Sermon for St Mark’s on Trinity Sunday, 2017
Notoriously Difficult to Understand?
Not long ago I was discussing the preaching schedule with Marilyn Roth, and said I was looking forward to preaching on Trinity Sunday. There was an interested if quizzical look on her face as she said, “You are the only priest I know who looks forward to preaching on Trinity Sunday.” Conventional wisdom is that preaching God as three in one is an assignment best avoided. I remember an announcement in a California newspaper, back in the day when sermon topics appeared in the newspaper, that went something like, “Next Sunday is Trinity Sunday, a doctrine notoriously difficult to understand. The Rector will preach an appropriate sermon.”
So let’s take Trinity head on. It is important for Christian thinking. First of all, the Doctrine of the Trinity teaches one thing and one thing only – that there is One God. So at your next gathering with friends over a glass of wine, if someone asks you what Trinity means, that is a sufficient answer. If the wine has been enjoyable, though, a friend may pursue, “So what is the three in one stuff about?” Let’s have a look at the process of discovering God.
The ancients saw God in the earth and its spectacular events. In the time of Abraham, there were myriad gods – weather gods, fertility gods, warrior gods, gods in the sun and moon, fickle gods and trickster gods, and gods who mated with humans. And were that not enough, each culture had its own gods. Jupiter was the supreme God of the Romans, and the supreme God of the Greeks was Zeus. You know about the gods of the Egyptians invested in Pharaoh, and a god honored by an upstart rabble of slaves called Hebrews, and of the contest of the ten plagues. So different gods were honored in a variety of cultures. After that contest with Pharaoh, though, something changed. These Hebrews, who once believed their god was a god among many, came to see that their god was more powerful than mighty Egypt. They came to believe that their god was the first and mighty god among the host of gods. The God of Israel was God of gods.
The changing was not over though. Through ensuing generations and through more contests, the Hebrew people came to understand that it was not enough to say that their god was the chief, but in fact, their god was the only god. The gods of the other nations? They were idols. (I Chronicles 16.26; Psalm 96.5) The Hebrews became truly monotheistic for the first time, an identity we share with Islam and Judaism today. So there is significant Biblical evidence of an evolving awareness of God – we call it revelation.
Then, among the people of God, prophets, priests and teachers, there appeared one who was unlike all others. I am speaking of Jesus. He was a real person, living in Palestine in the first century. At first he was seen as a promising young Son of Israel. But as he matured, the people saw strong teaching and controversy, and called him prophet. They saw extraordinary things which could not be unless God was with him, and they named him miracle worker. In his later years he took on the corruption of the religious and political establishment, and they named him criminal and had him executed. But God was not finished, and Jesus was raised from the dead, and continued to live released in the world. Then we named him Son of God, and saw him to be the purest and clearest revelation of the heart of God ever and since. What about the God of the creation whom Jesus called “Papa”, Father? Over time the holy people came to believe God was both Father and Son. Real change. Yet, after Jesus returned to the Father, extraordinary things continued to happen. Pentecost, miracles, the strength of martyrs and prophets even in our day, empowered by what they named “Spirit”, the Spirit of God, Spirit of the Living Christ, Holy Spirit. Spirit was more than the Father and more than the Son, yet the same energy as both, and the power of Spirit still influences and guides Christians in our faith.
In order to tell the whole truth of our continuing revelation of the Divine, then, we name God the Father, God the Son, God the Spirit – creator, redeemer and sanctifier. Three gods? No, just one.
Your friends may be sure they have you now, but don’t lose heart. We are enlightened people, they say. We are logical. We speak science, the language of either-or. So which is it – one or three? Ah, but science is not the only language. Life is as much “both-and” as it is “either-or”. “Both-and” is the song of spirit. Which is it, they say? One or three? The answer is “Yes”.
How can this be? Let’s try it on. I am Roy Green. You know me as Priest, and Priest I am. I am also Father, and though you met Nancy, you do not know my children. Only my children know me as Father. I am priest; I am father. These are not the same, but there are not two Roy Greens. Moreover, I am an amateur photographer. You have not traveled with me on a shoot, so that part of me is invisible to you. You can see evidence of my craft on the walls of my office, but you have not experienced my life as a photographer. Priest, Father, photographer – distinct, all authentic, yet there is only one Roy Green. The doctrine of the Trinity is about one thing only. There is one God.
One more example. Here is an apple, and only one apple. Yet there is skin of the apple, and flesh of the apple and seed of the apple. The skin, flesh and seed uniquely apple – not an orange skin, and the flesh, though you cannot see it, is surely apple and not pomegranate. And the seed? It is not flesh. It is not skin, but it is authentic apple because it produces only apple. Skin and flesh go away, but there is power in the seed. So this apple is three, yet it is one. Creator, redeemer, sanctifier – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the doctrine of the Trinity is about one thing only. There is one God.
Convinced? Ah well. Trinity is one name for God. Father, Son and Spirit also are names for God. If these confuse you, remember that “Love” is also a Biblical name for God, and though we don’t understand love fully, we can nevertheless live in love and walk in love as God loves us. Trinity Sunday, a good thing. And God, one God, the God fully revealed in Jesus continues among us today in Spirit. So good people, continuing the wisdom of William Sloane Coffin:
“May God give you grace never to sell yourself short, grace to risk something big for something good, and grace to remember that the world is now far too dangerous for anything but truth, and far too small for anything but love.” Amen.
Sermon for St Mark’s at Pentecost
St Columba was not an easy man. Patrick, Brigid and Columba are the three great saints of Ireland, but none fits the image of a gentle giant. Abbot and missionary, Columba is credited with bringing Christianity to wild Scotland. The Abbey he founded, Iona, is still active today off the west coast of Scotland, and was the dominant religious and political institution in that part of the world for centuries. He was a prophet and poet, wrote prayers and hymns, was deeply pious, founded Christian communities and influenced politics for all his adult life. But Columba was not an easy man. He was born in County Donegal in what we know as Northern Ireland about AD 521, and was descended from the great Irish High King Niall of the Nine Hostages. Columba was both clever and well-educated. He was a striking figure, of large stature and powerfully built, with a loud melodious voice who could be heard, ‘from one hilltop to another’. He was a force to be dealt with. Now there are schools and churches, cathedrals and monasteries, colleges and hospitals named for him from Ireland to Canada to India. There are Episcopal, Catholic, Lutheran, and Presbyterian churches which honor his legacy, and even the Irish national airline, Aer Lingus, dubbed one of its Airbus 330s “St Columba”.
Columba was no stranger to conflict. He once rallied his clan into armed conflict against the king when the king’s soldiers violated the rights of sanctuary in one of Columba’s communities. An exiled prince was living in sanctuary at the monastery, yet the soldiers broke the sacred tradition and dragged the man out. In the ensuing troubles, soldiers, monks and innocents died. More provocative, though, was his conflict with St Finnian over ownership of a copy of the Psalms. Columba had made a copy in his own hand of an original in Finnian’s library, with the intention of using it for missionary purposes. Abbot Finnian disputed his claim to the copy, but Columba was persistent. There was first verbal conflict, then violent conflict as the other monks took sides, and men were killed. For that violence, Columba was banished from Ireland. Abbot Finnian allowed him to take twelve companions but exiled him to the North Atlantic. The exiles were not allowed to land until Ireland was out of sight, a punishment which amounted to a probable death sentence. But as it happened, Columba found his refuge 60 miles north of Ireland, where he landed and established his community. The name of the island is Iona, and the Liturgy we used in Lent and will use next Sunday comes from that holy place.
It is interesting that his name in Gaelic means ‘dove’, because Columba did not at all like the depiction of the Holy Spirit as a dove. He believed a dove was too gentle, that the Spirit he found in Scripture was wild and thrilling and challenging in ways that doves could never be. Columba’s image for the Spirit? The wild goose. I am delighted to see that it is a goose which St Mark’s carries in procession today. Bravo!
Why highlight Columba on the Day of Pentecost? First, I admire his strength and independence. Second, his Feast day is this Friday, June 9, and throughout the summer I want to remember the saints on whose shoulders we stand today. But mainly, I remember Columba on Pentecost because we have so sanitized the Christian experience today, and frankly, so domesticated God, that the awesome God of the Bible and Christian experience is no longer recognizable among us. Columba was a powerful man, but not easy. And he made a difference. St Brigid was notoriously hard to get along with, but what a compassionate woman. If you were a poor person, Brigid was exactly who you wanted to see. You may have heard of St Jerome, a fifth century theologian, who made a translation of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew that we call the Vulgate. It was one of many pivotal ways Jerome advanced the cause of Christianity, but he was cantankerous and rude and most of his colleagues were afraid of him. Martin Luther King, Jr., was no pushover, and people who knew Mother Teresa say she was profoundly holy, but was sharp and direct and did not suffer fools gladly. These are God’s holy ones, yet you and I have grown up with the image that Christians ought be nice, and do the right things, and make no waves. That is not the Jesus I know. As one teacher recently said, “Jesus gave the Empire fits, but now the Church just wants to fit in the Empire.” And a proverb I heard in seminary: “Jesus came to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
I am not advocating a rude and obnoxious Church. We have shown and do show that side of us when we exclude or demean other denominations, and there is no place for that behavior among the people of God. There is no place for rudeness and aggression against folks of other faiths, or of no chosen faith, just as there is no place for violence in families. I am advocating, though, for a holy robust Church, an energetic Church which sings at the top of our lungs, a “fired up” Church, and there is plenty of injustice around to occupy our healing attention. I would like to see a Church which is candid, not afraid of risking offence, which honors the fear of God as awesome power and love. We need not just settlers and shepherds, but pioneers and prophets, for the Gospel to be heard. The Church needs to reclaim resistance as a Gospel value, and not keep silent when there is trouble around.
The Pentecost experience Luke presents in Acts is not gentle but stunning, with awesome signs and wonders. There was rushing wind, like a tornado. Jesus’ disciples, who had for fear been meeting in secret, were caught up in an ecstatic experience of God. They could no longer keep still or keep silent. The great good news of Jesus was bursting out of them. And were that not enough, somehow Jews outside in the streets, from other nations, heard the good news in their own languages. These same disciples became missionaries, and though their lives would not get easier by any means, they were now bold, and decisive, and fearless, never again to retreat.
St Peter, in his sermon later that day, recalled the prophet Joel (2.28): “…God declares that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dram dreams.” Let us welcome that Spirit, for we have that same great good news that the disciples had, and we live in a world which needs justice, community and the awesome love of God. May a bit of that Pentecost fire come upon us, and bring us alive, for as William Sloane Coffin once wrote: “The world is too dangerous for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love.” Amen.
Sermon for St Marks, Pentecost VII
“I am involved in mankind”
“All mankind is of one author and is one volume.” Do you know it? Here’s more, “When one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language.” Familiar? Did Jesus say it? More of a clue: “No man is an island entire of itself… Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”
Recognize it? You will now. “And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Ernest Hemingway? Actually, it is a poem by an Anglican priest, John Donne. (Meditation 17, from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions)
No man is an island – not even Jesus. Today’s reading from John is part of a long personal prayer between Jesus and God the Father. Their relationship startled some in its time, shocked others, amazed still others. But it is undeniable – what lasted the whole length of Jesus’ life, to the moment of his death, was an intimate relationship with God. If you ask, “Is Jesus God?”, at some level I need to say “No”, because his praying to God indicated the other, a Holy Other, Someone else, Someone beyond. No man is an island. There is Someone beyond whom we seek. So it was for Jesus. So it is for us. And so it is for us with Jesus.
As a child, I knew Jesus from Sunday School. I remember flannel boards with figures – Jesus, sheep, Jesus helping people, Jesus with his mother. I remember singing hymns in the junior choir, hymns about Jesus. He died on the cross, though the cross as object was foreign to me, as was death. There were flowers and new clothes and happiness on Easter morning, and by then, Jesus was OK again.
There were pictures of Jesus in those days. I saw that Jesus was a white man, brown long hair, clean clothes, kind face, who prayed a lot. Sometimes in the pictures Jesus looked earnest, sometimes intense. That was Jesus. I never saw a picture of Jesus grinning until I was in college. I heard Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so. I heard Jesus would be unhappy if I did bad things. I could not see Jesus because he was in heaven. And heaven was somewhere up there.
In adolescence I went to church with family, joined youth group, never was acolyte and didn’t think much about Jesus. There was a 7:30 service at church, and my folks went at 11:00. I discovered that if I got up early and walked past the church to the downtown donut shop I could have hot chocolate and donuts, and could tell the folks I had “already been to church”, and my morning was free. Never got caught, but soon abandoned this scheme out of fear of being caught. I did not realize that my image of Jesus was fading. At university, I did not have to go to church, so I didn’t. When on holiday at home I did, but was happier when it was over.
The folks were surprised, then, as were my friends, when as a college senior, I felt drawn to seminary. I checked out this new urge with mentors before I went public, but felt generally supported, though a few friends remained confused. All in all, though, looking back on 45 years, it was the right call. But it was not about Jesus. In seminary, it was about understanding the Bible and church history and doctrines and preaching. Then newly ordained, it was all about church, and leading services, learning to meet everyone’s expectations, and then years later, learning NOT to meet everyone’s expectations. There were career ladders to climb, from assistant to rector, then to rector of larger parish, maybe to bishop? Thank God that never happened! But truth is, I was more engaged with church than Jesus.
There were moments, though, during those years, when Jesus became intensely real, a Jesus I did not recognize, but could not dismiss. One such moment was in guided meditation, in which we were invited to see Jesus. We were to look at him in stages – dress, shoulders, posture, hands, feet, face – and while all the images were vivid, I could not see his face.
That invisibility troubled me. One colleague said, “Sometimes you cannot see for the darkness, other times you cannot see because the light is too bright.” Now see I did not know an adult Jesus, so I could not recognize his face. There were other times when interventions of Spirit comforted me, humbled me, or rattled me, but afterward I could immerse myself in church again, and things settled out well enough.
Over time, and often through painful and disorienting times, I came to know this new Jesus. This Jesus is spirit; this Jesus is companion and mentor. This Jesus is predictable, and unpredictable; a mystery and an anchor. This Jesus is close as our breath, but does not impose. This Jesus is wise, and loving, and laughs: at kittens chasing their tails, at mistakes made and remade; laughs with me, and sometimes laughs at me. Jesus also weeps, and knows grief and pain and heartbreak. This Jesus is God, and is not God, and brings me closer into God and into all that is holy. This Jesus opens my mind, shows me beauty in people I would easily have called stranger. This Jesus stretches my understanding, teaches me to see, really see, the hand of God in the world about us, and has diminished my fear of death. I don’t know what it will be like on the other side, but I know already I belong, there is welcome there, and as Scripture says, we will recognize each other.
Enough about me and Jesus. J. B. Phillips, another Anglican priest, is best remembered for translating the New Testament during World War II. His audience was people in their 20s and 30s who wanted to understand Jesus, but could not wade through the King James language. Early in the 1950s, though, he published a book entitled, Your God is Too Small. That has been the story of my relationship with Jesus, and with God the Father, and with Spirit. My images and understanding were too small; God is more than I can imagine, increasingly more. If that is your experience, that your God may be too small, you are on the path. Bravo and brava! If you feel you have it all together, and need nothing more from God, that sermon is for another day.
“All mankind is of one author and is one volume… No one is an island entire of itself… Any person’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” Jesus could have said that. This spiritual life of ours – what we have and what we seek – is all about relationship with Jesus: not so much believing things or debating facts about Jesus, faith is trusting in Jesus’ guidance, walking in Jesus’ way, welcoming Jesus’ presence. Perhaps that is why the more intimate language in Eucharist – “On the night you were betrayed, blessed Jesus, you took bread, said the blessing…” have struck a chord with us in St Mark’s. There really is something here. There really is Someone here, and relationship is what faith is about. Belief about Jesus and understanding accurately have their place, but trust gives faith its substance, and a sought relationship leads to deeper intimacy.
The last words Jesus spoke on earth are these: “Be assured, I am with you always, to the end of time.” (Matthew 28.20). Be amazed as you grow in faith, but remember, you have heard it all before.
Sermon for St Mark’s, Easter V
Someone Knows You’re Coming
You have often heard me mention my teachers. To you they are known and unknown people, some names recognized, most not. To me, they are the lights of the world in their several generations. I keep a list of their names in a journal, and every All Saints’ Day, November 1, I lay the journal on the Altar and mention each person by name in my thanksgivings.
Among the teachers you might not recognize are my hospice patients. For ten years, it was my privilege to walk end-of-life journeys with people in Oregon from all levels of society. There were elders and children, women and men, people of faith and people whose faith was quiet, and people for whom faith was more hope than belief. All had doubts, and there was usually some measure of fear in patient and family. It was the most intense and grounding experience of my priesthood. At the bedside of a person terminally ill, there is little use for religious speculation, and most of the theological issues of the church were of little interest. Some of my most profound teachers I found through hospice.
People wanted assurance that God is real, that there is welcome in the arms of that God, and that their pasts would not keep them from whatever life there is after life. The irony is that for Christians, most of the work I did was healing images of God. Atheists and non-Christians were not afraid of God. Most of the spiritual fear came from images of God as judge, God as policeman, God as a prosecutor who was righteous and vindictive. I remember calling on a woman in her fifties with whom I had been working for some months. I found her unusually agitated, and the agitation was not alleviated by medication. She asked if she had to remember every sin she had ever committed, so she could confess them before she died. Her brother had visited, a strong evangelical Christian, and he told her if she died with even one sin on her heart, she would be lost eternally. No wonder she was agitated. I told her I did not believe that severe inventory was necessary. If there were specific memories troubling her, we could deal with them through confession, but it was not necessary spend her final days in fear that she might have forgotten a few. Personally, I wonder if God is as interested in our sin as the Church has made it out to be. I am not convinced God will inquire after my sin when I face the day of my judgment. I expect God’s questions will be more along the line of “What have you sacrificed for? Show me your scars.”
I worked with a strong Baptist who was so sure of her faith that she had no doubts but she was heaven-bound. I asked her what she would do when she got there? Who would she want to see first -parents, husband? She said, “No, first I want to see Jesus.” I asked how she would greet him. She thought a moment and said, I’d like to hug him if he will let me.”
I have seen mending of relationships, miracles of long-standing feuds overcome, and deep sharing of stories which had been buried for years. There may not be curing when hospice is called in, but there is healing and healing and healing.
One of the angriest patients I worked with was a good Catholic woman in her nineties. She had been faithful all her life to the Church, but when at end of life she had something weighing on her soul, the Church did not take her seriously. When she went to confession the priest, out of respect for her age, gave her a light penance, like, “say an ‘Our Father’ and two Hail Mary’s”. Several priests had treated her this way – they thought with respect, but she felt she was being dismissed as insignificant. What was on her soul was anything but unimportant, and she had carried that secret burden for nearly forty years. She was tiny, but her rage at not being taken seriously was full and red. I found a Catholic priest of her own age to hear her confession. He took her seriously, gave a meaningful penance, and her soul was released. Thereafter, light was in her blue eyes, and there was music in her voice when she spoke. Even when she lost her ability to speak, she would hold my hand and in her eyes there was pure grace. She was healed in soul, mind and spirit, and when she left this world, it was without fear or anxiety, but in a state of grace and in the company of angels.
Some of the most interesting were the atheists. Yes, even a few atheists said on admission to hospice, “Send the Chaplain. I have questions.” I remember a psychoanalyst who greeted me with, “You’re the Chaplain? Are you Freudian, like me?” There was little room for anything but my spiritual honesty which I could ground in Tradition and Scripture. I answered, “No sir, I am Christian, and more Jungian than Freudian.” It took a moment, but he finally decided we could work together. What I learned is that atheists’ questions were the same as the people of faith: Is God real, is there an “Other Side”, and am I welcome there with the past I have?
We are blessed with many teachers, people who have touched our souls and made us who we are. These people who had invited me into their end-of-life journeys are some of mine, and I am continually reminded what a privilege, though penetrating at times, it was to walk these journeys. And all the while, I was working in the shadow of my own mortality. I could not be that close to death and not realize that one day, I will die. While acceptance has come, and fear has been depleted, I can tell you I have high expectations for whoever is Chaplain for me.
As we remember today Mothers who are our elders or deceased, when we realize that some of our loved ones, teachers and friends are with us no longer, when we take to heart our own aging and mortality, then Jesus’ words are more precious:
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places… And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, you may be also (John 14.1-3).
This is the voice of God: You are my beloved. You came from me, and you are coming home to me. No fear. No guilt. No hiding. Nothing will separate us. When you make your own journey home, Someone knows you are coming.
Sermon for St Mark’s, Easter 4
God’s Great Love Story
It may be that, next to his death and resurrection, what people most remember about Jesus is his parables. He was a wisdom teacher, a sage, a consummate teacher. His parables were constructed from the stuff of daily life but revealed a kernel of truth about the kingdom of God. Note, parables are not about the kingdom of God we inherit when we die, but the kingdom already present. Parables call for a particular way of living now, today, here.
You remember famous parables like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, or the Parable of the Mustard Seed. You may have been bothered by the Parable of the Unjust Steward. What about the one where a landowner employed people to work, and then at the end of the day paid a full day’s wage to those who had worked two hours as well as those who had worked twelve? Parables – Jesus’ favorite and provocative way of teaching. And there are more than thirty of them.
Interesting, then, that there are only two parables in the Gospel of John. John is writing later than Mark, Luke and Matthew, and the world had changed. There was more violent persecution of the followers of Jesus in John’s time, more real threats of extinction. So John includes two parables he must have felt were very important – the Parable of the Vine and the Branches, and the Parable of the Good Shepherd. Good Shepherd is about remembering who loves us, and Vine and Branches is about staying connected to Jesus as we practice what we have learned of love.
Vine and branches is an easy metaphor for our day, but “shepherd” takes some thinking. To Jesus’ hearers a shepherd with flock was familiar, a staple of the local economy. Shepherds were strong people who worked in the remote hill country. They bore heavy responsibility for the flock under their care. They took the sheep to pasture, guided them to green pastures and beside still waters. They defended them from predators with four legs and with two. It is said that in Palestine today, sheep recognize the voice of their own shepherd, just as Jesus said this morning, and will not follow another, even if flocks get mixed together as they pass through a town. But many of us have never met a shepherd, so what might be our metaphor for remembering Jesus who loves us? Does Jesus as mentor work? Jesus as wise elder? Jesus as teacher, or hero, or beloved elder brother? Son of God?
Whatever our image – shepherd, mentor, companion on the way - the message is that it is Jesus who is the source for us. It is Jesus who is the basis of Christianity. You may think that obvious, but stay with me. It is faith in Jesus, not faith in the Church. It is faith in Jesus, not faith in our priest or bishop. It is faith in Jesus, not dedication to our social agenda. It is faith in Jesus, not our correct understanding of the Bible, nor our best idea about God, nor in following the rules and having correct theology. We can hear the words, “I am the Good Shepherd, I am the Vine and the you are the branches”, but the essential message is “I am the Good Shepherd; I am the Vine.” Jesus is the heart, the best we’ll find. Jesus is soul of us all.
At the close of the reading today, Jesus said, “‘I am come that you may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10,10). Drawing from the Gospel of John, I offer a few truths which make life truly abundant, abundance which cannot be taken away from us:
Remember that in Christ we are family, and families require care and nurture, patience and respect. And remember, he said he has sheep not of this fold, and he will bring them also, so expect and welcome holy strangers to the family. There will be one flock, and one shepherd, but not one fold;
Remember that all of us are gifted, but no one has all the gifts, so we need each other;
Let us never forget that, beloved as we are, we still sin and fall short of the glory of God, so let us each see to our own recovery program;
Remember that in this life, none of us comes through clean. We all are wounded, and by grace we can become wounded healers;
Remember it is not our job to bring in the kingdom of God. Jesus said the kingdom is already here, so let us be good and faithful stewards of this present kingdom;
Finally, let us remember and hold fast that our lives are part of God’s great love story.
Jesus said, “I know my own sheep, and my sheep know me”. He laid down his life for us, and now lives released to bless the whole world, no exceptions. Let us set our hearts on Jesus above all things; let us even presume to become like Jesus just a little each day. And we will move ahead together – no forced marches, no one left behind, and always in the company of the Spirit. It may be slow, this journey in God’s kingdom, but we are not alone. The Good Shepherd delights in the presence of your company. Amen.
April 23 The Second Sunday of Easter
Deacon Marilyn Roth
My husband and I recently connected with a couple of high school friends, and our conversation drifted into sharing old high school memories. Nancy, my best friend during high school, asked whether the church she and I had started was still open. I said yes, “It’s called Lifeline Baptist church, and it is no longer located out in the Chenoweth area.” We laughed a lot as we remembered how scared we were to drop-off flyers each Saturday to houses located in the Chenoweth area, almost hoping that we wouldn’t get any kids to show up for Sunday School. Evangelism has a way of provoking fear in Baptists also.
Back in the latter 1960’s it was easy to get kids to come to church. Parents were busy, and they loved receiving a bit of a break from them. Over a year’s time it wasn’t unusual to see around 75-100 kids piled into the Chenoweth Grange Hall listening to high school kids teach them about Jesus. The entire missionary experience was quite exhilarating for teenagers, but Nancy and I graduated and moved onto college. Through the years I haven’t given my first experience of evangelism much thought, but today we will be celebrating the Feast of St. Mark the Evangelist so it seemed appropriate to share my own personal story of church planting.
St Mark is every person’s evangelist. Fear, curiosity, and ambivalence shaped his early Christian years, but in the end John-Mark’s name would be connected to the symbol of a mighty lion. But before he became famous, he was a young man struggling to know himself. So I am taking the liberty to share his history with my own paraphrased narrative. John-Mark’s narrative is captured from snapshots offered by Peter, St. Barnabas, and Paul. It goes like this.
The most terrible night in human history began in silence. In this silence, in a house cooled by a nearby garden, there slept a young man. Suddenly, his sleep was interrupted by the clanging of metal, excited voices, and loud screams. The young man leapt out of bed and hastily wrapped a piece of cloth around his naked body as he ran from the house to see what was happening. He thought that robbers had broken into his family’s garden, but what he saw turned out to be far worse than any robbery: A vicious mob, and shouting soldiers surrounded the holy teacher named Jesus.
The young man saw how the jeering mob led Jesus away; he saw how those men closest to Jesus ran away. How can one leave the Teacher alone in such a dire situation? This thought stung the young man’s heart, and he began to follow the crowd. Then one of the guards turned to him, and grabbed him, forcing him to run away in fear. The cover with which he had wrapped himself remained in the guard’s hands. John-Mark, too, ran away: miserable and naked, driven away by fear and shame.
John-Mark came from a pious family, who readily accepted the preaching of Jesus of Nazareth. The Lord Jesus would often come to his family’s property, to the shaded garden of Gethsemane, to pray in solitude. That is why St. Mark was nearby at the hour of Gethsemane. Jesus also chose the house of Mary, the mother of St. John-Mark, for his mystical supper. This same house later became a refuge and place of prayer for Christ’s disciples. The chosen disciples of Jesus knew and loved the young John-Mark, who Jesus himself chose to be among the 70 lesser apostles.
John-Mark did not initially stand-out from the other 70 followers of Jesus. His cousin St. Barnabas was much better known, where he played a role in the fate of the newly converted Saul, who would later go by the name of Paul. It was at the suggestion of St. Barnabas that the Apostle Paul take John-Mark with him on his first missionary journey. Though we do not know the age of John-Mark when he traveled with the Apostle Paul, there is reason to believe he was young, and somewhat soft and weak. The trip did not go well for John-Mark, so when Paul organized his second missionary trip he refused to take the young man with him.
For a while John-Mark returned to Jerusalem and hung out with the Apostle Peter. Peter took him under his wing, and gradually this young man became the closest and most beloved of Peter’s spiritual children. Later John-Mark traveled to Rome with St. Peter, where he would be known as the disciple and interpreter of St. Peter, and would set down in writing the words of Peter in the gospel that now bears his name.
Under the Apostle Peter’s influence, St. Mark matured, toughened and grew in spirit. Several years after Paul’s first missionary journey, he marveled at the change Mark had undergone, considering him a worthy companion. St. Mark was no longer afraid to travel long distances. Mark traveled to Seleucia, Cyprus, the Italian lands, Antioch, Ephesus, and inner Africa, where he preached Christ the Savior. When there were false teachers in Colossae, leading people astray, the Apostle Paul sent John-Mark to bring clarification to the teaching of Jesus Christ. St. Mark had become a teacher, a comforter of Paul while he was in prison, and a traveling companion of St. Peter.
But, St. Mark is mostly known for the book he would eventually write. The Gospel of Mark is written in a simple and succinct way, portraying Jesus as healer, miracle worker and Savior of the world. Historical references show that St. Mark founded the Church of Christ in Egypt, later serving as bishop of Alexandria. St. Mark would suffer the same fate of martyrdom as the other disciples.
One day as St. Mark was celebrating mass he was drug out into the streets of Alexandria face down, where he finally died of his injuries. The Holy Spirit transformed a timid young man into spiritual might, wisdom, and a lion’s courage to persevere when evil takes over. Who could have imagined that over the centuries St. Mark’s icon would show him as a lion surrounded by six angels as he holds the gospel he wrote.
The symbolic picture of St. Mark holding a lion and a gospel probably mean very little to our 21st century minds, yet, they point to a man who became a courageous giant among Christians during his lifetime. At some point in the history of this church, the patron saint of St. Mark was chosen to model their ministry in the world. I like to think that our strong voices still penetrate the veil of evil and injustice that Jesus railed against in his lifetime. Evangelism simply means to share the good news about Jesus Christ, and what better way to do that then sharing compassion and love with the world. Amen.
“Too good not to be true”
I am of an age at which many of my spiritual fathers and mothers have died. When I look, then, for the generation above me, and ask, “If they are gone, who is carrying the light?”, the “Oops” is, that it is my generation. One of those spiritual fathers, who has shaped my life and pulled me back from dark places, was Brother Roger of Taizé. You may know Taizé prayer, and the music from that community is popular here and all over the world. Brother Roger was the founder of the Taizé Community and when I came within a few feet of Roger, I could feel holiness. He taught with gentle insight, was especially sensitive to young people, and above all, Brother Roger embodied hope for Christian souls. In one of his reflections, Roger wrote, “In Christ, your resurrection has already begun”.
Today especially, it is essential for Christians to claim that resurrection can be for us, as well as for Jesus. It is essential for us to embrace the risen Christ, and then release that Christ-light in our communities and beyond. This Easter is about your and my personal resurrection, just as the first Easter was about Jesus’ resurrection. John O’Donohue, another spiritual father, wrote “May the mansion of your soul never become a haunted place. May you look with kindness when you gaze within.” A soul which is not haunted; self-esteem which honors the deep good within us? What if we are in resurrection, now, instead of waiting for something on the other side of death?
I believe these are signs of our present resurrection, signs which you may recognize and own:
If you seek a deeper experience of God, a personal communion with the Divine; if you wonder about life-after-life and what welcome or expectations might be on the other side; Your resurrection has already begun.
If you have an active conscience; if you take a stand against injustice and try to respect the dignity of every human being;
Your resurrection has already begun.
If you walk gently on this good earth, mindful of the needs of those who come after us; if you find moments of beauty in sky, sea and stars, and in the gaze of little ones, moments which stop you in your tracks and leave you with only sighs;
Your resurrection has already begun.
If you look in your past and see good people who have been your heroes and angels, who have shaped you and made you who you are – when you honor their gifts to you;
Your resurrection has already begun.
If you cherish your dreams and have unfinished business, journeys still for you to make;
Your resurrection has already begun.
If there are people you need to forgive; if there are people with whom you would be reconciled; if you have discovered the hardest forgiveness is forgiving yourself;
Your resurrection has already begun.
If you have been betrayed or damaged; if you have been bullied or rejected; if you have been embarrassed at your own behavior or been disappointed at the unfairness of life, but refuse to surrender or become bitter;
Your resurrection has already begun.
If you know grief, or how a broken heart feels; if you weep at the suffering of children; if your heart goes out to another in deep pain; if you have ever prayed you could take on yourself the suffering of someone you love;
Your resurrection has already begun.
If you cherish those you love, and let them know; if you work toward unconditional love, if you strive to love others so that no one is allowed to become an enemy;
In Christ, your resurrection has already begun.
Friends, remember always, we are Easter people, and Alleluia is our song! Live into your resurrection. Recently I saw a video program on the Christian community in the Middle East, in Bethlehem. There was a fish merchant, a Muslim man, who had been educated as a child in St John’s Episcopal School in Haifa, Israel. The man had emerged from hopelessness and found a meaningful life through his education, and is sending his children now to the same school. On camera, he was asked about a Muslim going to a Christian school in troubled Israel. I was moved by how he answered. With confidence in his eyes, he said, “Christian, Muslim – never mind. One God… one God.” I remember, as well, his gracious smile as he spoke.
Honoring this one God with our love, God who is God for everyone, in our communities, in our nation and in the world, for everyone without exception, is a sure sign of resurrection. Remember, the ways of God are always forward. Our mission is not a wish for a better world, but a step forward making hope, and presents itself in the next person we see. Let it be our conviction to let our light shine, so that when others see us, they may see something of Jesus.
Is this too good to be true? It is too good not to be true. In Christ, our resurrection has already begun. A rare and blessed Easter to you all! Amen
Sermon notes for Lent IV
26th March, 2017
So that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind. (John 9.39)
I offer you this morning five points of wisdom. I believe these truths give substance to Jesus’ mission to allow us to see past our blindness. They are not my five points. I learned them from Fr Richard Rohr, and they help me see past the smoke and mirrors I make of my life. They may be shocking to you, or uncomfortable, but I know they are truth, and you should expect nothing less from your preachers. Besides, they will lead us into the heart of God.
LIFE IS HARD
Life is not fair; even the good things in life can be hard.
You are signed with the cross in baptism, so don’t be surprised when it shows itself.
Difficulty, pain and suffering are the only elements strong enough to get the full attention of our egos. Even adversity has grace in the wisdom of God.
Remember: Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope is not disappointing because God’s love has been poured into our hearts. (Romans 5.3-5)
YOU ARE GOING TO DIE
Mortality and impermanence must become apparent. Life here is limited. Death has a place in the economy of God. To look in the face of death, to know its language and its limits, reduces fear and sets us free. Grief will come. Grief comes because we love, but we need not fear.
We came from God and we are going back to God. Everything in between is a school. (Rohr)
Remember: There is nothing in death or life, nothing in the realm of spirits or superhuman powers, nothing in the present nor future, in the forces of the universe, in heights or depths – nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8.39)
YOU ARE NOT THAT IMPORTANT
Humility is essential for human health and happiness. Humility assures there is room for others, and their humility makes room for us. You are gifted, chosen, and cherished, one among many, but not more than one.
We are of the earth – hummus – and our dignity is that we are human, beloved of God.
All else is window dressing
Remember: Your name is written in heaven (Luke 10.20
YOU ARE NOT IN CONTROL
We believe we are until God leads us to limits of our own resources. Then we might learn something utterly new and good. We are stewards, by grace, but not in control.
Reality is in control – let the actual teach us. Spiritual journey begins when we know we are not in control.
Remember: Jesus - I am with you always… (Mt 28.20) And the essential lesson from Job – Someone trustworthy IS in control.
YOUR LIFE IS NOT ABOUT YOU
You are about life – small part of a larger picture – a momentary instance in the suffering and resurrection of God
You are part of this grand mystery of life, life that we share with every other creature on earth, life that came before us and will go on after us. It is not about us, we are about life
The opposite of death is not life. The opposite of death is birth, like opening and closing parentheses. But there is life before birth and after death, God’s great gift. And if God is greater than life, then we are part of God. Your life is hid with Christ in God… Colossians 3.4)
Jesus said he came into the world, “So that those who do not see may see...
Think on these things: Life is hard; you are going to die; you are not that important; you are not in control; your life is not about you. See if they don’t ring true at a profound level. Check the Bible verses. Then take your old head off, and put on a new heart. It will change everything. Amen.
Sermon for St Mark’s, 12th March, 2017
Phadraig of Eirinn
“In truth I tell you, unless a man has been born over again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus needed time to grasp what Jesus meant: Nicodemus wanted to understand, Jesus wanted Nicodemus to think more deeply than just the rules of religion.
My son, at age sixteen, told me, with conviction, he wanted to be a Marine. I asked, “Why the Marines?” Allen said, “They will make a man out of me.” I remember saying, “Yes, but there are easier ways.” He would have none of it, and enlisted at 18. When I saw Allen after twelve weeks of boot camp at San Diego, he had become a man. I do not have boot camp experience, and I know only from his stories what it was like for Allen, but I saw the man who emerged. The best was developed and sharpened, the childish and naïve was worn away. Here was rebirth, and though his service is complete, he is still a man I respect deeply.
I have a story of another sixteen-year-old who became a man through ordeal, but you may have to unlearn an earlier image you have of him. He is known as Phadraig of Eirinn, or in English, Patrick of Ireland, and his feast day is Friday. The image I hope to dispel is of leprechauns, shamrocks and green beer. Phadraig was none of this, and I believe, deserves a proper story.
Phadraig was a Roman citizen living near the west coast of Britain. Born in 385, his was a middle-class family. Phadraig was Christian, but “lukewarm”. He lived a comfortable life and was passionate about little, until he was sixteen. Then in a raid, Irish slave traders kidnapped Phadraig and his sisters and sold them to bondage in Ireland. It was not pretty. His parents never saw him again.
Phadraig was a slave for six years, tending sheep in the mountains of the west of Ireland. It was a brutish life, in snow and rain, cold and unforgiving wind, with stone huts his only housing when he could find them, and sheep and wolves and thieves his only company. Life was hard, and he lived by his wits, on meager rations, with death always near. For six years! In those conditions he grew into a man.
During Phadraig’s ordeal he learned to pray. Stalked by fear and danger, his cavalier attitude about prayer changed. He prayed sometimes a hundred times a day. You can be sure – prayers in those conditions, to keep his sanity, to outlive his slavery, prayers to find food to eat and get through the night – this was honest, if desperate, prayer. Desperate prayer is always honest.
The second transformation from that ordeal was that Phadraig confronted fear, and he learned to face into it and get through it. As Richard Rohr says, “If you have to go through hell, be sure you go THROUGH hell”. Phadraig did just that. He was faced with hell, and found his way through it. He faced his fears, assessed their dangers and passed through. His trust in the God of his prayers grew, and he reclaimed his Christianity. Phadraig became a mystic the hard way. He was truly born over again.
Six years after his capture, he had a vision that a ship waited in the east to take him home. Vision or no, he successfully fled Ireland, trekking 200 miles to the coast. The ship was there, but bound first for France, and he had to work for his passage. Eventually making his way home he was welcomed, but his parents were dead, and his sisters were lost.
A second vision came to Phadraig, the man now fully alive, a call to return to Ireland and bring his faith with him. A man he met in Ireland, Victoricus, appeared in the vision holding letters for Phadraig, and the voice of the Irish: “We pray you, holy youth, to come and walk among us again as you did before.” Phadraig went first to France for seminary, and to Ireland fourteen years later, as bishop and missionary.
Ireland was then a wild land with wild people, a land of druids and sorcery. Conditions were primitive, health was poor and life expectancy short. There was no “country”, but hundreds of tribes, with a hierarchy of kings. Yet at his death at age 76, Phadraig had converted pagan chieftains, walked most of the island preaching and confronting evil, and left disciples and 700 churches to carry on his work. He lived a determined life. He was humble, generous, and perhaps because his Latin was poor and his learning moderate, the common people loved him.
One more story – a showdown. The High King of Tara observed a festival at Springtime in which all the fires in Ireland were extinguished and his druids lit the first fire as part of the celebration. For Phadraig and his disciples, the festival day was the same as Easter, so on the Eve Phadraig lit the Easter Vigil fire to celebrate resurrection, within a mile of the Hill of Tara. The outraged High King sent soldiers to arrest Phadraig, and there were anger and threats from the lords and nobles as he and his disciples were force-marched to Tara. Phadraig went before the High King and explained himself. His disciples said he was relentless proclaiming the resurrected Jesus. The High King was impressed, and later allowed Phadraig freedom to preach in his lands. But it was not eloquence or miracles that made the impression. Phadraig was not afraid. Before these wild and dangerous folk, Phadraig was not afraid, and the High King respected that. The lessons from captivity, when slave became a man, transformed his future. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Unless a person be born again…”
Phadraig was a self-professed exile, a former slave and fugitive, who learned the hard way to put his whole trust in God. He was not an easy man, certainly not a half-hearted man. He was a solid, passionate man, a real person. He is to Ireland what Francis is to Assisi, Joan of Arc is to France, and Mother Teresa is to Calcutta.
So wear green on Friday, enjoy your Irish whiskey or try to catch a leprechaun. But remember, that is not the real Phadraig. And for your own story, hear Jesus, “Flesh can only give birth to flesh; it is spirit that gives birth to spirit.” (John 3.5)
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.