God’s Resounding Yes: A Sermon for Easter Day 2013

This sermon, preached at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin on Easter Day 2013, is built around the readings for Easter Day in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

I wonder when it happens…  when our response to the world around us becomes fixed… when the way we respond to the world around us begins to gel, to set, to harden…

I am sure that there are folks among us this morning who have studied this, who can tell us how the stress that our mothers endure affects us in the womb, how the birth experience shapes us, how the way that our early needs are met defines how we will trust, or not trust, the people and the world around us.  I know that all of these things impact our responses to the people and events in our lives.  I know that our outlook on the world is impacted and shaped by more variables than we can count and that we are all unique and wonderful individuals in or own right.

But this morning I am concerned with something that seems to be pretty universal, part of the human condition, something that we recognize in ourselves, that we know we would be better off without, and that is so hard to overcome that we will spend our entire lives struggling against it.

I believe that this tragedy begins when we are very young, during that awful period known to parents as the terrible twos.

Yup!  That’s when it happens.  The terrible twos… when we develop our obsession with the word “No!”

“No!”  it feels so powerful.  It startles the people around us, causes them to pause.  It even makes them a little uncomfortable.  And when we say it often enough we can cause quite a stir.  Everyone else seems to be saying it all of the time.  It seems like everywhere we go, every time we reach out to try something new, every time we experiment with the freedom we are beginning to feel, people are shouting it at us… “No!  Don’t touch that!  No! Don’t do that!  No! Don’t go there…”  This must be how the world works.  And if you are going to keep saying “no” to me then I am going to say “no” right back at ya!”

It happens so early.  We don’t yet have the resources or the sophistication to recognize what is happening to us.  And before we know it… It’s too late.  “No” becomes a habituated response.  It becomes familiar, predictable.  It is what we know…

So we are really ill prepared to defend ourselves from the “no” that surrounds us when our circle becomes larger and we fall under the influence and spell of the larger world.

“Can I join you?”

“No!  You don’t look like us!”

 

“Can I try this?”

“No!  You will just fail anyway!”

 

“Can I go there?”

“No!  You’ll just get into trouble!”

 

“Can I have some of that?”

“No!  There isn’t enough to go around, and you haven’t earned it yet!”

 

“But aren’t I important?”

“Are you kidding?  Who are you?  No!”

 

“Am I not then worth loving?”

“No!  Not until you measure up and give me what I want…  No!”

“No” rains down on us from people we trust, people we respect, even people we love.  So we don’t even recognize the fact that “No” is the tool that Madison Avenue uses to sell us their soap, “No you aren’t quite acceptable…  But if you buy what we are selling you will be just fine…”

We don’t recognize what is happening when “No” and the threat of “no” are what the powers that be use to keep us in line.  “No!  But you shouldn’t be complaining…  I am just protecting you from their bigger and even more oppressive ‘no.’  You should count your lucky stars that you only have to endure the ‘no’ that I am offering!”

Two thousand years ago, there was another word spoken.  It was spoken very quietly, by a young girl, who whispered the word in response to and unlikely and seemingly impossible request.

The word grew a little louder when, in a city that was lining up to be counted, cataloged and taxed by a foreign occupying power, a child was born in the lowest of all places.

This word grew in volume as an itinerate preacher began to wander the countryside, speaking primarily to those upon whom the world’s “no” had wreaked the greatest damage

It reached a crescendo as this word began to challenge the “no” in very public and threatening ways…

Jesus, Emmanuel, God among us, is God’s Word; God’s resounding “Yes” uttered, spoken into being, and proclaimed, in the face of the world’s “no.”

“Yes!  You can join us!  You don’t even need to ask.  Because you are already a part of us!”

 

“Yes!  You can try that!  And if it doesn’t work out…  we will find something else… together!

 

“Yes!  You can go there!  And I will go with you on your journey!”

 

“Yes!  You can have some of this!  There is way more than enough to go around!”

 

Yes!  You are important!  You are precious in my sight and there is no other like you!”

 

“Yes!  You are worth loving!  And I have loved you even before you were able to love me in return!”

Can you feel it?  It’s palpable!  God’s “Yes.”  Something like that could change the world!

It could… but the “no” doesn’t give up easily.  In fact, the “no” has such a deep hold on us that, as attractive as the “yes” may be… we find ourselves backing away, distrusting the very thing we long for, yet find so hard to imagine.

God whispers yes to a young girl named Mary.

God says yes in a lowly stable in Bethlehem.

God walks the dusty roads of Palestine saying yes, yes, yes!

But we turn away from the Word of God and cry “No!” as we nail him to a tree.

That “no” is still ringing in Mary’s ears as she approaches the tomb this morning.   It is screaming at the disciple Jesus loved and at Peter as they run to see what has happened.  That “no” is so loud and strong that Mary, weeping at the tomb after Peter and the other disciple have left, doesn’t recognize the voice, the Word, when it begins to speak to her again.

Then something incredible happens.  The Word, God’s “yes” calls to her by name…  Mary…  Yes!

It’s hard.  The “No” has not gone away, has not completely loosed its grip on us.  That voice is still ringing, screaming in our ears.  Sometimes the “no” even finds voice on our own lips.

It is our longing that brings us here: our longing for a different voice, and different word, a yes that might just change us and change the world; a yes that will proclaim that love is more powerful than death.

The “no” will never silence the yearning.  And this morning, as we stand weeping at the tomb… we hear it again.  That still small voice, whispering to us… calling us by name… and saying, “Yes!”

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

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Remember Who You Are. Remember Whose You Are: A Sermon for the Great Vigil of Easter

This is an icon depicting Saint Andrew.  It was reproduced for us by a local icon writer and I have a box full of them in my office.

I keep a supply of these on hand because every spring, when members of our congregation graduate from High School and prepare to go off to college, we acknowledge their accomplishments, congratulate them and their parents for the work that they have done, and send them out into the world, to new adventures and experiences, with our blessings and our prayers, and we give them one of these icons.

I don’t know how many of you have been in that place, of sending someone you love off into the world, but as someone who has a son leaving for college this year, I know that I want to send him off with something more than blessings and prayers…

I want to send him off with some very clear instruction to help him navigate the path that lies before him and to keep him out of trouble!

So this year, the words that I always write on the back of these icons when we give them to our graduating seniors seem especially poignant to me and I know that my hands will be shaking when I write them on the icon that Suzanne and I will hand to Jacob this year.

Remember “who” you are.

Remember “whose” you are.”

Remember who you are…  When we send Jacob out into the world we will want him to remember all of the things that we have taught him.  We want him to remember the things that we have learned together, through trial and error, and through common experience.  We want him to remember us and the times that we have laughed, cried, and loved together.  Remember who you are…  We want him to remember the things that have shaped and formed his identity as a part of our family and as a part of the community that defines our common life.

Remember whose you are…  We will want him to remember that he is loved beyond measure.  That no matter how far from home he travels we are still bound to one another by our common history, by our common origin, and by a love which can never be stretched beyond the breaking point.  Remember whose you are…  Remember that you are ours, you are mine.  And always remember that we, that I am yours.

So that’s pretty close, pretty personal isn’t it?  And it is one thing for me to be writing those words, words that carry all of that subtext and meaning, to my own son.  It is another thing for me to be writing them to other people’s kids…   Interesting isn’t it?  That for as long as I have been writing those love notes on the backs of those icons… no one has ever complained.

I, and at this moment I am going to dare to say “we,” write those love notes on the backs of these icons and give them to our children because we hope that these words will become icons in and of themselves.  We hope that they will open a window on a fundamental truth that has the power to help us all navigate our way through life and to keep us in communion with one another and with God.

That truth is that:  We are called to remember…  who we are, and whose we are…  And we are called to remember together, in conversation as families, as communities of faith and hope,  and as the people of God.

We are called to remember together, in conversation…

We have these conversations spontaneously during special moments, at marker events in our lives; we have these conversations when the family has gathered for a holiday, for a birth, a wedding or a funeral.  We have these conversations around the dinner table, sharing a meal, telling stories around the fireplace or around campfires in the dark.

In these moments the stories seem to well up with in us, flowing naturally, coming from a place deep within, from our core sense of what is important and what we love.

In these moments the stories seem remarkably “present,” real, and true.  In these special moments the stories cease to be about people and places, moments and events in our past.  They become the story of who we are here and now.  In a wonderful and powerful way they tell our history, and at the same time define our present, and shape our hopes for the future.  The stories, even if they are about people who came long before us, become our story, our reality, our truth.

We shared a marvelous example of the power of story just this past week.  On Maundy Thursday we gathered for the twelfth time as a parish to experience our spiritual heritage and roots by participating in a Seder meal.  During the course of that powerful ritual we heard the story of the Exodus, the Passover, and the flight from Egypt.  We remembered God’s deliverance of the people at the Red Sea, his giving of the Law at Mount Sinai, and the giving of the Temple as a place where God’s presence would reside in the world.

We rehearsed and gave thanks for a people’s history, their combined experience and shared heritage, and then we prayed this blessing:

In every generation each one ought to regard himself as though he had personally come out of Egypt, as it is written:  “And on that day you will explain to your children, “This is what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.'”  (Exodus 13:8)  It was not only our ancestors whom the Holy One, praised be He, redeemed from slavery, but us also did He redeem.  Therefore it is our duty to thank, praise, laud, extol, bless, exalt and adore Him who did all of these wonders for our ancestors and for ourselves.  He has brought us forth from slavery to freedom, from sorrow to joy, from mourning to festive day, from darkness to a great light, and from bondage to redemption.  Let us then sing before Him a new song.

Regard yourself as though you had personally come out of Egypt.  It was not only our ancestors, but us also…

Remember who you are.  Remember whose you are…  Remembering is integral to our identity, to who we are, and it is an essential part of whose we are.

Every Sunday we gather in his place and we read from our sacred scripture, from our history, from our story.  And every Sunday we claim those stories as our own.  We remember or perhaps more precisely, we recollect them.  They are not stories about people long ago and far, far away.  They are stories about us; about our hopes and dreams; about our successes and failures, about our faithfulness and our infidelities.  And they are above all stories about our relationship, our walk, with the God who continually creates, redeems, and sustains us, who loves us beyond all measure, who never ceases to call us into covenant, and who is faithful even when we are not.  They are stories that are both humbling and uplifting.  Stories that tell the truth about who we are and that give us hope because of whose we are.

This is the night, when our Lenten observance is ended, when we gather around the font, the water of baptism that binds us and makes us the church and we reaffirm our commitment to Christ, to the church, and to one another as we tell our story and remember who we are and whose we are.

And so we sing…

It is truly right and good, always and everywhere, with our whole heart and mind and voice, to praise you, the invisible, almighty, and eternal God, and your only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord; for he is the true Paschal Lamb, who at the feast of the Passover paid for us the debt of Adam’s sin, and by his blood delivered your faithful people.

This is the night, when you brought our fathers, the children of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt, and led them through the Red Sea on dry land.

This is the night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin, and are restored to grace and holiness of life.

This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell,  and rose victorious from the grave.

How wonderful and beyond our knowing, O God, is your mercy and loving-kindness to us, that to redeem a slave, you gave a Son.

How holy is this night, when wickedness is put to flight, and sin is washed away. It restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn. It casts out pride and hatred, and brings peace and concord.

How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and man is reconciled to God.

Holy Father, accept our evening sacrifice, the offering of this candle in your honor. May it shine continually to drive away all darkness. May Christ, the Morning Star who knows no setting, find it ever burning–he who gives his light to all creation, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen            (The Exultet BCP p. 286-287).

This is What God’s Law, God’s Justice Look Like: A Sermon for Good Friday 2013

This sermon, preached at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Good Friday, March 29th 2013, is based on the readings for Good Friday in the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

There is a dream that we cling to, one that we long to see come to fruition, a dream so powerful and life giving that we have pursued it for as long as we can remember.  That dream goes something like this”

“The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea”
(Isaiah 11:6-9).

We long for a world where all things, all people live in harmony, where peace reigns and where God is always present.  But it is important to remember that this dream, this vision does not originate with us.

This is God’s dream, God’s vision for creation, for all of humankind and for all things.  God, the one who spoke all things into being; God, who created order from the void, the chaos; God who gives light, life, and meaning to all things; this dream, this vision of the created order comes from the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

This is God’s wish for us.

“They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea”

And to that end…

“from the primal elements God brought the human race, and blessed us with memory reason and skill.  God made us the rulers of creation.  But we turned against God, and betrayed God’s trust, and we turned against one another…  Again and again God called us to return.  Through prophets and sages God revealed God’s righteous law” (BCP p. 370).

But we are a stiff necked and rebellious people.  Again and again we put our own needs, our own desires ahead of God’s dream and ahead of the neighbors we have been called to love.  Our need to be “first,” to be in control leads us to exploit the people around us as we seek our own benefit, the advancement of our own agenda and needs, as we seek what looks and feels to this world like power.

“And so, in the fullness of time God sent God’s only Son, born of a woman, to fulfill God’s righteous law, to open for us the way of freedom and peace” (BCP p. 370)

But…

“He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:10,11).

And so…

“For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried” (The Nicene Creed).

And,

“By his blood, he reconciled us.  By his wounds we are healed” (BCP p. 370).

By “his” blood he reconciled us?  By “his” wounds “we” are healed?  How can that be?  How does that make sense?

He was,

“Incarnate by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, he lived as one of us, yet without sin.  To the poor he proclaimed the good news of salvation; to prisoners freedom; to the sorrowful joy” (BCP p. 374).

So how does this death, the death of one who bore no fault, no shame, who lived without sin, reconcile and heal us?  Why is that that we sit here today, at the foot of the cross, an instrument of torture and death – prepared to claim and venerate this moment as our own?  What sense does it make to say that this innocent man died for our sins?

We are the ones who are at fault.  We are the ones who have betrayed God’s trust and turned against God and one another.  We are the ones who should bear the consequences of our choices, out actions, our betrayals because we are the ones who have fallen into sin.

How does this make sense?  Let’s think back a little, to the Gospel of John to that well beloved passage people so often quote,

For God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him my not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Now push on to the next verse, one that is extremely important as we consider the cross,

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).

Jesus came into the world, preached, taught, showed us the way to heaven and then died for us, for our sake, in order that the world might be saved.  “Saved,” that our offense, our betrayals, that our sins be forgiven that we may live in the light of God’s love.

That our sins might be forgiven…   “Forgiven” think about that word for a minute.  What does it mean to forgive?  If I have been wronged then I am entitled to justice.  I am entitled to redress, to compensation.  If I have been wronged I have a right to demand that the one who has harmed me pay a penalty for the indignity to which they have subjected me.  If I have been wronged then it is only fair that the person who has offended me suffer the same hurt that I have experienced.  We would call that fair.  We would call that justice.

To forgive means to forgo the satisfaction that is due the injured party.  To forgive is to receive the hurt, the offense, the injury without retaliating and without nurturing the wound or fostering a grudge.  To forgive is to be willing to suffer at the hands of those who have wronged us and to refuse to inflict suffering in return.  To forgive is to step out side of the “eye for an eye” approach to life and to enter instead into a mutualistic relationship that is transformative for both the offender and the offended.  To forgive is to risk being changed and to risk the possibility that the future might be different than the past.

We have fallen short of God’s vision, God’s dream for creation.  Left to our own devices we have become stuck in a cycle of violence that consumes the lamb, the kid, and the fatling; returning violence for violence, escalating and multiplying the hurt, building pain upon pain.  We have created the world in our own image and our need for power and control has loosed bears who rend and destroy, lions who devour the innocent, and adders who seem to strike without warning or mercy.

God came into this broken world, not to condemn us for our failure to live in God’s light and love; not to demand justice, compensation and ransom; but to lift us out of the darkness by putting an end to our endless cycle of rage, retribution, and violence.  God came into this world to offer us forgiveness, something that would “fulfill God’s law and to open for us the way of freedom and peace” (BCP p. 370).

To fulfill God’s law…  It doesn’t make much sense to us because God’s law and God’s justice don’t look much like ours.  But this is what God’s law, God’s justice looks like…  It looks like Jesus, God on a cross.  God’s law, God’s justice is a love so great, so deep and so wide that it is willing to suffer; to endure hurt, wrong, and betrayal.  God’s law, God’s justice is manifested in a willingness to forgive in the hope that we will choose the way of freedom and peace.  And that transformed by the gift of forgiveness that has been given to us and by the demonstration of the power of love over sin and death we will begin to live out our vocation as the church, “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP p. 855).

Amen.

This sermon is indebted to Charles Hefling and his article “Why the Cross” published March 11, 2013 in the Christian Century.  You can read his article here.

There is Blood on our Hands: A Sermon for Palm Sunday

This sermon is based on the Readings for Palm Sunday in year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

There is an audio file of the sermon available here:

Sermon Palm Sunday 2013

It seems like a lot to ask.

I mean, life is hard, there’s a lot going on right now.  The economy is still a little shaky, a lot of us are living in homes that are worth less than when we bought them.  People we know, family friends, neighbors, some of us, have lost our jobs, have had to rethink the future.  Our retirement accounts haven’t bounced back yet, our benefits keep shrinking, and everything costs more than it did yesterday.

It is a lot to ask.

You turn on the news, pick up the paper, talk to your friends, things that we have always been able to count on seem less sure.  It feels like our rights are being chipped away, like someone we can’t quite identify is working to undermine our place in the world, our sense of security and well being.  It turns out that people, structures, and institutions that we thought would protect us are, in the end, only interested in protecting themselves.

It asking too much!

At a time when everything seems to be changing at a dizzying pace, when our children and our children’s children don’t seem interested in the things that we have treasured and maintained on their behalf…  When the validity and relevance of things that we thought would last forever is being challenged.

It’s too much to ask and what a time to be asking!

Here we are, gathered at the foot of the cross, grieving, confused, scared and angry…  And Paul has the nerve to ask us to lower ourselves and to become slaves?

Look.  We don’t need this guy Paul and his insensitive, over reaching, nagging…

What we need is some fresh ideas, some new life, some one to ride in here on a white horse and help us out of this mess that we are…

 

Paul isn’t being insensitive to the difficulties that we face.  He isn’t over reaching by asking us to do too much.  He may be nagging a little, he does that from time to time…  But what he is really doing in this moment is singing a hymn.

We believe that the selection we heard from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi is something that the early church said or sang as part of their liturgy, we call it The Christ Hymn, and Paul is singing it to us today, in the midst of our pain, our confusion, our suffering, and our fear, to help us to understand that we are being confronted with a choice, a choice so fundamental to the way that we understand and participate in the world that it really must be asked now, even as we stand here trembling at the foot of the cross.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death–

even death on a cross.”

Paul is asking us to set aside our need to be at the center of all things, our sense that we deserve to be first, that our needs are more important than the needs of the people we all to easily see as “others.”

Paul is asking us to see ourselves as part of something greater than the wealth that we have accumulated, the rights and privileges we have won, the benefits that accrue when we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and declare ourselves to be “self made.”

Paul is singing to us, asking us to put ourselves in service to a radical and subversive view of creation.  It may be our right, we may be entitled, it may even be guaranteed to us by our founding documents and principles, but, Paul is saying, we need to be prepared to let it go for the sake of the greater good, for the sake of our children, for the poor and the widowed, for the people with whom Jesus chose to minister and associate.  Paul is reminding us that Jesus came not to be served but to serve and he is trying to sing us into a new way of being, one where we aren’t as worried about being served as we are about serving others.  Paul is asking us to give up our own, self centered, narcissistic, shortsighted view of ourselves and the world and to choose instead God’s dream, God’s vision for a creation reconciled to one another and to God.

 

It seems like a lot to ask!

And it would be one thing to ask if were are well fed, rested, comfortable in our ability to acquire and provide the things that we and our beloved need and want… when our faith and trust in the institutions we have labored so long to support and buttress were unshaken… when our heritage, our legacy was secure, beloved and well received by those who will come after us…

It would be one thing to ask as we cheer along the parade route, joining our voices with the crowd, shouting with excitement as the one upon whom our hopes rest rides triumphantly into the lion’s den…

It is a lot to ask!

And it gets even harder when the one we had hoped might deliver us is arrested and taken from us, when he seems so small standing before Pilate and the machinery of death that we had hoped to escape.  It gets harder when we see him beaten, spat upon, and rejected by the people who had hailed him as their king!

It is too much to ask!

To ask us to follow him as he carries his own cross through the streets of Jerusalem on his way to a shameful and public end.  It is too much to ask as he is nailed to a tree and the agents of oppression cast lots for his clothes.  It is too much to ask as the tree is hoisted into the air and Jesus agony is apparent for all to see.  It is too much, too much!

Here we are, gathered at the foot of the cross, grieving, confused, scared and angry…  Paul, how can you ask this of us now?

 

Paul is asking us now because this is the moment that the question becomes most clear.  Here at the foot of the cross we see the consequences of our “no” to God’s “Yes” in the person of Jesus.

When we decline the call to serve…  When we place ourselves at the center of all things and set about to defend what we believe is ours, what we believe we deserve, what we believe to be our right and privilege, we put at risk what is “theirs,” what our common humanity says we all deserve, what is ours by right because we all are made in the image of God.

When we say no to Paul, no to Jesus, no to God’s call to service of others, then we are by default, aligning our selves with Pilate, who rode into town this morning with an army of soldiers intent on defending what was his, what was Caesar’s, what belonged to Rome.

Paul is asking us now because the consequences of our “no” are right here before us, impossible to ignore, impossible to dismiss.

There is blood…  Blood in our streets, blood in our schools, blood in our homes, blood on the cross.  Blood on our hands.

Let us pray

“Let the same mind be in US that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death–

even death on a cross.”

 

Amen.