Church Sure Feels Different Today… A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent 2020

On the first Sunday of each month at St Andrew’s, we work to make our worship accessible for all our members young and less young. We do this through an intergenerational sermon and opportunities for children and youth to take on leadership roles.

This sermon was preached from the center aisle, without a transcript.  The sermon is built around the readings for he First Sunday in Lent in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here

Here is a recording of the sermon delivered at the 10:30 service on March 1, 2020

 

Here is a transcript of the recording:

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Please be seated.

Church looks pretty different today, doesn’t it?  I don’t know about you, but the first thing I noticed when I came in here this morning is that there were no flowers up front.  All of the beautiful color that’s usually right there at the top of the steps missing today… well, except for the purple.  For the last couple of months, we’ve had a short green super frontal across the front of the altar, but today we have this great big beautiful purple linen hanging off the front.  And we have this purple cloth up here on the cross.  And then, as if that wasn’t different enough… we started out with a parade this morning! We came up the center island back down the side and back up the center…  It was like a big figure eight here in the room.  Church is very different today, isn’t it?

That’s because this is the first Sunday in the season of Lent.  And this is a season where we remind ourselves that we might not have been doing all that we can, to walk in the path that Jesus walked before us. We spend the season thinking about the ways that we may have hurt other people, the ways that we may have hurt ourselves, and the ways that we may even have hurt God; by the things that we’ve done, and the things that we haven’t done.  And the point of all of that is to be better at doing the very thing that Jesus came to do.  Jesus came here and walked among us as one of us to show us how much God loves us, and to teach us how to love God back, and how to love one another, even how to love all of creation, the world around us. So in this season of Lent, we look for ways when we might not have been doing the things Jesus taught us as well as we might have.  And this purple cloth, The purple cloth on the cross, the flowers missing, that great parade we had at the beginning… we do those on the first Sunday of Lent every year.

But there’s another thing that we do on the first Sunday of Lent every year.  Every year on this Sunday, we hear the story of Jesus in the wilderness.  So, let’s just put that story in its place in the narrative.

Jesus goes to the river Jordan where he’s baptized by John the Baptist.  And in Matthew’s gospel, the one we’re reading now, there is a voice from heaven that says “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Jesus knows beyond a doubt who he is, and then all of a sudden, he goes out into the wilderness, to figure out how to be God’s beloved, the one with whom God is well pleased.  Jesus knows that it’s his job to show us how much God loves us, and to help us love God it in return in the same way; and to help us to love one another, and the world around us in the same way that God loves us.  And so, he goes out into the wilderness to figure out how to do that.

The gospel tells us that he didn’t eat or drink anything at all for 40 days. Can you imagine how weak you would be, how tired, how desperate you would be for something to eat or something to drink?  That’s the moment when temptation comes along.  Matthew tells us that the devil shows up and says “If you are the son of God… if you are the person that that voice from heaven just proclaimed you to be, turn these stones into bread.”  Now Jesus is here to help us to love God the same way that God loves us, and I think in reality, even though Jesus is really hungry and this may feel like it’s about him, Jesus knows that the devil is tempting him to feed all of us with the stones around us, to win us over by providing the things that we need, by meeting our every need.  In essence, to buy our allegiance.  But Jesus knows that love that is bought isn’t true love. You can give people gifts.  You can give people presents.  You can give them everything they want, and they might follow you around for a while because that and of a nice thing.  But that’s not the way to get someone to really love you.  So, Jesus tells the devil “no, go away.”

devil is not finished yet.  The devil comes and tries again, and takes Jesus up to the highest tower of the temple in Jerusalem, and says if you are the son of God, throw yourself off.  Because Scriptures say that the angels will catch you before you hit the ground.  And when that happens, and people see they’ll know who you are. It would be silly not to believe you.  They’ll get in line and they’ll do whatever you say.  But that’s not what Jesus wants.  Jesus doesn’t want us to follow him because it’s logical.  Jesus doesn’t want us to follow him because it makes sense.  Jesus doesn’t want us to follow him because it would be foolish not to.  Jesus wants us to love him.  Jesus wants us to love God.  Jesus wants us to love one another and the world around us.  And so Jesus knows that proving can never lead to love.  Arguing, proof texting, showing the facts, logic, that’s not going to lead to what Jesus wants; the ability to love one another and to love God.  So, again, Jesus tells the devil to go away.

Devil says, I’ve got one more card up my sleeve, takes Jesus up to the highest mountain and says, if you will fall down and worship me, I will put you in charge. You will be the master of all you can see, everyone will obey you, obey you.  That’s about as far from love as you can get.  You can’t force someone to love you.  You might be able to force people to do what you want.  But when you do that it’s not very likely that they’re going to love you in the process, and you don’t learn how to love other people, or God, or the creation that God made, if you’re being forced to do that.  So, once again, Jesus sends the devil away, and at that moment the Angels came to take care of him there in the desert.

During this season of Lent, we are working, we’re trying to understand the ways that we have failed to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, and we’re working to see the ways that we’ve failed to love our neighbors as ourselves.  And I think that we hear this lesson every year on the first Sunday of Lent because Jesus gives us the model. How do we love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength?  By loving others the way that God loved us; not by buying their allegiance, not by proving that we are right, not by forcing them to follow us. But by engaging in acts of self-giving and sacrifice, recognizing that love is built through trust and ongoing relationship, and commitment to holding one another up.  That love comes through being together and recognizing another person’s needs and agenda as equal to our own, and by making sure that the least among us have what they need to thrive and flourish.

Here in this season of Lent, we learn something very important about our God. Our God wants more than anything for us to love God and to love our neighbors and to love ourselves.  And God loves us so much that, even if in the end it might be good for us, God will make us do what God longs for us to do.  And even though sometimes it might make us feel better about life, God won’t meet our every need; turning stones into bread when we need bread.  Because God can’t afford to buy our love.  Because that’s no love at all.  And even though it would be nice, maybe, if we had a clear set of standards and beliefs, and some solid evidence that God is who God says God is, and that Jesus is who Jesus says he is; what really makes us human, and what makes us like Jesus, is our ability to love and to believe despite the evidence to the contrary.

God doesn’t want automatons. God doesn’t want blind followers.  God doesn’t want people who are following because they had their fill of the bread on the other side of the lake.  God wants us to follow God because we are so deeply in love that we can’t bear to be out of God’s presence; that we can’t bear to live our lives in ways that are outside of God’s vision and dream for all of creation; and all we want in our hearts is to step more fully into that relationship, leaving behind the things that distract us or drag us down.

Every year on the first Sunday of Lent, we take away the flowers.  We change the frontal.  We hang a purple drape on the cross to remember, or to remind us of Jesus’s sacrifice, we listen to this story about the true love of the one who makes, creates, redeems and sustains us, and who gives us a clear path for walking in God’s light footsteps.

Welcome to the season of Lent.

Amen

A Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2020

It’s not often that a preacher has four hours between the first and second delivery of a sermon, but a 7 am and a 12 noon celebration of the Proper Liturgy for Ash Wednesday afforded me that opportunity today.  The sermon was delivered without notes from the center aisle at the seven o’clock, and after four hours of work, delivered from the pulpit, with a text at noon.  I offer that second version of the sermon, and my apologies to those who helped me work through the draft I preached at 7:00.

This sermon is based on the texts assigned for Ash Wednesday, and uses the option from Isaiah as the first reading.

You can find those readings here.

 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be always acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Amen.

Please be seated.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

We’ve gathered here this day to hear those words and, kneeling at this rail, to enter the season of Lent; a season of self-examination and repentance, of fasting and self-denial, of reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

In this season of Lent, we do something that we are usually loathe to do.  We work to identify those places in our hearts and in our lives that we long to place in quarantine; that we long to hide from the people around us.  The places that we somehow believe that through denial and self-deception, we can hide from ourselves.  That we hope to hide, even from God.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

It is a remarkable thing that we come here, in the middle of a work week, to hear those words, an acknowledgement of our own mortality, of the reality that are dust, and to dust we shall return.

It is perhaps, even more remarkable that we come here today to enter into this space, this season, of our own free will.

Why would we do that?  When all of the world around us is seeking to deny its faults, to mask its blemishes, to claim innocence even in the face of undeniable evidence…  Why would we risk coming here today, and daring to reveal ourselves to the light of God’s truth and the judgement of God’s gaze?

We are here today because we know that in this season, through these disciplines, through this honest appraisal of ourselves and of our lives, we have an opportunity to let God into the places in our lives and in our hearts which we dare not show to anyone else; and with all of our scars and warts on display, to discover that we are loved, that we have always been loved, and to realize once again the promise that nothing, nothing we have done or left undone; nothing we have thought, or said;       nothing, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Because of that promise, we enter this season willingly, with hope and even with some sense of joy, because we know that God promises us absolution and forgiveness; and because we know that, if we are faithful to this work, at the end of this season, we will be nearer to the one who loves us beyond measure; who loves us in ways that are beyond our ability to imagine or understand; who loves us in ways that can set us free to be the people God created us to be, the people we long to be, the people the world needs us to be.

There is great promise in this season, in these practices; in self-examination and repentance, in fasting and self-denial, in reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.  God’s love and forgiveness can set us free to the people God created us to be, the people we long to be, the people the world needs us to be… but the path is not without some danger.  Even the greatest gifts can be distorted, can be used in ways that pervert and twist them in ways that God never intended.

Listen again to the passage from Isaiah assigned for Ash Wednesday.  God says to the people of Israel:

“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist…”  (Isaiah 58:3b-4)

“Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”  (Isaiah 58:5c)

In the reading from Matthew assigned for Ash Wednesday Jesus recognizes the danger to which Isaiah points and warns his followers,

“whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others… 

 And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others… 

 And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.”

While they have the power to set us free to be the people we long to be, the people God created us to be, we don’t, we can’t engage in self-examination and repentance, fasting and self-denial, reading and meditating on God’s holy Word, with an eye to accruing some benefit, some advantage to ourselves.  We don’t engage in these practices, these disciplines, for ourselves alone.

Let’s return to Isaiah for a minute.  God says to us:

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”   (Isaiah 58:6-7)

Jesus urges us to fast in secret and to greet our community with oil in our hair and our faces washed, because the point and purpose, the end and goal of our fast, of our Lenten practices and disciplines is to set us free to love the community around us; to draw us into God’s path and God’s ways so that we might serve others, and love others as God has loved us.

In The Invitation to the Observance of a Holy Lent, which Mother Melesa will read to us in as few minutes, we will hear the history of this liturgical season.  We will hear that for the early church:

“This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church.”  (BCP p. 265)

A season of preparation for entrance into the community through the rite of baptism; a season of restoration and return to community; a season of fellowship.

These are the true meaning, end, and purpose of this season and of the practices and disciplines in which we engage during Lent.

Yes, this season is an opportunity for us to identify and tear down the walls we build to hide the parts of ourselves that we are afraid to reveal to the people around us, to God, and even to ourselves.  It is an opportunity for us put aside the things that hold us back, that pull us away from God, and distract our attention from the one who loves us beyond all measure.

It is an opportunity for us, through God’s grace and forgiveness, to be set free to be the people we long to be.  But the meaning, end and purpose of Lent doesn’t end there with our own absolution and forgiveness.

The point of God’s absolution and forgiveness is to set us free to love one another as God has loved us.  The point of God’s absolution and forgiveness is to restore us to community, so that we, as the beloved community, as the Body of Christ, can open our arms and welcome others to a life set free from fear, shame and bondage.  The reason that God restores us, reconciles us, and sets us free, is so that we might do the same for others and build a world that brings God’s dream for all of creation to fulfillment here and now.

In a few minutes we will come forward to this rail and receive the mark of our mortal nature, ashes on our foreheads, so that we might enter this season well aware of who we are and whose we are, and there’s always some question as to whether or not we should wear the ashes on our forehead as we leave this place.

I can’t answer that question for you.  That is a decision you will need to make for yourself.

But given what we have heard today, if we do wear those ashes into the world, we need to bear them, not as an emblem of our own piety, not to show others that we have participated in this fast day, not in an attempt to accrue some benefit to ourselves; but as a mark of our commitment to draw closer to God and in that process to draw closer to those around us. As a mark of our commitment:

to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke.

… to share our bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into our houses;

to cover the naked when we see them,
and not to hide ourselves from our own kin…

our own kin… our brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus… all of God’s beloved children.

 

 

 

Unbind Us and Set Us Free: a Sermon for Proper 16C

This sermon, offered by The Rev. Andy Jones at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, WI, on August 25, 2019, is built on the readings assigned for Proper 16 in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here

Here is a recording of the sermon

 

Here is a transcript of the recording

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer.

Please be seated

The parish that sponsored me to go to seminary back in 1999, boy that sounds like a long time ago, was situated across the street from the municipal sports complex; soccer fields, softball fields, there were bleachers and a little bit of a stadium up there.  There must’ve been fifteen or sixteen fields, and a very limited amount of parking.  I don’t know what happened after our first couple of years of that parish, but something changed, and suddenly the city started scheduling games at that complex on Sunday morning.   And we would arrive at church and find that our parking lot was already full of the cars of people that had come to watch their kids play in these games.  We grumbled, we complained, we wrestled back and forth with the city.  We tried to decide whether or not we should put up signs that said parking for church members only, or have people standing there checking ID cards at the gate as they came in…  But I don’t think that our complaints in our discontent over that moment holds a candle to what’s happening in today’s gospel story.

Jesus walks into the synagogue and sees a woman who has been crippled and bent over for eighteen years.  He heals her, in clear violation of the commandment not to work on the Sabbath.  The leader of the synagogue is incensed and keeps saying to the crowd, “there are six days on which work may be done come to be cured on one of them, but not on the Sabbath!”  You can almost hear him saying, “We are a nation of laws!”  They were…

The people of Israel, when they escaped from Egypt, wandering in the wilderness with Moses as their guide, are given a great gift.  Moses goes up onto Mount Sinai and comes back down with tablets of stone on which are carved the Ten Commandments.  Now it’s clear that these commandments were the requirements for earning God’s love, for making your way into God’s grace, because God chose the people of Israel long before the Ten Commandments were given to Moses.  God made covenants with Abram and told him that his descendants would be as many as the grains of sand on the shore and  the stars in the sky and; that his descendants would be a blessing to all people.  God already loved the people of Israel.  The Ten Commandments were the way that the people could live fully into that relationship, to experience the depth and the fullness of God’s love, and grace, and mercy.  So, when they received those commandments they were a gift.  And the psalmist, later on, writes about the Commandments, that they are sweeter than honey from the comb.  They weren’t constraining.  They weren’t confining.  They weren’t meant to punish or to judge.  They were given as a guide to life in God’s light, and grace, and love, and mercy.

They also set the people of Israel apart from the other people in the land.  As Moses is about to confer the Commandments upon the people, in the book of Deuteronomy, he tells them that other nations will look on them with awe and wonder and say,

“‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’ 7For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? 8And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?”  (Deuteronomy 4:6b-7)

Adherence to the Sabbath became especially important to the people of Israel when they were in exile in Babylon, and they felt their identity as a people’s slipping away.  The Sabbath was what held them together, and helped them to remember who they were, and whose they were.  So when Jesus walks into the Temple this morning and violates the commandment to remember the Sabbath day and to keep it holy, there’s a lot at stake here in the mind of the leader of the synagogue.

You have to know that this isn’t the first time in Luke’s Gospel that this has happened. Way back, early on in Luke’s Gospel, we’re in chapter 13 now, back in chapter 6 Luke records a story where Jesus heals a man with a withered hand, in the temple.  He does it on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees go out and plot how to destroy him as a result of his violating that law.  The same thing happens in Matthew and in Mark, the same story, the same consequence, the religious leaders are so incensed the Jesus has healed on the Sabbath that they plot to have him killed.

I think Jesus is here this morning helping us to remember who we are, and whose we are.  He’s helping us to remember the place from which the law springs.  The summary of the law that we sometimes say to begin the service in Lent, says you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.  That is the core and the foundation from which all other laws are derived, the core and foundation from which all laws spring.  And it is out of God’s love for us, God’s compassion for us, God’s desire that we experience God more fully, that God gives us these laws.  The laws in and of themselves… they’re not the end, they’re not the goal, they’re not the purpose.  The purpose is God’s love, and the laws themselves are just tools to help us realize and experience it.

So what’s happened here this morning, and what happens in all the instances where Jesus heals on the Sabbath, and people complain and object, is that they have mistaken the laws for the end and the goal.  Jesus tells us in Mark’s version of that story of the man with the withered hand,

“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)

The Sabbath is a gift to us.  It was a gift to the people of Israel who’d escaped Egypt where they were told to make bricks without straw and didn’t have any time to rest, to pray, to worship, just to be.  The Sabbath sets us free, just like all of God’s commandments set us free from the things that would bind us, and tear us away from God.

Jesus’s mission is to set us free.  We know that because in the fourth chapter of Luke, when he returns from his temptation in the wilderness, he quotes the prophets and says, “I have come to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, to set the captives free, to give sight to the blind.”   God’s goal, Jesus’s mission, is to liberate us and set us free so that we can live fully into the relationship with God that God offers us.  Love, grace, and mercy, come first.

Now Jesus recognizes that even the leader of the synagogue, and the people whom he’s chastising in this moment, know that that’s the truth.  He says, look, if any of you have an ox or a donkey, on the Sabbath you untie it and you take it to drink.  You show that level of grace and mercy to your animals, when it’s convenient to you.  But here in this case, there is a person, a woman standing in front of you who has suffered for 18 years…  Why is it that you are willing to deny that same grace and mercy to her?   Why is it, that when it’s not convenient to you, the letter of the law is more important than the spirit of the law.

Jesus, I think this morning, is offering us a caution and calling us to account.  When we pass and enforce laws that don’t set people free; that don’t offer them life, and love, and grace, then we have made the law an end and a goal in and of itself.  And we’ve forgotten that all of those laws need to spring from God’s love.

I think that we need to think deeply about this moment in Luke’s Gospel, especially when we consider the fact that of all the nations on the earth, we have the highest incarceration rate per capita of any of them.  We have more people in prison now than any other country in the world.  So how is it that the laws that we have passed, the laws that we have embraced, find at their core, in their center, love, and Grace, and mercy?  Something is wrong.

And we know that the laws that we do have are not applied consistently.  We know that there are populations in our midst who suffer at the hands of the laws that we have passed, who don’t receive grace and mercy at the same rates that others do.  The differential of incarceration rates between African-Americans and others in this state is astounding; almost 4 to 1, and nationally 3 to 1.  If Jesus were here this morning he might be standing in the space and calling us hypocrites.

The good news in all of this is that Jesus is here calling us to account.  Jesus is here because God loves us, to remind us of who we are and whose we are, to remind us of the function that law serves in our society and in our communities, and to remind us that the law needs to be designed to set if we are free.  If we are free, we need to work to make sure that others are as well.

Jesus is here this morning because God loves us and wants us to be free; pointing out that we need to apply justice, and grace, and mercy, evenly across all populations.  This wasn’t news to the people that Jesus was speaking to.  The prophet Micah says to the people in his community, why do you bring these gifts to the altar, and burn incense?  God hasn’t asked you for those things. But God has told you what is good

“…to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”  (Micah 6:8b)

Those words are ringing out to us today across the centuries.  And Jesus is standing in our midst calling us to account,  and offering us the chance to turn, and to share with others the gift of freedom that we ourselves enjoy.  Because the truth is, that unless we are all free, none of us are free.  And if we would be whole, our neighbor must be whole.  If we would stand in God’s light and love, without fearing the shadows on the periphery, then we need to know that everyone is standing in the same light in which we stand.  Jesus is here today because God loves us and is calling us to return, to remember who we are and whose we are.

Amen.

Enough of your thoughts and prayers, do something!

This sermon, by the Rev. Andy Jones, was offered at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin, on August 11, 2019 at the 9:30 service.  It is based on the readings assigned for Proper 14 in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

 

Here is a recording of the sermon

 

And a transcript of the recording

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts, be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer.

Please be seated.

Every week, when the preacher stands in this spot, or stands there in the pulpit, it’s their job to interpret the Scriptures and to interpret the world around us, through the lens of those texts that we call authoritative.  It’s the preacher’s job to break open the text; to give some sense of what was happening where and when they were written; and then to relate those texts to our lives today; and look for God’s word speaking to us through those words of our Bible.  Now sometimes it’s really hard to make those connections. People living 2000, 3000 years ago had a different understanding of the world around them and how the world worked. Their context was very different from ours.  And so sometimes it’s really difficult to relate the things that they were saying and doing to what we say and do today.  Other times those connections are so blatant and so clear that they’re just unmistakable.  Now you would think those would be the easy moments to preach, but that’s not always the case, and it’s definitely not the case today.  The connection between our lives today and our Scripture is so clear that we’re forced to address them, even though we spend an awful lot of time trying to avoid them.  I’ve been up since 2:30 this morning trying to think of a clever way into this, a clever way to bring the Scriptures around to us, and to start the Scriptures, but I just can’t do it.  The only place to start is with us here and now.

It’s been a really difficult couple of weeks. The pain and to which we’ve been exposed; the pain that we’ve seen in El Paso and in Dayton, and in those chicken processing plants and in the communities where they are planted…  that pain is real and deep; part of an ongoing malaise that affects us… that affects us deeply; that affects us at parts of our being that are so deep and fundamental that they keep us awake at night.  They hurt us deeply, and we don’t know what to do.  We don’t know how to make a difference.  We know that those things are happening.  We know that they are there. And then we walk into church this morning and we hear the words of Isaiah, a prophet, the son of Amoz, speaking for God he says to us,

“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;

cease to do evil,
learn to do good;

seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,

defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.”

(Isaiah 1:16,17)

the connection between Isaiah’s world, there in the middle of the fifth century BC, and our world today is so clear that we can’t avoid it.  God says to the people of Judah as he makes these statements to them,

“When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;

even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.”

(Isaiah 1:15)

It’s like God is saying, “Enough of your thoughts and prayers, do something!”

God is calling us this morning to do something!

the problem is it so hard to know what to do.  The problems are so deep, and so entrenched; they seem to be built into the very DNA of this country.  They drive us to despair and they drive us to ruin.

At the end of the prophecy God says,

“…if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be devoured by the sword;”

(Isaiah 1: 20)

If you think about it for a minute, think about those children along our southern border, think about those children who live in the towns where their families have been called to work in chicken processing plants, think about the people whose lives have been deeply scarred; and you’ll know where the next violent acts will come from.

The more we contribute to this destructive cycle, the more we participate in it, the more we turn our backs and let it go, the deeper the spiral goes, and the more entrenched in violence our society will become.  God doesn’t need to threaten to punish us God’s self. we are sowing the seeds of our own destruction by our complacency and our failure to act.

Isaiah does hold out hope for us.  God says, “Come let us reason this out.  Let us argue it out.”  Even though our sins are scarlet and red, they can become clean like wool.  There is the opportunity for us to remedy things and to reconcile with our neighbor, and with those on our borders, and on the margins; with one another, and with God.

“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;

cease to do evil,
learn to do good;

seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,

defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.”

(Isaiah 1:6,7)

Those are the values that need to drive our political and our social life.  Those are the values that pervade all of our Scripture; love the Lord your God with all your heart soul mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.  Defend the widow and the orphan.   Feed the hungry.  Clothe the naked.  Visit those who are in prison and the sick.  God calls us to love one another.

So what are we to do in the face of these problems that seem so insurmountable and so intractable.  The place to start is right here at home; to love our neighbors, to hold out our hand, to clothe the naked, and to feed the poor, right here in Madison. But that’s not enough. God is speaking to the whole nation of Judah, not to individuals but to a whole nation whose identity and life is at stake.  And here in this moment God is speaking to us as a people, and as a nation.  So we need to talk to the people who we have elected to represent us.  If our Christian values are not being upheld and supported by the people who have the power to change the policies and to write the laws that defend the poor, the widow and the orphan; to unite families to make them stronger; to lift people out of poverty and out of the darkness; if they’re not doing those things and we need to let them know that we are not happy with the job that they are doing.  And if they won’t represent our values, then we need to make sure that we carry those values into the voting booth with us.

This isn’t a matter of politics.  This is a matter of ethics.  This is a matter of love.  This is a matter of theology.  It is our Christian vocation and calling to support the least among us, and the way that we do that in a system like the one that we have is to elect people who will do those very things on our behalf.

This morning the connections are easy to see.  Isaiah the son of Amoz, speaking in the middle of the fifth century, is speaking to us in a way that we can avoid or ignore.  So we have to speak of these things that are difficult.  We need to speak of them perhaps in places where we ordinarily would not.  But we need to speak.  All over this country bishops in the Episcopal Church and leaders of other traditions are standing up.  Bishop Marianne Edgar Budde, of the diocese of Washington DC, was part of a group at the national Cathedral that wrote a letter in response to some language that was uttered about the place that I was born, Baltimore Maryland.  And in an interview after that letter she said that she believes, that if the church would stand united with one voice, things could change.  If the church would stand united with one voice things would change.  We are the body that is called to speak with this moral imperative, and we need to stand, and we need to speak; to our neighbors, to our siblings, and our children, and our parents; to the people with whom we work, to the people whom we send to the state capital and to Washington DC to represent us.  We need to stand as the church and speak God’s word the same way that Isaiah son of Amoz is speaking it to us this morning.

Amen.

Wrestling With Our Questions: A Reflection for Palm Sunday 2019

This reflection, offered by the Rev. Andy Jones at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin, on April 14, 2019, is built around the Gospel reading for the Liturgy of the Palms and the Passion Narrative assigned for Year C in the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here

The reflection was offered just prior to the reading of the Passion.

Here is an audio recording of the reflection as offered at the 10:30 service

 

And the text from which the reflection was offered

This is a strange and difficult day.

It wasn’t that long ago that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and the crowds started turning to him in huge numbers.  So many people were believing in, and following him, that the authorities put a price on his head and he had to move north to avoid being arrested.

But now he is back.  He’s come south, from Ephraim to Bethany, to the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and today he’s riding over the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem!

Those of us who have been following him are so excited that we have thrown our cloaks and palm branches on the road before him and we have declared him our King,

            “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!”

A triumphant entry into the city where God resides among God’s people.  A parade, with singing and shouting, a moment of joy and celebration!

But in just a few moments it will all take a dark turn.  Betrayed by one of his own, Jesus will stand before Pilate and the elders of the people on trial; and in that moment of decision, as the whole world holds its breath to listen… we will join our voices with the crowd and call for his crucifixion, sending him to the cross.

It is a terrible thing to see these moments juxtaposed, one right after the other.  And if we are paying attention to what is happening, if we are present in this moment, it will shake us to our core, raising some very difficult and profound questions.

But then that is what this day, this liturgy, is meant, is designed to do; to shake us to our core, and to raise the very difficult and profound questions with which we will wrestle for the remainder of our Lenten journey.

 

In what ways have we chosen the politically expedient, the path of least resistance, the safety of quiet complacency or denial, and allowed Jesus, the Good News of God in Christ, Love come down, to be cursed, spat upon, and beaten, because the cost of standing by his side was too high?

In what ways have we turned our backs, pretending not to see, as Jesus and all that he stands for is, in the name of security, preservation of the status quo, profit, and Empire… nailed to a tree just outside of town?

Week after week we proclaim him and renew our commitment to follow where he leads.  But today, today we hang him on a tree.

 

If we are paying attention to what is happening, if we are truly present in this moment, it will shake us to our core, raising some very difficult and profound questions; questions with which we will wrestle for the remainder of our Lenten Journey, and perhaps, beyond.

These are the questions which this day, this liturgy, is designed, is meant, to make us ask.

 

At the conclusion of the Passion reading this morning, we will not recite the creed, proclaiming our faith, because at that moment we may not be sure what we believe.

We will not pray for the whole state of Christ’s Church and the world, because, as Jesus hangs on a tree, we may not be sure that we have standing to plead before God on our own behalf or on behalf of others.

We will not confess sour sins and hear the words of absolution, because awareness of those sins may be too fresh, to immediate, for us to effectively, and genuinely seek forgiveness.

And to be absolved today, might let us off the hook for the rest of the week.

At the conclusion of the Passion reading this morning, we will spend some time in silence, and then we will move to the Eucharist, the sacrament that Jesus institutes at the beginning of today’s reading of the passion.

We will be fed.  We will be offered some comfort and reassurance of God’s love.

And then we will be sent out, to wrestle with our questions.

Come back later this week.

Bring your questions on Maundy Thursday and marvel that Jesus is washing your feet.

Bring your questions on Good Friday in answer to the question – “Where you there?

And then join us on Saturday night and on Sunday morning as we gather once again, to hear God’s answer to our questions.

We Are Already Perishing: A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent 2019

This sermon, offered by The Rev. Andy Jones at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin, is built around the readings for the Third Sunday in Lent in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

Here is a recording of the sermon at the 10:30 service

Here is a transcript of the recording

O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you; *
my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you,
as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.

Therefore I have gazed upon you in your holy place, *
that I might behold your power and your glory.

                                                                                     Psalm 68:1-2

Amen.

Please be seated.

We come here this morning with deeply troubled and questioning hearts.

And we’re here because we have heard that Jesus’s disciples are going to ask him about the people lost when the Tower of Siloam fell, and about those whose blood Pilot spilled in the temple in Jerusalem.

We’re here on this day because we ourselves have been bombarded with more bad news than we can bear.  Most recently, we’ve heard of a cyclone in Africa that has left a huge inland sea in a place where people once lived.  And we too have heard of blood spilled in a temple, this time in Christchurch, New Zealand.

If Jesus is going to be addressing events like these, then, we certainly need to be here!

Where else would we go?

Sudden tragedies like these, any loss at all, remind us of the fragility of our lives, of our own mortality.  And they can fill us with dread and anxiety.  And they raise some really uncomfortable questions.

How can a loving God allow such things to happen?

How can God allow these unspeakable injustices to persist?

Those are deeply troubling questions that we have wrestled with ever since we became aware of that presence outside of ourselves, the source and ground of our being, that is God.  And it would seem that the folks gathered here around Jesus this morning have defaulted to a comfortable answer.  A comfortable answer that is as old as the question itself…

“The people to whom these things happened… the people upon whom the tower fell, the people who died in the temple, somehow they must have deserved it.  They must have earned what happened to them.  You see… God is just and good.  Don’t blame God for what happened.  Those people got what was coming to them.”

That’s how the disciples arrived that morning.  But Jesus is having none of that!

This whole exchange reminds me of this illustration that keeps showing up in my Facebook feed. It often has different texts, different word bubbles.  But this one has a very handsome, long haired Jesus, sitting on a park with a young man, who is well dressed, and they’re in conversation.  In this particular version the young man says, “You know I have always wanted to ask you why it is that you allow suffering: hunger, poverty, homelessness, disease, to persist in the world.”   Jesus looks at him and says, “You know that’s really funny.  I was going to ask you the same thing.”

Jesus says to the people who are gathered here this morning with him,

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you;”

that’s not how it works…

“but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

The question of Theodicy, how is it that a loving God allows suffering to persist in the world, is not a question that Jesus is interested in dealing with this morning.  That may be the question that we came to ask, but he has now turned the tables, aiming that question squarely at us!

In New Zealand it took two days for the government to start talking about banning military style assault weapons.  And six days later they were announcing a ban and starting a buy back program.

In this country, after the horrific tragedy at Sandy Hook, a huge majority of people favored new laws, closing and the gun show loophole, and stepping up our background check programs.  And our elected representatives ignored our voices, and voted those laws down!

We have elected representatives in this country who use fear to blunt our reason.

They use thinly veiled hate speech to paint others as our enemies, and then, when someone acts out against the enemies that they have devised to keep us divided, they pretend that they are surprised.

They deprive our LGBTQ brothers and sisters of their basic human rights and dignity, depicting them as less than human, and then they twist our Holy Scriptures and use them to justify their bigotry and hatred.

Right here at home, for several years, study after study, nationally published studies, tell us that Dane County, not Milwaukee, not Birmingham, not Montgomery, not Selma, but Dane County; right here where we live, is the worst place in the country to raise African American children!

We have known this for years…  And we, who have promised to “Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves…”  We, who have promised to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being…” we still struggle to believe those reports and to work to end

                        The evil we have done

The evil that enslaves us

And the Evil done on our behalf.

It’s scary.  It’s convicting, to think that we allow these evils to continue because we are complacent, tired, inattentive, afraid, because we feel powerless.  But you have to ask yourself what agenda is really being served here?  And what is it that’s so important…  What perceived slight or wrong is so egregious that we would fail to speak up; fail to stand up for those who are being injured, diminished, demonized, and oppressed?

Why haven’t we demanded the changes that are needed in order for us to live in peace and love, to live in a world defined by who it is that we claim to be?  Why haven’t we made sure that the people whom we elect to lead us are moving our society towards the fulfillment of God’s dream for all of God’s children?  It’s even scarier to wonder if we are perhaps allowing these evils to continue, even perpetuating them ourselves, because we somehow profit or benefit from them?

Could it be that we are allowing these evils to persist to protect our own privilege, our own power, our own wealth, status, and rank?  Could it be that we are allowing them to continue because we don’t really believe in God’s abundance, and if someone else gets theirs we might not get ours?  Those are scary questions to contemplate because they cut right to the very core of who we are!  But those are the questions that Jesus won’t let us to duck this morning.

We come here today wanting to know, trying to make sense of the presence of suffering in the world.   “How can a loving God allow such pain, injustice, and horror to exist?

And Jesus looks us straight in the eyes and asks us why we, not God, not “they,” not someone else, but we…  Why are we allowing these evils to persist?

And then, as if that weren’t bad enough…  Jesus tells us that if we don’t repent of these evils, we will perish just like the people in the temple whose blood was mixed with their sacrifices!

What does that mean?  How can that be?  Is a tower going to fall on us?  Do we need to lock the doors to the church and place armed guards on the front porch?

This should sound familiar to you…

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

“German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller wrote this poem about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power and the subsequent incremental purging of their chosen targets, group after group.” 1

And given all of that, and all that we’ve thought about this morning, it’s not hard to imagine that these evils persist, they will, eventually, get around to focusing their attention on us, and that we too, might perish.

But it is worse than that…  It’s worse than that.

If we are perpetuating these evils, if we are allowing them to persist because we are complacent, tired, inattentive, or afraid… Or even worse, because they somehow benefit us, because they prop us up… and because we are afraid that we might lose something if they are challenged and stopped… then my brothers and sisters we are already perishing!

O God, you are our God; eagerly we seek you; *
our souls thirst for you, our flesh faints for you,
as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.

If we are allowing these evils to persist, we are cutting ourselves off from the very ground, source, and being of our lives…

If we find ourselves in this position we will forever have to hide behind the bushes and separate ourselves from God for fear that we will be found out.  If that’s what’s happening… we are already perishing.

The good news in today’s gospel is first, and may not feel like such great news right now, Jesus isn’t letting us off the hook!  He’s here this morning calling us out, making sure that we’re paying attention, asking us hard and difficult questions, so that we can grapple with the truths of our own lives the lives of the people around us.

He’s also here, and this may not sound like great news either, pilling manure on us, asking for more time, tending to us here in the vineyard, nurturing, pruning, shaping, so that we can begin to bear good fruit.

In all of this Jesus is our advocate, our companion, our teacher, and our friend.  And in all of this he is giving us the opportunity to repent and to cease to perish.

Amen.

1  “First they came …”  From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

 

A Fox in the Henhouse: A sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent

This sermon, offered by The Rev. Andy Jones at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin, on March 17, 2019, is built around the readings for the Second Sunday in Lent in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here

A recording of the sermon delivered at the 10:30 service:

Here is a transcript of the recording:

Sometimes a preacher wakes up in the middle of the night on Sunday morning, and something comes to them that changes everything they’ve been thinking for the past week.  Sometimes that thing comes later in the morning when they get up and open the news sites on their computer, just to check, and they discover that what they’ve been doing all week is writing a sermon no longer works.

Those are terrifying moments.  But my experience this week was very different.  All week long I thought about a sermon. I took notes. I jotted things down.  And then on Thursday, when I actually set about to write, something about those words felt very familiar.  So, I went back and looked, and sure enough, I was writing the same sermon that I wrote about this passage six years ago, in Lent of 2013.  Now, while those middle of the night moments are pretty terrifying, you would think that discovering that I was re writing a sermon that I already knew really well would be a happy moment… but it was kind of terrifying for me to discover that that sermon still applies today, six years later.

I have adjusted this sermon a little bit to account for the fact that I have now been to Jerusalem and stood in the place where this morning’s story happened.  But hear again, a sermon that was written in February of 2013.

 

Jesus said that he longed to gather the children of Israel under his wings like a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings…  Is Jesus really talking about… chickens?

I grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC…  Not a lot of contact with chickens there so I don’t know a lot about them, but the little bit that I do know got me in trouble one time.   The summer after I graduated from college, I was with a bunch of coworkers in central Pennsylvania who were sure that I was a “city kid,” and having worked all summer to dispel that idea I blew it when around the corner of a building came the first flock of live chickens I had ever seen.  I stood there transfixed, and when they asked me what was going on, I confessed that I was trying to figure out where the drumstick was…   A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing!

Now, I don’t know a lot about chickens but I do have a pretty good idea of what happens when a fox gets into the henhouse.  a Fox in the henhouse means panic, voices raised in terror and pain.  A fox in the henhouse means the sound of running feet, carnage, blood, death.

And when a fox enters the henhouse, there is nothing a Mother Hen can do but rush to her chicks defense, sacrificing herself to save them from the jaws of the destroyer.

In today’s Gospel Jesus is responding to a group of Pharisees who’ve come to tell him that Herod wants him dead.  And Jesus’s response to that threat, the threat from Herod the fox, is surprisingly dismissive.  He doesn’t seem to be worried about his own life at all.  And the language that he uses, the pictures that he invokes, his cry of lament over the children of Israel, shift our attention, and tell us that there is a greater threat here than the one posed by Herod.

Jesus is pointing out that the children of Israel have a choice to make and that they have, for a long time, chosen to follow not the loving mother hen, but the fox!

Herod Antipas, the fox who wants to kill Jesus, rules Galilee as a client state of Rome.  He is a traitor, a collaborator, a participant in the oppression of his own people.  He is also the son of Herod the “Great.”  It was Herod the “Great” who had the innocents slaughtered in an attempt to eradicate the newly born King of the Jews that the Magi were seeking.  Herod the “Great” had his own children executed for fear that they were plotting to steal his throne.  So, Herod Antipas came from a long line of people willing to do anything, including killing their own chicks and the chick of others to maintain their hold on status, rank, privilege and power.  You would think that a threat from this man would be enough to grab the attention of an itinerant preacher as he makes his way through Herod’s domain, and yet even here, with his life threatened by the “fox,” Jesus keeps himself focused on a larger concern.  When Jesus refers to himself as a mother hen, and laments the history of Jerusalem as “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (Luke 13:34), we realize that the “fox” he is referring to is something bigger than Herod Antipas, first century Palestinian Jew.

Jesus is really, is really talking about an understanding of the world and it’s power structures that stand in opposition to the vision, the dream of God for all creation.  The “fox” in this parable represents our tendency to take what we need, to subjugate others to our agenda, to marginalize and to ride roughshod over the poor, the weak, and anyone else who doesn’t have or can’t wield the power that we think we have and deserve.  Jesus is telling us that the “fox” is already in the henhouse and that there is a choice to be made.  Are we going to align ourselves with the fox, in the hopes that we might be spared by the preservation of the status quo; that we might be allowed to continue to run our own little corner of the henhouse; or are we going to cast our lot in with the mother hen, who has been trying for so long to gather us under her wings and shelter us from the power that would destroy us?

There is a choice to be made and, given the choice between a fox and a Mother Hen, the fox at first blush, might seem like a better choice.  On the surface the Fox seems more powerful and attractive.  The Fox offers perks and benefits, privilege and status, rank and recognition.  The Fox would seem better equipped to defend itself and to defend us.  Surely we can cultivate and tame the fox’s rage and penchant for blood, using it to our own benefit.

But there is this little problem with putting the Fox in charge of the henhouse.  The Fox has a tendency to sneak in when no one else is looking, in the dead of the night, seeking to slake its hunger.  And when we finally wake up and take stock, we will see that some of us are missing, or injured, trampled into the hard scrabble of the henhouse floor by the Fox’s destructive rampage.  Once we have let the fox into the henhouse there is just no telling who might be deemed disposable, be discarded, be left out, or even go missing altogether.  Yes, the fox is powerful, but in the end, no one is safe when there is a fox in the henhouse.

Standing here this morning, the slope of the Mount of Olives at our back, the ground before us falling away to the Kidron Valley, the Garden of Gesthemane down there at the foot of the hill, and the Temple Mount rising before us across the valley, the slope is covered with graves.  The people of Israel have chosen the hill that is the Mount of Olives for a public cemetery.  And in that rocky and steep soil, burials are above ground in stone crypts.  And standing there you can see that the hillside is littered with the graves of the children of Jerusalem.

Right at our back is a Franciscan chapel called Dominus Flevit, which means “the Lord has wept.”  And on the chapel altar is a mosaic, a picture of a mother hen with her wings spread wide, trying her best to look as ferocious as a mother and can look, with her chicks gathered up under her wings.

Here in this place Jesus is telling us your house is “left to you,” another way of telling us that our henhouse is left desolate, because we have refused to shelter in the shadow of the wings of the mother hen.  Why are we so unwilling to turn our backs on the fox and cast our lot with the love of the Mother Hen?

It’s a frightening thing to reject the fox.  It is even more frightening to step into the shadow of the Mother Hen’s wings because, as Jesus is pointing out when he shifts the definition of “fox” away from Herod and towards a view of the systems and structures that dominate and shape our lives, the choice we make will ultimately define the way that we live together, and who we are.

In an article published by the Christian Century in 1985 Barbara Brown Taylor, one of the Episcopal Church’s most gifted and treasured preachers asked,

“If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world –wings spread, breast exposed — but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.”

Now I said that in this passage, Barbara Brown Taylor asks a question.  But you may have noticed that the end of that quotation there was a period and not a question mark.  But you know… today’s Gospel reading didn’t end with a question mark, and there’s still a question there.  It’s implicit in the clear distinction between two ways of seeing, being, and living in the world.

Jesus is asking us to turn away from the way of the fox; to stop participating in structures that oppress, crush and destroy; to recognize that the fox under whose standard we are gathered, will not recognize our past loyalty and support, but will destroy as all without regard or distinction.

Jesus is asking us to take courage from his example; to have faith in God’s love and promise; and to stand, as he did, wings spread, breast exposed, and to gather his children under our wings; to fly at the fox in defense of the weak and the poor the widow and the orphan, the forgotten stranger, the marginalized, the other…

Jesus is asking us to gather under the shadow of his wings and to let him rescue our humanity from the hard scrabble of the henhouse floor.

Amen.