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Sermons for Year B in 2017-2018

    May 06, 2018

    Preacher: Rob Donehue

    Series: Easter

    Category: Sermons for Year B (2017-2018)

    Summary:

    Sermons for Year B (2017-2018) preached by Fr. Rob Donehue at St. Anne's Episcopal Church.

    Detail:

     

    Sermon for Trinity Sunday, Year B (2018)
    May 27th, 2018
    St. Anne’s, Conway SC (Lackey Chapel) 

    Isaiah 6:1-8     Romans 8:12-17     John 3:1-17

    This morning is the first Sunday after Pentecost, and for those who like to mark the seasons of the church by color, the season after Pentecost is known as the “green season” because during the season after Pentecost we wear a lot of green - until well into November, in fact. But, perhaps in an effort to get us acclimatized to the change in color, this Sunday we’re wearing white because this Sunday is known as Trinity Sunday, and Trinity Sunday counts as one of the major feasts of the church year. And on most major feasts, we wear white. So there’s your church fashion lesson for the day. 

    And, as you may already know, Trinity Sunday has developed the reputation for being the Sunday when most preachers tend to avoid talking about the Trinity for fear of saying something theologically incorrect. Now this morning, there’s an opportunity simply to mention the Trinity in passing and then go on to talk about something else. Because we’re here to celebrate and give thanks for our high school graduates. But since I think the themes of the Trinity and graduation mesh nicely with each other, we’re going to throw caution to the wind. 

    So…the Holy Trinity! We in the church say that we believe in one God, in Trinity of persons and unity of being. Easy, right? I won’t go into all the historical details of how we got there, but the reason we believe the way we do has to do with Jesus. The first “creed” of the Christian church was a simple sentence: Jesus is Lord. And that assertion - that creed - led to all kinds of speculation about what it meant for Jesus to be Lord. Did it mean that Jesus was like God? Did it mean that Jesus was part God or maybe a part of God? Did it mean that Jesus became God after his resurrection? 

    There were all kinds of such questions swirling around in the first few centuries after Jesus’ resurrection. Ultimately, the church got together and came to an agreement that Jesus, as the Son of God, is indeed God and has been from all eternity. But then there was the question about the Holy Spirit - the promised gift that Jesus had given to the church. Was the Holy Spirit God, too? The church said yes, the Holy Spirit is God and has been from all eternity. As you might imagine, the church’s claim that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God led to all sorts of other questions about whether Christians believed in one God or three gods. The church said it’s one God that we believe in. And that, in a nutshell, is how the church developed its belief in one God, in trinity of persons and unity of being.

    The details of how the early church sorted all this out are, I think, fascinating, but the important things to take away from the development of the Christian teaching about the Trinity are that 1) It all started with the question of what the church says about Jesus, 2) expressing belief in the Trinity didn’t just happen over night, 3) it took some of the most creative minds in the history of the world to come up with a way of expressing the church’s belief, and 4) the belief rests on the acceptance of a completely ungraspable mystery that we can spend our whole lives exploring and yet never fully comprehend.

    In other words, we can read scripture, study theology, and pray our entire lives and yet never come to a full understanding of exactly how the one God, in trinity of persons and unity of being, works - or what God is like. Ultimately, when it comes to our knowledge of God, as the saying goes, our reach will always exceed our grasp. And that means that our knowledge of God will never be at an end in this life - or, I think, in the next. There will always be more for us to learn as we explore the mystery of God. And that is the good news of Trinity Sunday. We believe in and worship a loving God about whom and about whose love we can discover more and more throughout eternity.

    As I mentioned before, today we are celebrating the achievements of our high school graduates and bidding them a fair journey as they move on to new adventures. They have learned what needed to be learned and are now ready to take further steps in their education.

    My hope for you is that you will never lose sight of and appreciation for the mystery of what you’re about to set out on. Because no matter where you go from here - no matter your chosen path in life - there will always be more for you to learn. In a purely academic sense, even if you are able to read every book on your subject of your interest, you won’t have exhausted the possibilities of what can be known. There is no set amount of knowledge for any given subject that, even once you have mastered it, means that you will have learned all there is to know about the subject. At least that’s the hope! There are nuances, subtleties, interdisciplinary applications, and new insights and discoveries to be made. And that can make for an interesting and interested life. 

    But even beyond school, there is much that you will encounter that can, and I pray will, help you to discover more of who God is. I mentioned before that the whole question about belief in the Trinity stemmed from the question of who Jesus is. And I hope that you will continue to explore that same question for yourself in the years to come. Because if you do, then I do not doubt that you will discover time and time again what Jesus was getting at when he spoke about being “born from above.” Being born from above means being open to the wonder of being alive in a world that is full of God’s goodness and beauty. It means being open to the possibility that you can be surprised at how God is at work. It means being open to the discovery who you are as a follower of Jesus can and will make a difference in the world.

    Our prayer for you this morning is that you will go from here to embrace what lies ahead in the same way that we, as a church, embrace the mystery of God day by day and week by week - with abiding joy and confidence in the presence of God; Trinity in unity and unity in Trinity. 

    So on behalf of us all at St. Anne’s, I wish you godspeed.        

    _______

     

    Sermon for Pentecost, Year B (2018)
    May 20th, 2018
    St. Anne’s, Conway SC (Lackey Chapel) 

    Ezekiel 37:1-14     Romans 8:22-27     John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

    I don’t know if y’all heard about it, but there was a certain wedding yesterday that garnered quite a bit of attention in the news. If you saw this wedding yesterday or maybe have heard about it, then I hope that you’ve picked up on some of the hubbub around PB Michael Curry’s sermon. I watched the sermon yesterday afternoon, and I all I can say is…wow. I’d be willing to bet that more than a few preachers are standing in their pulpits this morning thinking, “Well, that’s a tough act to follow.”
    But, like them, I’m gonna have a go at it! 

    One of the themes that Bishop Curry touched on in his sermon was the theme of fire, a theme that dovetails nicely with what we’re observing today. Because the church’s celebration of Pentecost is a celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit when Jesus’ first followers were filled with the Holy Spirit -  which, we are told, appeared to them and alighted on them “like tongues of fire.”

    Normally, especially if you grew up in the south and know anything about Pentecostal churches, when we think of being filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit, we tend to conjure up an image of an intense experience of God’s presence that fills our hearts and makes us want to act out with a sort of exuberant joy in praising God’s goodness. And while that’s certainly a good and true image, I do think that there’s another side to being filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit that might not readily come to mind. Again, I have nothing against acting out with exuberant joy when we experience the Holy Spirit. Celebrating the goodness of God is always a good thing! 

    But I want to suggest that being filled with the Holy Spirit can also lead to mourning. Experiencing the Holy Spirit can also lead to sober and serious determination. Being filled with the Holy Spirit can also lead to what might look like feelings of anger and frustration.  

    Especially when the Christian comes face to face with the brutal reality of death and suffering and knows that that’s just NOT how the world is supposed to be! Eight more students, two more teachers, a growing sense that it’s only an inevitable matter of time before it happens again…and even still, a burning desire for things to be not as they are. 

    If joy is the dancing flame of the Holy Spirit, then the desperate longing for peace is the smoldering ember of the Holy Spirit. And that smoldering ember - that sadness over the brokenness of the world - is what St. Paul was talking about he said that “creation has been groaning in labor pains” and that “we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” If the church is a place where the Holy Spirit is at work, then the church, of all places, is the place where we should hear the sighs of the Spirit most clearly when we are, yet again, at a loss for words. But it begs the question: what kind of church do we want the church to be? What kind of fire do we want to burn within us?        

    Today - Pentecost Sunday - is known as the birthday of the church. And I sometimes wonder whether the first disciples of Jesus were immediately aware of the choices that they would have to make about what the church should be; about how they wanted the Holy Spirit to be at work among them. And some of the questions the earliest Christians in the church had to ask themselves are the SAME questions that we must continue to ask ourselves: 

    Is the church going to be a close-knit community that only accepts into its ranks the select and pure few? Or do we throw to doors wide for all to come in? Is the church going to be an insular community that keeps its message to itself? Or is the church going to be a community that reaches out to all people boldly and claims that that there IS good news to share? Is the church going to be a community that serves only to protect and guard its members against the harsh realities of an unloving world? Or is the church going to be a community that seeks to change the world through the power of love?     

    There is a movie that Davis and I watched recently. It’s an animated movie called, The Secret of Kells, and it’s a fictional telling of how the Book of Kells was made. For those who don’t know, the Book of Kells is a 9th century illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels, widely thought to be one of the greatest treasures of the western world because of the richness and complexity of its imagery. At any rate, the story in the movie centers around a young boy named Brendan and his desire to learn the art of illumination (or drawing) so that he can contribute to a copy of Gospels that is being made. He lives in the monastery of Kells, and his uncle is the abbot. His uncle is preoccupied with building a large stone wall around the monastery to protect it from the Vikings, and the uncle has little patience or understanding for Brendan’s fascination with illumination. He thinks Brendan’s time would be much better used in helping to work on the wall. At one point, Brendan’s uncle expresses his frustration over Brendan’s attention to this book and says, “I’m building this wall to protect you and your blasted book!” Later in the story, after the wall has failed and the monastery burned to the ground, Brendan’s uncle realizes the beauty of Brendan’s work, and he understands that the book never needed his protection. Because what is in the book has the power to transform darkness into light, and as long as that light is in the world, it can and will change the world, and nothing can destroy it.            

    I know that for many of you, coming to church on Sunday is not necessarily the place where you want to be reminded about the most recent tragedies of living in 21st century America. Or if it is, then perhaps you came looking for a word of hope. If you came here to get solace, then I hope it is a place of solace, but I firmly believe that we didn’t form this church just to keep the ugliness of the world at bay. We formed this church to strengthen each other to proclaim a message of the love that can and will set this world on fire {a fire that burns hot enough to melt steel and lead and hearts of stone}.

    And so I also hope that the Spirit moves you when you walk out of the doors of this chapel; moves you to go forth in strength to love… and serve… and change the world. If there’s a message in the church that is worth anything at all, then that message is not just for the few of us gathered here this morning. It’s for the world and everyone in it. And the message is that there IS power in love. There IS power to set the world on fire - yes, with the dancing flames of joy, but also with the smoldering embers of longing. 

    The Spirit IS the fire. It’s burning in you now and it’s waiting to begin burning in you again. Not to flame out. Not to consume and destroy. But to enliven and awaken and spur you on to greater love, greater service, greater risk, greater sacrifice. 

    We have a choice to make not just every Sunday but every hour of every day. The choice we have to make is, what kind of church do we want to be? Do we want to be a church that merely pays lip service to the love of God, or do we want to be a church that speaks the love of God and, more importantly, shows the love of God?

    _______

     

    Sermon for Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B (2018)
    May 6, 2018
    St. Anne’s, Conway SC (Lackey Chapel)
     

    Acts 10:44-48             1 John 5:1-6              John 15:9-17

     

    I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.

     

    Have y’all ever planted potatoes? I remember the first time I planted potatoes. I was in Michigan, and around the end of April, I began making preparations to plant the garden. When it came to making decisions about what to plant, I decided that a whole row of the garden would be devoted to potatoes. Before I went to the garden store, I had no idea about how potatoes grow, so I was kind of surprised to find that the store didn’t sell potato seeds, but rather, small potatoes. But I soon learned that the normal way of growing potatoes involves either cutting off a small piece of a regular potato and letting it sprout before putting it in the ground, or else getting a small “seed potato” and putting it in the ground. Further research into potato cultivation taught me that most potatoes are essentially clones. If you start with one potato, you can keep growing what is basically a clone of that potato indefinitely. It’s sort of like a sourdough starter that - if you keep feeding it and caring for it - can be passed down through entire generations. 

    I’ll go ahead and tell you now that my first attempt at growing potatoes did not end well. Potato beetles are common in Michigan, and if a swarm of them finds your garden, it doesn’t take long for them to eat almost a whole  plant. And one evening is all it took for a bunch of beetles to wipe out my entire row! But that’s beside the point. The point is that, at least theoretically, it’s possible to have a potato that has yielded fruit for centuries and that if you kept scrupulous records, you’d be able to trace one potato’s lineage all the way back to the original potato. 

    Now, what if I were to tell you that the reason we’re all here today is thanks in part to a 17th century German baker who gave a loaf of bread to a poor man? Or what if I told you that the reason we’re all here today is thanks in part to a 10th century Italian merchant paying for the construction of an orphanage? How about a 6th century Syrian monk settling a dispute between two rival villages? You might think my imagination has run a bit wild, but I would invite you to consider the reality that the reason we are all here today to hear the gospel - to be challenged by it; and to pray for the gospel to bear fruit in our lives - is because others who came before us heard the gospel, were challenged by it, and bore fruit. And the origin of the fruit that they bore in their lives is the commandment that Jesus gave to his first followers: love one another. If you will, that commandment is the original potato. And I think it fair to say that it has borne fruit down through the ages.   

    I strongly doubt whether most Christians in centuries past imagined that their small acts of faithfulness and love would lead to this particular place and this particular gathering of people. But that’s really how each and every one of us got here: one faithful person bearing fruit in their lives encouraging another to bear fruit in their lives and so on and so on until it got…to you.

    If you were brought up in the church and are still a part of it, I’d be willing to bet it’s because someone taught you something or showed you something that convinced you that the love of God is real, and you wanted to experience it for yourself. And here you are. Or if you’ve only been a Christian for a short time, then I’d be willing to bet that you have decided to stick with it because, thanks to another believer, you had some kind of encounter that showed you that the good news of Jesus is something you can base your life on. And here you are. And even if this is your first time in a church, I’d be willing to bet you came here this morning because you wanted to see whether what the church says about being welcoming and supportive is true; whether the church is serious about the business of love. And here you are. 

    I cannot speak to the absolute perfection of this church, or any other church for that matter, and I know all too well that we in the church often fall short of the mark. And people can and do walk away from the church because they discover that we aren’t doing the best job of loving God and following Jesus’ commandment to love one another. And that is a shame. 

    But I will say this: every time any one of us brings in a jar of peanut butter or a bag of rice for CAP, that’s being faithful to Jesus commandment. It’s bearing fruit that will last. Every time any one of us takes a meal to someone who is sick, that’s being faithful to Jesus’ commandment. It’s bearing fruit that will last. Every time any one of us doles out a serving of chicken bog to someone at the Shepherd’s Table, that’s being faithful to Jesus’ commandment. It’s bearing fruit that will last. Every time any one of us welcomes a newcomer or a stranger and tries to make them feel like they have a place in the community, that’s being faithful to Jesus’ commandment. It’s bearing fruit that will last. 

    Little actions - especially the seemingly insignificant ones - that are done in love are the fruit that will last. It might sound like a flight of fancy to say that giving an orange to a homeless person will make an impact on events 300 years from now, but I can assure you that it’s by just such actions that the gospel spreads across the ages. And, who knows? In 300 years, a group of faithful disciples might decide to look back and say, “It was the faithfulness and charity of the people of St. Anne’s that helped the gospel spread to us here today.” 

    Of course, hope for future recognition is not why we’re here. We don’t plant potatoes in the hope that future generations will acknowledge their debt to us. We plant potatoes in the hope that they will satisfy hunger in the here and now. In the same way, we gather to hear the gospel so that it will bear fruit in our lives today. We strive to love one another so that it will bear fruit in our lives today. 

    But I still think it’s kind of cool to imagine that what we’re doing together as a church even right now stretches backward and forward across time; that it’s the same commandment to love one another that Christians in ages past obeyed which is now bearing fruit in us. In that sense, we are evidence that the fruit of showing love is the fruit that has lasted. And if we continue to be faithful to the commandment to love one another, showing our care even in the smallest of ways, that is fruit that will last. 

    _______

     

    Sermon for Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B (2018)
    April 29, 2018
    St. Anne’s, Conway SC (Lackey Chapel)
     

    Acts 8:26-40            1 John 4:7-21             John 15:1-8

     

    This morning’s Gospel lesson is proof that Jesus knew he was God…you know, because he said, “I am de vine…and you are de branches.” 

      So if you remember from last week’s Gospel reading, Jesus talked about being the Good Shepherd. For whatever reason, the theme of Jesus being the “Good Shepherd” always falls on the fourth Sunday in Easter, and many churches call that Sunday, “Good Shepherd Sunday.” But this Sunday does not have a special name. You might expect we’d call it, “Vine Sunday” or “Vine and Branches Sunday” or something of that ilk, but no. Only one of Jesus’ metaphorical descriptions for himself gets special recognition. But this morning’s lesson is equally as important for us because it gives us an image of how our lives as Christians depends so much on our being connected to Jesus …and to each other.    

    The whole point of what Jesus is saying about his followers abiding in him in the way that a branch abides in a vine is that none of us can go it alone. If we try to, we quickly wither and languish.  

    I think I may have mentioned it before, C. S. Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce, provides a pretty good insight into what trying to make it completely on our own can lead to. In the book, the main character finds himself in a pretty gray and joyless place. Eventually, he and several other characters get on a bus that takes out of the gray place. As they travel, they talk with one another, and we soon discover that the passengers on the bus are ghosts. When they arrive at their destination - which we learn is the foothills of heaven - they are all amazed at how beautiful the place is. Only it is so solidly real that even walking on the grass hurts their ghostly feet. Their guides assure them that if they are willing to persevere and travel further into the foothills that they will discover that they, too, will become more real and that their journey will lead them further into joy. Most of the passengers make excuses of one sort or another and decide to return to the gray place. And one of the things that we learn about the gray place is that it is essentially hell for those who choose to stay there. And for those who choose to stay there, the only constant is that they frequently quarrel with their neighbors and continually move farther and farther out of town and away from others until they are literally light years away, secluded by themselves and thinking of how rotten things are and who all is to blame for how rotten things are. For Lewis, the insight here is that hell is nothing more than cutting oneself off from any kind of connection that might be life-giving. 

    For us, being connected to Jesus is the basis of our life together. It’s why we gather in his name, hear lessons from scripture that help us to understand who he is and what he taught, and break bread with one another in a spirit of fellowship and peace. Without the connection to Jesus, our coming together Sunday by Sunday would not make much sense. But to the same degree, our connection to Jesus would not make much sense without a connection to each other. As the First Letter of John points out, if Jesus taught us to love one another and said that loving one another was pretty much the end-all of being connected to him, then it follows that our connection to one another and our ability to love one another is very much a part of being connected to Jesus.  

    Another way of thinking about the importance of our being connected to one another would be to imagine attending a church that was just you. No one else. No one to sing off-pitch during the hymns. No one to mispronounce Biblical names. No one to fold a purificator the wrong way. No one to offer an alternative viewpoint. If church was just you, then sure, it might be more to your liking, but I rather doubt it would mean much after a while.   

    That’s why if we really want to be connected to Jesus, we need to be connected to each other and to love one another. This very basic truth that Jesus taught is something that early Christian monks and nuns realized when they formed communities. Certainly they realized that Jesus needed to be at the center of their lives, but they also realized that they needed the connection of their community. Even though the solitary life of the hermit might have been held up as an ideal, the general consensus was that you had to be in a community for years before entering the solitary life of a hermit - even then, you couldn’t become a hermit unless you had the community’s blessing, and you were expected to have fellowship with your community on a regular basis. So the notion of a Christian monk being completely solitary never held much water.   

    One of my favorite sayings from the early Christian monastic tradition comes from an abbot who told his community, “If you see a brother climbing up to heaven on his own, grab him by the heel and pull him back down.” The point of this saying is that we’re all in this together, and no one can make it completely on their own.  

    And the same is true even today. I know that whenever I’m feeling like my own spiritual life is not where it should be, the first place I look is how well I’m doing at staying connected to my community. And more often than not, when I haven’t been doing a good job of staying connected, my prayers seem dry and my devotion seems stale. But whenever I’m working to maintain connections with my community, then even if things are not as perfect as I might wish, there’s still a sense that all is well. 

    Here’s where I hope you’ll allow a little nostalgia on my part. I want to share with you a story of when this lesson about being connected to Jesus in community really hit home. I was working at a summer camp, and one of the things that we did on a regular basis was gather around a campfire to sing songs and tell stories. On one occasion, a priest was there, and he was talking about the importance of being together with one another as followers of Jesus. And he took a pair of tongs and removed a coal from the fire. As he placed it on the edge of the fire pit, he pointed out that it was still glowing red-hot, but he invited us to notice that it very quickly stopped glowing and lost its heat. We then sang a few songs and told a few more stories. Then the priest picked up the coal in his hand and invited us to see that the coal was now cool enough to handle. But then he said, “Watch what happens when I put it back in the fire.” And he placed it in the fire so that we could all still see it. And sure enough, within a few moments, it was glowing red-hot again. 

    And that demonstration gave me a new appreciation for Jesus’ words. Because if we are all in this following-Jesus-business together and we remain committed to showing love for one another, then we will shine brightly and our life together will be made better. Even if it’s not as perfect as we had hoped. 

    The joy of Christian living is not that we are surrounded with perfect people as we seek to follow Jesus. It’s that we’re able to love even imperfect people in the same way that our Lord loves us. And if we persevere in that love; if we remain connected to that source of joy and life; if we stay connected to the vine, then we will bear fruit.

    _______

     

    Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B (2018)
    April 22, 2018
    St. Anne’s, Conway SC (Lackey Chapel)
     

    Acts 4:5-12       1 John 3:16-24        John 10:11-18

     

    If you have a copy of the bulletin handy, I invite you to have it in front of you. The image on the front of the bulletin is an icon of Jesus the Good Shepherd. In this image, Jesus is depicted with a lamb draped over his shoulders, and he is holding the lamb by its hooves with both hands. In most icons of Jesus the Good Shepherd, Jesus is shown in the same way. There are examples where Jesus is holding the lamb only with one hand while the other is raised in a sign of blessing, or where he is holding the lamb close to his chest, but the usual style of icons depicting Jesus as the Good Shepherd is the one with the lamb draped across Jesus’ shoulders with Jesus using both hands to hold its hooves.  

    Now, to be fair, this way of carrying a lamb may just be the most convenient and that’s the reason why most Good Shepherd icons look the way they do. I haven’t ever tried to carry a lamb, but I imagine that if you had one draped over your shoulders, it would probably try to squirm free, so holding it by the hooves would just be the easiest way to go about carrying it. But I think that there’s something more that the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd has to say to us about how God cares for us. I think it speaks to us of God’s desire to hold on to us tightly to let us know that everything will be ok.  

    I’d be willing to bet that most of us have had some experience or other of being pulled back from a dangerous situation. It may have been us doing the pulling, or we ourselves may have been pulled. I think anyone with small children can probably relate to what happens when a child comes dangerously close to being hurt, and you swoop in at the last second to stop them from touching the stove, or falling down the stairs, or walking out into traffic. The tendency is to hold on to the child even well after the danger has passed. And I think we do this because we want to keep them close both to reassure ourselves that everything is ok and to communicate to the child that they are safe and no longer in danger. 

    Sometimes it can backfire… I remember when I was about 9 or 10, I was with my father visiting family in the mountains of North Carolina, and he suggested that we walk down the hill to the creek near my great aunt’s house and pan for rubies. We found a spot on the creekside, but we soon discovered that having a pan would make it much easier. He noticed an old hub cap on the other side of the creek about ten feet away. He suggested that I cross the creek to get it, so I waded over to pick it up. Only when I turned it over, I discovered to my immediate horror that that hubcap was covering a hornets’ nest. And they all came at me. I must have reacted quickly because I was stung only twice, and my dad swore that I walked on water when it happened because he didn’t see a single splash when I turned to flee. In any case, even though he didn’t know exactly what had happened, my dad knew immediately that something was wrong when I started running. And he did the natural thing that parents do - he tried to catch hold of me. Only that was the LAST thing I wanted him to do! The instant he got stung, he figured out the situation and let me go, and on up the hill I went. He wound up getting stung six times. 

    The point from that story, though, is that it’s almost an instinctual reaction to grab hold of someone when they are in danger or distress in order to reassure them that all shall be well; to let them know that they are safe and that they are not alone; essentially to say, “I’ve got you.” 

    And I think that’s what the icon of Jesus the Good Shepherd is meant to convey. It is meant to show that the care and concern that God has for us is not just some passing thing where we “get saved” and then are A OK on our own. The Good Shepherd holds on with both hands and lets us know that he’s got us; that we are held close for all time; that even though we might squirm, he’s never going to let go and let us fall off his shoulders. And I find that a comforting thought.   

    I’ll grant you that this image might seem problematic to the more radical proponents of free-will among us. Because the notion that we are completely free can also be a comforting thought; particularly if you’re bothered by the idea that God blesses and punishes completely at random and that everything that happens is due to God’s arbitrary and irresistible will and we are just like pawns a chessboard. I know I much prefer the notion of complete freedom to the notion of complete servitude. But to borrow a quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “When God grabs you by the scruff of the neck then although theoretically you have a freedom to say 'no', in another sense, actually, you can't say no.”

    What this (quote) means is that when we look at our lives, we can all probably identify a time or two when we felt that God did in fact have us by the scruff of the neck - when we were free to say no but somehow just could not help but saying yes. Maybe it was when we met the person we fell in love with. Maybe it was when we went out of our way to help a stranger. Maybe it was when we spoke up on someone’s behalf. Maybe it was when we last prayed. I’m convinced that there are times in each of our lives when it feels almost like we are being pushed or pulled in a certain direction; and that in hindsight we can say, comfortably, that it would have been impossible NOT to do such-and-such.  

    On a grand scale, I think this idea of God having us by the scruff of the neck makes perfect sense when it comes to the idea of love. Here’s where I’m going to get super philosophical on you…We say we believe that it’s an absolute truth that God loves the world. If God loves the world and God’s love for the world is an absolute truth, then in some sense it doesn’t really matter whether anyone decides to believe it. That love is true no matter what. So there’s this sense that God’s love does have us by the scruff of the neck. There’s nothing we can do that will make God stop loving the world. And as much as we might mess up and do things that aren’t in keeping with this divine love, the fact remains that the love of God will never be taken away. 

    Sort of like how the Good Shepherd holds his sheep with both hands.  

    So my hope for us all on this “Good Shepherd” Sunday is that we will remember that no matter what we might be going through; no matter what struggles and trials we might be facing, we are being held in the arms of a God who will never let us go and who is always there to say, “I’ve got you.”  

     

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    Sermon for Second Sunday of Easter, Year B (2018)
    April 8, 2018
    St. Anne’s, Conway SC (Lackey Chapel)
     

    Acts 4:32-35        1 John 1:1-2:2        John 20: 19-31

    I don’t know if the folks in charge of picking the readings did it intentionally, but I think we can all relate to the Gospel reading for today. Because around this time of year, I think most of us have something in common with Doubting Thomas. As in, when we see our tax bill, our initial response is to say, “I can’t believe it!”   

    I’d like to continue this morning with the theme of wonder that we started on last week. Wondering, that is, about what was going on in the time in between what the Gospel tells us happened in the days shortly after Jesus’ resurrection. And the wondering I’d like to do today centers on one figure: Thomas. In terms of timeline, we’re picking up right where we left off. As the Gospel tells us, on the evening of the same day that Mary Magdalene had announced that she had seen Jesus, the disciples were all gathered together in a house, and the doors were locked. But Jesus came and stood among them. Only Thomas wasn’t there. 

    And I wonder where he was. We’re told that the disciples were afraid. I imagine Thomas was just as afraid as the rest of them. He was an associate of Jesus, so he may have been afraid that at any moment, Roman soldiers might arrest him and charge him with being in collaboration with the man they had just crucified. So I wonder if Thomas was so terrified of that happening that he decided it would be safer not to try to reconnect with any of the other disciples for several days. 

    When I was in high school, it was a fairly common thing for kids my age to attend house parties. Usually these parties took place when someone’s parents were out of town. And you can probably guess that these weren’t quiet or boring gatherings…I don’t know if it was ever spelled out, but there was this sort of common understanding that if you were at a house party and the police showed up, everyone should scatter. The idea was that if everyone scattered, it would be impossible for everyone to get in trouble. Again, this “scatter and run” idea was never really spelled out - I think maybe there was kind of a collective instinct at work. In any case, I can tell you truthfully that I never attended a party where we had to make a run for it. But still, this unspoken “rule” of “scatter and then rendezvous with your friends later” was fairly well understood. And I wonder if the disciples were operating with that same level of collective instinct. After Jesus was arrested, we’re told that the disciples scattered. Some managed to keep an eye on what happened to Jesus, but there’s no account of what happened to the others. It’s fair to say that most of them managed to rendezvous shortly after Jesus’ death. 

    But, apparently, not Thomas. And I wonder where Thomas went. I wonder if he had other friends in Jerusalem that he stayed with for several days. I wonder if he slept alone on the streets. I wonder if he ever returned to the place where the other disciples were gathered but decided at the last minute that it wasn’t yet safe enough to meet with them again. I wonder if the other disciples went looking for him or if he was the one to knock on the door and ask to be let back in. I wonder what it must have felt like for him to be the odd man out - to be the only one in the group who didn’t believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead. And I wonder why Thomas stuck around and continued to associate with the people who believed something he said he could not believe for himself.  

    There must have been something special about that group of disciples for Thomas to have remained. There must have been some kind of special bond of affection that made Thomas think twice about cutting ties with them. I wonder if he stayed because that community had even at that early stage begun to practice what Jesus had taught them to practice: showing love for one another and caring for one another with genuine affection. I wonder if it was the love of that community that kept Thomas from wanting to leave.     

    It’s tempting to think that in order to belong to a church, you have to be in lock-step belief with everyone else in the church. It’s tempting to think that belonging to a community of faith means that you have to talk all the time about how strong your faith is; almost as if you have to prove to others that your faith is as strong as theirs is or that your piety is as genuine as theirs appears to be. 

    But no. The testimony of the early church - that small gathering of disciples - is that not all of them believed. And yet that community did not break apart and disintegrate because the majority who believed excluded the minority who didn’t. That community remained intact. I think it remained intact because they all really had taken Jesus’ message to heart that they were supposed to show love for one another no matter what. And they did. They remained committed to each other even though they weren’t on the same page. And it’s because of that commitment - because of the love of that community - that Thomas was eventually able to experience the risen Christ for himself. 

    As the Gospel tells us, for a solid week, Thomas was at least around, and presumably meeting with the others. And I wonder what the conversations of that week were like. I wonder if the others kept trying to convince Thomas that Jesus had risen from the dead or if they just didn’t talk about it when Thomas was around. I wonder if they all prayed together or went to the temple for worship together. I wonder if they ate their meals together, breaking bread and drinking wine with the remembrance of Jesus’ words to them at the last supper. I wonder if they washed each other’s feet. 

    And then, on the day that they were all gathered together and Thomas was with them, I wonder if the other disciples were not at all surprised when Jesus came among them. But, given what Thomas must have experienced in that loving community over several days, I wonder if Thomas himself was less surprised than he might have been. I wonder if being a part of that community had prepared him ahead of time to see the risen Jesus. 

    We, in this community, profess our faith in the risen Lord, and we invite others to share in that faith. Some may come here with no belief in the resurrection at all. Some may be convinced that they won’t believe it unless they see it for themselves. I cannot speak for how Jesus may make a personal appearance in their lives, but the hope I think we in this church all ought to have is that by showing our love for one another, we will demonstrate to everyone that we do believe in the risen Jesus…and that by showing the kind of love that Jesus taught, it will prepare others and allow others to see and experience Jesus for themselves. That’s what being the church is all about. So - whether you’re a believer or a doubter - know that the most important thing about being a member of the church is being a lover.

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    Sermon for Easter Sunday 2018, Year B.
    April 1, 2018
    St. Anne’s, Conway SC (Lackey Chapel)
     

    John 20: 1-18

    I hope that everyone here is as full of wonder as I am about the Gospel for today. It tells an astonishing story. It tells a memorable story. It tells a story that is worth telling over and over and over and it never gets old. Alleluia! Jesus is raised from the dead! Alleluia!  

    And it makes me wonder…

      It makes me wonder about all the ground that gets covered in the story. If you noticed, Mary Magdalene does a lot of running back and forth…John glosses over the journeys, but they’re in there. He says “Mary Magdalene came” and then “she ran and went.” She gets Peter and John to come back with her to the tomb, and after she sees the risen Lord, she goes back to tell the disciples about what she saw. That’s four trips in one morning.

      We don’t know exactly how far away from the tomb Mary was when she was in Jerusalem, but it probably took at least a few minutes to get there. And I wonder about what was going through Mary’s head as she went back and forth that morning. You ever wonder about that?

      Mary didn’t start out on some early stroll like you and I might take to enjoy the crisp fresh air of an early spring morning. No. As John tells us, it was dark when she set out. She may have been making her way in the dim light of the Paschal moon, but John makes a point of saying that it was dark. And whenever John tells us it was dark, there’s a deeper meaning there: it was NOT a good morning. Her Lord was dead. Or at least she thought…She was walking in the darkness. She was walking in the kind of darkness Jesus had talked about when he said “He who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes.” 

      I wonder if Mary really knew where she was going that morning. A few years ago, I had a good friend who was killed in an automobile accident just a few blocks away from his home. When I got the news a couple days later, I went to visit his house with some other friends. For some reason, in our grief, we decided to take a walk down to where the accident happened. There wasn’t anything there to see, really, and if you had seen us standing there staring out at the intersection, you might have said we looked like we were lost and didn’t know where we were going. Grief can do that to you. And Mary was grieving. I imagine she was walking along almost in a daze, driven by nothing other than the grief-filled desire to sit and cry at the place where –she thought! – Jesus’ dead body was.

      So imagine how horrified she was when she got to the grave and saw that it was empty. I cannot even begin to imagine the nightmarish thoughts that must have run through her head as she made her way back to tell Peter and John. Anger, disgust, fear, and desperation must have been swirling around in her stomach as she walked to where Peter and John were. I wonder if she was really thinking about where she was going…I wonder if she silently cursed whomever she thought took Jesus’ body away…I wonder if it was still dark…

      And then she had to break the news. Whew. If you’ve ever had to be the bearer of bad news, you know how bad it can be. And Mary had BAD news to share. It seems Peter and John didn’t hesitate: they set out running. And, it seems Mary went running right along with them. Back to the garden. Back to the tomb. Back to where it looked like things had gone from bad to worse. I wonder if she really wanted to go. I imagine if someone had stopped her on the road, the conversation would have gone something like this: “Hey lady, where are you going in such a hurry?” “To a garden with an empty tomb.” “What’s there?” “Nothing now. But Jesus used to be there.” “So you’d like to be where Jesus is?” “Yes.” “Well, do you know where he is now?” “No.” “So you don’t really know where you’re going…”

      I wonder if the apparent darkness of the situation finally occurred to Mary when they made it back to the tomb. I wonder if Mary stood there weeping because she knew that there was nowhere else to go. That’s why I think that when Peter and John had left, she just stayed where she was, weeping. She had followed Jesus to the bitter end, and now it seemed like he was really gone, and there was nowhere else for her to go. And I wonder: even though for her, in that moment, everything seemed dark, was the sun coming up? 

      And then she hears a voice. Through her grief. Through her pain. Through her despair. A simple word. “Mary!” And all of a sudden she looks up and sees that the sun had risen and there: Right. There. in front of her. Is. Jesus. The one who said “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” And Lo and Behold, he was RIGHT. Mary had followed Jesus as far as she thought she could. She had thought all was darkness, but she isn’t in the darkness anymore! She is standing there in the garden in the clear light of day with the risen savior who is the true light of the world!

      And what does he tell her to do? Go. Go and tell the others. And off she goes. I cannot imagine a more astounding chain and change of events. She started the morning thinking she was going to grieve at Jesus’ tomb and before most of the world had begun to stir, she was on her way, bearing a message that has changed the course of human history. 

      As she made her way, I wonder if she ran frantically or with a steady stride. I wonder if she ever stopped to consider whether the other disciples would believe her. I wonder if she gave any thought to exactly what she would say when she would make her announcement. I wonder about these things because I also want to share the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, and – you know – that morning, Mary seems to have done a good job with it! 

      But there’s one thing about that morning I don’t wonder about. Mary knew where she was going when she left that garden. She had her marching orders and knew where she was supposed to be.   

      If it’s fair to say that her greatest desire was to be where Jesus was and she had just seen Jesus, then it stands to reason that she left that garden with the confidence that Jesus could never be taken away from her again. Death wasn’t even a strong enough barrier! So there was nowhere for her to go where Jesus could not be. 

      And this is where we share something in common with Mary. We know where we’re supposed to be. We don’t have to wonder. We’re supposed to be where Jesus is. And friends, there is nowhere we can go where Jesus isn’t. We’re supposed to be sharing the good news that the love of God knows no bounds – not darkness, not death, not even the walls of this building. So when we go out from this place, we can be sure that the risen Jesus is there. Knowing that: I wonder where we will go…    

     

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    Sermon for Palm Sunday, Year B, 2018
    March 25th, 2018
    St. Anne’s Episcopal Church (Lackey Chapel), Conway 

    Isaiah 50:4-9a          Philippians 2:5-11          Mark 14:1-15:47

     

    If this is perhaps your first time in an Episcopal church on Palm Sunday, you may be wondering why we just had that long reading about Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and crucifixion. We’re a week away from Easter, after all, so you may be wondering why we’re hearing about the crucifixion well ahead of Good Friday. There are a couple of reasons for why we hear the Gospel account of Jesus’ suffering and death on Palm Sunday. One is to highlight the amazing speed at which the crowds went from shouts of praise to shouts of condemnation. That’s why the service begins with the story of Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem and then quickly shifts to to the story of his suffering and death. This arrangement reminds us that even though we may sing Jesus’ praises in one breath, in the next, we may deny that we know him and join in the chorus of “Crucify him!” That’s a powerful lesson in and of itself, but there is actually a practical reason for why we hear the story of Jesus’ suffering and death on Palm Sunday. The reality is that, for a good many of us, Palm Sunday is the one occasion before Easter when we get to hear the full story of Jesus’ passion read out loud. The only other time when the story is read in its entirety is on Good Friday, and the normal circumstances of life mean that many people aren’t able to make it to church on a Friday. And because the church believes that the whole point of Jesus’ life and ministry hinges on his crucifixion and death, we want to make sure that everyone gets a chance to hear the whole story at least once before Easter. Sometimes the church does things that make sense…     

    Last year, our bishop, Skip Adams, delivered the Palm Sunday sermon. In that sermon, Bishop Skip reminded us of the meaning of the word “Hosanna.” Translated into modern English, the term means, “Save us…please!” At the time of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, those who were shouting “Hosanna!” “Save us…please!” may have been crying out for Jesus to “save them” from an oppressive Roman government. After all, one of the common expectations for a messiah was that the messiah would usher in a new political kingdom of Israel. So some of the shouts of “Hosanna!” “Save us…please!” may have come from people who wanted Jesus to break the political power of the Romans. Some may have been crying out for Jesus to “save them” from poverty or sickness. In Mathew’s Gospel account, that seems to be a part of what is going on. Whatever the motivation for people crying out “Hosanna!” “Save us…please!” the root of those cries was people’s recognition that something was wrong with the world and they needed to be saved. The cries of “Hosanna” “Save us…please!” came from a place of deep anguish and deep desire for things to be not as they are.

    And the cries of “Hosanna! Save us…please!” echo down through history, right up to the present. Yesterday, all across the country, people took part in processions whose basic message was “Hosanna!” “Save us…please!” People marched, by and large, because they recognize that there is something wrong with the world. People marched because they recognize that there is a culture of death so pervasive in this world that it threatens to find us even in places we thought were supposed to be safe. And, I think, that even though many of the marchers might not admit it, people marched because they long for a savior. Or at least they are longing for the fruits of salvation.  

    And today’s lesson from the Gospel is meant to show just how far God is willing to go to offer the salvation for which we all long. Note that from beginning to end, Jesus, the savior, does not offer a mere change of power, as if that would have solved the problem. Power has not ever and can not ever do anything other than create a relationship based on fear. Fear among the powerless that they may be punished or killed. And fear among the powerful that others may seize power for themselves. 

    Jesus, the savior, does not answer the cries of “Hosanna!” “Save us…please!” by offering to take power for himself. The savior offers love. The savior offers a love that the powerful rejected and tried to stamp out. But the message of Easter is that the savior offers a love that even the power of death could not contain. And we believe that it is the love of Jesus that saves us. We believe that the cross is God’s answer to the people’s pleas of “Hosanna!” “Save us…please!” Because the cross shows us that the “power” behind the power structures of this world is nothing more than death and the fear of death. The cross shows us that the love of God is stronger than death.      

    Now more than ever, we need to hear again the story of the one who does save, who answers the pleas of “Hosanna!” “Save us…please!” by confronting the power structures of this world and showing that they are all powerless to create life. We need to hear again the story that love does not cry out, “blood for blood!” but instead bears the scorn of this world and through the power of God rises again to proclaim love. Yes, we need to hear that story; we need to make it our own; and we need to share it with all  who are crying out “Hosanna!” Otherwise, the only voice we may hear is the sound of the cock crowing.     

    God save us. 

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    Sermon for Lent 5, Year B, 2018
    March 18th, 2018
    St. Anne’s Episcopal Church (Lackey Chapel), Conway 

    Jeremiah 31:31-34         Hebrews 5:5-10         John 12:20-33

     

    I’m sure many of you know who Yogi Berra is. For those who don’t, he was a baseball player known as much for his witty one liners as he was for his exploits on the baseball field. One of his more famous sayings is, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Taken out of context, you might think that Yogi either had a thing for discarded cutlery or that he was a terrible navigator. But, interestingly enough, this particular quote actually made perfect sense given the context of directions to Yogi’s house. Yogi lived on a road that forked around a plot of land and then reconnected on the other side, so no matter which way you went, you ended up back on the same road that led to Yogi’s house. So, as directions to his house were concerned, taking the fork in the road was fine advice. But on the surface, Yogi’s directions don’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s what we would call a non sequitur, or something that doesn’t logically follow from what has come before.

    This morning’s gospel reading presents what seems to be quite a non sequitur. John’s Gospel tells us that some Greeks approach Philip and ask to see Jesus. Then Philip tells Andrew about the Greeks’ request, and together Philip and Andrew go and tell Jesus that some Greeks want to see him. So far, so good. 

    But Jesus responds with an answer that seems to have nothing at all to do with the Greeks. Instead, Jesus starts to talk about grains dying, the cost of discipleship, and his own impending death. So we’ve gone from a request for an introduction to a foreshadowing of Jesus suffering and death and what that will mean for his disciples. It seems like Jesus has completely changed the subject, and if we’re left wondering whether those Greeks who wanted to see Jesus ever got to meet him, John’s Gospel never tells us. On the surface, the narrative of this morning’s gospel makes about as much sense as Yogi Berra’s fork in the road. But it’s not the non-sequitur that it appears to be.

    If we take a look at the overarching themes in John’s Gospel, though, Jesus’ cryptic response to Philip and Andrew begins to take on a deeper meaning. John’s Gospel keeps returning to the theme of light and darkness and what it truly means to see. Much of what the Gospel tells us about Jesus’ earthly ministry has to do with Jesus being “the light that shines in the darkness,” and the theme of seeing crops up again and again. So when John tells us that some Greeks want to see Jesus, we should get a little indicator light going off that tells us, Oop!, There’s John talking about seeing again. The Greeks want to see Jesus. And, of course, so do we.

    And Jesus words in John’s Gospel give us instructions on how to see him - truly see him. And truly seeing Jesus isn’t easy. It involves dying to self and following Jesus – all the way to the cross. Jesus being glorified does not mean that he is immediately shown to be the conquering savior of the whole world. No, John’s Gospel reminds us, seeing Jesus glorified means truly understanding his suffering and death. If we really want to see Jesus, we have to be willing to trust God with our very lives and be willing to hold on to that trust even in the face of suffering and death. Talk about a non sequitur! God’s glory is revealed through…Jesus dying…a shameful death. If we want to win, we have to … lose … everything? That’s the message we are meant to hear.

    It’s rather fitting that here we are, near the end of Lent, and the gospel is a reminder of the message we heard on Ash Wednesday: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s a message worth hearing again. At least, it is for me because at this point in the Lenten season, the focus of Ash Wednesday can seem less pronounced. But this morning’s gospel is a reminder that, in some way or another, we all have to face the cross. If we want to see Jesus – to know Jesus; if we want to learn from the rabbi who teaches the plain truth about the Kingdom of God; if we want to know the glory of God incarnate…then we do have to face the cross.

    Of course, facing the cross does not mean that we deliberately have to put ourselves through hardship and suffering. Morbid self-punishment does no one any good. Nor does facing the cross mean that we should have a defeatist attitude that “all is vanity” and everything ends in dust and death.

    Facing the cross means taking stock of our lives and acknowledging that no matter how we may try to avoid it, we all must face the reality of death. Facing the cross means  not trying to anesthetize ourselves to the very real pain we all must feel when suffering hits close to home. Facing the cross means seeing Jesus not as we wish he was but as he truly is.  

    If we can truly see Jesus as the one who suffered and died for us, then we may be able to give new meaning to those times in our lives when we ourselves or our loved ones suffer; when we ourselves or our loved ones feel the sting of pain and death. 

    There is a wonderful documentary called “Into Great Silence’ – it’s about life in a Carthusian monastery. Now Carthusians have a pretty strict observance of silence, but in this documentary, there is an interview with one of the monks who has lost his ability to see. He describes his struggle in coming to terms with going blind in a mostly

    silent community. In many ways, the cross of Christ alone was his sole support. At the end of the interview, he makes the assertion that even though his blindness is a true cross for him to bear, he believes that even his blindness can show forth God’s glory. Although blind, he learned to see.

    The good news about Jesus drawing the world to himself after having been lifted up from the earth is that we now have a lens through which to see suffering and death. We face the cross - yes, with full appreciation for its sorrow and pain - but we face the cross in hope. It’s a joyful hope that the cross is not the end. It’s a hope that tells us that God can transform even suffering and death. It’s a hope that defies logic. In some sense, we put our trust in the ultimate non sequitur: Christ has died…Christ is risen. (So, to use a Yogi-ism, when you come to a cross in the road, take it.)

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    Sermon for Lent 4, Year B, 2018
    March 11th, 2018
    St. Anne’s Episcopal Church (Lackey Chapel), Conway 

    Numbers 21:4-9            Ephesians 2:1-10            John 3:14-21

     

    This morning, I want us to take a dive into some theological weeds. And the passage that is the springboard for this dive is perhaps the best-known passage in scripture. John 3: 16. I’d be willing to bet that even if you aren’t all that familiar with scripture, you can probably quote that passage without too much difficulty. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” You’ve probably seen the John 3:16 reference on bumper stickers, or on signs along the highway. It may be of interest to you that the popularity of this particular passage really took off in the 1970’s when a man named Rollen Stewart began wearing a rainbow wig to sporting events and dancing with a sign that said “John 3:16” - behind the goal posts at football games, home plate at baseball games, and the backboard at basketball games. In any case, the popularity of the text remains high, and to this day many evangelists say that it’s their favorite text. And I think rightly so. Because it is the Good News in a nutshell. It’s an easy-to-remember summation of the gospel that can be a starting point for explaining why believing in Jesus is important. And it gives us plenty of theological claims to chew on. 

    For one, it makes the claim that God loves the world. Next, it makes the claim that God sent his Son to be one of us. And it makes the claim that God sending Jesus somehow saves us from perishing. It’s the “somehow” that I want us to take a closer look at.  

    Some of you may know the theological term “penal substitutionary atonement.” For those who do not, it’s the idea that Jesus was punished in the place of sinful humanity in order to satisfy the demands of justice so that God can justly forgive our sins. It (PSA) rests on the notion that we all deserve God’s wrath on account of our sinfulness and that Jesus bore the brunt of God’s wrath so that we wouldn’t have to. There are many Christians who believe in this way, especially in this part of the world. And these Christians take John 3:16 to mean that God loved us so much that he sent Jesus to bear the punishment that we ourselves deserved so that we can then share in his life. 

    The problem in believing this way is that (I think) it weakens the claim that “God so loved the world.” Instead, it prioritizes the claim that God was so angry with the world that God was compelled to condemn the world unless God’s demand for justice was met. Another problem with believing this way is that it assumes the absolute worst about human nature. It assumes that by the very fact of being alive, we ought to be ashamed of our sinful selves. All together, the theory of “penal substitutionary atonement” leaves us with a decidedly negative view both of God and of humanity. God winds up being primarily harsh and wrathful even though God “loves" us enough to vent his wrath on his Son in order to spare us. And humanity winds up being utterly evil and deserving nothing but destruction. Moreover, “penal substitutionary atonement” operates solely on the level of blame and punishment. And I find such an approach really difficult to stomach because it doesn’t leave much room for the idea that “God so loved the world.” 

    Now, since the “substitutionary atonement” theory I just described is fairly common in this part of the world, I want to suggest a different approach to how God’s love in sending Jesus saves us from perishing. 

    And I want to start with the idea that we do need saving. I’m decidedly convinced in the goodness of creation, but it’s easy to see that there’s something far from perfect about the human condition. You might say that we live in a “broken” or a “fallen” world, and try as we might, there’s little we can do on our own to fix everything and make it good. In short, we have a problem. And much of the problem we have is wrapped up in our notions of blame and punishment. 

    I know that it might be hard to remember the first lie you ever told, but I’d be willing to bet that the first lie that each one of us told came about because we did something wrong and when we got caught, we blamed someone or something else…because we were afraid of being punished. So from a very early age, we began thinking about life in terms of avoiding punishment and blame even if we did something we knew was wrong. And even when we get older, we’ll do almost anything to avoid being blamed and punished. 

    I want to suggest that, on a grand scale, entire communities and societies are plagued with this fear of blame and punishment. So we come up with ways of dealing with the fear of being held to account. One way of dealing with this fear is to redirect blame - to find someone or something that can bear the blame for all the bad things that happen. Another word for this behavior is “scapegoating.” And you can see this at work pretty much everywhere in every age:

    The group of people who don’t believe the way we do are driven out because a someone has to be blamed for the plague coming to town. The old woman who lives alone is condemned as a witch because someone has to be blamed for the neighbor’s cows dying. The kid in class who dresses differently is bullied because fitting in is important, and he’s to blame for not fitting in.   

    This need to redirect blame and exact punishment is so commonplace that you might say that it’s part of human nature. But our human understanding of blame and punishment is broken. And it’s precisely this brokenness of human nature that we need to be saved from. Because the way of blame and punishment is the way of death. Never in the course of human history has the blaming and punishing of a scapegoat actually achieved anything life-giving. All it does is lead to more blaming, more calls for punishment, and more death. 

    Jesus’ life and ministry was devoted to exposing the lie that God is caught up in this human scheme of blame and punishment. He ate with sinners. He welcomed the outcast. He taught us that God’s desire is not to condemn the world but rather to save the world. And when he ran afoul of the power structures that upheld the system of blame and punishment, he himself became a scapegoat, bore the wrath of that broken human system, and was condemned to death. 

    The good news that we take from what happened to Jesus is that the wrathful system of blame and punishment that led to Jesus’ death was overthrown when Jesus rose from the dead. When he rose, (if you remember) he did not come back with a message of blame and punishment and retribution for what had been done to him. He came back with a message of peace. He came back with the message that those who believe in him are saved; saved because their lives are no longer bound by the false notion that finding a scapegoat to bear the brunt of our own wrath are somehow part of God’s desire for us. 

    For God so loved the world. God so loved the world that God didn’t need to punish Jesus in our place. God so loved the world that he sent Jesus to bear the blame and punishment that our own human brokenness demanded. That’s the meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice. And that sacrifice has won for us eternal life.   

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    Sermon for Lent 3, Year B, 2018
    March 4th, 2018
    St. Anne’s Episcopal Church (Lackey Chapel), Conway 

    Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16      Romans 4:13-25      Mark 8:31-38

     

     I wanted to tell that joke to get us in the mindset of today’s Gospel reading. Because I’m guessing that a few of you probably wanted to turn over some tables when you heard it… 

    Seriously, though, I’d like to do a bit of digging around in the Gospel lesson for today because it’s one of those lessons that presents us with a rather challenging image of Jesus. Normally, when we think of Jesus, we prefer to think about him as gentle and kind, saying things like, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest” and talking about the love that God has for each one of us. Those are comforting images of Jesus that, for us, make him more approachable and likable, so it’s not all that surprising that we gravitate towards them. But then we get stories like the one from this morning which present Jesus in a different light. The rabble-rouser. The trouble maker. The unapologetic critic of the establishment. The disruptive, table-flipping religious fanatic that I imagine most of us would shy away from. And we’re left trying to make sense of how the gentle Jesus is also the Jesus who also fashioned a whip to drive money changers out of the temple. 

    Now, simply put, there is no explanation for what Jesus did that can make his actions fit our notions of what is - or was - socially acceptable behavior. It was shocking then, and it should be shocking to us now. But I don’t want us to think that what Jesus did was an erratic, spur-of the moment thing that came completely out of the blue. When he drove out the money changers, he was deliberately doing something well-known in Jewish tradition. He was performing what is known as a “prophetic sign-act.” Basically, in Hebrew tradition, prophets would perform these sometimes bizarre and sometimes risky acts to signify a message from God. For instance, the prophet Ahijah tore his garment into pieces to signify that the kingdoms of Judah and Israel would split. The prophet Isaiah wandered around naked for three years as a sign that the kingdom of Assyria would defeat and humiliate the kingdoms of Egypt and Ethiopia. The prophet Jeremiah broke a jug to show that the kingdom of Judah would be broken and sent into exile. And the list goes on and on. In each case, the prophetic sign act was usually intentionally provocative or dramatic. And they tended to get people’s attention!   

    We still have this kind of thing going on. Think of protestors shutting down highways or staging sit-ins at government offices. Those kinds of protests are designed to be disruptive so that others will have to pay attention to the issue. 

    In any case, what Jesus did in the temple was one of these “prophetic sign acts” that was designed to upset the status quo and draw people’s attention to the fact that there was something wrong that needed to be corrected. 

    And sometimes we do need to have our own tables turned. Sometimes, we do need to have God disrupt our lives and show us that what we’re doing is not either what God wants for us OR what we’d truly want for ourselves if we were thinking rightly. Sometimes we do need to hear the voice of God telling us to WAKE UP! and realize that there is more to being disciples than just hearing words of comfort. 

    The season of Lent is a time when the church takes this message seriously. It’s a time when the church can say that yes, the gentle Jesus who talks about the freedom of the children of God IS the same Jesus who can turn over the tables in our own lives and demand that we drive out everything in our lives that is making it hard to hear the voice of God. 

    ) I know that many folks come to church to hear a word of comfort, especially in a world that gives us plenty of reason to despair. But if all is comfort, then we may lose a sense of the urgent demand of the gospel to pick up our cross and follow Jesus. If all is comfort, then it would be easy to become smug and complacent and to think that being Christians involves nothing more from us than coming to church on Sundays to hear a quaint message about the love of God. If all is comfort, then we might think that Jesus is there to help us turn a blind eye to the despair in the world instead of being there to spur us on to combat it with true hope. 

    Some of you may know the name Trevor Huddleston. He was an Englishman by birth and became a bishop and then archbishop in South Africa, serving there from the 1950’s onward. And he was a strident critic of apartheid. For many years, he spoke out against the evils of apartheid, and he knew the setbacks and frustrations of standing in opposition against a powerful system of government that did its best to silence him. If anyone has ever felt firsthand lack of comfort and the temptation to despair, Arbp. Huddleston knew it. Yet he stood firm. He stood firm because he knew what hope really was. His best known work is titled Naught for Your Comfort, and the title is taken from a poem by G. K. Chesterton. And here are some lines from that poem that I hope will resonate: 

    I tell you naught for your comfort

    Yea, naught for your desire.

    Save that the sky grows darker yet

    And the sea rises higher.

    Night shall be thrice night over you

    And heaven an iron cope.

    Do you have joy without a cause

    Yea, faith without a hope?  

       

    The gospel message of joy and hope is not a message of sunshine and rainbows and everything is ok just as it is. The gospel message often involves the uncomfortable upending of our lives and the reorientation of our affections in order to live more fully as God wants us to. And living more fully as disciples of Jesus means that we, too, have the responsibility to stand up against the voices that make it hard for others to hear the voice of God. Even if it means saying and doing things that are uncomfortable. 

    So I hope that the image of Jesus turning over tables is not one that we cast aside lightly, but rather take to heart, in the understanding that we are all called to do the work of the gospel without the expectation that it will be easy or comfortable. That is the only way we can follow Jesus to the cross, and it is the only way we will ever truly discover the meaning of the hope we will celebrate at Easter. 

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    Sermon for Lent 2, Year B, 2018
    February 25th, 2018
    St. Anne’s Episcopal Church (Lackey Chapel), Conway 

    Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16         Romans 4:13-25         Mark 8:31-38

     

    Even though it’s Lent, and there might be the expectation that the message will be more serious or severe than normal, I want to begin with - - -  a story about a road trip I took with my brother and his wife about ten years ago. We were on our way up to North Carolina to join the rest of the family at a mountain house that the family had rented for the week. It was sure to be a relaxing time of fun with the family. The house was about a five hour drive from Charleston, and we left around noon, hoping that we’d arrive well before nightfall. We decided to take my brother’s truck. Right as we passed Summerville, however - and Summerville is only about half an hour outside of Charleston - we got a flat tire. As we got out of the car to change the tire, my brother’s wife made the comment that she was not surprised we got a flat because the tires were really worn down and had needed to be replaced for nearly a year. And I remember thinking, “Oh great. Of course we’d be making a five hour road trip on bad tires. Well, let’s hope it’s only the one tire that goes out.” The spare was a full-sized tire, so when we got it changed, it looked like we were only going to lose about an hour. Not too bad. But then somewhere outside of Orangeburg - only about another hour down the road - another tire went out. And there we were. No spare to replace it with, stranded on the side of I-26. The frustration really began to set in. It took nearly an hour for a tow truck to arrive, and then about another hour to get to the garage where the mechanic told us that the truck would need four new tires. That was not welcome news and only added to the frustration. But, having no other options at the time, my brother paid for the four new tires. Thankfully, the garage stayed open to finish the job, but it was after 7 by the time we got back on the road. And we still had four hours left - at least we thought. We called everyone at the mountain house to let them know about the delay, and they said that they hoped we’d be able to find the place in the dark because the main road in was not accessible and the other entrance was not marked at all so it would be difficult to see in the dark. Somehow before we got to that part of the trip, we managed to take a wrong exit, adding yet more time to what was already seeming like a never-ending trip. And, sure enough, finding the access road took forever. When we finally arrived, it was well after 1am. Four hours had turned into 13, and as you might imagine, we were all ready to snap. In fact, I don’t think that the three of us spoke to one another much for the next two days. The vacation wasn’t totally ruined, but it certainly put a damper on the start of it.     

    I’d like to point out that I just told you a pretty inconsequential story. In the grand scheme of things, two flat tires and the loss of several hours don’t really matter all that much. But at the time it seemed really annoying. At one point, I was ready to call it in and get a friend drive to pick me up and take me back to Charleston. 

    But the story drives home the sobering fact that if it’s easy to get frustrated when minor things don’t go our way, then it’s even easier to lose heart when the big things in life don’t live up to our expectations. And being disciples of Jesus is one of those big things in life that can leave us feeling frustrated when it doesn’t meet our expectations. When prayer seems flat; when generosity seems too demanding; when speaking out against the senseless evils of this world time after time after time after time seems pointless - it’s easy to lose heart when following Jesus seems to be getting us far less than we bargained for. But that failure of our expectations is what following Jesus often amounts to. 

    The story of Jesus’ rebuke of Peter is the story of Jesus saying that what would happen to him was going to frustrate his followers’ expectations. And Peter’s response is not just understandable. It’s predictable. Of course he didn’t like the idea that Jesus would suffer, be rejected, and killed. If we had been in his shoes, we wouldn’t have liked it either! We would have been just as frustrated as Peter. And our response would have been predictably similar to his. “No, Jesus. That’s not how this is supposed to go. You must have got it wrong somehow.”      

    But that frustration is precisely why Jesus’ words about his would-be followers denying themselves are so important. Because usually our expectations revolve around what we think should be convenient for us. Our frustrations over matters both great and small all boil down to the fact that we do not like it when things don’t go the way we think they should. Whether it be taking a road trip, installing an appliance, peeling an egg, or sharing the gospel with someone else, if there’s any inconvenience, we can easily get derailed into thinking that if only things were more agreeable to us, then that would be what God wants. 

    But what if it isn’t?    

    If Jesus is the model for our lives, then “picking up our cross” and following him is going to mean that we will be inconvenienced. We will be frustrated. We may even feel completely lost. However you slice it, following Jesus means that we will have to face the reality that things are not always going to go our way …and a willingness to accept this reality is part of what being a Christian is all about. It’s not that we go out of our way looking for ways to be inconvenienced - to do so would actually be an attempt to get our own way. It’s that when we are faced with frustration and trouble because of the Lord we claim to follow, we not immediately lose heart. It’s that we remember discipleship isn’t supposed to be easy. It does involve sacrifice. 

    We’re in the season when this message is brought more clearly into focus. And while it’s true that we make our way through Lent with Easter in mind, the message of this season is that we should be willing to take up the cross and follow Jesus. In order to carry the cross, we have to set aside our own expectations. 

    I’ll add here that the crosses we bear are usually so specific to the circumstances of our lives that it would be foolish for me to try to enumerate the ways in which each of us can carry our cross. But I will say that carrying the cross need not always involve anything heroic. Being faithful disciples usually involves small acts carried out in seemingly inconsequential situations. And small acts of faithfulness add up to a life of discipleship.   

    So the question I’ll leave us with this morning is one that I hope you might take with you through the rest of this season: “How should I, as a Christian, respond when I’m feeling frustrated or angry that things aren’t going my way?” If we can remember to ask that question, then we will discover that the way of the cross is indeed the way of life. 

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    Sermon for Epiphany 5, Year B, 2018
    February 4th, 2018
    St. Anne’s Episcopal Church (Lackey Chapel), Conway 

    Isaiah 40:21-31         1 Corinthians 9:16-23         Mark 1:29-39

     

    If you were here last week, then this week’s report from the Gospel about Jesus casting out demons won’t come to you as much of a surprise. If, however, you’re joining us for the first time or maybe even you’re hearing the Gospel for the first time, then today’s reading might sound a bit strange, with its matter-of-fact talk about Jesus casting out demons … as if that’s a perfectly normal thing for someone to be doing. So to give us a bit of context, first I want to point out that casting out demons was  a perfectly normal thing for someone to be doing…especially if that someone was a first century religious figure of any importance. Because during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, if you had any right to be called a prophet or perhaps something more, then the expectation was that you’d have power over “unclean spirits.” So when the Gospel tells us that Jesus did have power over such “unclean spirits,” it’s not really telling us anything earth-shattering. All it’s saying is that Jesus was doing the things that would have been expected from a prophet or wonder-worker in his day and age. It would sort of be like saying that a twenty first century mechanic has the ability to change a spark plug. And Jesus’ ability to cast out demons is actually something that nearly everyone can agree on when it comes to trying to figure out who the “historical Jesus” was. Even the most skeptical of religious scholars, when pressed, will admit that, no matter what we might think about Jesus now, the fact of the matter is that during his earthly ministry, Jesus was widely regarded as a wonder-worker and a skilled exorcist. 

    Of course, that raises all sorts of questions about what was going on when Jesus cast out demons; mostly, those questions boil down to, “How can we understand that language from a twenty first century perspective?” If you were here last week, then you’ll know that we did a bit of digging around into how we might imagine an “unclean spirit” or a “demon” in our modern context. And to give a brief recap, I suggested that we might imagine “demons” to be something akin to the self-generated voices we hear that tell us things like, “You’re not good enough,” or “You should be ashamed of yourself,” or “People will only like you if you’re rich and powerful.” And we need to rebuke those voices and cast out those “demons” because they are nothing but lies. Instead, the voice we most need to hear is the voice that says, “You are my beloved.” Because that is the voice of God and the one that shows us our truest self. That’s last week’s sermon in a nutshell.  

    But if you felt like you were left hanging last week and perhaps over the course of the past week you began to wonder, “But how can I hear that voice more clearly?” this morning’s Gospel lesson actually provides an answer to that question. You’ll notice that the Gospel says that after Jesus “cast out demons” and spent time essentially telling the demons to be quiet, he went out “to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” One way to understand this passage is that, after silencing the voices that were causing so much disturbance, Jesus withdrew to a place where no other voices could get in the way, and it was there in the silence that he more clearly heard the voice of God. 

    And what that means for us is that there are times when we need to embrace silence and pray alone because it’s only by doing so that we can hear a rebuke to the lying voices that constantly surround us; and it’s in those moments when we can more clearly hear God’s voice calling us “beloved.” But I want to point out that this kind of prayer is not just about sitting passively in a secluded place and waiting for God to speak. The kind of prayer I’m talking about - the kind that allows us to hear God calling us “beloved” - involves a determination to listen, and it does require a good bit of effort on our part.  

    There’s a strain of religious thinking called “quietism” that says faith is about abandoning one’s will completely and accepting things just as they are without any attempt to try to change them. Essentially, prayer in the “quietist” tradition is an exercise in total passivity. There’s no desire to hear God’s voice. There’s no desire to hear any voice, really. But if one should be plagued with voices that say “You aren’t good enough,” then oh well, that’s just the way things are and that’s all there is to it because it must be God’s will. If taken to extremes, the “quietist” approach means that prayer isn’t even all that important because if you think it is, then you haven’t really achieved a state of total tranquility. You can probably guess that the church didn’t much care for this approach!  

    Still, it may be tempting for us to think that the only aim of prayer is to achieve total passivity of mind. But I don’t think that’s right. I think the aim of prayer is to be with God. To be with God after struggling against all the voices that tell us we don’t need God or don’t deserve God’s affection. To be with God, striving to hear and know that we are beloved. In that sense, I don’t think prayer is passive at all. True prayer requires effort. It requires discipline. And sometimes it can seem like a really hard slog. 

    I had a professor in seminary once who had a student say, “I don’t really like the daily office in the prayer book. It seems too much like work.” His response was, “It’s supposed to seem like work. That’s why it’s called the daily ‘office.’”  

    The “work” of the church, then, is to do exactly what Jesus did. The work of each of us as members of the church is to rebuke and silence the voices in the world or in our own minds that say “God could never love someone like you” or “God doesn’t love so-and-so.” The work of each of us as members of the church is to take the time and make the effort to be alone with God so that we can hear God calling us “my beloved.” And then the work of each of us as members of the church is to go out into the world and let others know that they, too, are God’s beloved. As Jesus says in the Gospel, “that is what I came out to do.” And, following his example, that is what we are here to do as well.   

     

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    Sermon for Epiphany 4, Year B, 2018
    January 28th, 2018
    St. Anne’s Episcopal Church (Lackey Chapel), Conway 

    Deuteronomy 18:15-20        1 Corinthians 8:1-13        Mark 1:21-28

     

    This might be a rather touchy subject. I want to talk with you this morning about one of the details from the Gospel reading that, to our 21st century ears, might make us a little uneasy. It’s the detail about what happens when Jesus is teaching in the synagogue. As the Gospel tells us, “a man with an unclean spirit” was there and that the unclean spirit  cried out in fear and alarm at the recognition of who Jesus was. And Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit and casts it out. Simply put, this is a story of exorcism. The man was possessed by a demon, and Jesus casts out the demon. And, I think, we might get a little uneasy when we hear this story. Because my guess is that when we hear this story, we tend to conjure up certain images of what a demon or an unclean spirit might look like. 

    And much of the imagery of unclean spirits or demons we have comes from medieval representations of demons - usually hairy goat-like monsters with horns and hoofs. And it’s easy to dismiss these images and to think that people in ages past were far too credulous or not scientifically minded enough, and so they were silly to believe in things like demons and spiritual forces of darkness that looked like goats. Or maybe the image that comes to mind is more like something out of a horror movie like ‘The Exorcist’ where a possessed person acts in terrifyingly supernatural ways and becomes physically disfigured, looking like a monster themselves. And it’s easy to dismiss these images as overblown Hollywood representations designed to do nothing but frighten audiences. In either case, the images we might have in mind are easy to write off, and we might be left thinking that since all of the images we have for “unclean spirits” are either too cartoonish or too dramatically frightening to be realistic, then there are no such things as “unclean spirits.” So the Gospel story of Jesus casting out an unclean spirit might strike us as perhaps a little quaint and not to be taken all that seriously.  

    But here’s where I want us to have a look at our Book of Common Prayer, and particularly what we say at Baptism. If you have a prayer book, the part I’m talking about begins on page 302. If you don’t have a prayer book, though, it’s ok. During the Baptism service, those who are going to be baptized are asked a series of questions, and the first three questions are as follows: “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?” next, “Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?” and, “Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?” I’ll note that we’re going to be having a baptism here in a couple of weeks, so this is a great time to pay special attention to what is said during the service. And the renunciation of things like “spiritual forces of wickedness” and “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” means that the  church actually does believe such things exist. Fantastical images aside, the renunciations do imply that we acknowledge that there are forces of evil in the world and that there are things that rebel against God and draw us from the love of God.

    If you want evidence of such things, I’d say you need look no further than the daily news. Suicide bombings, school shootings, multiple stories of abuse - and that’s just a small selection from the past week. There are countless examples of evil in the world, so if you think about it, the renunciations that we make at baptism are incredibly important. Because when we say that we renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, what we are saying is that, through the power of God, such forces will have no power over us. 

    Temptations may be there, but we have renounced their power over us. When faced with the temptation to destroy life, we cling to the God who gave us life. When faced with the temptation to be cruel, we cling to the God who shows us kindness. When faced with the temptation to seek revenge, we cling to the God who shows us mercy. When faced with the temptation to despair, we cling to the God who gives us hope. In other words, when we renounce “spiritual forces of wickedness” and “the evil powers of this world,” what we’re saying is that, as Christians, we will not allow those forces and those powers to control our lives - and if we find that they have, then we will repent and ask for God’s help to change our lives so that those powers will not continue to corrupt and destroy us. 

    …I know that might not solve the problem of how we think about “unclean spirits” and that there might still be some uneasiness around how the Gospel story recounts Jesus casting out demons. Old images of red horns and pitchforks die hard. So I’d like to draw attention to another detail from the Gospel story that may help us form a different image. In the Gospel story, the man with the unclean spirit speaks with a voice that is not his own. We’re meant to understand this in the way that the story says that Jesus rebukes not the man, but the unclean spirit. The story doesn’t say that the unclean spirit spoke with a different accent or in a way that made its voice distinguishable from the voice of the man himself. So for all the hearers knew, it was the man himself speaking. Only Jesus knew it wasn’t that man’s authentic voice. 

    And if we go with this idea of different voices, then I think that might be more helpful. Let me be clear here: I am NOT talking about psychological disorders where people literally hear voices. In those cases, professional diagnosis and intervention are of paramount importance, and the stigma we often attach to people who suffer from these disorders can only make their condition worse. Instead, I’m talking about the “voices” we hear on a regular basis and that usually we think come from ourselves.

    As the theologian, Henri Nouwen put it, “Many voices ask for our attention. There is a voice that says, ‘Prove that you are a good person.’ Another voice says, ‘You'd better be ashamed of yourself.’ There also is a voice that says, ‘Nobody really cares about you,’ and one that says, ‘Be sure to become successful, popular, and powerful.’”

    I’d hasten to add that there’s a voice which says, “You’re never going to be good enough.” And these negative internal voices that we often hear are not friendly. They are not good. They are not helpful. And they are not of God. They are voices that are indeed trying to make us rebel against God and draw us away from God’s love. They are voices that we might think are our own, but they are NOT our authentic voice. They are not who we truly are. 

    “But,” Nouwen goes on to say, “underneath all these often very noisy voices is a still, small voice that says, ‘You are my Beloved, my favor rests on you.’ That's the voice we need most of all to hear.” And Nouwen is absolutely right. We do need to hear the voice of God which calls us “my Beloved.” Especially when the unfriendly voices seem to be shouting loudly that we aren’t worthy or we aren’t lovable. And sometimes these unfriendly voices need to be rebuked so that after all the shouting, we can hear God speaking to us. Because when we can finally hear God saying to us, “You are my beloved,” we will be able to say in our own authentic voice, “I am beloved.” And that simple truth gives us power over any foe. 

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    Sermon for Epiphany 3, Year B, 2018
    January 21st, 2018
    St. Anne’s Episcopal Church (Lackey Chapel), Conway 

    Jonah 3:1-5, 10       1 Corinthians 7:29-31       Mark 1:14-20

     

    Who were you when it happened? 

    This morning’s Gospel reading is one of the shortest Gospel readings that we ever hear in church. It’s one of those “blink and you’ll miss it” stories because there does not appear to be all that much going on. It’s just about Jesus getting some fishermen to follow him. And it’s another one of those stories that leaves me wondering about the details because I have a difficult time believing that Simon and Andrew and James and John just met Jesus out of the blue and started following him when he said, “Follow me.” Of course, I’m not inviting anyone to think that the Gospel is giving us bad information; I’m just inclined to think that there was more going on than what we’re told in the story. But I don’t want to speculate this morning about what else might have happened when Jesus called his first followers to follow him. () Instead, I want us to focus our attention on a key detail in the story.  As the Gospel says, Jesus “saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen.” 

    This detail might seem minor, but it actually raises a very important point. And the point is that God does not call us in a vacuum, as if the particulars of our lives are unimportant. When Jesus called Simon and Andrew to follow him, he called fishermen. He even couched his invitation in terms that appealed to their profession: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” In the same way, when God calls each one of us, God calls us in and through all the details of who we are. As Michael Ramsey, a former archbishop of Canterbury, put it, the man who is converted “is a husband, a father, an uncle, a neighbor, an employer or a manager or a workman, a citizen; he has amusements, hobbies, leisure, money, income, savings, health or sickness… and Christ wants the whole of him.” And this simple reality means that none of us is ever converted to what I’d call a “pure” or “perfect” faith that erases everything about who we were before we were converted. If that were the case, then Christianity would be more about making automatons for God rather than making disciples who can discover how to use their particular gifts for the creative building of God’s kingdom. But making automatons is not what Christian conversion looks like. Instead, when we hear God’s call or have an experience of conversion, we are called just as we are - warts and all! 

    When I was about 16, I became rather smitten with a certain young woman. She was the daughter of an Episcopal priest - I’ll let you all draw your own conclusions about the irony there! When we first met, we struck up a conversation that left me hoping that we’d talk again, and when we did have a chance to talk on the phone soon after, it seemed like things were moving in a positive direction. Towards the end of that second conversation, though, she asked me a question that had ramifications that are still playing out to this day. She asked me, “Do you believe in God?” I can still remember the mental math that I did in a split second before I gave an answer. I thought to myself that if I said, “No,” then that would probably be the end of the conversation and we’d never speak again. She was the daughter of a priest, after all! But I said, “Yes,” then we’d be able to keep talking. So I said “Yes.” The conversation ended well, but when I hung up the phone, I immediately began to think about the answer I had given. Did I really believe in God? I’d been going to church all my life, but I had never given much thought to whether or not I actually believed in God. But I’d just said that I did. So maybe I’d better spend some time thinking - and praying! - about whether I really meant it. As things turned out, I began to discover that, yes, actually, I did believe in God, and I wanted to learn all I could about what this faith was all about. After a few months, the relationship ended, but that did not end my journey of faith. And, well, here we are. 

    I share that story with you all because I think it highlights the reality that when God calls us, the call comes to us in the messy details of our own lives. Which means that God is willing to embrace that messiness. In my case that means that God wanted to embrace the self-absorbed teenager who hadn’t ever given much thought to whether he believed or not. I only said I believed in God so that I could get a date. That really was my primary motivation. But God was willing to work with that and through that to bring about a conversion. 

    The good news here is that if you feel God tugging at your heart and calling you to follow more closely, then you do not have to be ashamed of who you are; as if God only accepts the perfect and blameless. Instead, if you feel God calling you to follow more closely, then know that God is calling the whole of you to follow more closely. You may be a fisherman. You may be a teacher. You may be a nurse. You may be a wife or a mother. You may be a waitress. Whoever you are, if God is calling you to follow more closely, then God is calling you to follow more closely as a teacher or as a nurse or as a wife or mother and to discover how your particular gifts can help build the kingdom. 

    I started off by asking, “Who were you when it happened?” You’ve probably guessed, but the “it” I’m referring to is your conversion: the moment or moments in your life when you realized that you truly believed or realized that God was calling you to follow more closely. The reason I asked that question, first, is because I want us all to think back on the details of our lives when that moment of conversion happened and to realize that God loved the whole of you, as you were, at that moment even if you think that God had no reason to. But the other reason I asked that question is because I want us all to think about what change has taken place as a result of God’s call to follow more closely. For some, you may be looking back over years, and if that’s the case, then my hope is that you’re able to see that responding to God’s call has had a positive impact in all the details of your life. For others, you may just be at the beginning of hearing God’s call to follow more closely. You may be taking your first steps on a new path. Whatever the case, the first question leads to a second: Now that it has happened, who will you be?    

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    Sermon for Epiphany 2, Year B, 2018
    January 14th, 2018
    St. Anne’s Episcopal Church (Lackey Chapel), Conway 

    1 Samuel 3: 1–20        1 Corinthians 6:12-20        John 1: 43-51

    When I first looked at the readings for this Sunday and read the Gospel lesson, a quote sprang immediately to mind and has stuck with me all week. It’s a quote from the Rev. D. T. Niles, who was a minister from Ceylon, and it has to do with evangelism. “Evangelism,” said Niles, is essentially “one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.” The reason this quote came to mind is that when I read this passage from John’s Gospel, what I see going on is evangelism in a nutshell. Jesus meets Philip, and Philip is convinced by his encounter that Jesus is worth following. Then Philip meets Nathanael and tells him that Jesus is worth following. Nathanael is not quite convinced, so Philip’s response is, “Come and see. Meet him yourself.” And, as the Gospel tells us, when Nathanael meets Jesus, he also ends up being convinced that Jesus is worth following. The underlying story here is that Philip was hungry. He was longing to find the one “about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote,” and he was convinced that Jesus was the one he was longing for. And his response was to tell his friend Nathanael about it. We may presume that Nathanael was also hungry; that Nathanael was also longing to meet the one “about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote,” so when Philip told Nathanael about Jesus, it really was a case of “one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.”

    And this whole episode speaks to what evangelism should look like for us even today. Evangelism involves a number of steps. First, you have to be hungry. You have to have some sense that there is something missing in your life. As a former teacher of mine once said, you have to recognize that there is a God-shaped hole in your heart. That hunger will lead you to go looking for a way to satisfy it. And when you discover that God is what you are truly longing for, you will know that you have found the only bread that will ever really satisfy you. And that will have an impact on your life, which I would say is the next step in evangelism. 

    Knowing the genuine presence of God has to have an impact on you and your life. If it doesn’t, then I’d say you haven’t yet experienced the genuine presence of God. The impact it will have is going to vary from person to person, but the reality is that you won’t be able to deny that something has changed - and changed for the better. It’s important to realize that this change does not mean that your life is always going to be sunshine and rainbows from here on out, but I think that a deep and abiding sense of joy is something that should stay with you as a result of having experienced the genuine presence of God. And I think that a desire to share that joy with others is also a result of having a genuine experience of the presence of God. When we hear good news, we want to share it. That’s one of the most basic truths about human interaction that I can think of. 

    And this is where the invitation to others comes in. Once we’ve realized that we’re hungry; and we’ve found that our hunger can be satisfied; and we want to let others know that their hunger, too, can be satisfied, we extend an invitation. And the invitation can be as simple as Philip’s invitation to Nathanael: “Come and see.” 

    Note that Philip doesn’t try to convince Nathanael with arguments. He doesn’t try to explain in detail exactly why he thinks that Jesus is a big deal. He doesn’t even engage Nathanael’s skepticism about Nazareth being a…well, being a kind of a…___hole.   

    No. Philip just says, “Come and see.” And the good news from this lesson is that we don’t have to be able to make sense of everything or to explain our faith thoroughly in order to invite someone. All we have to do is say, “Come and see.” No matter how well you may know scripture, no matter how many books on theology you might read, no matter how many prayers you might say, no matter how many convincing arguments you might have, nothing any of us can do is ever going to be a substitute for the simple invitation for others to “Come and see.” Imagine a beggar explaining to another beggar how yeast works or why kneading dough is important or why bread has nutritional value… but never actually inviting that other beggar to come and eat some bread! You might even that leaving out the invitation is leaving out the most important part of faith - that there will be enough bread for everyone.   

    And evangelism, in some sense, is an expression of faith. In our own context, extending an invitation to others to “come and see” - to worship with us here - is an expression of our faith: our faith that God IS present here and that what we do is an authentic expression of good news; our faith that God’s presence here will have an impact on the life of the person you invite; our faith that if the person you invite recognizes God’s presence here, then they will appreciate why you invited them in the first place. 

    Of course, there are good ways of inviting people, and there are not so good ways. As some of you know, I spent some time studying in England, and in my time there, I had the privilege of worshiping in a number of cathedrals. On one occasion, I showed up to evensong at a cathedral that will remain unnamed, and I took my seat about fifteen minutes before the service began. When I looked over the service sheet, I was a little disappointed with what I read. Under the heading which said “Evensong,” there was a paragraph which basically said that evensong has been prayed at this cathedral for hundreds of years and will go on being prayed for hundreds more so your presence here is not all that important. The “invitation” was to experience the service as an observer of something that need not have a personal impact for it to matter. On a theological level, this sentiment was not necessarily wrong, but I did think that it left much to be desired in terms of evangelism because it said nothing about how or why the worship might actually be a means for someone to experience the God who was being worshiped. Instead of “Come and see,” the invitation was, “You happen to be here, so you may as well see. Or not. It doesn’t matter to us.” or maybe, “Yes, we have bread. Whether or not you eat it doesn’t matter to us. But it’s there.” This is an example of not such a good way for one beggar telling another where to find bread.

    The best invitation comes from a place of hunger - the hunger that you yourself have known and that you yourself have found that God alone can satisfy. If you truly believe that what we’re doing in this church is an authentic expression of our faith that God is present here, then if you invite someone with a simple “Come and see,” and their lives are transformed by what they encounter here, then what you’ve done is tell your fellow beggar where to find bread. And there’s plenty to go around. 

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    Sermon for Epiphany 2018
    January 7th, 2018
    St. Anne’s Episcopal Church (Lackey Chapel), Conway 

    Isaiah 60: 1-6          Ephesians 3: 1-12          Matthew 2: 1-12

     

    Some of y’all know that when it comes to the stories we hear from scripture, one of my favorite things to do is to wonder a bit about what the text does NOT tell us. Even though I know that such musings can be tricky business when it comes to proclaiming the good news, I still like to use my imagination when I come across stories in scripture that lend themselves to some filling in of the blanks. And the story of the wise men - or magi - from the east, when taken at face value, is one of those stories where I think a little imagination can actually help us to understand the gospel message. 

    And the first thing I wonder about is, “Who were these guys?!” and “Where did they come from?” As it turns out, I’m not the only person who has ever wondered about these questions. Early on in the Christian tradition, several scripture commentators provided some imaginative answers. All of the early commentators agreed that there must have been three wise men because of the three gifts mentioned in the story. In the western church, the three wise men were given the names Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar. Melchior was supposed to have been from Persia, Caspar was supposed to have been from India, and Balthazar was supposed to have been from Arabia. In the Syrian church, the three wise men were identified as Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas, and all three were from Persia. In the Coptic Church of Ethiopia, the wise men get called Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater, and in the Armenian tradition, they are named Kagpha, Badadakharida, and Badadilma. Some Christians claim that at least one of the wise men came from as far east as China. And in each case, there are stories associated with the wise men that have them playing a larger part in the spreading of the gospel than just their short visit to Bethlehem. I’ll leave it to you to decide which name and location you prefer for the wise men…

    But the question of who they are and where they came from is one that actually does tell us a lot about our own faith. One of the first things we tend to ask when someone new comes into our community is, “Who are you and where do you come from?” And the reason I think we do this is that we want to know if there’s anything familiar about them. Do we know their parents? Do we know any of their other relatives? Do we know any of their friends or co-workers? Have we ever been to a place which would help us to find something in common with them? Have they come from a church tradition that we’re familiar with? If we can find some common ground with them, it makes getting to know them a little easier. But sometimes we aren’t able to find any connection. Sometimes we aren’t able to discover the thread where another’s life ties in with our own. Sometimes, to use a loaded southern phrase, folks are just “from off.”  

    And that seems to be the case with these wise men. They aren’t a part of the familiar story. They don’t come from a place familiar with Biblical tradition. They don’t know the full history of God’s chosen people - or if they do know about the tradition and the history, it isn’t part of their cultural heritage. They are just “from off.” But something caused them to make the journey westward to pay homage to a newborn king. 

    Every now and then, we get visitors who have never been to an Episcopal church. Sometimes we get visitors who have never been to church, period. They might not be from Conway - or South Carolina - or even the USA. We might not know who their momma is. Their names might be hard for us to pronounce. They come “from off” and join us for worship even though they don’t seem to share anything in common with us. If we were to ask, we’d likely find that their story is unfamiliar to us. And yet there is something that drew them to this place. They came here looking for something in the hope that this might be the place to find what they are looking for. And that’s an important lesson for us to keep in mind. 

    Because you don’t have to be steeped in Christian tradition or know all the stories in the Bible in order to feel God calling you and drawing you closer to God’s self. And no matter how familiar we may be with the gospel message; no matter how many times we have read the scriptures and sung the hymns and received the Eucharist, if we’ve come here in the hope that we’ll find an authentic expression of our longing for God, then we are in the same boat as the person who is “from off.” Because the only thing that matters is that God has drawn us. And in some sense, our familiarity can even get in the way of recognizing how God is drawing us closer. If you note, it was the three wise men who came “from off” - and not the religious professionals of the day - who were the first to recognize that Jesus was someone special! They were the first to recognize the gift, while most others either overlooked it or saw it as a threat. 

    Which brings me to my second musing (don’t worry: there are only two points that I want to make!). As the story goes, the wise men see the star that signifies that a king has been born, and they make their way to Jerusalem, thinking that Jerusalem must be the place where the new king will be found. And this makes logical sense. Jerusalem was the seat of power. It was where king Herod lived. So I wonder whether they were a little surprised to find that the newborn king was not where they assumed he’d be. Of course, Bethlehem is only about ten miles away from Jerusalem, so maybe they weren’t too put out that they were off by a few miles. But I do wonder whether they were a little surprised to discover that the king that they were seeking was not to be found in any royal palace. And I imagine that as they made their way through Bethlehem, they began to wonder just what in the world was going on. Because I don’t imagine that the house where Mary and Joseph and Jesus were staying was all that impressive. In fact, I imagine it was a rather humble place. And I wonder if the wise men approached the house thinking that something was amiss. Why would this newborn king not even have a guard posted at the door? I wonder if they entered the house and presented their gifts thinking that, surely, at any moment, some hidden door would open and they would be shown that the humble surroundings were just a ruse. 

    Sometimes I think this is an excellent description of my own prayer life. I set out thinking that my prayer time will be a great opportunity to talk with God or just be with God. And I look forward to what fruits may come of asking God for patience or guidance or whatever it may be that’s on my mind. But as I pray, I discover that, no, actually, nothing of what I assumed my prayer time would be is coming to pass. I’m not reaching a state of peace and tranquillity. I’m not even able to concentrate on being with God. Instead, I’m thinking about what grit of sandpaper I should use to sand the cabinets. Or I’m plotting out the best route to get to the grocery store. And my prayer time winds up seeming rather empty and fruitless - at least in terms of what I was expecting. 

    But that’s SO often how seeking God works. We think it will be a dazzling experience. We assume prayer will be almost magical in its effect on us. But then reality sets in and we discover that our prayer is kind of unimpressive. Maybe even a little disappointing. Still we might hope that, surely, at any moment, some hidden door will open and we will be shown that our prayer is taking us to the heights of glory. But time after time after time, that just does not happen. So it may be tempting to think that God is either ignoring us or that we’re just not very good at praying. But the reality is that even if your prayer doesn’t seem to be “doing it” for you, it is transforming you. It can - and does - help you to look at things differently.

    As the story goes, after the wise men greeted Jesus, they somehow knew that returning to Herod was a bad idea. They knew that even though Jesus did not seem to be all that impressive, they had best not tell Herod about them. So, the story says, “they left for their own country by another road.” And I think prayer can help us to do just that. When we’re drawn to God, we may discover that our prayer is not taking us where we thought we should go. But over time, we discover that God is leading us home by a different road.   

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    Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year B
    Dec. 17th, 2017
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

    Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11     1 Thessalonians 5:16-24     John 1:6-8,19-28

     

    So, over the past few weeks, I’ve received several phone calls that I thought were rather odd. In each case, the person on the other end said that they were returning a missed call that had come from my number. The first two didn’t make me think anything too strange was afoot, but then when the third and fourth and then fifth came along, I began to wonder. So, I consulted the internet, and sure enough, I discovered that what was happening has to do with a phishing scam. As the internet search told me, apparently there are a variety scam operations which can somehow make a phone call to people where the number that appears on the screen for the incoming call is not the actual number that is making the call. The aim is to get someone to answer and then to provide sensitive information that can be used to defraud them, and since the number can’t really be traced, it’s harder for victims to find out who is trying to trick them. In any case, it appears that my number is one that has been used as a decoy to mask these fraudulent calls. 

    I’m telling you all this not to make you wary of answering your phone when you get a call from me - though if you get a call from my number and some strange voice asks for your social security number and mother’s maiden name, go ahead and hang up! No, I’m telling you this because I think the situation speaks to what I’d call our curiosity around the irrelevant. I found it curious that more than one person called me back to find out why I had apparently called them. Hence the internet search. I was convinced there must be a reason for all these strange “return calls.” And, turns out, I was right; even though I didn’t much like the reason.  

    And no doubt the people who called me were curious about why they had received a call from an unknown number and why no one from that number had left a message. In both cases, we wanted to find out what was going on. We wanted to know why these seemingly irrelevant phone calls had been made and to discover what the relevance actually was. All of this curiosity was piqued, I think, because most of us don’t like to think that someone would want to contact us without a good reason. We don’t like to think that others are wasting our time or pranking us or trying to scam us, and when we do discover that, no, someone was trying to make us look like fools, we’re left wondering, “Why would someone do that?” We want to know the reason. We want to make some sense of it.  

    Well, if you’ve followed me thus far, then you’ll pick up immediately on what I think the Pharisees’ attitude was toward John the Baptist in the Gospel reading. From what little we know about John, it seems he was an odd, charismatic figure who lived an extremely austere life in the Judean countryside and whose preaching and teaching was centered on the expectation that a messiah would appear very soon and so people had better get ready for it. And his message became popular enough that he attracted the attention of the religious establishment. And the religious establishment was curious about who this guy was. The priests and the Levites wanted to know the reason why John was saying and doing the things he was saying and doing, and they wanted to see if John’s reason fit the traditional expectations. And they figured that if John had no claim to be either the messiah or Elijah or the prophet, then the likely reason for his message was that he was either a fraud or a dangerous political subversive. They went to John to make sense of who he was and what he was doing, and what’s clear from the Gospel reading is that they were not willing to leave until they had some reason to report back. We’re led to understand that they were not impressed with John’s reference to the prophet Isaiah about being “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” but the point I invite us to focus on is that they were looking to make sense of who John was. 

    In that sense, the priests and Levites were doing nothing out of the ordinary. I’d even say they were doing the right thing in questioning John. We all want to make sense of things that have the potential to impact our lives in a very real and immediate way. And I wager that there are few, if any, here who would be willing to accept a message like John’s without wondering where it comes from or who the messenger really is. St. Paul talks about this very idea in his letter to the Thessalonians. “Do not despise the words of prophets,” Paul says, before going on to add, “but test everything.” What Paul means is that if you hear a message about God, don’t automatically assume it’s either right or wrong. Do your due diligence and look into it. Be curious. Make sure it stands up to scrutiny. Looking for the reason behind something does not mean you oppose it; it just means that you want to make sure it’s authentic. 

    Which brings us to a pithy saying that I am sure we all hear around this time of year: “Jesus is the reason for the season.” That saying anticipates the feast of the Incarnation which we will celebrate on Dec. 25th, and as statements go, it’s true, even if it’s pretty innocuous. But the question for us in the weeks before Dec. 25th might be, “Is there a reason for the season?” In the run-up to Christmas, we hear all sorts of messages about peace and goodwill and glad tidings of great joy and the like, and even though those messages are good, I wonder if we give ourselves enough of a chance beforehand to be curious; to really think about whether we really believe that the coming of Jesus makes all that joy and peace real. I wonder if we allow ourselves the time to ask whether the “holiday spirit” we’re supposed to be fostering at this time of year comes from a place of deep longing for closeness with God, or if we’re merely responding to a well crafted marketing campaign designed to make us spend money.

    The message of the gospel at Christmas should not come to us like a call from an unknown number. And if it does, then I think it likely that we’ll hear the Christmas story and say to God, “Sorry, I never did reach out to you in the first place.” No. The good news during Advent is that we are given space to examine what the reason for the season really is. We are given time to be curious about why the coming of Jesus should be for us such a joyful event. 

    And we can do this in a number of familiar ways. We can offer help to those in need, we can visit the sick, we can welcome the stranger, we can reach out to old friends and perhaps find a way to reconnect or reconcile with those we’ve been estranged from, we can talk to God more intently and ask God to help us understand the Christmas story more deeply. However you go about it, Advent is a time for us all to examine the reasons why we will proclaim our joy at the birth of Jesus. And if we are doing Advent well, then our praise and prayers at Christmas will be all the more bright because we will know the reason for the season.   

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    Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B
    Dec. 10th, 2017
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

    Isaiah 40:1-11         2 Peter 3:8-15a        Mark 1:1-8

     

    This is the very beginning
    This is the once upon a time
    Somebody's starting something
    These are the opening lines
    Yes every story has a beginning, middle and an end
    And when it's over we can go back and tell it all again
    Yes every story has a beginning, middle and…An end.

     

    If you’re wondering what arcane source I pulled those lines from, you’ll be pleased to know that my fondness for Gilbert and Sullivan has not struck again. Those lines are from a Sesame Street song. And they are pretty good advice when it comes to story-telling. Good stories all have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And as the song points out, usually there is some kind of quick formula for introducing the beginning of a story. “Once upon a time” is a standard one. “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” is another popular one. Another one that is especially familiar around this time of year is, “And it came to pass in those days…” Whenever you’re telling a story, if you start off with one of these kinds of short formulas, you’re tipping off your listeners that they are hearing the beginning of a story that will go on to have a middle and an end.

    Which is why Mark’s Gospel is not often thought of as a good story. There’s no formulaic beginning  preparing us to hear a tale. Instead, we get the abrupt announcement, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” It’s more like a newsflash headline than an indication that we’re about to hear a story. There is no explanation about where John the Baptist comes from, no birth narrative to tell us about Jesus’ divine origins. Mark’s Gospel just hits the ground running. If you’re hearing it for the first time, it’s almost like starting to watch a tv show that is already fifteen minutes into the story. And even if you’re familiar with the whole of Mark’s Gospel, then you’ll know that the later episodes in it can come across as somewhat disjointed. In fact, one of the earliest commentators of Mark’s Gospel said that Mark merely wrote as many things down as he could remember, with “no intention of providing an ordered arrangement.” In terms of structure, it seems that Mark’s Gospel doesn’t have much of a middle. And if you’re familiar with the short ending of Mark’s Gospel, then you know that there’s no real sense of ending. What we get is that some women go to Jesus’ tomb, and having found it empty, the women “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” There’s no real denouement, no resolution of the drama, no happily ever after. Mark’s Gospel ends just as abruptly as it begins. As standard story structure goes, then, Mark’s Gospel might seem lacking. 

    The reason I bring this all up is to make the point that Mark’s Gospel is not intended to be a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. At least not in the conventional sense. Instead, it’s intended to be gospel. It’s intended to be good news. It’s a totally different genre. And gospel is meant to provide just enough detail for us all to want to learn more about who this Jesus is, what he taught, and what believing in him will involve. In that sense, the whole of Mark’s Gospel can be taken as an introduction to a story that will go on to have as many plot lines as there are followers of Jesus.

    And I think that the line, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ,” applies not just to John the Baptist appearing in the wilderness preaching repentance and baptizing, but rather it applies to the entire Gospel. The entire Gospel is meant to be the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, and we, as believers, are meant to pick up the story from there. You might say Mark’s Gospel is the longest “once upon a time” in the history of story telling!    

    If you look at Mark’s Gospel not so much as a story but as an invitation to become a part of the gospel yourself, then Mark’s starting point makes much more sense. Because the gospel begins with repentance and preparation. And I’m convinced that if you have a genuine encounter with God, then you know, deep down, that there are things in your life which are broken and in need of healing. There are habits and attitudes of the heart which will need to change in order for you to become more fully the person God is calling you to be. And it doesn’t matter how old you are or how long you may have been a believer. The simple fact is that none of us has arrived at the point where we can say, “I’m through with changing; I no longer need to repent.” There’s a great line from John Henry Newman, which some of you may have heard: “To live is to change. To be perfect is to have changed often.” Another way of saying that is, in matters of faith, to be perfect is to have repented often.  

    I know that some might think that the message of repentance is inherently negative and assumes that we’re all bad people. Or perhaps there’s the suspicion that the call to repentance does nothing but increase feelings of guilt. And, for sure, there are some in the church who abuse the message of repentance and turn it into a means of control. But I don’t think repentance necessarily bears such a negative connotation. Instead, I think we all know that there are things in our lives that are not as they should be. Or, at least, we all become aware at some point that there are things in our lives that are not as they should be. And when we become aware of those things, it’s tempting to think that it’s too late to do anything about it or that we’re so far gone that there’s no hope of turning back. Repentance is the idea that there IS a way to turn back, that there IS a way to get unstuck. Repentance is the idea that God loves you, no matter what the circumstance, and God wants you to change and grow and be fully alive. And that’s a great starting point.  

    This morning, you may have thought that all you heard was the introduction of a story about Jesus of Nazareth. Really what you heard was the beginning of the beginning of the good news that Jesus invites you to participate in. And the story picks up from there. The starting point for us all is realizing that there’s still plenty of the story left to tell. And if you’re open to this idea of repentance, then today might be a good day to begin your story. With that in mind, I’d like to turn the Sesame Street song into a kind of closing prayer:   

    This is my very beginning
    This is my once upon a time
    Today I’m starting something
    These are my opening lines
    Yes every story has a beginning, middle and an end
    And when it's over I can go back and tell it all again
    In God my story has a beginning, middle and…an end.