Monday, June 25, 2012

Proper 7B. 24 June 2012.

For the audio version, click here.

Proper 7B.  24 June 2012.[1]


            Some time ago I heard a wonderful sermon about Jesus walking on the water.  I'm sure you remember that story.  Jesus sends his disciples in the boat the go across the Sea of Galilee, and they set off and journey overnight.  As they are making their way across, late at night, Jesus comes walking on the water to meet them.  At first they think it's a ghost. 


            I had that sermon in my mind when I read the text for this morning, because the preacher is a seminary professor, and he said that the story of Jesus walking on the water might not be historical, but rather one of the first Christian sermons.[2]  It is an interesting idea.  We are permitted to look at the biblical texts with some suspicion about their historical accuracy, because—the Gospels especially—are reconstructed histories from years after the Ascension of Jesus. 


            If you sat down and tried to write your memoirs, you probably wouldn't give as much space to your teenage years as you probably thought they deserved at the time.  And it's likely that you would add elements of your story that you didn't actually live—stories about other people—you understand.  What I'm trying to say is that the text for this morning about Jesus calming the storm might be another early church sermon.  Or, alternatively—and I like this idea better—it might be a parable, a story that teases our imagination.

            One reason why it seems like a parable is that Jesus is sleeping in the boat.  Jesus is at peace; the disciples are worried.  The storm gets worse and Jesus is still sleeping.  The boat begins to take on water; Jesus is still sleeping.  Finally, they wake him up.  "Do you not care that we are dying out here?"  And Jesus tells the wind to stop, and says to the sea, "Peace!  Be still!"  and everything calms down.  Then he turns to the disciples and asks, "Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?"


            Now, if you've been in church all your life, you know this story, and you probably don't think that what Jesus says to the disciples is offensive.  Even if you were a little offended, the little church voice in the back of your head says, "Jesus is right, you are wrong—you can't be offended at Jesus, he's God." 


            But now take that little voice away.  How would you feel if you were in a tight spot and Jesus turned to you and said, "What's wrong with you?  Where's your faith?"  You might get a little upset.  I think I would be crushed. 


            I remember how the Sunday school teacher taught this story when I was a child.  We sang the song, "With Jesus in the boat you can smile in the storm / when your sailing home."  And the message was that if you have Jesus in the boat then he'll take care of you, and you can be happy.  That's the children's version.  But that's not how the story goes. 


            The story is that Jesus is asleep, and when he wakes up and takes care of the problem, he actually scolds the disciples for not taking care of the problem themselves.  That version of the story doesn't go over so well with children—but you aren't children anymore.


            That's why I think this is a parable, because it reads more like a teaching to the early Church that they needed to grow up, and own the faith that Jesus had given them.  "Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?"


            It reads to me very much like a parable.  Jesus is asleep.  In other words, he's here with you, but he's not actively managing things.  And then some craziness starts to take place—life seems to get unmanageable.  It starts off with a couple waves, and then some wind, and then the waves toss the boat a little higher and the boat begins to take on water.  Jesus is there—he will never leave or forsake us—he's just not doing anything.  Now we already know how Jesus wants us to handle this, right?  Don't be afraid.  Have faith.  So what does that mean?  (Pause.)


            Faith is a complicated word.  It has a lot of meanings.  Most people use it as a synonym for hope; and hope is a weaker word, because it's rarely used in a positive way.  "I hope it doesn't rain this afternoon."  What does that mean?  It means, "We're having friends over and I'd really like to use the grill, but the sky will probably unzip just as I touch the match to charcoal."     


            Hope.  "Well, we'll just have to hope for the best."  Which means, "He doesn't stand a chance."  Faith can be misused just as easily.  "Well, we'll just have to have faith that it's going to be all right."  Translation:  This is going to get worse. 


            See, it seems to me that being told you have to have faith is like being told that you have to regress to childhood, and take your spiritual guidance from the Rev. Mickey Mouse:  "When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are.  When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true."  That's the problem.  You've become so cynical.  You've lost that child-like faith.  Go back and relearn how to be naïve and Pollyanna, and all misty-eyed. 


            Or, no, here's the problem.  You didn't believe hard enough.  You prayed the prayers all right, but you didn't really believe.  And God looked into your heart and saw those traces of doubt, and said, "Humph…well, there are children out there who eat their vegetables and say their pleases and thank yous and they don't doubt when they say their prayers."  Please. 


            Faith, hope.  They're such good words, but they've been so corrupted.  Or maybe the words themselves haven't been corrupted, but the tone of voice we use to say them gives away our cynicism.  It's like you know what you know; and you control what you can control; but you just naturally assume that what you can't control is going to fail.     


            The problem is that word: faith.  What are we going to do with that word?  We can't get rid of it.  We need it.  It's just hard to get a hold of.  Is there a quantity to faith?  Some people seem to have more, but how can you measure it?   "He has five quarts of faith."  "She has two teaspoons of faith."  "I have…well, I don't know…I believe in God.  I say I believe in God."


            I think the problem is that when people use the word faith they are really using the weaker synonym: hope.  And they do that because they are scared of the stronger synonym: trust. 


            It's a whole different story if Jesus calms the waters and then says, "Why are you afraid?  Are you still unable to trust?"  Do you see how scary that word is?  Trust.  "I trust you."  How many people could you really say that to?  You catch the vulnerability in it?  You have to take your fists out of the air.   You have to put the sword back in its sheath.  You have to breathe a little more deeply, and look at the person square in the eye. 


            I don't think it's even possible to say the words, "I trust you," without looking them in the eye.    Men have a horrible time with those three words.  My guess is that a man would rather say "I love you" than "I trust you." 


            Love is gooey word—it is like chocolate; it changes shapes and it can be a solid or a liquid.  You can almost melt love down and pour it into molds and make it look like this or that.  You can't do that with "trust."   Trust is always a solid word, and it doesn't change shape. 


            Trust is a brick building, built on a poured concrete foundation.  Love can be light as a feather; it can be carried on the wind; you can take it out of your pocket and leave it somewhere and someone else comes along and takes it.  But you can't carry off trust.  Trust is a lead paperweight.


            The parable is this:  You can calm the storm just as easily as Jesus did.  You don't have to wake him up.  The only thing he did differently is that he trusted that the Father was with him and things would get better.  Now don't complain that he's God and you're just you—Jesus all but said, "If you had trust in God, then you could've handled this."  That's the sermon.  That's the parable. We're not supposed to have some pie-eyed, naïve faith—we're suppose to trust that we are in God's hands. 


            Things may get bad.  Being in God's hands does not mean that we get rescued at the moment of crisis.  Jesus taught that on the Cross.  But Resurrection always follows Crucifixion.  No matter how bad things get, God is always able to redeem. 


            I think people would say they have faith in God, meaning they hope; but it's a very mature Christian who can say they have faith in God, and what they really mean is trust.  And I'll go ahead and confess to you that it's something I wrestle with.  You can't go through this life without having your trust in God shaken from time to time.  And I think that's a little message of grace in this text.


            I think that Jesus would have preferred the disciples to take care of the storm—I think that's the parable's true meaning.  But the grace is that when he woke up, he didn't just say, "Where is your faith?"  The first thing he did was to make things better.  (Pause.)


            I never realized how much I would learn when Peter was born.  Parenthood is like taking a test for which you can never study enough.  I watch Peter and Maggie get frustrated with the tiniest things and it's as if the entire world has ended.  And I try to explain that a little patience, a little creativity, a little trust that things will be okay…but that's not really what they want.  They want Daddy to make it better.  And the grace is, that I do. 


            Anyone of you who has had a child knows what I mean.  You know that they could have headed this off.  You know that if they had had a little more confidence, a little more foresight, it would have been fine. 


            But when the crying starts, no matter how much we know that this too shall pass, now is not the time to say, "Why didn't you do it this way?" Now is the time to wash the knee and get out the Band Aids.  Now is the time to kiss and hold, and love.  Trust will come with time.  And that, too, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.





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] Adapted from Proper 7B. 21 June 2009.

[2] Craddock, F.B.  Cherry Log Sermons.  Faith and Fear.  

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Proper 6B. 17 June 2012.

For the audio version, click here and select 3rd Sunday after Pentecost.


Mark 4:26-34


            Last week I asked you to look at the context of the Gospel lesson in the pew Bible; and this week, I'm going to test your patience by inviting you to do it again.  Page 815.  And while you're looking up page 815, can anyone (other than Walter) tell me what the number 815 means when Episcopalians talk with one another?   The central offices of the Episcopal Church are located at 815 Second Avenue in Manhattan.  It's where the Presiding Bishop's office is.  So if you happen to be around clergy, and want to impress them, just say, "I wonder what the people at 815 think." 


            Turning to the text, I want to show you what caused me a great deal of confusion as I was preparing the sermon for today.  Chapter 4 of Mark's gospel is a compilation of some of Jesus' parables.  You will notice that it begins with the parable of the sower.  You remember this one, right?  The sower goes out to sow, and the seed falls on the path, the rocky ground, thorny ground, and the good soil. 




            In way Mark writes the story, there is some tension, because Jesus doesn't explain the parable after he tells it.  It is only when he is alone with the disciples that he explains to them what the parables mean.  The seed is the word of God, and the soils are the people who hear it.  Some get it, some don't.


            I have shared with you on many occasions the wonderful definition of a parable that C.H. Dodd gave, "At its simplest a parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease [the mind] into active thought."[1]


            You have to accept that parables are not meant to give you the bottom line and say, "Go do that."  The genius of the parable—especially the parables of Jesus—is that they use the evidence of nature or common life in ways that are vivid or strange, leaving us just unsure enough about what they mean to tease us into deeper reflection.  The point is not just to inform, it's to get you and me to think.  And it's in the reflection that the wisdom of God is discovered.


            I looked at this parable for today and decided it was redundant.  We've already covered the seeds in the other parable.  But then I looked again and discovered that no we didn't.  We covered the receptivity of seeds—but this is another parable. 


            "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how."


            Now, Mark continues in the same vein, but the rest of it makes another point.  I want to confine our attention to what I just read: verses 26, and 27.  "The kingdom is as if someone would scatter seed, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how."          


            We know that seeds are composed of three parts.  An embryo, the nutrients to keep the embryo alive, and a shell.  The embryo may need a period of dormancy to be viable, but if dormancy has passed and the seed soaks up enough moisture and has the right temperature, it will germinate.


            There are factors that can inhibit growth.  The embryo might not be alive in the seed.  The nutrients may be too depleted.  The shell may have been compromised.  The seed might be buried too deep and can't push to the surface.  But we know what causes a seed to grow.


            I started to think that maybe the people of first century Palestine did not know that.  But I don't know for sure what they knew.  I don't think this is about the mechanics.  I think it's about getting us to see our actions and words as being like seeds; not knowing quite how or where they will germinate.  Because the parable can then be understood as both cautionary and hopeful.  It is cautionary in that we must be careful what kinds of seeds we sow; and hopeful in that the good seeds can grow without further effort in places we didn't even know they fell. 


            I'm very good friends with a priest who told me that he served a church where they wouldn't do anything he would suggest.  He said, "I tried for years to get them to do X, Y, and Z, and they wouldn't do it.  So, I stopped suggesting stuff, and I started planting seeds." 


            I asked him what the difference was.  He said, "Instead of saying we should have a ministry to the poor, I would wonder out loud if we could have a ministry to the poor.  Someday.  And lo and behold, three years later, someone would say the same thing, and something would start to happen."   He said it works every time. 


            I thought it sounded like manipulation.  Wouldn't it be better to just be upfront with people, and churches?  I don't like the idea that any clergy person would work the backdoor to get the church to do something, but I know it happens.  A word in a few well chosen ears.


            I know a clergyman in another denomination who likes to give the impression that when he is talking with you that he is telling you things he would never tell anyone else.  It's hard to describe, but the way he stands and looks around…  He'll get quiet when anyone else is nearby, and he'll say things that seem to be for your ears only. 


            I used to like talking with the guy, because it made me feel special—like I was getting the inside track.  But then I realized that he did this with everyone.  He was always seeming to work the backdoor.  He was very, very successful in getting people to do what he wanted them to do, because they always felt as if they were part of the conspiracy.


            Do you see how powerful seeds are?  And how tempting it is to think that its wasteful to scatter them everywhere, when you could just drop a couple of them in the right soil, and they'd be perfect.  No, no, no…


            The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter the seed, abandon control, let them go all over the place, and then sleep and rise night and day, and the seed will sprout and grow.  "He does not know how."  He also does not know where.  (Pause.)


            But he does know why.  Do you know why?  Because he wants the kingdom of God to expand and grow and be fruitful.  Because the kingdom of God is for you and me, but it isn't only for you and me.


            The Church is a living community—formed by the Holy Faith imparted to the disciples, and imparted to us.  We are inheritors of this tradition.  It has been passed along to us, but not to own, or to arrogate to ourselves, as if—through believing—we own its power.  Our task is always to scatter the seeds of the kingdom—hoping, praying, trusting, that God, who began this good work will be faithful to complete it. 


            That's why we scatter the seeds, and pray and give.  We don't pay dues.  This is not like a private club where you pay your dues and only mingle with the people who can afford to pay the dues.  No, we give. 


            We give because wherever God is involved no one should be able to say, "This is mine; this is mine, this is mine."  We offer, we give, because the seed should go everywhere.  Because we have been recipients of the seed, and with grateful hearts we continue to scatter them.


            There has to be a place that speaks the language of giving and receiving, scattering seeds, not knowing how or where they grow, but knowing why.  Knowing that it's because God has created humanity for a nobler purpose than just eating and sleeping.  We were created in the image of God and entrusted with the Holy Spirit so that through us the world would come to believe that Christ is risen. 


            Think about this for a moment.  Long ago there was a seed that fell into your heart, and attached itself to your soul.  The embryo—if I can call it that—is the salvation of the world, the Paschal mystery, the death and resurrection of our Lord.  It sprouted and grows inside of you.  Maybe there have been times when the plant grew only a little bit and died—or was killed from neglected prayer and worship.  The ground lay fallow, perhaps for months, even years, but the water of Baptism kept you alive.


            And one day another seed fell.  Who knew it would fall into you?  And who knows how, but it grew—almost imperceptibly as you slept and rose.  It soaked up that Baptismal water and germinated.  And now its roots are deep in the soil, and the plant has produced seeds for scattering. 


            You know not how or where, but you know why.  Because this Gospel is for you, but it isn't only for you.







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] C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961, p. 5

Monday, June 11, 2012

Proper 5B. 10 June 2012.

For the audio version, click here and select 2nd Sunday after Pentecost


Mark 3:19-35


            What I just read is written very early in Mark's gospel; and as is so often the case, the lectionary has given us a cutting of the text—hoping that the preacher will stick it into the soil of experience, and propagate a sermon.  The problem with cuttings—as any gardener will tell you—is that if the cutting is too short or too long it won't grow.


            I would say that the cutting for today is too short.  We are not given the context for this interaction between Jesus and the scribes from Jerusalem—and the context, along with the way the story is written, are vital to understanding what Mark is trying to teach us about Jesus. 


            I think it might be helpful if you would pull out your pew Bible and turn to page 814.  I want you to see this lesson in its context.  If you flip back one page, you will see how close to the beginning of this gospel we are.  And you will see from a scan of the headings that the publisher has provided that Jesus has quickly moved from his emergence into public life to calling his disciples, to preaching, to healing. 


            It all happens at the speed of light in Mark.  Suddenly this; suddenly that.  Mark's gospel is written with a sense of urgency.  Part of that is because Mark's education did not give him the eloquence of John or Luke, but part of it also may be literary message to the church—that the gospel of Christ is an urgent thing.  Do not sit on this—move, preach, heal—get out there.


            But now, please look on page 814, chapter 3, that Jesus has appointed the twelve, and then see that in verse 19, Mark writes that after Jesus has appointed the twelve he goes home.  The lectionary writers didn't include this part of the verse—they had us start halfway through verse 20 with the crowd coming together. 


            So please understand that there is some dramatic tension to the way the story flows.  Until now, in Mark, Jesus has been out there healing, and preaching, and moving around.  He's getting followers, and that's fine.  This sort of thing was very common in first century Palestine.  It wasn't anything for Rome or the Temple to worry about.  


            Even when it happens today—and it doesn't happen much except in politics—someone will get out there with a message that resonates with many people and they get a following.  No one worries about the status quo, unless they start to organize.  When they start to organize groups of people, then it's more than just a man speaking.


            Mark 3:14 reads that Jesus "appointed twelve whom he also named apostles."  Apostle means "one who is sent."  A disciple is someone who follows.  Big difference.  The twelve are both, of course.  We usually—or I usually—prefer to call them disciples, because their apostolic mission doesn't really begin in earnest until after Pentecost.  They were out in the mission field before then, but for the most part when we read about them in the gospels, they are followers.


            My point is that Jesus, from very early on, begins this mentor/protégé relationship with the twelve.  It is after Jesus has appointed them—immediately after, for Mark—that Jesus returns to his home, and the crowd begins to gather at his home.  Mark writes that they could not even eat, there were so many people. 


            When his family heard about the crowd, and about the appointment of the twelve, they went out to restrain Jesus.  They don't understand what's going on.   They see Jesus organizing what, on the surface of it, looks like a militia, and the crowds are gathering.  It looks like a political movement.  It looks like a threat to the power structures around them.  Jesus' family have begun to bite their fingernails.  What is he doing?


            We're out in Galilee, remember?  Nazareth.  "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"  It's just a little town.  But look who has come from the big city, Jerusalem.  The scribes.  They've either been sent to look in to this fellow Jesus, or they've come of their own curiosity.  They have just learned that Jesus has appointed twelve men to join him. 


            Twelve.  Well, now that is worrisome.  Twelve tribes of Israel, descendents of the twelve sons of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham.  The God of Israel for whom the Temple was built is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  There is symbolic power in appointing twelve—and symbolic power in their appointment being made, not at the Temple, but amongst the people in the country.


            The scribes do not know what to do or say.  They're just scribes out on a junket in the wilderness.  They have no game plan in case they see something that looks like it's going to be a problem.  The only thing they can do at this stage is to try to discredit Jesus, and hope that the people will believe them instead of him.  They hope that this will cause this little movement to implode before it gets off the ground.  So they try to paint Jesus as the enemy.  If he's able to control the evil spirits, he must be in league with the devil. 


            Now watch how Mark tells the story.  Verse 23, "He called them to him, and spoke to them in parables."  Now, understand that this is a double whammy, here.  In the power structure, the scribes would have expected the respect of Jesus coming to them, but Jesus summons them to appear before him.  And then he speaks to them in parables, which would have been—in a sense—talking down to them—as if to a student, rather than an equal. 


            He uses, in fact, four rhetorical devices: repetition, parable, hyperbole, and repetition.  I'm sorry, I counted repetition twice.  Three rhetorical devices.


            All of this conveys the unspoken, sub-textual message that Jesus is not threatened in the least by the presence of the scribes.  I wouldn't go so far as to say that he is showing distain for them, but he's certainly not showing them the deference they would have expected.      He says, "How can Satan cast out Satan?  If a kingdom is divided against itself, it cannot stand.  If a house is divided against itself, it cannot stand.  And if Satan has risen up against himself, he cannot stand.  No one can enter the house of a strong man and steal his things, unless you first tie him up." 


            Now I'm going to paraphrase verses 28 & 29,  "Scribes from Jerusalem, I want you to pay very close attention to me, because this is very important: By calling my actions—healings, preaching, and the appointment of my disciples—by essentially calling them works of the devil, you have spoken blasphemously.  You have called divine things, evil.  And you need to know that what you have done is dangerously close to an unforgiveable sin.  I'm not saying you did this, but you got perilously close.  You almost called the actions of Holy Spirit of the Living God, evil.  Don't you ever do that.  Because if you do, there is nothing I can do for you.  There is nothing anyone can do for the person who willingly, and with malice, calls evil the source of all holiness.   (Pause.)


            The scribes came out to Galilee to put the old kybosh on Jesus "in the name of God" of course, and what happened was that Jesus took them to school and showed them who's who and what's what.


            And in so doing, Jesus revealed, metaphorically, exactly what his ministry would be doing.  From here on out, in Mark's gospel—and you will see it in every instance where Jesus is healing, preaching, and encountering opposition—he is binding the strong man.  The strong man may be ignorance.  It may be fear.  It may take the form of Pharisees and scribes.  In all these cases, Jesus is binding the strong man, and plundering back what is rightfully God's.  He will do it again and again.  Binding strong man after strong man; and liberating those who sat in darkness and the shadow of death.  That's why we call it the Gospel—the good news.


            Once he starts down this path, the strong men get stronger.  At first, in this story, it's just a little skirmish out in the countryside, but every fight will bring him closer to death.  And in death, he will come to fight the strongest man of all, Satan himself—the source of all the strong men who have sought to corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.


            For Mark, the Good News is a series of cosmic battles against an unseen enemy with Jesus consistently winning every single one of them.  


            If you read Mark with a sort of jaded, world weary, 21st century, modern or postmodern mindset, well…good luck.  You will probably prefer Matthew or Luke's gospels.  Mark is earthy and visceral, and we need his perspective.  We need to be reminded that the source of our deepest conflict is with what is unseen. 


            How many times have you gotten behind the wheel and gone about your life, fighting with what is unseen?  It's how we spend most of our awareness.  If you're like me, you might look like your washing dishes or cutting the grass, but what you're really doing is fighting the haunting questions of what to do.  Thinking about the friend who consistently makes bad choices, but we can't straighten them out; a family member who is entitled to our love and support, but who doesn't seem to understand how their actions affect us… 


            Life presents so many of these little scenarios—many too embarrassing to spell out.  They themselves aren't genuinely between good and evil, but the thoughts they produce can drive us into the darkness.   It's not so much that the problem is evil; it's that the frustration of the problems lead us down the garden path where we become tempted to choose to be less that God wants us to be.


            Oh, but that's not really evil, is it?  Well.  I don't know.  In the interior life, I'm not sure any of us can really discern that with accuracy.


            It was the French poet Charles Baudelaire who wrote, "It is the greatest art of the devil to convince us [that] he does not exist."


            I think the evidence is overwhelming that there is a sinister force in this world.  Many of us would shy away from believing that it could be so centrally located in one being called the devil.  I won't try to convince you one way or the other, but I would not want to see the Church—I know Mark would not want to see the Church—forget that there is spiritual danger in believing that unseen evil does not exist.


            Mark does not allow the Church to linger in the lazy fields with no storm clouds in sight.  In Mark, the storm clouds are always gathering.  It's not personal.  It's not that the Pharisees and scribes were evil;  it's that the twisted, selfish ways they justified their actions were evil.  Jesus doesn't battle the scribes; he battles the unseen strong man who has taken the scribes captive—and his teaching is intended, ultimately, to free them.


            We may not often admit to ourselves that we are fighting—or that in the course of our fighting we have strayed into evil, but it can happen.  It doesn't make us less Christian, it just reveals that we are not God, and that we need a Savior.


            Thankfully, we have a savior.  We have someone who not only sees the light, but is the light, and has the grace and power to deliver us.   Let us pray.




ORD Jesus Christ, Son of the Father, we go about in silent need of your help.  We find ourselves placed in many circumstances where we battle the unseen enemy that your Cross and Resurrection have conquered.  As we await the consummation of your kingdom, continue to bind the strong men, and plunder us for your own.  For we are yours to save.  Amen. 







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.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

One of the joys

of praying the Daily Office regularly is that the lectionary readings do not correspond to Sunday or to specific seasons; therefore, you can be caught unawares by the readings.  And if you are an imaginative sort of person with a passionate familiarity with the Bible, there can be a delightful surprise in the connections the Bible makes with itself--and the way the story is told.

Today's Gospel is Matthew 14:13-21, the feeding of the five thousand.  I did not notice before how closely it is linked to the death of John the Baptizer.  If I did, I did not assume its proximity to be meaningful in the flow of Matthew's narrative.  

But check it out!  

13 Now when Jesus heard [of the death of John the Baptizer], he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, 'This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.' 16Jesus said to them, 'They need not go away; you give them something to eat.' 17They replied, 'We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.' 18And he said, 'Bring them here to me.' 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Notice that the news of John's death causes Jesus to withdraw from the public eye--probably to grieve the loss of John, who was likely a childhood acquaintance as John's and Jesus' mothers were related.  He goes off to grieve, but the crowds pursue.  He has compassion for their spiritual and physical hunger.  He feeds both.  The meal is a foreshadowing of the Last Supper.  Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and gives.  

So the sequence of events in Matthew is a chiasmus:

A  John is beheaded 
B  Jesus takes, blesses, breaks and gives -- foreshadowing the Last Supper  (By day!)
B' Jesus takes, blesses, breaks and gives -- The Last Supper  (By night!)
A' Jesus is crucified 

The dramatic tension of the story is somewhat lost on us now, because we don't often read the Gospel as a unified book, but if we did, we might see that this eucharist (requiem mass you might say) at the death of John, prefigures the inverted celebration of the death of Jesus, with the requiem mass/eucharist BEFORE the death of Jesus!  

Of course, it only makes sense that it would be that way.  John's requiem it is an act of closure for his life and ministry.  For Jesus, it is an ironic closure of all life and ministry, as all life (and ministry) is about to be born anew from the tomb.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Trinity Sunday B. 3 June 2012.

For the audio version, click here and select:

Trinity Sunday under the Pentecost file.


            We have come to the end of what is called “Sacred time” on the Church’s calendar.  Sacred time began on the First Sunday of Advent, when we began to recall the saving acts of God on our behalf in Jesus Christ.  We have made our way through our yearly commemoration of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  Easter leads us to the Ascension of the Risen Christ into heaven, then ten days later, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.


            Today, we end Sacred time in a special celebration known as Trinity Sunday.  The Sundays that follow are known commonly as “Ordinary time.”  Ordinary meaning ordered, or numbered; not ordinary as meaningless.  I urge you not to think of the season after Pentecost as a meaningless time.  It is called the green season, because it is a time of growth and nurture.  Please consider that our mutual nurture takes place when we meet together to learn of Christ and share the sacraments.  There is a dark tradition in the Episcopal Church of “taking the summer off,” but I hope—at least when you are in town—you will try to be present every Sunday.


            Trinity Sunday is an interesting celebration.  It is the only Sunday we commemorate a theological idea.  Its placement after Pentecost is very fitting.  The Son has ascended to the Father, the Spirit has come.  Today becomes a day to piece together what humanity has experienced in the whole sweep of Christ’s story.

            What have we learned about God from these events, taken as a whole?  What can we say about God, who we believe to be Father, Son, and Spirit? 

The first Christians spent roughly 500 years trying to comprehend that.  Sometimes when you try to speak about the whole thing, altogether, it can be hard to generalize into a coherent message.  It’s easier to talk about it in parts. 


            “Well, the angel came and said `Fear not, Mary, you are going to have son.’”

            “And this was the same son who was crucified?”


            “Well, then why did the angel say, `Fear not’?  That doesn’t make sense, if he was going to be crucified?”

            “Well, yes..but then he is raised from the dead.”

            “If he was raised from the dead, then what does the Holy Spirit have to do with it?”

            “Jesus then ascended into heaven, so the Holy Spirit has come to the Church to be a companion until Jesus returns.”

            “So the Holy Spirit is also God?”


            “And is the Holy Spirit the spirit of Christ?”


            “Well, then why do we need to wait for Christ to come again?  We’ve got his Spirit—what more do we need?”


            Do you see what I’m trying to say?  We know the story in parts, but when you have to speak about it generally, then you have to speak about it theologically—you have to talk about the meaning that the events point to.


            We believe that God is three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit.  We believe—or I perhaps should say “the Church teaches”—that they are one in purpose and substance, but that their unique natures are not confused.  They are able to be three persons, equal in divinity, equal in every way, but without one becoming the other.  So that none of them are the others, but all of them are one.  


            For instance, you have a father, a mother, and a child, but they are one family.  If one of them is injured, they all hurt.  If one them is given something, they all benefit.  They all share in the lives of the others.


            Or time.  Time is a creation of God.  The absence of time is eternity. Past, present, and future.  But they’re all time. 


            St. John of Damascus and Cyril of Alexandria gave us the concept of Περιχώρησις, which is to speak of the Father, Son, and Spirit as mutually indwelling in one another, yet without confusion.  The simplest description of Περιχώρησις I know is that of a holy dance—three persons who function in perfect unity with each other—like dance partners—yet each of them remains who they are.  I love that. 


            I would never want to speak disrespectfully to or about people of Islamic faith, but I have encountered the writings of Muslims who do not respect our theology of the Trinity.  They say that we are worshiping three gods—that it’s impossible to have three of anything and call them one. 

            Again, I would never want to be disrespectful, or do anything to deepen the division between us.  After all, we share a common bloodline with our grandfather Abraham; however, if these authors would open their minds to the profundity of our theology, I think they would like it.


            You see, we believe that God is one, but as a community—that God is a relationship.  And so by existing as a relationship, God shows us God’s desire for us to be relational beings as well.


            The faith of Christ is passed along by the Spirit through the water of Baptism.  People are baptized into a living relationship with the Church.  It happens to individuals, but it is a corporate expression.  The Church welcomes the newly baptized.  The context for our baptism is within a community, because God is a community.  The holy dance of the Trinity takes our hands as a Church, and enfolds us into the circle. 


            Therefore the Church is meant to be a community, like the Trinity.  This concept does not lower God to us—God has done that for us in the person of Jesus Christ.  Jesus came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, and became a human being.  Jesus, simply by becoming human, took our hands and brought us into the holy dance of the Trinity.


            His life, death, resurrection and ascension—the saving acts of God—pull us up from mere existence, and give us the dignity of a genuine relationship with the God who creates, redeems and sustains us. 


            The Church is a living metaphor of this deeper mystery: that God is a relationship who has invited us into relationships with God and each other.


            And this is expressed—as I said before—in the family.  Construed in the most theological language: The love of God inside someone finds the love of God inside another other person.  And the two become one flesh. Obviously there is biology and temperament and all sorts of things that go into a marriage, but, at its very best, a Christian marriage is the union of two people who wish to live their baptisms as married people.


            With your permission, I want to explain that further.  The fundamental starting place is Baptism.  Marriage is not independent of Baptism.  I choose to live out my Baptism as a man married to Karin, and as a deacon and priest.  My marriage and my ordinations are like the trout stamp on the fishing license.  Well, maybe that’s a little too vulgar.  My point is that it’s my baptism I live—my commitment to God and the Church as a Christian.  That new life that was given to me in at the font, I am living it out in the context of the other sacramental rites of marriage and ordination. 


            But coming back to marriage.  Marriage can be a particularly wonderful thing, because it allows us to be united physically and emotionally within the safety of commitment.  At its very best—with affection, desire, and commitment all being equal—marriage gives us a powerful means to understand the mutual joy the Trinity have for each other.


            I believe that the Church is meant to understand the Holy Eucharist in this way: with us, receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus, we are united with the Godhead, and pulled up from our mere createdness, into the salvation of Jesus.  That is the clearest way I can put it.


            Today we are giving thanks and celebrating the 45th anniversary of Walter and Sally Clark’s marriage.  I want you to know that if any of you would like to renew your wedding vows as they will be doing, I am happy to offer that. 


            Walter and Sally wished to do this within the context of a Sunday morning liturgy, which to my mind places an exclamation point behind everything I have just said.  Both of them have sought live out their Baptisms in the context of marriage—and for Walter, ordination to the diaconate and priesthood.  Their marriage symbolizes, as all Christian marriages should, “the mystical union that is between Christ and his Church.” 


            It is a mystical union—and unfolding mystery—that God is a relationship of persons.  Absolutely one and undivided, yet mutually indwelling and welcoming us—always—into a deeper experience of love.





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.