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.
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.