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.

Choosing the Way of Love: A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

This sermon, offered by The Rev. Andy Jones at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin, on March 10, 2019, is built around the readings for the 1st 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 am service

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.   Amen.

Please be seated.

It almost seemed like a dirty trick yesterday afternoon at about 6 o’clock when the snow was blowing sideways past my kitchen window.  Here we are.  It’s the first Sunday of Lent 2019, the first day of daylight savings time, in the middle of the winter that just won’t let us go.  So I think it might be a good idea in this morning for us to turn our mind to some, perhaps, happier moments.  I’d like to ask you all for just a minute to close your eyes and remember how you felt in those moments that seemed to change everything.   Maybe it was the moment you got picked for the team, or for the show.  Maybe it was graduating, or being accepted to school.  Maybe it was when that one person said yes, or asked.  Maybe it was the moment you learned that you would become a parent…  Think about the joy that you felt in those moments, the astounding way that your body felt alive, your heart pounded in your chest, as the possibilities opened up before you.  And then, acknowledge with me if you will, the anxiety that came just a little while later.  Will I be good enough to stay on the team?  What kind of actor will I be?  What kind of student will I be?  How will I study and what will I study?  What kind of partner, what kind of parent will I be?  And how will I know how to do all of these things?

If you’re feeling that moment of question and doubt, imagine how a young man from Nazareth in the Galilee must have felt.  He’d heard the stories, the stories about an angel coming to speak to his mother.  He’d heard the stories about the birth of his cousin John, the stories about the day when his mother and his aunt came together and sang with joy because they were expecting children.  He’d heard the stories… and he had this recollection of sitting in the Temple at 11 years of age and answering the questions that the teachers posed, and then asking questions of his own that they struggled to answer.  All his life he’d sensed that there was something different about him.  All his life he’d wondered what it meant.  And then, having gone to see his cousin John the Baptist ministering there in the wilderness, standing knee-deep in the muddy waters of the Jordan River, Jesus stood up water streaming from his hair and dripping from his nose and chin, and heard a voice that made sense of it all.  “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

He must have been ecstatic to finally, finally understand and to be able to make sense of all of those stories…  I wonder if that joy even lasted until his feet were on dry ground there on the banks of the Jordan.  What does it mean to be the son of God, the Beloved?  What is it that I’m supposed to do?  How will I be this person?

The next thing that happens in Luke’s Gospel, after a short insertion of Jesus’s genealogy to give us the reader some evidence that this is in fact true about Jesus, Jesus goes into the wilderness.  Now it’s important to note that in Matthew and Mark Jesus doesn’t seem to go of his own accord.  In one of those versions he is led by the Spirit into the wilderness.  In the other he is driven into the wilderness.  But here in Luke’s Gospel it says that the spirit led him in the wilderness.  It’s like he went there of his own accord to work this out.  To think about it.  To ponder just what it might mean.  To ponder his vocation and how he would live it out…  and once he got there the spirit managed what would come next.

We don’t know when, during those 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus figured out what his vocation was, or his mission.  We do know that as soon as he returns from the wilderness he goes home to Nazareth, he goes in to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, they hand him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and he says this,

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And then Luke tells us,

“And he rolled up the scroll gave it back to the attendant and sat down.  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  Then he began to say to them, ‘today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”

Jesus returns from the wilderness with the understanding that his vocation, his mission, is to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.  But an understanding of his mission and his vocation isn’t the only thing that he gained in the wilderness.  He also learned, or declared how, he would live out that vocation.

Luke tells us that the devil came to him and said, “If you are the son of God turn this stone into a loaf of bread.”  Surely, if it’s your mission and vocation to set the prisoners free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor… if you can snap your fingers and feed people they’ll get right in line.  They’ll do exactly what it is that you ask them to do because you will be able to meet all their needs.  Jesus turns his back on that temptation.

So the devil tries again and takes him up and shows him all the kingdoms of the world and says, “If you are the son of God just take it it’s mine I can give it to you” and you will be in charge.  You can tell them what to do and they won’t get right in line.  You will have the authority to demand that they release the prisoners; they take care of the blind, the lame, and the sick, the poor…  All you have to do is worship me and you will have the power to make them do whatever you want.  But Jesus says no.  Certainly, he would be a benevolent dictator, a benevolent autocratic ruler, but that’s not the way that Jesus chooses.

So the devil tries one more time, and takes him to the pinnacle of the highest point of the Temple, and says growing yourself off.  Because if you’re the son of God the Angels will catch you before you hit the ground, and people will see that, and they’ll know without a doubt, in an instant, that you’re the one to follow.  And they’ll jump right on board with whatever you tell them to do, because it would be foolish to not do what you say.  And again, Jesus turns his back.

William Temple, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury for a few short years in the 40s, his tenure was cut short by his untimely death, speaks about The Temptations in the Wilderness as the temptation to coercion.   Buy their allegiance.  Force their allegiance.  Prove that it would make no sense to do anything but get in line and follow you.  All of those William Temple calls coercion because what God really wants, and what Jesus really wants in this moment, is not our allegiance.  It’s not our trembling obedience.  It’s our love.  God wants us to love. And love cannot be coerced.  I’m sure William Temple had never heard this phrase but you all have heard it, “If you can’t say no, it’s not love.”  If Jesus were to try and buy us, by turning stones to bread, that wouldn’t be love.  Forcing us wouldn’t be love.  Even proving, as a matter of science, who he was, would deny us the ability to choose.  And it’s only when we can choose, that love is possible.  So, Jesus instead, walks out of the wilderness and chooses the path of the suffering servant, and it makes himself vulnerable to us, in the hope we will love in return.

That’s really great news if you think about it.  Now it might be more expedient… It might have remedied a lot of the world’s problems that Jesus had chosen one of those other paths; if he was turning stones into bread, and feeding the poor; or making autocratic leaders who aren’t so benevolent step in line because he had the power to force them; or proving that it’s for our benefit, or to our benefit, to live the life to which he’s calling us.  But any of those paths would have made us less human than we are capable of being.  It would’ve denied us the ability to choose to love even when the evidence all points to the contrary, or when it might be easier to choose other paths to achieve laudable goals.  It’s good news that God wants us to love.

And I think it’s very instructive to us as we enter the wilderness of Lent, to spend our own 40 days trying to discern how to live out our identity, given to us that our baptism, as beloved children of God with whom God is well pleased; as we try to figure out how we will live in this world, seeking to realize God’s dream and vision for creation in our own lives and in the community around us.  It might feel good to get self-righteous and indignant and angry.  It might feel good to yell and demand.  But what Jesus does in the wilderness is turn his back on those behaviors, and to reach out, making himself vulnerable, and hoping that the relationships that are forged will lead to a community that lives its life together in light love and grace.

As we make our way through these 40 days we may have the opportunity to discover, within ourselves and in our lives, places where our anger, or our impatience, or our need to be right and to have the right answers, or to know the right way of doing things, gets in the way of love.  We may find those things within ourselves impacting our families, our workplaces, the people with whom we interact in the marketplace, and in the voting booth.  But in this moment, as we began our journey through the season of Lent, we are called to do the same thing that Jesus did; to walk out of the wilderness with our humanity intact, whole, loving, forgiving; willing to be vulnerable to change, to the needs of others and to their place in this garden with us.

Forty days.  Forty days in the wilderness.  Forty days in the season of Lent, with God as both our destination and our companion on the journey.  Today we get a true gift, the knowledge, the truth, the understanding that it’s all about love; loving ourselves, loving our neighbor, and loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength; in the wilderness, at home, wherever we are.  Love.

Amen.

A Difficult and Perilous Journey: A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

This sermon, offered by The Rev. Andy Jones, on March 6,Ash Wednesday, 2019, is built around the readings assigned for Ash Wednesday and the Invitation to The Observance of A Holy Lent found on page 264 of the Book of Common Prayer.

The Lectionary Readings for Ash Wednesday can be found here

The Invitation to the Observance of a Holy Lent can be found here

 

Here is a recording of the sermon delivered at the 12:00 noon service on Ash Wednesday:

 

Here is a transcript of the recorded sermon:

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.  Amen.

Please be seated.

It is to be sure a remarkable thing that we do this day.  Wednesday, a work day, the middle of the day, 16° outside, and we have come together to take the first steps on a difficult and perilous journey; a journey that will be marked by beatings, imprisonments, riots…  Oh, no wait.  That was Paul’s journey.  Our journey will be marked by self-examination and repentance, by prayer fasting, and self-denial, and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word.  Not easy disciplines to keep.  If they were easy, there would be no need to invite us all to enjoin in these practices at this moment.  So, this journey through the season of Lent will be difficult.   And while we’re not likely to suffer imprisonment, riots, labors, it will be a perilous journey; because during this season of Lent we will be called to look inside of ourselves and to see with God’s eyes; and to dare to name those places within us that we would rather not expose to anyone, maybe even to ourselves.

We will be called to identify those places in our lives that don’t fill us with joy and life, but which cause us some degree of pain, and shame, and discomfort.  And during this season we’ll be called to wrestle with those things, and, perhaps limping for the rest of our lives, walk away from them, turning our backs on them, and turning back to God, the one who gives us light and life and joy.

So, it is a difficult and perilous journey that we undertake this day.  And even more remarkable, I think, because in just a few moments we’ll come forward and kneel at this rail, and be reminded of our own fragility, our mortality.  We’ll kneel here at the rail and have ashes smeared on our foreheads in the sign of the cross, and hear the words, “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” a reality that most of our culture would like to ignore or even deny.  And yet, we will come forward today and volunteer both for this journey and for this reminder.

Then, just a few minutes later, we’ll return to this rail, and we’ll hold out our hands, and ask for help.  We’ll hold out our hands and receive the symbol and the sign of God’s ongoing presence in our midst and in our lives.  We’ll hold out our hands and we’ll be reminded that, even as we walk this journey, seeking to rid ourselves of the things that hold us back, the things that chain us, God is walking by our sides.  Even as we seek absolution, we are being forgiven.  Even as we work to come closer to the heart of God, God is before us, behind us, beside us, within us; moving us along this path, holding us up and showing us the way.  I think it’s probably accurate to say that without that reassurance of God’s presence, and love, and forgiveness; without the promise of that new light that will break at the end of this journey, we might not dare to take these first steps.  Even together, this journey would be terrifying, if not for the truth, and the faith, and the belief, that at the end of this journey is God; and for this reminder that on every step of the way, as we make that journey to our destination, God is by our sides.  So, this day we come together to begin a journey that will lead us ever deeper into the heart of God, and allow God’s light, and life, and love to shine more brightly within us and around us.

The world may wonder as we walk among them today with this symbol of death and mortality on our foreheads.  And they may expect, as they look on us with that sign on our heads, to seem grim, disheartened, downcast, even afraid.  I think that as we walk this earth with Earth smeared on our foreheads, we can do it with our eyes lifted up, with confidence, and faith, hope, and even joy.  Someone greeted me after the early service this morning in the Narthex, and she said I guess is probably not appropriate to say Happy Ash Wednesday.  But you know if you listen to this Invitation to the Observance of a Holy Lent, it says “Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the gospel of our Savior…”  I can’t think of anything happier than a message of pardon and absolution.  So, if someone looks at you questioningly, and starts to tell you, “Hey, you’ve got dirt on your forehead…”  You just look at them and say Happy Ash Wednesday.  Amen

Peace,

Andy+

Remember What God has Done and Do Not Be Afraid: A sermon for Christmas Eve

This sermon, offered by The Rev. Andy Jones at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin on December 24 2018 is built around the readings for Christmas I in the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here

 

Wow!

It’s really great to see you all as we gather around the manger to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Christ, Emmanuel, God with us…!

And it’s pretty wonderful that we have this luxurious, spacious birthing suite here…  But I think I need to check with my supervisor.  I’m not sure we’re allowed to have this many people in here at one time…

(Looking up…) What’s that? Oh.  OK.  Yup it’s fine.  But just this once…

You know nothing draws a crowd like a baby.  They’re like a magnet.  Sometimes, when there’s a new baby here on Sunday morning, the parents never make it to coffee hour because people swarm around them up here in the nave, just wanting to get close to the baby.  But who’s to blame us right?  Babies are amazing.

There’s the pure wonder in the physicality of them, the little tiny fingers complete with nails and wrinkles at the knuckles, the smell of their hair, why does a baby’s hair always smell so good?  There’s the faces they make when they are waking up, the brightness of their eyes with they are alert, soaking everything up, learning…

And then there are the intangible wonders… the miracle of new life, the bond between mother and child, the tenderness, the love…

When we are around a newborn child we feel a special sense of connection, wonder, and awe.

But I would suggest that there’s something else about babies that draws us in.

They are dependent on us for everything.  They need us to feed them, change their diapers, to protect them, to shelter them.  They need us to interpret and understand when something is wrong and to know what to do about it.  And the miracle in all of this dependency… Is that it doesn’t push us away.  It actually draws us in.

In one of her TED Talks, Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, tells how her research has found that people who express a true sense of connection with the people and the world around them are people who embrace vulnerability.

They believe that what makes them vulnerable also makes them beautiful.  They are willing to risk, “To do something where there are no guarantees.  To invest in a relationship that may not work out.  To say ‘I love you’ first.”

Taking risks, making ourselves vulnerable may, at times, leave us hurt or wounded but, according to Brown, “it is also the birthplace of joy, creativity, of belonging, of love…”

Hear that again, the willingness to be vulnerable “… is the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, of love.”

That might sound strange to you because we are taught early on that revealing, expressing sharing our vulnerability is a risky thing to do…

If we are vulnerable we may be seen as “weak.”  And in today’s economy, being vulnerable or weak means that we will be judged as lacking.  We won’t get picked for the team.  Someone else will get the job, the promotion, the recognition.  And pretty soon that “place” of “joy, creativity, of belonging, of love,” the place that requires us to be vulnerable, becomes a place that we avoid, deny, even resent…

We see a baby, totally dependent on us for everything, and their vulnerability draws us in because, somehow, we sense in that moment the possibility of something of which we can never have enough, joy, creativity, belonging, love.

There are other “places” where we might risk being vulnerable; music, art, the theater, even at the movies.  But these can be solitary places.  We close our eyes.  We go inside.  We may sit “together, but we do it in a darkened room.

But when we come together around that miracle of new life, when a newborn child is placed in our arms, when we see the potential that child represents, the risk undertaken in coming into the world; we can be moved to a place of vulnerability ourselves.

We find ourselves willing to invest our love in one who can’t yet, and may never, reciprocate.  We become willing to share the things we hold most deeply, we find ourselves wanting to connect.  And there, in the company of other people, maybe even looking them full in the face, we find ourselves, as a community bound together by our vulnerability, in “the birthplace of joy, creativity, of belonging, of love.”

No wonder we’re all here.  No wonder we need to bend the rules to let everyone, and I mean everyone, into the delivery room tonight.  The birth of a child is a gift that can help us to enter into a space for which we all desperately long.  And this crowd?  All of us here tonight, squeezed in around the manger?  Well, this isn’t just any child.

This is God coming into the world, Emmanuel, God with us.

And even as this birth draws us into that place, allows us a moment to be vulnerable, our hearts are opened to a new reality, a new way of being…

Here by the manger we begin to realize that this place, this moment of tender connection, of risk, of vulnerability is the “place” where God lives.

That’s really hard to imagine.  But joy, creativity, belonging, love, those things sound like God, don’t they?

God is here with us, as a newborn child, defenseless, dependent on us for everything… to affirm the value of vulnerability.  And to model a way of being that will help us to see, to experience, to live in the world in a new way; a way that leads to the peace of God which passes all understanding.

Tomorrow, or later this week if you are lucky, when you go back into those other places, those same pressures will be there, trying to discourage you from being vulnerable, trying to get you to rebuild the walls that separate us one from another, from God, and even from ourselves.  Those same pressures will be there, asserting that this was only a dream, that it isn’t real; trying to drag us from the manger and the truth that we have found here.

But when that happens, when allowing yourself to be vulnerable, to be who you are, to live in the birthplace of oy, creativity, of belonging, of love… remember what God has done here in this place and,

“Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Amen.

 

 

 

Mary, Not So Meek and Mild: A sermon for Advent 4C

This sermon, offered by The Rev. Andy Jones at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin on December 23, 2018, is built around the readings for the Fourth Sunday in Advent in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

Here is an audio recording of the sermon

 

Here is the text:

I almost made it.  I’ve done a lot of my shopping on line.  I’ve stayed out of the mall all season.  I thought I had escaped.  But on Thursday this past week I took the day to run some final errands.

I walked into the SERV store on State Street and it got me, an instrumental, made for the elevator in a doctor’s office version of…. The Little Drummer Boy!

I don’t know why I dislike that song so much.  It might have something to do with that awful, Claymation, made for TV Christmas Special and the way it scared my kids when they were growing up…  More likely it has to do with repetitive melody, and the lyrics… pa rum pum pum pum?   Come on.

I hope that I’m not offending any of you, but I was greatly cheered this year when I saw a cartoon on Facebook with the Baby Jesus sitting up in the manger, looking at the Little Drummer Boy, and saying, “That has got to be the stupidest song I have ever heard…”   I felt very vindicated…

But this week I’ve had a change of mind.  All week long, as I worked with today’s lessons another song kept insinuating itself upon my consciousness. I didn’t think that it was possible, but this song has supplanted The Little Drummer Boy at the top of my Christmas no play list.

It’s not the melody.  The melody is beautiful.  It’s not the performance.  The song is sung a’ Capella and is really well done.  It’s the lyrics… well not exactly the lyrics, it’s the theology behind the lyrics, it’s what they teach us… or to put it more precisely what they rob us of…

In order to explain this, I need to back up a little…  not that far really… only about 13 verses…

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.  And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you’” (Luke 1:26-28).

Now the Lectionary doesn’t have us read this part of the story, The Annunciation, this year, but it’s key to understanding why this song has me so worked up…

The Angel Gabriel comes to Mary to tell her that God has favored her and that she will give birth to Jesus, the Son of God.  At the end of this portion of the story Mary says,

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

The Angel leaves and in the very next verse Mary is on the road to the hill country of Judea to see her Cousin Elizabeth.  Now it’s important to note that the angel Gabriel told Mary that Elizabeth, who was way past her child bearing years, was six months pregnant.  It would have been about a three week journey for Mary to reach Elizabeth, and today’s reading tells us that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months.  The lines immediately following Mary’s departure from Elizabeth tell the story of the birth of Elizabeth’s son, John…   So, do the math…

Elizabeth was already six months when Mary got the news, add to that three weeks of travel and the three months that Mary stayed with Elizabeth before she gave birth.  That tells us that Mary didn’t waste any time getting on the road to go see Elizabeth.  She must have saddled up her donkey and left the next morning!

What was going on in her head?  Nobody knew about this but her.  Why the rush?  She wouldn’t have felt anything different in her body, no signs that new life was stirring within her…

Maybe she rushed into the country side to see Elizabeth because she needed some confirmation, to hear that something, anything, that the angel had said was true.  If Elizabeth was indeed expecting a child, then maybe the angel had been right about what would happen to her!

She was in a hurry but she had plenty of time to think.  Three weeks on the road, to ponder what it meant for her, an unwed woman, engaged but not yet married, to be found pregnant.  What would Joseph say?  What would her family say?  What would the people of village say when they found out?

Talk about your strange mix of emotions…  You have to wonder how all of those fears play in her mind alongside the words of the angel Gabriel…

And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1: 31-33).

“…the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (Luke 1:35b).

Three weeks to ponder, to wonder, to think about how she might be received if she returned home pregnant; and what it might mean if God did indeed come into the world through her, an unmarried peasant girl from a small insignificant village in the Galilee.

So, can you imagine how she felt as she drew near Elizabeth’s house?  I am sure that the closer she got, the more excited she became, the more her heart raced.  I can just see her running from the yard to the door, calling out to her cousin…  Elizabeth?!?  Elizabeth?!?

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy.  And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (Luke 1:41-45).

It’s incredible, almost beyond belief!  Elizabeth is pregnant!  Her unborn child recognizes the presence of the child that Mary is carrying!  And Elizabeth knows without Mary even telling her, that Mary is pregnant!

“And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;  for the Mighty One has done great things for me,and holy is his name’” (Luke 1:46-49).

I know it must feel like it was a long time ago, but remember when I was going on about a Christmas song that has been on my nerves all week? Here’s where it wants to play.

A music video opens, the a Capella group Pentatonix, with candles in their hands, gathered in a cave probably very much like the one where Jesus was born on the hillside in Bethlehem, starts to sing and they ask… Mary did you know?1

“Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water, Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?”

On and on the song goes, asking Mary if she had known all the things that Jesus would do, and finally, the song asks

“Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect lamb?
That sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am.  Mary did you know?”

It’s a beautiful song, and I can certainly understand why people find its presentation attractive, but it robs us of an essential part of Mary’s story.  A part of her story that we really need to hear, now, today!

Listen to more of what Mary says in this moment:

“He has shown strength with his arm;he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;  he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51-53).

Mary knew!  Mary knew that God was coming into the world, not in the palaces of the wealthy, not in the company of the proud, not among the powerful seated on their thrones…  And Mary understood that God coming into the world in this way would turn things upside down.  Feed the hungry and lift up the lowly?  Mary knew!  And here, in the first chapter of Luke, Mary and Elizabeth are together, celebrating, laughing, singing at their wonder and joy that, at long last God,

“…has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever” (Luke 1:54-55).

Mary did you know?  Yes!

This isn’t Mother Mary meek and mild.  This isn’t a Mary who doesn’t understand the implications of what she is doing, who doesn’t understand what her participation in this moment means.  In fact, as author D. L. Mayfield wrote this week in the Washington Post,

“Here, Mary comes across less like a scared and obedient 15-year-old and more like a rebel intent on reorienting unjust systems.” 2

It’s important that we recognize, and not diminish or romanticize Mary’s part.  Here, in the Magnificat, in Mary’s song of exultation and joy, we hear her full-throated, rebellious, proclamation that God is doing a new thing and setting about to change the world on our behalf!

Yes, Mary knew!  And that’s a part of the story that we can’t afford to lose.

It’s important for us, here on the fourth Sunday of Advent, after weeks of longing and waiting, to be sure we understand what we are asking for.  And Mary is here, singing her own song, in her own voice, to help us see the truth of the choice that lies before us in these coming days.

It’s the fourth Sunday of Advent.  Christmas is two days away.  Elizabeth has delivered her child John the Baptist, and his father Zecchariah has sung:

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,” (Luke 1:76)

Emperor Augustus has decreed that all the world should be registered.  The whole world is on the move crossing borders, looking for home.

Mary and Joseph are almost to Bethlehem where they will be looking for a place to give birth to the child… to bring the Light of God into the world.

Tired, hungry, road weary, having traveled a great distance, they will come knocking on our door, asking us if we have room to let God in.

What will we do?  Will we decide that we have too much to lose?  Will our wealth, our abundance, our pride, our need to preserve our own power, lead us to tell these travelers that they need to move along.  Find another place.  There is no room here for what you bring.

Or will we, like this powerful young woman, have the faith to say, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word…’ throw open the gates, and let them in?

__________________________

1 “Mary, Did You Know?” lyrics by Mark Lowry and music by Buddy Greene, 1991

2Mary’s ‘Magnificat’ in the Bible is revolutionary. Some evangelicals silence her.  By D. L. Mayfield, The Washington Post, December 20, 2018