In the name of one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
An atheist went to an auction and bought an ancient lamp from a cathedral. He took it home and began to polish it. Suddenly, a genie appeared, and said, “You know how this goes. I’ll grant you three wishes, Master.” The atheist said, “I wish I could believe in you.” The genie snapped his fingers, and suddenly the atheist believed in him. The atheist said, “Wow. I wish all atheists would believe this.” The genie snapped his fingers again, and suddenly atheists all over the world began to believe in genies. “What about your third wish?” asked the genie. “Well,” said the atheist, “I wish for a billion dollars.” The genie snapped his fingers for a third time, but nothing happened. “What’s wrong?” asked the atheist. The genie shrugged and said, “Just because you and everyone you know believes in me, doesn’t necessarily mean that I really exist.”
Last week there was a story making the rounds on social media sites. I read it on a site called Episcopal Café. Since I read it, it has (as they say) gone “viral.” It seems that a same gender couple in Orlando Florida wanted to have their baby baptized at the Cathedral there, the community in which they had been worshipping for some time. The parents met with the Dean of the Cathedral to talk about the baptism, and a date was apparently chosen. However, just before the date of the baptism arrived, the parents were informed that people at the Cathedral had objected and so the baptism was being cancelled. The story then goes on to give comment from the Cathedral Dean as well as the Diocesan Bishop, both of whom refer to this as a “misunderstanding,” and say that they are trying to get something worked out.
There are myriad sermons that could be written, based upon this news story. There are church polity issues, social justice issues, biblical interpretation issues and just plain theological issues to be discussed. But it seems to me that the story of an Episcopal Church denying baptism to an infant because of something the church deemed to be “wrong” with the child’s parents, cries out to be discussed in the context of today’s scriptural readings.
In the lesson from the Acts of the Apostles, we heard this:
The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
Then, in the reading from the 1st Letter of John, the writer says,
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.
Finally, in today’s Gospel we heard,
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. … I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
It seems absolutely beyond question to me that, above all else, Jesus insisted upon His believers living out the commandments of love that He gave them. He did not tell them to go out and begin to judge who was worthy of love and who was not. Jesus never told them that there were some people that they were supposed to love, but others that they were not supposed to love. He told them that there were only two “Great Commandments:” that they love the Lord their God with all their hearts, minds, souls and strength; and that they love their neighbors as themselves. That seems incredibly straightforward to me.
I have heard the argument way too many times, that what Jesus meant when He gave us the commandment to love, was that we should love the sinner but hate the sin. I cannot count the things that are wrong with that. But a major one is that Jesus did not say that … anywhere. He never set us up to judge each other’s sins because He knew all too well that we are all sinners, with Him being the only exception. Jesus knew that if He commanded us to judge each other before we decided whether or not to love, there would be no love in the world. He knew that when we have the opportunity to judge each other, it becomes a contest of homogeneity – we tend to like only those who are just like us and we judge harshly everyone who differs from us.
At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gave us what is known as the Great Commission, when He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” There is no system built into that commission for us to determine who is acceptable to receive the sacrament of baptism. Jesus never suggested, much less commanded that we should set up a system of obstacles that must be negotiated before people can be baptized.
Our baptismal service is a wonderful overview of what baptism means to both the individual being baptized and the church community into which that person is being welcomed. At every Episcopal baptism, the gathered community reaffirms its faith through the call and response of the Baptismal Covenant. In that covenant, we recite our central statement of beliefs, as set out in the Nicene Creed. But then we take it farther than just reaffirming our beliefs. We go on to make promises as the Church that is about to accept a new member of the Body of Christ. We promise – with God’s help – to:
· Keep receiving Communion and praying;
· To try to avoid sin, but when we fail (as we will) to repent and return to God;
· To speak and live the Good News of God in Christ;
(Now here’s where it gets trickier.) We then promise:
· To “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving (our) neighbor as (ourselves)”; and
· To “strive for justice and peace among all people, and (to) respect the dignity of every human being.”
Jesus said that we should love each other just the same way that He loves us. And while He was on earth, Jesus loved: the poor; the diseased; the misshapen; the ones whose faith tradition was different from His own; those for whom society had no use; and yes, even those whom society had branded as having committed sexual sin. I am sorry, but I just cannot find – either in Scripture or in our own Book of Common Prayer – any place where it says that the sacrament of Holy Baptism can be denied to any person who desires (or whose parents desire for her or him) to receive it.
Whether a church denies baptism to someone who does not attend services often enough to make church leadership happy, does not give enough money, or (as in this case) someone whose very life does not seem to measure up, in any case, the church is turning its back on what Jesus commanded – not suggested, not requested, but commanded – us to do, to love an baptize people.
Episcopal churches know better. Hopefully someday we will all act better.
 Matt 28:19-20 (NRSV)
 BCP pp 304-05
 Luke 6:20 (NRSV)
 Matt 8:3 (NRSV)
 John 5:1-9 (NRSV)
 Luke 10:29-37 (NRSV)
 Matt 9:9 (NRSV)
 John 8:2-11 (NRSV)
The Author of John's Gospel is not only an eloquent and gifted writer, but a master at using rich imagery from the ordinary, everyday experiences of life. The author uses these images to connect us to Jesus Christ and explain why the Jesus story matters.
John's Gospel is perhaps the best literary piece of all four gospels. It is filled with those wonderful analogies and metaphors we still refer to when we try to describe to a non-believer just who Jesus is to us personally. John has Jesus himself telling us who he is in all of the splendid "I am" phrases which fill the text of the Gospel. Phrases like: "I am the Good Shepherd." "I am the light." "I am the true bread which came down from heaven." "I am the way, the truth, and the life."
Today, we hear Jesus refer to himself as the vine. "I am the true vine," Jesus says. Not any vine, but the true vine cared for and nurtured by the great gardener, Abba, Father. Jesus says he is the true vine, and we are the branches. If Jesus is the vine, God the caretaker or gardener, and we are the branches what exactly does that mean for us or about us; and what does it imply about God and Jesus? That is what we want to know isn't it?
I know that we have a lot of gardeners here at St. Barnabas. The community garden is proof of that. Folks who like to get their hands in the dirt; either to grow something good to eat, or to grow beautiful flowers to enjoy indoors and out. And so, if you are one of those who like to dig in the dirt and nurture plants so they grow and produce well, you know and understand a little bit about what the author of John's gospel is trying to convey as he uses Jesus' voice to bring to life a truth about Jesus, Jesus' relationship to God, and our relationship with Him.
Now, I won't presume everyone here today is a Christian. I won't presume that everyone here has a relationship with Christ. Sometimes I think we priestly types, myself included, assume anyone sitting in Church on Sunday morning is a Christian. That just isn't true. For those of you who haven't quite made that decision as to who Jesus is and why it matters I think this passage in John's gospel clarifies what it means to be in relationship with Jesus. It also explains in a very simple and yet poetic way why choosing this relationship is important. At least it clarifies what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. I personally don't think you can be a Christian and not a disciple. The two terms are interdependent. So if you aren't a Christian or haven't made a decision about your faith life yet maybe this will help you along the way toward discipleship. And if you are a Christian perhaps this will clarify a little further what that should feel like or look like when others see you or me interacting in the world.
Jesus declares himself to be the true vine. The true vine. A vine that is authentic, real, genuine stock. And this true vine is tended by the God of all creation, the Father or Abba.
One thing most of us know about vines is that they have to be pruned. Any vine has to be kept cut in order to produce good fruit, or good flowers, and really so they don't go crazy and cover everything else. When vines grow without pruning they choke out other good plants. I have some wild blackberry vines growing on the edge of my yard. No one prunes them or takes care of them. They just grow wherever they want to go, but you know they don't really produce that much fruit and they have caused other plants and shrubs to be chocked out.
Sometimes I think we assume when plants grow naturally without interference from human kind they are the best they can possibly be. There aren't any chemicals thrust upon them, no fertilizer or bug sprays, Mother Nature will care for it the way it was meant to, and the fruit will be so much better, isn't that how we think?
Well, that may not be as true as we like to imagine. If it's good fruit we want, if we want abundant fruit then caring for it and tending to it will cause it to produce more abundant and better tasting fruit. That is why agriculture is an important business. Even organic gardening requires managed decisions about planting and tending. I know from experience. I worked on an organic truck farm my first year of college. There is a lot of science that goes into growing good fruits and vegetables or beautiful flowers, even organically. And we all know God is the Great organic gardener.
Jesus even refers to God as the gardener or the one who prunes the vine. That infers that even the true vine is controlled and managed from outside itself. The gardener decides what is cut back and pruned away. The vine has no say so or control over its own care. Only the gardener makes those decisions. So God decides what is cut away from the vine so that the vine can continue to grow rich, healthy fruit.
Pruning isn't a bad thing. Pruning is good for plants. Another assumption here is that what is cut away is bad. Not true! Just because a branch is cut does not mean it was an evil no good branch, it just means that in order for optimal growth and production the branch has to be snipped. The snipping away of branches enables the vine to get optimal sun, water, and nutrients for optimal growth. It's God's call, not yours or mine, and not even Jesus'.
Jesus does however indicate in this metaphor of the vine and branches that the branches have a choice to be a part of the vine. Jesus is actually inviting us to be a part of the true vine. He says; "If you abide in me and I abide in you." In fact, the word abide is integral to this passage, not only this passage but the entire work of John's collective writings. The word abide or abiding appears 118 times in the New Testament, 64 times in the Gospel of John and the 1st epistle of John. Sixty four times the writer uses the word abide in order to describe the relationships between God and Jesus, Jesus and his disciples, and the relational quality of the Holy Spirit. I would say the word abide is a very important concept for understanding what John wanted to explain about the Jesus story.
The word abide isn't really used much today. I don't hear people talk about abiding anywhere or with anything. Do you? Abide is what we might refer to as colloquial or out dated term. But it really is a great word! It literally means to stay or stick with it, to persevere with, to remain with. To abide is more than a casual relationship. To abide means you are in it for the long hall, through thick or thin, whatever happens you are there. To abide in the vine we make a conscious choice to stick with the teachings and life style of Jesus. We govern our lives by that decision and we stick with it no matter what, we choose to persevere and remain in relationship.
When we abide with Jesus, Jesus is sticking with us no matter what as well. Now some of you sitting here might be preparing to come to our confirmation retreat next weekend. You might be considering confirmation or reception into the Episcopal Church. But what I think you will really be doing is deciding if you are going to abide in this vine. Will you decide that your soul can abide here, with us other branches even as imperfect and crazy as we are sometimes; will you abide with us and be secure in knowing that we are all in this life together no matter what. Will you persevere with Jesus and with us?
When you see branches being pruned will you understand pruning as a loving act of God who is caring for the vine and assuring good healthy growth. Will you agree to be pruned. Will you be the branch and give up trying to be the vine or the gardener. As a branch you don't get to pick what gets cut or in which direction you grow, the gardener does that, trust God to prune the right things so that good fruit will come about. The gardener determines the direction the vine goes, the branches produce the fruit. That will be your job when you decide to abide in the vine. Producing fruit is our job as branches; but the branch doesn't will itself to produce fruit, it produces fruit because it has been cared for and pruned by a loving gardener and it has remained a part of the vine. It has chosen to abide and by making that decision has been lovingly tended to by the divine gardener we name as God.
You see when you or I decide to abide with Jesus we do not always get what we thought we wanted. Experience and old age tells me this is a good thing. When I was young I thought quite differently. But after abiding with Jesus and him abiding with me I have come to see quite clearly how marvelous and loving the pruning in our lives is when God is the gardener. If it had been up to me I would have remained a hopeless hippie on the east coast, no telling where I might be. I know I wouldn't be here, with this loving community. And, I wouldn't be an Episcopal priest that gets to do ministry with all sorts of wonderful people. I wouldn't have the family and people I love so dearly. God is indeed good! Deciding to abide with Jesus was the best decision I have ever made. And not one thing about my life today would have evolved if I had controlled the direction and picked for myself. I mean that! I chose to accept the path, I didn't make it happen.Trusting our lives to God's tender care really is a freeing experience once we learn to let go of all the control and trust that God really does want for us a good abundant life.
In making that decision to abide in the vine, Jesus promises to abide with us. Jesus promises to stick with us through thick or thin, he promises to abide. There are no exceptions. Jesus abides with us when we choose to abide with him. That is present tense! It doesn't mean that one day in the far future or when we're dead Jesus will come and be with us. It means right here and right now. It also doesn't mean that Jesus will abide as long as we are good, but jump out of the relationship if we make a mistake or mess up, like a lot of people in our lives do. Jesus promises to abide with us now and forever. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit will abide with us and will be with us always, as well
Abiding is a relationship that cannot be changed or diluted, it can't be erased or altered. It's a sticking with it relationship. That is what Jesus promises. Perhaps we should use that term in the new marriage rite. Do you so and so choose to abide with so and so until death do you part. I like that idea.
Abide is a great word and it's a word the writers of John's gospel have chosen as a way to explain the relationship of God the Father to the Son, and God's Incarnate Word to us, God's children. Contemplating what it means to abide in a relationship like that, a relationship that is absolute, a place safely tucked into the true vine is comfort for the soul. It allows us to take in a deep breath and slowly exhale knowing we are a part of that always and forever relationship.
Once we make the decision to abide in the vine, we become one of many branches. A branch that is pruned and cared for, one attached to good vine stock that can only produce good fruit. A high quality grape vine can only produce high quality grapes. And vine stock like that is so precious it is actually passed down from generation to generation. When a family moves from one place to another, they take a piece of the vine with them, because they know they will get good fruit from it. There are vineyards in the world with vine stock older than our country; because the vines are so good and produce such great fruit.
It's that way with the branches of the true vine as well. You can only get good fruit from good vine stock. It doesn't mean the branches won't need to be pruned, they will and must get pruned, but in pruning the branch the fruit gets better.
A few additional thoughts to ponder while we contemplate the whole concept of fruit bearing plants: the branches don't produce fruit for the vines use or for the branch. Fruit from any plant is used by some other creature or creatures as food and nourishment. The fruit of a vine is never for the vines benefit; it's always for the benefit of another. Branches don't produce fruit apart from the vine nor can they produce fruit of their own will. The whole ability of a branch to bare fruit comes from deep within the vine, all the way to the root.
The difference between most vines and the one true vine however is this: the branches in the true vine get to choose if they want to remain in the vine. Do you want to be a branch? Do you want to bear fruit that will be used for the benefit of others? Do you trust God to care for and prune only that which needs to be pruned away? The choice is yours. We each get to make that choice.
When we decide to abide in this vine however, we abide eternally. The evidence of that relationship is revealed in two ways: The first is love. Abiding in Christ causes us to love, it is a natural condition of our choice to abide with and in Christ. We love others not because they love us, but because we are beloved of God and we are a part of that true vine. The second piece of evidence that identifies us as branches of this true vine is that we bear good fruit for the benefit of others who need to be nourished. It is a natural condition of the relationship we have with the vine once we choose to abide in it. Fruit is a natural result of good solid stock, we don't have to worry about it, learn how to do it, take a class or get a degree; all we have to do is make the decision to abide. We have to commit to the relationship.
That is really what confirmation is all about, it's what Baptism is ultimately about; choosing to abide in the vine that has been proven to be true and solid, choosing to abide with all the other branches and loving them, choosing to allow your good fruits to help others and all because we know the best gardener. The gardener loves the vine and cares for each and every branch; the branches bear fruit because of the love and care they receive and in turn bring the gardener great delight as he watches the fruit blossom and grow! Just like we do when we plant our gardens in the spring and wait for that first ripe tomato, that first summer squash, or that first sweet cantaloupe.
Jesus bids us to come in and safely abide in the vine, among the branches. A safe abode for your soul and a place of everlasting peace.
In the name of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
A man decided that he would travel across the country and visit as many churches as he could. He started in San Francisco, and began working east from there. Going to a very large church, he began taking photographs and making notes. He spotted a golden telephone on the wall outside the sanctuary and was intrigued with a sign that read, “$10,000 per minute.”
Seeking out the pastor, he asked about the phone and the sign. The pastor answered that the golden phone was, in fact, a direct line to Heaven, and if anyone paid the price, he or she could talk directly to God.
The man thanked the pastor and left. As he continued to visit churches in Salt Lake City, Denver, Chicago, Milwaukee, and across the United States, he found more such phones, with the same sign, and the same explanation from each pastor.
Finally, the man arrived in Texas. Upon entering a church, behold: he saw the usual golden telephone. But this time, the sign read: “Calls: 25 cents.” Fascinated, the man asked to speak with the pastor.
“Reverend, I have been in cities all across the country and in each church I have found this golden telephone, and have been told it is a direct line to Heaven, and that I could use it to talk to God .... But in 20 other churches, the cost was $10,000 per minute. Your sign says 25 cents per call. Why is that?”
The pastor smiled and said: “Son, you're in Texas now! It's a local call.”
This is the 4th Sunday after Easter, which, according to the Revised Common Lectionary – that mystical entity which determines what Scripture readings we use for each Sunday – is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. This is the Sunday when all of our readings remind us in one way or another of Jesus’ discussion of Himself as The Good Shepherd.
It is the Sunday on which we get the most famous of all Psalms, number 23. There are very few people in the world who cannot recite at least part of the 23rd Psalm, with its ubiquitous first line, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” That line – written almost 1,000 years before the birth of Jesus – gives us a little insight into what Jesus was talking about when He said the words we heard from John’s Gospel today.
When Jesus spoke of being The Good Shepherd, His early listeners would have understood that He was, at least in part, talking about the fulfillment of a prophecy from Ezekiel, during the Babylonian exile. The prophet Ezekiel said that Jerusalem and the Temple would be destroyed because, in part, of the powerful misusing the powerless. In the 34th chapter, the prophet reported what God had told him:
(Ezek. 34:2ff) Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, …
(Ezek. 34:15ff) I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
When Jesus spoke of Himself as The Good Shepherd, the Pharisees, Scribes and Priests would have heard echoes of Ezekiel in His statements. You see, it was those people of the ruling class of Israel about whom Ezekiel spoke – and whose continued misdeeds, some 500 years later, made Jesus step into that role.
In ancient times, shepherding often meant living with the sheep. It meant near-constant interaction with the flock; leading them from pasture to pasture, keeping them safe from predators, making sure they got to water often enough, and chasing down the ones who strayed away from the flock so as to keep the flock whole. It also meant that the shepherd developed a great knowledge of and affection for the sheep of his flock. And the sheep developed an affection for the shepherd as well. He was their provider and protector and they relied upon him. There is no doubt that there were many good shepherds back then. Think about David, before he became king, back when he was a shepherd. David saved his sheep from lions and bears – literally putting his life on the line so that the sheep were kept safe. David was definitely a good shepherd.
When Jesus spoke about being THE Good Shepherd, He was marrying the images of dedicated and caring sheepherders with the Ezekiel expression of God’s rage at the men who were supposed to be shepherding the children of Israel. Jesus’ statement was one of condemnation of the powerful and protection of the weak. That message of shepherding the weak and powerless in the face of danger from the strong and powerful is a resonating one, one that has enlivened the hearts of some of God’s faithful servants.
In 1955, the 44 year old John Hines became the Bishop of the Diocese of Texas. Bishop Hines preached and taught – and lived – the social Gospel. He believed that racial discrimination, particularly the practice of institutionalized segregation, was antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and he set about trying to end it in his diocese. He integrated all aspects of diocesan activity for both laity and clergy. But that is not all that he did. When I served at Holy Spirit in Houston, one of our parishioners was a retired trial lawyer who had spent many years trying civil rights cases on behalf of the U.S. Attorney General’s office. Because I had also been a lawyer, he used to drop by my office and drink coffee and tell me stories about those days, and about Bishop Hines.
He told me about a time in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when racial segregation was everywhere in Texas. The Federal Government was not doing much about civil rights in those days, except investigating lynching cases. But he said that it was not unusual for Bishop Hines to call and ask him to go to some small, East Texas town and visit with the Rector and Vestry of the church there. His instructions were to let them know that the Bishop expected them to support desegregation and to support his efforts, and (just in case there was any question as to whether Church and State were united in this work), to let them know what his position with the government was. I guess the thought was, sometimes subtle intimidation is necessary for the greater good.
Bishop Hines was elected Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in 1965 and he took his burning passion for equality with him to that post. Over the next nine years, he did all he could to engage the Episcopal Church in the cause of Civil Rights, all the time with the story of The Good Shepherd underlying his work. Bishop Hines answered the call to be like Jesus when he took on the powerful on behalf of the powerless. He fought the fight of equality in Jesus’ name. And through it all, most of the people in the pews of the Church, knew that Bishop Hines was their shepherd, the one who cared for and loved them even as he tried to reimagine The Church. But make no mistake, he also laid down his vocational and professional life because of what he professed. The powerful in the Church fought back when he challenged them, and his life was never easy.
Jesus is always looking for other shepherds to help with His continuing work. Jesus loves and protects His flock, not just from predators but from the powerful whose policies make their lives miserable. And He is looking for help – not from hired hands, who have no passion for His work – but from true shepherds (be they lay or clergy) who feel called to do as He does. As Bishop Hines once said:
Against even the worst of possibilities, must be set the inescapable obligation of Christians, that the Body of Christ must be prepared to offer itself up for the sake of the healing and the solidarity of the whole human family, whatever its religious or racial identities. Especially must the Body of Christ risk its own life in bearing and sharing the burdens of those who are being exploited, humiliated, and disinherited!
There is plenty of shepherding work left to be done. There is racial, economic and sexual identity discrimination all over. The Church and the world need good shepherds. You do not have to be ordained, you just have to love the flock, and be willing to put your life on the line to save its members, or at least to try to make their lives better. Amen.
In the name of the Risen Lord, Amen.
Madre Annie told this joke a couple of years ago, but it worked so well with the sermon that I had to use it again. A young Episcopal priest called all of the children in the congregation to come forward for the children’s sermon on Easter morning. He started by asking, “What’s warm and furry and hops around on the ground?” There was silence. A little perturbed, he tried again. “What’s warm and furry, hops around on the ground and has long, floppy ears?” Again, nothing. Somewhat exasperated, the priest asked, “What’s warm and furry and hops around on the ground and has long, floppy ears and loves carrots?” One of the boys nudged his friend and said, “I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus, but it sure sounds like a rabbit to me.”
We could begin today’s sermon with a similar line of questioning. What do all of the readings today have in common? Just like the little boy, we all KNOW that the answer is always supposed to be Jesus. But let’s see if maybe there is also something additional we should look at.
In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter cured a lame man and everyone watched the man walk away. They were astonished at what had happened, and Peter said, “why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk.” And then he preached to the gathered crowd about the power and wonder of the risen Lord.
In the Gospel, Luke says Jesus appeared to the Disciples, shortly after the resurrection. They were in the midst of despair over His death, and suddenly there He was. The first thing He said to them was, “Peace be with you.” And then, he began to convince them that He was real, was risen, and was truly there amongst them. And He said, “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in (Jesus’) name to all nations, …. (Because) You are witnesses of these things.” In other words, you know who I am, you have experienced the power of God in your own lives, now you must go out and show others what you know.
And what DID they know? They knew what the author of 1st John said in this morning’s reading. “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; .… Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.”
And what WOULD God reveal to them about who God was – and is? The Psalmist tells us, “Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O LORD. You have put gladness in my heart, more than when grain and wine and oil increase. I lie down in peace; at once I fall asleep; for only you, LORD, make me dwell in safety.”
I KNOW the answer is supposed to be Jesus, but this sure looks like love to me. In the Collect of the Day this morning, we prayed, “Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold Him in all His redeeming work.” That redeeming work is love.
2012’s Academy Award winning film, Life of Pi is based on the book of the same name. The book tells the story of Pi Patel, a young man who moves with his family from India to Canada. They cross the ocean on a cargo ship which is also carrying the animals from the zoo Pi’s father operated in India, but which he has had to close. During the ocean crossing, the ship sinks and Pi ends up in a lifeboat with an injured zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and a tiger. Needless to say, the story gets interesting from there. But the really fascinating thing in the story is the fact that Pi is a very religious Hindu who is also a student and follower of both Islam and Christianity.
Pi loves God and spends a great deal of his time thinking back on what he learned about God. One commentator describes Pi’s spiritual search this way:
"Pi (has trouble understanding) ‘Christ crucified.’ Father Martin, a Catholic priest who befriends Pi, listens to the young man’s questions.
Pi says to Fr. Martin, ‘What? Humanity sins, but it is God’s Son who pays the price? I tried to imagine my own father saying to me, ‘Pi, a lion slipped into the llama pen today and killed two llamas. Yesterday another one killed a black buck. Last week two of them ate the camel. The week before it was painted storks and grey herons. And who’s to say for sure who snacked on our golden agouti?’ The situation has become intolerable. Something must be done. I have decided that the only way the lions can atone for their sins is if I feed you to them.’
‘Yes, Father, (Pi says) that would be the right and logical thing to do. Give me a moment to wash up.’ Hallelujah, my son. Hallelujah, Father.’ What a downright weird story. What a peculiar psychology!’
Pi goes on, ‘Why would God wish that upon himself? Why not leave death to the mortals. Why make dirty what was beautiful, spoil what is perfect? Love. That was Father Martin’s answer."
Love. The author of John’s first epistle uses that word 38 times in only 5 chapters. This love that John talks about, the love that was so confusing to Pi when Fr. Martin tried to explain it, is a love that is even hard us to understand – and we’ve known Jesus all our lives.
Jesus came into the upper room, where the disciples were hiding from the authorities after the crucifixion. Judas wasn’t there – after he betrayed Jesus, he left and hanged himself. Peter was there, hiding, after he had denied that he knew Jesus three times. They were all there. All of the people who said that they loved Him during His earthly ministry were there … and none of them had lifted a hand to help Him in His time of need. But Jesus was there too. The Love was there.
Jesus came into the room and said, “Peace be with you.” To a room full of people who had let Him down, He said, “Peace be with you.” And then He sat down and had a meal with them. He opened their minds and their hearts to the truth of who He is and what that means.
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. Beloved, we are children of God – the God who loved us enough to sacrifice His only Son on our behalf. We are all children of the one who loves us and wants nothing more than that we reflect that love to each other. He wants to open our minds and hearts to His love. And He wants us to love each other, just as He has loved us. He wants us to love each other unconditionally, to be for each other what Jesus was to them – the epitome of love.
Jesus told the Disciples – and us – to love each other, no matter what. John tells us that we don’t know what we will be like in the end. But we DO know what we are supposed to be like now. We are supposed to be like HIM – loving those who hurt us – loving the prodigal sons of the world – loving the unlovable. That’s what He tells us we are supposed to be like. Jesus tells us that we are to be the reflection of His perfect love in the world.
Yep. Definitely sounds like love to me – the love that can only come through the grace of God; and the love we can begin sharing today.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore.
In the name of Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord, Amen.
A preacher was scheduled to preach at his denomination’s convention. He was told that he had about twenty minutes. The other preachers from his district were sitting behind him in the choir section, giving him moral support and throwing in an occasional "Amen" to help the preacher along. He preached his twenty minutes and then just kept going. He preached for 30 minutes, then forty and then an hour. Finally, when he had been preaching for an hour and ten minutes, a man sitting on the front row took a hymnal and threw it at the preacher. He saw the hymnal coming his way and ducked but kept on talking. The book hit one of the preachers sitting in the choir section. As the man slid out of his seat, he could be heard to say, “Hit me again, I can still hear him preaching!”
What was it like for the Disciples in those days after Jesus’ resurrection? John’s Gospel tells us only that they were in a house together with the door locked, “for fear of the Jews.” That’s not much to go on, but if you think about the situation in Jerusalem at that time, perhaps we can put ourselves in their place.
The Temple Authorities (those people whom John shorthands as “the Jews”) were certainly looking for them. They thought that they had solved the problem of Jesus when they convinced Pilate to crucify Him. But now there were rumors spreading all over town that Jesus had arisen from the tomb. This was, without a doubt the worst nightmare imaginable for those who feared that Jesus and His followers might one day overthrow the entire Temple system. The Disciples were certainly right to be afraid of these people.
There was also a real reason for the Disciples to fear the Romans. Pilate had doubtless had his fill of hearing about this itinerate Jewish preacher who had caused such a stir during the Passover. Having capitulated to the Temple Authorities and had Him crucified, Pilate would have been in no mood to deal with Jesus’ followers. Pilate must also have been pretty uneasy when he heard the rumors about Jesus’ tomb being empty.
And there were the Disciples, living behind locked doors. Living in fear. And perhaps worst of all, still not convinced that Jesus had actually risen from the dead. After all, the only thing that they had to go on was what Mary Magdalene had told them. At this point, they had no real “proof” that Jesus was alive.
And we should all remember that over the centuries the Disciples have become sort of “idealized” Christians for us. Because we know the whole story, we tend to think of these folks as the “super faithful,” the ones who had actually lived with and experienced Jesus, and therefore would never lose faith in what He had told them. But that is just not true.
Behind those locked doors was a group of people who were frightened for their lives and doubting that what Jesus had promised had come to pass. We call Thomas the “doubter” because of this story, but there was no one in that room who had less doubts than Thomas did. He is simply the exemplar for that doubt.
There they sat, wondering what was to become of them, living in what must have felt like their darkest hour ever, and through the locked door came the risen Christ. And into their life came faith, hope and peace. Jesus gave them living proof of who and what He was – so that they could have faith in the Resurrection. He brought them hope of what was to come, now that they had renewed their faith. And He brought them that peace, “which passes all understanding,” that can only come through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus gave them a preview of – as He breathed on them.
We sit here at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, in Lafayette, Louisiana, almost 2,000 years after that day in Jerusalem, and the same thing happens to us today. Although the doors of the church are not locked, they are typically closed when we begin the service. But Jesus appears to us in the breaking of the bread. He comes into our midst in the persons of the brothers and sisters in Christ who surround us here. And He comes to us in the sharing of His Gospel message.
If you are having a crisis of faith – if you feel that your faith has faded, or ebbed, or just plain disappeared – the risen Jesus Christ is here for you today. If you are scared because of what the future may hold after: a call from the doctor’s office, or a pink slip at work, or a note saying that your spouse has chosen to live elsewhere, or anything else that causes you fear; look at the faces of the people around you. This IS the Body of Christ. All those around you are the very real hands and eyes and ears of the Risen Lord. They can comfort and hold you when the fear gets bad.
And in just a few minutes you will all come forward but instead of touching the wounds in His hands, Jesus will be laid into your hands. Touch Him. Experience the feeling of His real presence. And then … invite the Holy Spirit to touch you. Feel the peace that comes from the power of the Spirit through believing in the Resurrected Christ.
Jesus died once, for the redemption of the whole world. But He is Resurrected every week in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup. Our Lord and Savior is alive. That is the Easter miracle. And He has come through our doors today to bring comfort, a reaffirmation of your faith, and the peace He gave His first Disciples. Have faith. Don’t be afraid.
In the name of the God who was crucified for faithless people, Amen.
On Palm Sunday, we almost always talk about the amazing turn of events that led Jesus to the cross. There was the triumphal entry into Jerusalem — which we remember by processing from outside into the church with palm branches. And then, almost in an instant, we turn from saying “Hosanna in the highest,” to “Crucify him,” as we read the Passion narrative. It is an incredible contrast to go from parades and adulation to crucifixion in a matter of minutes. But we do this to recollect what it must have been like for Jesus and His disciples, who experienced all of these things in just a matter of a few days. But what got Jesus to that point? What were the circumstances that caused all of this to happen?
First, there was the city itself. Historians believe that there were usually about 40,000 people living in Jerusalem at that time. But during the Passover festival, when the faithful Jews from around the area made their pilgrimage to the Temple, the population of the city could swell to over 200,000. Think about that for a minute. That would be like having Festival, during which the population of Lafayette would go from its usual 120,000 to 600,000. A 500% population increase will always put a strain on the resources of a city. And resources being stretched thin will always create tension amongst city residents.
Then there was the Roman army. Rome usually stationed a cohort of soldiers in Jerusalem to keep the peace. A cohort was somewhere between 360 and 480 soldiers. So imagine being an ordinary Roman soldier stationed in Jerusalem. Not only were the language and customs of the local people strange and foreign to you, but there were only 480 of you to keep the peace among 600,000 people, most of whom hated your guts. There had to be more than a little tension among the soldiers. When you add to that, the fact that there were members of the Zealot political party running around trying to start riots so that the Romans would respond and the people could be led to rise up against them; the city was pretty much a tender box.
And the third part of this trinity of circumstances was the Temple authorities: the Pharisees, the Priests and the Scribes. Mark tells us that these folks had been watching Jesus pretty closely from the time He began His ministry, three years earlier. And He scared them. These men were the ultimate religious leaders of that day. As such, they had a great deal of power over the jewish people. With power came wealth and they had that as well. The Temple authorities saw Jesus as a charismatic rebel, capable of gathering huge crowds and then winning them over to His way of thinking. To those men, nothing was more dangerous than what Jesus represented — a world in which they were no longer necessary, much less exerting power. They desperately wanted Jesus dead, but Roman law had taken away their power to execute Him. For that, they needed the Romans. So they made a sort of unholy alliance with their sworn enemies, and called it something done for the good of all jewish people.
And so it was that Jesus road into Jerusalem to crowds of adoring people proclaiming Him the blessed one who comes in the name of the Lord, only to thereafter run into a power structure that was ready to remove Him from the scene because His very presence was frightening to them. But how did all of that translate into the crowds themselves turning against Jesus?
One simple answer is that the crowd that met Him when He came into town may not have been the same people who, a few days later, called for His execution. With 200,000 people in town, gathering a crowd would not have been difficult, and those who followed Jesus might well have gone into hiding when they heard of His arrest, leaving those who sided with the Temple authorities to stand outside the Governor’s palace and give voice to their desires. But there is a more disturbing possibility.
I think that the way Mark tells this story, shows that the author believed the two groups of people — those who yelled “Hosanna” and those who yelled “crucify him,” — to have been the same people. And that has implications for us all.
You see, whenever we profess to be followers of Jesus and then fail to do as He would do, we are, in a very real sense, showing that we too are members of both crowds. When we say that we love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength and yet do not feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend to the sick and visit the shut-ins, we too are showing our tendency to live in both camps. And when we say that we support the ministries and good work done through our churches but do nothing to provide real support for them, we are likewise showing ourselves be on both sides of the fence.
It is absolutely true that whenever we say one thing about our religious identity and then do something else, we are modern-day representatives of the crowds in the Passion story. But fortunately, that is not the end of the story. Because, as the faithful Centurion who stood at the foot of the cross said, “Truly this man was the Son of God.” And for God’s Son, there can even be forgiveness of our unfaithfulness. Amen.
Let Your Light Lead Others To Christ
Last week in my sermon I mentioned that there were probably many Hebrews in the wilderness who refused to look at the staff Moses made with the snake on top, and as a result of that refusal died from snake bites. You remember the story. God allowed poisonous snakes to enter the camp and when the people begged Moses to speak to God and ask for help on their behalf, God instructed Moses to make the staff with the bronze snake on top and then told Moses to instruct those who were bitten by the snakes to look at the staff and they would be healed and live. But we all know that people can be stubborn. Not only can we human types be stubborn, but we also really hate to be made to look foolish. Looking at a stick with a snake on top in order to be healed from snakebite seems foolish; and I am sure there were many who thought so and died.
I also mentioned the correlation between that staff and the cross. The correlation runs pretty deep. Like the staff, looking at the cross with Jesus hanging on it in order to receive healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation, seems foolish. For that and other reasons many in our society today prefer to claim either no religious affiliation or they claim to be spiritual but not religious. After all much of what we do here makes no sense and/or has little meaning in the minds of those who do not know or have not experienced a real encounter with Jesus. How could they understand the little idiosyncrasies of the liturgy; things like the order for lighting the candles and putting them out, when to stand, sit, or kneel, when to make the sign of the cross or even why we make the sign of the cross, what about bowing or genuflecting, and that is just to name a few. All of these things and more seem foolishly ritualistic and meaningless to those who have not had a real encounter with Jesus or who have never really experienced the Good News of God’s kingdom.
Now the reality of all this is that people in our society have not experienced Jesus or the Good News because the Church has lost sight of its mission. Like Phillip and Andrew in today’s gospel, you and I are disciples. Like Phillip and Andrew, people look to us to introduce them to Jesus. Like Phillip and Andrew people should know that we are followers of Jesus. The Greeks in today’s gospel wanted to see Jesus. They had heard of him, they had heard he was in the area, and they wanted to see for themselves this Jesus they heard so much about. Phillip and Andrew were disciples and because they were known followers of Jesus, others sought them out so that they themselves might have a personal encounter with Jesus.
You and I are the disciples of Jesus today. We are the followers of Jesus’ teaching, the followers of Jesus’ way of life, followers of and keepers of the Good News. But we can’t continue to claim our status of disciple or follower if we are not sharing the Good News and introducing others to Jesus’ teaching, his way of life, or the Good News!
Ask yourself these questions: When others see you do they know you are a follower of Christ and do they ask you to introduce them to Jesus? When people who are SBNR or NRA come to St. Barnabas do they come expecting to have an encounter with Jesus? Do they have an encounter with Jesus?
You see our whole purpose for being here today and every other time we come together as the Church gathered, should be to gather the body of Christ. If that is true people should recognize Jesus in our midst. When two or three of us are gathered, others should see Jesus among us. But are they having that experience?
In the last five weeks we have journeyed through the Gospel of John. We have come to know Jesus the Word made flesh. We have experienced his baptism and recognized our own baptismal connection. We have envisioned the struggle of the wilderness and connected our own struggles and temptations to those Jesus experienced. We have witnessed a firm commitment to mission and message through the encounters Jesus had with all of those seeking healing, forgiveness, truth… one after another. We experienced Jesus’ reactions of compassion and love, anger and irritability, faith and trust as we have walked through these last five weeks of Lent.
We have come to know Jesus through John’s gospel and through our similarly related experiences. We have come to know Jesus better. But are we ready to share Jesus with others? Have we become true disciples that are ready to introduce Jesus to those who have not yet encountered the Good News?
You see that is the point. The whole reason we exist, the Church exists, is to continue that mission and that ever important message we call the Good News! Do people encounter Jesus’ message and presence in us when they see us out there in the world or when they come here and gather with us?
Lent is a time of the Church year that is supposed to prepare us through self examination and reflection to experience the passion of Christ. Our preparation and experiences in Christ are supposed to compel us out into the world to share the good news. We have a mission!
My husband’s Sitti (grandmother in Lebanese) upon meeting every child, grandchild, and great grandchild in the family would spit into her hand and make the sign of the cross on their foreheads as she said: “Now you have the light of Christ.” Sitti expected that light to shine in their lives.
You and I have received the light of Christ in Baptism. God expects that light to shine in our lives. If our light is shining in the darkness others will see it, be drawn to it, and want to know all about it. So, let your light shine that others may know and be found by Christ.
I have a little mind exercise for you this morning.
I would like to invite you to consider your overriding concept concerning the character of God. I mean when you boil it down, who is God, what kind of personality does God have, how does God behave or function in your opinion? What is God’s primary characteristic, that which governs how, when, and where God acts? I know that is a tall order for an early Sunday morning reflection; but I think it is important that we are clear about what we believe regarding God. After all, we are here to worship God? If so, then we should have a clear understanding of the God we worship.
You see, I think that is what Jesus was daring Nicodemus to do. Jesus is testing an old, well-respected Jew to articulate just what his vision of God is. In addition, Jesus challenges Nicodemus to consider how that belief system translates into his worldview.
This is important theological work: Who is God? How does God relate to the world? Out of which characteristic or motivation does God act? How does the way we view God affect the way we view the world and others in the world?
Jesus is questioning Nicodemus’ preconceived ideas about God whom Nicodemus has worshipped all his life. Nicodemus, you remember comes to see Jesus because he wants answers, he wants to know the truth about what motivates Jesus. Nicodemus wants to know if there is something more about God that he himself has missed, but he does not want anyone to know he has sought out Jesus or engaged Jesus in this conversation. Nicodemus wants to remain in the dark, hidden from the truth and from light.
I think most of us are like Nicodemus. Most want to know the answers to our spiritual questions. We want to understand how this God thing works. At least we want to know how it might work better for us. However, we do not want to expose our concepts of God because we fear how others will respond, we even fear how God might respond. What will happen if my notions of God are all wrong? What if I do not know as much about God as you. What if you think my concept of God is weird. We all carry around our secrets. We have secrets about ourselves and about our own understandings of God and faith; and we do not want to be in a position of vulnerability, which is why we keep our secrets.
It works like this for most of us: “I will tell you just enough about myself that you will have a favorable opinion of me. I might reveal some long ago past fault or perhaps even a sin or two, but the really dark things about myself are mine and I am not going to trust you with those dark secrets.”
Now some of you are thinking, “Whew, good, because I do not want to know that much about her, you know the TMI syndrome from which we suffer these days, and I certainly do not want to feel like I have to share my dark secrets with you.” After all, you might reject me or think less of me. The problem with that is that you and I are to walk in the light; we are to-be in relationship with one another. We are “called” to take risks of vulnerability and build intimate, trusting relationships. We only achieve that by exposing whatever is in the darkness and bringing it to the light. I will never truly feel loved by you unless you know everything about me, especially my dark side. If you know that part of me and then still love me, I will believe you really love me. That is really the only way to experience the freedom that Jesus offers us. The gospel today tells us that judgment is this: “that people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.”
You see, I think it is important to be clear about what motivates our answer as we consider who God is. The scripture clearly says that judgment and condemnation comes about because of our choices. If we can trust God enough to reveal our darkest thoughts and experiences then God can move us into the light. Our sins are forgiven. We are already restored through Christ in Baptism. Our lives can be transformed now by the power of the Holy Spirit. For transformation to occur we must die to ourselves and live in Christ Jesus. We do not have to wait for restoration, forgiveness, or transformation. The work of the crucifixion and the resurrection is already done. We just have to choose to accept it. I also trust and acknowledge God already knows my dark secrets, and yours, along with the dark secrets of the rest of humanity and guess what; God sent Jesus anyway, because God already loved us!
That is the secret behind Jesus’ quote from the Book of Numbers concerning Moses and the serpent. Do you remember that story? The people of Israel had infuriated God so God allowed poisonous serpents to enter the camp and people were being bitten and dying all over the place. When they realized their actions brought about a catastrophe they went back to Moses and asked him to pray. God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and place it on a stick and whenever one of the people were bitten by the snakes and were about to die, they should look at the serpent on the stick and they would be restored to wholeness.
Here is what I find interesting about this Old Testament story: God did not just take away the snakes. God allowed the snakes to remain but he gave people a way to wholeness through the bronze serpent Moses placed on the stick. The sick, the dying, still had to take some action. I wonder how many people refused to look at the stick. I wonder how many people chose to die rather than look at that stupid stick with the bronze serpent stuck on top. You know some did, you know they were just too stubborn to believe that looking at that stick would heal them… they were human after all, and some of us sitting right here would do the same thing. If God said “You can be made whole, you can be restored if you just ________,” fill in the blank, some of us sitting right here today would refuse to do it.
In fact, some of us have already been guilty of just that. God has said to us come to the light. Be restored. Be made whole. Experience new life and a new way of living. However, to do it you have to die to self. You have to let those dirty little secrets out into the light stop being afraid of your past and embrace the present. You have to die to all the lies and manipulation you have worked so hard to build up around you, so the real true you can be born to new life. You must die to the person inside who sees the world only as a place to achieve selfish goals and desires which only serve to destroy the true you. To do that just look at that man hanging on that cross, the one who gave himself for you and for the world. Do that and live as a new creation.
It sounds silly. How can the cross bring me out of my darkness and into the light? Really, a little trite huh? It is true, as trite as it sounds the imagery and all it stands for has that power. Looking at yourself from the position of the cross makes a difference how you see yourself. Looking at the world from the position of the cross changes how you view the world. Looking at the cross changes how we think of God. I think it also changes the way God looks back at us.
God is a loving God, who did not send his son to condemn the world. God never intended for our religion to alienate and destroy others. God meant for our religion, our spiritual practices to bring us peace and well-being. God’s intention is that the whole world might know and come within the loving embrace of Christ our Lord.
God sent Jesus with a mission. Jesus’ mission was to spread the Good News. Christ’s mission is always salvation, restoration, reconciliation; it never was, is not, and never will be condemnation. Moreover, our mission, as members of the body of Christ is the same mission… we are to continue Christ’s mission in the world. We are to bring healing and restoration of body, mind, and soul. We are to offer reconciliation and we are to live a life of reconciliation in community with one another. So let us keep the cross ever before us and remember that darkness is behind us when we choose to walk in the light.
In the name of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Time for a pop quiz! What was Jesus angry about, in today’s Gospel reading? Money? Livestock? When we hear that that day in the Temple, He made a whip and:
[D]rove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!”
the first thing we think of is: that He was angry about people buying and selling livestock - and doing their banking business - in the Temple. After all, in Jesus’ day the Jews believed that God actually lived inside the Holy of Holies, in the Temple. So, someone with Jesus’ religious convictions would obviously be upset about all of this activity going on in God’s house. If that is what you thought - that Jesus was angry (simply on principle) about mercantile activities in the Temple, you get partial credit for your answer.
John’s Gospel makes it abundantly clear that Jesus was incensed about what was going on within the Temple walls. But He was not just angry about what was going on - He was really angry at the authorities who had set up the system. And most importantly, he was angry about what Temple worship itself had become.
When we think about this story, we should keep in mind that Jesus was a faithful, observant Jew. He read, taught and preached in synagogues. He fasted on fast days and feasted on feast days. And He made pilgrimages to Jerusalem, to the Temple, on the pilgrimage festival days. That is important because this story is not about Christianity being greater than, or more pleasing to God, than Judaism. In Jesus’ day, there was no such religion as Christianity. No, this story is not about Judaism. It is about Temple worship and the way it had slowly disintegrated over the centuries, into a corrupt and misguided system in need not only of reform, but in need of dissolution.
When Jesus went through the Court of the Gentiles — where the sacrificial animals were sold and the foreign money exchanged for Temple currency — He literally overturned money tables and animal pens. But more importantly, He figuratively overthrew the entire system of Temple worship. In other words, it was not just the changing of money or the selling of animals that was the problem. Instead, it was the manner of worship that required those activities, which was in need of replacement. That is the reason that Jesus ends this story with the statement, “Destroy this Temple and I will rebuild it in three days.” He told His disciples that day that His sacrifice on the cross would be the replacement for all of the sacrifices conducted in the Temple.
In this incident, Jesus was telling the Temple authorities (and us) that when the system of worship takes the spotlight away from the God whom you are supposed to be worshipping, then you have a system whose purpose has become simply to support itself rather than serving the God who is ostensibly being worshipped.
In the season of Lent, St. Barnabas does away with some of the beautiful and ornate works of art that we usually have in worship. We cover up the crosses that decorate our altar. We remove the beautiful brass candelabra. And we use simple (if incredibly beautiful) pottery instead of silver and gold vessels. Likewise our altar hangings and vestments change from silk to a much more plain, burlap sort of material. We make these changes, not because there is anything wrong with our usual and customary worship accoutrement, but rather to change the way things look so that we will view our worship with fresh eyes as we prepare for Easter. We do what we do - and do without what we do without - during Lent, to emphasize the distinctiveness of this season. I am not advocating that we change the way that we ordinarily worship. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the way that we do things during the other seasons of the Church year. Please let me be very clear about that. But this changeover during Lent is a good reminder of what Jesus was pointing out to the people in the Temple that day.
While worshipping in beauty and holiness is a good thing, it is not necessarily about the grandeur of our worship. The Temple in Jerusalem took over forty-six years to build. It sat on a high hill and it is said that it could be seen for miles around. The construction of the Temple was done by the best craftsmen, from the finest materials. Historians believe that there was a great deal of marble and gold used in its construction. And the Temple had the look of a palace — the palace where God, the King of all Creation, lived. But what had begun as a project undertaken to give thanks to the God who delivered the people from bondage; to provide a place for the one true God to dwell with God’s own people; had become this huge, monolithic structure whose only purpose was to place the burden of obligation on the people, in order to feed its own excess.
What Jesus saw when he went to the Temple, was an institution that no longer provided care and comfort for the physical or spiritual well-being of the poor and needy, but rather focused on growing its own power base while actually making the lives of the disadvantaged more difficult. In the 23rd chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus faces off with the men who were in charge of the Temple and He says this to them,
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
That is exactly the way He had come to view the Temple and its worship system. It was a beautiful place on the outside, but what happened inside — what the Temple system stood for — was no longer beneficial to the people.
In this Lenten season, when the Church universal calls us to look deep inside and to evaluate who we are as Christians — to look critically at how we are carrying out God’s mission in the world — it is good to use Jesus’ yardstick as our measuring tool. Are we, as individual Christians and as a community, functioning as vital parts in the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Or are we more like those whitewashed tombs, or the mighty Temple edifice — monuments to God, but failing to do God’s work in the world.
Episcopal Churches are not immune from becoming “whitewashed tombs.” I know congregations that profess to be houses of worship, dedicated to God’s mission,. and yet, what happens is that the worship is ritually pure, while the real work of Jesus Christ — that which takes place outside the walls of the building — is non-existent.
Last week I challenged us as a congregation to continually take stock of everything that we are doing, as well as everything we profess, and to find new ways to “pick up our crosses” and follow Jesus. This is the next part of that challenge. As individuals and as a parish, let’s never be afraid of critical self-analysis. Let us take a careful look at who we say that we are, as well as who we show ourselves to be. And let us never forget that it is God’s mission, the mission of loving God and loving our neighbor, that we should always be about. So may we always strive to carry on the wonderful tradition of St. Barnabas, that first and foremost we worry about: feeding the poor, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and those in need, and visiting those who cannot be here with us. Amen.