Sermon notes for St Mark’s, Pentecost II
Frederick Buechner is a Presbyterian theologian and master of truth and words. Writing about preachers, he remembered Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Coming home from church one snowy day, Emerson wrote, ‘The snow was real, but the preacher spectral.’ In other words, nothing he heard from the pulpit suggested that the preacher was a human being more or less like everybody else… Undoubtedly he preached on matters like sin and salvation but without ever alluding to the wretched, lost moments or the glad, liberating moments of his own life or anybody else’s.”
Buechner concluded, “There is perhaps no better proof for the existence of God than the way year after year he survives the way his professional friends promote him.” (Whistling in the Dark, p6).
Ah, the life of a preacher. We work hard, try to listen and learn and then say something useful to you and to God. But if the preacher’s life is not consistent with the words, then the words have little worth. I remember a preacher, later elected bishop in a major diocese, who rarely looked at the people when he preached. He fixed his eyes on a point above their heads, and for twenty minutes spoke to the back wall. One of my beloved mentors was a man honest in spite of himself. Father Knapp was a compassionate priest, a wise elder who was a real person. And the memorable characteristic of his preaching? Fr Knapp sort of giggled when we said something he felt required to say, but which he could not quite believe. And, I remember a high compliment paid to a priest. I recall when his wife said of him, “Vincent is authentic.” Who would know better?
“There is perhaps no better proof for the existence of God than the way year after year he survives the way his professional friends promote him.” May the Lord have mercy upon preachers, and their listeners.
This sermon is not a defense of my authenticity. If you have questions about that, no words will change your mind at this point. It is, though, a means of introduction, a look at the humanity of a particular group of people whose names are familiar to you, but their persons may not be.
Jesus summoned twelve disciples and named them apostles, and Matthew and Luke list them in pairs. Today’s list begins with Peter and ends with Judas Iscariot, the major players among the twelve in Matthew’s story of Jesus. The ten in the middle, however, have at best minor speaking parts in the story. Most church people, if asked to name these ten, might think a moment and then say, “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, yes. And doubting Thomas.” Thomas and John are correct, but Luke and Mark were Gospel writers, not Apostles. So we have four – Matthew and John, and Peter and Judas. Paul, maybe? “Yes” to Paul, and “No”. He was not among the Twelve, but proclaimed himself “apostle” after Jesus appeared to him in a vision and sent him to the Gentiles.
So who are the Twelve? Simon, whom Jesus named Peter, was a commercial fisherman in Galilee. He was married, impulsive, the first to name Jesus Messiah; one who denied Jesus three times, and was three times reclaimed as Apostle. After Pentecost, he converted a centurion named Cornelius. Peter was a stickler for the Jewish dietary distinction between clean and unclean animals, until in a vision God taught him all are clean. Peter died a martyr under Nero, was crucified upside down, and is honored as first bishop of Rome, predecessors to the Popes.
Andrew – commercial fisherman, the first person called by Jesus, a disciple of John the Baptist, who later came to Jesus. He then brought his brother Peter. Andrew introduced the boy with the five loaves and two fish. Also an evangelist round the Black Sea; now the patron saint of Ukraine, Romania and Russia. Also felt unworthy to be crucified as Jesus was, so his cross is an “X”, known as St Andrew’s cross today.
James Zebedee– commercial fisherman, elder of two brothers who left dad in the boat (what a note for Father’s Day); was with John and Peter when Peter’s mother-in-law was healed. One of the sons of thunder, Boanerges, because of their impetuous spirit and fiery temper. Tradition is he went to Spain to evangelize, and I have walked the Way of St James – Camino de Santiago de Compostella in Spain.
John Zebedee – commercial fisherman, younger than James. Also disciple of John Baptist, outlived the other apostles and only one to die of natural causes in exile. Nature was calm, but when his patience was pushed he and James became wild – wanted to call down fire on a Samaritan town which rejected Jesus. Remained by Jesus at the cross, took Mary into his care, evangelized with Peter. Referred to five times as “beloved disciple”, but only in John’s gospel. Tradition is he is buried at Ephesus.
Philip – a disciple of John Baptist, called by Jesus and he brought Bartholomew (Nathanael); witnessed the wedding of Cana. Seems to be bilingual (Greek and Hebrew) and brought curious Greeks to meet Jesus. Evangelist in Greece and Syria after Pentecost.
Bartholomew – Nathanael also is his name, perhaps a farmer (from his name), always with Philip.
Thomas – Skeptic, but not cynic. Brave. First to say “Let’s go to Judea and die with him”, a twin; candid – we don’t know where you are going, how can we know the way. Gospel of Thomas. Some ancient traditions suggest his twin was Jesus, but no evidence. Went to India – Mar Thoma Church there strong.
Matthew – tax collector (aka, Levi, son of Alphaeus). Literate in Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek, as well as mathematics., but collaborated with Romans, so Jews would have hated him. Hard duty among Twelve.
James Alphaeus – the less, the younger James (or shorter), perhaps brother of Matthew (father has same name). Also suggested as James, the brother of Jesus, but sources conflicted.
Thaddeus (Luke = Judas, aka Jude) – brother of James the Less, little known. Patron of lost causes.
Simon the Cananean – a member of the Zealot party, zeal for the Jewish law, perhaps an early “Tea Party” conservative. Affirmed Jesus’ challenges to religious and political establishment.
Judas Iscariot – the treasurer, betrayer, honored as St Judas Polish National Catholic Church as a necessary player in God’s drama. Be wary of condemnation.
Matthias – the replacement for Iscariot, evangelized in Ethiopia, but no corroborated testimony outside tradition.
So who are these people? Nobodies; converts from one messiah to another; men with tempers; brothers and people with families; impulsive, candid and rash people; earthy people, workers in the field and commercial fishermen; professionals; curious people who took years to believe, but people capable of being amazed, who, once they saw Jesus for who he is, answered with deep devotion. Save one, who may have been the first to repent his great sin, and perhaps might be given a measure of grace. Especially by those of us who also sin.
The reason Jesus’ ministry outlasted that of John Baptist is that though John had disciples, he was a sole proprietor of his ministry. Jesus had disciples, but he commissioned them, gave them his work to do and authority to do it. Jesus franchised, you might say, and so his movement spread after he was gone. And for now? Jesus still has disciples, still franchises his ministry, still looks to you and me to change the world in his name. For as that blessed hymn says, “The saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.” (# 293)
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.
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.