The Ordinary and the Extraordinary, Trinity Sunday (B) – May 27, 2018

Pentecost Trinity Episcopal Sermon


[RCL]: Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

Every extraordinary experience sparks from the ordinary. Take a moment and reflect on the moments that have made you who you are today. Some of them may be spectacular, earth-shattering, heartbreaking, and more. But when we really take the time to reflect on what made us who we are right now, today, this moment, we will come up with the names of people who have filled our lives. Little things they did or said to us, that they may not even remember today, but that stayed with us and changed us. In reflection, we will realize it was the mundane, weekly habits and rituals that ordered our lives, thus shaping us into the people we are today. This truth is a hint to us that God – our awesome, all-knowing, omnipotent God – is right there with us, taking what might be the most ordinary of moments and breathing that little extra into it, so that over time it becomes something extraordinary.

On a not-so-special night, full of curiosity, Nicodemus sought Jesus out for a conversation. Here we see God at work with that little extra. Jesus transforms what was an inconspicuous evening into a remarkable, life-changing event. By the end of the Gospel of John, Nicodemus is a new person. If someone asked him what made him who he was at that time, he may have found himself returning to this night.

The power of this Gospel is the way in which we readers, thousands of years later, are turned into witnesses. We become witnesses to not just fact-based, hard-nosed, “real news,” but to God’s reality on earth. We become witnesses, not to an ideology, but to the Movement of God. With the telling of a simple story, we are suddenly standing alongside Nicodemus, bound by our physical bodies and limited perspective, about to have our minds blown by a completely new way of seeing and being in the world.

In this particular story, we see Jesus launch the transformation of Nicodemus from questioning leader, in verse 1, to witness, in verse 11, to the Movement of God. The Movement of God is Trinitarian – physical, spiritual, and divine. It takes our full selves to be part of this movement. We cannot compartmentalize it to one hour or one day; we cannot compartmentalize it to a single choice and belief.

This is difficult for us to grasp because our entire world is about compartmentalization. We count the minutes and hours of our days, divvying up our time for work, relationships, goals, celebrations, conversations, and chores. This is also difficult for us to grasp because so much of our lives is about reaching certain dates, milestones, and achievements. We live by the idea that once we reach that particular place, we will have “made it.” Nevertheless, the Movement of God blurs and smudges the lines by which we have ordered our lives. The Movement of God never stops. The Movement is, in essence, God’s full self – Father, Son, and Spirit – set loose in all of creation to breathe that extra into the ordinary.

During this late-night conversation, Jesus invites Nicodemus to wake up, be “born again,” move beyond the limits of his occupation and title and join the Movement. Jesus is not interested in simply answering Nicodemus’ questions, or giving him a summary highlighting the most important information that he can then mull over and decide whether he agrees or not. Jesus is inviting him to participate in an entirely new way of seeing and living—a way of seeing and living that only happens with the participation of his full self.

In The Divine Dance, Father Richard Rohr describes the Movement of God as flow. To join God’s movement is to step, jump, or dive into the flow of God’s full self with our full selves. The tide of God’s movement leads us to a way of life that is always growing, evolving, transforming; a way of life that is about unification, alignment, and action.

Like Nicodemus, it takes a little time for us to catch on. It’s hard to be moved from all that we know – this one body, this one life, our understanding of science and creation. Yet, even without fully understanding Jesus’ words, Nicodemus is caught up in the tide of conversation and can’t stop himself from asking, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” Jesus doesn’t back down. With Jesus’ response, we 21st-century readers are no longer merely observers of a late-night conversation. Jesus’ reply vibrates and echoes from the pages of the Bible to us, today. “You must be born from above.” With these words, Jesus calls us to move beyond dualistic thinking into a Trinitarian way of being, the place where our bodies, minds, souls, and spirits meet.

Jesus calls Nicodemus, and each of us here today, to live into the realization of all that we are. We are not just machines, a body moving by habit and functionality. We are not just spontaneous balls of unaware reactivity to the life being lived around us. God made us to be part of the Movement. While we struggle with discernment, wondering what God is truly calling us to, remember that the answer will always involve our full selves, it will involve our transformation (often over and over again), it will involve us physically moving, following the example of Jesus, and getting into it.

Consider the social movements we witness in history books and the news today. These movements do not appear from nowhere. They are products of an accumulation of factors, but we often wonder where they came from. Like the wind, we hear the sound of it and see the effects of these movements, but we do not always know where they came from or where they will go. Yet, once these movements are set into motion, we often speak of them as though they were inevitable. Isn’t this just like the Movement of God? Isn’t this exactly what Jesus is calling Nicodemus, and all of us, to join?

The Essence of God, our source of life, surrounds us. Often when we look back on our lives, we speak of the inevitability of God’s hold on us, even if we did not know it at the time. This story of Nicodemus is an opportunity to not just look back on our lives with this knowledge, but to move forward, fueled by it as witnesses to the transformative power of the Trinity. Jesus doesn’t just want us to pass on information like simple gossip. Jesus calls us to live fully immersed in the abundant life for which we were created.

Jesus knows we are suspicious. Jesus knows we are trapped by our need for tangible, provable facts. Yet, in this conversation, Jesus doesn’t stop there. We are called to join the Movement. Despite ourselves, we are made witnesses. We are not witnesses of our own understanding, but of God’s action, movement, in the world, for the world. Receive the testimony given to us by the Living Word who walked among us. Bear witness. Wake up. Be moved with your full self – your emotions, your mind, soul, and strength. Rise up. Join the Movement of God and breathe in that little extra that comes from the fullness of God with us.

Casey Cross is the Young Disciples Director at Hope Lutheran Church in Eagle, Idaho. You can read more of her sermons, devotions, thoughts, and youth ministry ideas at caseykcross.wordpress.com.

Download the sermon for Trinity Sunday (B).

This Sacred Discontinuity, Day of Pentecost (B) – May 20, 2018

Episcopal Sermon Pentecost


[RCL]: Acts 2:1-21 or Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Romans 8:22-37 or Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

The Bible and the church year commemorate many moments of grace. One of these moments of grace is what we celebrate here on this day of Pentecost: how the Holy Spirit fell like fire upon the infant church, equipping that small assembly for their global mission, energizing that community with nothing less than the life of God.

Here are other moments of grace we remember from the church year and the Bible: the universe summoned into existence; Israel called to be God’s people; messages spoken by the prophets; Jesus born and baptized; his suffering and resurrection; his ascension into heaven; and the witness of countless martyrs and saints from many centuries and many places.

We recall these moments of grace, and they help us recognize where grace works in our lives. For what God brings about in that story which we hear in Scripture and present in worship, God also brings about on the more intimate stage of our lives. Time and again, we die with Christ and are raised with him; time and again, the Spirit energizes us for some new venture.

Moments of grace are manifest through Scripture and worship. Moments of grace are manifest in our not so ordinary lives.

Still other moments of grace are manifest in cosmic history and human history, still other occasions of sacred discontinuity when the Lord of life, the God of surprises, decides to do something new. We can recognize these as well; we can honor them.

Here are several such moments of grace: when human beings first controlled fire; when spoken language appeared; when the first gardens were cultivated; when people started making pottery.

The Bible and Christianity present a God who keeps doing things never done before, and often God does these things through human agency.

Yes, there are cycles in this world that repeat with obvious reliability: the changes of the seasons, the stages of a human life. But God is notorious for also doing what seems unprecedented, such as freeing his people from Egypt or raising his Son from the dead. These novelties belong to a plan and purpose we can only begin to recognize.

The Christian faith says that the Holy Spirit is ceaselessly at work in every moment of grace, not only the ones we celebrate in church. The Christian faith does not claim the Holy Spirit as a prisoner constrained by the Church. Far from it: the Holy Spirit, who is Creator and Giver of life, makes and sustains and brings to fulfillment every creature that exists.

The Holy Spirit is a subtle power, the secret force behind all beauty, truth, and goodness; every act of kindness and compassion; every wise insight and every noble decision. The Spirit’s work is apparent in the stars we see in the night sky and in the microscopic wonder of single-cell organisms. Travel at the speed of light if you can; you will never outrun the realm of the Spirit.

So then, moments of grace on whatever scale are not rare, but plentiful. To thrive in the Holy Spirit means that we become more adept at recognizing ways in which the Spirit operates.

Have you noticed? The future constantly becomes the present on its way to becoming the past. As this happens, we must confront problems and challenges and tragedies. We must also open ourselves to obvious moments of grace, strange and unexpected gifts that appear in our lives, our communities, and in human and planetary history. Through such moments, the Holy Spirit acts and summons us to obedience, to creative cooperation with the high purposes of God.

A resource for our creative cooperation with the Holy Spirit is the vision offered by Thomas Berry. In his nineties when he died in 2009, Berry was an eminent cultural historian, an historian of religion, and a Christian, specifically a Roman Catholic priest of the Passionist Order. The Great Work and other books he wrote late in life have become popular and influential, and Berry has sometimes been called “the leading spokesperson for the Earth.”

Berry believed that humanity in our time faces a moment of grace regarding the future of life on this planet.

He does not minimize the environmental disaster that confronts us on every side. “For the first time,” he tells us in The Great Work, “the planet is disturbed by humans in its geological structure and its biological functioning in a manner like the great cosmic forces that alter geological and biological structures of the planet…. So severe and irreversible is this deterioration that we might well believe those who tell us that we have only a brief period in which to reverse the deterioration that is settling over the Earth. Only recently has the deep pathos of the Earth situation begun to sink into our consciousness.”

While well-versed in the details of environmental disaster, Thomas Berry dares to point us ahead to a promising future when he announces that a “comprehensive change of consciousness is coming over the human community, especially in the industrial nations of the world. For the first time since the industrial age began we have a profound critique of its devastation, a certain withdrawal in dismay at what is happening, along with an enticing view of the possibilities before us.”

He then characterizes this moment of grace by contrasting one dream with another, claiming that the “distorted dream of an industrial technological paradise is being replaced by a more viable dream of a mutually enhancing human presence within an ever-renewing organic-based Earth community.”

Thomas Berry emphasizes that the old dream remains powerful. In The Christian Future and the Fate of the Earth, he assesses it, declaring, “there is no dream or entrancement in the history of Earth that has wrought the destruction that is taking place in the entrancement with industrial civilization. Such entrancement must be considered as a profound cultural pathology. It can be dealt with only by a correspondingly deep cultural therapy.”

In the Acts passage we heard this morning, Peter quotes the prophet Joel about how in the latter days, God will pour out his Spirit on all flesh, and the result will be people prophesying and experiencing visions and dreams. Joel’s prophecy came true in that moment of grace we call the first Christian Pentecost.

Our time is also the latter days and may well be a moment of grace, an occasion of sacred discontinuity when the Lord of life decides to do something new and do that something new through us.

Already the Holy Spirit has launched a great work: washing away the sin of our assault on the environment, inviting the Earth and humanity to a new reconciliation and peace.

For those with eyes to see, the Spirit is even now engaged in this unprecedented enterprise: inspiring scientists and environmentalists, activists and educators and legislators, business executives and farmers and urban planners, people of diverse religions and spiritualities, to take part together in a new and great work. Yes, the Holy Spirit is humble, moving among people everywhere, whether acknowledged or unacknowledged.

The newer generations of humanity include many who are responding to the Spirit’s lead with especially generous hearts. They are putting into effect the vision God has given them.

Today’s psalm declares that God sends forth his Spirit and thus renews the face of the earth.

This is a glorious truth! But will we all become partners in the divine renewal of this planet?

Will we recognize and welcome this current moment of grace, this divine discontinuity where the Lord is leading us to peace as we struggle with something unprecedented?

Will we act upon this opportunity, and will we do so in time?

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker lives in Greenbelt, Maryland with his wife Helena Mirtova and serves as priest associate at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Beltsville, Md. He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications). Many of his sermons appear on sermonwriter.com. He can be reached via Email at charleshoffacker8@gmail.com.

Download the sermon for the Day of Pentecost (B).

Is There an App for Abiding, Easter 5 (B) – April 29, 2018


[RCL]: Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:24-30; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

Unfortunately, some of us feel that if we don’t check our smartphones every few minutes, we will miss out on something crucial, maybe the event of the year or the e-mail that will change the course of our lives. And it is even more embarrassing when we don’t seem to be aware that we are doing it, and someone brings it to our attention – often the person we should have been listening to!

A common lament, whether working in an office or as a full-time parent, is that there simply are not enough hours in the day. Schedules are too full, responsibilities too numerous and commitments too demanding. Given this, a common reason as to why we don’t eat better or exercise more or even pray more regularly is simply, “Who has the time?”

We can easily mishear the invitation in today’s gospel passage as yet another demand on our time. We can make the mistake of assuming that what often works well in one aspect of our lives, works equally well in our spiritual lives: in this case, the motto of every controlling and rushed person – which is all of us at one time or another – “If I don’t do it, it won’t get done.” But listen to Jesus today, “I AM the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower.” And Jesus goes on to tell us very clearly who is doing the work, and it is not you or me, my friends. “He removes every branch in me that does not bear fruit.”

This image of the people of God as “God’s vineyard” is a very old one, going back to the Jewish psalms, as well as other places in the Old Testament. Listen to part of Psalm 80: “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.” Again, notice that it is God who is doing all the planting here, not us. And think of all the other I AM statements found in the Gospel of John: “I AM the light of the world,” “I AM the gate,” “I AM the resurrection and the life.”

All these I AM statements in the Gospel of John point to the reality of God’s availability. It is ironic that Christianity has the reputation of being an other-worldly religion, focused almost exclusively on how to get into heaven. Maybe you have seen the bumpers stickers declaring, “Jesus is coming, look busy!” or “Friends don’t let friends miss out on heaven!” It may sound surprising, but this kind of theology of a “distant god” is what most of us are comfortable with, because it ultimately pushes God to the sidelines and we can remain in control. We are very good at being busy and taking responsibility, and we rather prefer this to being on the receiving end of change. But as Jesus says in today’s reading, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”

In today’s gospel, Jesus addresses us twice with the phrase “I AM the vine.” There is a promise here. “I AM the vine, and you are the branches.” Jesus is asking each of us to simply be with him. This sounds deceptively easy. Listen to the words of the Collect for Purity, as if for the first time: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” It’s OK to relax a bit and stop worrying about hiding those parts of ourselves that we don’t want others, and surely not God, to see. We can abide with God, instead of busying ourselves to keep God at a distance.

The promise of Jesus, the Vine, the Gate, the Light, is abundant life here and now, not just in some future time. God is doing more in our lives than any of us are aware. God in Jesus is simply inviting each of us to take the time to notice. But the trick, of course, is to let God do what God needs to do and for us to get out of the way. Jesus is very clear on this point when he says: “I AM the vine, you are the branches.” That is what abiding in the power of the Word is all about, not placing impediments in God’s way by trying to do for ourselves what God wants to do for us: reshape our hearts, bodies and minds to receive the forgiveness being offered.

Hopefully, now, you can hear Jesus’ words as the beautiful invitation it truly is: “Abide in me as I abide in you.”

This sermon, written by the Rev. Stephen P. Hagerty, was originally published for Easter 5 (B) on May 6, 2012.

Download the sermon for Easter 5 (B).

The Good Shepherd, Easter 4 (B) – April 22, 2018

Easter Sermon Episcopal


[RCL]: Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Today’s gospel text uses an image that may be lost on many of us, an image that we may know from childhood stories — but not firsthand experience. Jesus, living in the first century, talking to people who know livestock and agriculture in their hearts and bones, tells his disciples, his friends, us, that he is the Good Shepherd.

We hear this story, or parts of it, year after year, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter. We hear it when Jesus has not only laid down his life for his friends, but has taken it back up, defeating death, sin, and the grave. His disciples hear it before Jesus has even gotten back to Jerusalem. The disciples are where they were through all of Lent — hearing Jesus predict his death, in disbelief at it, and somewhat perplexed. They don’t think he’s going to die. We know he’s died and risen again.

Our text today is the second half of Jesus’ describing himself as the Good Shepherd, a story split in two over the course of church years. Today, Jesus makes the distinction between himself, the Good Shepherd, and the hired hand. “The Good Shepherd,” Jesus says, “is willing to die. They’ll get down with the sheep even when the wolf comes. They’ll give up their own life to save the sheep.”

He contrasts this with the hired hand, someone whose work is seasonal but who isn’t invested in the sheep or the property. “The hired hand,” Jesus says, “says, ‘Nope! I’m outta here!’ when the wolf comes.” The hired hand’s work is probably temporary anyway, depending on the season and need. Why would they stick around when a wolf comes? Depending on the shepherd’s fairness and practices, there may not have been any guarantee that they would be paid. When a wolf comes with no human to guard against it, that leaves the sheep scattered — or worse, gobbled up.

Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” This second half of Jesus’ Good Shepherd narrative is remarkably tender, vulnerable, and human. Shepherds were dirty, hungry, and scrappy. They lived out mostly on their own with a vast responsibility. Their only company was sheep, and they had to learn to love them.

Jesus is telling his disciples then and now that this is how he cares for us. He’s not a leader who is around just long enough to get paid. He’s not there to just do the easy work. Jesus the Good Shepherd has come to offer salvation: salvation through love, self-giving, tenderness, and vulnerability.

The chapel at General Seminary in New York is the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. Each year, dozens of students move from all over the world, following God to lead God’s people. Many are not from New York City, and don’t know what kinds of wolves they may face there, from temptation and vice to greed and violence. At the center of their campus is a chapel dedicated to Jesus the Good Shepherd, who knows his own and whose own know him.

The centerpiece of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd is, yes, a sculpture of Jesus the Good Shepherd. This sculpture is not a traditional one, where Jesus has a sheep slung over his shoulders, carrying it back from a rescue. This Jesus looks out at the seminarians and knows them — as they hope to know him. In his left hand, he holds a shepherd’s crook, a crozier, herding sheep as the ultimate overseer of the Church. In his right? A lamb held close to his chest, the way many of us might hold a cat we love. He stands looking out over the chapel, a place of silence and solace amid the noise and excitement of New York, with another sheep at his side. This sheep is leaned against Jesus, relying on him for support, demonstrating affection with touch. Jesus knows his own, and his own know him.

Before the plot, his trial, his execution, or his resurrection, Jesus tells the disciples that he lays his life down for his sheep. He protects them from the wolves. He brings them life. He tells his disciples, too, that there are other sheep to which he must attend, others who follow him, but that aren’t a part of the fold they know, the fold of which they are part.

Before our passage today, Jesus has just told the disciples that he is the gate, the pathway for attaining salvation — and tells them even still they don’t know it all. He will attend to these other sheep and there will be one flock, one people who have been brought to salvation. Jesus the Good Shepherd doesn’t give his disciples directions right now on who is in or who is out. He doesn’t give a timeline for when this one flock will be achieved. What he says more than once, though, is that those who are his know him, and he knows them. He says that he loves them, and that he lays down his life for them.

Jesus is giving his disciples an Easter message before he’s even been crucified. “I lay down my life in order to take it up again… I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” Jesus the Good Shepherd doesn’t run from the wolves, he gets in the muck with the sheep and loves us. We started learning about that when God became human and let Godself be bound to our earthly, fleshy limitations.

He holds us close to his chest or lets us lean on him when we need to be held and touched, and he faces the greatest enemy we have: death. He does by his own will, not because he’s compelled to. He does it from his desire, not to satisfy a blood necessity. He does it on his own, not to appease the Creator’s wrath. “For this reason the Father loves me,” Jesus says, “because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.”

Jesus lays down his life and takes it up again. He beats death, hell, and the grave, all the wolves we’ll ever face, and the adversary — Satan — himself. Jesus lays down his life and takes it up again, alleluia! Jesus the Good Shepherd loves his own, loving them to the point of death — and loving them even through death, to raise them from death, to bring salvation.

Jesus the Good Shepherd isn’t a Precious Moments painting or collectible, however sweet that may feel or seem. Love — love enough to lay down one’s life and take it back up again — isn’t only sweet and it isn’t only a moment. It’s earthy and dirty. It’s dangerous and deadly. But this is Jesus the resurrected Christ, alleluia. The Good Shepherd who knows his own, whose own know him, who lays down his life for them — even when the hired hand won’t.

Jesus the Good Shepherd is tender, affectionate, and vulnerable. As he tends to us in Bread and Wine, getting back into the physical, touchable reality of humanity — like a shepherd in the wild fields — he joins us to his life, his life that he laid down and took back up. Jesus the Good Shepherd knows us as his own, and we know him. Amen. 

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews is the vicar of St. Joseph – St. John Episcopal Church in Lakewood, Wash. He began this cure in September 2017. Before moving to the Seattle area, he served as Working Group Head for Communications for the Diocese of California in San Francisco. When not priesting or lifting, Joseph grabs a whistle as a soccer referee. He and his husband Brandon live in Seattle with their cats Maggie and Stanton.

Download the sermon for Easter 4 (B).

Jesus Comes to Coffee Hour, Easter 3 (B) – April 15, 2018

Episcopal Easter 3 Sermon


[RCL]: Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

The language of scripture is, for the most part, a graceful and formal language.

There’s that one place in Paul’s epistles where he uses a word we don’t use in polite company. There is more than one instance of whining, of rudeness, even of insult. Of course, there are the stories of things we don’t associate with a godly people: incest, drunkenness, rape, murder, adultery, prostitution, and so on.

But for the most part, it’s a lovely story, a formal telling, of a people’s history and experience in a cleaned-up, sometimes methodical, sometimes poetic way.

That is also a cleaned-up way of saying that it’s sometimes not very interesting.

Different versions have attempted a variety of styles to deliver the message. The Jerusalem Bible is widely credited with the most beautiful language, at least in the Old Testament books. The New English Bible was a breakthrough of sorts in rendering a compromise, readable, accurate text. Good News for Modern Man has been popular because of both its ready accessibility as a paperback and its language, which for lots of people is more approachable and less intimidating than the traditional King James Version. For those who have trouble with sophisticated English language, it’s a whole lot easier to understand. It just isn’t accurate to the original texts in a variety of ways. The New International and a few others more popular among conservative Christians are more readable still, though these, too, suffer from inaccuracy.

Still, the most popular and for some, the only “real” Bible, the King James Version (KJV), is the least accurate of all. Generations of Christians are familiar with it because of its language and cadence in poetry, its use in Handel’s Messiah, and its basis for many of our Christmas hymns. The Revised Standard Version, and more recently the New Revised Standard, at least strives for an accurate transliteration from the original languages—but in the process, it renders a rather “wooden” text.

The result of all of this—the years of familiarity with texts we’re accustomed to hearing—is that we think we know what they’re saying. We tune out some readings after the first few words are read because we already know what it’s going to say.

C’mon, admit it. We all do it.

We grow up identifying passages by subjects: The Last Supper. Or by movie adaptation: The Charlton Heston Part. Or by a name given to it even if that’s not really what it’s about: Doubting Thomas.

It gives us a handle. But in so doing, it also lets us be lazy in looking at the story for new, even deeper, meaning.

It can be an interesting exercise to take a look at some of the familiar stories in the Bible and imagine new names. Consider, for example, the Parable of the Unjust Judge, that story of the woman who comes to the judge demanding justice, asking again and again and again before the judge gives in and gives her what she asks. How might we understand that parable differently if we called it How Can I Miss You If You Won’t Go Away?

Today, we read from the Gospel of Luke about Jesus joining the disciples for a meal after he had been crucified and laid in the tomb. Shall we call it Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

What we usually hear and what is usually preached out of this passage is that Jesus says, “Peace.” The disciples are their usual frightened, doubtful, selves. Jesus reassures them and offers proof that he is the Son of God. Then there is a long statement of faith which rehearses the history of expecting a Messiah.

It’s great drama, but it probably didn’t happen quite that way. In any event, Luke wasn’t there as a witness. Let’s consider a different focus in this lesson.

More than one person has observed that Jesus showed up wherever there was food. That’s promising!

So, consider the story again: the great drama of the cross is over. The disciples are talking. Jesus shows up and says, “Hey.” In today’s language, he might even ask, “What are you guys looking at?” Jesus then asks all of the disciples gathered together: “Have you got anything to eat?”

Do you see why it might be appropriate to rename this Jesus Comes to Coffee Hour?

“Do you have anything to eat?”

That has to be one of the great questions of the Bible, right up there with Cain’s question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and Jesus asking Peter, “Who do you say I am?”

“Have you got anything to eat?”

We could also call this passage Jesus Gets Right to the Point, because eating and food are so basic, so necessary, so very ordinary, and so very much a part of human life.

In Luke’s Gospel, the story is told in a way that emphasizes Jesus’ humanity—and being human, it makes sense that he would first inquire about food. Being dead for three days and rising again is hungry work! But wait: having risen from the dead, would he need to eat? Would he even be able to eat?

If he’s not asking for food because he’s hungry, then what else might be going on here?

This may be as simple as Luke wanting to emphasize that the Christ of God is human as well as divine. Asking for food and eating in front of the bewildered disciples is pretty human.

It may be that simple.

But there is another possibility. Luke had firmly established that Jesus was human. He didn’t need to interject this tidbit between Jesus reassuring the disciples that he wasn’t a ghost and a lengthy statement about God’s Messiah.

It’s unnecessary unless it has particular meaning.

Luke was Greek, writing for a Greek audience. The popular religions of the Greek world were the mystery cults, where gods and goddesses—for the most part, goddesses—were worshipped from a distance of fear and awe, or regard for the divinity and other-worldliness of a far-off deity.

Jesus brought a different understanding of God. He is Emmanuel, God with us. He was God as one of us, God in human flesh.

This passage in Luke may be akin to the story about Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. They were so wrapped up in Jesus as their Lord that they had trouble letting him be one of them. And in this passage in Luke, the disciples are so caught up in their misery, their fear, their doubt—that they forget their deeply-ingrained instincts of hospitality: 

When a stranger visits, when a guest comes among you, you don’t huddle in a corner, you invite them in.

The disciples forgot their manners. Jesus reminded them.

Jesus reminded them in the simplest way that he was human, one of them, and he would only enter into their community if invited.

Jesus has done his part. We have to do ours.

Two thousand years later, we still prefer the divinity of Christ to the humanity of Jesus.

In the glory and grandeur of our Easter celebrations, we forget the reminder of Christmas: that Jesus was God in human flesh.

That is the mystery, the wonder, the miracle of the one we call Jesus the Christ.

Certainly, Luke’s Jesus reminds us that he’s human, but there is more to it than that; to enter into our hearts, our lives, our community, he wants to be—indeed needs to be—invited.

Jesus was born into a tradition of absolute, compulsory hospitality. It’s what he lived. It’s what he taught. And it is what we are called to and to be.

Offering hospitality to Jesus on a personal level is the stuff of altar calls in the best of Baptist tradition: “Invite Jesus into your heart today! C’mon down!”

It is also the foundation of community, whether household or congregation. Coffee hour, our family dinners, any meal where people gather, gives us a chance to practice what we preach.

The next time you offer someone a cup of coffee, a bottle of water, a glass of milk, offer them the knowledge and love of Jesus, as well.

The Rev. Machrina Blasdell teaches religious studies courses online for Park University, with her greatest interest following the development and idiosyncrasies of religion in today’s world.  She enjoys time with her family, a number of cats and many roses, and delights in working with dark chocolate.

Download the sermon for Easter 3 (B).

A Week Late to the Resurrection: Wounded, Stubborn, Alive, Easter 2 (B) – April 8, 2018

Easter 2 Episcopal Sermon


[RCL]: Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

Today, the first Sunday after Easter, is traditionally known as Low Sunday. Low Sunday—that’s a tremendously unflattering nickname for us as the Church. Last week we presented the triumph of the church year. We announced to the world the Good News of Jesus Christ: Jesus died and rose again to new life for love of us. And the result is that the next Sunday is the lowest attendance of the whole church year, all the way across Christendom. Ouch. Was it something we said?

It may well have been. It’s a shocking gospel, frankly quite hard to believe. It was hard to believe even for people who knew Jesus in person while he was alive and witnessed his many miracles. Today we tell the story of Doubting Thomas, the apostle who had to see to believe.

Thomas, along with Peter, is the most human of the disciples, and this story is rich with interesting questions. The first thing that we notice is that Thomas misses out on Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples. It’s Sunday night, and they have been locked in the Upper Room, afraid for their lives since Friday night.

But not Thomas. Where is he? Was he terrified and trying to hide by himself, not wanting to be found by the Romans right in the middle of a pack of ringleaders of Jesus’ rebellion? Was he instead full of stoic courage, the only one brave enough to venture out and bring back food to his friends?

Whatever it was, he was definitely not there when Jesus appeared in the locked Upper Room. He missed the Resurrection. Many of us can identify with that sort of frustrated futility. We wonder if we’re missing the Resurrection in a lot of areas in our lives. God is raising things to new life and our attention is elsewhere, checked out, missing in action, like Thomas.

Thomas does eventually show up with the rest of the disciples, and they tell him, “We have seen the Lord.” And what is he supposed to think? If he was the only one who had been brave enough to leave, he has watched his brothers and friends driven nearly mad with fear and grief over the last three days. He probably feels great compassion and love for them. They so desperately want their dead friend and leader not to have been condemned to death and executed, that they have dreamed up this vision they experienced.

And who knows, Thomas wouldn’t put it past Jesus to come to them as a ghost. Lord knows he did stranger things than that when he was alive. But he is no longer alive. He is dead, and Thomas knows that denying that won’t help anyone. It’s never brought back any of the rest of the family and friends he’s lost over the years, and it won’t bring back Jesus.

Thomas remains in this state, unable to trust the word of his friends, for an entire week. What was that week like for him? The rest of the disciples were floating on air knowing that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But where was Jesus for that week? And why did he leave the disciples alone? It’s like Low Sunday. Last Sunday we saw him raised from the dead. Now we’re back and starting to wonder, did we really see what we thought we saw? At least we have witnessed him alive. Thomas has had only his own stubbornness to keep him going.

Stubbornness and maybe a tiny spark of hope. Because what made Thomas stick around for an entire week with what he believed to be friends driven to delusions by grief? If Jesus was truly dead, there was nothing left for him anymore with this group of people. By all rights, he should have gone home to his fields or his fishing boat. Remaining with the disciples was a dead end—the longer they stayed together, the greater the danger of being arrested by the Romans. And spending time with them would only serve to bring home every minute of every day that their friend Jesus was dead.

But Thomas did stay. Is it possible that a small part of him wondered if this story his friends were telling him might possibly be true? He reveals himself a bit in his answer to their claim that they have seen the Lord. He says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

He doesn’t say, “You people are crazy, I’m leaving.” He sets up a hypothetical condition under which he will believe in the Resurrection. He’s laying out the challenge to Jesus. He’s saying, “Come and show me, Jesus, come and prove it to me. Just come to me, Jesus, on any terms.”

Thomas wants to be tough and uncaring and skeptical, but he loved Jesus. He is grieving as deeply as the others, and although they are now joyful since seeing him alive again, Thomas has had no such comfort. He’s throwing out this challenge to provoke Jesus into coming to them again, because Thomas just wants to see his friend. Ghost or vision or real person, it doesn’t matter.

And Jesus does not disappoint him. Thomas has had a grim week, the lone skeptic among the believers. But as soon as Jesus arrives, as soon as he bids them peace, he calls Thomas to him and says, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

How fascinating and revealing that even in his resurrected body, Jesus’ wounds remain. And how very appropriate to Thomas’ story, and our own story. Resurrection is possible for us in so many areas of our own lives. But our wounds remain, the scars that, painful as they were in the making, have made us indelibly who we are.

Jesus is resurrected to new life, but he’s still himself. And he helps Thomas recognize him through his wounds. That is a potent lesson for us. When we look at ourselves and at each other, part of the proof of our true resurrection is that the past is brought forward to coexist with the present. Our wounds are not erased as though they had never existed. They are still present but no longer cause us pain. They are proof to one another that we are new and whole, but it was our woundedness that got us to this day of resurrection in the first place.

There was one other thing that happened on Low Sunday in the early Church. Those who were baptized on Easter received a new white robe and wore it all week. On Low Sunday, they took it off and went back to their regular clothes. There’s something very poignant about that and our story of Thomas. Today is the day when the loud and public festivities are over, and we return to our normal, everyday lives. But today is also the Day of the Resurrection for Thomas. It is the day when the new white robe falls away and Thomas sees the wounds on Jesus’ body, the same physical person that he knew and loved and now recognizes as both wounded and whole, alive and breathing.

Can we recognize that same type of resurrection in ourselves? In each other? When the fancy Easter dresses and suits are put away for another year, what is left? Our same wounded selves that we fear to show to one another. But we need proof of the Resurrection, and we will only find it in each other. If we are brave enough to show each other our wounded places, we will find that they don’t hurt quite so much. We will find that we are indeed both wounded and healed.

Thomas was a week late to the Resurrection, but he made it all the same. Where do you find yourself today? There is still time for you to come back to life. Reach out to touch the wounded, living Jesus and feel him touch your wounded, living soul.

The Rev. Whitney Rice is an Episcopal priest, recently named an Evangelism Catalyst for the Diocese of Indianapolis, who currently serves at St. Francis In-The-Fields Episcopal Church in Zionsville, Indiana.  She is a graduate of Yale Divinity School, where she won the Yale University Charles S. Mersick Prize for Public Address and Preaching and the Yale University E. William Muehl Award for Excellence in Preaching. She has contributed to Lectionary Homiletics, the Young Clergy Women’s Project journal Fidelia’s Sisters, and other publications. She is a researcher and community ministry grant consultant for the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, and a founding partner in the newly-forming women’s spirituality collective The Hive (www.thehiveapiary.com).  Find more of her work at her website, Roof Crashers & Hem Grabbers (www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com).

Download the sermon for Easter 2 (B).

Look Again, Easter (B) – April 1, 2018

Episcopal Easter Sermon


[RCL] Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 or Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18 or Mark 16:1-8

In the darkness on the third day after their rabbi’s execution, three women check one last time to make sure they have everything they need. Followers of Jesus in his lifetime, they want to be faithful to their teacher in death. Jesus had been robbed of a proper Jewish burial as his death came right on the verge of the Sabbath. The women intend to make this one thing right in a universe turned hopelessly away from God. The Twelve are hiding in a locked room with other disciples for fear they will be found out as followers of Jesus. Meanwhile, the women prepare to be at the tomb as dawn breaks.

In purely human terms, the story of the would-be Messiah from Nazareth in Galilee has come to a brutal end. For the Roman colonial government, Jesus is a minor statistic, yet another Jewish revolutionary crucified in Rome’s ongoing efforts to preserve the peace in Palestine. The ringleader, Jesus, has been publically and cruelly killed. His disciples have vanished for fear of a similar fate. For the keepers of the status quo, this has been a successful Passover festival. Jesus’ movement is buried with its leader.

The women arrive at the tomb and looming large is an insurmountable obstacle between them and their task. The women know they don’t have the strength to budge the great stone blocking the entrance to the tomb. As they walk to the garden, they wonder, “Who will roll the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?”

Our Gospel reading for this morning tells us that the women then looked up. The original Greek text [anablepo] for this can also mean the women looked again. The women come upon the tomb and as they expected, the stone is rolled in front of the entrance. They don’t stand a chance of getting near Jesus on their own. Then they look again, or perhaps do a double take, and realize that the stone has been rolled away.

Mark has already prepared us for this need to do a double take. It works something like bi-focal vision in Mark’s Gospel. Twice in the Gospel, Jesus has healed blind men and allowed them to see again. The word used to describe the two blind men seeing again is the same one used here, to look again [anablepo]. Already in those stories of healing the blind, there was a sense in which spiritual healing allowed the men to see again with physical sight.

In Mark’s Gospel, faith gives us the ability to see the world as God sees it. We gain bifocal vision. When we look with the eyes of the world, we see the obstacles and problems. The stone blocks our path and it is too large for us to even budge. We look with the eyes of faith and a different picture comes into focus. God has already removed the obstacles that we could not remove by our own power.

This is seen most clearly in the Easter story. The three women are blocked by an obstacle, which they stood no chance of removing on their own. They ask one another, “Who will roll away the stone?” Yet, when they look again through the eyes of faith, they see that the stone has already been rolled away. The Greek here is in the perfect tense. The stone that blocks their way is already long gone when they do the Easter double take and see the world as God sees it.

What are the stones that need to be rolled away in your life? Is the obstacle one of relationships that can’t be made right? Or is your path blocked by an addiction to alcohol, drugs, or some other destructive cycle from which you don’t have the power to break free? All of us can find our way blocked by obstacles too big to budge. The story of Easter tells us that God offers the ultimate leverage to remove the obstacles in your way.

If you rely on your own might, your own abilities, your own wisdom, the stone in your way will be more than you can face. Period. But, when you have the courage to admit you don’t have the power to remove the obstacle, you can turn the problem over to God. Then with the eyes of faith, you may come in time to see that the insurmountable obstacle has been rolled away.

Yet, that is not the end of the Gospel reading. The Bible is if nothing else, the most realistic of books, and today’s reading is no exception. The women enter the tomb to find an angel, a divine messenger, with the news that Jesus has been raised from the dead and has gone ahead of his disciples to Galilee. It would be wonderful to report that the women were immediately filled with joy.

Instead, we are told that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome fled from the tomb seized by terror and stricken with awe. Rather than spreading the joy of resurrection, we are told, “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

It is there that the reading ends. Mark’s Gospel offers the challenge of a circular story. The Gospel begins with Jesus in Galilee challenging people to come and follow him; at the close of the story, Jesus has once more gone ahead into Galilee holding out the offer of discipleship to any who will come and follow him.

What about you? Would you have the courage to leave the empty tomb and go back to Galilee to take up the task of being Jesus’ disciple now that you know the way of discipleship led to the cross and the grave? Even with the triumph of Easter, we can fearfully retreat now that we know the cost of discipleship.

The Gospel offers a dual challenge this Easter. The first is to look at the very real obstacles in your life with the eyes of faith. The things that you are powerless to change are not obstacles to God. Through grace, you can see that God has already removed the problems plaguing you, if you just have the faith to push ahead.

But the second prong of the challenge of the Gospel comes when you push ahead. Just as the women found the stone rolled away only to be struck dumb with terror and awe at the news of Jesus’ resurrection, we too can lose our focus and stop seeing the world as God sees it. The second challenge then is the harder one. Once you have seen that God can remove the obstacles blocking your way, then you must follow where Jesus leads.

The three women that morning did break free from fear. We know that they were all active in the earliest Christian church. They found the courage to follow Jesus even after they had learned the cost they might have to one day pay for their faith in him.

Jesus will remove the obstacles from your path if you will stop trying to remove them by your own might. Then he will give you the grace to continue the journey. The path is open to each of us. Jesus is still out there beckoning, “Follow me” to those who listen. We only need respond by faith and say yes to the invitation.

For Alleluia! Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Amen. 

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He is also a member of the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church and serves on the Advisory Group on Church Planting. Frank blogs on mostly church development related topics at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

Download the sermon for Easter (B).

Note: To see Easter sermons for RCL Year B based on alternative lectionary readings, please click here.

Sacrifice, Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday (B) – March 25, 2018

Episcopal Sermon Palm Sunday


[RCL]: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47

How did this happen? How did Jesus’ life of peace end in such a violent death? We stand at the edge of this moment, looking on in horror and confusion — just as Jesus’ followers did on the day he was crucified. The violence we have seen is numbing: it robs us of the ability to think clearly. Like Peter in Pilate’s courtyard, we are afraid. And fear will always lead us astray. So it’s a difficult moment to try and puzzle out the meaning of what happened here.

The familiar formula — that Jesus died for our sins — raises more questions than it answers. First, exactly how is Jesus’ death connected with our forgiveness? Why does this terrible thing lead to that wonderful thing? And who is it that wants this sacrifice anyway?

Some are content to say that God does. But surely God cannot need such a sacrifice. Consider what the prophets have to say about the offerings and sacrifices made in the temple. In Isaiah, God says, “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? I have had enough of burnt offerings… I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.” And in Hosea: “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” And on Ash Wednesday, we began Lent by reciting this line from Psalm 51: “The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

Throughout his ministry, Jesus questioned the authority the temple claimed as the sole arbiter of God’s grace. Every time he broke one of the rules by healing on the Sabbath or eating with someone considered unclean, he was saying that God’s love embraces everyone. No one controls access to God’s grace. God’s love is bigger than you think it is.

But if God did not desire Jesus’ death in this way, then who did? Why did this happen?

To answer that question, we have to fill in some of the story that’s missing from the Palm Sunday liturgy. We began this morning by waving our palm branches in the air, celebrating Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem. Jesus and his disciples have come from the countryside, where his ministry began, to celebrate Passover in the ancient city. Jesus knew the crowds would be there — he wanted to bring his message to as many people as possible, and to confront the religious authorities in the temple head on.

Mark’s timeline for the whole week of Passover is surprisingly precise. Because of this, we can work out that Jesus would have entered Jerusalem on the Sunday before Passover. The Palm Sunday liturgy then skips over several days of that Passover week, and several chapters of Mark’s Gospel, and the next thing we know, it is Thursday evening. Jesus’ disciples are preparing the Passover meal, as Mark says, “on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed.” But it’s what happens between Sunday and Thursday that helps explain why the authorities — both Jewish and Roman — were so keen to have Jesus killed.

Let’s fill in some of the missing pieces. First of all, Jesus’ so-called triumphal entry: although the crowds shouted Hosanna to greet him, it seems perfectly obvious that Jesus’ procession was anything but triumphant. He chose to ride into town on a young colt, the foal of a donkey. If this is hard for you to picture, imagine a large and friendly dog, about three feet tall at the shoulder. Jesus has no armor but the cloaks of peasants, and he is lauded with palm branches and leaves instead of golden eagles on spears carried in procession by Roman soldiers.

You see, it was Rome that really loved a procession. Rome excelled at using a military parade as a demonstration of its dominance, to keep its subjugated peasants in awe. And Jesus knew that Pilate, the Roman Governor, made a point of riding from his capital city on the Mediterranean coast every Passover, to make sure these crowds of peasants in Jerusalem stayed in line. Picture Pilate on a magnificent war horse and surrounded by a legion of Roman soldiers in red and gold armor, marching in lockstep as they enter the city gates.

Jesus’ little street parade, in contrast, with the donkey and the palm fronds, is an anti-imperial protest. He’s mocking the empty pomp of the empire, questioning the brutality with which Rome ruled the peasant class and kept Judea impoverished.

After taking on the empire, Jesus goes straight to the temple. The day after that peace demonstration, Jesus takes over the temple courtyard, the heart of the action during Passover week, and stages a teach-in. Remember Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers? Well, that’s what he did on the Monday before Passover. He tells thinly veiled parables about the religious leaders which cast them in a very bad light. This goes on for several days. By the time Wednesday has come around, Jesus denounces them openly: “Beware of the scribes,” he says, “who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces… They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearances say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

They devour widows’ houses: that is Jesus’ accusation against the religious authorities. They think they control access to God’s grace by controlling the temple. The only way to get a little of that grace was to pay up: all those money changers were there to facilitate your purchase of the correct sacrificial animal, which, for the right price, the priests would offer to God on your behalf. The price was the same whether you were a poor widow or a rich merchant.

From the start of his ministry, Jesus’ central message has been, “The Kingdom of God is at hand!” And that is a dangerous message, for it challenges both the secular and the religious authorities. If God is King over all, then Caesar is not. And in Jesus’ vision of God’s Kingdom, God’s love is not mediated by priests at the temple but is free and available to all. Is it any wonder that both the Jewish and the Roman leaders wanted Jesus dead?

Nailing him to a cross was supposed to be the final solution. Get rid of the rabble-rouser, silence him, and his message would die with him. Crucifixion was the world’s way of saying no to everything Jesus stood for.

The world says no to Jesus — but God says yes. This is the good news that Peter preaches on the day of Pentecost: “God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” It’s the first attempt at explaining what happened on Good Friday. The world rejects Jesus’ message and tries to silence him in death — but God vindicates Jesus and raises him to life. The horror and violence we inflict on an innocent man shows the depth of human evil and the ultimate defeat of human power, by revealing the moral bankruptcy of human beings left to our own devices. But God’s love as revealed in Jesus is life itself: Love that can never be silenced, never be killed. Love that will restore our lost humanity.

Out of this terrible violence, God has made an opening between heaven and earth. At the very end of the Passion narrative, at the moment of Jesus’ death, Mark tells us that “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” This is the veil in the temple that separated the people from the power and love of God — the veil that contained God’s presence, and behind which only the high priest was allowed to go.

This veil was torn asunder, and God’s love is no longer contained in a temple. Jesus’ redeeming work was to confront those who tried to keep God locked up. Jesus’ life and teaching have shown us a new way. The scandal of the cross is that now, God’s love can go anywhere and reach anyone. Even those who are different from us. Even those who don’t deserve it. Even those who don’t believe. God’s love now permeates the whole universe and continually pulls us from death into life, with each breath we take, from the beginning of time until the end.

Amen.

The Rev. Jason Cox has served as associate rector at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., since 2011. Prior to working at St. Columba’s, he directed the Episcopal Urban Intern Program (part of Episcopal Service Corps), a year-long service and discernment program for young adults, in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Before ordination, he served as an intern in the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, working with homeless clients in a transitional housing facility on L.A.’s skid row.

Download the sermon for Palm Sunday (B).

Download our compilation of sermons for Holy Week

Or view individual sermons for Holy Week

Monday in Holy Week

Tuesday in Holy Week

Wednesday in Holy Week

Maundy Thursday

Good Friday

Great Vigil of Easter

This Voice Has Come for Your Sake, Not for Mine, Lent 5 – March 18, 2018

Episcopal Sermon Lent

[RCL]: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

Some foreigners, outsiders, show up for the festival. They say, “We wish to see Jesus.” Philip runs to Andrew and presumably says something along the lines of, “Hey, there are all these foreigners who want to see Jesus! What should we do?”

Andrew obviously has no answers. Who wants foreigners around at a time like this?! So, they run off to Jesus to tell him the foreigners are at the gates looking for him. Jesus says, in effect, if you want to see me, really, really see me, then stick around. You’ll have to deal with my death at the hands of Rome to really, really see me. Are they ready for that? Are you ready for that? To which we might add, are we ready for that?

Then obviously there was some noise. Some thought it was thunder, so it must have been loud. Some thought it looked as if Jesus was talking to someone, but there was no one there. Must be angels, some surmise. It was that voice from heaven. The same voice he heard at his baptism that said, “You are my beloved. I am well pleased with you.” The same voice from the cloud on the mountaintop with Peter, James, John, and Jesus that said, “This is my beloved, listen to him.” Are we listening yet?

Now when Jesus says, “Father, glorify thy name,” the voice returns and says, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” Or was it thunder? Is he talking to angels? Has he simply lost it and started talking to himself? Should we even think of letting the foreigners see him like this?

While everyone is trying to figure out what is happening, Jesus announces, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine.” Which I would take to mean: for our sake, not his.

This voice that keeps coming around is for us, not for Jesus, which makes perfect sense. He knows the voice. The voice knows him. He has always heard the voice. He comes to get us to listen to the voice.

Surely, we must wonder why we do not hear the voice like Jesus does more often? Or at all! Would it surprise us to learn that to this very day, 90% of the peoples of the world regularly hear such voices? That modern Westerners are the minority, the anomaly, as those people who do not regularly access this kind of communication with God and spirits? The question is quite naturally, why not us? And most people say we are too busy to be listening, or think we are too sophisticated to hear voices, or think you have to be crazy or mentally ill to hear such voices. Someone has suggested that maybe it is because we are too grown up. Someone else has pointed out that most other cultures do not make such a big thing out of growing up. And isn’t it Jesus, after all, who says we are to come to the kingdom like children?

And couldn’t it be that we don’t want to hear anything about having to watch him die, watch him be executed, the victim of state-sanctioned capital punishment? Dress it up as being like a grain of wheat, call it what you may, but that is what it is: state-sanctioned public execution. In all the debate on capital punishment, how often are we asked to reflect upon what it might mean that the One who calls us into a relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the victim of state-sanctioned capital punishment?

All we know is that he says, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.”

This voice that says, “You are my beloved. I am well pleased with you. I have glorified my name and I will glorify it again.” We are left feeling that for God’s name to be glorified, we need to be listening to God’s voice and learn how to become part of the glorifying process.

Holy Week and all it portends may be dark and scary. But it is not nearly as frightening as the prospect that for others to see Jesus, we might need to be part of the glorifying process. In Sunday School, we rarely hear anything about this voice and its being for us. Seminaries typically do not offer a lot of training on how to listen for this voice Jesus says is for us.

The creeds do not appear to discuss it. The catechism does not seem to discuss it. Yet, there it is. “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.” Seems as if we’d best get listening to hear what this voice says; nothing less than the future of the whole world is at stake, he goes on to say.

The problem is that those of us who, like the foreigners, want to see Jesus are the very people to whom others come expecting to see Jesus. In us. In what we say and what we do. In his book By Grace Transformed, the late Gordon Cosby of the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., discusses just how it is that others “hear the voice” and come to see Jesus. Gordon puts it this way:

“Every single one of us is significant to somebody else. The people to whom we are significant will catch this thing from us if they know that we are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, absolutely devoted and loyal to the Lord Jesus Christ. But the trouble is that in those moments we think of as off moments, others decide whether or not we are truly committed. The times a person says, ‘I must talk to you,’ or when we are weeding the garden. Or, working in an office. Grading a road. Nailing on a molding or painting a room. Cooking a meal. Speaking to a child. These are the times and places where the other person decides who we really are. There can be no ‘off moments’ for Christians if our faith and its vitality are to be contagious.”

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday. The beginning of Holy Week, the most important week in the Christian year. We must all make time to come and serve him, follow him, be with him wherever he may be. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Great Vigil of Easter are all times we need to come and be with him. “Follow me,” he says.

And we need to listen for the Voice. The Voice that is for our sake, not for his. The Voice speaks to us so that we might know how beloved we are. So that we might know how well pleased God is with us. Once we hear this voice and believe it, others will see Jesus, in all that we say and all that we do. Amen.

Written by the Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek. Ordained in the Diocese of Chicago in 1983, I served as a parish priest in the dioceses of Chicago, Connecticut and Maryland. After nearly 18 years as rector of St. Peter’s in Ellicott City, MD, I spent six years as Chaplain and teacher at St. Timothy’s School for Girls, an Episcopal and international boarding and day-school in Stevenson, MD. In the mid-1980’s I was trained to work as a Stewardship Consultant through the Office of Stewardship at the Episcopal Church Center. I also helped to lead retreats for the Ministry of Money, a ministry of the Church of the Saviour, Washington, DC. Recently retired from full-time parish ministry, I do Interim and Supply work throughout the Diocese of Maryland. I also continue a lifetime as a drummer in various rock and jazz bands, currently playing with On The Bus, a Grateful Dead tribute band centered in the greater DC Metro region. I also use guitar and write music to supplement worship and the preaching event. Some of these songs can be seen on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/user/SoundsDivine1. My sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com, and I have been writing for Sermons that Work for as long as I can remember! Feel free to contact me at kkub@aol.com.

Download the sermon for Lent 5 (B).

Snakes, Lent 4 (B) – March 11, 2018

Episcopal Lent Sermon

[RCL]: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107: 1-2, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

If you are uncomfortable around snakes, this might not be your Sunday! But, if you can set that discomfort aside, you will be treated to an insight about how the ancient Hebrew Bible reading from Numbers connects with the Gospel reading from John.

If you were running from something, brutal slave labor, for example, you could hardly write a tougher scenario of a flight to freedom than the Exodus. The people of the Hebrews were fleeing through the desert, and their wilderness wanderings were plagued by lack of food and water. And now snakes. Why? Because they complained against the God who was delivering them.

So, when was the last time you found yourself in traffic complaining about its slow pace, while your air conditioner or heater hummed, and you listened to satellite radio in stereo? Here you are in your own little island, but you are upset because you can’t get to work or home any faster. And while you might not be tripping over snakes, you at least know you’re going to get there eventually. The Hebrews didn’t even know where “there” was.

Being miserable is something we try to avoid, but how we handle it really hasn’t changed much. The power goes off and we call the electric utility and complain. The water is turned off for a few hours because of a water main leak, and we whine at the water company. The waiter tells us they have just run out of the dish we had so looked forward to, so we fuss and grumble as we order another choice from a varied menu.

Okay, so maybe this is a little over the top about complaining, but really – what do we have to complain about? Besides, it’s Lent! Aren’t we supposed to feel a little miserable?

Like Moses with the Hebrews, somebody prays for us. Somebody offers up our fears of snakes that bite us and frighten us. Somebody breaks the bread and blesses the cup and offers us real spiritual food. The bread is broken, the cup is offered, and we see the sign like the people saw the bronze serpent in the wilderness and lived. We receive the bread and the cup, and our impatience and complaining retreat, even if only for a while.

“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,” proclaims the Psalmist. And if God is good, what he offers us is never a snake that bites us, but the bread of life. “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.”

Lent is all about who truly delivers us from the hardships we suffer, the complaints we offer, and the peril of the snakes in this world.

Paul writes to the Ephesians, carefully setting up the situation: we are all dead through our sinning because we think the things of this world will save us, keep us comfortable, and drive the snakes away. He describes God as rich in mercy and able in our dead state to make us alive in Christ Jesus, saved and raised up with him. And most of all, we can’t cause it by our good works. Rather, God’s free gift of Christ on the cross—recalling the serpent lifted up by Moses—brings us salvation. The snakes can’t win. Thanks be to God.

So, we come to the Gospel reading from John, and the one verse every Christian knows by heart: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” This passage is so well known that it is often coded on billboards and in ads as John 3:16 with no text provided.

And that may be the problem. This text taken by itself is almost a romantic rendering of the Gospel, as if somehow God came into the world and erased evil in all its forms from our lives. That leaves us with a lot of questions. Recently the parents of a young child who died of influenza were agonizing over why their Christian belief didn’t save their child. Good, well-intentioned, and brave people are killed every day: some by accident, some by violence and mayhem. Simply quoting John 3:16 to their families and friends will not provide a lot of comfort.

The story of the Gospel is about our encounter with it, and how even after hearing it, we may choose evil rather than good. Jesus’ life and ministry are a judgment because despite his being in the world, people still love darkness rather than light, and our deeds are often evil, as John continues to proclaim.

So, Lent is not just a time for us to get closer to Jesus and hope for the best. Lent is a time to embrace the challenge of the Gospel, to swim upstream against all of the world’s downstream current of things that pleasure us and delight us, but never satisfy.

Deep Lent, as some call this time, is when we struggle with the darkness, and may not always find answers to why it is so pervasive. We cannot answer why evil seems so prevalent because we can’t readily see it in our own choices. So, asking to be part of the light will reveal what is hidden in our darkness, and most of us would prefer not to see. That is why self-examination and confession are rare and avoided by most of us. But we have strayed like lost sheep, we have followed too much the desires of our own hearts, to the point where, left on our own, we are truly lost.

So, make today a turning point, an embracing of John 3:16 for your future. If you say this passage every day this week and ask God how to embrace it, you will find a way. You will find it as you receive the bread and the cup. You will find it as you reach out to another human being who is also lost and lonely. You will find a way to move more into the light. You will have different questions to ask, ones for which there are answers.

The only reason Jesus could go to the cross was because he dared to walk into the darkness. We have to do the same if we are going to follow him the rest of the Lenten journey. That means leaving a lot of things behind, including the world’s wisdom for how to live in the darkness by making everything pleasant for ourselves.

Somehow, we have to connect with these readings, with the Hebrews who wandered in the desert. Somehow, we have to embrace St. Paul who writes in Ephesians about our being dead because we follow the course of the world. And somehow, we have to take what is offered this Sunday, the word and sacrament, and let it begin to work in us so that, as John so wonderfully writes: “it may be clearly seen that [our] deeds have been done in God.”

As the collect for this 4th Sunday of Lent says, “Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us and we in him.”

Pray those words, and then make room for God to lift them up in your life. Amen.

The Rev. Ben E. Helmer is a retired Episcopal priest living in the Diocese of Arkansas.

Download the sermon for Lent 4 (B).