Sunday, September 3, 2017

Genuine Love and our Cross

SERMON
St. Simon’s on the Sound
September 3, 2017
Matthew 16:21-28

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves
and take up their cross and follow me.

This has been a challenging week for me. As a matter of fact, I find all first weeks following my Haiti mission trips challenging. The jump from being embedded in what many have called a “fifth world” country to a fast-paced, technologically savvy, and incredibly affluent “first world” country – the USA, is jarring, and deeply troubling. I can speak only for myself when I say that my initial inclination on these first days back home is to jump on the next plane back to Haiti, to be with those whom I have come to love so very dearly as they walk their way through an unbelievably dangerous, difficult, and arduous existence.

It is during these post-trip weeks that I consider in absolute wonder how I arrived at this place of deep commitment to a culture so foreign from the one in which I grew up – so very much the antithesis of the one in which I live. These are weeks in which I shed tears. Tears of sadness for the painful images impressed upon my mind’s eye. Tears of joy and wonder for the memories of happy faces and big hugs received from the men, women and children that I, along with my team, have served.

It is most certainly during these post-trip weeks that I enter into deep prayer more than several times each day. Prayers in which I beseech God to support me in the important task of discernment and to guide me, through the presence of the Spirit in my heart, mind and soul, as I make my way through next steps in this complex mission work. A mission call that I have been given by God that attempts, in some small way, to strengthen the capabilities of those in remote rural Haitian communities as they struggle to bring healthcare to their brothers and sisters who live near and around them – to their community.

And, then, of course, this past week brought the nightmare of Hurricane Harvey. Devastating wind and rains pummeled Corpus Christi, Houston, and Louisiana. Flooding in these areas has forced the evacuation of an estimated 1.7 million people. 1.7 million people displaced, their homes and businesses destroyed.

Our eyes and ears have been glued to various devices that continually scroll news media headlines, twitter feeds, and heart-breaking images of men, women, children and their pets stranded, sometimes chest deep in swirling, dangerous waters. An astounding number of people affected by Hurricane Harvey, waiting to be rescued, hoping for relief – images and reports that bring tears to our eyes and compel us all towards a rush to action. What can we do? How fast can we do it? How can we make it better?

And so, amid post-mission trip emotions and disbelief at the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, I sat down to write today’s sermon. I read and considered today’s Epistle and Gospel readings, saying over and over to myself, and others, “Wow – what could be a more appropriate for this week?  Not only is Jesus giving us our marching orders – ‘Take up your cross and follow me,’ but Paul is instructing us in the “how to’s” of carrying out this very clear and compelling commandment, ‘Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.’

The critical question here, of course, is -  what is the cross that Jesus is referring to? What does it mean when Jesus says, “Take up your cross.”

In Jesus’ day, a cross was a symbol of pain and suffering; a symbol of death.  It was the structure used by Romans to execute criminals. It was the instrument used to inflict an unbelievably painful and disgraceful method of capital punishment.

The Jewish historian Josephus, who witnessed live crucifixions during Titus’ siege on Jerusalem, called it "the most wretched of deaths." Victims were usually beaten and tortured and then forced to carry their own cross to the crucifixion site. Because of the long-drawn-out suffering and horrible manner of execution, it was viewed as the supreme penalty by the Romans.

Therefore, when Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me,” he is not referring to a physical cross – our current symbol of Christianity, which, of course, did not exist in Jesus’ world. No, in this command Jesus means, if you want to be a true follower of mine you must be willing to suffer; willing to die – die to self.
What Jesus was telling his disciples, and us, in this passage is that we need to put to death our own plans; our own impulses and desires. We need to turn our lives over to him and do his will in every way, every day. Jesus is clear - dying to self is a call to the absolute surrender of ourselves to the will of God.

The cross that Jesus is referring to is that meeting place of where we thought we were going and the disruption, or event, that causes us to re-think and re-calculate our way. It is that place in time when we realize that our lives must change, dramatically, because of something that we have seen, or heard, or experienced.

The cross that Jesus is referring to is our answer to a call from God to move forward into a place we never dreamed of, on a journey that is driven by our response to God’s will in our lives.

A journey that quite possibly will challenge us in ways that have yet to be known and that are, most probably going to be, far from comfortable. A journey through which we will become a new self – one that is grounded in Christ.


“If anyone want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

So, what does this mean for those of us here at St Simon’s today? What does it mean for mean in my post-mission turmoil? What does it mean for all of us who want to jump on the next plane to Houston and offer whatever talents and treasure that we possess? What does it mean for those of us who have other needs or concerns pressing on our hearts and minds?

I believe that this is where Paul’s exhortations are so very important. He begins, “Let love be genuine…”

Paul is speaking in this passage of love as agape - the highest possible form of love. The love of God for man and of man’s corresponding love for God. Agape embraces a universal, unconditional love that transcends and persists regardless of circumstance – it is not mere fellowship or a friendly passing acquaintance. Agape is complete, unconditional, and selfless love of the other – no matter where; no matter when.

What does agape have to do with our response to any desire within us – the need to rush back to Haiti; the need to rush off to Houston; or, any other impulse that befalls us.  Jesus and Paul both demand that agape form the basis for our thoughts and actions. They demand that our responses and reactions must come from true love of and for the other – agape - not from a need to quiet discomforting emotions within one’s self.

Agape demands that we carefully discern between our own needs; our own desires; our own anxieties, and the true needs and desires of the other. Our cross – the cross that Jesus is asking us to take up if we wish to follow him – this cross is always founded on agape– true love. Once true love has replaced concern for self and personal needs, desires and agendas, all else falls into place. It is only then that with zeal and ardent spirit we can take up our cross and follow Jesus; rejoicing in hope, being patient in our suffering as we journey to serve “the other,” and through serving the other, serve Christ.

When Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me,” there is no doubt that he is inviting us to follow him; but, he does not want as disciples a burdensome rag tag bunch of stragglers who pull at the hem of his robe. Jesus does not want those whom he has invited to be the rock of the church’s foundation to instead become stumbling blocks that cause us to lose our way.

Jesus is inviting us to be rocks that form a strong foundation; and so, he will accept as true disciples only those willing to carry an agape cross, a cross of love and compassion for the other – not always a safe and comfortable task.  But it is only an agape cross that will bring love, light, compassion and healing to those with whom we are called to work.

My agape cross is Haiti. My cross brings with it frustration, pain, anxiety, confusion, fatigue and a host of other feelings – none of them very comfortable; many of them quite complex. It is a cross that requires deep and continual prayer, ongoing discernment and tons of patience. It is a cross that binds the people of Haiti into the depths of my heart and soul. I have often said, “My heart belongs to Haiti.”


My agape cross does not allow me to jump on a plane and rush back to Haiti.
My agape cross demands that I not give in to immediate frustrations and anxieties, but that I spend prayerful time discerning and planning my next steps in Haiti. I want to serve God’s mission, not my own.

What is your agape cross? How does it tug at your heart?

Take up you cross, the Savior said, if
you would my disciple be; take up your cross with
willing heart, and humbly follow after me.

Take up your cross let not its weight fill
your weak spirit with alarm; his strength shall bear your
spirit up, and brace your heart, and nerve your arm.

Take up your cross and follow Christ, nor think
think till death to lay it down; for only those who
bear the cross may hope to wear the glorious crown.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Good Seeds...Bad Weeds

Sermon
St.  Simon’s on the Sound
July 22, 2017
Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43

Good seeds and bad weeds. That is what Jesus is teaching us about today. Sow good seeds in good soil, but don't be surprised when you discover bad weeds taking advantage of the nutritious soil, the nourishing environment that has been prepared. Bad weeds are inevitable. Bad weeds are greedy and tenacious. Bad weeds can so easily engulf and wipe out our well-being and our life as a disciple of Christ.

Today, Jesus, once again, is teaching his disciples about what I like to call "the way of the cross." The way that Jesus expects his disciples – that means you and me, as well as Simon Peter and all the others -  the way that Jesus expects us to live our lives when he says, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." (Matt 16:24)

In this parable, Jesus, once again, warns us of the perils that we will encounter as we take up our cross and follow him. He uses the metaphor of good seeds and bad weeds to help us understand the challenges that we face as we journey as disciples of Christ.

The concept of weeds choking out good plant growth is fairly simply. Contending with weeds is nothing new to us. We have all experienced the hot and dreary work of pulling them time and again just to get space for our flowers and vegetables to blossom and grow. But, in today’s parable Jesus advises, leave the weeds. Let them grow up beside the good crop, he says. Don’t worry, in the end the weeds will be destroyed, and the product of the good seeds – God’s children - will grow and flourish. 

Jesus closes this parable with the warning, “Let anyone with ears listen.”

We have now heard two parables about seeds – one last week and one today. Each parable framed by the distinct warning, “Let anyone with ears listen.”

What is it that we need to listen to this week – certainly not just a gardening lesson on weeds and seeds. What is today’s allegory – today’s teaching.

Our lesson today: don't be choked out by the bad weeds that will inevitably grow up around you...the distractions and the temptations placed before us every day in this chaotic world. A world filled with temptations of every sort. Don’t give into greed, overindulgence, envy, and bitterness. Don’t let the evil that surrounds us deter us from maintaining strong roots in the good soil provided by Jesus.

In other words, we must commit to focusing on God as the center of our lives despite all distractions. We must ensure that our hearts, our minds, and our souls are continually being fed by and growing in the good soil prepared for us Jesus. The good soil -  the compassion, the light and the love that is foundational to finding our way into the gift of God’s Kingdom.

The bad weeds are the world - the chaotic and negative influences that surround us each day.  The distractions and temptations that lure us and lead us astray. The distractions and temptations that have the power to weaken and perhaps kill the roots that have been so carefully planted in the good soil – the way of the cross.

Jesus prays, “Father. Let anyone with ears listen!” Listen to my warning, he says. Do not let the bad weeds overtake you. In the end, they will be destroyed – collected and burned with fire - and those who have resisted their temptations “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” Jesus’ warning to us, and his promise of the glory that we will discover in God’s kingdom – if we heed his warning.

I don’t know about you, but I have encountered plenty of bad weeds in my life journey. Some of those weeds got the best of me. They stifled me. They grew rampant around me. I found myself disoriented and unable to find enough light to see my way up and out of their tangle. It was, I suppose, what we might call hell on earth.

Then one day, as I was walking down Main Street in Portland, Maine the red doors of the Episcopal cathedral shouted out to me, “Come in.” I was totally startled. I stopped walking. I looked at the doors. I started toward the doors. I stopped and said to myself, “This is silly. The church is probably locked, why would I even try the doors.” I started walking down the block – two steps, and then I stopped again. I turned back. I went up to the doors and timidly tried them. They opened.

The church was dark and totally empty, and yet I felt compelled to take a seat. I made an attempt at a prayer. Tears started. I stopped praying and just stared at the altar. A priest sat down beside me. “What brings you here, he asked.”

And so, the weeds of my life began to loose their power and my good seed roots took firm hold in the good soil that I had been given years before when I was baptized as a child of God. I had ears and I listened.

I would imagine that many, if not most of you, have similar stories of weeds overtaking your growth as a disciple of Christ. And that, like me, somewhere along the way your ears heard God’s voice and you listened.

In today’s world, we are the few – the few who still keep our ears tuned for God’s voice. The few who are keenly aware that there even are weeds that must be contended with every step of the way.

However, as disciples of Christ simply clearing away the weeds for ourselves is not enough. We also have the responsibility of helping others to understand the effect of weeds in their lives. We, as disciples of Christ, are appointed to be the bad weed parable bearers to those who have either lost their way, or who have never been blessed with hearing the good news – the gospel of Jesus Christ.

St. John of the Cross said, “In the dark night of the soul, bright flows the river of God.” I pray that we, who are so blessed and whose good seeds have overcome the bad weed challenges of this life, are now able as disciples of Christ to go forth into our world as companions to those still lost in the weeds.

Our world needs us. It is our mission in Christ to help those in darkness understand that, “In the dark night of the soul, bright flows the river of God.”




Sunday, July 2, 2017

Being Church in the World

Sermon
St. Simon’s on the Sound - July 2, 2017
Matthew 10:40-42

How did I not see this before, I said to myself as I sat in the Atlanta airport waiting for a flight that we all prayed would be on time? How did I miss something so obvious? How did I not fully understand the intent of Jesus’ words when he proclaimed, “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation?” (MK 16:15) How did I not fully grasp the intent of our baptismal vow to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

Sitting there in the Atlanta airport, attempting to block out the commotion of noisy travelers and confusing PA announcements, and praying continually that my flight would arrive on time, and then take off without delay, I had what I believe we would call an epiphany. Or, perhaps since I really have no words to describe the experience, only a burning in my mind and in my heart, I had what might better be described and a “mystic moment.”

I experienced in a fleeting moment an insight into the meaning of being in the world that touched my heart, my mind and my soul. In this fleeting moment, I experienced so clearly the significance of “giving a cup of cold water to these little ones”. I understood what being in the world, our mission – the charge given us by Jesus – I understood what our being in the world means through very, very, new lenses. Lenses that have affected my way of seeing and being ever since.

The event that precipitated this “mystic moment” was a conference on Global Mission that I attended a couple of weeks ago in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. The conference agenda was focused on the concept of the church’s identity being formed in the world, as opposed to the church’s identity being established within the four walls of any given building.

The Rt. Rev. Rob Wright, bishop of the Diocese of Atlanta, was the main presenter. In his words, “If we continue doing church in the way we have been doing it, we will remain perfectly prepared for the 1950s. We must bring an end to doing church inside out four walls and begin being church – being church in the world.”

“Being in the world” is, of course, our mission. The mission given us by Jesus when he said, “… “Go into the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” (Luke 10:15)

Of course, intellectually, I was very familiar with this concept of being church in the world. We, in various clergy groups and congregational training programs, have been discussing emerging from the isolation of our four walls and moving into our community and beyond to spread the good news for more than several years. But, it was the Atlanta conference that provided me with the spiritual awakening to precisely what it is that we promise when we vow in our baptismal covenant to go into the World as disciples of Jesus -  to go and proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.

How did I miss grasping the reality that being in the world is not about going forth out of the pews and through the church doors with the goal of “doing good,” and then returning to the church parish hall with its various meetings and coffee hours to report on our efforts?

How did I miss grasping the reality that ultimately being in the world – domestic or global –is, ultimately, not about individual trips abroad, or various ministry efforts here at home?

How did I miss the fact that being in the world has little to do with our identity as members of this or that congregation, or carrying out tasks associated with this or that outreach initiative?

How did I not previously grasp the obvious – that being in the world is a going out into the world with no agenda except that of looking and listening. Looking and listening for those in darkness. Looking and listening and then discovering -  discovering and being with the wounded.

Being in the world is the work of discovering, being with and working together to heal those who are in some way wounded. Being in the world is traveling our life’s journey with the specific goal of fulfilling our baptismal vow to seek and serve Christ in all persons.

This new way of understanding being in the world points, at least for me, to the obvious -  our church is not a building – these four walls. Rather, our church is the world. And, our congregational life is not a permanent home; rather, it is simply our spiritual oasis, a stopping place along the way to rest and to be refreshed.

The four walls that we enter each week are no more than a place to gather and to renew ourselves through prayer and the breaking of bread. A place where we have our “cup of cold water.”

Our congregational life is an oasis, a sanctuary in which we come together with Christ each week. A place where we can feast on the bread of life that will sustain us as we leave and go on our way back into the world. It is a place where we fulfill our baptismal vow of continuing in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship and the breaking of the bread.

Looking, listening, discovering, being with and healing – all ways in which we as followers and disciples of Jesus are far more likely to meet our incredibly challenging baptismal charge of striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the human dignity of every human being.

The week following the conference my emotions were running high. I was struggling with what to do with my new way of seeing our life as God’s missionaries in the world. Disturbing questions filled my thoughts. Questions such as, “Is my work in the church really fulfilling my baptismal covenant, or am I just another cog in a wheel that goes around and around within the church’s four walls, never actually rolling out into the world?”

In other words, I had an uncomfortable coming face to face with God and my tendency – just like all of us – to see my attempts to “do good” through my own rose-colored lenses. I remembered a quote by Thomas Merton, “Humility sets us free to do what is really good, by showing us our illusions and withdrawing our will from what was only an apparent good.” And, I prayed fiercely.

And then, miraculously, last weekend a stunning example of being in the world occurred right before our eyes – and it was powerful, so very powerful.

The hard work, courage and persistence of St. Simon’s congregation members in collaboration with a planning team of over 25 individuals from all walks of life, all religions, and all ethnicities came to fruition in the Feed the Need event last Saturday morning. Approximately 800 volunteers worked joyfully and in unity to pack food for those who are experiencing food insecurity.

In other words, they were giving “a cup of old water to these little ones.” Through their work at the food packing, they were bringing God into the world of those who are suffering.

Jesus’ message to us over the past few weeks has been so very clear. As he went about proclaiming the good news and healing the sick, he saw that the “harvest was plentiful, but the laborers were few;” so, he summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority to cast out demons and to cure every disease and every sickness. He advised them that they would be like sheep among wolves. He warned them that they would experience hardship and persecution. He commanded them to persevere. Their goal was to remain clear – bring God into the world of those who are living in darkness.

In today’s gospel Jesus continues his sending message to the disciples. He reminds them that whoever welcomes them will be welcoming Jesus, and in welcoming Jesus they will be welcoming the one who sent him – they will be welcoming God. In welcoming the disciples and accepting their offered cup of cold water, they accept God into their lives.

The recent gospel readings from Matthew are so very relevant to our congregational journey as we emerge from habitual ways of doing church to new and exciting ways of being church. In this post-food packing week, I have heard comments from so many people that reflect their excitement in being church in the community.

Excitement in experiencing the spiritual fulfillment of bringing a cup of water to those in need, and through the power of the offered cup – in this instance the food packing - sensing God’s presence among us in a new and thrilling way.

We are a people sent by Jesus, and at times it does feel as if we are sheep among wolves – emissaries of God in great peril. But, we have vowed to proclaim by word and deed the Good News of God in Christ. And each week after our Eucharistic meal we pray, “…Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart…” We pray for the strength and the courage to proclaim by word and deed the Good News of God in Christ. And then, we go forth, out of the church, into the world – being church in the world.




Thursday, June 15, 2017

Upon Reflection

Upon Reflection

Upon reflection, the global mission conference that I attended this past weekend in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta created for me a new way to experience the concept of mission in the world. Or, perhaps I should say, the conference gave me new lenses through which to see precisely what we mean when we say – “go” – Go into the World as disciples of Jesus - Go and proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.

How did I not see this before, I said to myself as I sat in the Atlanta airport, waiting for a flight that we all prayed would be on time? How did I miss something so very obvious?

How did I miss grasping the reality that ultimately mission in the world – domestic or global – is not about individual trips abroad, or various ministry efforts here at home. Mission in the world is not about going forth out of the pews and through the church doors with the goal of, “doing good,” and then returning to the church parish hall with its various meetings and coffee hours to proudly report on our efforts.

How did I miss the fact that mission in the world has little to do with our identity as members of this or that congregation, carrying out tasks associated with this or that outreach initiative?

How did I not previously grasp the obvious – that mission in the world is a going out into the world with no agenda except that of looking and listening. Looking and listening for those in darkness. Looking and listening and then discovering -  discovering and being with the wounded. Mission in the world is the work of discovering, being with and bandaging the wounded. Mission in the world is traveling our life’s journey with the specific goal of seeking and serving Christ in all persons.

This new way of understanding mission points to the obvious -  our church is not a building. Rather, our church is the world. And, our congregational life is not a permanent home; rather, it is simply our spiritual oasis, a stopping place to rest and refresh.

The four walls that we enter each week are no more than a place to gather and to renew ourselves through prayer and the breaking of bread. Our congregational life is an oasis, a sanctuary in which we meet Christ each week. A place where we can feast on the bread of life that will sustain us as we leave and go on our way. It is a place where we continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship and the breaking of the bread.

Looking, listening, discovering, being with and bandaging – all ways in which we as followers and disciples of Jesus are far more likely to meet our incredibly challenging charge of striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the human dignity of every human being.


“…he said to them, “Go into the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Luke 10:15)

Monday, May 8, 2017

Follow, Always Follow

SERMON
St. Simon’s on the Sound
Fourth Sunday in Easter
John 10:1-10

“Whenever he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice”
Several years ago, I embarked on a two-week pilgrimage that followed the footsteps of Paul’s three journeys through Greece and Turkey. As I am sure you know, it was in the wake of these many miles traveled by Paul, that the first churches of the Christian faith were founded.

In that brief two-week period, I visited and walked through the ruins of over 15 ancient temples and churches, and I experienced Paul and his commitment to Christ in a new a very tangible way.

As the first week of the pilgrimage drew to a close, and we were just about to leave the very northern region of Greece and enter into Macedonia, we visited the Monastery of Great Meteoro, also known as the Monastery of the Transfiguration of Christ. This is the largest of the seven monasteries located in the Metéora Valley. (middle of the sky; in the heavens above)

The Great Meteoro Monastery was erected in the mid-14th century. Its purpose was to protect the Byzantine monks who were threatened by the invasion of the Turks.
Access to the monastery was deliberately difficult, requiring either long ladders lashed together or large nets. Pilgrims who wished to visit the monastery were hoisted up vertically alongside the very sheer 1,224-foot cliff where the monastery overlooks the Valley.
To say that the visit to this monastery was a breathtaking experience is putting it mildly – both literally and figuratively - especially after having climbed the many steps that have now replaced the ladders and baskets.

As we drove away from the ethereal heights of the monastery, we turned down a winding road skirted by lush green grass. Coming around one the of hairpin bends, we came upon a lone shepherd leading his sheep home to their pen for the night. The shepherd looked tired. He was leaning heavily on his crook with each step that he took.

However, the sheep did not look tried at all. They were spread out over quite a large area, and the young lambs were running back and forth, playing and perhaps checking to see if their mother was still close by.

But, no matter how spread out, the sheep continued to move in a forward direction following the shepherd. And the shepherd, no matter how tired, continually looked back to check on them, and he always stayed in the lead.
There were 27 of us on the bus that late afternoon, and to a person everyone shouted, “Look at the shepherd. Just like Jesus in the story of the Shepherd.”

And then, of course, as the bus hurried along, the shepherd and his sheep disappeared. Exhausted from our afternoon of climbing and exploring the magnificent monastery, we sank back into our comfortable bus seats, some of us dozing and others, perhaps like myself, thinking about Jesus as our Shepherd, and the struggles that the early Christians encountered as they followed their Shepherd in faith and with courage.

Knowing the little that I do about farming and farm animals, I do not believe that there is anything terribly romantic about sheep or their shepherds. Sheep are dirty and dumb and shepherds are hardworking souls who most frequently live in abject poverty, and who are constantly on the watch for wandering sheep, predatory animals and bandits who are dedicated to stealing all the sheep they can for their own profit.

The image of Jesus in a blazing white robe, with flowing golden locks and an angelic and clean lamb around his neck is, as I am sure you will agree, grossly romantic – a completely unrealistic depiction of Jesus as a Shepherd.
A more accurate description of Jesus as Shepherd might be that of a charismatic and loving Nazarene struggling to harness and inspire an illiterate and unrefined group of Galilean disciples as he wends his way to Jerusalem, teaching and healing as he goes from town to town.

Jesus, the rabbi, the teacher, leading his sheep through dust and dirt, intense heat and freezing cold, perhaps leaning heavily on his staff and from time to time sleeping in crowded stranger homes, other times sleeping in scruffy fields and arid desert caves, with little water and almost no food – that, I believe, would be a more accurate portrayal of Jesus as Shepherd.

But, the most important aspect of Jesus as Shepherd overrides all pictures or physical descriptors. The most important aspect of our image of Jesus as Shepherd is our understanding of Jesus as leader. Jesus who knows the names and personalities and needs of all his sheep. Jesus who lovingly leads his sheep always -  always, despite all hardships – leads them always in one direction. Leads them to the sheepfold, to Jerusalem. Opens the gate for them and leads them to the Holy Temple, leads them to the cross – leads them to God.

“Whenever he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice”

Today, the fourth Sunday of Easter, is known as Good Shepherd Sunday, with Jesus depicted as the Good Shepherd. In the brief passage from John that I just read, Jesus is both shepherd and gatekeeper. He refers to himself as a shepherd who calls his sheep by name, and leads them both into and out of their pen.
He also refers to himself as the gatekeeper who opens and closes the gate for them. He claims responsibility for the sheep’s well being, their salvation from thieves and bandits who are eager to distract them and lure them into danger, and perhaps death - Distractions and malicious ways that kill and destroy.

This passage is preceded by the story of Jesus healing the blind man when Jesus proclaims to the crowd that, “I came into the world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” And, it is followed by the passage in which Jesus declares, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…”

These declarations are quite stunning. Jesus will help us cast off false ways of looking at how best to live our lives – he will teach us how to make possible the world that God envisions for his beloved children – he will help us to see.

Jesus will lead us to a place of peace and safety; a way of living a life based on love and faith. He will help us push aside the distractions and distortions of our world that lure us into situations of discord and violence – he will be our protector.
By going to the cross Jesus will lay down his life for us to ensure that those who now see and those who have now entered the safety of the sheepfold – a new way of life - will remain safe in their new way of seeing and their new way of being.
Jesus will be our savior – he will lead us to God.

“Whenever he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice”

Receiving and holding fast to the gift of our Good Shepherd is no easy task. Life is filled with distractions and temptations. It is so easy to fall away from God as we bustle through the challenges of everyday life at home, at work, and elsewhere. Our vision can be so easily blurred; we can so easily wander onto the wrong path and miss the gate that has been opened for us. We can so easily lose sight of God.

I think back to the monks who scaled a 1,224-foot mountainside in the Meteor Valley to protect their faith – the Christian faith – from the invaders from the far East. They were determined in their faith to hold fast to God and to retire to a place where they could not only worship their Lord, but could also create incredible art and literature that has depicted the glory of God to hundreds of thousands of pilgrims.

And, then I think of the shepherd ascending the hill, tired from a long day of protecting his flock. His challenges throughout the day may have been many, wandering and perhaps sick sheep, bandits, hunger and thirst, and loneliness, but he has held fast in his determination to be a good shepherd and in doing so has maintained the safety of his sheep.

Neither one of these paths are easy ones. They require incredible faith, love, courage and discipline. They require perseverance and the clear vision that allows Jesus to remain in their sight always, so that the wrong path is not taken, but the open gate – help patiently open by our Lord Jesus Christ is -attained and entered.

I believe that each one of us here at St. Simon’s and all those who are members of the body of Christ – the church -understand the incredible gift of our Good Shepherd. A gift that is beyond understanding. A gift that is more than a gift. A gift that is a way of life. A gift that brings us every day into a way of seeing the world and being in the world that leads us all into God’s kingdom, both here and for ever and ever.

Michael Curry, our presiding bishop said in his famous sermon “Crazy Christians – A Call to Follow Jesus,”

“being a Christian is not essentially about joining a church or being a nice person, but about following in the footsteps of Jesus, taking his teachings seriously, letting his Spirit take the lead in our lives, and in so doing helping to change the world from our nightmare into God’s dream.” 

O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. AMEN





Monday, April 24, 2017

Washed in the love of Jesus

Sermon
Maundy Thursday – April 13, 2017
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
John 13:1-17, 31b-35


The hour for Jesus to leave us has come. In less than 30 minutes we will exit the church in darkness and silence. The altar and the sanctuary will be bare. The candles snuffed; the crosses covered in black; the music silenced.

Our minds will be stunned; our hearts numbed. With tears welling in saddened eyes, we will exit into the darkness of night – a night in which the light and life of our Lord Jesus has been extinguished.

In less than 30 minutes Jesus will leave us.  Yet, in these all too brief, but incredibly important, few moments we, as Disciples of Christ, will have the opportunity to be with him in a most amazing way. A way that is perhaps more compelling, more fraught with emotion, more powerful than the stripping of the altar, the darkening of the church, the setting of the Altar of Repose, and our exit in grief and silence.

In just a few moments we will participate in the ritual of foot-washing, an act of humility, compassion, and love. An act of servant devotion instituted by Jesus so many years ago in that crowded upper room in Bethany – the site of his last supper with the disciples. In just a few moments we will step back in time and enter that upper room. And now, as then, as feet are washed the humility and compassion of Jesus as he prepared for his crucifixion will leave us bewildered, most certainly deeply moved.

Without a doubt, the foot-washing is a challenging ritual. After all, who wants to come forward, take off their shoes, and expose perhaps the ugliest part of their body - those funny, sometimes cracked and dirty things called feet? Who wants to expose their ugly feet – who wants to sit on a stool and wash the feet of others?

Indeed, many churches eliminate the foot-washing from their Maundy Thursday service entirely. Other churches slip it in quietly and quickly – the altar party as the only participants while the congregation sits in silence listening to beautiful music. And in churches where the foot-washing ritual is practiced in its entirety, many members of the congregation hang back, too embarrassed or conflicted to participate fully.

What in the world are we thinking by assigning this embarrassing, messy, and strange act such a prominent place in the midst of an otherwise traditional and compassionate liturgy?

Don’t feel as if you are an odd man out for having these, or similar, thoughts. These are questions that even the disciples had for Jesus. Simon Peter was incredulous. He said, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Peter could not believe that Jesus would stoop to such a low level. Why would Jesus, their teacher, their rabbi, their Lord, perform a task not even required of most household slaves? Normally, guests were provided with water and a cloth and expected to wash their own dirty and cracked feet.

Jesus, undeterred by Peter’s question, continued about his business. He wrapped a towel around his waist and got started with the foot-washing saying, “Unless I wash you, you will have no share with me.”

When Peter heard Jesus speak these words he recognized that the simple and embarrassing act of foot-washing meant something far greater. Somehow Peter knew that Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet was central to the message of salvation that his Lord was teaching. All of a sudden, the act of foot-washing took on an importance for Peter – an importance way beyond the simple act itself.

And, Peter wasn’t wrong. The foot-washing was in fact an essential key to these last lessons that Jesus was imparting to his disciples.

Jesus was telling Peter that without the foot-washing one cannot "share" with him. The word “share” used here – the Greek meros – means to share with or be a part of.

The foot-washing in the context of this last meal that Jesus was sharing with his disciples represents not only a fellowship with Jesus, but also a sharing in his heritage, his kingdom. Raymond Brown in the “Gospel According to John” observes that Jesus words are not "if you don’t allow yourself to be washed," but rather: "Unless I wash you." Jesus’ salvific action is embodied in the act of the foot-washing.

Foot-washing, then, is much more than a moral example to be imitated, a guideline for better Christian living. By symbolizing the sacrifice of Jesus, it also serves as an invitation to be "washed" into love and fellowship with Jesus; into a share of his kingdom as we are cleansed of sin.

Michael Taylor in “The Different Gospel” writes, “Jesus tells Peter he will be lost if he does not accept this act. The foot-washing in its demonstration of humility and servanthood is a pre-cursor to the crucifixion-death of Jesus. The crucifixion is not a disgrace to be rejected, a scandal that proves the unworthiness of the one who dies that way. The crucifixion is God’s ultimate act of love. It is the gift of his Son for our salvation. And, unless Peter and all believers embrace it and let it embrace them, there will be no sharing in Jesus’ legacy.”

If Peter is to have a share with Jesus, then he must be washed by Jesus.  He must allow - without question, without embarrassment – he must allow Jesus, graciously and lovingly, to wash his feet.

Now Jesus has Peter’s attention. Peter swings from one end of the spectrum to the other. He wants not only his feet washed – he wants his whole body washed by Jesus. Peter wants to be assured of full inclusion in whatever Jesus is offering – he wants it all. Peter eagerly responds, “Then, Lord, . . . not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

Jesus responds – “Peter you are missing the point” - “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet.”

This is enigmatic statement that has been food for many scholarly interpretations. Alan Culpepper in “The Gospel and Letters of John” writes that Jesus’ response can be interpreted as affirming that the “one who has been washed by Jesus’ death, which is to be interpreted as the foot-washing, has no need of any further washings.

R. H. Lightfoot in “St. John’s Gospel” concluded that “the feet-washing is probably best interpreted as having the same significance and efficacy as the Lord’s death.” In other words, Peter misses the point by thinking that the frequency and extent of physical washing would increase his “share” with Jesus. Jesus was undertaking the humiliating act of foot-washing to prophesy that he was to be humiliated in death.

Peter’s questioning enables Jesus to explain the salvific nature of his death. Through his death, he will bring humanity into relationship with himself, and into a share of his kingdom. The cleansing of their sin is brought about by the blood shed at Calvary and symbolized by the cleansing waters of foot-washing.

After Jesus finished washing the disciples’ feet, he put on his robe and returned to the supper table. Once again, he spoke to his disciples saying, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So, if I, your Lord and Teacher, has washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Our marching orders from Jesus – always follow his example – always do unto others as he has done to us.

This then is the challenge that we face tonight as we prepare for the foot-washing. Are we able to move beyond the superficial embarrassment of exposing cracked and dirty feet and instead create a place deep within our hearts and minds that allows us to experience the humility and compassion of our Lord as he prepared for the ultimate act of humiliation, crucifixion upon the cross.

Are we able to intentionally share in this act of foot-washing with the members of our St. Simon’s community in a way that builds community. A community that cannot be described in words. A community that is founded upon, is fed by, and grows out of humility, compassion and love – the same humility, compassion and love demonstrated by Jesus in that small upper room so many years ago.

Are we able to be washed by Jesus and to wash one another, thinking not of our feet, but of our hearts, our minds and our souls as they engage with the passion of Jesus and his death upon the cross?

Are we able to love one another as Jesus loved us?


There is indeed a great deal to pack into these precious last minutes with our Lord. Many words and actions to see and hear with the eyes and ears of our heart. Multiple complex teachings to realize if we are to truly grasp the glory­ of the resurrection and the significance of our lives as Christ’s disciples. Much to understand that is, in the end, so very mysterious – so completely incomprehensible, and yet so glorious.

As we wash each other’s feet, pray and break bread together, say our last words of thanksgiving and praise, the words from John’s gospel will linger as critically important lessons in our minds:

·        “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
·        “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”
·        “Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, not are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
·        “Where I am going, you cannot come.”
·        “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”