We are celebrating the success of graduates and their achievements. We have studied, and completed coursework to arrive at this time of recognition of our efforts and achievements. We pause to celebrate our preparation and beginning to  a new phase of life. Graduation is not an endpoint. It is a beginning. it is a launching pad-commencement into the new stage of life beyond the one we just completed.  It is hard for me to associate our graduation with a beginning. It seems much more natural to consider it the closing of a chapter in life. Graduation is a celebration of the threshold-the turning of a page into our new lives. I pray that you continually hear, listen, and follow Gods will in your life. I wish you all success on each of your journeys and may you always be successful. Amen.

 

John’s Epilogue

Watch the video on our Facebook Page.


John’s Gospel is, for all intents and purposes, over already.  Last week, we heard the author tie the whole thing up with a nice bow, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  We were told to look and listen for other stories.  We were told why this book was written.  We were offered the means to gain eternal life.  The End.  Or maybe not.  Our Gospel lesson this morning somehow comes after the greatest story ever told is over.  Chapter 21 serves as something of an epilogue. It is very clearly a story “added to the end of the book that serves to comment on what has [already] happened.”[1] Scholars have spilled all manner of ink trying to decide who actually wrote John 21.  They’ve argued over why it is included when it is so obviously an addition.  They’ve dug into the nuances of the original Greek to seek any number of answers to questions about why it matters that there were exactly 153 fish in the miraculous catch.

It is a puzzling story, to be sure, but if we take as our basic assumption that the purpose of this chapter is to “comment on what has already happened,” then we might begin to get a richer understanding of why it has been passed down for nearly two thousand years.  See, what has happened, at least how it gets told in John’s Gospel is that the eternal Word of God entered time and space and moved into the neighborhood of our common humanity in order to show us what eternal life looks like.  Through signs and teachings, through relationship building and intentional discipleship, Jesus developed a significant and devoted following that ultimately put enough fear in the hearts of the powers-that-be, that he was killed as a revolutionary, but in so doing, by lifting Jesus up on the cross, they lifted Jesus up upon his throne to reign as King of kings.  In God’s great victory, Jesus was resurrected from the dead, breathed new life into his disciples, and sent them out as apostles to follow in his footsteps by loving, teaching, and discipling the nations.

So, that’s what happened.  As the epilogue on that story, we find the disciples back where Jesus had initially found many of them, in a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee.  Just like before, they’ve fished all night, and caught nothing.  Likely, this all serves as a metaphor for the early stages of their new ministry.  Jesus gave them all the tools they needed for success, but it takes time to learn new things.  There is no doubt in my mind that Peter had tried to perform some miracle and failed.  Philip had tried to preach the good news and got all tangled up in his words.  Thomas has tried to make a rational argument for the resurrection of Jesus, and got lost in his own logic web.  They had been fishing for people on their own for a little while and thus far, had caught nothing.

Back on shore, a football field away, Jesus appears and calls out to them.  “Hey y’all try the other side.”  It’s interesting that shortly after this, John tells us that Jesus already had fish cooking over a charcoal fire.  He could have called out and said, “breakfast is ready,” but having completed his work on earth, Jesus’ last mission is that of an encourager, an empowerer, a cheerleader.  Give a person a fish and they eat for a day… yada yada yada.  As the nets came up from the right side of the boat, the catch was so big they couldn’t even begin to haul it in.  This seems to again be a good metaphor for what happens when we try to do ministry on our own.  We get a good idea, we gather a group of interested people, we start to work on it, and we see no fruit because we forgot to invite God along for the ride.  Jesus had promised that he would not leave his disciples abandoned.  The Holy Spirit would come and serve as their advocate and guide.  The Spirit would help them find the mission of their ministry, but it seems as though they couldn’t wait.  Rather, they seem to have been dead set on doing it their way.  John 21 reminds us that it is only when we listen for the Spirit, look for Jesus, and follow the will of the Father that our own good works will be met with success.

Back to what had already happened.  Holy Week started with Jesus and his disciples getting into trouble for eating with sinners and tax collectors.  As I said back then, the act of eating together was a symbol of relationship, an act of true intimacy.  Clean and unclean didn’t share the common cup.  They didn’t pass the broken bread around.  They weren’t supposed to smear it in the same bowl of hummus.  Yet, in the kingdom Jesus’ came to proclaim, those food laws weren’t as important as the community he was sent to establish.  Clean and unclean were invited to share a meal because in the Kingdom of Heaven, clean and unclean are all made whole by God’s never-failing love.  When Jesus invites Peter and the other disciples to join him for breakfast, it becomes an opportunity for reconciliation for them all.  While Peter seems to be the focus of the story, and he might have needed reconciliation the most, none of the disciples except for the one whom Jesus loved were anywhere near Jesus when he was crucified.  By sharing breakfast with them, breaking biscuits and picking from the same freshly caught fish, Jesus showed the remaining disciples that they were loved, forgiven, and restored to right relationship.  John 21 reminds us that it is in something as simple as the sharing of a meal that we can be reconciled to God and one another.

As breakfast was wrapping up, Jesus took a moment to have a special conversation with Peter.  As the spokesman of the group for three years, a member of Jesus’ inner circle, and the rock upon whom the community would be built, Jesus knew that Peter likely needed a little extra dose of forgiveness and encouragement after what had happened.  Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus meant it would be helpful if maybe Jesus offered Peter a three-fold moment of redemption.  “Do you love me?” “Yes.” “Feed my lambs.”  “Do you love me?” “Yes.” “Tend my sheep.”  “Do you love me?” “Yes.” “Feed my sheep.”  Having been fully reconciled to Jesus over breakfast, what this becomes for Peter is something of an ordination into the next phase of his ministry.  This three-fold invitation to service seems to serve as Peter’s anointing for ministry.  As baptized followers of Jesus, we too are reconciled into the Kingdom of God.  Through water, the Holy Spirit, and in our tradition, a good smear of chrism across our foreheads, every baptized follower of Jesus has been anointed for ministry, and specially gifted to serve.  Just like Peter, all of us have fallen short from time to time, but thankfully, God is in the forgiveness business.

As an epilogue, John 21 helps us see what the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus might mean for us as modern-day followers.  We learn that faithful ministry starts with listening for the call of God.  Empowered by the Holy Spirit for the work of reconciliation, we are nourished routinely at this table and then we are sent forth, out into the world, as anointed ministers of Christ, to help bring about the restoration of all of humanity to God and to each other.  It isn’t work that we can do on our own or even as a faithful community apart from God, but with God’s help, success has already been secured for all who have come to believe and through believing, have found their way to the resurrection life.  Amen.

[1] https://www.google.com/search?q=epilogue

It’s fixin’ to be a week – a sermon

Sermon begins at 28:30

 


On Thursday, Mother Becca, Deacon Kellie, and I joined many of our sisters and brothers in ordained ministry at All Saint’s for the annual service commonly called the Chrism Mass, in which we renew our ordination vows and receive the specially blessed oil used at baptisms.  Kellie has a real job, so she had to drive herself back and forth from Leitchfield, but Becca and I rode together and enjoyed a couple of hours to touch base on life and our collective ministry here at Christ Episcopal Church.  One of the topics of our conversation was how the lives of associates and rectors are similar and different.  There are certain freedoms that are unique to each position, and there are certain limitations that come with each title as well.  That conversation got me thinking about how my life has changed in the two-plus years that I’ve been your rector.

One thing that quickly came to mind is how often I’ve uttered the phrase, “It’s been a week,” since leaving Alabama.  Sometimes, on only mildly crazy weeks, I’ll say it on Thursday.  Sometimes, like the week before Holy Week, it is quite possible to hear me say, “It’s been a week” at our Monday afternoon staff meeting. It’s a feeling I think we can all understand.  Whether you are a first-grade student, a tenth-grade teacher, lawyer, nurse, mechanic, priest, or full-time volunteer, some weeks just feel full – as if you’ll never stop running from one thing to the next.  Sometimes, the only way to describe what you’ve experienced is “It’s been a week.”

It’s been a week since we began the liturgy for The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday fifteen minutes ago.  As we started this service, we recreated liturgically the experience of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Sunday afternoon.  Over on the west side of the city, Pilate entered riding a war horse, surrounded by chariots and heavily armed soldiers, hearing shouts of “Hail Caesar, the son of god, the king of kings, and the source of peace”  Meanwhile, Jesus entered through the eastern gate, riding a donkey as a rag-tag group of disciples pulled palm branches out of the trees, laid their cloaks on the ground, and cried out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”  In that story, we heard clues that this is going to be a week; especially when Luke mentions that some Pharisees had come to see what all the commotion was about.  When the Pharisees realized that Jesus’ disciples were putting him on par with Caesar, and calling him the Son of God, they got really, really nervous.  “Tell them to hush,” they begged of Jesus.  “If these were silent, even the stones would cry out,” Jesus replied.  As they say in Lower Alabama, “It’s fixin’ to be a week.”

During the course of the next five days, Jesus went to the Temple and turned over the tables of the money changers.  He called out the injustice of the Temple system that was built on the backs of the faithful poor.  He answered repeated attempts to challenge his authority.  He taught lessons and told parables that directly contradicted with what the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes were trying to accomplish.  He lifted up the lowly widow and her two copper coins, while calling into question the large gifts given by those for whom it was less than a drop in the bucket.  As each day unfolded, the tension between Jesus and the powers-that-be grew, until finally, they conspired with Judas, one of the twelve, to betray him.  With all kinds of false accusations, they attempted to convince Pilate that Jesus needed to be killed, and when the crowd just wouldn’t relent, they finally succeeded in having Jesus put to death on a cross as a disgraced revolutionary.

It’s been a week.  Or, rather, we know it is about to be a week.  A full week.  A difficult week.  A Holy Week.  Every day this week, you will have the opportunity to walk the way of the cross with Jesus and one another.  It begins at noon, Monday through Thursday, where we will hear from different preachers in different contexts of how the pressure-filled relationship between Jesus and the powers-that-be bubbled and boiled, until it finally came to a head.  On Thursday evening, we will hear Jesus once again offer us the new mandate of the Kingdom of God, that we love one another.  Through the washing of feet, an act of profoundly humble service, we will re-enact the symbol of the self-sacrificial love that Jesus offered to his disciples, while we also remember the institution of the Lord’s Supper as the central act of our devotion.  Overnight, members of the congregation will keep watch, like Peter at the charcoal fire, as we wait for Friday, when we will remember the deepest act of love anyone can offer – the laying down of one’s life for a friend.

As the lessons for the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday show us, it’ll be a week – a long and challenging week, and yet, it is a week that we ought not skip through just to get to the joy of Easter.  There is no Easter without Good Friday.  There is no Resurrection without the challenges of Holy Week.  And so, we pray that in walking the way of the sorrow, we might find it to be the way of life; that through walking with Jesus toward the cross, we might also share in the resurrection life.  It’ll be a week, dear friends, but I can’t wait to walk it with you.  Amen.

An Unsettling Story

The Sermon starts at about 6:45


As I’ve told you before, I love parables.  If I wasn’t tied to the assigned readings in the weekly lectionary, I would almost certainly preach a sermon on a parable every time I stepped into a pulpit.  I love how simple they are.  How Jesus relies on common images from his time and place to share deep truths.  I love how impossible they are.  How the simple message that we think we take away from Jesus is never what are actually meant to learn.  I love how they rattle around inside my head for days and weeks on end.  I love how, even two-thousand years later, I can still find ways to enter into many of the parables that Jesus told.

I’ve long been a fan of Eugene Peterson’s description of parables as narrative time bombs; only exploding with meaning sometime down the road.  Recently, I’ve found another way to describe them that while less grandiose, is certainly equally true.  Jake Owensby, the Bishop of Western Louisiana, in his book A Resurrection Shaped Life, defines parables as “unsettling stories that invite us to rethink some of our basic assumptions.”  Today’s Gospel lesson, commonly called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is meant to be just such an unsettling story.  The basic gist of it seems fairly straight forward.  The younger son tells his dad that he wishes his dad was dead.  He takes what would be his inheritance, leaves town, and wastes it on women and whiskey.  One day, while dreaming of eating the slop he was feeding to the pigs, he has something of a come to Jesus moment, repents, and returns to his father’s good graces, only to have his older, more responsible brother, look down his nose at the whole situation.  In this parable’s most simplistic reading, the older brother serves as the lens through which Jesus seems to challenge our basic assumptions about what is right and wrong, fair and unfair, but in its most simplistic reading, I’m not sure that this parable is truly unsettling.  What’s really makes this story uncomfortable requires us to pay careful attention to three things: to whom Jesus is telling this parable, what really happened in that pig pen, and how the story ends.

The parable commonly called the Prodigal Son is the third of three parables Jesus tells back-to-back-to-back.  The lectionary skips over the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, but does give us the context for the stories.  Jesus was hanging out with tax collectors and known sinners.  Not only that, but he was eating with them.  They would have dipped their bread into the same bowl of oil and smeared it across a common plate of hummus.  The clean and unclean didn’t share meals in that way, and the Pharisees, whose job it was to interpret what was kosher and what wasn’t, made sure he knew about it.  In response, Jesus told them three parables about things that had been lost being found.  One sheep out of a hundred was lost, and the shepherd searched the ends of the earth to find it.  When he did, he threw a massive party to celebrate.  One silver coin out ten was lost, and the woman overturned her whole house to find it.  When she did, she threw a massive party to celebrate.  One son out of two was lost, and the father kept scanning the horizon searching for any sign that his boy might return home.  We he did, he threw a massive party to celebrate.  The first unsettling lesson we learn from this parable is that no matter who might want to be the judge of who is in and who is out, God is ready to throw a massive party in heaven for every stupid sheep, every seemingly worthless coin, and every ingrate child.

In each of the first two parables, Jesus is quick to mention that the lavish parties are representative of the joy that is experienced by God and all the angels each time one sinner repents.  In our parable, however, the word repentance is never mentioned.  Here, when the lost one is actually a human being who has some agency in his own return, we hear nothing about repentance.  Instead, the unsettling truth of that pig pen is that the younger son might still be a gigantic jerk.  In fact, I think this is the most likely reading of the text.  Notice how it all plays out.  After squandering all of his inheritance on “dissolute” living, the foreign land to which he had moved fell into a famine.  Not only did his funds run out, but the bottom fell out on the economy at the same time.  Everybody was hungry, so begging didn’t do any good.  The best job he could find was working on a swine farm feeding the pigs.  Can you imagine how awful life must be when you are looking longingly at the food that pigs are eating?  Jesus doesn’t say that the younger son repented, but rather in that moment of desperation, the younger son “came to himself.”  He returned to his senses and remembered that back home there was a farm full of food and even the hired hands had more than enough to eat.  So, he concocted a plan in which he would return home, say all the right things, and even if his dad would only take him back as a slave, at least he’d have food in his belly.  This, to me, is where the story becomes truly unsettling.  Is it possible that what Jesus is saying here is that God will throw a party even for those whose return to relationship seems to come with questionable intentions?  Is it possible that God is perpetually scanning the horizon, waiting to welcome home even those who are still stuck in their sinful ways simply because they’ve come searching for something more?  Given the crowd Jesus is accused of hanging out with, perhaps the second unsettling lesson we learn from this parable is that God is always ready to welcome us home, whether or not we’re here for the right reasons.

As the party unfolds, the fatted calf is slaughtered and the finest wines are poured.  The older brother returns from a day of hard work in the field only to find that his good-for-nothing brother is back and his dad is wasting more money on a party for him.  You can feel his indignation as he stands outside, listening to the festivities inside, and sneering his complaint to the old man. “I’ve been working like a slave for you, and you’ve never given me so much as a young goat to have a party.  But this son of yours.  He treated you as if you were dead.  He made you sell our land, lay off our workers, and lose our prestige in the community so that he could go off and waste your money, and for him you’ve killed the fatted calf?”  Just as he had done for his younger son, the father tried to bring the older son back into relationship.  He begged him to understand what it is like to lose something so valuable and find it again.  But, as the story ends, Jesus doesn’t tell us if the older brother ever relents and enters the party.  The parable fades to black with the older brother still outside, arms crossed, glaring into the house.  Is it possible that God would restore a jerk like the younger brother only to leave one who was seemingly faithful on the outside looking in?  Can we fathom a God who desires deep, real, perfect relationship who will also allow us to be our own worst enemies when we refuse to forgive and be reconciled? The final unsettling lesson I think we can learn from this parable today is that God is desperate to be in right relationship with everyone, but it is our own expectations, prejudices, and lack of grace that can leave us on the outside, looking in.

The more comfortable reading makes the Prodigal Son a top-3 parable of all time, but when we let parables be unsettling, when we allow them the space to challenge some of our basic assumptions, we stand to learn a lot about the Kingdom of God.  The Prodigal Son story should make us wonder just how willing we are to enter the party God is throwing for all those who were lost but are now found.  The Pharisees couldn’t imagine such a party.  The older brother was indignant about it.  God’s grace is often surprising, upsetting, and even little unsettling, which, now that I think about it, is maybe why Jesus felt the need to use parables in the first place.  There are deep lessons to be learned, if only we have ears open to listen and hearts open to learn.  Amen.

He stretched out his arms – a sermon

You may not know it, but there is some rhyme and reason to the liturgical choices we make around here.  At 10 o’clock, the service music is carefully selected to match the mood of the season.  Now that we’ve survived the Great Litany, for the next four weeks, both services begin with the Penitential Order which is meant to draw our minds to the truth that we should only approach the altar of God having taken stock of our lives, recognizing our sins, and repenting of our unrighteousness.  At 8am, we have switched back to Eucharistic Prayer I, which deals more directly with the reality that sin – the corporate sin of the world and the sinfulness of each individual – ultimately brought Jesus to the cross, and that in the Eucharist, we are recreating not just his Last Supper with the disciples, but remembering the fullness of the events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and yes, Easter Day as well.

The Rite II Eucharistic Prayers are a bit more challenging. None of them carry the clearly penitential tone of Rite I.  However, Prayer A does seem to be the prayer best suited for the season.  In it, as we recount the story of salvation history, there is this peculiar line in which we say that Jesus “stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to [God’s] will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.”  As the Gospel stories of Jesus’ death unfold, it doesn’t always seem like this is an accurate reading of the situation.  Did Jesus offer himself, or did Judas offer him for 30 silver coins?  Did Jesus offer himself, or did the Chief Priests, Scribes, and Pharisees offer him to maintain the status quo?  Did Jesus offer himself, or did Herod offer him out of fear; did Pilate offer him to appease the crowd and raise his stock within the Roman Empire; or, as the prayer seems to suggest, did God the Father require the Son to die to appease some sort unrelenting anger?  While each of these could be perfectly reasonable explanations for what happened in those dreadful hours, it would seem that our Gospel lesson for today is expressly concerned with making us understand that Jesus’ death was his own choice and for the benefit of the whole world.

Two weeks ago, we heard the story of Jesus being transfigured on the mountain top.  It had been about a week since Peter finally confessed Jesus as the Messiah, when he, along with James and John were made privy to the full revelation of Jesus’ divinity.  There, with Moses and Elijah at his side, and the voice of God booming from above, Jesus was fully empowered for the final stage of his ministry. Not long after this encounter, Luke tells us that Jesus set his face for Jerusalem.  The last act of Jesus ministry was about to unfold.  Somewhat surprisingly, Luke then proceeds to spend 10 whole chapters, roughly 42% of his Gospel, sharing all kinds of experiences that happened along the way to the cross.  Jesus exorcised demons, healed the sick, preached the Good News, taught in the Synagogues, and even sent out 70 others to do the same.

Here, at not even the mid-point in that ten-chapter journey, in which Jesus is very intentional about his work and ministry, and just as he has taught that many who think they are in God’s good graces will find themselves on the outside, some Pharisees, the insiders’ insiders, came to warn Jesus that Herod was out to kill him.  This isn’t Herod the Great who had tried to use the Wise Men as spies in order to kill Jesus shortly after his birth.  This is Herod Antipas, Herod the Great’s son, who had married the ex-wife of his brother, who got drunk at his birthday party and ended up having John the Baptist beheaded at his step-daughter’s request.  Herod Antipas shared one fourth of his father’s territory with his brothers.  As the most competent heir, Herod lived in constant fear of revolution.  It was that fear that made him both dislike John the Baptist and yet fear the will of the people too much to want to have him killed.  It was that same fear that made him worry about the increasing power that Jesus of Nazareth had over the crowds.  One who could perform miracles, heal the sick, exorcise demons, and command such a following was one who was clearly a threat to the power and privilege that he had born into.

Luke doesn’t tell us why Herod wanted to kill Jesus at this point, and given that these words of warning come from the Pharisees, Luke’s favorite antagonists in his Gospel, we don’t even know if the warning is real.  Still, the response Jesus gives tells us that he is in no way worried about what the powers-that-be, religious or political, might want to do to him.  “Go and tell that fox,” Jesus says, as if calling the puppet governor of the Roman Empire a fox was something people could do in the first century.  But Jesus has no fear.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, Jesus is totally in control of the situation.  “Go and tell that fox that I’m doing what I’ve been sent here to do.  I’m not going to hide in fear.  No threat is going to keep me from the mission that God has for me.  Today and tomorrow, I’ll be busy healing the sick and casting out demons.  On the third day,” an obvious reference to his death and resurrection, “I’ll finish my work.”

It isn’t that Jesus was ignorant to the fact that his life and ministry would lead to his death.  He was quite aware that those who upset the way things have always been have always been mistreated, abused, and ultimately killed, whether it is in Jerusalem, Rome, Dallas, or Memphis.  It is just that Jesus knows that no matter how ready the Pharisees might be to get Jesus out of their hair or how anxious Herod might be about Jesus’ increasing popularity, this ministry is working on God’s time and to God’s good and perfect end – the gathering all of the faithful under God’s gracious and loving wings.  No matter how much Herod might believe that Jesus was out for political power and no matter how much Jesus’ own disciples might wish for that too, what God had planned to do through the life and ministry of Jesus wasn’t to recreate the power structures of this world, but to replace them with structures of compassion, grace, and love.  Jesus is in full control of his message, his medium, and the timing such that in the end, even when it looks like any number of other powers and principalities had brought him to the cross, we can say with full confidence that it was Jesus who stretched out his own arms upon the cross, offering himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.

It is increasingly difficult in this world of the 24-hour news cycle to remember who is really in control of things.  Fear mongers make millions of dollars a day selling advertising on news channels that would have us believe any number of lies and half-truths.  We are enticed to buy this makeup, drink this beer, drive this car, and use this phone to be happy and healthy.  We are tricked into believing that our value is based only on what others can get from us.  It is no wonder that rates of anxiety and depression are on the rise.  Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and the threat of Herod reminds us, however, that outside powers have been trying to rule by fear for thousands of years.  Jesus tells us that these perceived threats, even to our very way of living and our own lives, are hollow compared to the power of God and God’s dream to restore all of creation to right relationship.  Jesus will spend six more chapters walking toward Jerusalem and certain death.  Along the way, he will restore all kinds of people into community by offering them wholeness and peace.  Even now, Jesus is here offering us the peace that passes all understanding, peace that is more powerful than any fear the world can create. Our Lenten journey reminds us that Jesus stretched out his own arms of love upon the cross, no one else made him do it, so that everyone, even you and me, might come within the reach of his saving embrace.  Amen.

What is your Reward?

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Every school day at 6:30 AM, I trudge up the stairs to make sure Eliza and Lainey are starting to wake up.  Yesterday, I had more of a lilt in my step as I came through the bedroom door smiling and saying, “Happy Pancake Day!”  They were a bit confused by my excitement, and weren’t quite sure what to make of Pancake Day.  We chatted for a moment about Shrove Tuesday and the practice, at least in the Episcopal Church, of eating pancakes before the beginning of Lent.  I realized in the course of that conversation that I’ve probably eaten pancakes on Shrove Tuesday for each of the last 36 years.  While our girls have been doing it since birth, for them, these habits are still rather new, and in a lot of ways, foreign.

I had a similar experience about two weeks ago when I invited Vonda, our Parish Administrator, to join me for the burning of the palms.  Vonda didn’t grow up in a liturgical tradition, and so, much of what we do around here – from albs, cinctures, stoles, and chasubles, to Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, and the Easter Triduum – are brand new to her.  We talked a bit about the ways in which the liturgical actions of Palm Sunday help us remember Jesus’ last week, from marching up 12th Avenue waving palm fronds shouting “Hosanna!” to hearing the Passion and crying out “Crucify him!”  I shared with her how we save those palms each year to be burned and ground into ashes that, on Ash Wednesday, get smeared across our foreheads as a reminder of our mortality and a symbol of our penitence – an outward and visible sign of our need for forgiveness and God’s deep desire to forgive.

It is easy, especially for me as a clergy person, to get so used to these symbols and events that I forget what they are really meant to be about.  I can get so caught up in the details of a printer that is acting up, palms that need to be burned, and new fronds that need to be ordered, that the whole season of Lent can turn into one long to-do list.  Before I know it, a season that is meant to be set aside for the intentional work of holiness can just become another season of busy work.  I imagine that clergy aren’t the only ones who are susceptible to this condition.  Cultural LentÔ, with its 2 for six-dollar fast food fish sandwiches and giving-up-chocolate, can become so routine that it loses all of its depth of meaning.

I think this might be what Jesus was on to when he admonished his disciples to beware of practicing their personal piety before others.  To Jesus’ mind, the regular practices of the faithful had become so monotonous as to have lost all real meaning.  Giving alms, prayer, and fasting, the three-legged stool of spirituality for the faithful Jew had become, for some, nothing more than a chance to show off.  Going to the Synagogue was, for some, merely a chance to get their ticket punched, to go through the motions required by the law, and then to go back out into the world as if nothing had really changed.  “When you approach the throne of God just so others will see you, being seen is all the reward you will get,” Jesus says, “But, if you approach the throne of God with humility, penitence, and the desire to be changed, then God, who sees in secret, will reward you with a depth of relationship that is beyond even your wildest imagination.”

In just a minute, Mother Becca will invite us, on behalf of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent.  She will ask us all to take on intentional practices of self-examination, self-denial, and prayer.  As a symbol of our accepting that invitation, an ashen cross will be marked upon our foreheads, not so that everyone can see that we got our Ash Wednesday merit badges, but so that, when you see yourself in the mirror later today, you might remember that the season of Lent is meant to change you.  The practices you take on this season, those done in public and those done in secret, are meant to bring you into a deeper, fuller, richer relationship with God who, Lent also reminds us, sent God the Son into the world, who taught and lived a life of love, compassion, and grace, who was betrayed by one of his closest friends, condemned to death in a sham trial, crucified on a trash heap, died an excruciating death, and was hastily buried in shame on the eve of the sabbath.

The work of a holy Lent is not easy work, but it is of great reward to those who engage it with integrity.  Whether this is your first or your ninety-first Ash Wednesday, I hope you will heed the invitation and spend these next forty days engaging in the practices of holiness and preparing yourself, your body and soul, for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, for the indwelling of the Kingdom of God, and for the resurrection life to which God invites us all.  May your Father who sees in secret reward you richly with grace and mercy this Lent.  Amen.