Month: March 2017

Jesus Wept

A sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent, April 2, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

The story of Jesus raising Lazarus, as we heard in our Gospel lesson today, is rich, long and complex. But it also contains the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” Or as our translation struggles to render the Greek verb tense more accurately into English: “Jesus began to weep.”  This story is filled with grief, and Jesus himself grieves. In all the other healings in the New Testament, we see Jesus encouraging faith and hope; we don’t see him being affected by doubt or fear or loss.

The previous paragraph in this story tells how Martha responds to Jesus. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” And she responds: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” So we have the Son of God, coming into the world and participating in Martha’s and Mary’s grief: Jesus wept.  Jesus experienced his own human pain, in Jesus, God honors our own pain, our own loss, our own grief.

Like so many who grieve, Mary looked back at the event, and said: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Is that true? It certainly expresses the intensity of Mary’s loss. And especially at intense times, people like to out-theologize God, to change the outcomes of creation and time for what they believe will be to their own benefit. Jesus had not been there and Lazarus had died. He felt the intensity of Mary’s loss, and, in his compassion, Jesus wept.

It is easy for us to presume what God or Jesus—or our own mother or father—would have, could have, or should have done—and then things would have been easier, the world would have been different, Lazarus would have died at a different time, and Mary and Martha would have grieved without Jesus. But Jesus did not explain anything to Mary.  He asked, “Where have you laid him?” He loved Mary. He loved Lazarus. And he wept. And he called Lazarus out of the grave: “Unbind him, let him go.”  And the Gospel says, “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.”

And what did they believe? I remind you again that this story contains the confession of Martha: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Or, as Jesus said it, “I am the resurrection and the life, those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” He is the one coming into the world to give life—in him, God feels every pain, every desire and every loss. There is nothing insignificant or trivial in any loss that is grieved.

This story of Martha and Mary and Lazarus is framed in the Gospel of John by a significant and related story. Jesus went away from Jerusalem to the northeast, to the area where John had previously been baptizing. But he also left Jerusalem because there was danger—Jesus had nearly been stoned or arrested on a number of occasions. And the disciples were well aware that Jesus could be in mortal danger if he returned , as the first part of our story shows.

Lazarus lived in Bethany, a town on the very edge of Jerusalem, in the midst of this danger. Jesus decided to go and his disciples followed him. Immediately after the raising of Lazarus, some of those who witnessed it went and informed some of Jesus’ opponents who arranged for a meeting of the Sanhedrin.  In their fear of the Romans and of the people, the high priests decided that Jesus should die. Thus, Jesus’ return to bring to bring Lazarus to life was pretty much the direct cause of his own death. He came into the world, and into Bethany to face death for the sake of compassion for his sisters and brothers. Jesus courage is the embodiment of God’s generosity and compassion.

This Lent we have been walking the path of the Catechumens in their preparation for baptism. We have heard the traditional lessons for this preparation on these five Sundays. In the first, with the temptations of Jesus, we learn to focus on God alone, on Scripture and God’s love, not on our own comfort, popularity, possessions or power. In the second, we learn with Nicodemus that we must be born from above, abandoning our preconceptions and embarking on the long trek of transformation. With the Samaritan woman at the well, we receive Living Water and learn that we are known by God. On the fourth Sunday, the blind receive their sight and a beggar speaks the truth that he sees. We learn to see the transforming light of God in the works of Jesus, and in belief to give up our own blindness. And finally today, we see Jesus restoring the dead to life, and we learn with Martha and Mary to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the one coming into this world as the Resurrection and the Life. In absorbing these things, and taking them into their hearts the catechumens are prepared for baptism. In our baptism, we participate in the death and resurrection of Christ. Next week, we begin Holy Week with Palm Sunday. It is that painful and glorious journey with Jesus through the last week of his life, through his death on the cross and into the joy of his Resurrection on Easter.

I invite all of you to join us in our Holy Week services which culminate in the reaffirmation of our baptismal vows and the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday morning.

This prayer is the Collect for that Monday in Holy Week. Let us pray:

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace, through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Once you were darkness

A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Lent, March 26, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?”

Another long story this week. In the progression of our instruction for baptism, we have a story of a person being enlightened: literally regaining his sight, and spiritually coming to see the truth in Jesus. It’s a long, complex story with a lot of details and controversy between Jesus and the religious establishment of the Pharisees.

But we start with Jesus own disciples. These guys are following Jesus, as we follow him—and so we like to assume they would get it right. They aren’t so different from us, right? Well, actually, yes. They look at people and they make wrong assumptions just like we do. They see a man who is a blind beggar and they make assumptions that his condition is the result of something.  People experience things, they look around and they decide that events are connected with one another. And generally speaking, that’s correct. People’s actions have consequences; they are connected with one another and affect other people, they affect children and neighbors and parents. And, anyone who reflects honestly on their own life and behavior has ample empirical evidence that people sin. That is to say, people act selfishly without regard to the good of others or their needs and eventually someone gets hurt because of that.  What we see in the first verse of today’s gospel lesson is the next step that people often make—the disciples make conclusions about other people’s sin from results that they see.  “Who sinned? This man or his parents?” It had to be one or the other, right?

Not exactly. We like to use our analysis to find the badness in something, anything other than ourselves, and to assume that the connections that we see explain everything—one or the other, the man or his parents—somebody’s a sinner. How did Jesus respond? “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” There is more to the connections between people and events than the disciples saw, or that we see.

One interpretation of Jesus’ words could be that he is referring to the healing of the man’s blindness that he is about to do. Fair enough, that certainly shows the works of God. But I think there is a more general application of Jesus’ response. In the infinite number of connections between events and people and God, there is always far more than we perceive.  And certainly, if we are living in a world governed by anger or self-pity or despising some subset of our neighbors, our view and our understanding will be severely limited, indeed it can be like blindness.

This man was a disabled beggar until Jesus took the mud of the earth, like that from which God had formed the man in the garden. He spread it on the man’s eyes and sent him to be washed in the pool—not so much different from the pool of baptism. When the man emerged from the pool and was able to see, everyone was confused. He was the same man, but he was not what anyone expected. Was it that they could not believe in a healing miracle? Perhaps, though skepticism about miracles was much less common in those days than now. But if you look at the story, it wasn’t the miracle that they couldn’t recognize, it was the man who was formerly blind. They knew him when they could see him lying by the road, “Oh yeah, there he is the sinful progeny of sin” or maybe just, “poor, pitiful, blind beggar.” But standing up, walking around as a responsible and articulate adult?  That’s not visible to them. It is so easy to dismiss those who are different—not powerful, not wealthy, not comfortable. But it is the Glory of God that loves and blesses every person, not just those that Jesus’ disciples might be comfortable with.

This man witnessed and explained what he had experienced: “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.”  The scene that ensues is actually pretty funny, because there were these very devout religious types who did not like Jesus, and they had caught him out doing something on the Sabbath Day that they thought was a violation of the rules. They interrogated this man repeatedly, and tried to get him to agree that Jesus was a sinner and not from God. But when they put it to him, this man said, “He is a prophet.” It goes on and he says, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” As they persisted in harassing him and looking for evidence against Jesus, he answered them, “I have told you already and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to be his disciples?”

This story is the story of the man’s spiritual formation and his conversion. As he spoke the truth, he was driven out by those who would not hear the truth. It is only near the end of the story that the man who was healed by Jesus actually has the opportunity to see Jesus and the conversion is made complete:

“And who is he sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking to you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.”  And he worshiped him.

The man who was blind could see, he could see and witness to the truth; but those who thought that they could see and that they knew how things should be done and how they would work out, turned out to be blind. In focusing on their own limited set of connections and presumptions, they missed the glory of God—the mercy and compassion of healing. From Jesus we have joy, not fear. Though the man had been blind from birth, his life was filled with the witness to God’s goodness and the glory of God.

As our Epistle today says:

Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is god and right and true… Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

A Spring of Water gushing up to Eternal Life

A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 19, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“The water that I will give them will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

Today’s Gospel is long, because it’s a great story and there really isn’t any way to break it up. There’s so much fascinating detail that we could look at and discuss for a very long time, but we are going to focus on the path of preparation for baptism as the ancient lectionary takes us through Lent.

The woman in this story was a Samaritan and it was a Samaritan village. The Samaritans were not Jews, though they shared the first five books of the Bible with them. To an outsider, they might look quite similar, but the bitterness between the two groups at that time would make the current feelings in our country look mild by comparison. Of course, we tend to hear that term as “Good Samaritan,” but when Jesus told that other story involving a Samaritan, the effect was similar in his context to what it would be in some quarters in this country if he had described the “Good Radical Islamic Terrorist.” The woman was a Samaritan, and each thing she said to Jesus was an essential part of the outline of Samaritan theology and belief. What I notice is that she uses her theological arguments to keep from engaging with Jesus, or facing the truth.

Just as in last week’s lesson, there is a comic misunderstanding.  One of my professors once remarked that the woman thought Jesus was a plumber.  The Greek phrase that we translate as “living water” means running water, like a stream, or a spring, or an aqueduct. “Give me this water, so I don’t have to pull jugs out of the well anymore!” But the Living Water that Jesus was talking about was refreshment from God that takes us out of all of our defensive arguments and crafty evasions.  Life in humble freedom, not in winning arguments. When Jesus shows that he sees through her evasions, she says, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.” And then she again dives into the theological argument, advancing the Samaritan view of what the great prophet Moses, had taught them. Then Jesus says it directly: “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” We learn here that it is not subtle or forceful arguments that connect us to God, but living in truthfulness.  And it is not having the right prescribed formulas or activities, but living in the compassion of God.

The woman is still debating with Jesus about the nature of the messiah, when the disciples return. We should note that they misunderstood Jesus in just the same way that the woman had. She had misunderstood about the Living Water and when Jesus told them, “I have food that you do not know about,” they were looking around for a secret picnic basket.  Though they had been with him, they still did not understand; they were still confused. So he said it again, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” Our food and drink are the love of God and flourishing in his Spirit.  As Jesus explains that “one sows and another reaps,” and that “others have labored and you have entered into their labor” the woman returns from the village with a bunch of other Samaritans. She has heard Jesus, she has understood, and she has shared his word with others. In this case, it happens that those others were exactly the last people in the world that Jesus’ disciples were expecting; least of all expecting to become one with themselves.

The woman was indeed the apostle to the Samaritans. What she shared with them was what she understood, “he told me everything I have ever done.”  In other words, Jesus knew her, and she knew and understood that she was known.  She was converted to truth.  She had been thinking of the hard work of drawing and lugging water and she had the fantasy of running water. But Jesus gave her the transformation of Living Water, the water of baptism, of dying and rising with Christ, of being sustained and refreshed by God’s spirit, of swimming in that water without fear of drowning or worry about going thirsty.  She told her fellow villagers the truth that she knew, but they learned the truth from Jesus—they asked him to stay for two days, to share with them the Living Water and the Food of Eternal life.

Living the Christian life and preparing for baptism are not things that we do individually, by reading books or gazing at our computers. We learn Christian life in community, we prepare for participation in the death and resurrection of Christ by learning to be generous and courageous by living with others who are also learning courage and generosity. “Then they said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.’”

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen

Born from above: the journey to baptism

A sermon for the second Sunday in Lent, March 12, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come for God.”

Nicodemus was a devout Jew, a Pharisee, and a member of the ruling council. He comes to Jesus, genuinely searching for the truth of God. Notice that he comes from the dark—the imagery is that he is in the dark, he does not know, so he comes to Jesus and is enlightened.

The Gospel lessons during Lent this year trace the traditional path of the catechumenate, or the course for preparation for baptism from the ancient church continuing through to today. Last week, Jesus focused us on “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” and “worshiping the Lord and serving only him.” Today, Nicodemus comes from the dark to ask Jesus about the true teaching of God. And Jesus tells him how to experience the Kingdom of God.  “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being begotten from above.”

One of the characteristics of the Gospel of John is that people who are talking with Jesus misunderstand him, often with comic results. This is the first instance.  It’s sometimes difficult to pick up what’s happening if you don’t know the language because puns don’t usually translate that well from one language to another.  There are two words in the Greek of this passage which have double meanings: “gennan” can mean “born” or “begotten” and “anOthen” can mean “from above” or “again.” A lot of translators miss the joke so they translate it to make sense of Nicodemus’ response: “born again” and that Nicodemus understands Jesus to be talking about going through the birth process in the flesh, coming out of one’s mother’s womb again. What Nicodemus does not know, but the readers of John’s Gospel do, is the prologue of the Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were begotten, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

In modern American English, we seldom use the word begotten, which refers to the father’s role in the development of a baby as opposed to the mother’s, so the ambiguity in Greek is also ambiguous for us. But we see that Nicodemus completely missed Jesus’ meaning. Jesus is telling Nicodemus that the Kingdom of God is for those who are born from God, not from any markers of human descent at all. It is Jesus, the Son, the Word of God, that gives life and brings light out of darkness. We are born from God, even though we are only born once from the human perspective.

So we have Nicodemus approaching Jesus—and he doesn’t understand, even though he is educated and a religious leader. Jesus teaches Nicodemus and his teaching goes on past what we have read in today’s gospel lesson. Even in today’s lesson, the teaching is dense, packed with meaning. At one point Jesus compares God’s action in himself with something that Nicodemus would have recognized—when Moses lifted up poisonous serpents on poles so that the Israelites who had been poisoned would see them and be healed.  Beholding Jesus brings healing to Nicodemus, to us and to the world.

Nicodemus is an archetype of the catechumen. He is initially in darkness, but he comes into the light of Jesus. Initially he is puzzled, he misunderstands and makes mistakes. And it takes time, the preparation, the conversion, the learning—they don’t happen in a single day or a single session. There is much to learn and to experience on the Christian journey.

Nicodemus appears twice more in the Gospel of John.  In the seventh chapter, Jesus had been encountering opposition and there were plots against his life. Jesus said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” And the chief priests and Pharisees were talking with the temple police, “Why did you not arrest him.” And Nicodemus spoke up, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing does it?” Nicodemus was hearing Jesus, and seeing the Kingdom of God, yet he was still on his way.

Later in the Gospel, after Jesus’ crucifixion, when Joseph of Arimathea got Jesus body to put it in the tomb, Nicodemus also came and brought the mixture of spices, weighing a hundred pounds, to prepare the body for burial. Nicodemus had come from the dark, and had witnessed Jesus life.  Being born from above was more involved than many might think. It was more difficult than re-entering a mother’s womb—he witnessed the death of the Lord of Life.

We move forward in the journey toward baptism. With Nicodemus, we learn. We learn of the Lord of Life, the love and mercy of God, and we learn of how very intertwined our life is with the world of human sin and pride. The reality of the death of the Messiah is essential in understanding the Word that was with God in the beginning, in being born from above as true children of the father.  In Nicodemus we don’t see the resurrection…he does not know about that until after the last time we see him.

So in our story of Nicodemus we have the beginning of the journey toward baptism. The journey of Lent continues as our life and learning continues.

O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns one God for ever and ever. Amen.


The Slanderer

A sermon for the first Sunday in Lent, March 5, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the slanderer.”

We are inclined to look at the wrong things when we think about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. “Oh wow, forty days of fasting in the wilderness, what self-control!”, we think. And that Devil: We’re pretty sure we know what he’s like, we’ve seen Halloween costumes and even some medieval paintings, this demon with horns and a tail. But it’s a mistake to think of a single demon or even a demonic force opposed to God enticing Jesus and engaging in test of wills with him. In Jesus’ time, the Greek word “diavolos,” which we hear as “Devil” had a straightforward meaning that everyone would have understood, even if they were also thinking of a personified demon. It meant slanderer, or someone who tells falsehoods to damage the reputation of someone else; someone who misleads others.

It’s true that most of us aren’t up to forty days of desert survival on our own with no food and limited water. But it’s not a world record. It’s a serious time of reflection, a serious time of withdrawal from the world. It’s the same amount of time that Moses spent on the mountain when he received the law from the Lord. It’s not trivial, and such a fast achieves something in terms of clarity and spiritual growth, but the fact that Jesus fasted does not distinguish him from other seriously spiritual people.

The real lesson in today’s Gospel comes with the Devil – the slanderer –posing three questions to Jesus. Like all slanderers, he tries to confuse the issues, he seeks to undermine clarity. Each question designed to get Jesus to focus on his own power and concerns, to regard the spiritual as magic. Most important, they’re designed to take the focus off God and onto Jesus. The slanderer wanted Jesus to think it was about having super-powers like Spider Man or one of the X-men, rather than being God’s human child.

After all, Jesus was human, he was hungry. “There’s no reason to go hungry—just do a magic trick—take care of what YOU want in ways that aren’t available to others.” But Jesus remains calmly clear on the source of mercy, the source of Life.

Then, taking Jesus to the top of the Temple, the slanderer tells Jesus to get God to dramatically show off his power. But Jesus is not about power. He is simple. He is about God’s love and mercy. It is not about showing off and taking care of Jesus, it is about God’s love for all of God’s people. And Jesus says: “It is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ “

The slanderer isn’t done yet. He offers all power to Jesus, nakedly and grandly: “all the kingdoms of the world in their splendor.” And Jesus sends him away, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

We’ve heard about three kinds of power in today’s Gospel lesson: material, religious and political. Powerful people, and those who desire power, regard these as magic that can take the place of human honesty, compassion, generous work and common sense. Jesus focused on telling the truth and healing people—that was not popular with those who wanted to use power—but that was fine with Jesus. The Kingdom of Heaven is gained through loyalty to the Lord of Heaven, not in gathering power to ourselves.  In that Garden, so long ago, the woman listened to the tempter, picked that unripe fruit and gave it to the man, and from then on, humans have listened to their fear and used falseness to try to fool God. Jesus was not fooled or fearful.

In Lent, we are called to shed our burdens of fear and our inclinations to grasp at ineffectual ways to control the world around us. We are preparing for baptism, where we die to self, and live to real life, the life of Jesus whose life burst the tomb of death.

It’s OK to give up something for Lent. It’s best to give up things that add to your confusion and take your focus away from generous living. It makes no sense to give up Twinkies for Lent and then buy a case of them at Costco totwinkies have after Lent is over.  That would be a way to continue to focus on Twinkies rather than the Kingdom of God. The discipline of Lent is to focus on where God is leading us, to find the abundance of life in the opportunity to live for others, to give up on self-pity and worry. The time of Lent is not a test of strength, or of our resistance to temptation. Jesus teaches us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation” or another translation, “Do not bring us to the test.” Do not attend to the Slanderer, follow Jesus, in him we receive life as a gift, and that gift is the resurrection from all death.

“By his grace we are able to triumph over every evil, and to live no longer for ourselves alone, but for him who died for us and rose again.”