JUNE SERMONS BY FR WESLEY HILLS
June 2, 2019
Dateline London, several years ago: Police arrested a man who was trying to break into one of her Majesty’s prisons while wearing a Snoopy costume. When the comic strip beagle and his accomplice were unable to break down a staff door of the prison, they pelted cars of prison employees with stones. Wait, it gets even better and stranger. After the bizarre duo was arrested, it turned out they’d been trying to break into the wrong prison. While they’d been trying to break down doors at the Isle of Wight Prison, the family member they’d been trying to free was safely tucked away at the neighboring Camp Hill jail. A prison source was quoted as saying, “This has got to rank as one of the worst attempted jail breaks ever!” You think?
While that comical attempt to break into a prison failed misrerably, just four months earlier in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, there was a massive jail break of 4,000 inmates, the circumstances of which call to mind for us the experiences of Paul and Silas in the Macedonian prison reported in the Acts of the Apostles. But first this Haiti prison break: Following a massive earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale, the main prison in Port-au-Prince collapsed and 4,000 inmates walked through the rubble to freedom. Isn’t this exactly the response we might expect from prisoners who find themselves suddenly free of enclosing bars, walls, and chains—to run for daylight and freedom? I would think so; and yet in our reading from Acts, we find Paul and Silas exhibiting some very strange “inmate” behavior which gives all prisoners a bad name . . . or does it? Because, as we shall see, there are prisons, and there are prisons—and not all prisons have walls, bars, and chains. And so we read in Acts that Paul and Silas were arrested, beaten, and thrown into prison because Paul had driven a demon from a fortune teller, ruining her owner’s business scam. Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns while the other prisoners listened when suddenly there was an earthquake so violent that it shook the foundations of the prison, opening all the doors and freeing all the prisoners from their chains. What happened next was bizarre, to say the least. The Roman jailer, when he came to, saw the open prison doors, drew his sword, and was about to kill himself with it—no doubt assuming all the prisoners had escaped and that he would be blamed. But then came Paul’s voice out of the darkness, “Do not harm yourself for we are all here.” I mean what in the “Escape from Alcatraz” is going on here? Not only are Paul and Silas giving prisoners everywhere a bad name, but they also seem to be turning their backs on what surely must have been not so much an earthquake, but a “Godquake,” no doubt meant to free them. Or was that really the purpose of this particular divine intervention? Because, as we have learned with many Bible stories, nothing is ever as it seems on the surface—especially when so-called “Acts of God” are involved. While I’m of the opinion that the term “Act of God” is dreadfully overused and frequently misunderstood, in the case of Paul and Silas in Macedonia, I believe that is exactly what happened. This was a prison break Bible style in which you can toss normal human behavior and assumptions right out the barred window. The earthquake in Macedonia was clearly an Act of God, with the specific purpose of opening the prison gates and freeing the prisoners of their chains. We might fairly inquire: to what end? I’m sure that Paul and Silas, who just prior to the quake were no doubt sitting in a circle with all the other prisoners, holding hands and singing “Kumbaya,” I’m sure they saw the earthquake as coming from God, but if not to free them from the prison . . . then why?
I think many of us here this morning have discovered either in our own lives or in the lives of others we have known that—as I alluded to earlier—“There are prisons, and there are prisons.” As 17th century poet Richard Lovelace famously wrote, “Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.” While Paul, Silas, and the other prisoners may have been the ones shackled and behind bars, it turns out that the real prisoner in this Bible prison story was the Roman jailer. We soon discover that God decided to use the occasion of Paul’s and Silas’s arrest, beating, and imprisonment as an opportunity to bring this pagan jailer and his entire family to Christ!
Writing years later from yet another prison cell in Rome, awaiting his execution, and quite possible referring to his experience in Macedonia, Paul wrote these words which continue to inspire us today when we face rough patches in our lives or find ourselves in one of those prisons without bars or chains. Wrote Paul in Romans: “Now we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, and who are called according to His purpose.” Paul, we know now, was writing from his own experiences in life, and this lesson must not be lost on us. The problem we all face daily, however, is that Paul’s words for us--along with many other lessons from the world’s best-selling and most ignored book, the Bible—are being drowned out, buried like those tectonic plates far beneath the earth’s surface which shift to cause earthquakes. What we, what Christianity really needs, it seems, is for God’s word to erupt in us that it might break out in the words and in the lives of us Christians who are now living our lives each day in the most “me” centered, secular society since the beginning of creation.
We find ourselves in a time when the courage, the mettle, the bravery, and the sacrificial love of our earliest Christian ancestors is desperately needed. We delude ourselves if we insist on believing that we are living today in the “Christian nation” of our grandparents and our great-grandparents--those halcyon days following WWII, when church parking lots were overflowing and Sundays were considered sacred days of church, worship, and rest. No businesses open—at least until the afternoon—and certainly no youth sports. In those days on Sunday mornings America went to church!
To put it mildly . . . those days are gone—forever! A secular earthquake has rolled across and is rolling across America, leaving in its wake crumbling congregations, nearly empty churches, and a population in which the fastest-growing segment, when it comes to surveys on religious preference, consists of those who check the box “None.” That’s “NONE,” not “NUN.” We are a country today where 80% still claim to believe in God; but, when pressed, admit to having only a vague idea of the concept of God; how to express their beliefs; and who, for the most part, do not participate in organized religion.
In other words, we live today in a country and in a world, much like that faced by Paul, Silas, and all of the other Christians . . . in the 1st century. That may not necessarily be a bad thing. Many Christian scholars, pastors, and commentators have observed that Christianity may have been at its healthiest and most effective in the first few centuries following Christ’s Resurrection, a time when it was illegal, a time when Christians met in secret and put their lives on the line almost daily. However, once our faith was legalized by Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century, there began a gradual process that has resulted in the taming of Christianity to the point that in many ways, it now mirrors, instead of seeking to change, the world and the culture that surround it. This was certainly not God’s plan when He made the first divine-human contact with Patriarch Abram in Chapter 12 of Genesis, or when God gave birth to Christianity through the Incarnation thousands of years later. And yet, this is where we survivors of Christianity find ourselves today in the words of theologians, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, as in Resident Aliens, in a world which, increasingly, does not understand us and would just as soon we either go away or keep to ourselves. Of course, we cannot do that and remain faithful to our covenant with God, made at Baptism.
No more could Paul and Silas have escaped to safety once freed of their chains, leaving the pagan jailer to face a certain death. While we may not feel like aliens, or even appreciate the term or label, I see it as a badge of honor that links us to our founders in the early church: people like Paul, Peter, Silas, Mary of Magdalene, and many others—men and women who were not afraid; who would not be silenced; and who stood up for the poor, the marginalized, the weak, and the defenseless, like the pagan jailer and his family. I personally love what Hauerwas and Williman had to say in Resident Aliens about just what Christianity is today and what it means to be a Christian in these secular times. They said, “Christianity is an invitation to be part of an alien people who make a difference because they see something that cannot otherwise be seen without Christ.”
I could not agree more! Thinking of ourselves as aliens, linking ourselves to our brave and fearless ancestors gives me a very good feeling in being a Christian today in a world in which—as it was with our ancestors—the ripe mission fields lie right outside of our Red Doors, as I said a few weeks ago. The very last thing that we resident aliens want to do, in the face of this secular earthquake, is to retreat to the sanctuary of our churches, there to circle the wagons while we comfort and reassure one another that, if we just sit here in a circle singing “Kumbaya” and praying, all will be well when again we venture timidly outside.
And yet, venture--no charge--outside every day is exactly what we must do, from our homes and from our churches—day after day; week after week; year after year. Because out there is where God calls us! Calls us to minister to and to free those who, like Paul’s jailer, are in chains—and don’t even know it. Out there is the mission; out there is where battle lines are being drawn. A Bob Dylan lyric comes to mind that seems to find new life in every generation: “There’s a battle outside and it’s ragin’. It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls; for the times they are a changin’.”
Paul’s mission was, to him, crystal clear; and he never wavered following his Damascus Road conversion with Jesus Christ that forever changed his life. Paul knew the quake was not sent that he might escape prison, but that his broken chains might be forged into a key that he might use in freeing another soul—the frightened prison jailer—and to bring him and his family to Christ.
Today there are frightened jailers out there, living their lives each day in various forms of prisons and chains, waiting only for you to cry out, “Do not harm yourself, for I am here!” Waiting only for you to free them from whatever darkness they find themselves in amidst the rubble of a life without purpose, a life without God and the light of Christ. After today, I promise no more lyrics from the 60s for at least a month, but the closing verses of the Dylan classic I referred to has many echoes from scripture and sends us out this morning with our mission clearly defined.
The line it is drawn; the curse it is cast; the slow one now will later be fast; as the present now will later be past; the order is rapidly fadin’. And the first one now will later be last, for the times they are a changin’.
June 9, 2019
May the Force Be with You
Prior to Friday, May 25, 1977, the world had never heard these six words which have since become ingrained in our popular culture: “May the Force be with you.” While many attribute its first utterance to Jedi Master, Obi-Wan Kenobi, it was actually first used by a minor character, Rebel General Jan Dodonna, as he sent his forces to attack the Empire’s Death Star. In the ensuing 42 years, the phrase has found its way into movies, TV commercials, comedy routines, and our daily conversations. It has acquired a life or force of its own, far removed from its Star Wars definition of “an energy field created by all living things that surround us, penetrate us, and bind the galaxy together.” No matter, because the franchise is still going strong; and the Force is alive and well. Disney-owned Lucasfilm recently announced that three as yet untitled Star Wars movies will hit theatres on the weekend leading up to Christmas every other year beginning in 2011. All seem to agree that the ongoing success of the franchise is attributable to the genius and the vision of creator George Lucas who, back in the mid-70s had an unwavering faith that if he thrust his audience smack in the middle of an epic saga of good vs. evil—remember, the first movie was Star Wars Episode IV—that fans would want to know how it all got started in the first place—hence the birth of the Prequel.
Of course the world’s all-time and longest epic story of good vs. evil is contained in the Bible. While the written edition was closed off over a thousand years ago, the ongoing battle between God and Satan on earth is being written every day as a “living Bible,” through the lives of the faithful . . . our lives. While we may not be armed with those cool light Sabers of Star Wars fame, ever since that first Pentecost nearly 2,000 years ago, we Christians have been given an even more formidable weapon to wield against the powers of darkness: the Holy Spirit of God! Unlike those Light Sabers, the Holy Spirit is within us, available only to us, and never needs batteries, as it is powered by our faith in God.
Today on Pentecost, Christians around the world celebrate God’s gift of the Holy Spirit nearly 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem. In addition to receiving the Spirit, many also see Pentecost as God’s reversing the punishment inflicted on humanity in Genesis when men attempted to be equal to God by building a tower to reach Heaven. God put an end to that foolish attempt by confusing their language so that no one could understand each other’s speech. The place where the tower was being built became known as “Babel,”
from the Greek verb “to confuse.” To this day, when people seem to be running off at the mouth and making no sense, they are said to be “babbling.”
The idea that God used Pentecost to lift the punishment of the Tower at Babel makes sense, because while humans were there seeking to reach Heaven through their own efforts--at the first Pentecost, in the post-Resurrection world, Heaven had come down to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. In other words, God was saying to them and is saying to us today, “Seek no more to build stairways to Heaven, but seek instead to build up God’s visible presence here on earth—Christ’s Body, the church through the power of the Holy Spirit.”
So it is that since that first Pentecost, the force has been with us in the form of the Holy Spirit to take on this epic task and adventure. The Holy Spirit is every Christian’s weapon of choice in this ongoing battle against the powers of darkness. If any of you found yourselves flinching just a bit at the mention of weapon in referring to God’s Holy Spirit, have no fear. The Spirit is not a weapon in the sense of WMDs—those Weapons of Mass Destruction, machine guns, grenades, bombs, or anything which inflicts injury or death on those whom God created. If we define weapon as a means of gaining an advantage or as defending oneself in a conflict or contest, or as defending against another weapon, God’s Holy Spirit becomes in our hands and in our lives a very important weapon in the ongoing battle against Satan and the powers of darkness which started in Eden’s Garden. Light Sabers and the Holy Spirit; the Dark Side and the Powers of Darkness—the Star Wars model and analogy continues to work for us. For just as the ultimate villain in Star Wars, Darth Vader, started out as a good person, Anakin Skywalker, who went to the dark side, tempted by ambition and pride; so too the supreme villain of the Bible, Satan, started out as an angelic being in the Heavenly court before becoming proud and ambitious and trying to take over the throne of God—for which he was banished to earth as a fallen angel. Ever since, Satan, which means adversary, has sought to oppose the rule of God in human affairs.
So, in this living and ongoing sequel to the Bible in which all the baptized are players, are we, in truth, engaged in what amounts to warfare against Satan and his minions? Are we using divine weapons? Well, if we listen to Paul, I think he’d tell us to stop engaging in the “Paralysis of Analysis” and to get into the action. Hear what Paul tells the struggling Christians from the church he founded in Corinth: “ . . . though we may live in this world, we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly, but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God.”
I can’t speak for you, of course, but to me, “Them’s fightin’ words!” We are engaged every day in spiritual warfare and, guess what? If we’re being honest with ourselves and not wearing blinders as we look around us at the state of our society, at the increasingly seductive and popular secular Gospels of moral relativism: “me first,” “get it while you can,” and “the one who dies with the most toys wins—I’d have to say that it’s not all that clear that we who are carrying the crosses are today winning this battle! While it may be too early to hit the panic button, I have no doubt that Paul would tell us that we had better be about seizing the high ground and cranking it up a notch. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul put it this way, and the same truth echoes in our ears 2,000 years later: “We are not fighting against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers, against the rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness.”
But, before we go off half-cocked to crank it up a notch and take the fight to those on the dark side—we had better first make sure we are prepared. This warning comes to us directly from the Commander-in-Chief. And no, I am most definitely not referring to the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue! I mean the real “Commander-in-Chief,” our Lord Jesus Christ. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells us: “What king, going to make war against another king, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able, with ten thousand, to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?” The context of his remarks was that we must always be prepared and stand ready to count the cost of discipleship. Let’s be clear on one thing right now. This ongoing battle for our very souls between the force of light and darkness—God and Satan, is not one we can simply opt out of. There is no place for conscientious objectors in this struggle, and the battle lines are being drawn just outside the doors of our homes and our churches. We were all commissioned into God’s service at our Baptism when we renounced “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” At the same time we were given the gifts with which to oppose these powers; these gifts lie dormant, however, until they are quickened—brought to life within us by the Holy Spirit—God’s “lightsaber,” thousands of years before George Lucas ever dreamed up the concept. A holy weapon which, as I said earlier, is powered by our faith, in the ongoing battle for our souls against the dark forces which seek to corrupt and to destroy us people of God.
And yet the fact remains that these powerful gifts of the Spirit, poised to do good and to wage war against evil, will never be discovered, never be awakened, and never used if we fail to tap into them and learn just what they are and how we might best use them. The way we do that has parallels in the Star Wars theme we’ve been following today. Those Lightsabers wielded by Jedi Knights in their battles against the dark side were only as effective as the power of the Force was within each male or female Knight.
If a fledgling Knight is trusting in the Force, the saber burns brightly within her and has great power. But, if the knight has no strong belief in this Force, the light of his saber flickers, fizzles, and is quickly overcome by the Dark Side—which, by the way, also has Lightsabers. So too, Christians separated from or inactive within their faith communities soon find themselves easy prey for Satan’s minions. Their gifts lie dormant, undiscovered and unused; the Spirit barely flickers within them and they fall easy prey to the lies, temptations, and deceits of the dark side, out to corrupt and destroy the people of God. However, the Good News is that it’s never too late to reconnect and to be involved with a faith community—to fan the flames of the Spirit within you, awakening those gifts which have been lying dormant.
The choice, as always, is yours; but just being here is a good start. Here is where together we discover, nurture, reawaken, and strengthen our gifts of the Spirit. Here is where we willingly and joyfully sacrifice our precious time to worship. Here is where we use our buried gifts and treasures to support and to build up God’s Kingdom on earth, starting in Dixon, Illinois!
In that first Star Wars movie back in 1977, just before the good guys, led by Luke Skywalker and Hans Solo, flew off in their patched-up spacecraft to battle the Dark Lord Vader and destroy the Death Star, I remember someone delivering the obligatory “Henry V” speech to fire up the troops. I don’t remember that speech, but in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul has given all of us Christian warriors a pep talk for the ages:
“Finally,” said Paul, “ . . . be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His power. Put on the whole armor of God so that you will be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. Stand, therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist and put on the breastplate of righteousness. With all of these, take the shield of faith to quench the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God . . . and stand tall in the Lord.”
So go forth from here this morning, your spirit sabers blazing, vowing to become even more committed to your faith in words and in deeds in the year ahead. While Paul never actually said it, I have a strong feeling that somewhere he may well stand and applaud as I say to all of you, “Take this battle for our souls to the dark side. And, may the force--of the Spirit--be with you!
June 16, 2019
Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us, your servants, grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity: Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father, who with the Son and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
I’ve just repeated the Collect of the Day which you all heard earlier in the service and which is printed on the insert in your bulletins. There is a Collect for every Sunday in the church year, as well as for Christmas and other major Holy Days. The purpose of the Collect, as the word suggests, is to try to “collect” the theme for that particular day in a single prayer. On this Trinity Sunday, the only Sunday in the church year named for a doctrine, rather than some historical event in the life of the church or Jesus, I wanted to call our attention to the fact that nowhere in this Collect does it suggest or imply that anyone here ever understood this ancient doctrine; only that we acknowledge the glory of the Trinity, even as we worship the unity. In other words, to be blunt, we essentially are being told that the Trinity simply “Is!” Acknowledge it; worship it; and then deal with it—because you will never, ever, understand it.
The reason for that is simple. No one has ever understood the Trinity . . . and no one ever will. Because, you see, to understand something is to suggest having a mental grasp of it, leaving no room at all for mystery. While I can’t speak for any one else, I certainly don’t need, or even want, to understand every little detail about the God who created me, who watches over me in this life, and who I hope and pray will be there after this life is over to open wide the gates of Heaven and welcome me into the Heavenly Kingdom! Personally, I believe that the God who holds in His hands my mortal life and my eternal soul is entitled to be shrouded in a little mystery. So, whether we refer to that one God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier; or Manny, Moe, and Jack—I’m with Shakespeare in saying, “Hey, what’s in a name, anyway?”
I’m afraid we too easily can get hung up on names and, especially in 21st century America, become way too obsessed with trying to break down or to dumb down everything into something that we can easily understand and file away. That will never work with God. One obvious reason is that, while we may be using the same words, we are really speaking two different languages in divine-human interactions: Recall the well-known encounter between Jesus and the Pharisee, Nicodemus, early in John’s Gospel when Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be “born again” in order to enter God’s Kingdom. A confused Nicodemus protests, saying, “How can a man be born when he’s old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb?” Jesus just shakes his head and says, “If I’ve told you earthly things and you don’t believe, how can you believe if I tell you Heavenly things?” That particular problem is solved by the Holy Spirit, whose function is to take words given to Jesus by the Father and to help us to understand them—to understand the heavenly words, not the Trinity.
The problems facing Nicodemus and the problems facing the disciples thirteen chapters later in Chapter 16 of John’s Gospel before us this morning is the same one faced by millions of believers over the past 2,000 years. It started when it first dawned upon the very first Christians who had all started life as Jews, that the One God they had believed in since Abraham was a much more complex deity than they had ever imagined. A pillar of the Jewish faith then and now is the belief in the oneness of God. This belief is captured in a prayer taken from Chapter 6 of Deuteronomy, called the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” And, in Hebrew: Shema Yisroel, Adonai Elohim, Adonai echad.” And yet, as Jesus neared the end of His time with them, the belief in that oneness of God had been clouded considerably. No more so than in today’s Gospel text when, at the Last Supper, Jesus speaks about the other two members of what would become the Trinity for future generations of Christians. Having already told them He would be leaving them soon, He assures them that, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth and tell you of things to come.” Then Jesus goes on to refer to yet another member of the eventual Trinity when He says, “All that the Father has is mine, and the Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you.” And, finally , in His most complete and direct statement on what would become the Trinity, Jesus’ last words to His disciples on a mountaintop before ascending to His Father in Heaven in Chapter 25 of Matthew tell them to, “Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
And yet, after spending three years with Jesus, seeing Him nearly every day and hearing Him talk about His Father who sent him and, more recently, about some kind of Holy Spirit who was invisible yet always present—the disciples had to be wondering whether the constant stress of being hunted, harassed, and constantly on the move might be, you know, taking its toll on their leader. And if that sounds a bit sacrilegious—so be it. These were twelve ordinary human beings, selected by Jesus for an extraordinary mission. They had given up and set aside their lives for Him, putting themselves and their families at risk; and now He’s telling them that He’s leaving them . . . and soon! Leaving them and their loved ones at the mercy of the Romans and those Jewish leaders who didn’t exactly see or welcome Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah—especially since He would likely be replacing them!
No, the disciples, I would have to say, were probably way off the stress charts and starting to worry that Jesus was maybe losing it and planning on leaving them to face the music of the Romans and the Pharisees. Can any of us here this morning really blame them? Take, for example, today’s Gospel which Jesus, I think, probably saw as a kind of pep talk to reassure the disciples that they wouldn’t be left alone and defenseless. But, just try for a moment putting yourself in their sandals, and then ask yourself—does it really sound like a pep talk? Would Jesus’ little speech on the night before the crucifixion make you feel any better? Here’s a translation from the Living Bible, imagining what today’s Gospel might sound like to our ears in today’s speech:
“Oh, there’s so much more I want to tell you, but you wouldn’t understand it now. When the Holy Spirit, which is truth comes, He shall guide you into all truth, for He won’t be representing His own ideas, but will be passing onto you what He has heard. He will tell you about the future! He shall praise me and bring me great honor by showing you my glory. All the Father’s glory is mine.”
Now maybe it’s just me, but what I’m hearing sounds a lot more like, “Sorry, guys; I gotta run, but I’m sending you a guy who’ll explain it all. No worries; you’ll be just fine; and, after all, isn’t it all about my Glory, the glory I’m getting from the Father?” While I’m maybe being a little hard on Jesus because we all know that’s not what He meant to say, I can totally imagine the disciples hearing it that way –explaining maybe why they all ran away from the cross the next day and went into hiding in the upper room. It was all just too much! Not only was their charismatic leader for the past three years leaving, but instead of handing them off to a new flesh and blood leader and introducing him—which might have helped make the transition a bit smoother—He’s suddenly running on about a Father in Heaven, and an invisible leader to take His place, that He refers to as the Holy Spirit . . . or Ghost.
The final blow was yet to come for these first century Jewish Christians. The One God, which had been a pillar of their faith for centuries was now about to be replaced . . . well, sort of. God would still be One, but from now on would be existing in three different personas—the afore-mentioned “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” If they thought it was going to get easier, they were sadly mistaken. After rising from the dead on Easter—as promised—and hanging out for a while in and around Jerusalem, appearing to various people, the Risen Jesus takes the remaining disciples up a mountain at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. There, before ascending to Heaven, Jesus gives to them what is now called the Great Commission, and what I like to call their Marching Orders. And guess who figures prominently in these last earthly words of their leader, Jesus. You guessed it. . . The new kid . . . or kids . . . on the block. “Go therefore,” Jesus tells them, “and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
Talk about a final exam! But, you know what? While that first graduating class of disciples may have been a bit confused as they descended that mountain, scratching their heads as to how their Jewish One God had suddenly morphed into three, while somehow still remaining One, the rest of the New Testament testifies that they didn’t waste their valuable time debating and attending seminars trying to solve this enigma. By the time they reached the bottom of that mountain, I’m thinking they were pretty much over it. They knew that Jesus never lied, never wasted words; and they also knew that there was still only one God. If Jesus saw fit to refer to that one God as having three distinct names, roles, personas, whatever—well that was good enough for them! They didn’t really need, in other words, to grasp or to fully understand this divine mystery; what Jesus really wanted from them then, and what He wants from us today, is to act upon it!
It’s significant to me that the first book following the four Gospels is not called the discussions, the seminars, or the debates of the apostles; it’s called the Acts, or as I like to call it, the Actions of the Apostles! Because, at the end of the day and of our lives, that’s really all that God wants from each of us—action! Doing the work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the world, not wasting our precious time seeking to understand their unique relationship. That being said, I want to leave you all this morning with an invitation and a challenge.
The invitation is to join with me in confessing that we will never completely grasp or understand the mystery of the Trinity, any more than we will ever understand how, in just a short time from now, ordinary wafers and red wine, through our presence and our collective prayers, will somehow become, for us, the Body and the Blood of Jesus Christ!
The challenge has to do with the days, months, and years that lie ahead of us as a community of faith at St. Luke’s. Along with the leadership of the church, I am at work creating new ministry opportunities which will require the Acts of you Apostles who call St. Luke’s home, to bring them to life. There will be opportunities for Inreach—serving a ministry of the church such as a Lector—reading a lesson on Sundays; an Altar Server; the Choir; Buildings and Grounds; or the Altar Guild to name a few. There will also be new ministries for Outreach, reaching out into our Dixon community either to do some hands on work or to supply tangible donations to places like the Food Pantry or the soon-to-open PADS shelter for women and children. I’m meeting with the new PADS director tomorrow morning to talk about in what ways St. Luke’s might become involved in that vital ministry. Finally, if any of you come up with ideas for ministries in our community which we Apostles at St. Luke’s might act upon, please talk to me or to a Vestry member as to how together we might put legs on your ideas. An active church is a vital and growing church, whereas a church which exists only for Sunday worship will one day be no more.
And so, my sister and brother Apostles, in the days that lie ahead of us, as these opportunities for inreach and outreach go out—act on them! I know how much all of you Apostles in the pews value this amazing church and want to be sure it is still here making a difference in Dixon 25, 50, 100 years from now. So, I beseech you to come up with ideas and then allow the spirit to breathe life into them, invite the Father to supply those finishing touches, and the Son to open your lips to proclaim God’s praise. And, when calls go out—and they will—for volunteers, for sacrifices, and for apostrles to answer the call, make your response the one found in Chapter 6 of Isaiah when the Lord said, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for u s?”
Came this reply from the great prophet: “Here am I; send me!”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
June 23, 2019
Second Sunday after Pentecost
On Sunday, September 8, Bishop Lee will make what will probably be his final visitation to St. Luke’s before he retires next year. We’ve already started to make plans for his visit, and it will no doubt be a festive and a bittersweet occasion, as we lay out our version of a Red Carpet, and we bid farewell to our bishop, even as we lift up prayers for God to send a new shepherd to our diocese. I suppose that Jesus was the closest thing that the early movement which became Christianity had to a Bishop, given the way he moved around the Judean countryside all the time, talking to people about how they should be living under the reign of God, healing some along the way and, in today’s Gospel, driving out demons from the man he encounters in Gerasene across the sea from Galilee.
Essentially we often find Jesus doing what bishops these days do a lot of: visiting, or paying a visit. I guess that’s what got me to thinking about visits and visitations, because while bishops today are generally happily welcomed as parishes go all out in killing the fatted calf, so to speak, visits by Jesus , as we discover from Luke, were not always greeted with such enthusiasm. Also, unlike Bishop Lee’s upcoming visit in September, visits by Jesus were often unannounced, like today’s visit to the country of the Gerasenes. Such visits introduce an entirely different dynamic, as the ones being visited are caught unawares, while Jesus always has a purpose in mind. The purpose in today’s Gospel isn’t clearly stated, but since the country of the Gerasenes was a Gentile region, perhaps his visit is a foreshadowing of his future plans to spread this new religion beyond the Jewish people, eventually using St. Paul as His evangelist. This possibility is fortified by something near the end of today’s Gospel which we’ll get to shortly. For now, suffice it to say that while not all visits turn out to be happy or festive occasions—especially those which are unannounced--when it’s Jesus who comes calling, we need to pay close attention because buried somewhere in that visit is likely a lesson for us all, as people, traditions, prejudices, and conditions are challenged, upset, and eventually transformed.
In His visit to the Gerasenes, almost before He can get off the boat, Jesus is met by a man who is described as “demon possessed.” The man is apparently buck naked and appears also to be crazed as he comes to Jesus from his home among the tombs. While he shouts at Jesus to leave him alone and not to torment him, we soon learn that it is not he who is speaking, but demons who have taken up residence inside his body. Have you ever happened to notice that throughout the Gospels, time and time again, we find that it’s the demons and unclean spirits who first recognize Jesus--who He is and the danger to them He represents. And so it is here, as we hear the demons using the man’s vocal chords to try to bargain with Jesus not to destroy them or leave them with no place to go. “What have you to do with me, Jesus, son of the most high God?” they ask through the possessed man. “I beg you, do not torment me,” they continue; for we are told that Jesus had already commanded the unclean spirit to leave the man. Then Jesus, knowing already the answer, says to the man, “What is your name?” The response, which I have always found a bit chilling, reveals the full extent of this poor man’s condition. “He said, ‘Legion,’ for many demons had entered him.” The demons then begged Jesus not to order them back into the abyss. They had good reason to be fearful, as in the Book of the Revelation to John, we find the Abyss defined as “the dwelling place of demons and the beast and as a place of confinement unto judgment that is under God’s control”; in other words, the abyss turns out to be a kind of Hell for demons. It’s not really made clear where these particular demons end up, as all we are told is that Jesus allowed the demons to enter a herd of swine who immediately jumped into a lake and were drowned.
Regardless, this poor, possessed man is freed from the demons and restored to health and wholeness, demonstrating to the Gerasenes the transforming power of God at work. While I promised recently that I would not, for a while, use 60s song lyrics in a sermon, I never mentioned other decades. What happened to this poor fellow reminded me of the kind of transformation sung about by U2 in their 1988 song, “When Love Comes to Town.” The verses tell the story of a life marked by betrayal, confusion, and loss which was dramatically changed when it was confronted by a great and robust love. “I did what I did before love came to town,” says the chorus. But then love did come to town, and the singer’s life was forever changed.
I think the healed man from Gerasene might well have sung this song, because throughout the Gospels we are told that Jesus is Love. Of course, the reactions to what went on between Jesus and the demon-possessed man are swift and intense, cutting short this particular visit. It struck me yesterday that this Gospel story might well have given birth to that saying. “No good deed goes unpunished.” We’ve already talked about the demons, who quickly realized they were in the presence of a power far greater than their own and proceeded to plea bargain for the best deal they could make. But I find the reaction of the Gerasene people to be the most striking. We might think that they’d maybe be just a little grateful to Jesus; happy that this crazed man who had caused them so much trouble, was now sane and whole. I mean, it’s not that they needed to throw Jesus a party or anything like that; but maybe just a little gratitude would have been in order—don’t you think? But no, Luke tells us that instead they were “seized with great fear,” and asked that Jesus leave them, cutting this visit short.
While this may seem an odd response to those of us who don’t think of Jesus as fearful, we have to realize that He’s just sent a large part of their local economy into the lake—those now demon-possessed swine. Maybe they’re afraid that if Jesus hangs around too long, they won’t be able to make a living. As Christians from Paul on have discovered, the unsettling power of Jesus can extend to our pocketbooks and to economic systems—if, that is, we are placing God in the driver’s seat of our lives. But I think that the fear of the Gerasenes is about much more than just the possibility of no longer having a job. I mean if Jesus has power over the forces of the world that oppress and that bid; if Jesus can heal someone possessed by demons while destroying a pig farm in the process, what might He do next? Who is safe from such a power? And what if I don’t want to see my life upset? What if I prefer to remain in my comfortable, undemanding, and familiar patterns of living? Because if this is what happens when “Love comes to town,” maybe we’d prefer that Love just sail right on by and find another town to transform with his life-changing demands on people’s lives.
Change of any kind is frightening, challenging, and not always welcomed. This has always been so. Once we put out the welcome sign for God to enter our lives, once we put Jesus in the driver’s seat and start filtering our actions, how we treat others and how we spend our time and our resources—changes will most certainly follow, just as day follows night.
The fear of the unknown is hardly unknown to us. I have witnessed it in churches and in individuals who cling, desperately, to old patterns of living even when it is clear that those old patterns are not life giving and may even be destructive to our relationship with God. As a result, if Jesus comes to visit, we find many people not answering the door, closing the blinds, or, like the Gerasenes, just asking Him to please leave and try changing some other lucky town.
Of course another way of dealing with the power of Jesus, the power of Love to transform and change us, a response that is quite popular today in many of the so-called New Age Churches which have sprung up in recent years--you can often identify many by the fact that they display no crosses—is to end up taming Jesus, trying to turn Him into someone who is always kind and gentle, a savior who never gets too upset, who never makes any demands on our lives that would make us the least bit uncomfortable or stretch our resources—someone whose occasional visits into our lives are always occasions for rejoicing and relaxing because nothing demanding is ever asked of us. In other words, a God who is not a threat to anyone.
Twentieth century English crime writer and poet, Dorothy Sayers had this to say about the attempted domestication of Jesus: She writes,
“The people who crucified Christ never accused him of being a bore. On the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left to later generations to muffle up the shadowing personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the lion of Judea, certified him meek and mild and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.”
There is one final reaction for us to consider to Jesus’ visit in our story, and that is of the man who was healed. Jesus had given him back his life. From a naked, howling, tormented man who lived among the tombs in a graveyard, he has been changed to one who sits at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. So grateful is he that he pleads to be allowed to go with Jesus back to Galilee. Instead, at Jesus’ direction, he becomes an Apostle to his Gentile hometown, bursting with the good news of what Jesus has done for him. If fear of change is our response to the power of Jesus and to the possibility of changes and of new challenges in our lives, I can imagine this man saying to us, “I understand your fear, but don’t be too quick to send Jesus away. I wouldn’t go back to who I was before Jesus came into my life for anything. Trust in Jesus to make the best of your life.”
In the world we wake up to each day, there are legions of demons in various disguises, unheard of when Jesus made his visit to Gerasene, some 2,000 years ago. None of us is immune, and just being in a church once a week is no guarantee of immunity. Fully inviting Jesus into your life is the only guaranteed cure, and we never know when He might pay a visit to check up on who or what may have taken up residence in our lives while we were either looking the other way or seeking to rationalize ways around the things God was trying to put on our plates. So when Jesus next shows up for a visit with an offer of healing and new life with the power actually to make it happen, may we be open to what Jesus might do in us, if we open our hearts, quell our fears, and invite Him in to change our lives.
June 30, 2019
Third Sunday after Pentecost
I’ve often felt that today’s Gospel contains one of the most heartbreaking and two of the most heartless statements from Jesus. I mean each sentence is worthy of an entire sermon. “Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Followed by, “Let the dead bury their own dead,” to the man who just asked if he could first bury his father. And then He follows that up by telling the guy who asked only if he might first say farewell to his family, that he wasn’t fit for God’s kingdom if he needed first to go back to say “good-bye” to mom and dad. I mean, did we somehow miss that verse where Jesus becomes Ebeneezer Scrooge? Passages like these last two have been collected in a book titled The Hard Sayings of Jesus, and there are a lot more than you might imagine. Most people don’t really want to hear them, I suspect, preferring the image of a “touchy-feely,” always smiling savior, one preaching only platitudes packed with good news and, when the time comes, who will be there waiting to throw open wide those famed Pearly Gates, waving us in no matter what kind of lives we’ve lived on earth. Frankly, unless we choose to read only select passages to make us feel better, this is not the Jesus revealed to us in the New Testament as a whole. In her book, Bread of Angels, Episcopal priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor, offers this observation:
“If Jesus were in charge of an average congregation today, I figure there would be about four people left there on Sunday mornings, and chances are that those four would be fooling themselves. Jesus would greet newcomers by saying, ‘Are you absolutely sure you want to follow this way of life? I will take everything you have. It has to come before everything else that matters to you. Plenty of people have launched onto it without counting the cost; and, as you can see, they are no longer here. Why don’t you go home and think it over? I would hate for you to get in over your head.’”
Another author imagined this classified ad, appearing in the Jerusalem Gazette, circa 30 A.D.:
“Wanted: Disciples. Volunteer position; no per diem; no health insurance, no guaranteed lodging. Those accepted may experience attempts on their lives and slurs on their character. Willing to travel a must. Those interested, show up at the city gates at dawn. Pack lightly. For those who do commit, death benefits are out-of-this-world.”
In a nutshell, these hard sayings of Jesus make it crystal clear that discipleship in this new religion—later to be called Christianity—was not for the uncommitted or for the faint-of-heart. It was true then and remains true to this day.
While the words that we hear from Jesus today may seem hard and unfeeling, coming from one known for His compassion and kindness, throughout the Gospel we often find Jesus using extreme examples to make a broader and less extreme point. Remember the rich man who turned his back on Jesus upon being told he must sell all of his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor if he wanted to become a disciple? Of course, not everyone would be asked to do that, but Jesus saw that his possessions were the one thing standing between this man and God. It goes without saying that the church today would never tell someone that they were needed right now and didn’t have time first to bury a family member. And yet, having said that, we would do well not to ignore or attempt to water down completely the warnings Jesus does bring to us about the dangers and the consequences of not fully committing to the faith we were baptized into and to the churches we have joined in order to live out those commitments.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some examples used by Jesus to make his points with this 1st century audience to see if they might help us today. One of the first things that struck me as I read Jesus’ response to the man who wanted first to go back and bid farewell to his family, was that we are facing a major problem in seeking to apply this particular example to our lives today. Jesus says to the man,”No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
“A hand to the plow”? Let’s just do a little reality check here, because while we are in the Midwest, surrounded by farms, with corn--hopefully sprouting about now in the fields--and not in southern California where I grew up, I wonder how many here this morning have ever had their hands on an actual plow, with the intention of using it? I confess that, except in movies and museums, I had never even seen a working plow until 1992, when I was Rector of a small church in Western Pennsylvania, with many Amish farms nearby. It was there I first witnessed human beings plowing fields, behind horses that pulled the plows. The first time I witnessed this was in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, the home of Westminster College, by the way, is where both Terri and our daughter Gabriela received degrees. I actually parked on the side of the road to watch. It didn’t take this Southern California raised boy long to figure out what common sense dictated. Be the plow human powered, horse powered, or tractor powered, if the operator whose actual hands are on the plow or on the controls, looks back too often or for too long . . . those nice straight furrows would soon become winding and useless.
Not paying attention to what lies ahead results not only in poorly plowed and ultimately useless fields on the farm, but ends up having negative results in the mission and ministry fields of churches as well. That same lack of focus and commitment not only hinders our growth as disciples, but also gets in the way of our ability to make straight the way of the Lord, and to bring others to the love of God in Christ Jesus. This explains what Jesus is trying to tell the unnamed man in our Gospel: “Before you sign on to become a part of my team, you had better first consider the true and long-term cost of discipleship. Because once you place your hands on the plow I am offering—there is no looking back and no turning back!”
The world we wake up to every day is full of churches whose members just love the idea of Christianity and especially those out-of-this-world benefits mentioned in that Jerusalem Gazette ad for disciples. But once they discover that baptism and just warming a pew on occasional Sundays doesn’t automatically punch their ticket for those benefits, once they realize that wearing the cross isn’t quite the same as bearing the cross, we find that many of those once-willing hands seem to fall away. The same is true when many would-be disciples discover that true discipleship has an annoying tendency to get in the way of things they might rather be doing with their time and their resources. Soon, they find themselves looking back wistfully on a simpler life; a life free of Gospel and church demands and pressures and—before you know it—hands fall away from those plows, while Jesus weeps and Satan smiles. And yet, those who have stayed the course have come to realize that, while that fictional ad for disciples wasn’t that far off, neither was it going to scare them away. Because while a truly active and committed church life does have certain demands for commitment, for service and support—it also offers bountiful rewards for truly committed disciples here on earth, long before we become vested in that divine benefits package: New friends, helping others, prayers, and practical help when we hit those inevitable rough patches on the road of life; not to mention being grounded in something and in someone much greater than ourselves; someone who is there for us at all the milestones and challenges we encounter along the furrows in those fields of life: birth, relationships, marriage, illness, loss, successes, failures—and so much more.
So, yes, there are many costs of discipleship which call us to keep our hands on the plow and our eyes fixed firmly on what lies ahead of us, even when we are sorely tempted to look back, letting our hands fall away while hoping that God will understand and that another will take our place. Even though God will understand and someone else will take our place, the history of our faith bears witness to the truth that many of those hands which fall away never again touch that kingdom plow, and yet another soul is lost.
All of us must, of course, make our own decisions concerning God, discipleship, and the cost of keeping our hands on the plow and our eyes fixed on the Kingdom while we live out our lives under the reign of God on this fragile earth. Because that, dear friends, is both the blessing and the burden of our God-given free will. Speaking only for myself, I know that despite being baptized as an infant and being raised in the church, my hands were never truly on that kingdom plow until I reached adulthood, when a merciful God almost literally slapped me up the side of my drifting head and offered me a way back to His heavenly fields of ministry. Since than I’ve awakened each day knowing I have a purpose in life; that when my feet hit the ground each morning, a plow awaits my hands, God’s vision awaits my eyes, and when the final furrow is plowed here on earth, at its end will be the welcoming gates of Heaven. This same sense of purpose, of commitment, and of peace awaits any disciple who isn’t afraid of the job description; who doesn’t want to be counted among the spiritually dead; and who not only understand, but is willing to live his or her life according to the commitments made to God at Baptism. When it comes to the importance of that commitment to God in our lives, no one has stated it as bluntly and as truthfully as Oxford Don and Anglican author C.S. Lewis: “Christianity,” said Lewis, “if false is of no importance; if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it must never be is of moderate importance.”
If you were called today to face God’s judgment, where would He find your life’s answer on Lewis’s scale? True, false, or indifferent?