Monday, February 27, 2012

Lent 1B. 26 February 2012.

For the audio version, click here and select The First Sunday in Lent.


"And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him."  (Mark 1:12, 13)


            If you were to take a survey of devout Christians…  And I don't mean "devout" in the ways that we are depicted by the entertainment business—as some sort of anti-intellectual group of uptight, self-righteous snobs—I mean people who are authentic believers in Jesus Christ, people who are trying to follow the spiritual and moral vision that Jesus had.  Real people, good people, honest, faithful.  If you were to take a survey of them as to which of the four Gospels they would rather read, my guess is that Luke and John would be very closely tied for first place, and then Matthew, and then Mark.


            Mark was the first Gospel written—it is the oldest.  Matthew and Luke both draw from Mark's gospel, and if you compare them, Mark's gospel reads like the first draft.  It is much shorter—only 16 chapters to Matthew's 28 and Luke's 24.


            If we only had Mark, we would have no story of Jesus' birth.  We would have nothing on John the Baptizer's birth and parentage.  In fact, many of the stories that we treasure are found in the other gospels, and many of those accounts we would find preferable to Mark.  When you read the vivid depictions in the other gospels, reading Mark is like looking at a coloring book before the crayons. 


            For instance, today's reading is Mark's account of the baptism and wilderness temptation of Jesus.  Luke's community probably looked at it and shook their heads, and said, "No, this will never do.  We need to see him wrestle with the genuine temptation to choose an easier path than the Cross.  We need to see him twist in the wind a little bit." 


            If one day someone asked you if you knew the story of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness, you would likely feel the need to give at least your best recollection of Luke's account.  You would probably feel that your answer was not sufficient if you gave Mark's version, which reads like this:  "..the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him."


            Admit it.  It doesn't seem like enough, because Luke's version is so much more dramatic.  In Luke, you've got the pinnacle of the Temple.  You've got stones, and Jesus tempted to make them into bread.  You've got the kingdoms of the world—the riches of every country and every place of power.  Your mind stretches itself to see Jesus fighting the temptation to walk away from the deep sense of call to take the easy way out. 


            This is not just entertaining food for thought.  Temptation stories are ancient and powerful.  If you read the story of Siddhartha—the man who would become known as the Buddha—it is about going down all these tempting roads of pleasure and power, until he finally discovers that none of it brings him happiness.   Oh, but it's a good story.  And isn't that what life is about?  Isn't life about trying this and this and this and having a little bit of fun here and there until in the end you discover that it's meaningless? 


            No.  No, that misses the point for both the story of Jesus and the story of Siddhartha.   The point is that the many temptations to easy power and pleasure provide nothing but suffering.  And Jesus, unlike Siddhartha, does not need to travel those paths to know that. 


            But still, I return to the question, with all these vivid images in Luke—why would you ever just read Mark's two little verses?  "He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him."


            I sat with this text for a long time.  I kept wanting to flip over to Luke, but you can't do that.  Ironic to be reading the temptation story and be so tempted to run from it. 


            The scholars who settled on the canon of the New Testament felt that each version of the gospels needed to be included.  They didn't choose one.  They said, "Okay Church, here are four accounts—each with their own take on the life of Jesus.  Have at it."  So I tried to figure out why Mark didn't want to give us a little more flesh on the bone here, and I'm going to give you my best guess. 


            You see, there are contours to the devout life that are very difficult to speak of.  Sometimes it is because of the distance we feel from God.  When I was a teenager, one of my teachers was talking about prayer—I went to a Christian high school, so this wasn't really a big deal.  He was trying to talk about how we should remember that God knows us more fully than we know ourselves, and because of that, when we pray, it is not so much that we need to tell God what's on our minds, but that we should think of it as finding out from God what is going on inside of us.


            And my teacher said that he knew a man—I think the man was ordained, but I can't remember now.  I'm pretty sure the man was ordained, because he said that when the man spoke about God he was very articulate and outgoing, but when he prayed, he had trouble with putting his words together.


            My teacher said, "Even table grace with him is slow and halting, and you wonder why he doesn't just say grace…you know…`Bless us, O Lord and these thy gifts..' but he doesn't do that.  It's halting; it's like he's not sure quite what to say, and that's sort of the point.  He is trying to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit.  He is trying to figure out how to pray to God who knows him better than he knows himself."


            I think of that story from my teacher a lot, especially in private prayer, when the comforting forms of The Book of Common Prayer seem too formal, when it's just God and me.  And we both know.  We both know that I know less about myself than God does.


            There are contours of the devout life that are difficult to speak about.  When Mark wrote that Jesus "was with the wild beasts and the angels ministered to him," I think he was hoping that the lack of description would give our minds the freedom to fill in the blanks.  That we would have a deep recognition of what that means.  It's not easy to talk about. 


            In a sense, Luke's version is easier.  You can close your mind around the three temptations—knowing that they are symbolic of many, many more.  But the floodgates of imagination begin to open when the text gives no parameters.  What did Jesus face out there?  Everything.  Realms of possibility.  So many temptations, large and small; so many victories, large and small. 


            And when you think about your own experiences of temptation, and your own areas of weakness, it's not hard to nod your head in painful recognition that there are wild beasts and there are angels, and sometimes it's not easy to tell which is which. 


            It's not easy to talk about, because no one wants to talk about it, or listen to it.  Even holy scripture uses metaphors when trying to speak about these things.  The metaphor that seems most common in the New Testament is light and darkness.  John's gospel and letters use that metaphor to get right into the calculus of evil and redemption—the temptations of thought and action that seem to lurk around every corner. 


            Let me just read from the first letter of John 1:5-9 (Pew Bible 989)


 5"This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness."


            John writes that God is light—pure light—in whom there is no darkness.  If we believe that we are in communion with God—that we are in relationship with God—and yet we are in darkness—that is, unaware or complicit in doing bad things—then we are not really in relationship with God.  But if we walk in the light—if we are honest with ourselves—then we have fellowship with God, and are forgiven for our sins.  If we say that we have done nothing wrong—that every decision we made was right on target and pleasing to God, then we are only lying to ourselves.  But if we admit it.  If we confess to ourselves and to God that we have sinned, then God, who is faithful and just, will forgive us and more than that.  God will even cleanse us from all unrighteousness.


            This is a primary doctrine of the Christian faith, and one that the pulpit used to spend more time proclaiming, yet—in my experience—in ways that made God seem angry and unloving. 


            The point is not to get so hung up on the language of sin that it somehow makes the medicine worse that the disease.  The vision of this text is to speak precisely to those many little disappointing and disturbing things we have thought about and done—little tiny things that seem so embarrassing to us personally.  It's like living in darkness to pretend that we don't have them, or to imagine that God—who knows us better than we know ourselves—is not aware of them.


            And the medicine for this—the real cure—is not to sweep them under the rug and pretend that if we ignore it, God will ignore it.  No.  The real cure is simply to admit that we have succumbed, and if we do that, then it's like the light has come on again, and we can have fellowship with God, who even goes so far as to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  It really is a very beautiful concept, and one that addresses a fundamental area of insecurity: the feeling of being embarrassed and afraid.


            Mark wrote that Jesus was out there with the wild beasts and the angels; that he knew temptations large and small.  The mind staggers with possibilities.  I would imagine that it was a time of profound learning for Jesus.  He did not come to judge the world, but to redeem it.  And in order to redeem it, he had to embrace humanity—he had to live a real human life.  To do that, he surely must have experienced the petty temptations.


            A couple years ago, I was talking with a clergy friend of mine about this, and the longer we talked the more obvious it became that we felt very differently about Jesus' triumph over temptation.  She said what she liked was that whereas we so often fall victim to sin and evil, that Jesus was victorious over it—that he could beat down the devil in ways that we often fail.  And I like that, too.  In my religious background, there was plenty of victory language and many more sermons about sin and struggle.   


            But when this story comes up, I think the feeling I have is gratitude.  Not just that Jesus was victorious, but that he really faced the temptations we face. 


            In this life, you meet a lot of wild beasts, and a lot of angels—if you're fortunate.  Sometimes the angels will pull you away from the beasts.  Sometimes you even get to be an angel for someone else. 


            But the scariest thing is to know that you can also—if you are tempted just right—you can become a wild beast.  You can be tempted to become an instrument of great harm. 


            I'm not just grateful that Jesus was victorious over that temptation, I'm grateful he faced it and knew it, because as long as the human race has life and breath, we are going to need a Savior who knows what that's like.  And who can help us at the moment of our greatest weakness.




If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.


Monday, February 20, 2012

Last Sunday after the Epiphany B. 19 February 2012.


            To be a Christian is to be someone who wishes to know Jesus.  Everything we do in worship and in service to others is an outgrowth of the desire to know him better, because we believe in him, and want to believe in him more fully. 


            It is a tribute to his enduring presence in the Church, by the power of the Holy Spirit, that we continue to want to know him more, and be with him more.  Deepening that relationship is not as complicated as one might imagine. 


            As with any other relationship, a little honesty goes a long way.  There are many days when I open The Book of Common Prayer in search of some means to connect, and it seems as if the Lord is saying, "Put that down.  I have Thomas Cranmer and Charlie Price if I want to hear from them.  I want to hear from you."


            And so I begin the halting, sometimes awkward, process of searching my heart for what I want to say.  There are times when the genuine thoughts and feelings have a chance to come out, and the mystery of the Holy Spirit's presence enriches the time, and it's as if the room is charged with the presence of the Lord. 


            But more often than that, it's not easy, because there are wants and expressions that don't sound petty or shallow or silly when they're just rattling around inside, but when it comes time to fess up to God about them…it's awkward.  Because it's not just fessing up to God; it's fessing up to ourselves, too.


            We do it, when we do it, because we want to feel better; but our noblest aspiration in prayer is to know God better, to know Jesus better.  And when our minds turn to Jesus there can be hindrances to relating to him that may not seem like hindrances. 


            Take for example the images we have of him.  They are all artists' depictions.  We have no idea what he really looked like.  Sometimes he shown in Roman robes as a prince or a king—the risen and glorified King of Kings.  We have seen him depicted hanging on the Cross, and there he is almost always shown as a perfect specimen of masculinity—perfect muscles, long hair, no body fat whatsoever. 


            I get these religious catalogs that have posters and coffee cups with drawings of a bearded, long-haired man in simple robes and sandals talking with children.  The man is meant to be Jesus—the robes and sandals tell us that.  The children are dressed like children of today dress.  The message is not bad—that Jesus lived a long time ago, but lives again, and children can know him.  That's fine, but how do you explain why those children can see him, but we can't?  I don't know.  The image can get in the way. 


            Which image of Jesus is helpful—the crucifix?, the coffee cup?, the Roman robes?  Maybe you've seen an artist's rendering of Jesus laughing.  It's an interesting image.  I like the idea of Jesus laughing, but the image doesn't really resonate with me.  There is one of him cuddling a lamb, which is very poignant—the Lamb of God, cuddling a lamb—but I don't know.  


              Even scripture itself can make Jesus hard to get to know.  The Gospel writers were not taking events down as they happened.  The Gospels were written some thirty, forty years after Jesus ascended into heaven.  Whenever we read of Jesus doing anything it is written from the perspective of a devout community that did not want to forget him, or the incredible life he lived.  Objective accounts simply do not exist.  Even the simplest parable is recorded with a gigantic punctuation mark called "The Resurrection" at the end of every sentence.  The Resurrected One said this!


            What I'm working my way around to saying is that it is impossible to know what it was really like to walk with Peter, James, and John as Jesus led them up the high mountain.  It is impossible to know Jesus when God was first revealing to this little ragtag band of disciples that this man—this human being—was the Messiah, the Savior of the World, the One through whom all things were made.


            In the narrative of Mark's gospel—during Epiphany—we have seen Jesus perform signs and miracles, curing illnesses, casting out demons, feeding five thousand.  Jesus turned to the disciples at one point and asked them, "Who do the people say I am?" 

            And the disciples said, "They don't know.  They're confused.  Some say John the Baptist?  Some say Elijah has returned.  They don't know what to think."  Jesus asks them, "So…who do you say I am?"  And Peter's eyes are opened, and he says, "You are the Messiah." 


            And Jesus sternly ordered them not to tell anyone.  Why?  Because they wouldn't believe it if someone told them.  They are not yet ready to understand that their image of a messiah could be this man.  In fact, I think Mark wants us to believe that disciples are not ready to believe it yet, either.


            Jesus begins to teach them that he will have to undergo great suffering, and be rejected, and killed.  Peter says, "No, it doesn't have to be that way."  And Jesus says, "Get behind me, Satan…it does have to be that way." 


            Six days after these things have taken place, Jesus leads them up the high mountain.  Again, it's impossible to get into their minds.  It's impossible to see Jesus as just a human being.  Yes, he's the named Messiah; yes, he will be the same one who will be enthroned in heaven; but at the time of walking up the mountain with his disciples, all of that had yet to be revealed.  It can't just be revealed by Jesus.  It has to be revealed by the Father. 


            And so, to bring the message of what Messiah means, and to validate all that Jesus had said, they come up the mountain, and Jesus is transfigured before them.  The glory that emanates from the face of Jesus is God's revelation to the disciples that this really is his Son, who is the Messiah.


            They are terrified.  Of course, they are.  They need to be terrified.  If they weren't terrified then, in some sense, the Transfiguration doesn't help them understand anything at all, because what is happening is meant to change the fabric of everything they have known—the whole created universe has changed. 


            They are no longer waiting for a messiah.  Jesus gave them six days to think about that!  Six days for the scandal of that thought to sink in.  Six days to make the seismic shift in their brains from one reality to the next.  They are no longer waiting for a messiah.  The Messiah is here!  The Transfiguration drives that point home.


            You are no longer waiting.  You are no longer searching.  This isn't the paperboy.  This isn't just a prophet like John the Baptizer or Elijah.  Peter was right: Jesus is the Messiah.  And now it's time for that reality to change all of reality.


            When Jesus is transfigured before them, God is revealing on a grander scale what God revealed to Peter on a lesser scale—through the convictions of his heart.  This is God.  This is the Messiah.  This man, Jesus, is THE ONE.  It is not Moses' face that is shining.  It is not Elijah's face that is shining.  Jesus' face is where the glory now resides, and from the resplendent glow of his face, Moses and Elijah can be seen and understood for their own particular place in the story of God and his people.


            The voice comes from heaven.  The same voice with the same words that were said at the Baptism.  My Son.  My Son.  Listen to him.  Listen to him. 


            When Moses went up the mountain, he received the Torah, the Word.  When Jesus takes his disciples up the mountain, Jesus is revealed to be the Torah, the Word made flesh.  The stone tablets are replaced by the Man who is the Living Bread. 


            Do you remember when Jesus asks to his disciples, "Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?" (Matthew 7:9)  The Father, at one time gave the Law in stone, but now in Jesus the Law has come in the Living Bread which gives life to the world.  (Pause.)


            The disciples needed to see this.  They needed some confirmation, some revelation, that what Jesus was about to undergo would not simply be the suffering and death of another prophet.  The Transfiguration reveals the intrinsic glory of the Father's only-begotten Son, who would take upon himself the sins of the world.   


            It may be hard fully to appreciate this event in the life of Jesus.  There is a lot of symbolism, a lot of history, a lot of moving parts, and I think the hardest part is remembering the context: disciples who are just beginning to catch a glimpse of who Jesus really is.  (Pause.)


            There is an interesting irony to this story.  Are you interested in hearing about it?  Mark's gospel originally ended at 16:8.  It was only sometime around the fourth century that the remaining 12 verses were added that contain resurrection appearances and Mark's version of the ascension.  Let me read for you the original ending of Mark's gospel.  I'll start at verse 5 (Pew Bible 829)


5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But he said to them, 'Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.' 8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. 

In the English translations have always cleaned up the original Greek at the end.  Do you know how sometimes you suspend the rules of grammar when you're trying to make a point?  Like saying, "It ain't happening."  Well.  The Greek literally reads, "Terror and amazement had gripped them and they didn't say nothing to nobody."  Mark makes the point.  They were terrified.  Again, they were terrified.  They had probably been off and on terrified since the Transfiguration.

            You can see why redactors had to change the ending over time to reflect the outward impulse of the Gospel—that we shouldn't run silently from the tomb, too scared to tell anyone.  We should go into all the world.

            But let me suggest that we let Matthew, Luke and John tell it that way.  I'll stick with Mark's original ending.  You see, it brings the meaning of the Transfiguration forward.  It was the glory of Jesus—the revelation of who Jesus really is that terrified them—that ended their search for a Messiah for ever.

            So when we come to the empty tomb, and again they are terrified, unable to speak, it is again the terror of a new creation dawning—a whole new world where death has lost its sting and "the grave is cheated of its due."[1]

            The terror they had known at the Transfiguration was a foretaste of the gloriously impossible good news that the Messiah has come, the Messiah has died, and the Messiah will come again.  It was the mystery of the Christian Faith then, and it continues to be the mystery of our Faith now.  Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

            It is okay to be a little terrified.  It is appropriate to be terrified.  He changed the fabric of existence for all time.  Jesus is not just another prophet.  He is not Moses or Elijah or John the Baptist.  He is the Messiah—the Son of the Living God. 






If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.


[1] Gilbert, W.S.  The Yeomen of the Guard, Act I Finale.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Epiphany 6B. 12 February 2012.

For the audio version, click here and select 6th Sunday after Epiphany.

Originally preached 15 February 2009.


            A couple weeks ago, we all fell victim to the stomach bug that has been making it's way around.  I don't recall ever feeling quite so bad, or so helpless.  It's a frustrating, sometimes painful thing, to be sick.  No one likes it.  It reminds us that we are not in total control of our lives—that something can come out of nowhere and change our plans.


            We know so much more about illness than many previous generations.  We know about handling food more safely—not using the same board to cut raw meat and vegetables; washing our hands. 


            We know that illness is contracted by germs, and that germs are transmitted through lack of hygiene or carelessness.  I remember when I was a hospital chaplain in the days before Purel stations were in every room, I was instructed to wash my hands after visiting each patient—whether I touched them or not.  The point was that whatever you touched in the room could have some kind of germ on it.  We were taught that the ambient bugs in hospitals and nursing homes were called nosocomial germs.  It's kind of frightening when you think about it.  The rates of infection in hospitals is staggering, mostly due to nosocomial germs.


            It used to be—before science answered these questions—people believed that illness was a result of a moral defect, or some mysterious character flaw.  We don't see things that way anymore.  People used to believe that God punished people with illness.  Did you know that the word "stroke" comes from a time when people thought that God struck people?  "Struck down in the prime of his youth"—people still say that.


            We can also give thanks that we can differentiate between communicable or contagious diseases, and those which are not easily passed from one to another.  We can shake hands and hug and kiss people who were once quarantined.  I remember when AIDS was becoming a major scare, and being told that it could not be passed from toilet seats, or hugs or hand shakes.  But people were scared.


            You remember Sars and Bird Flu?  Occasionally something pops up and has everyone worried until the scientists tell us how these things are contracted and what our risk is.  But in the ancient world, no one knew anything about it.  If you got some kind of malady, it was bad news.  And if it wasn't something that could be easily treated and go away, then you might be shunned by the community—a kind of forced quarantine.


            This is the way it was with lepers.  We don't know for sure what leprosy was back then.  We don't know if it was what is now called Hansen's disease.  But we do know how people were treated who had it.  They were forced out of their community, forced to beg for food, because they couldn't work a trade to earn money. 


            Everywhere they went, they had to shout, "Unclean, unclean."  Can you imagine that?  Can you imagine the obvious shame?  And there was no hope, none.  No medicine.  No one would touch them. 


            You think about the most common interactions you have with people: making eye contact, shaking hands, hugging.  Even just talking.  You go to a restaurant and the waiter comes over to the table to take your order.  Pleasantries are exchanged, a little light banter, and "I'll be right back with your drinks."  Right there you will experience more human intimacy than a leper was able to experience with a non-leper in the course of a year.


            What I am trying to describe is a living death.  Can you see that?  Lepers were dead to the world outside them—no one wanted to think of them, no one thought of them as worthwhile people, no one wanted anything to do with them, because if they got the leprosy, then they'd be out of the community, too.   It's a living death.


            So when we read in Mark 1:40 that a leper came to Jesus, you have to understand that it's not just like someone blind, or with a broken leg.  This was much more serious.  Mark's readers would have been horrified.  The only way that I can update what this meant would be to say that it would be like if a man walked up to Jesus with a belt of explosives around his waist and his finger on the detonator.  Because if Jesus catches leprosy, that's it—Messiah or not, leprosy would have instantly made Jesus an outcast.


            The leper says to Jesus, "If you choose, you can make me clean."  Now that's interesting.  You would think that the operative word would be "able."  If you are able, you can make me clean.  But the leper says, "if you choose."  Fascinating.  The man believes that Jesus is able to cure him…but he is not sure if Jesus would willingly choose to touch him. 

            This man is taking a huge risk.  I'm not sure about this, but I believe that he might have been subject to stoning for walking up to a healthy person.


            Jesus, the text reads, "was moved with pity."  And he "stretched out his hand."  "And touched him."  Now, let's just pause there for a second.  To me, this moment is so filled with holiness that it's like the moment of silence when Jesus gives up his spirit on the Cross.  "He touched him."  Jesus broke every rule in the book and a couple that hadn't been written down.  Jesus touched the leper. 


            The story can end here, as far as I am concerned.  Even if the man had not been healed, it would be enough of a miracle that Jesus touched that man.  But then he said, "I do choose."  I choose to touch you.  I choose to see you, not just your illness.  I choose to know you.  I choose to accept you as one of my own.   "Be made clean."  And immediately the leprosy left him.  Why?  Because Jesus chose to see the man, not the leprosy.  Jesus chose to accept the one, and reject the other.


            Now, we're not going to go into the science of healing here.  I don't know medically what happened.  I don't know what it looked like.  But I do know this—there is more going on here than just physical healing.  That said, it would be insensitive to not take a moment and acknowledge the frustration many people—including myself—have with the stories of healing. 


            From time to time someone will ask me why it is that Jesus was so willing to heal people, often miraculously, when he walked the earth, and yet many Christians seek healing and feel that their prayers are not answered.  Well.  Let me give you an answer for why that is:  I don't know.


            When I was first ordained I was so worried about being a standard-bearer that I thought those kinds of questions exposed the weaknesses of Christianity.  But somewhere along the line I learned to accept, and then even come to love, these kinds of questions. 


            When I was a teenager, I was very interested in faith-healing.  I had heard stories of people who had claimed to have prayed for God to heal their eyes so that they didn't need glasses.  Well, I tried that.  I prayed fervently that God would heal my eyes.  It never happened.  Some folks go through experiences like that and give up on the faith.  I can understand that. 


            But I can't say I ever felt that way about God.  You see, God and I have a deal.  It's a standard contract that we made out a long time ago, probably back when I was in the sixth grade.  I've lost the original document, but God has it on file.  It reads that I will love and serve him with all my heart and ability, and in return for my love and service, I expect him do whatever he pleases.  So if he chooses to heal me from something, I will be grateful; and if he chooses not to heal me from something, I will be grateful. 


            The contract is longer than just that though.  It even has money in it.  If God chooses to bless me, I will give a tithe of my income to his Church. 


That's right.  If things go well, and God blesses me, I will give.  And if God chooses not to bless me, I will give a tithe of my income to his Church.  


            You might say, "That's not a very good deal."  Let me tell you: it's a great deal.  It's the best deal I have ever made, because I can't tell when things are good or bad. 


            I know a man who was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.  He was a monk, and he wrote something that disagreed with a fundamental teaching of the Roman Church.  His superiors told him to recant, and he wouldn't do it.  He said, "The Church is wrong about this.  If I change, I will be committing a sin against myself."  He was excommunicated by the Pope.  (This is a true story.) 


            On the night before he left the monastery he prayed, "God, I dare you to be less than you are.  I dare you not to love me.  I dare you to not redeem this situation.  I dare you not to take care of me in the future.  I dare you to be less than God almighty." 


            The next day, according to the tradition of his Order, he knelt before his abbot and asked for a blessing before leaving the monastery for the last time.  After he said goodbye, he turned to leave, and the abbot called him back.  The abbot had fallen to his knees, and said, "You too must bless me."  That monk, who dared God to be less than God, became one of the best bishops the Episcopal Church has ever had, and was my spiritual director in seminary.  You see, God can't be less than God.  God has to be God.


            I don't know why God doesn't always heal people as suddenly as we read in the Bible.  I believe that God does do it, though.  But with the leper, I don't think the story is primarily about physical healing. 


            When you look at all the cultural stuff that's in play, I think you have to conclude that the story is much more miraculous than that.  Lepers were like walking dead.  This man wasn't just healed; he was resurrected.  And it all happened because Jesus didn't look at the man and see "Leper."  He saw: Child of God, Human Being, the son of two people, the father perhaps of others, a man who is despised and rejected like Jesus himself would eventually become.


            And moved with pity (such beautiful words), Jesus stretches out his hand, and touches him.  The story can end there.  You know that that man was healed, because you know that if you were in his place…you know that you'd be healed, too, just to know that Jesus cares.


            I can't get into anybody's head, but I'd be willing to bet almost anything that every person in this church has felt at some point like a complete outcast.  You can be hurt so bad that you feel like everyone can see it.  Sometimes I'm out driving to a parishioners' home and I find myself going down a back road, and there's this old empty wood frame house on a wind-swept field, windows and doors wide open, curtains blowing.  


            People look at that house and see wood, shingles.  I see the remnants of life.  I see lost memories of Christmases and birthday parties.  If you walked through that house you'd see where sons and daughters stood in the door frame to have their height marked next to the door knob.  You see old sticks of furniture that once gave rest to people who spent the day tilling the soil and praying for rain.  And now, it's empty.  Family gone—who knows why.  "I think I knew that family."  "No, dear, it's not that family, we didn't know them."


            You know, there are people who feel like that.  There are people who feel like they are nothing but walking dead—just a shell of a body in which someone used to live.  And when you feel like that, you feel like the people who are looking into your eyes are looking right through those open windows—like they can see the pain, the teasing, the abuse, the neglect, and the cold, numb anger that can't even speak. 


            And you feel all alone.  Like no one cares, and no one else feels as broken and empty as you do.  But it's not true.  You're not the only one.  I'm not the only one.


            People walked on by us, ignoring the silent signs that something was wrong, or perhaps not knowing how to approach us.  And then a man came up one day, and moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched us, and hugged us, and healed us. 


            The man said to us, "You are not unclean.  You are not the pain you feel.  You are not worthless, or uncared for.  You are mine, and I love you." 


            Many people have been healed by this man; but they don't know where he came from, or what his name is.  But just think: we know exactly who he is.  He is the one who says to us every Sunday:  "Take, eat: This is my Body which is given for you.  This is my Blood which is shed for you.  Eat, drink, laugh, cry, be healed, be loved, be welcome in this church, be at peace with the living God." 


            You and I were dead.  But thanks to this man, we have come back to life. 

            Do you know his name?

            I know his name.








If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.





Monday, February 6, 2012

Epiphany 5B. 5 February 2012.

For the audio version, click here and select 5th Sunday after the Epiphany.



            It usually happens around this time of the year.  The festive decorations have finally been packed away, and the return of normality seems a welcome change from the hectic, though joyful seasons of Advent and Christmas.  Yet, the simple daily and weekly routines that give structure to our lives can also grind away some of the luster.  Magazines arrive containing recipes for different foods, and formulas for re-energizing your life, escaping the winter blahs.


            I was, myself, as I seem to be each year at this time, fighting the battles that seem to be waged moment by moment against the hobgoblins of fear and depression.  It never comes as a big moment of crisis, as you think it will.  Despite the thoughts of some major emotional showdown between our better self and our other self, the real fight for peace of mind always takes place moment by moment in the most routine of tasks. 


            I have waged countless battles against the little nipping anxieties while taking out the trash, and I'm sure you have, too.  It's always the neutral times.  It's always driving somewhere, or washing the dishes.  The brain, which has focused itself carefully on matters both trivial and profound downshifts into a lower gear for sorting the recycling, or folding the laundry.  


            Somewhere amongst the colors and the whites emerges that problem that you could handle from many different angles, each with its own complexity.  If you choose one way of doing it, all the others vanish.  Is it the right one?  Well…  Maybe it is; maybe it isn't. 


            Of course, often it's not a decision to be made—it's a circumstance, or a set of circumstances.  Some parts of it you chose, and some parts were chosen for you.  You don't come at life as if born yesterday.  We are all informed by our past, and from those experiences come phobias and aversions, confidence and uncertainty.             


            At some point last year, we were sitting around the dinner table.  Peter was probably right at five and a half.  We weren't talking about anything in particular.  In fact, I don't think we were really even having a conversation at all.  It was just, you know…dinner.  And seemingly out of nowhere, Peter said, "I have my concerns."


            Karin and I had trouble not laughing.  Precocious little guy.  I'm sure he'd heard one of us say that, but it sounded so… serious.   Too serious for five year old boy to say.  I think we asked him what he meant and he didn't know, but it raised the mirror before our faces.  We have our concerns. 


            And who doesn't?  It is common denominator.  All the religions in the world address it.  For Hindus and Buddhists, concerns are to be dispelled by letting go.  In one Chinese religion I heard of, they make a god.  Of course, it's not really a god—it's an idol, but they call it a god. 


            And they worship the god.  They offer it incense.  They lay food at the base of the idol, or the pedestal, as a sacrificial offering.  And if things go well, and their concerns are taken care of, they continue to worship the god.  But, if things go south, at a certain point, they decide to destroy the god, and build another one.  It's a very pragmatic faith.  If the god works, they keep it.  If not, they destroy it.  A Christian would have huge spiritual problems with that faith, for many reasons, not least of which because we believe that God creates us, not the other way around.


            But we have our concerns.  Yes.  We have our concerns.


            No one's life runs so smoothly as to be spared from the occasional visit of the black dog.  That's what Winston Churchill called it.  The black dog.  The worries, the fears, the anxieties.  We look up to see a blank overcast sky on which we cast the little movies of our displeasure.  I suppose it's something to do while we wait for Spring. 


            It's like white noise.  Do you know about white noise?  I think the technical definition is "noise containing equal intensities," but we know it best as the sound of static on the radio.   Noise containing equal intensities—nothing to discriminate the good from the bad.  Nothing to differentiate the gold from the sand.  Just noise.  It's supposed to be good for you, they say.  It relieves stress. 


            I remember when the children were babies that we had a white noise machine that was built into a teddy bear, and that's what got them to go to sleep.  We do it instinctively with the shushing sounds.  They say it's the sound the umbilical cord makes in the womb, and when babies emerge and begin to adjust to the wide open world, the lack of that familiar noise keeps them awake.  It takes noise to get them to sleep.  The noise that is just everything all at once.


            And as we grow up we begin to distinguish the niceties of sound and light, color differences, shape differences.  Our minds grow.  We become adept at problem solving, though each person has their own area of interest.  For some it's scientific discovery, for others it's mostly aesthetic or artistic.  There's cross-over, of course, but it seems like adulthood and maturity are about the increasing ability to differentiate between what we embrace and what we disregard.  Our experiences shape and color our perception of what is good for us, and what is bad.


            So when February brings the grey sky, and the white noise with its frequencies of  equal intensities, it messes with our ability to sort out the good from the bad.  It dulls the senses.  It freezes over the sensors that gauge light and darkness.


            Imagine, therefore, the heartache of God, who sees his sons and daughters trudging through these wastelands, wanting to wake us up—and help us to see and believe.   



            Can you hear God's voice whispering to you across the barren February sky, "Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  Has it not been told you from the beginning?  Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?  It is he who sits above the circle of the earth…who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to [nothing], and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.  Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble." 


            Can you hear it?  The big shot now is like dust in the wind.  The princes of the earth are like wheat planted for a season.  By the time their roots dig into the earth, it's time to pull them up.

            God says, "To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?  He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing. Why do you say… 'My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God'?  Have you not known? Have you not heard?"


            Do you really think that you can run and hide from the presence of the one who created you, and loves you, and redeems you.  Who do you think you are?!


            In the narrative of Isaiah, this is the call of the prophet to a wayward people.  It can sound a little rough, maybe even a little petulant in places; but its ground and source is God.  And whether you are straying away intentionally or not, the call of God still comes to you.


            "The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless."


            So often we come to church and are confronted with what I have heard as "the tyranny of oughts." –the feeling we have that we have caused our troubles, and that if we had a better mastery over our lives we would not be suffering with X, Y, or Z.  It's not true.  Sometimes it is, but sometimes it isn't.  Sometimes life just happens. 


            Sometimes there days and weeks were it seems God is absent, and we fall prey to the tyranny of oughts.  We ought to pray more.  (That's the problem!)  We ought to change this or that.  (Of course!)  But I'm not sure that self examination is always the answer.


            Perhaps there can be some times when we allow our trust in God to deepen to a place of profound stillness.  A place beneath prayer, where we can simply be. 



            "Even youths will faint and be weary," writes Isaiah, "and the young will fall exhausted."  I can attest to that.  You don't have to be advanced in years to nod your head.


            "But," Isaiah writes, "those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint."


            What an incredibly wonderful, pastoral sentiment that is.  How glorious…to be given the permission in holy scripture to wait for the Lord.


            I offer that to you, today.  It's a simple thought, I grant you, but there is room for simple things.  So often the pulpit is a place of challenge.  Let's give it a day off.


            The old Hebrew concept of Sabbath is based on this.  To take a day to remember that we are creations, not the creator.  We spend so much time trying to manage things.  Take some time to let go.


            Take off your glasses and let your eyes un-focus.  Practice the endangered art of being at peace with yourself in quiet relationship with Christ.        


            You are not God.  I am not God.  We are creations of God's love, redeemed by his Messiah, sustained by his Spirit, fed by his Sacraments. 


            Have you not heard?  Have you not known?










If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.