Sermon – April 13, 2017 (Maundy Thursday)

Maundy Thursday (April 13, 2017)
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
John Kiess

Readings: Ex. 12:1-14; Ps. 116:1, 10-17; 1 Cor. 11:23-26; John 13:1-17; 31b-35

On Maundy Thursday, we gather together to remember the institution of the Lord’s Supper, and tonight it is appropriate that we celebrate this supper as the early church did, in the context of a broader agape meal. For the earliest Christians, the Lord’s Supper was not a ritual separate and distinct from the act of eating and drinking for sustenance; it was a proper supper, and the bread and wine would have been consumed alongside a range of other foods. This practice reflected the fact that, according to the Synoptic Gospels, the Last Supper took place on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread and was part of the Jewish Passover meal. From the beginning, the lines dividing sacred and profane, ritual from ordinary routine, were blurred. Paul underscores the point when, in his re-telling of the institution in 1 Corinthians, he notes that it was “after supper” that Jesus took the cup of wine, implying that he and the disciples had a full meal before they drank from it.

This practice of coming together to share a communal meal was one of the distinctive marks of the early Jesus movement. In a second century letter to the Emperor Trajan, the Roman governor Pliny the Younger reports:

they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery, to commit no breach of trust and not to deny a deposit when called upon to restore it. After this ceremony it has been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to eat a meal together, of an ordinary harmless kind.[1]

The practice of meeting in houses and taking meals together caught the attention of the Romans because it flouted the social conventions of the time. Rich and poor, benefactors and patrons, were accustomed to eating in separate areas of the house, the elite in an area called the triclinium and the rest of the people in the atrium; but in the Christian house churches, everyone ate together.[2] Each was encouraged to bring what food and drink they could and share with others. It was one of their most powerful ways of showing how they were different from the surrounding culture.

Now the practice was not without abuse. The reason Paul recounts the institution of the Lord’s Supper in tonight’s reading from 1 Corinthians is because their common meals had gone horribly wrong. “When you come together,” Paul chastises them, “it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of your goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk” (11:20-21). It turns out the rich hoarded their food for themselves, leaving none for the others. Paul says, “Whoever… eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord” (11:27). Strikingly, Paul’s point is that Eucharistic piety and basic standards of fairness go together; no Communion without justice. Appropriately, his major recommendation is not merely liturgical, but ethical: “when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation” (11:33-34).

There are hints of abuse and betrayal in John’s telling of the Last Supper as well. As is often the case, John’s depiction of this scene is different from the Synoptic gospels. Here the Last Supper takes place before the festival of the Passover, rather than during it, and there is no mention of any institution of the Lord’s Supper. Instead, John’s Jesus institutes another practice, footwashing.

Footwashing before a meal was nothing radical or new; it was customary for slaves to wash the feet of masters and guests. Traveling everywhere by foot, guests would have gotten their sandaled feet dirty. But a leader washing the feet of his disciples: that was new, and subversive again of the social conventions of the Greco-Roman world. Jesus offers this practice as an example, saying, “you also should do as I have done to you.” Later in the chapter he will frame this as a new commandment: “love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love another” (34). This commandment contains echoes of the Golden Rule from the Sermon on the Mount, but here Jesus fleshes out the teaching through the prism of footwashing: not merely, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” but do unto others as I have done unto you. What’s new is not the loving of one’s neighbor as oneself, but the more subversive love that manifests itself in the social convention-flouting practice of footwashing: leaders love your servants, servants love your leaders, rich love the poor, poor love the rich. The synoptic gospels focus on the love embodied in the meal; John focuses on the love that motivates the footwashing before the meal. Together, they enjoin the same thing: radical friendship beyond the divisions of the wider society. In instituting footwashing and the common meal together, Jesus is asking his disciples to make a habit of meeting under one roof, to befriend one another, to be with one another. In these ways they will demonstrate their knowledge of what He has taught them, and by this others will know they are his disciples.

Easier said than done. In between the verses about footwashing (13:3-20) and giving of the new commandment (31-35), Jesus foretells that one of his disciples will betray him. When asked who, Jesus dips a piece of bread into a dish and gives it to Judas, who is then told in cryptic words, “Do quickly what you are going to do” (13:27). If bread in the other Gospels symbolizes Christ’s body, here it is a symbol of betrayal. This is paralleled in Corinth, when Paul warns the Christians there not to eat and drink without discerning the body, lest they “eat and drink judgment against themselves” (1 Cor. 11:29). It is a testament to the realism of the gospels that in the course of instituting the central practice of the Church and in giving the new command to love one another, we are reminded of our habit of doing the exact opposite, and how easily we can slide into betrayal and denial, even as we affirm our intention to follow the path to love.

Between the longing to love and temptation to turn away: that is where we find ourselves on Maundy Thursday. On Maundy Thursday, we don’t try to avoid our contradictions or minimize our shortcomings. We do not pretend we are something other than we are. The word “maundy” derives from the Latin mandatum, which means mandate or command. On Maundy Thursday, we hear that command renewed: love one another, as I have loved you. We have come this far in Holy Week to hear it. Now, on the night when he was betrayed, Jesus invites us a step further. To love as he has loved will shortly require that we walk with him from the upper room to Gethsemane, and from Gethsemane to the Sanhedrin, and from the Sanhedrin to Golgotha, and from Golgotha to the tomb. To love as he has loved will soon require entering more deeply into the mystery of His suffering, and coming to know more intimately those places in our world where He suffers today. It will require facing our fears and hoping against hope. But for the moment, that journey requires nothing more than what God has already given us: the gift of our being together, the gift of one another’s love, and the gift of this meal. Amen.

  1. Robert Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1984), 22.
  2. Bruce W. Longenecker, The Lost Letters of Pergamum (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 112.

Sermon – Easter, April 16, 2017

April 16,2017
Preacher: Rev. John M. Hayes
Here are the questions of the morning:

Does truth defeat the lie? If it does, when?
Does love defeat cruelty and tyranny? If so, will it be soon?
Does beauty eclipse all that is ugly, mean and tawdry?
Will the day come when justice reigns in the place that violence,
exploitation and shameful thievery drain all goodness from life?
And the big one: Will the good triumph over evil?

I don’t mean once in a while. I mean ultimately! We all know the good guys sometimes win sometimes. I mean ultimately! What does your heart answer?

There’s a lot at stake when we try to answer the real question: is history going anywhere? Is it taking us somewhere?

The ancients could take comfort in the eternal round of seasons and fortunes. The comfort of knowing that spring always comes forth from winter, literally and metaphorically. That doesn’t work for us anymore. It cannot work for us.

We have no sure comfort in the round of season and myths of eternal return.

We have every good reason to dread that history is delivering us to the dumpster – to nuclear winter – to ecological disaster – or as the events of the past weeks would intimate to the catastrophic horrors that would be a World War III.

Yes the hour is late, conditions are dire, and we all know selfish fools and worse are at the helm. The prospects for humanity are bleak indeed this Easter morning? Who does not have some fear about the world their children inherit.

What can we hope for and what can we base that hope on?

Where is God? What of God’s promises? Where is God this 1,984th Easter morning in Baltimore?

The media will tell us that most young people don’t believe in God and I don’t blame them. To clarify I don’t believe in the God that they don’t believe in. Neither did Jesus from all accounts.

Probably the word of God has gotten saturated and polluted with so many centuries of human projection, it probably needs to be retired for a few hundred years. Say “God” and most people think we are talking either about an imaginary friend in the sky who resembles either Santa Claus or Genghis Khan: the cosmic bellhop or some hoary thunderer who must be appeased or else or the indifferent watchmaker who from a distance observes our mess with ironic amusement . Your choice.

God is none of those beings. Indeed God is not a being, but being itself, and truth, beauty, goodness and love. God is that a powerful mystery at the core of reality that transcends all that we are and can do, that is beyond our capacities to know and understand, that is palpably moving through history and bringing humanity to a better end than we can ever imagine or hope for, restoring humanity and bringing humanity to completion.

Jesus came to proclaim the breaking in of the kingdom of God into the ordinary business of the world: the cynical, dog-eat-dog, might-makes-right, go-along-to-get-along, winner-takes-all world. He told the truth. He turned things upside down.

Jesus broke all the boundaries and all the rules that do not serve Love. He ate with the sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes. He healed people on the Sabbath. He had no time for religious hypocrisy. Jesus repeated the message of the prophets: God stands with the vulnerable, the widow and the orphan, the hungry and the abused.

Jesus spoke of God, not as some mighty potentate, some super-Ceasar in the skies, ready to strike you down if he didn’t like what you were doing, if you didn’t follow the rules, but as Abba, Father, Daddy. Jesus said that God is like the father of the prodigal son, who forgives readily and who goes out with joy to meet us when we make one step towards him.

Jesus came to proclaim the need for repentance: not with threats and fire and brimstone haranguing about punishment and hell. Jesus told us to repent – to think again about what’s real and important– to open our minds, see reality from God’s perspective, and open our hearts, and change our lives by living more deeply in God’s love and love of God’s children.

And for this Jesus was executed as a shameful criminal. The authorities sent Jesus to a terrible death and they thought they had finally gotten Jesus out of the way and consigned him to convenient oblivion, so they could get on with business as usual.

God did not let that stand. In a manner mysterious and unknown Jesus was raised from death. And his disciples, weak and cowardly and afraid as we would be, came to know Jesus in his new reality as powerfully alive, and came to know the breaking in of God’s kingdom.

We have reason to fear where history is taking us, but we need not despair, but hope. God is with us. Our faith is that the resurrection of Jesus is not quaint peculiar belief in a strange mythical event from a distant century, but hope in a new beginning for humanity.

In Revelations, John sees this new reality, “the new Jerusalem” and he hears a voice: “ Behold God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people, and God himself will always be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away… Behold, I make all things new!”

Jesus told us just how he will make everything new: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The resurrection is not some miracle of long ago but the beginning of God’s promise to humanity. And we are called in our baptism to be resurrection people who will live into life in the thousand concrete ways the way of Jesus. We are to be resurrection people who do not despair but who will be God’s saving presence in this broken wicked world that seem bent on its own destruction. God uses human hands to do his work and to bring God’s healing. All that death represents has been conquered decisively.

Many years ago in the 5th century our father in faith St. John Chrysostom spoke these words in his cathedral on Easter morning:

Are there any who are devout lovers of God? Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival! Are there any who are grateful servants? Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord! Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord! First and last alike receive your reward; rich and poor, rejoice together! Sober and slothful, celebrate the day! You that have kept the fast, and you that have not, rejoice today for the Table is richly laden! Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one. Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith. Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free. He has destroyed it by enduring it. He destroyed Hell when He descended into it. He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with. It was in an uproar because it is mocked. It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed. It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated. It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive. Hell took a body, and discovered God. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?
Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead. for Christ having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

Sermon – April 2, 2017

Fifth Sunday in Lent
Rev. Jane Mayrer
April 2, 2017
John 11:1-45

Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable to You, O God, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

A friend of mine, Tom, died in January from melanoma skin cancer. A couple of years earlier, he had noticed an unusual dark spot on his arm, which he ignored and failed to mention to anyone else, including his wife, Susan. Eventually, Susan saw the area and suggested he consult a doctor. Tom refused. She insisted, he refused. She nagged, he refused. Finally, the area looked so alarming that he could no longer ignore it, and he went to a doctor. The diagnosis was melanoma that had metastasized to other parts of his body, including his brain. Fortunately for Tom, the specialist to whom he was referred was working with an experimental treatment for melanoma that had produced good results in other patients. Tom also responded well, and the cancer seemed to be in remission. However, within a year it had returned, and he died several months later. Susan was distraught throughout the ordeal. And she was angry, although she could not express that anger. If Tom had just gone to the doctor when he first noticed the spot, he would not have died. “If only you had …” were the unspoken words that hung over both of them.

Neither Martha or Mary feels a similar restraint when Jesus finally arrives in Bethany four days after they had first asked him to come because their brother Lazarus was ill. In fact, those are the first words out of their mouths when they first greet Jesus. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” Martha says when she runs out to meet him on the road. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” Mary says when she, too, goes out to meet Jesus after Martha tells her he has come. We do not know if the sisters’ words were spoken in anger to rebuke or reproach Jesus for his delay, or whether the two – perplexed and confused by his delay – did not know what to say, other than to state the obvious. Jesus could have cured Lazarus while he was still alive. But Jesus arrived too late, and Lazarus was dead. Their friend, who loved them and whom they loved, had let them down. And we can sympathize with Martha and Mary. For we are told that Jesus deliberately waited two days after receiving their message before setting out towards Bethany.

I think that often many of us today feel the way that Martha and Mary felt when someone we love or care about dies. We feel let down by God. If only God had shown up when we asked and intervened in some way, the person we now grieve for would not have died. A man I met while working as a hospital chaplain is an extreme example. My visit to him was routine, to let him know that spiritual care services were available while he was in hospital, and to see if there was anything I could do for him. This man, in his mid-forties, quickly let me know that he wanted nothing to do with God or anyone who represented God. And he went on to tell me why. When he was young, his mother became seriously ill. Desperate, he prayed to God, begging God to heal his mother and not let her die. But she did die. And this man had never forgiven God for not showing up and saving his mother’s life. If only God had been there, his mother would not have died.

And yet – all living things die. Plants die. Animals die. People die. On some level, conscious or not, we know that we cannot, will not, avoid death. Even Lazarus, who emerged from the tomb, went on to die, again, another day. So what we want, I suppose, when death is near, is for God to intervene and postpone death, at least for a while. For death seems so final. The loss of people we love seems so final. Death is an affront to life, an insult. Jesus wept at Lazarus’ death, and wept at the grief it caused to his family and friends – even though Jesus knew what was going to happen next, even though he knew that Lazarus was about to return to life.

You may have noticed that I said, “Death seems so final.” In our experience, death is final. People who die, stay dead. So why do I qualify what we know about the nature of death? We hear this account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead on this, the last Sunday in Lent, as we prepare to celebrate Easter and Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead. Resurrection – the core of our Christian faith – challenges what we think we know about death. Resurrection insists that we view our understanding of death through a different lens. The account of Lazarus’ death and return from death helps us begin to see death with new eyes.

To start with, when Jesus first received the message that Lazarus was ill, he knew that this illness would not lead to a final death. Instead, as he told his disciples, it would reveal God’s glory and power as life-giver. And it also would reveal the life-giving glory and power of “the Son of Man,” a phrase Jesus often used to refer to himself, so that his disciples would believe that he was the Messiah, the Son of God.

The conversation Jesus has with Martha expands on what he has told the disciples. Martha expresses her faith that God will give whatever Jesus asks. Jesus then tells her that Lazarus will rise again. Like many Jews at that time, Martha believed there would be a general resurrection at the end of time. She affirms that belief by saying she knows that Lazarus will be included. Then Jesus tells her that he is not only the agent of the final resurrection, but is also the giver of new life now. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Martha replies, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” But Martha still is uncertain about what this means.

God’s power over death, and that power exercised through the Messiah, the Son of God, is finally demonstrated at Lazarus’ tomb, which is a cave with a stone blocking the entrance. Jesus orders that the stone be moved. Martha objects, since Lazarus has been dead four days and his body has begun to decay. Jesus reminds her, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Jesus prays, then calls to Lazarus to come out of the tomb. And Lazarus does. In the words of John’s Gospel, “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.” Jesus tells those standing near to “Unbind him, and let him go.” And many of those who witnessed this amazing event – but not all of them – believed in Jesus, as Jesus had said would happen.

God’s power over death was demonstrated again when Jesus was raised from the dead. That is our Easter story. And again, some who witnessed that event believed and some did not.

And that is the situation in which we find ourselves today. Jesus tells us, and shows us, that the death of our human bodies is not the end. Some of us believe this, and some of us don’t. For we are no longer in the realm of evidence based upon scientific experiment and observation. Nor are we in the realm of knowledge gained through experience. Our experience is that people who die stay dead, or at least their bodies stay dead. I suppose that the only way to find out from personal observation and experience whether life continues after our death – and what that life is like – is to die and see what happens.

So, we are left with the witness of others’ experience. We have the testimony of those who saw Lazarus dead and buried, then saw him emerge from the tomb and go on with his life. John’s Gospel tells us that sometime later, six days before Passover, Jesus had a meal with Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, at which Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with costly perfume. When word that Jesus was back in Bethany got around, a crowd showed up, curious not only to see Jesus but to see the again-living Lazarus as well. And we have the testimony of those who saw Jesus dead and buried, then encountered him walking about, talking with them, eating with them. We can choose to believe these witnesses, or not to believe them.

We also have what Jesus himself said: “I am resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” And we have the assurance of Paul, based upon his encounter with the risen Jesus Christ. For Paul, Jesus’ resurrection, and the continuation of life after death, is the foundational event upon which all of Christian faith and practice is based. However, explaining this reality was a challenge. In his letter to the Romans, Paul distinguished between “flesh,” which is hostile to God, and the Spirit that lives within a person who has received it. He referd to this Spirit interchangeably as “the Spirit of God” and “the Spirit of Christ.” And then he affirmed, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

Again, we can choose to believe this, even if we don’t understand “how it works,” or choose not to believe it. Our difficulty is that we are no longer in the realm of rationality and tangible experience, but rather in the realm of faith and mystery. Ultimately, continued life after death is a mystery – because life itself is a mystery. We can explain the biological formation and growth of the human body. But we cannot explain what we call the soul, the animating life, of that body – although there are some scientists who would reduce all of the complexity of our human life experience to the chemical operation of the brain. And just as we do not know, and cannot explain, how life as we experience it in our physical bodies begins, we do not know what happens to that life when our physical bodies die.

What we do have is the faith that God is our creator and the source of life. We have the faith that God loves us and is always with us, even – or especially – at the time of our bodily death. And we have the resurrection as assurance that our life does not end when our bodies die. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

The question Jesus posed to Martha is the question he asks us: “Do you believe this?”


Sermon – March 19, 2017

Third Sunday in Lent
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
John Kiess

Readings: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

In his celebrated commencement address to the graduates of Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace begins with a story. “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the heck is water?’”[1]

For Wallace, the story captures an essential but easily overlooked truth: “that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.”[2] How could a fish not know it swims in water? How could it not know that everything it does, from its feeding to its swimming and schooling, depends upon the existence of this fundamental element, which is everywhere it goes, hiding in plain sight? So it appears with us. As Wallace sees it, we tend to be so caught up in the daily routines of our workaday world—hitting the alarm clock, taking a shower, making the coffee, dropping the kids off at school, sitting in traffic, sending emails, grabbing lunch, going to meetings, sitting in more traffic, making dinner, putting the kids to bed, and then falling asleep ourselves—that we too miss the water, the stuff that makes it all possible, the stuff that gives it meaning. What’s worse, our daily routines have the effect of taking on their own water-like quality, forming the ostensible bedrock of our lives, so that we end up mistaking the routines for the real thing. Our alienation is thus twofold: we are unconscious of the fact that a thousand little choices have combined to form a new normal, an unmovable set of self-bestowed givens, and this has made us all the more unconscious of those deeper realities that undergird and support our routinized lives—realities which, like water for the fish, are hiding in plain sight, obvious to the outside observer, but invisible to us.

What is that water? What is that deeper substrate of reality upon which we all depend, to which our daily routines point, and our restless hearts attest, but which we cannot perceive because those routines prevent us from seeing them? And how do we interrupt our established routines, our conventional ways of thinking, long enough for such a question to even occur to us? For Wallace, getting to this question is half the achievement, for it means we have sensed, if just for a fleeting moment, that there is more out there than just our routines, and this recognition is already evidence of our awareness of the existence of the water.

You may have noticed that water is all over this morning’s readings. It’s there in Exodus, where Moses makes water gush from a rock in the desert, satisfying a tired and thirsty people (17:6). It’s there in Psalm 95, where the memory of this miracle is recalled as a reminder of Israel’s tendency to forget too easily who has provided for their needs (95:8-9). And it is quite literally at the center of the Gospel lesson, which takes place at a well in Samaria.

Let’s review the details. Jesus is on his way to Galilee and decides to take a shortcut through Samaria, the homeland of the Samarians, with whom Jews do not ordinarily interact. We’ll come back to this part of the story later. Jesus stops at Jacob’s well, and a Samaritan woman comes to draw water. It appears the woman has grown accustomed to her daily jaunt to the well; indeed, one gets the sense that she has come thousands of times before and this has become a permanent, if reluctant, feature of her life. Later we find out that the primary appeal of the water that Jesus has to offer is that she would no longer have to come to the well (4:15), suggesting that part of what she seeks is a release from this routine, from the necessity of having to come at all. At the beginning of the story, however, she is unaware that there is any alternative. Like us, her routine is her reality.

Jesus is depicted as an interruption of her routine. He interrupts her routine in three ways. First, he is a man sitting by a well where only women typically come. Witness the astonishment of the disciples later in the story when they find him speaking with her (4:27). Second, he is a Jew, and Jews aren’t supposed to be hanging out with Samaritans. Third, he asks her for water. On a normal day, she comes to the well, draws water, and goes home in peace. She is not accustomed to strange men asking for water from her jar.

These interruptions prompt a question: “How is it you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (4:9). Notice how the question further serves to destabilize the routine. This man and woman are no longer quietly going about their business; they are talking to each other. They are engaged in a dialogue. They are conscious. Jesus responds by saying she has asked the wrong thing. If she knew who he was, she would have asked him for living water. To which she responds, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” (4:12). It sounds a little like the fish’s question, doesn’t it? And here we have arrived at the crucial moment, where her routine has been interrupted just enough for her to be able to glimpse beyond the daily drudgery and see that there might be something else. What do you mean living water? Is that something you can get here? Is that something you need a bucket for? I haven’t heard of that before. Tell me more. So Jesus explains, “Everyone who drinks of this water [from the well] will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (4:14). Strikingly, the woman appears to equate this water with a kind of physical water, the kind that would mean release from physical thirst and the need to continue her daily routine. The appeal, as mentioned before, is that she will not have to keep coming back to draw water. The appeal is that she might be released from the weight of her routine.

It is just at this point that Jesus appears to change the subject, asking her to go get her husband. The woman says, “I have no husband,” and behind this statement lie a thousand unstated truths. Yes, she currently has no husband, but she knows she has had a few husbands before—five to be precise—and that she is currently living with another man (4:17-18). She knows she has not married this man, and we may be within our rights to assume that she hasn’t married him because none of the previous five marriages have worked out. She knows this, but she does not know Jesus knows this. And so she thinks her secret is safe, the secret that constitutes a large part of what has defined her existence. For her routine has not only been characterized by the daily drudgery of trips to the well, but a larger, deeper, more unsatisfying routine of trying to find companionship, acceptance, and satisfaction in these various relationships, none of which has worked out. That’s what she is really thirsting for. That’s what her daily trips to the well symbolize. That’s the cycle that has become second nature, the water she swims in, and she would rather not anyone know about it, because if she shared it, she would have to acknowledge it herself, and that is more frightening than simply learning to live with it, which she has managed to do up until now.

But Jesus knows. And his knowledge enables her to finally be honest with herself. She is finally able to break from her routine way of thinking about her life. That is what an encounter with Jesus does. It wakes us from the quiet compromises we have made with ourselves, those daily decisions to live with something that we know does not satisfy us, instead of stopping and following the pangs of our restless hearts for something that might truly satisfy. Jesus wakes us to consciousness. He does not promise us release from routine—and indeed much of his life is an affirmation of the beauty of the everyday—but he does promise us release from the futile task of trying to find our ultimate satisfaction, our ultimate home, in the unconscious habits that our routines can lock us into. Jesus interrupts us long enough to enable us to be honest with ourselves, and then ask, “What water have I convinced myself to swim in? And what is the nature of the water for which I have been created to swim, the water that has been there all along, hiding in plain sight, as the ground of my existence, the substance of my longings, the object of my deepest hopes?” Jesus gives us the freedom to ask that question.

And what is the fruit of asking that question? For the Samaritan woman, freedom from another set of assumptions: that Jews and Samaritans must live and worship separately. The remainder of the dialogue between Jesus and the woman (4:19-26) turns to some of the specific details that separate these two communities: Jews believe God is to be worshipped in Jerusalem, while Samaritans believe God is to be worshiped on Mount Gerizim. That is the ordinary assumption that informs their routines and what has led them to accept their separate existences. Jesus informs her that true worship doesn’t happen in Jerusalem or a mountain, but “in spirit and truth” (4:23). When we glimpse the true reality of the water in which we swim, the one in whom we live, move, and have our being, we see that God is not limited to a specific geography, but is the ground of all geography, the ground of our existence, the air we breathe. And one implication of this is that the dividing walls of our routinized existence, those boundaries that we have learned to uncritically accept and unconsciously let determine the scope our interactions with others, have fallen down in Christ Jesus. We have been summoned to inhabit a new reality, to enjoy a new food and drink, a new harvest, the fruit of which is life together, an expanded community defined not by mutual suspicion but peace and reconciliation.

That is Paul’s message in the reading from Romans. Paul directs our attention not just to the ground of our created existence, but to the one who has justified and saved us. He does so in order that we might fully grasp the real context of our lives. It is not that we will be justified, but that “we are justified” (5:1). It is not that we will be reconciled, but that we “have been reconciled” (5:11). And this is what enables us to endure present sufferings, and the routinized divisions that remain, with the confident hope that suffering produces endurance, and endurance character, and character hope: a hope for the fulfillment of all these things—the glory of community in God and with one another—which will not be disappointed (5:4-5). And what is it to realize this but to realize that this is the true reality undergirding our existence. This is what lies beneath our routines, and in our routines. This is our source and our end. This is what our restless hearts are restless for. This is water. Amen.

  1. David Foster Wallace, 2005 Commencement Address delivered at Kenyon College, reprinted as This is Water (New York: Little , Brown and Company 2009), 4.
  2. Wallace, This is Water, 8.

Sermon – March 5, 2017

Sermon – March 5, 2017
Jeremy Funk

Sometimes I struggle to relate to Jesus in our gospel lesson today. Most obviously I struggle to relate to him because, of course Jesus will pass these three tests: he’s God and I’m not. Given his close relationship with God, Jesus will certainly refuse to turn stones into bread even though he’s starving. Because of his connection with the divine, Jesus will surely say no to the fame that would follow from leaping off the temple and being rescued by angels. And finally, because he’s intimately tied to God, Jesus will definitely turn down the world’s power and take divine power instead, exercising a little self-discipline now for big gratification later.

What are we to glean from today’s gospel? The church can surely learn valuable lessons from it. For one, we don’t live on bread alone but also on God, so in its mission to show God to the world the church must address not only the world’s physical needs but also the world’s spiritual needs. For another, the church must not to be seduced by the worldly fame and power on offer from the devil but must proclaim a different kingdom, the one Jesus humbly announced. All this is good and true. But this story and this Jesus still leave me turning my wheels, reflecting mostly on what not to do, on what temptations not to fall prey to. So this story can have the same effect on me as reading the Ten Commandments without context: thou shalt not do this or that or the other thing. Okay then, what shall we do instead?

I suggest that our gospel lesson offers three habits of mind for us to cultivate, habits that Jesus modeled and underscored for us in the wilderness. The first mental habit is to live into the reality that all food and all life come from God. Food and life are gift and provision. The second habit of mind is to live into the reality that God, that goodness, is everywhere; grace is here, even if we struggle to notice where or how. The third habit of mind is to remember and rehearse for yourself your experiences of being buoyed, cared for, tended to, set free, and saved. God is in the business of saving and setting free, and as we continue to seek God, it’s wise for us to hold on to the truth that God is still in the saving business, especially in small ways and in our little lives.

We can see that Jesus holds out for us these habits of mind if we briefly examine the Scripture passages he quotes to the devil during his ordeal. They all come from the book of Deuteronomy. In the three original passages Moses is speaking to the Israelites. Sometimes Moses addresses an audience about to enter the promised land. So he will recall for them the time their ancestors wandered in the wilderness. Other times though, even with many of them gone, Moses addresses his original band of freed slaves, the folks of the wilderness generation themselves. So during his own wilderness experience, it’s not a surprise that Jesus fastens onto these passages from Deuteronomy.

The first habit of mind Jesus holds out for us is to live into the reality that all food and all life come from God. Food and life are provision and gift. The devil says to the famished Jesus, since you’re the Son of God, you can feed yourself many times over. Just turn these stones here into loaves of bread.

But Jesus recalls what Moses said to the Israelites: “Remember,” said Moses, “the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep God’s commandments. God humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

In humility Jesus speaks a word the Israelites had to learn: food is a gift from God. Certainly the manna Israel ate was a divine gift. But so is all food. We humans can’t make food out of thin air. So even if Jesus had turned the stones into bread at the devil’s bidding, that bread still would have come from God. Fixing, sharing, and eating food, which we will do today during our potluck meal, does not show our self-sufficiency but only our dependence on a bountiful God.

The second habit of mind Jesus holds out for us is to live into the reality that God, goodness, is everywhere. Grace is here even if we struggle to notice where and how.

The devil corners Jesus in a precarious place at the Jerusalem temple. Jesus is in a bad way, without an escape.

Since you’re the Son of God, the devil says, you can get out of here unscathed. Just throw yourself down. You’ve made God your refuge and your home, even more than the psalmist did who wrote that God will send his angels to catch one whom God loves. I can guarantee you that your feet won’t even touch the ground.

But Jesus recalls what Moses said to the Israelites: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.” In Hebrew massah is a word that means “test.” Massah is a place in the wilderness where the Israelites were thirsty. They begged God for water. It would be easy to excuse those people: they were in a desperate place and simply not their best selves. But the sin of those Israelites was that they tested God: they conditioned their faith that God was with them on whether God would give them water. They wanted faith on their own terms, not God’s. Eventually God did provide for them. Moses struck a rock and water flowed. At Massah God said to Moses, “I will be standing there in front of you, on the rock.” Said God to a fearful people, you may be in a bad way and without an escape, but even here I am with you, even in this precarious, wilderness place.

Again, Jesus humbly speaks a word the Israelites had to learn: God, goodness, is everywhere, even if we struggle to notice where or how. Our Lord, the one who speaks this word to us, will end up in a very bad way, on an executioner’s cross. But we know that goodness will find him there and beyond. That’s why once again this year we began our Lenten journey this past Wednesday. In our own little lives we may struggle to notice where God’s goodness is, or how it’s coming through. But, like Jesus, we don’t necessarily need to take a leap of faith. Maybe all we need to do is take the next step. Because we belong to God and follow the path of his Son, our faith does not rest on any bargain we’ve made with God, or on any test we’ve put to him. Our faith rests on the God who is with us and who loves us, step by step by step. May we begin to notice the grace and goodness that are everywhere. Grace is here in our small gathering and smiling greetings, in our sharing of Christ’s body and blood, in MacKenzie and Austin’s play, in the gift of newborn babies, in our shelter and sharing for children and families. Goodness is here. God is with us.

Our lives brim with experiences, but a few shape us and define who we are. So if we are to be seekers after God, the final habit of mind Jesus holds out for us is that we remember and rehearse for ourselves our experiences of being saved—of being set free, of being buoyed or borne up, of being tended to or cared for. We are wise never to forget these times because God has been at work in them.

The devil reveals to Jesus a panorama of the entire known world, its grandest buildings, the halls of its loftiest power. I’ll give you all this, the devil says, if you pledge allegiance to me. But Jesus recalls what Moses said to the Israelites: “When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors . . . and when you have eaten your fill, take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear.”

What Moses wanted to guard against was that the Israelites would forget the God who had freed them from slavery. Forgetfulness was a possibility because in Israelite culture, different geographic areas were ruled by different gods. Moses wanted the Israelites to remember that their loyalty belonged to the God who had freed them, not to the god who presided over their new home.

By Jesus’s time, he and his people trusted that only one God exists. Jesus and his people worshiped God because their Israelite ancestors had been freed from slavery in Egypt and had been buoyed and borne up, tended to and cared for, through loyalty and disloyalty to this God, through exile from Israel and return to the land. So again, Jesus speaks in humility a word the Israelites and their descendants had to learn: God has saved us, buoyed and borne us up, tended and cared for us. And God is still in the business of setting free and of saving. No other story, no other power, matters as much as this one.

On Ash Wednesday we began to live again the saving story of our faith. It centers on the work of God in freeing from death our Lord Jesus and all who follow him. I can tell many stories of God’s freedom and faithfulness in my life: they start with my somehow surviving a premature birth; then being raised in a safe and caring family; discovering education, vocation, and a loving marriage; and all the while journeying on in friendship with a loving God. I know that everyone in this room can tell individual stories of God’s faithfulness. And the story of this congregation is itself one rescue and salvation. Our congregation should have dispersed. Our building should have been closed. But here we are, buoyed and borne up, tended to and cared for by our saving God. Amen.

Sermon – February 26, 2017

Last Sunday after the Epiphany
The Transfiguration
Rev. Jane Mayrer
February 26, 2017

“I will make three dwellings here ….” (Matt. 17:4)

Tell us, O Lord, what we need to hear, and show us what we need to do to be followers of Jesus. Amen.

Today we hear about the ultimate “mountain top” experience of Jesus’ direct encounter with God. We have the story from the perspective of the three disciples who were with Jesus when it happened: Peter, James, and John. I’ve wondered what Jesus himself was up to – if he knew what was going to happen – when he set out for the mountain. As with much in the earthly life of Jesus, that’s something we’ll never know. So, we see this mysterious event through the eyes of Peter – Peter, the one disciple who had some glimmer of understanding of who Jesus really was.

A week before this trek up the mountain, Jesus had asked his disciples what people were saying about him, and who people thought he was. Then he asked the disciples, “And who do you think I am?” Well, that caught them by surprise. Peter had blurted out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” That was the right answer. But when Jesus began to explain that the Messiah was going to endure great suffering before being killed by the religious leaders, Peter was having none of it. “That must never happen to you!” he insisted. Peter seemed to have missed entirely what Jesus said would follow after his death – that he would be raised three days later. So, Jesus took Peter and the other two up a high mountain, by themselves.

The Gospel account does not offer details. Neither the mountain nor its location is named. But some of the details were filled in for me when I was on pilgrimage in Israel in January. We visited Mt. Tabor, which tradition claims is the site of Jesus’ transfiguration. Mt. Tabor qualifies as a “high mountain.” It rises 1,886 feet above the flat Galilean plain. As our van traveled up and up, around one switchback curve after another, I wondered how Jesus and his companions got to the top. Did they walk? Did they, like us, hire local transportation from the village at the foot of the mountain, a donkey, before they started up? I had an image of Peter, James, and John, known at times to complain, asking “Why are you taking us way up here?” and “Are we there yet?” perhaps because that’s what I was thinking. My guess is that if they were on foot, all of their energy went to taking the next step and no one was doing much talking.

When they got to the top of the mountain, the trip up was suddenly forgotten. Nor did they take in the 365-degree view of the surrounding countryside and marvel at how far they could see into the distance. Instead, their eyes were riveted upon Jesus, because Jesus changed. The Gospel says, “He was transfigured before them.” His face shone like the sun. His clothes became dazzling white. Then, Jesus was talking with two other men who had somehow appeared, whom they somehow knew were Moses and Elijah. And then, while they were trying to take in what they were seeing, or thought they were seeing, a bright cloud covered it all and a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” What exactly happened, we will never know. Later, on the way back down the mountain, Jesus referred to the experience as a vision. But clearly, this was a direct encounter with God, the Holy One, or – as Peter later said – the Majestic Glory, for both Jesus and the disciples.

What do you do if you have a mystical experience like this? Peter’s first impulse was to build three structures. He wanted to hold onto the experience, to keep it and contain it. What do you do in the presence of God, who cannot be held and contained? All three of the disciples fell to the ground, overcome with the awe, that holy fear which seems to be our human response to an encounter with the Holy One. And then Jesus came to them, and touched them, and spoke to them, and told them not to be afraid. When they looked up, everything had returned to normal. There was Jesus, looking like his usual self. Before they could say anything, Jesus told them not to tell anyone what they had seen and heard until “after the Son of Man had been raised from the dead.”

So, what do you do if you have had a holy encounter you cannot explain, or talk about? Most people, faced with mystery, are not content to just accept it and let it be. Instead, they need to make sense of it. So, on their way down the mountain, Peter, James, and John tried to make sense of what they had just witnessed by latching onto something with which they were familiar, namely scripture and what the prophets had said about Elijah and the Messiah. They tried to regain control by engaging Jesus in a theological discussion. Jesus knew what they were doing and why. He was patient with them and answered their questions, knowing it would take them time to understand.

And, in time, Peter and the others did come to understand. The suffering and death that Peter had insisted could not happen, did happen. Jesus was betrayed by one of his own disciples and arrested. At the behest of the religious leaders, he was tortured and then crucified. His dead body was put into a tomb. And then, three days later, the tomb was empty, and Jesus was alive. Peter himself encountered the transfigured, risen Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Transformed by that encounter, Peter went on to preach the good news about Jesus and to witness to the truth of what he had experienced, seen with his own eyes, heard with his own ears, and touched with his own hands.

We are fortunate today to have the accounts left by Peter and all the other witnesses to Jesus’ life and ministry. One way in which we encounter the risen Jesus today is through their experience, written down and passed on to us. We read their stories, we put ourselves in their place, and with our imagination we relive their experience. Yet, through the centuries, followers of Jesus have longed for something more. We have longed for our own “mountain top” experience of the Holy. We have longed for our own transforming encounter with the risen Jesus.

I am one of those seekers. And I have not had that mystical experience, at least not yet. Nor, as far as I am aware, has anyone I know had such an experience. I’ve read about such experiences, though, and I do not doubt the reality of those experiences. St. Paul comes vividly to mind, as do Teresa of Avila, and Hildegard of Bingham, and Julia of Norwich. Any number of people, ancient and contemporary, have written about their spiritual awakening and mystical union with the Holy, either through the prayer practice of meditation, or just because it suddenly happened. But I have come to suspect that a mountain top experience is not the only way in which to meet Jesus and have Jesus transform our lives. After all, most of us will never have that kind of dramatic experience. Instead, I believe that we encounter Jesus on a regular basis in our daily lives, but because we are looking for some other kind of experience, or because we simply are not looking at all, we don’t notice it.

It has taken me a long time to come to this realization. I have resisted the notion that we encounter Christ in other human beings, especially those human beings who are not behaving in a particularly Jesus-like manner. But Jesus told us, plainly, explicitly – whatever you do for others, you also do for me. And the reverse is also true, when you neglect or refuse others, you neglect and refuse me. So, if we want to encounter Jesus, we have to engage with other people. And we must interact with them in the same way that Jesus did. Is the person in front of you hungry? Give him something to eat. Is the person in front of you naked? Give her something to wear. Is the person in front of you sad? Comfort him. Does the person in front of you need forgiveness? Forgive her. Has the person in front of you lost hope? Encourage him. Does the person in front of feel unworthy? Respect her. Does the person in front of you need healing? Lay your hands on him and pray for healing. Does the person in front of you need to be loved? Love her.

I have come to realize that we are not transformed with a sudden zap of holiness received in a mystical encounter with the Holy. Instead, we are transformed gradually, over time, through trial and error, as we try to serve and love Jesus by serving and loving each other.


Sermon – February 12, 2017

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

February 12, 2017

Homily: Matthew 5:21-37, Sirach 15:15-20, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Preacher: Rev. John M. Hayes

This is not a feel-good gospel. And I would betray my calling if I tried to spin it into a gentle reminder to be good. You know: ‘what Jesus really meant’..?

On the other hand I grew up around Jewish folks and they are much given to hyperbole: exaggeration to create emphasis. When my friend Ira heard his gentle mothers call: “You better get in here now or I’m going to kill you”, we all understood homicide was not on offer. The streets of Queens were not littered with dead Jewish kids who regretfully took too long getting home for supper.

To note the hyperbole talk is not to water down and domesticate Jesus’ message. I think we’re on safe ground saying Jesus is dead serious about sin but he isn’t really recommending loping off offending limbs or gauging out wandering eyes. Down through the centuries, Christians understood this.

We might wish some of the same kind of understanding of Jesus’ references to hell. Truth be told I cannot remember the last time I heard a sermon about hell. Not in the progressive Catholic and Episcopal I went to. Many of us are of an age when talk of hell fire and eternal damnation got your attention and often.

In college I read in James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man the chapter where the Jesuit rector of his prep school preaches:

“Hell has enlarged its soul and opened its mouth without any limits – words taken, my dear little brothers in Christ Jesus, from the book of Isaias, fifth chapter, fourteenth verse. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

The preacher took a chainless watch from a pocket within his soutane and, having considered its dial for a moment in silence, placed it silently before him on the table.

He began to speak in a quiet tone. — Consider finally that the torment of this infernal prison is increased by the company of the damned themselves. Evil company on earth is so noxious that the plants, as if by instinct, withdraw from the company of whatsoever is deadly or hurtful to them. In hell all laws are overturned – there is no thought of family or country, of ties, of relationships. The damned howl and scream at one another, their torture and rage intensified by the presence of beings tortured and raging like themselves. All sense of humanity is forgotten. The yells of the suffering sinners fill the remotest corners of the vast abyss. The mouths of the damned are full of blasphemies against God and of hatred for their fellow sufferers and of curses against those souls which were their accomplices in sin. In olden times it was the custom to punish the parricide, the man who had raised his murderous hand against his father, by casting him into the depths of the sea in a sack in which were placed a cock, a monkey, and a serpent. The intention of those law-givers who framed such a law, which seems cruel in our times, was to punish the criminal by the company of hurtful and hateful beasts. But what is the fury of those dumb beasts compared with the fury of execration which bursts from the parched lips and aching throats of the damned in hell when they behold in their companions in misery those who aided and abetted them in sin, those whose words sowed the first seeds of evil thinking and evil living in their minds, those whose immodest suggestions led them on to sin, those whose eyes tempted and allured them from the path of virtue. They turn upon those accomplices and upbraid them and curse them. But they are helpless and hopeless: it is too late now for repentance.”

Sound familiar? Lovely stuff. Brought me right back to St. Clare’s School 1961, squirming through Father Dunnegan’s talks with the 8th grade boys.

The time is not long gone when this kind of frightening lore was standard fare in the pulpits of every Christian denomination. The message was simple and universal: Sin was serious business and God plays for keeps, so one would be wise to shape up while you have the chance. Hell’s fires await those who do not heed the call to repentance.

Fifty years later we have an opposite problem. Our twenty-first century sensitivities are allergic to any mention of sin and its consequences. I’ve heard it suggested that the Ten Commandments should be called the ten suggestions. In writing The Road to Character the NY Times columnist David Brooks said that he had a battle resisting his editor’s insistence that his Augustinian allusions to sin be reframed as “insensitivities”. The turn from old time religion to what many have called “therapeutic” religion – religion intended to make us feel better about ourselves, improve our self-esteem and maximize our potentials – is also problematic.

Sin is very much with us. I believe it was G K Chesterson who said that the only Christian dogma that was empirically verifiable was original sin.

When we hear today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel today we likely miss that this is Jesus continuing the Sermon on the Mount. Last week we heard the beatitudes: blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, and blessed are the merciful.

Now he turns to sin. Again and again Jesus frames his message: “you have heard it said…but I say” Jesus is not replacing the law, but intensifying the law. Surface compliance will not suffice. God demands a true change of the heart and mind. God wants authentic change all the way down, from the inside out. Not that God is some cruel tyrant that has to be appeased or else. God wants for us a change of mind and heart because God loves us and wants his creative action that is manifest in every human life to be fulfilled. God made us for himself and we turn away from God in so many ways.

Jesus wants us to see life as it really is, to see reality as God sees it: our lives are absolutely pure unmerited gift. This is true even when life is difficult and hard. Pure unmerited gift. And if our minds know the love that makes us and holds us in existence, our desires will change accordingly. If we know ourselves to be loved – loved senselessly, extravagantly, and eternally – then we want to love back. It is that simple. When we know ourselves to be loved by God, we love God and we love the other beloved creatures with whom we share this life.

Augustine called sin ‘disordered desire’. To be awake and conscious is to desire. Desire makes the world go round. We are made to desire what is good, true, and beautiful. Sin is the corruption of desire. Sin is looking for the good, looking for truth, looking for love in all the wrong places. Really looking for God in all the wrong places. “Our hearts are ever restless until they rest in thee.” We chase cheap substitutes and illusions for the good, for truth, for love, when the only real good, the only real truth, the only real love is eternally on offer. We need only turn to God. Grace brings us back to where we need to be, to where we truly thrive.

When we try to do life on our own selfish terms, it just doesn’t work. We blind ourselves to God, ignore God’s way, and create terrible chaos. We make misery for ourselves and for everyone around us. Our selfish ways and that misery that follows can and do become second nature. That is a life of sin. We get trapped in a blind alley of forgetfulness, where we do no longer know who we really are, who we belong to, and what our lives are for. That trap can very well be called hell and feel like eternal torment we cannot escape.

In our translation of Matthew’s gospel Jesus speaks of “hell” and we imagine the medieval picture from Dante’s Inferno promoted by generations of morbid preachers and we think Jesus is speaking about some place of eternal torment for our sins. How many have wondered what kind of loving God would punish human beings eternally for their all too human failings?

This “hell” Jesus talks about, in the Greek is “gehenna” and it has nothing to do with Dante.

In Jesus’ time gehenna was a garbage dump outside Jerusalem well known to his listeners. I was a place where fires smoldered continuously. More than that his listeners knew well that “gehenna” was not just a garbage dump, but had in older times been the place of child sacrifice. Offering to Baal or whatever god, the sacrifice of the life of a first-born was pretty standard fare in ancient religion. That is idolatry: appeasing the powerful tyrant idol of imagination, imagining that the contingencies of life can be controlled even by cruel horrific ritual. This is religion of fear and control. The true God is the God of love.

When we turn from deepening relationship with God, when we give ourselves over to “disordered desire”, when we create and worship idols in place of God – money, sex, power, admiration, ambition – we are living in sin and we land ourselves in that smoldering garbage dump “gehenna” where the very gift of God that is most precious is destroyed.

When we do not live in deepening relationship with God, life becomes hell. Its how it is. It how life has always been. As the reading from Sirach this morning says: ‘Before each person are life and death, and whichever one choses will be given.”

May we all chose life, the only true life, the life of abundance that is life in God.

Sermon – Jan 22, 2017

January 22, 2017
Jeremy Funk

“I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” This confession of faith falls near the end of today’s psalm, Psalm 27. This morning I want to reflect with you about seeing the goodness of the Lord here and now. I want to suggest that seeing the Lord’s goodness first has to do with trusting that God’s gifts to us are good, and second with seeking them out; then again trusting, then yet again seeking, then trusting again and seeking again—over and over.

“The Lord is my light and my salvation,” our psalm begins, “whom shall I fear?” God’s light recalls the first act of creation and reminds us that all life comes from the divine. God’s salvation recalls the Israelite liberation from Egypt and the journey to the promised land. Ongoing creative power and saving help are God’s fundamental, good gifts. They are life and freedom. They come to us because of who God is. When we trust God, we trust in one who by nature is life and liberation. So we do not need to be afraid. Across the Psalms we hear calls like this: You have saved my soul from death; and questions like this: Will the dust praise you? Of course the Christian claim is that God’s saving help has come to us in Jesus, who has died and risen to everlasting life. We too trust the God of the Psalms.

What are some ways that you pause to notice God’s fundamental, good gifts of life and saving help? Just this year Helen and I began writing down, on a new colored slip of paper for each day, something we are grateful for, or our happiest moment, that day. We’re collecting the paper in a jar and plan to read through our gratitude slips on New Year’s Eve. This practice helps me to stop and think about what I’m choosing to write down not only as a happy moment but also as part of the good gift of life God has given me.

“I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” After we have acknowledged the fundamental, good gifts of God’s creation and liberation, we live in God’s presence seeking out more of God’s good gifts. Verse 4 of Psalm 27 says, “One thing I asked of the Lord,” says the psalmist, “that will I seek after: / to live in the house of the Lord / all the days of my life, / to behold the beauty of the Lord, / and to inquire in his temple.”

So the presence of the Lord is a place to live in, a space to inhabit.

Helen and I meet monthly with a small group from Stony Run Friends Meeting. When we gather, we sit in silence, and out of the silence eventually each of us will share, in a way of speaking, how God is at work in our lives. One member of our group has said that her spiritual practice is to remember as often as she can that she is always in meeting for worship. That is, she is always in church, always ready to notice how God is at work within and through her.

According to our psalm, one quality of life in the Lord’s goodness is beauty, “the beauty of the Lord.” Certainly in the Old Testament a defining trait of Israel’s God is that the Lord is invisible. So for this psalmist, where does God’s beauty come from? One commentator suggests, “It is possible that the psalmist perceived and experienced God’s appearance and presence (God’s face) via the sunlight that shone in the temple and reflected off gold decorations.”

Given that the Lord is the Creator, it may be helpful to take “the beauty of the Lord” more broadly. Wherever beauty is, through that beauty we also see something of God’s beauty. So when we worship upstairs in our sanctuary, through the beauty that there surrounds us, we glimpse God’s beauty. And whether we’re upstairs or down here, when we exchange the peace of Christ with smiles, hugs, and greetings we experience through them something of God’s beauty. In the children and babies among us too we see something of God’s beauty: in Mackenzie, in Amiyah, in Hunter, and in Austin—and in the new babies that will arrive. I experience something of God’s beauty when I listen to music that stirs me. Certainly all of us could tell of times when we have known something of God’s beauty through the beauty in this world.

Another feature of life in God’s goodness, our psalm tells us, is knowledge or wisdom. The psalmist says that besides gazing on the Lord’s beauty, he also wishes to “inquire at [God’s] temple.” Later the poet prays, “Teach me your way, O Lord.” This psalmist may have inquired of God through a prophet or a priest at the temple. This psalmist wants to hear God’s word. In Jesus Christ we hear God’s living Word, and through the Spirit this word lives in our hearts. If we listen with ready ears, we may hear God’s Word preached or God’s word spoken in truth and love between members of our community. If we listen with ready ears or read with ready eyes, we can hear God’s word in Scripture. I have spent time listening to the Psalms in an audio Bible so far this year, mostly at lunch. I find that listening to the words of Scripture helps me to remember God’s goodness.

“I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” We see God’s goodness in the here and now by trusting God’s fundamental, good gifts of life and liberation, and then by seeking out or noticing others—signs of beauty, words of wisdom. Then we trust those and notice others, and then we trust and notice again and again and again.

In Psalm 27 the poet sings to a God whose nature and gifts enliven. But the psalmist faces enemies who want to do nothing but thwart God’s life-giving purposes: they want destroy him. That’s why he seeks protection in the temple. The psalmist is hounded by folks who want to put an end to him or at least to his good name—and those were pretty much the same thing in biblical times.

And despite all this trusting and seeking after God, even this psalmist wonders whether God will stick with him. He wouldn’t be human if it didn’t: “Do not hide your face from me,” our poet begs. “Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help.” And finally, “Do not forsake me; even if my father and mother forsake me, you will not.”

Given our very human struggles to trust and seek after God, we need God’s own grace to imitate God with each other as best we can. We will do well to trust the Spirit of God in one another and to seek out God’s gifts in each other. I’ve learned a new angle on this practice from the improv introduction class Helen and I are taking. In just two weeks I’ve come to realize in a new way the importance of stepping forward in faith toward a partner in a scene and trusting in the goodness of whatever gift—in words, pantomime, or what have you—that the partner gives.

So let’s trust and seek out God’s goodness in one another. We already see goodness flourishing here, whether through Eva’s relationship with Franklin Square parents and children, or through Bertina’s nurture of this community. We notice God’s goodness in Andre’s leadership and in the music John and Anna provide to enrich our worship.

Our psalm winds to a close with the confession we’ve heard already today: “I believe that I will see God’s goodness in the land of the living.” Our psalm’s final lines call us to wait for the Lord. This is an active waiting, a courageous waiting. It’s the constant back-and-forth of seeking and trusting we’ve been talking about; it’s looking out for the goodness of the Lord. And I do see this goodness here, at Saint Luke’s. I’m grateful for the chance to keep trusting, looking, and waiting for it with you.

Sermon – January 8th, 2017 (Feast of the Epiphany)

Feast of the Epiphany (January 8th, 2017)
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
Rev. John Hayes

Today we celebrate the feast of Epiphany – traditionally 12th night of Christmas. We’re actually stretching it to 14 days, but all good things here below come to an end. The lights come down, the trees sit on curbs, the last gasp of holiday celebrating is exhausted. Its over; winter awaits.

The real cold and dark that wait is metaphorical. The world indeed is darker and colder. Who is not gripped by fear and anxiety? Unending violence in the Middle East and Africa, the butchering of innocents in Aleppo, the rising ecological crisis, the numbing round of shootings and car bombs, and again the heartbreak of racism in our country, and everywhere the cruel escalating gap between rich and poor and coming soon between rich and middle class. In a short two weeks power goes to a man whose judgment and character few trust and whose instincts and intentions many fear.

The promise of Christmas — God with us, peace on earth, goodwill among humanity everywhere —  ring hollow and empty this year. Where is God?

Today’s observance of the three magi’s journey following a star can feel like the worst kind of escapist religious kitsch, if we don’t dig deeper and open up the story, and see the sweep of the gospel message. St. Paul tells us this morning the point of the gospel is “to make everyone see what is the plan of mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.”  What is hidden in this story is forever true and its truth speaks to our dire moment.

Like every tyrant Herod trembles at the approach of God. He knows in his heart his days are numbered. The power-plays of tyrants – the deceit and trickery, the false news, the scapegoating the vulnerable, the desperate violence to hold power – nothing new under the sun-all will fall before the victory of our God and his Christ, the salvation and redemption of all peoples. That Christ who comes to us as a vulnerable child born to a poor family soon to be refuges, barely escaping Herod’s slaughter of innocents. Appearances to contrary, love will ultimately triumphs over hate, beauty over ugliness, truth over lies. The lights of Christmas go out, light of God, the Christ hidden in the human heart never will go out.

The prophet Isaiah tell us:

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.

The later day prophet the priest Daniel Berrigan tells us:

It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss—This is true: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life;


It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction—This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.


It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever—This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful councilor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.


It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world—This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world.


It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers—This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.


It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history—This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.

So let us enter the new year in hope, even hope against hope. We are Christmas people. We are children of the Resurrected Christ. We are made for times like this. When the world is cynical, cruel, and dark, let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ—the life of the world.

Sermon – December 18, 2016 (Fourth Sunday of Advent)

Fourth Sunday in Advent (December 18, 2016)
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
John Kiess
Readings: Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25


It happens all the time.  The person you thought you knew turns out to be someone different.  Maybe it’s a colleague who you thought you could count on, who was quick to laugh with you when times were good, but who suddenly began to fend for himself when word of job cuts spread.  Or maybe it’s that sweet, thoughtful boy who always seemed to say the right thing, who takes the girl for ice cream in the country and points out Cassiopeia in the stars.  Who does he turn out to be?  That guy sitting on the couch watching Patriots games, cheering for some guy named Brady.  I’ve heard this kind of thing even happens in churches.  That person who was so eager to volunteer in the beginning doesn’t come around anymore; that friend you thought you could confide in, share your struggles with, turns out to be not very interested.

There’s no tragedy in this.  These are the ways we discover one another’s fallibility.  These are the every day encounters that confirm the truth that we are not perfect, all-knowing, infinitely loving beings, but sinful, selfish, profoundly limited creatures whose shortcomings are vexing and whose callousness is galling.  Tragedy ensues when we let these limitations become our fate, when we let our fears about one another’s limitations determine what’s actually happening between us.  It is at this point when we go past wrestling with the limitations that condition our interactions and contemplate something else.  We consider dismissing one another.  We begin to imagine life without one another’s company.

This is what we find Joseph contemplating at the beginning of today’s Gospel lesson.  Mary has been “found to be with child” (Matt. 1:18).  To any reasonable outside observer, there are only two possibilities.  Either Mary has conceived the child with Joseph, which Joseph knows not to be true, or she has been unfaithful.  What is Joseph supposed to think?  Evidently Mary is not who he thought she was.  But what should he do about it?  Matthew informs us that she was found to be with child during a specific time, in his words, when Mary “had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together” (1:18).  He’s referring to the betrothal period, which, in ancient Judaism, two families established through a specific economic transaction, the payment of the bride-price.  This economic dimension made betrothal a binding contract, much like marriage, breakable only through death or divorce.  Given the formality of the arrangement, to be unfaithful during the betrothal was on par with adultery, and the book of Deuteronomy spells out the penalty in no uncertain terms: “If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death” (Deut. 22:23-24).

For those looking to avoid such a scene, there was another option: one could, as in the case of adultery in marriage, obtain a certificate of divorce and send away the betrothed quietly.  That is what Joseph is considering in verse 19.  He knows that he would be within his rights to subject her to public disgrace, but we are told he is a “righteous man,” and this inclines him to choose the more merciful path of quiet dismissal.  It’s a textbook case in crisis management.  He has found a way both to acknowledge the wrong and spare her the disgrace.  We can imagine Joseph being quite pleased with his solution.

There’s only one problem: his reasoning is based upon a mistaken premise.  Mary hasn’t been unfaithful, and this is not a case of adultery.  An angel appears to Joseph in a dream and says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (1:20).  Things are not as they appear.  It’s possible that Mary has been faithful after all, and that there is an entirely different way of accounting for her pregnancy.  Yet to understand how requires suspending all the usual rules, all the usual frames that influence how we read and interpret everyday life.  Joseph cannot read the evidence and make his usual deductions.  For the extraordinary has burst into the ordinary and disrupted all of our normal assumptions about cause and effect.  The story has entered new territory; it is following a plotline Joseph could not foresee or imagine.  From here forward, he can assume nothing.

It is striking that the angel prefaces this announcement with the counsel, “Do not be afraid” (1:20).  Up to this point, we have heard nothing about fear.  We have only heard about a magnanimous man who, though he could subject his fiancée to humiliation, chooses instead the path of mercy.  Yet the angel unmasks Joseph’s apparent righteousness as fear.  He is in fact a fearful man, guided less by moral scruple than the narrow conventions of his society.  What’s to fear in taking Mary as his wife?  Quite a lot.  People will assume either that he and Mary violated the sanctity of their betrothal, or that he married an unfaithful woman.  Either way, he will be disgraced, and in a culture that trades in the currency of honor and shame, he stands to lose his most valuable asset: his good name.  Initially, Joseph appears as a sympathetic character looking to minimize the disgrace that his erstwhile companion’s mistakes have justly earned her; the angel’s words reveal that what Joseph really cares about is preserving his own reputation.  It’s not Mary’s disgrace that he wants to minimize; it’s his own.  This tells us a lot about where his head is: not with Mary and who he knows her to be, but with what other people will think and how they will read this situation.  Again, he’s thinking like a first century crisis manager: how do I minimize this?  How can I get this to blow over?  The preoccupation with the question, “What will other people think?” shapes, and ultimately determines, how he reads his own situation, including what he assumes about his beloved Mary.  That’s where this story threatens to become a tragedy.  It is certainly not anything Mary has done that actually threatens Joseph.  It is all in how Joseph perceives the facts.  It’s in misrecognition, it’s in false deductions, that the tragic door of dismissal opens.  And it’s Joseph who opens that door, not Mary.

Yet this morning’s Gospel lesson is not ultimately a tragedy.  It’s what dramatists would call a comedy.  It’s a story where an unlikely, unanticipated development changes the way the facts of the case are understood, and when the relevant parties are able to make that recognition in enough time to prevent tragedy from ensuing.  A comedy does not try to erase the limitations of the characters; rather, it shows how the story continues in spite of those limitations.  It shows what happens when we forbear, rather than dismiss, our limitations, and exercise enough patience to see that things stand differently than we might have assumed.

This dimension of the story becomes clear when we compare Joseph to King Ahaz in the Old Testament lesson.  Both men try to hide behind a veneer of righteousness to avoid the really hard thing: trusting God with the terms of their story.  Isaiah tells Ahaz that God will rescue Judah from the invading armies of the northern kingdom of Israel and Syria; he need only ask for a sign (7:11).  Ahaz gets smart and says one should “not put the Lord to the test” (7:12); he uses this wise saying to hide what he would prefer to do: put his trust in an alliance with the neighboring Assyrian empire.  Isaiah says God will Himself provide the sign, and before the promised child is weaned, Judah will be liberated (7:16).  Joseph, too, is tempted to hide behind his human understanding of what righteousness requires.  There’s a comfortable certainty that would come from dismissing Mary.  This would not only protect his honor, but it would conveniently confirm Joseph as the man in control, the one who gets to determine the terms of the story.  But credit Joseph with believing.  When the sign comes to him, he lets go of that control.  Matthew tells us, “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife” (1:24).  Joseph is admirable not because he exercises the mercy that spares an alleged adulteress her justified punishment; he is admirable because he is able to recognize the limits of his reading of her situation, and he is able to remain open enough to re-read the situation in terms that break through the suffocating boundaries of his shame and honor culture.  He realizes there is a different way to tell the story of our world.  History is not tragedy, but comedy, a divine comedy in which God breaks into the realm of the ordinary and suspends the normal rules long enough for us to realize that our limitations are not cause for dismissal, but for forbearance.  In exercising patience with our limitations, and in spite of them, we can find ways to continue our story together.  The key breakthrough for Joseph comes when he realizes that it is not Mary’s limitations that need forbearing, but his own.

Let’s not be naïve enough to assume that Joseph’s willingness to believe the truth about Mary will spare them disgrace.  The rest of society will assume that they did indeed violate their betrothal, or that Joseph married an unfaithful woman.  There is a cost.  But in the end, Joseph is essentially prepared to say: assume what you want.  I know a God who is capable of such things, and I’d prefer to live and act in a world that assumes the possibility of these things.  Notice also what is gained from his belief.  In believing that God is capable of such things, he is able to see the truth about Mary.  She is who he thought she was.  And she is much more.  She is the mother of God, the mother of the promised Messiah, the mother of the king who has come to “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).  It is not incidental that in prodding Joseph to believe Mary has conceived from the Holy Spirit, the angel tells Joseph the identity of the child.  Indeed, before the angel even does this, he addresses Joseph as “son of David,” as if to remind him of the genealogy Matthew has just reviewed for his audience earlier in the chapter (1:1-17).  Joseph is from a royal line, the line of David, and God has promised to restore the Davidic monarchy, and the child born from the virgin is the sign of that commitment.  Appealing to his faith in the God who will save His people, the angel appeals to Joseph to see what such faith might mean in the realm of the ordinary, and what it would mean about the nature and dignity of his betrothed.

This is what faith does.  It allows us to see one another in our true light.  Believing God to be a God who can conceive from the Holy Spirit, who can raise the dead, who can justify sinners, who can purify unclean hearts, we are freed to see one another as we are in God’s sight.  Not as adulterers, not as competitors, not as stubborn and hardheaded enemies, but as reconciled friends, companions in a journey that will continue as long as we are willing to keep ourselves open to the possibility that things are not as they seem, that there are new plot twists in store, beyond our controlling, so long as we forebear one another, so long as we do not prematurely dismiss one another, so long as we give one another enough time to recognize that we really are as God sees us—that in God’s sight, I am who you thought I was, and you are who I thought you were.  Amen.