Tuesday, May 27, 2014

"I will not leave you orphaned. I am with you."

Easter 6A.  25 May 2014.


John 14.15-21


            Lately, I have been thinking about this time of the year and the liturgical season we know as Easter.  Even people who come to church sometimes forget that Easter is not just one Sunday, but fifty days.  And though we have the Paschal candle in place and white on the Altar, it might still be difficult to appreciate the uniqueness of this season.  I think I'm still trying to understand it, myself, really.


            I have a prayer book that I mentioned last week that was written to help clergy to pray in private, and one of the instructions is to pray for the special graces of the season of the church you are in.  With Eater, "Joy" certainly comes to mind.  Thanksgiving for the resurrection, and the holy hope that it inspires.  Renewal, hope.


            I think, too, there is a sense of tenderness to this season.  Tender blossoms on trees, tender grass newly sprung from a winter-weary earth.  Beyond the triumphant strains of the Church's liturgy and music come the tender words of Jesus in the farewell discourses in John's Gospel, which we read today.  In some sense, they signal a change in the air as we head toward the Ascension and Pentecost.


            Pentecost, of course, is the end of what is known as Sacred Time—the Seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter.  They mark—in some sense—the life of our Lord on earth. 

            Ordinary time is ordered time—the green season—a time of growth and discovery of what the Christian life is all about.  So as we draw Easter to a close, we draw closer to the Ascension, when Jesus is lifted into heaven, and that is not really easy to celebrate.


            It's easier to celebrate all of the other life-events.  The baby is born in the bleak, mid-winter.  We gather together in the stable amidst the sawdust and the strangely wonderful smell of animals.  There is the baby.  A new family, but more than that.  Wonderful. 


            He grows up, has his Baptism.  And then the call of the disciples, and the teachings and parables.  It's wonderful.  It's hard to watch the events leading up to and including his death, but then he is raised, and the church goes wild.  Fifty days of joy and peace, and gratitude…but we will still need to say good bye.  Maybe it would be easier not to say goodbye?


            It's hard to say goodbye.  The conversation reaches a point when thing start to dwindle down.  The clock ticks later in the evening.  The dinner guests have to go.  The husband points at his watch, and looks meaningfully at his wife.  And the excuses start to be made, "It's an early morning tomorrow."  "This has been wonderful; it's a shame we couldn't stay longer."  "You must come to see us."  "We must do this again." 


            And then they move out to the car, slowly, the host family following behind.  "Nice car?"  "You think so?"  "Yes, I wish I had one like this."  "It's not bad.  Pretty good mileage." 


            "That's a lovely skirt."  "This thing?"  "Yes."  "Peebles!"  "No."  "Really…it's just their basic thing."  "Well, maybe they'll have my size."


            It's hard to say good bye.  Its awkward.  It's so much better to let the grownups do it, while we pretend we're children back in the house asleep.  We fell asleep listening to the grownups talk about the world and politics and local news and recipes.  We fell asleep knowing that the guests would go home.  We said our goodbyes earlier in the evening, wearing our jammies and licking our lips from the toothpaste.


            It's hard to say goodbye.  Is that why it's hard to celebrate the Ascension?


            We read today from John 14.  Jesus said to his disciples, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.  I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you."


            John gives us these very tender words from Jesus.  And like all of John's Gospel, they are pregnant with meaning.  They contain some of the church's first theology about how the Father, Son and Spirit are related to each other, and how, in Jesus, they relate to us.  "You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you." 


            In John there is so much I in you, you in me, you in them, we in them, us and we being one with me and you--all being one together.  To try to tease out the various shades of meaning behind each part of that could take a long time.  It seems to me that John is trying to say poetically that the Father, Son, and Spirit are inseparable, and that Jesus has extended—lovingly extended—that inseparability to us. 


            But the verse that really gets to me is verse 18, "I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you."  On the surface of it, the meaning is quite simple:  I won't go away forever, I will be coming back to you.


            But that's not quite how he said it.  He said, "I will not leave you orphaned."  If you were reading this in the King James Version, it would say, "I will not leave you comfortless."  Terrible translation.  Understand that I am one of the best friends the King James Version ever had.  I love the King James Version, but the word is ορφανούς.  Orphans. 


            There is an ache in that word choice.  It indicates Jesus' understanding of how we would feel after he ascended into heaven.  But may also indicate the level of devotion and dependence the disciples had—such that Jesus' departure would be considered equivalent to the death of a parent.  Jesus has moved beyond friend.  I might even say that he has moved beyond "Lord."


            It's a relationship of such profound intimacy that for it to end will bring to mind the child crying out for the arms of a mother, or of a daddy.


            And so the Lord says, "I will not leave you orphaned"  It won't feel that way.  "The world will not see me, but you will see me.  Because I live, you will live."


            Remember that "sight" in John's Gospel is not about physical sight.  It's almost always a metaphor for spiritual sight.  You will see Jesus, even if you don't see Jesus.


            And it may be that you and I occasionally lose that spiritual sight.  The Lord knows that it's easy to do.  Darkness comes in many forms.  It comes when we are too rushed, too frazzled.  It comes when we are overwhelmed with pain and grief.  It can come at times of confusion, wondering what path we should take, or what we should decide when there is no clear choice.


            Darkness comes like clouds gathering on a beautiful spring day.  "Wasn't it just sunny outside?  What happened?"  And it starts to rain, and we thought it was going to shine.  It changes our plans; it disrupts our schedules; and we are thrown off our game.


            But you will see Jesus and know that he is with you when you allow yourself to be loved by him.  As simple as that thought is, it can feel like one of the hardest things to do, because we know ourselves right down to the toe nails.  We have a hard time accepting love.


            Some years ago I read a book about happiness, and one of the topics was self-criticism.  And it said that we must always be careful not to be too self-critical, because we know ourselves better than anyone, so when we take a swing at ourselves, it's going to do some damage. 


            We like hearing that God is love, and we like that the Church believes that God loves us, but trusting in that… Believing that…  Living from that place can be awkward.  We don't feel worthy of it.  Or we don't trust it. 


            So Jesus says, "If you love me," and we do…  "If you love me, keep my commandments, and I will ask the Father, and he will give you a companion, which is the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God.  He will abide with you, and he will be in you." 


            The Spirit is the presence of the living God for you and for the Church.  It rests inside of you—it makes a home inside of you—to confirm God's love. 


            Just begin by praying, very simply, "Lord, I love you, and I believe that you love me."  Let the words sink into your soul, day by day.  "Lord, I love you, and I believe you love me." 


            After awhile you will see him in you; and you will see him in other people.  And you will know that you have not been left orphaned—that you are not alone.  You are never alone.  You are a beloved child of God.






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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel

Monday, May 19, 2014

Do not let your hearts be troubled.

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Easter 5A.  18 May 2014.


John 14.1-14


            Sometimes I rather marvel at our time together on Sunday.  You have gone about your life and I have gone about mine.  And we gather ourselves together in this holy space, and it's amazing what changes and what stays the same.  Big things and small things, and meals and cups of coffee, and conversations, and here we are.  I hope this has been a good week for you; and I'm very happy that you chose to come today.


            I know of a cleric who said that he had a ritual every night before going to bed of slipping out the back door of his house just to take in the night's sky—looking up at the stars.  Hot or cold, as long as it wasn't raining he would go out to pray before "sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care," as Shakespeare wrote.[*] 


            In seminary I had a friend who did the same thing.  He said he had a little tree he liked to visit just before bed.  I said, "A little tree?  Why don't you visit a big tree?"  And he said, "I don't know."  He said, "I met a little tree my first year here, and now we're friends.  I can't leave him now."  He was a little nuts.  I didn't have the heart to tell him that the tree was a girl.


            But the visit to the tree, the going out before bed, just to get away from the television or the book or whatever…for both men…it soothed their worries, and I think we can all appreciate that.


            When Jesus says in our lesson for today, "Do not let your hearts be troubled," it is within the context of his impending betrayal and arrest.  One could easily lift his words from their context as a saying that applies to almost any situation—and I have done that from time to time.  "Keep Calm and Carry On."  "Do not let your hearts be troubled."  But hearing them in their context is much more astonishing.  How could the disciples not be anxious about what will happen to Jesus?


             Thomas says, "Lord, we do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?"  Do you hear the anxiety behind that question?  They have been following Jesus, he is going where they cannot come, and now they are supposed to know where to go.  And they feel anxious.  They don't understand him.  What does he want from us?


            Philip says, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied." Philip has become so absorbed in Jesus' familiar language for God that he actually believes Jesus can easily pull back the fabric of space and show them the Father.   And he probably can, but that's not what this is about.


            Jesus seems to sigh, and say, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?  I am in the Father, and the Father is in me.  If you don't believe that, believe in what you have seen the Father doing through me!"


            So much anxiety in the air, and that anxiety is the product uncertainty about the future.  But there is a deeper worry here that Philip has named—it is the fear that rests at the bottom—and that is the aching distance between humanity and God.  "Show us the Father and we will be satisfied."  You have likely said words like that in the privacy of your soul.  "We have had enough of this faith stuff.  We have had enough of believing, and not seeing.  Show us."


            And Jesus says, "I am…"  The name of God.  "I am in the Father, and the Father is I am."  That God is pleased to dwell as one of us—as Jesus. 


            When the Lord is quoted as saying, "No one comes to the Father except through me."  You and I may hear it as a statement of arrogance—as if to say that Christianity is the only way people can come to know God; however, John chose his words very carefully. 


            Jesus does not say, "No one comes to God, except through me," but "no one comes to the Father, except through me."  Remember how profoundly relational John's Gospel is.  What Jesus is saying, and what John's community celebrated, was that to know God as a Father, you must know Jesus.  You can know God and be loved by God in many other ways—perhaps through many other faith traditions—but to know him as he is revealed in Jesus, you must know Jesus. 


            And for John's community this is a joyful affirmation, not a statement of religious superiority.  It is to proclaim joyfully that God wants to be with us as our Father, just as much as we wish to be with God as his children.


            So Jesus speaks to their anxiety as someone who is completely and totally grounded in his identity as the beloved son of God.  When he says that we will do greater works than he, he is saying that as we own and cherish our relationship that he gives us—as children of the Father—we too will be able to work wonders.


            Perhaps the greatest wonder we can work is not letting our hearts be troubled—being a people who, like Jesus, are so rooted in our relationship with the Father that we no longer ache for the presence of God.  And that is a spiritual gift that we all can have—it's just something we have to trust in and develop.


            Lately I have rediscovered a book that is long out of print, that my father gave me.  It's a book that was written in 1889 and it is called A Priest's Book of Private Devotion.  It is a resource for Anglican clergy, filled with beautiful, tender prayers, and recalls an age of Victorian piety.


            There is a contemplative version of Morning Prayer that instructs a priest how to pray without words.  It reads:


"Place yourself in the presence of God, in whom you live, move, and have your being.  Who upholds your feeble life, and knows your needs, even before you ask.  Adore the Father, who has created you in his love; the Son, who has redeemed you  :  the Holy Ghost, who sanctifies you…"


This is how to begin the day.  "Place yourself in the presence of God,"  "who upholds your feeble life, and knows your needs."  Doesn't it sound like child coming to a father or mother for affection?!


And at the close of the day, the book reads:


Pray for protection during the night, and for the guardianship of the holy angels  …  Then, rising from your knees, prepare for bed.  As you unclothe yourself, reflect that so must your soul at last, unclothed of its vesture of flesh, stand before God  ;  pray that it may be with joy and not with grief.  Let your last words [of the day] be—{and these, of course, are the words of Jesus on the cross}—: Into thy hands I commend my spirit  :  for thou hast redeemed me, O Lord, thou God of truth.


These words assume that the person praying has a genuine devotion, but more than that—they assume that the person is deeply sensible of their own vulnerability, and needs the comforting embrace of God—"who upholds our feeble life, and knows our needs." 


            I want you to think for a moment about someone in your life who is a source of anxiety for you.  It may be a family member.  It may be a friend.  Someone who—despite all of your best efforts—increases your anxiety.  It's as if the thought of them, or the way they relate to you temporarily erases the awareness you have of God's love for you.  And you don't know why.  Somehow they just throw you off your game. 


            Pray for them.  Regularly.  Pray for them to feel grounded and peaceful and loved by God.  It is likely that they are coming to you because you have the peace that they want.  The anxiety is like a kind of money.  They want to buy your peace with their anxiety.  And what can happen is that you absorb their anxiety, while they take your peace.  They might feel better; but you might feel worse.    


            They may be too anxious to believe that God really loves them.  They are like Thomas and Philip, "Lord, show us the Father."  "We do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?"  And Jesus responds, "I am the way."  "The Father is in me, and I am…in him."   Our Lord also said elsewhere that the Father is also with you now by his indwelling Spirit.


            Jesus responds from the deep place of his own peace, and instead of receiving their anxiety, he just gives them his peace.  And greater works than these will you do.  Because you, too, can do that.


            Pray for them.  Be receptive to the Holy Spirit.  Believe that there is enough love for you and for them.  "Do not let your hearts be troubled."





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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel


[*] MacBeth. Act II, Scene 2

Monday, May 12, 2014

You don't have to be alone anymore.

 Easter 4A. 11 May 2014.


John 10.1-10


          I have often spoken with you about the powerful place that was the Temple in Jerusalem.  There were, of course, several temples in the Holy Land—Shechem and Shiloh had temples.  But the Temple in Jerusalem, built by Solomon, and then rebuilt by Herod the Great was considered by the Jews of the first century to be "the place."  Especially the first Temple, in which the Holy of Holies contained the Arc of the Covenant, the structure which held the Ten Commandments, and which was reputed to be the literal dwelling of the glory of God. 


          It is impossible to overstate the power of the Temple, because its sole inhabitant was the Lord God, and the only people with access to most of it were the temple priests.  Even then only the chief priest could enter the Holy of Holies once a year on the Day of Atonement. 


          The Temple was built to be the place that God connected with humanity.  It was built by human hands to be the place of God's connection with us.  We all crave that connection: with God, with eternity, something beyond ourselves—something righteous and meaningful.  It is a deep-seated desire that many people have—and I would say that everyone has, but may not be aware of. 


          And the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that God saw that ache in humanity.  I think of it as an ache or a hunger pang—a desire that is difficult to express—but that God saw that ache in us.  And the Gospel is not just that God saw the ache, but that God felt the ache, as well.  That God also felt the desire to connect.  Like two people looking at each other from across a chasm, wishing to be closer to each other.


          And so while we built a Temple to get closer, God sent his own Son to get closer


          And the message of that sending—what we might call "the scandal of the Incarnation"—is that God would want to connect with us just as deeply as we wish to connect with God. 


          Jesus himself taught this in many ways.  In fact, he even changed our language about God.  The rabbis taught that the name of God was too holy to be said, or even to be written out, so they had—and still have—many euphemisms for God, such as Adonai, which means "Lord," or Elohim. Jesus spoke of him as "my Father," or "the Father."  A devout Jew might have found this language too casual, or lacking in reverence to think of God in such familiar ways.  In fact, some thought that language was blasphemous.


          So imagine hearing Jesus speak of "my Father," and "the Father," and then one day he is asked directly, "Lord, teach us to pray."  And Jesus said, "Pray like this, "Our Father.."  You mean God can be considered "our" Father, as well?!


          In a culture where family name and reputation—and who was in your family, and what you did—was so, so important—the idea that we would all be children of the same Father, and that that father was God was a sea-change, theologically.


          Jesus used other metaphors to speak of himself.  The Good Shepherd.  The one who lays down his life for the sheep.  Today we read of him using a metaphor of himself as "the gate."  Jesus is the entry way by which the sheep move in and out of the security of the sheepfold.  Jesus is the entry way by which the shepherd comes.  And he says that if the person coming to the sheep doesn't use the gate—doesn't come through him—then that person is not to be trusted.  So the person to be trusted is the shepherd, who is also Jesus, the Father, the Holy Spirit. 


          It may have been surprising to you to read Jesus refer to himself as "the gate" instead of the shepherd.  He is both, of course, but he really insists on the word "gate" in this teaching.  In fact, the word gate is used five times in this lesson alone.  The analogy teases one's mind a little bit. 


          The way I like to think of it is that Jesus is the flesh by which God reaches into our humanity.  So we might say he is the flesh-gate, through which God enters our humanity, and is the way for us to be reached by God, and for us to reach into the divine life of God. 




          The metaphor of shepherd and sheep is actually a very poignant metaphor, I think, because it gets at the tenderness of God caring for us as vulnerable souls.  But there is also the poignancy of our communication.  We hear the shepherd's voice—we recognize it—but we may not really communicate very much with words. 


          Shepherds typically don't carry on conversations with the sheep, really.  And the language barrier that exists—between human and animal, or between God and humanity—places an implicit emphasis on just being with each other. 


          That our relationship is not really even about either of us having a long chat with each other—but that we simply live together.  That our relationship at its essence is beyond words.  The shepherd comes, opens the gate, leads us out, leads us by the still waters, the green pastures, through the valley of the shadow of death.  But words are almost meaningless in this metaphor.


          Let me share with you something that I never really noticed before in this metaphor.  Notice that the one who makes the approach is the shepherd!  The sheep don't clamor for attention—they wait for the shepherd to come.  And the shepherd comes to them with deep familiarity.  We know his voice.  We know the sound of the gate being unlatched and the familiar cadence of his footsteps.  Relationship is wordlessly renewed in those familiar sounds and actions.  They say by themselves:  I am here.  I am.  I went away, and now I am back.  I am.  And because I am, you are.


          If you are like me, you often feel that prayer is an act that you initiate.  "I will say my prayers now," you think.  I plop down for Morning Prayer and turn to the right pages and launch in.  And I have my list of those people I need to remind God about.  But in this metaphor, the sheep wait patiently in the sheepfold.  And it is the shepherd who makes the approach.  Unlatches the gate, comes in, and leads us.


          This realization—and it's only been a very recent realization—has changed my devotional life.  It's something I knew a long time ago, but got away from.  And whenever one comes away from it, you begin to feel adrift, or unable to find God through prayer.  After awhile, it becomes difficult to nurture the belief that God really does wish to be with us as much as we wish to be with him.  So we go looking—desperately looking for God, and in that desperation, feeling all the more lost. 


          But it's not the job of the sheep to search for the shepherd.  Just the opposite. 


          It's so very different to begin your prayers not by mentally searching the dark, empty room of your mind, but instead waiting for God to enter through the gate, which is the love of Christ, the shepherd, whose love flows first to us, and then, once felt, flows back to him.


          But it takes trust to wait for that. 


          I recently heard of a monk who was asked what he did when he prayed.  He said, "It's not very complicated."  He said, "I just sit there and listen for God to speak."  The question came, "Well, what does he say to you?"  And the monk said, with complete delight, "Nothing.  You see, he, too, is listening!" 


          John records Jesus saying, "Peace I leave with you.  My own peace, I give."  Have you ever struggled with what he meant by that?  I think what he might have been saying is, "The peace that exists between me and our Father…the unspoken bond of love, and trust…I give you.  You no longer have to feel alone.  You no longer have to search the dark, empty room of your mind in prayer.  I give you the unbroken and unbreakable bond of love that the Father and I share.  It is called the Holy Spirit, and you may have it."





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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel


Thursday, May 8, 2014

Cut to the heart

Easter 3A.  4 May 2014.


Acts 2.14a, 26-41



            I am, again, preaching from the Acts of the Apostles.  We started, last week, to read Peter's resurrection sermon to the people of Jerusalem, and since we're picking it up a little further into it, I think it might be helpful to speak about the context.


            If you wanted to turn to page 884 in the pew Bible, you may want to see it.  Remember that the Acts of the Apostles is really a sequel to Luke's Gospel.  Luke wrote both of them. 


            Okay, so, the editors' headings make this easy.  The book opens with a reminder that Jesus wanted the disciples to remain in Jerusalem to receive the Holy Spirit.  Next comes a story of the Ascension of Jesus, which just sort of begins.  Luke doesn't really segue into it, but here it is.  After that comes the story of how Matthias came to replace Judas as one of the twelve.  It was between Justus and Matthias, and Matthias won the coin toss, as it were. 


            Next comes the story of Pentecost—the wind of the Holy Spirit and the disciples are gifted with the ability to speak in other languages so that they can become missionaries of the Gospel in far flung lands.  And again, we're still in Jerusalem.

             The people of the city are perplexed at what happened to the disciples at Pentecost, and so Peter gets up to give his sermon—explaining what has happened to them, and what the story of Jesus is all about.


            He says, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.  We are not drunk, as you suppose.  God has poured out his spirit upon us, just as the prophet Joel prophesied he would."


            And now, Peter begins to put the story of Jesus into a theological context.  See, before now people knew about Jesus.  They knew he was a prophet who had done amazing things, and they also knew that he had been crucified.  They also knew that there were reports that his tomb had been emptied, and some had said that he had been raised from the dead. 


            Luke's narrative assumes that the people Peter is addressing—at least most of them—were actually in the crowd that called for Jesus to be crucified.  Peter says, "`Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.'"  Luke then writes, "When they had heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the other apostles, `What should we do?'  Peter said to them, `Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that you may be forgiven, and you will receive the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls."  Luke writes that those who welcomed Peter's words were baptized, about three thousand people.


            Now, let's just try to see this moment for what it was—at least, according to Luke.  This was Simon Peter laying out for the people who had clamored for Jesus to be crucified that what they have actually done is killed the Messiah their tradition had claimed they were waiting for.  That they hadn't recognized him, because he didn't come as a macho military man who succeeded in overthrowing the Roman occupation, and reestablished the throne of David. 


            He came a different way, and those who had eyes to see him could see—at least kind of see—what he was doing.  But most of the people didn't, because Jesus didn't fit in to their neat little boxes of being a regular guy, or a rabbi, or standard type of prophet.  And here, through Peter, they're finding out that Jesus was the one they'd been waiting for—they just didn't know it at the time—and that they had clamored for his death.


            And Luke writes that when they heard this they were "cut to the heart."  I would think so.  It's an awful thing to realize that you've messed up, and I can't even imagine the depth of misery some of them felt when they realized that they put their tradition's hope to death.  And a big part of their pain and their sense of guilt must also be a fear of what God might do to them in punishment. 


            We all know what it's like to have that fear.  How many of you had a mother who at one point said when you were a child, "Just wait till your father comes home."  You know that sinking feeling, like all the blood drains out of your face.  You want to hide.  Multiply that feeling.  "Just wait till God hears about this."


            But the Gospel—the good news—for them and for us, is that God has forgiven humanity for this.  In fact, through the Apostles' teaching, they came to understand that this was part of God redeeming humanity from all our sins. 


            So when Peter says, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation," he is speaking of a culture of violence and oppression that Rome epitomized at that time.  The message is quite clear:  You all have fallen under the influence of a godless and inhumane culture, which has obscured your ability to see God staring you face to face.  Repent of this culture that allowed you to believe it was okay to kill an innocent man, who happened also to be the Messiah of God! 


            It is no wonder so many of them did.  They had lived through the actual events of our Lord's crucifixion, and lived to feel convicted of their own participation in it.  And even though, we understand ourselves to be part of that unthinking mob, none of us (actually, really) saw what they saw firsthand.  It is hard for us to recognize our sinfulness, because our culture so much less obviously violent—though it may at times be obviously corrupt. 


            We shake our heads at the corruption of greed, or the violence perpetrated against innocents—but we do not see ourselves within that world.  That's on the television news.  We didn't do that.  We wouldn't have done that. 


            Yet, we are all fallible human beings, and we are all corruptible.  Given the right scenario, given the right incentives, we might perpetrate those very acts, and even willingly make others suffer.


            When considering our own sinfulness, we are more likely to think of lies, or lusts, or selfishness that momentarily clouded our judgment—so our sense of conviction, our sense of depravity is much less obvious to us.  In fact, it might even sound antiquated to speak in those terms. 


            When the liturgies in The Book of Common Prayer use the words, "to us sinners," or "we your unworthy servants," do you ever bristle that those words, thinking, "Well, I'm not really a sinner!  I'm not really..you know, like they guy who left his wife and children one day and never came back.  Or the person who goes around shooting people or stabbing people in some school or shopping mall.  I'm a decent guy.  I pay my taxes.  I take care of my kids…  I would never do that…"  (Pause.)  But given the right set of circumstances…


            Baptism, we believe, sacramentally takes care of that deep rooted problem of "sin"—but there is something we miss if we are not also—as Luke wrote—"cut to the heart."  There is something we miss if we never come to a point in our lives when we recognize our sinfulness.  Or perhaps I should say our susceptibility, and come to abhor it.  Come to hate the very thought that had we been there, we too might have held the nails and mallet, or woven the crown of thorns, and clamored for him to be crucified.


            It is only after we have come to that place of recognition—recognizing that we, too, have sinned, and are, even still susceptible to great horrors of thought and action…  It is only after we realize that in ourselves  that the Easter message can really take hold of us, and change us.


            If we go about our lives in a kind of denial that we have anything to apologize for, then, as the author of first John wrote, "We deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess our sins…"  --if we drop our pretense, and own up to our frailty, then-- "God is faithful to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness."[*]


            That is why Peter's sermon was so effective and three thousand people were baptized—because they woke up.  They woke up to who they were—what they had become—and wanted to change it.  They would have done anything to change it.  Go into the water and be baptized?  Sure!  What else do you need?  What can get rid of this awful feeling?


            My guess is that you have probably known what this feels like, or may even be feeling a little of it right now.  I'll tell you that I get the feeling quite frequently.  And it usually doesn't come from someone telling me that I messed up.  The deepest feelings of guilt come to me at unexpected times, like when I'm running, or when I'm just going on about my life, and a memory will come to me of something that happened, or that I did.  And I will think back on what I did or said, and I'll realize that it might have caused pain to someone else.  And I never realized it until then. 


            I'm sure you know what I mean.  And you think to yourself, it was never in my heart to hurt that person, or to say anything to offend, but what I said or what I did wasn't good.  And that sinking feeling takes hold—we didn't know..! 


            It's not like we woke up one morning and said to ourselves, "You know what!  Let's spoil that person's day!  Let's be mean."  I would imagine that the three thousand who heard Peter likely didn't wake up thinking, "Let's call for Jesus to be crucified today."  That's not how it happens.


            But given the right set of circumstances, given the weakness and frailty of our humanity, temptation, the devil, the problem of evil in the world…  And we say things we don't mean.  We act without thinking it through.  And if we are sensitive, Christian people, we regret it deeply and we seek forgiveness.              The Good News is that God promises forgiveness by the Resurrection of his son.  (Pause.)


            Today we are going to baptize Daniel Crew Belyea.  We do this for Daniel, because we believe that God's grace comes to him long before he realizes that he needs it.  As Crew grows up, he will be nurtured by his loving family to know right from wrong.  But one day he is going to discover his own frailty, his own susceptibility to sin.  It is at that point that he may be "cut to heart" and recognize that he is in need of a deeper forgiveness than his parents can offer. 



            Hopefully, at that moment, what is done for him today will begin to make sense—that almighty God knew that this was coming—God saw him, and all of us, in our sinfulness—and before we even knew how to ask for it, God began to create a new heart within us. 


            We don't speak very much anymore about sin in the Episcopal Church.  Maybe we're afraid that we'll turn people off by it.  I know I heard plenty of sermons on it when I was a kid.  And I recall, when I was in the ordination process, a discussion with someone on the Commission on Ministry who asked me if there was anything in Christian theology that I didn't like to think about, or talk about.  It's a good question for ordinands, isn't it?!


            And I remember answering that I didn't really like to think or talk about sin.  So I was asked why.  And I said, "Because I feel my own sins so much, that I would hate to make others feel theirs."  It was kind of like saying, "God loves you, it's me he doesn't like."  So I was asked how I would speak about sin as a priest.  And I said, "With a big measure of God's love and grace." 


            It's hard to be "cut to the heart."  It's a terrible feeling, but it is through that feeling that God raises us to new life.  Because the love and grace are there for those who are cut to the heart.        




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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel

[*] 1 John 1.8,9