Year B 2018
Last week my sermon was a little longer. In all my time preaching I have never had the lights go out during my sermon. Today’s sermon is shorter. Hopefully that will help.
“And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”
On Palm Sunday we announce the Gospel differently than any other Sunday of the year. The Gospel is the story of the death of Jesus. There is no response, just these powerful words, “The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to ….” It is not something we often talk about - Jesus’ passion.
I grew up understanding God’s love but know that I never understood it to its fullest. Incarnation is something we will never understand. We can’t. We can proclaim it. We can use words to tell others what it is but it’s truth will always elude us. We can never hold the fullness of fully God and fully man. One will win. Either we will see Jesus as fully God or we will understand Jesus as fully man.
Growing up I got the God part. Or at least when I thought about Jesus I could understand that part. Jesus as God was easy. Understanding Jesus as God allowed me to place Jesus up there. It was the fully man part I struggled with. Maybe like most people, it was easier to keep God at a distance, up there and yet at the heart of the Gospels, Jesus is fully man. It is this fully man which allows Jesus to have compassion. Jesus had compassion for them. To put it another way, Jesus was with passion for them. Passion filled him for these people.
His call to teach and feed came from that passion. That is how Jesus responded to those in front of him, to those in need.
I think that is our call as well. More important than anything we do is our call as the body of Christ to teach and feed and not for ourselves. I want you to think of yourselves as viceroys; as ambassadors of God and God’s redemption. As viceroys of God we are called to see the needs around us. We are given the mission of proclamation. The people whom we are called to respond to are those who need it. Jesus teaches, and he feeds. That is our call.
I think to be able to teach and feed we begin with God. Our call is to know that we are loved. The world proclaims that you have worth because of your position, your work, what you earn, who your parents were or are, to whom you are married. But as Christians and as people of faith we begin knowing our worth because of our relationship with God. It is God’s love which gives us worth. You are his creation, his handiwork, his joy and his hope.
Paul uses these words, “Consider your own call… not many of you were wise by human standards, not many powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak to shame the strong.”
But for us to grow in God we also must be agents of truth. Communities of faith are strong because they trust each other enough to speak truth to each other. We must, if we are to be agents of God’s love, be able to speak to each other in honesty and in love. Without that we lose any ability of growing in God and of proclaiming to the world.
I think if we begin knowing God’s love and we can share with each other truth we can begin to do that which we are created to do. We can serve. If your relationship with God is about what happens in this place then it has no value. If you are saved by God’s grace so you can get into to heaven then you have missed the point.
In Clinton we face issues of poverty and race; we face hate. We face issues the world faces. We have in front of us opportunities to proclaim, by our action, God and God’s truth. In four weeks, our students arrive. We have the opportunity to proclaim God’s love as we welcome them, and we are in the unique place to welcome, not just because of where we are but who we are and how we understand God’s grace.
All of this is about what is out there. We are called to know God’s love and to be a community of faith so that we can do what God calls us to do. Our mission is out there; our mission to teach and feed.
Who is Jesus Christ and how do we proclaim him?
The Gospel for this week is new to Sunday mornings. We have not read nor preached on this Gospel on Sundays before. It is a very interesting Gospel in the way that it is formed. King Herod heard about Jesus and what Jesus was doing. He also heard that some believed Jesus must be John the Baptist. He assumed that John, the person that he beheaded must have been raised from the dead. And then the Gospel tells us about what he remembered; the story of John and how Herod came to kill him. When I first read this Gospel my first thoughts were “what can I possibly preach about”? Most of the Gospel is a flashback. It is a story of what happened.
In the lesson from Ephesians we hear Paul’s words to one of his favorite churches, the church in Ephesus. He really likes them and you can hear his love for them throughout this letter. It is a very different kind of letter than he wrote to Corinth or Rome. In this letter you can hear his love and passion for the people. What sets them apart? I believe that it is the power of Jesus Christ to transform God’s people. It is about the power of Christ and what that power does to those who confess him. The people in Ephesus got it. They understood that Jesus could not be summed up by one person’s experience. Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord could not be contained in the mind and experience of one. It was and is found in the body of Christ, you and me.
As I read these two lessons together, one question continued to come to mind. Who is Jesus and how do we proclaim him? Obviously the question is not new. Herod has the same question when he wonders if Jesus could be the raised John. It is the question of the ages and the question that continues to challenge us. It is the question that is at the center of denominations and at the center of even the work of our own General Convention this week in Anaheim. What does it mean to be his follower and what does it mean to proclaim him? Who is this Jesus? In Matthew’s gospel we hear clearly the Great Commission, Jesus’ call to us as disciples, “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). I believe the problem that we face in this age and probably the problem faced by Jesus’ followers throughout the ages is that each person sees, understands and knows Jesus in a little different way. The same Lord, the same Savior, but we see different facets of Jesus. The problem of course is that too often we believe that our understanding - our facet - how we see Jesus - is the only one or at least the correct one. We are right and therefore they are wrong. I know that is the truth because I have those feelings. I know that being a part of All Saints is better than anything else. We do it right. I know that being an Episcopalian is the best because if Jesus was around he would be one. I don’t think that kind of pride is a bad thing.
But we carry that understanding to a different place when our pride turns into a Gospel of rejection. It is wonderful to be proud of who you are and whose you are and how you understand God; but when that pride becomes the tool for rejection of others and their faith then it becomes sin. When Christians reject other Christians and condemn them then everything changes. When Christians reject other faiths, or races, or social classes; when Christians reject other humans, it is a sin.
I read a book once called “A Generous Orthodoxy” by Brian McLaren. In it he discusses the various ways that Christians express Jesus Christ. What I found as I read was that there are many different ways that I know the power of Jesus. I think I have a little evangelical in me. On some things I am a conservative Christian and others a liberal Christian. I am a Biblical Christian and an incarnational Christian and an unfinished Christian. I like the joy of our worship and Holy Eucharist celebrated on the beach with guitars. I believe that the divisions we face are divisions of our own making; Evangelicals vs. Mystic / Liberal vs. Conservative / Charismatic vs. Contemplative; are you a biblical or contemplative or green or incarnational or evangelical Christian? When there is great truth is in the very different gifts that we each bring to our common faith. One of the great joys of being here is the very different gifts that I witness in those seeking to proclaim the risen Lord in this place. Look at the strength of Christ’s body in this place. What we do when we engage in condemning those who are different is to stop the great commission; we stop the proclamation of the Risen Lord when we forget to see in each other the gifts of God’s power and redemption. We stop God’s Holy Spirit and the epiphanies that God can bring into our lives.
I was the rector of a church who had that division, Christian against Christian. We do it right and therefore you do it wrong. And even more because you do it wrong you must be destined for hell. Herod did not get it right. He did not know the power of God’s grace and love through God’s Son Jesus. Paul, in many of his letters to churches, fusses at those who divide the body of Christ into those who know Jesus and those who know Jesus differently. I believe the joy that Paul finds in the people of Ephesus is the joy he finds when those who know Jesus and proclaim Jesus begin to listen to each other; when they begin to know the fullness of Jesus Christ because they are willing to listen to someone who understands Jesus a little differently. In Paul’s letter to Ephesus, Paul changes the way he speaks in mid sentence. He begins with “you”. He ends with “our”. “ 13In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14this* is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.”
Our responsibility is to know Jesus; to know the Risen Lord in our lives and then proclaim him to a world who does not know him. But we are to do it together; each of us sharing the truth that we know and celebrating that truth in each other as we gather here today. May God continue to bless us and may we continue to know God’s revelation and presence in the bounty of his love present in our lives.
Year B 2018
“He could do no mighty works there”
I grew up in a wonderful family. My parents worked hard but I never felt that they placed my sister or me second. I knew they loved each other and I knew they would take care of me. I don’t think I ever worried about their presence or that they would always be there to care for me.
I also knew my faith. We were Christians and after I was six years old we were Episcopalians. I was confirmed at age seven. I knew that meant certain things. It meant church was not a second thought. Sundays were days of obligation for us. Week by week our place was in church together.
I was an acolyte from the first time I could remember. I sang in the children’s choir. We gave, and I was expected to tithe; to give ten percent of my earnings to the church. Allowance did not come without responsibility. Allowance was something I earned by taking out the garbage and mowing the lawn.
I also knew God and from my earliest understanding who Jesus was. He died for me. But one thing I did not know was that there was a choice in my faith. I was a Christian. I did not know there were other options. I knew there were Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians. I knew there were Presbyterians and Baptist Christians. I also knew there were people who weren’t Christian. But I was raised as Christian and I really only knew Christians. It was not until I went to seminary that I realized I had choices; that even my faith was a choice. Did I want to be Jewish or some other religion?
The first time I chose Christianity was in seminary. I had always been Christian and always knew God’s love, but in seminary I realized I had a choice. I also realized how important making that choice was. Being able to choose is freedom. Being able to choose means I take on ownership. It means that my faith could move beyond my head — to my heart. Freedom is choice. Freedom is choosing to follow. Freedom means choosing to live under law. Freedom does not mean we will not be jailed or betrayed or sick or killed, but it does mean that we make a choice.
“ and he could do no mighty works there.” These few words stick out. Jesus was rejected, and it conflicts with my understanding of who Jesus is. He could not. Jesus Christ could not. Mark is very careful and clear when he tells this story. Jesus could not do any miracles. Those from Jesus’ home town had a choice that day. Their choice was to say no and when they did, God could not work in their lives.
This past week we celebrated our freedom as a nation. We gave thanks for all who have given of themselves so that we are free. But freedom is not something we can take for granted; freedom is not something that came and now all we must do is enjoy it. No, freedom is our work and our call; it is our choice. We must fight today for freedom. Like faith, our freedom as a nation is a choice everyday. We celebrate having a choice and being free to choose.
I am thankful for Jim’s presence over the last two weeks. I heard his sermon last week touched on the separation of families at the border. I started my sermon two weeks ago wondering what terror must happen to the human soul when a child is taken from a parent - for both the child and the parent. I don’t think I can even imagine what it must be like. I do believe it is part of our freedom which we must continue to fight for.
When I read this Gospel, I thought about the border. I thought about the freedoms we celebrate and how we must continue each day fighting for what we proclaim in our baptismal vows; that we will strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.
Laurie Lane-Zucker wrote these words. They express so much about the power of our nation - our democracy - but they also express a truth about the power of faith when we choose it; when it becomes not just a head thing but a heart thing. "For a democracy to be truly alive, vital, and revolutionary, for it to rise beyond abstraction and mere symbolism, for it to become a throbbing head-and-heartfelt presence in our lives, we need to make it personal."
Now, listen to it again when I replace the word democracy with faith…”For faith to be truly alive, vital, and revolutionary, for it to rise beyond abstraction and mere symbolism, for it to become a throbbing head-and-heartfelt presence in our lives, we need to make it personal.”
I don’t know if I can remember the first time I felt guilt. I do remember the overwhelming feeling of guilt which comes. I remember many times when guilt and shame has overwhelmed me. When I was about 9 or 10 years old, I remember the feeling of overwhelming guilt. I have told you before about my parents telling me not to throw the ball in the house; it was one of their favorite lines because I did not listen. This day they were gone from the house. I was home alone. I was watching TV and behind the TV was a brick wall. I found that I could play catch with myself if I threw a tennis ball against the wall. I was pretty good at it.
But sitting on the TV was my great grandmother’s oil lamp. This is what was used before they had electricity. My mother had inherited it after her grandmother died.
After throwing the ball hundreds of times I finally missed and knocked the globe off. Of course, it broke. I couldn’t fix it. I couldn’t hide it. I did it.
What I did was something like Adam and Eve. I left a note. My father remembers the note because my words were simple. “I broke grandmother’s lamp. I am sorry and am running away.” I went outside and hid in the bushes until my parents came home. I don’t remember a punishment but I do remember my guilt and being ashamed. It was overwhelming. I knew my sin.
I have been playing hide and seek with God, others and myself for 60 years. At times, because of my shame, I try to blame others or figure out how to get out of those feelings of guilt; excuse myself; rationalize, whatever it takes to fix the problem.
Guilt is a peculiar emotion. The guiltier I feel, the harder I am on others. It probably ought to work the other way but it does not. So, I keep returning to Baptism. It was the moment which changed everything for you and for me. It is the outward sign of cleansing, but it is more. It is the literal washing away of sin. The only thing I can’t be forgiven for is the refusal to accept God’s forgiveness.
The lessons we share this morning are quite wonderful. The Old Testament is a reminder that in creation, we all join in our humanity. Before the fall, before Adam and Eve’s sin there is a wonderful passage in which Adam and God walk together in the cool of the afternoon. I love that passage. God and Adam walking and sharing. But after the fall, when they knew their sin and they knew shame, when God came, they hid. We all share a need, like Adam and Eve, for forgiveness. We all need the same forgiveness because we have all eaten of the fruit.
The Gospel brings with it a simple understanding; God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ. It brings the truth that we can know the healing power of God not just in the physical healing of disease, but in the healing of dis- ease, the power which sin should bring uneasiness to each of us.
So, this morning we are called to know something wonderful. We are called and reminded that we can know the healing power; the restoring power of God today. We do not have to wait. We can know it and we can share it. It requires that we know our sin and seek God’s healing. It requires that we know that healing power which comes in forgiveness and we share that with others who do not deserve it. Just as we don’t deserve it. That is the power of what this gathering, this Eucharist is about. It is about transformation; it is about restoration; it is about knowing health found only in God. It is about us being part of that truth when we are willing to forgive the unforgivable, just as God has forgiven us.
What Jesus brings to each of us is the healing and restoring power of the Good News and at the heart of the Good News is forgiveness. It was what the families of the victims of the shooting at Mother Emanuel in Charleston knew on the day after the shooting. That is at the heart of what we do together each week. That is the power of what this gathering is about. It is about being transformed by God’s grace. It is what we are called to be and do in life. You and I are called to be forgivers even if the person does not deserve it or even ask for it. It is what God did for you through Jesus Christ.
Evelyn Underhill wrote these words, “Some people are rather troubled about the space the healing of the sick takes in the Gospels … This is because we are apt to think of healing as getting rid of people’s normal pain, disease, and distress. But healing is really restoring to true normality, mending the breaches in our perfect humanity, and making us again what God intends us to be. It shows us his Life-giving Spirit; the Lord and Giver of Life is ever at work producing and restoring fullness of life.” She goes on to say, “It means bringing back to what it ought to be, giving strength to the weak, new purity to the tainted by the action of his charity.”
Jesus’ redemption of the world is complete and it rests in him. The task remains for us to share the Good News. We are called on to join with Christ through our baptism as reconcilers and healers. We are called to forgive the unforgivable, love the unlovable. It is our work. It is our joy and by it the world will be changed.
Jesus faced the religious zealots of his day. In the Gospel this morning he faced those who were so focused on the law they missed the point of the law. Sitting here today it almost seems dumb and yet, as I talked last week about fundamentalism, that seems like the very definition of it. Jesus was being set up to heal on a Sabbath. He was being set up to be condemned for restoring someone’s life through healing. He and his disciples were being condemned for not following the law the way the Pharisees thought the law should be followed. But what had happened to the law was human. God’s law was not about restricting God’s work of love and healing. God’s law was about a relationship with God. It was about honoring God. And in the midst of trying to live out the law the Pharisees had made God’s law about themselves.
“Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”
Well that bothered me. You see, I want to be a good Christian. I want to follow the rules. I want to do what good Christians want to do. I want to learn about the Bible. I want to be kind to others and do Bible studies and read and say enough prayers to be a good Christian. But if those are really my hopes for my faith then I probably will get them and no more. If I do what good Christians do, I probably would be able to say “Lord, Lord”, but I would have no relationship with God - then what is the purpose?
In the church we have many rules. I have National and Diocesan constitutions and canons which I must follow. We have Parish bylaws. In liturgy there are directions and rubrics which I am required to follow. Though I have never experienced it, Bishops can give clergy Godly admonitions. It basically is a command. I can be prosecuted just like anyone else if I break the law. I can be charged criminally and civilly, but I also can be charged by the church. And yet the laws are there for me. The laws I have to follow are there to give me direction, and within those laws I have freedom. But the moment the laws become what is important then I lose my relationship with God. The moment the laws become the means to the end, then I know God is lost.
Alicia and I have been married for 32 years. There are laws in our marriage. There is a covenant with God and each other in our marriage but those rules and expectations only give us the boundaries. They do not represent the relationship that comes; the trust that comes in relationship. What I know in the relationships I share are not about laws. They are built on norms. They are built around trust. There are not enough laws to build and sustain a relationship. That is what Jesus faced in this Gospel. He faced those who would use the law to stop God moving. The law had become God for those who would condemn Jesus as he healed.
I want to be a good Christian. I want to learn and do. I want all the trappings of faith, but do I really want God to change me? Do I really want my life to be different because I know God and God knows me? Do I really want people I know to be changed because of my relationship with God? In our world, too often religion and faith are not connected. Too often it is easy to learn everything about religion and not have a relationship with God.
We have everything that we need here. You can study God’s word. You can come and hear God’s word. You can worship God in this place. Your priest is here all dressed up in fine robes and there is beautiful music and a gorgeous building. But if this is where your faith resides, then your house is built on sand. If you come here on Sundays and think you have done what you need to do to be a good Christian; if you think you have followed all the rules, then you have missed it. You see, all this, all that we are, the Eucharist we share, the music, this building, the programs offered are meant to point to one thing. All of this is meant to aim you at a relationship with God that changes who you are and propels you into the world to proclaim the risen Lord to those who do not know him. All of this is meant to enable you to act out your faith.
I was the assistant at St. Thaddeus in Aiken, SC when I first was ordained as a priest. Assistants have a job description which is basically to do whatever the rector does not want to do. He asked me to attend the first meeting of a new venture in the community which was to begin a soup kitchen in Aiken. I, with several other ministers from the area, came and listened to the proposal. It was simple. The community would feed the homeless. Each church would take part. Homeless people would come and join in a service and after a sermon they would be allowed to eat a meal.
I left that meeting angry but was not sure why. We would be feeding the homeless, which must be a good thing. But after a while I realized why I was angry. For them to eat they would be required to hear a sermon and sit through a service. Hungry people, smelling food which had been prepared, would be required to sit for 30 to 45 minutes before they could eat. I think I realized at that point that the Gospel would be proclaimed when they ate. Maybe I was the only one to realize the Gospel for homeless hungry people was the food on the plate. The Good News of Jesus Christ would be lived out. The Gospel, proclaimed in the vernacular for hungry people was food.
Just a few minutes ago you heard the Gospel in a very different way. The Gospel was proclaimed in several languages. I can only imagine what it must have been like on that first Sunday as the church began. The disciples, empowered by God’s Spirit, flung open the doors. Their fear gone they stepped out and began to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. And when they did everyone understood. No matter where you came from, know this, the Good news was for you. The Gospel that day was proclaimed in the vernacular.
Speaking in tongues was about telling the Good News in a way that the person who was hearing would understand.
I don’t think it should be any different today. We are to proclaim the love of God in a way that others can not only hear but understand. If a person is homeless, give them a place to stay. If a person is cold, give them a coat. If is person is hungry, give them something to eat.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is the Good News proclaimed to a hurting world; God’s love shared. It is no different for us. We have a mission. The mission is defined by where we are and who needs God’s love shared. God’s mission for us is defined by where we are and the people and needs around us.
We come this day to give thanks for the church, which God has given us to proclaim the truth of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Today is the church’s birthday and we celebrate the transforming Spirit which transforms us into His body. God’s Spirit that first Pentecost changed those whom it touched and they were empowered to proclaim the Good News. It is no different today. The Holy Spirit is what we seek to also be empowered to become His church.
We live in a world which understands self-promotion. We live in a world which is fueled by the notion that somehow if we can do enough, or learn enough, we can succeed. But Pentecost is about a very different kind of understanding. Pentecost is about the Holy Spirit. It is about the truth that we can and never will be able to will ourselves to succeed, at least not in our relationship with God. We will not and cannot learn enough or do enough to complete that relationship. As a church, we cannot do as much to help the victims of a hurricane as the Red Cross, or have as good a program that touches so many lives of youth people as the YMCA. We will never be able to take care of the poor in the way that The Salvation Army does. So why are we here?
The reason that we are here is the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is the gift of God that changed a group of scared followers of Jesus into the church. It is the gift of God’s Spirit that caused them to not only unlock the doors but open them. It is the gift that caused them to not only step out but to burst out proclaiming a new message of hope and relationship with God through His Son Jesus Christ. The Church was founded that day and the world was changed forever.
What these people experienced was the gift of the Holy Spirit and from that gift they knew their mission. The Church does not have a mission and then ask God to sustain it. No, what we do is very different. We are to know the gift of the Spirit and from that our mission will come; who we are is shaped by God. Mission is the overflow of a great gift – the gift of the anointing of God’s Spirit, not the carrying of a burden, but the sense of driven response to the all-encompassing love of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit is the active missionary, we are called to show up and let the Spirit lead and do the work.
Jesus was a great speaker. He used images and metaphors; he used stories to share God’s truth about God’s Kingdom. One way he did this was to use what was before them. He told stories that every person who heard it would immediately understand with a visual image. These images helped to make clear a message that was big, usually about God’s Kingdom. The story of the sower was something every person would have understood. They had seen sowers, people spreading seed.
But Jesus did something unexpected. He took what they saw and knew and with that image he then would shock them. He would take the image and turn it upside down.
This Sunday we have a story about the Christ as the Good Shepherd. It is familiar for us. We have heard it so many times it sort of rolls off the tongue. I have always liked the picture of Jesus, with a pastoral staff and a lamb on his shoulders. Isn’t it wonderful, Jesus as the Good Shepherd. But how many people here have ever seen a shepherd? Does anyone here know a shepherd? When Jesus told this story, every person had seen shepherds. They knew them. They were relatives or friends, or at least they had seen them around town or out in the fields taking care of the sheep.
They knew what a shepherd’s role was and what the expectations of the job were. We are at somewhat of a loss because that image is not something most of us have experienced.
Being a shepherd was a vocation. It required spending most of your time taking care of innocent, simple creatures. Being a shepherd was risky. It required a person who was willing to face whatever threat, whether wolf or lion or human and stand between these defenseless creatures and the threat. It required someone who would be a fiduciary and always think of the sheep before themselves.
So, Jesus describes his relationship with the people and said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10: 11-16)
He describes his relationship with you. Jesus describes his relationship; Gods relationship with humanity.
One thing you may not know is that every person there would have been shocked at his description. Shepherds who care for sheep, care for the dumbest creatures and Jesus was talking about them.
The 23rd Psalm speaks to this unique relationship and how dumb sheep are.
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures:
When you hear,” leads me beside still waters”, hear also sheep will not drink from flowing water. They will only drink from pools of water. Finding still water is a requirement for sheep. They will also not eat from a container. They will not stick their heads in buckets. They need pastures. Unlike other farm animals, sheep do not do well in pens, but instead need to be out in pastures. Without this relationship and the shepherd taking them to a place where they can drink and where they can eat, they would die.
3 he restores my soul. He leads me in the right paths for his name’s sake.
Herding creatures are remarkable. They are something like baitfish in the ocean. I don’t know if you have ever seen a ball of bait fish. They move indiscriminately. From the outside, they look like one unit but this unit continuously changes shape. Fish move from outside to inside. The purpose is so the predator can’t pick out one fish to attack. Sheep have the same pattern. It is a good defense but it means they have no sense of direction on their own, especially when they are scared.
4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me: your rod and your staff – they comfort me.
The shepherd’s presence brings a sense of peace. The shepherd’s staff has two ends. The cured end is meant to lovingly help a sheep get out of trouble. It represents the pastoral touch of the shepherd. But the staff has another end. It is pastoral but is intended to correct the path the sheep is on.
5 You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.
6 Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Shepherds and sheep have a unique relationship. Sheep must depend on the shepherd because their instincts would not allow them to survive. Sheep are dumb. Jesus took what the people knew and then challenged them. He held up this image and then told them they were the sheep in the story. Jesus was describing a relationship which places him as the one who will lead because without that leadership we would die. He was talking about you. He was talking about me. Without God, without God’s redeeming love, you are not going to make it. But there is something placed on us. In this relationship, we have a responsibility. Yes, we may not be smart and yes, when left to our own devices we would die. But, we are asked to recognize God’s voice. We are asked to be in a relationship where we know God and God’s voice. We are asked to spend time listening and engaged in knowing God and God’s son and God’s spirit.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. We are called to follow and trust and depend. It is a relationship which calls each of us to seek out Christ, to know His voice, and to trust and follow.
I have told you fear is the greatest obstacle to the proclamation of the Gospel. Fear stops the Good News of God. Terrorism is the attempt to make you fear. Terrorism uses violence to bring fear. Politicians use fear to get you to vote for them. If they can get you to know fear then they can tell you they have or are the answer. Preachers use fear to get you saved. Holding hell over you to believe what they know as the answer keeps you beholden to them.
Fear is a tool which is used to control you. I think you could use this morning's gospel as a tool to promote fear. It would be easy to spend this time talking about the bridesmaids who were not ready and lost their place, and if you aren’t careful, you will lose your place too. Much of religion and much of Christian religion is used to bring fear and therefore, conversion. In much of politics and our news and in religion we hear the same thing. It is the mantra of a terrorist. Believe the way I believe or die. I will not tell you that. I believe God’s grace is too big.
What I want to talk about is the opposite. I think I spend too much time thinking about the bridesmaids who were not prepared; when what I probably need to hear is the truth of those who were prepared. Surely, they had the same fears that the last bridesmaids did. What separates them, other than having enough oil?
My life has been filled with people who have stepped past fear and have made a difference in the world. I want to share with you a person who taught me what ministry is and she taught me what it means to seize this day, this moment.
I got to know Daisy when I was the assistant at St. Thaddeus in Aiken. I had been ordained for a year or so and I had the great joy to bring communion to the nursing home where she lived. Each Friday for three years we shared the sacrament. I would meet her in her room at 1:00, after lunch and we would have communion. Daisy was English; she was not quite five feet tall. She had an infectious smile and a dry and wonderful sense of humor. She had to have a leg amputated and was in a wheel chair. I remember when she told me she would have the surgery. I said "I’m so sorry Daisy". Her response was, “People have been trying to push me around most of my life and now I’m going to let them.”
Daisy and I were at two very different places in life. I was in the midst of accumulating. Alicia and I had only been married for a short time and we were buying stuff; house, cars, washing machine and dryer and the stuff you think that you need. Daisy had almost everything that I thought was important taken from her. Daisy had moved from England as a young girl. She married an American. She had no family in the states. Her only son had been killed in the second World War. He was buried in France. She had never seen his grave, but friends brought her pictures. Her husband of 48 years had died. She didn’t have much money and sold her home, car and all that she owned so that she could afford to move into a small nursing home outside Aiken. It was there that she had lived for almost ten years before I got to know her.
I tell you about Daisy because she understood her life as full and abundant in ways that I did not. She understood what it meant to seize the day and to thank God and to share her bounty with others. She understood what it means to be a steward and to give of herself out of the bounty of God’s grace. She didn’t know she was poor. She never thought of what she didn’t have. She shared out of abundance and not out of poverty, even though the world considered her poor.
Every morning Daisy got up and dressed. After breakfast, she wheeled herself to the front lobby and positioned herself beside the front door to greet people as they came in. The way she explained it was that people were coming into her home and everyone should be greeted with a smile; after all they were coming to visit people who had problems. She took it as a vocation, a calling.
After lunch, she would go to the nurse’s station and ask for a list of people who were depressed or sick. She then would visit those people. She hoped that her visit would bring them a little comfort. Daisy taught me what it meant to be a minister.
Daisy could have lived in fear. I think it would have been easy for her to be sorry for her losses, where she was and the problems she had. It would have been so easy to feel sorry for herself and sit alone, scared and angry. She instead lived a life of abundance and was willing to share in that abundance.
This gospel is in part a reminder that we are called not to fear, but to proclaim God’s bounty. Daisy lived her life doing that. She was all in. Every day of her life was an opportunity to be a bearer of the Good News. She was a poor woman but Daisy never gave out of her poverty but always out of the bounty of God’s grace. She thought she was rich, she lived like
she was rich, she responded to the world like she was rich, she proclaimed God’s love like she was rich, because she was.
Jesus said, "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector."
Gossip as its heart is a destructive force. We once played a game at EYC and summer camp called gossip. The game is simple. Everyone sits in a circle and one person whispers a word or phrase in the ear of the person next to them. They in turn whisper the same word, and around the circle it goes. When the last person hears the word they then tell the group. It never ends up being what the first person said.
I do not think it is any different for us at All Saints or in Clinton. Being conscious of what we say and how we say it is important, and Jesus in this passage reminds us of how we are called to deal with each other in and thru the love of Christ. It is a directive to talk to each other and not about each other. Jesus gives us a directive on how to deal with sin and to deal with it directly. This parish will grow and we will become more of what God intends us to be, only if we trust one another enough to be honest with each other. It is at the heart of Christian community and at the heart of what Jesus calls us to in faith.
I also hear something else. This passage is a call for humility. We must not only be open to confront sin in our midst but we must also be open to acknowledging the sin in our own lives. I think this passage is easy to hear when we believe that we have the truth for someone else, but much harder to hear when others see our sin and confront it.
Our Eucharist is an amazing thing. It was put together over 2000 years ago but at its heart is the worship that the first disciples did together. I also think that the patterns of worship we use are used by all or most all Christians. The essence of what we do is three parts of worship. We have the liturgy of the word, the liturgy of the table, and between them is something that we too often forget or don’t take seriously. Before coming to this table and after hearing God’s word proclaimed, we are ask to seek absolution with God and each other. At the heart of the transition between hearing and receiving is an act of humility.
I don’t know if you realize the importance of this moment. I think too often it is just what we do, but the reality of this moment is that we are to seek to know our own sin and seek God’s forgiveness. But we are also to seek each other’s forgiveness. It is that pivotal moment which transforms you from sinner to saint. It is that moment in which you become acceptable to come before God and offer your gifts and yourself.
Placing something in that plate and coming to receive communion is not how you become acceptable before God. I want to suggest it is just the opposite. Don’t put anything in the plate if you have not sought forgiveness. It is not your ticket for communion. Do not come to this table if you have not sought absolution. That is not how you get here. This is the only place in the world where you cannot buy your way in. No, it is through confession and absolution; knowing God’s love and grace; seeking out those you have offended and asking for forgiveness that makes what you offer acceptable. It is seeking God’s forgiveness which transforms you from sinner into saint.
How do you prepare for your confession? How do you prepare each week to come to this table? I would love for you to prepare each week for this moment. I would love for you to come to this service with a 3x5 card or in my case, a notebook, for which needs to be forgiven. I would love for you to have spent some time preparing for this Eucharist by recognizing your own sin and then seeking God’s forgiveness. Imagine what would change if when you came to the Offertory sentence and that moment was a response to God’s forgiveness. Imagine what would change if you came forward to receive communion and that moment was in thanksgiving for God’s forgiveness.
Religious zeal is not what you think it is. I place a title on each of the sermons I write. The title for this sermon is Religious Zeal and as soon as I wrote those words, I knew that it would not be understood. We have a very powerful Gospel from Matthew. In it Jesus says,
“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.”
Well, that bothered me. You see I want to be a good Christian, but I am not sure I want the consequences of following Jesus. I want to do what good Christians want to do. I want to learn about the Bible. I want to be kind to others and do Bible studies and read and say enough prayers to be a good Christian. But, if those are really my hopes for my faith then I probably will get them and no more. If I do what good Christians do, I probably would be able to say “ look how much I have done”, but I would have no relationship with God. The God who has sought a relationship with me from the beginning.
I have been blessed in my life in many ways. One way is I have enjoyed the great example of my father, who has taught me and been present with me. My father has been and is an example of a man of faith who lives it out daily and is seen in what he does and not just in the words he says. I have seen it throughout my life. My father acts out his faith. There are moments in life that define us - not by what we believe, but instead by who we are and how we live out who we are. When I was 7 or 8 years old, we had a Chihuahua named Fi-Fi. Fi-fi was a small dog. She never got over five pounds. One of the things that my parents told me not to do, and they said it many times, was not to throw the ball in the house. “Chuck, don’t throw the ball in the house”. It was a Saturday morning and the rest of the family was doing other things. I was alone and I was throwing the baseball into my glove, over and over. Now, Fi-fi was asleep on the couch. On one throw, I missed the pocket and the ball skimmed over the top of my glove and hit Fi-fi in the head and Fi-fi died.
I had just killed Fi-fi. She didn’t move. I used both hands to pick her up and she was limp, her tail hanging on one side and her head off the other. I took her into my parent’s room where dad was working on something. Not wanting him to know that I was throwing the ball, I said “something is wrong with Fi-fi”. My father looked down at this little creature and took her from me. He laid her on the bed and knelt down beside her realizing she wasn’t breathing. He opened his mouth and put it over her head and breathed. After a moment, she began to stir; she sat up. I remember that moment so well as a child - watching this grown man care - watching him have compassion for this little animal.
After my father was ordained a priest, we moved to a small southern town. Dad was the priest in charge of two small churches. It was in the early seventies and there was still anger over segregation. Indeed, the small town was still segregated and racism was still strong. In the middle of town there was a hardware store, a drug store and not much else. Like Clinton, there were railroad tracks running through town. One fall afternoon, an old black man was crossing the railroad tracks in his car when he was struck by a train. The violence of the wreck threw him from his car head first against the brick wall of the hardware store where he lay dying. School was letting out and people gathered at the scene. Business men and women, children and ministers from the other churches in town stood at a safe distance and watched, waiting for an ambulance to arrive. When my dad arrived, he saw that group of people in the middle of town, watching this old black man die. My father went and knelt beside him, held his hand and prayed with him as he died. The sad part of this is that if he had stood and watched with everyone else, no one would have thought less of him. Indeed, the opposite was true. He was criticized for what he did.
I want to be a good Christian. I want to learn and do good things. I want all the trappings of faith, but do I really want God to change me? Do I really want my life to be different because I know God and God knows me? Do I really want the people I know to be changed because of my relationship with God? In our world, too often religion and faith are not connected. Too often it is easy to learn everything about religion and not have a relationship with God. Matthew’s Gospel is about how to live out our faith. Faith and the proclamation of faith is not about knowing the right things or even doing the right things. Faith is about a relationship which is transforming.
What a glorious building we’re in. We have everything we need here. You can study God’s word. You can come and hear God’s word. You can worship God in this place. Your priest is all dressed up in fine robes and there is beautiful music to hear and gorgeous stained glass to see. But if this is where your faith resides, then you only have religion. If you come here on Sundays and think you have done what you need to do to be a good Christian, then you have missed it. You see, all of this - all that we are, the Eucharist we share, the music, the stained glass, this building, the programs offered is meant to point to one thing. All of this is meant to aim you at a relationship with God that changes who you are and propels you into the world to proclaim the risen Lord to those who do not know him. All of this is meant to enable you to act out your faith.
That is what I witnessed as my father knelt next to a dying man to pray. How are you going to act out your faith today?