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)
5th March, 2017
The most effective course in preaching I ever took began in discomfort. The first day of class, the Professor assigned us each a five-minute sermon. He came to one student, offered a choice from slips of paper, on which were Bible verses. The student had two minutes to prepare and then preached. Other students commented on his sermon, then the professor, and the slips were offered to another, who drew, had two minutes, and preached. My friend David drew, “Jesus wept”. After his two minutes, he talked about weeping as sign of compassion, of honesty. He shared an example of how he wept at friend’s suffering, how he weeps for things happening in the world, and concluded.
After student comments, the Professor had only one criticism. David preached on the wrong half of the text. The point is JESUS wept.
I thought about temptation for this sermon, temptation in my life, how I use my power to serve myself, and the ways I can dress it up to look like good. I thought about my excuses for choosing what I want, and how I blame others when I don’t do what I ought to do. Do you recognize these behaviors? Sure, but the point of the Gospel is that temptation happened to Jesus.
When this drama took place, Jesus was unknown. He was at the beginning of a ministry which, at that point, could have been meaningful or could have gone unnoticed. No one knew him. He had no reputation. He had not healed anyone, had not preached a sermon. He had not told a parable. Jesus could have passed through life and no one would ever know his name.
Alone in the desert with a dream of serving God, the temptations came. Jesus wondered about his purpose. He had a strong conviction that God’s first name is love. He had a good idea. He might be able to teach a new way of living. His vision of God as loving Father was underrecognized in his time, and he wanted to share it. Jesus had a good heart and a great love of God, and he wanted to tell his story. And in the wilderness, while sorting that out, they came. The story tells of three temptations to his power – personal power, political power and religious power. Perhaps you can relate.
First, he was encouraged to turn stones into bread, After all, he was hungry. “Why not gratify your own hunger, build up your strength and make a show for your God? That could be useful in getting the allegiance of those who are starving, yes? Use your power, Jesus, to satisfy yourself and get the attention of others.”
Second, Jesus was tempted to throw himself down from the tower of the temple, for surely, the Scripture says, the angels of God will catch you. “What a demonstration of divine power. And what good news to those who are oppressed. God might send angels to save them. Could start your revolution!”
Third, Jesus saw he might take power over the nations, power to make his good religion the only religion in the world. It could be done if Jesus used power to make people hold to one religion. It might seem good to us, at first glance, if all the world was made Christian? And made Evangelical Christian, or maybe you would want progressive Christian? Or maybe you think the Episcopal Church is the shortest road to heaven? But would that say “love” about the God behind the religion. How would Jews and Muslims and Non-believers respond? Jesus believed they too are children of God?
Temptations come at the place of your power, where you can do something. There is no temptation to invest in something not of interest or within your power. I have not the slightest temptation to take up astronaut training so that I can go to Mars. We are tempted to do what is within our power. So the question is, how will we use our power?
Temptation is attractive. No self-respecting devil would offer personal, political or religious ruin, but success. The ruin comes in the small print at the bottom of the temptation. And real temptation does not offer for us to fall but to rise. And the greater the power, the greater the temptation, the greater the fall.
All this happened to Jesus. He had a dream, and was tempted to MAKE it happen, or to say the ends justify the means, to achieve success at any cost. He has walked where we walk. Not a stranger, he calls us to understand our power and the temptations which come with it. He held to his devotion to a God who has love for all, and put that love at the top of his list of purposes.
The classroom for your temptations is anywhere you have power. So first, recognize the voices of temptation – quick fix, self-serving, blame someone else, become famous. Second, like Jesus, call on your high principles. Jesus placed God’s desires at the center of his decision-making. We can hold those principles, like respecting the dignity of every human being. And be sure not to fall into blaming God for our troubles, or trying to be cagey with God’s rules While we may worship many things, only God’s worship leads to wholeness for all. Finally remember – we are not alone. Jesus has walked this way ahead of us.
You might think my Professor cruel to give that assignment on the first day. His point was only to show we could preach. You can do this. He could persuade us we could preach, or tell about others who had learned, or given us samples of sermons, or he could let us find for ourselves. T
The end of this Gospel story, when Jesus had passed through the temptations, was not the end of his temptations. They were with him constantly, as ours are with us. With each step, however, he grew stronger. With his company and God’s help, may that be our story.
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.