Power is Made by Power Being… Given Away: A Sermon for Proper 20B

This sermon, offered by The Rev. Andy Jones at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin, on September 23, 2018 is built around the readings for Proper 20 in year B 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:

Well I guess I just have to share with you for a moment… um, Mark is my favorite of all the Gospels.  Now that may have something to do with the fact that Mark was also the favorite of my New Testament professor in seminary, and so we spent more time reading about and talking about Mark than any of the other Gospels.  But Mark’s spare language, his fast pace, the drumbeat of the word “immediately,” his sense of urgency… I find all of that really compelling.  And when I need to go to the Gospels to read something I invariably go to Mark first.  But sometimes his urgency and his need to get right to the point, leaves us wanting more.  Sometimes he leaves out the connective tissue that would help make sense of those nuggets and those important pieces that are so important for us to hear, and things don’t make a whole lot of sense.

This morning for instance, in just eight short verses, Jesus tells his disciples that he’s going to die and be raised on the third day.  Then they argue on the road about who is the greatest.  And the scene ends with Jesus holding a child in his lap and telling the disciples that they need to welcome children in order to welcome God into their lives.

Where’s the thread that joins all of these stories together and helps us to make sense of them?  What we really need here, I think, is someone speaking in the third person; a narrator to fill in the gaps and help us to see exactly how these three stories are related I think if we had a narrator story might go something like this:

Jesus is wandering through the Galilee with his disciples, no specific destination in mind as he heads home to Capernaum.  His real point is to be teaching his disciples that

“the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed he will rise again” (Mark 9:31).

Now this was the second time that Jesus confronted disciples with this truth.  Just a few verses ago, in fact, Jesus told them that he would die and rise again, and Peter rebuked him, and Jesus call Peter Satan.  Satan.  So here, as Jesus speaks the terrible words one more time, it’s easy to imagine that the disciples were afraid to ask any questions.

But there’s a lot more going on in that fear for them.  They’ve left everything behind to follow him.  They’ve cast their lot in with this itinerant preacher.  And they’ve watched him perform miracles and teach with authority.   He’s healed people.  He’s fed thousands.  He’s walked on the water and stilled the storm, and he even raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead.  So their excitement level is just off the charts! But now, now he’s talking about leaving them.  And confronted with the possibility that the one who’s done all of these things and brought them together as a community, might die: be arrested, and beaten and killed… No wonder they’re afraid.

But then as they struggle with that fear, as they think about what might happen, this other reality against begins to dawn on them.  And it’s not clear whether it was explicit in their thinking, or whether it was somewhere in the back of their minds.  But they started to understand that if Jesus left, and they were without a leader, there was going to be a power vacuum.  And so, on the road, as they contemplated all of these things, the disciples began to argue about among them was the greatest.  When Jesus was gone who would be in charge?  Who would drive this bus?

So, they get to Capernaum, home.  And they’re in the house.  And Jesus asks them,

“What were you arguing about on the way” (Mark 9:33)?

Well, back in chapter 2 of Mark’s gospel, when a bunch of people lowered their paralyzed friend through the roof so that Jesus might heal him, and the scribes were complaining that Jesus was talking about forgiving sins, Jesus knew what they were thinking.  Mark tells us:

“At once Jesus perceived in his spirit they were discussing these questions among themselves and he said to them why you raise such questions in your hearts” (Mark 2:8)?

It happens again right here.  Jesus asked them what they were talking about but he already knows.  They don’t even answer him and he starts in with a lesson about power.  If you would be first of all you must be the last of all and servant of all.

Jesus is trying to give them a lesson on the purpose and the nature, the ends, and the meaning of power.  While they had argued on the road who would get to take over this band of disciples Jesus is here telling them that powers, meaning, purpose, it’s ends, are not to aggrandize, not to protect the powerful, not to crush the oppressed, not to perpetuate systems that demean, diminish, dehumanize and destroy.  Power, power is meant to uphold the weak, to reconcile the marginalized, to challenge the forces of evil that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.   And to demonstrate all of this, Jesus lifts a child into his lap.

It’s hard for us to imagine how little regard there was for children in those days: no status, no rank, no power.  So, Jesus was holding up the weakest of his children and saying, “If you would be first of all you must be last of all and servant of all,” and you need to welcome the weakest among us.  That’s what greatness is about.  That’s what power is about.

Those are Jesus’s words in this moment, but his words look forward to deeds that will give us another lesson about power.  Jesus is trying to explain to them that he is about to do something radically subversive.

For eight chapters he’s been building up a following, a retinue.  People are excited and astounded at the things that he’s doing, the miracles that he’s performed.  And they’re ready to give him power and to make him king.  And he’s about to give it all away.  He’ll give himself over into our hands.  He’ll let us beat him and crucifying him, hang him on a tree.  What Jesus is trying to tell us is that the power that we have isn’t ours to keep.  It’s really, if we are interested in being his followers, ours to give away.  We’re not owners.  We are merely stewards.  And we’re called to use the power that we are given to empower others in ways that will make them whole, human, and powerful in their own right.

The most insidious thing, I think, about power is that power wants more than anything to protect itself.  And once we start to think that the power that we have is ours, and not a gift that we are called to give away, we tend to do anything necessary to keep it.  We’ll diminish and demean others, slander them, smear them, do anything we can to silence them, to deny their voice and their power, to keep them from challenging the power that we have been given.  The power that we mistakenly believe his ours to be used to build ourselves up.

Jesus’s point is that the power that we have is meant to be given away to empower others, to make them powerful.  And that’s so counter intuitive.  Especially if you have a little bit of that stuff of your own.  In the upper room, after Jesus’s resurrection, the Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples and fills them with the power to proclaim, and to preach, and to teach, and to spread the gospel.  And that power is ours!  We have been given power!  Just think about that for a minute.  Sit there.  Ask yourself, “Do I feel it?  Do I feel the power that I have right now?”  It wouldn’t surprise me if you don’t, because the world will try very hard to make you believe that you are powerless to affect the ways that the world works.

We have been given the power to speak and to act.  We’re not owners of that power.  We are stewards.  And we are called to give that power away.  And that’s a subversive thing to do.  Jesus hung on the cross to give his power away.  I don’t know that any of us will be called to go that far, but we may be called to take some risks; to stand up and to speak out when people are being silenced, when people’s power and dignity are being denied, when people are being disrespected in service of maintaining the power systems that already exist.  We may need to take some risks, to challenge the systems and our powers that be, in order to instead live in a world that’s empowered by the love of God the love of Jesus.

The good news is that we’ve been given this power as a community, as a group of people, as followers of Jesus, and we have one another, and we have the Holy Spirit; and we have this sacrament here to nourish us, to strengthen us, to feed us as we take those risks, and do that work.

We are called to recognize the power that we have, to use it on behalf of others, and then to give it away.  The truth is that, that multiplies the power.  It’s not a zero-sum game or a fixed system.  Giving the power away only creates more power, and more power is created when more power is given away.

There’s a John Mayer song, I don’t know how many of you are familiar with John Mayer, but he has a line in one of his songs that says, “Power is made by power being taken, so I keep on running to protect my situation” (Vultures by John Mayer).  It’s time to stop running, because power is made by power being given away.  And we need to stop defending our own situation and start defending others.  It is in act of sacrifice and giving that true power is made and it is through that act that true greatness, if we want to become great again, will be achieved.



This Teaching is Difficult: A Sermon for Proper 16B

This sermon, offered by The Rev. Andy Jones at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Madison,Wisconsin, is built around the readings assigned for Proper 16 in Year B 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.

So, this is Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary.  We have a three year series, or cycle of readings, and in Year B, the second year, we read primarily from the Gospel of Mark.  But here, right in the middle of summer, every three years, we abandon Mark for five weeks to read from a single chapter of the Gospel of John.  We’ve been reading from the Gospel of John since July 29th, and on that first Sunday we started, at the beginning of that sixth chapter, with the story of Jesus feeding the 5000.  A few loaves of bread, a few small fish, and well over 5000 people are fed, and there are twelve baskets of leftovers at the end of the meal.

The next week, the crowd has followed Jesus even as he and his disciples and tried to escape to find some time to be apart, and to pray, and to rest, and Jesus turns to the crowd and he says, “The only reason you all are here is because your bellies are empty.  You haven’t followed me because of the sign that points to who I am, and to God’s presence in the world.  You’re here because you want some more food.”  And then Jesus says to them. “Look for the bread that does not perish, but the bread that leads to eternal life.” And he claims to be that bread.  He offers himself to the people as a way of giving them eternal life.

The next week, Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever,” and the people around him say, “Wait a minute.  Isn’t this Mary and Joseph’s kid?  We’ve known him all his life.  How can he tell us that he came down from heaven?”

The next week, Jesus says, “My flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed,” and the Pharisees are horrified because consuming blood is against their dietary laws, the laws that set them apart from the other nations, and the very idea of eating flesh and drinking blood sends them into a frenzy.

This week, as all of this comes to a head, we hear some of Jesus’s own disciples saying “This teaching is too difficult.  How can we accept it?” they turned back and they stop following him.

But Jesus is offering them eternal life. Jesus is offering them a way of being in the world that’s suffused with, that is filled with, a sense of the eternal; something that started at the beginning of all things and stretches to the end of all things; a way of being in the world that connects with all of that.  And which, in the words that we here at the end of the service every week, brings the peace of God which passes all understanding.  And yet this teaching about flesh and blood is too hard, and some of Jesus his disciples abandon him.

Now we have a little bit of an advantage over Jesus’s contemporaries, because from our post-resurrection point of view, some 2000 years later, we know what Jesus was pointing towards, and we know what John is talking about, as he conveys these stories.   In the beginning the Word became flesh and that lived among us.  And that flesh living among us gives up its life on the cross, and becomes bread and wine, so that we might be nourished by the flesh that was the word; so that we might be filled, and nourished, and given strength, and commitment, and conviction, to live an eternal life here and now.  So the whole idea about cannibalism, a charge that Rome made against the early church, doesn’t even come into our minds, I hope, as we hear these stories in the middle of every August.  And it seems like a silly thing to say this teaching is too hard and to walk away because of it.

So, while our post-resurrection perspectives gives us that advantage, I have to admit that I also think it causes us a completely different challenge.

Jesus’s contemporaries didn’t know yet that Jesus was headed for the cross when he said these words.  And John’s community was wrestling with the meaning of all of that.  But we know, we know, that eating the bread and drinking the wine, eating the flesh and drinking the blood that is the word that created all things, calls us to follow in Jesus’s footsteps.  Taking that word into ourselves, consuming it, embracing it, allowing it to nourish us, and become the foundation of who we are, calls us to live by that very word. I think that’s way scarier than thinking about eating flesh and drinking blood!

As an example of what I’m talking about…  In just a few minutes when we say the Prayers of the People, Sherry will stand here in the middle of the center aisle at the microphone, and she will pray on our behalf, “Awaken in us a sense of wonder for the earth and all that is in it.  Teach us to guard its beauty and care creatively for its resources.”  Those are great words, and they sound wonderful here in church on Sunday morning, but think about what we’re being called to do in that moment.  Think about what we’re being asked; to pray for the strength to accomplish, and it might seem a little daunting.

We’ll pray, “O God give us power to reveal Christ in word and action.”  The bread and the wine are an outward and visible symbol of an inner and spiritual grace, and we are called to be that same thing to the rest of the world; by our word and action, to make Christ present, and knowable, and real, to the people around us; upholding the marginalized and the oppressed, caring for the widow and orphan, upholding the poor, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, visiting those in prison.  Eating the bread and drinking the wine calls us to live that life!  And I think if we really pay attention to what we’re saying, that can be pretty scary.

A little later Sherry will ask us to pray for our elected leaders.  That’s way scary!  And then, to strengthen all of us to be willing agents of God’s compassion?  That’s really scary stuff!

But what’s at stake here, what’s at stake for all of us, is eternal life.  So, I don’t think I can say this often enough.  I, I wrestle with people around this idea all the time.  Eternal life isn’t something off in the future, something in the next life, or in the next world.  Jesus is talking about a way of living here and now, that allows us to sense God’s presence in ourselves, in the people around, us and in the world in which we live.  God is here.  Jesus is telling us that if we can follow in his footsteps, eat his flesh and drink his blood, then we can participate in a life that’s filled with, surrounded by, lit up by God’s presence; a life that is infused with the eternal, and where we will find the peace of God that passes all understanding.

So, some of Jesus’s disciples left him in this moment.  Others stayed.  They said, “We have come to believe that you have the words of eternal life.  To whom else can we go?”  I think, I hope that’s why we’re all here this morning, because we believe that in Jesus’s words are the keys to eternal life.  And all we have to do is follow in his footsteps…

Paul knows how scary and how hard this is too, and in the reading that Dennis offered for us this morning he tells us, “take up the whole armor of God so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm…”  Fasten the belt of truth about your waist… put on the breastplate of righteousness… get some comfortable shoes, so that you are ready to go out and proclaim the gospel of peace.  Take the shield of faith, take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit… So, in the locker downstairs after the service… come down I’ll check out all of that stuff…  Where do those things come from?  How do we find that strength?  How do we find that courage?

The first answer is, here with one another, with the people seated around you in the pews, all of whom are struggling, working, to follow in Jesus’s footsteps; to be transformed, nourished, and sent by the bread and the wine.

The second answer is that bread and that wine itself, because they are the symbol and the sign of God’s ongoing presence.  And when we hold out our hands we are asking to be changed, to be commissioned, to be nourished; to be fed, and to be comforted, and reassured that we are never alone; that God will never abandon us; and that where God calls us to go, God has been before us; and that on the journey to which God calls us, God will be our constant companion.  Daunting, scary, maybe, maybe, but the promise, the promise is eternal life.  The promise is the Peace of God which passes all understanding, the joy that comes from becoming the people God created us to be, the joy that comes from fulfilling our vocation and finding our meaning in the truth that began with all things, and that stretches to the end.

We are offered the opportunity to live in that light.  So, when you come forward this morning, hold out your hands.  Receive your identity.  Receive your vocation, your calling, your purpose, your meaning. Receive who you are.  And know that you are indwelling in God, and God is indwelling in you, and all that you could ask for is yours, in that moment.  Thanks be to God.



And the Word Became Flesh: a Sermon for Proper 15A

This sermon, offered at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin on August 19 by The Rev. Andy Jones is built around the readings assigned for Proper 15A in the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.


Here is a recording of the sermon as delivered at the 9:30 am Eucharist.


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.

So, I would hazard a guess and say that probably everyone in the room has seen this happen to someone else.  And I would guess that for most of us, in fact I would have to say that I hope and pray that in fact all of us, have had this experience.  Now it may be when the conductor’s baton drops for the first beat and that first chords swells out of the orchestra.  It may be when you hit the right button on your car radio and that one song starts to play.  Maybe it happens when you’re walking through a gallery and suddenly you are arrested by a piece of art that you never seen before, or you hear someone reading a poem that takes your breath away and makes you stop.  In those moments there’s something that transports us out of time into a place where everything else just seems to go away, and all we can do sit in that moment and feel the deep connection to the truth to which that piece of art points something; beyond the orchestral piece or that piece of music that was popular the first time you fell in love; that points beyond that painting that’s hanging there on the wall in two dimensions, or the voice of the person reading that poem.  Somehow in that moment we are connected with something bigger, broader, more awesome, even universal or eternal, that we weren’t aware of just the moment before.

We come in here every Sunday and we have a moment just like that together.  It’s that moment when the person behind the altar holds this up (holds up a host).   We call this a sacrament.  And the definition of a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inner and spiritual truth.”  And just like those pieces of music, or that piece of art, or that poem, point to something beyond themselves, this piece of bread points to a truth and a story that stretches back to the beginning and forward the end of time.  It tells a story that’s beyond our imagination and often beyond our understanding.  And so, we have this tangible physical thing to help us to remember that story.

So, what is the story to which the bread points?  We’ll start with some poetry.

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said let there be light and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good…” (Genesis 1:1-4a).

God speaks God’s word into the chaos, into the void, and light comes into being.  And six more times over the next five days God speaks God’s word and all that is, is created and comes into being; organized into categories: light and dark, land and ocean, sky and what is beneath it.  God’s word gives life to all things.  And then on the sixth day God said:

“Let us make humankind in our image according to our likeness… so God created humankind in God’s image. In the image of God, God created them; male and female God created them…” (Genesis 1:26a and 27).

God speaks and we come into being.  We become, we are, because of God’s word.

So now we shift gears a little bit to song.  In Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, some of the earliest Christian writings that are contained in our New Testament, we think written between the years 49 and 51 A.D., Paul captures a song that we believe was part of the baptismal liturgy in that community.  And Paul writes:

 “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” (Philippians 2:5-7).

And then moving to the beginning of the gospel from which we heard today, the sublime poetry of the prologue to John.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:1-4).

And then a few verses later:

“And the word…”

the word spoken by God through which all things came into being through which all things came to be,

“…the word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14).


This piece of bread points to an amazing and astounding truth.  A truth that is a stumbling block and an obstacle to lots and lots of people.  That truth is that the God who created all things, God, holy, set apart, separate, different; God transcendent, God whose surely lives somewhere other than this profane world… that God comes among us as one of us, and takes on our flesh!  That word, that word that created all things becomes flesh.

That was a scandalous thing to say in Jesus’s time and it’s a scandalous thing to say today for a lot of people.  But it’s the truth to which we cling, the truth that we proclaim and the truth that gives us hope.  And has John says here in his Gospel the truth that gives us life.

Jesus says to us in the gospel today that his flesh is life, that we have to eat his flesh in order to have eternal life.  Jesus is standing then in the long line of scriptural poets and John is quoting Jesus in this way, pointing back to this truth that this bread represents and makes manifest in our presence.

We need to take in, to ingest, to internalize, to incorporate into who we are the story, the truth, to which this bread points; that God loves us so much that God is willing to come among us, and walk in our midst, and to put Gods self into our hands.

We tell that same story every Sunday as we consecrate the bread and wine.  Listen to the Eucharistic prayer this morning and you’ll hear all of salvation history rehearsed, from the creation through the fall; through the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, of Jesus.  And we say those prayers over this bread to imbue this bread with that truth; the truth beyond the physical details of what I hold in my hand.

Jesus wants us to make that truth so much a part of our lives that we never forget it.  The problem is that we walk out of this place and there are signs all around us to point to the opposite: that God doesn’t love us, that God is not here, that God doesn’t really have a hand in the world around us anymore.  And so it’s easy to forget.

In John’s day when he wrote his gospel, we think between the year 90 and the year 110 A.D., there was this conflict in the community.  How important is the Eucharist?  Do we really need to show up every week, and eat this bread, and drink this wine?  And John is quoting Jesus here to remind them how important this is.  To pointed it out, that without this reminder you’ll forget, you’ll lose track, and the joy, and the life, and the hope that this truth brings to you might be lost.  So in order to continue to live in that eternal life you need to gather.  You need to come together, to hold one another up, and to receive this outward and visible sign of the inner and spiritual truth that is yours always.

Of course, that’s not the end of the story.  Because what Jesus wants for us, and what God wants for us, and what our collect today asks for, is that as we consume Jesus’s flesh and blood, the bread and the wine, an outward and visible sign of that liberating life-giving truth, we ourselves will be transformed and become a sacrament to the world in and of ourselves; an outward and visible sign of the truth that God loves all of us, that we are all worthy of dignity and respect, that we are all beloved and welcome in God’s presence, always and forever.

You can’t, you can’t come forward every week and receive this sacrament and not be changed.  After all, you are what you eat… right?   So, when you come forward this morning and hold out your hands to receive this bread, remember what this is.  This is the flesh of Christ.  And the flesh of Christ is the word of God.  And it is the word of God that spoke all things into being, that created all that is, and gives life to the world around us.  Know that that gift, that gift is yours, mine, ours.  It belongs to everyone.  And as you stand up and go back to your seat, and prepare to conclude our time together, and go out into the world, feel that sacrament working within you.  And ask yourself, what can I do this week to be an outward and visible sign of the inner and spiritual grace which is the truth of God among us always?


You Are Enough: a Sermon for Proper 12B

This sermon, offered by The Rev. Andy Jones at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin on July 29, 2018, is built around the readings for Proper 12B in the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

Here is a live 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.  Amen.

Please be seated.

It was clearly a disaster.  There they were on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, in Gentile territory, on the side of a mountain and 5000 people had followed them; people who had come seeking the freedom and the joy that Jesus had to offer; wanting some part of the dream, the vision, of God that he was proclaiming.  And there, in the area in that desert place, there was nothing to eat.

The disciples knew it.  They were clearly nervous. Philip had already done the math and figured out how much it would cost to feed all of these people, and knew that was beyond their means.  And Andrew had gone scouting the resources and discovered that there was nothing but five barley loaves and two dried fish; the traveling fare of poor people on the road.

And yet in the midst of this disaster Jesus looks at Philip and says, “Where are we going to buy food for all of these people?”  Implicit in that question was a charge.  You need to take care of my sheep.  So, Philip, and Andrew, and the rest of the disciples must have been panic stricken.  Here was their teacher, their master, their friend, asking them to take care of this hoard of people.  And they couldn’t believe that the meager supply of food they had with them could be enough.

I wonder what John’s community thought of this story some 60 or 70 years after the events of Jesus’s life as John committed his narrative to writing.  When they heard this story, the temple had been destroyed, the land had been ravaged by war.  The Roman empire had exacted its vengeance on the people for daring to rebel and resources were scarce, and people were hurting and hungry.  To make it even worse if you were a follower of The Way, if you believed that Jesus was the Messiah, you were exiled from your people, your community, and your temple… because they had passed a law that in order to enter the synagogue you needed to be able and willing to say a prayer that claimed or asserted that Jesus was in no way the Messiah.  So, as they heard Jesus, in the words of Scripture, reaching out to them in the midst of this calamity and saying take care of my sheep… they must have been just as, if not more, panicked then the disciples who originally heard these words.  “How can we take care of a broken and hurting, war-torn people with so little to give, with so little of our own, while we are being forced to the margins, exiled from all we know and love?”

I don’t know about you but the more I read the story, and the more I live in these words, the more I recognize myself standing in front of the television in the evening and watching the news, while I struggled to make dinner.  It’s hard to imagine how any of us can muster the resources, or have what we need, to take care of the world around us when so much seems to be going wrong, when the news is so bad, when the cards seem to be stacked against us so deeply.  And yet this morning Jesus is calling out to us, just like he did to John’s community, and just like he did to his disciples there on that mountainside near the Sea of Galilee, to care for his sheep.

But how?  How can any one of us make a difference?

The danger in this moment, I think, is that we will despair.  And you can hear a little bit of that, I think, in Philip and Andrew’s words. and while it doesn’t get said in this gospel in other tellings of this story it is made explicit.  “We can’t do anything to help these people send them away and let them take care of themselves.”  The despair, the paralysis, the move towards absolving ourselves of responsibility, is a clear danger when we are confronted by such devastating need and don’t feel like we have enough to make a difference.  That’s why this story this morning is so important.  All four evangelists tell us this story.  Somehow, somehow, there in that place, five barley loaves and a couple of fish were enough to satisfy five thousand people.

Now we can knot ourselves up wondering whether Jesus subverted the laws of nature and multiplied the physical food, or whether this act of generosity and vulnerability opened people’s hearts in a way that led them to share what they had with them…  But that’s really not the point of this story.  The point is that this simple gift offered in vulnerability in God’s name to these people was enough.  Somehow through God this meager gift was enough.

In the Episcopal Church all seminarians have to take a series of classes or do an internship called Clinical Pastoral Education.  this is the moment where we learn to be fully present to people in their pain and to listen to what they are saying without bringing to that moment our own history, our own concerns, our own fears and anxieties.  I was a chaplain at a retirement community in Gaithersburg, Maryland that offered the full range of care, from high-rise independent living to full-blown nursing and Alzheimer’s care.  And we would go and interact with the patients and the residents there and then sit in a group and talk about the ways that we had interacted; talk about what had frightened us; talk about how we had managed to give what we had, or how we had held back.  All summer long our lead supervisor drummed this mantra into our heads, “You are enough.”  Again and again he told us that his task that summer wasn’t to fill our toolboxes with techniques and clever things to say; ways to survive moments of pain in other people’s presence.  He told us again and again that his main concern was convincing us that if we were willing to give what we had to offer, and just be present with someone, that that was more than enough.  The gift of being calm, and present, and listening to another’s pain can be life changing and life-giving; both to the person who’s hurting and the person who is offering themself.

“You are enough!  We are enough!” that’s why this story, I think, is so important.  When we offer ourselves and our gifts in this way it’s common to not be present when those gifts bear fruit.  Sometimes those seeds we plant, sometimes those gifts we offer, don’t produce results, don’t bear fruit, don’t change things, until after we have left, and we don’t get to see it happen.  And so, it’s not uncommon for us to believe that we haven’t really done anything at all.  And in the face of overwhelming pain and difficulty, like the world that we are experiencing now, we are in danger of retreating holding ourselves back, and not offering anything at all.

The point of this story today is that we are enough, and you are enough, and small acts of kindness, of compassion, of generosity; standing up for justice even in small things can make a difference.  And those meager gifts, when offered in God’s name, will be multiplied from generation to generation, from person to person, from community to community.  And just like that gift of five loaves of bread and a couple of fish, just like the gifts that John’s community were offering after the temple had been destroyed in Jerusalem, and just like the gifts offered by generations of people preceding us, those gifts can make a difference.  And just might change the world.

We are called to give what we have.  Sometimes it may feel futile.  Sometimes it may seem like there’s nothing we can do and this little bit that we’ve offered hasn’t changed a thing.  But this story reminds us to have faith, and to have hope, and to know that we are not doing this alone, and that God is with us.  And God will multiply those gifts. You and I, working through God, might just change the world.

And so I’ll close this morning with this last piece of our reading from Ephesians:

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever.  Amen (Ephesians 3:20,21).

The Soul of Our Nation is at Stake: A Sermon for June 3, 2018

The sermon, offered by the Rev. Andy Jones at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church on June 3, 2018, is built around the readings for Proper 4, Track 2, in Year B 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, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Please be seated.

Some legal conflicts get settled in the court of law, some however get settled in the court of public opinion…  Sometimes they get settled in both, and the resolution of those trials are different.  Here this morning we hear of a legal conflict which is being resolved in a grain field, but it is no less in the court of the public opinion and the court of law than if it were being played out on the evening news and in the Supreme Court today.

There have been briefs filed.  We just heard the statute that is at stake here.  You shall do no work on the Sabbath day.  Keep it holy to the Lord.  Neither you, nor your children, nor your slaves, not even your animals may work on the Sabbath.  And yet here is Jesus walking through the grain fields with his disciples, traveling, which would have been contrary to the statute, when his disciples start to harvest, plucking heads of grain as they go because they are hungry.  If this were being played out in the court of public opinion on the evening news I can just hear the Pharisees now…  “Look I don’t write the laws and I don’t interpret them.  It’s just my job to enforce them.  And if they didn’t want to be charged they should have just stayed home.  Because that’s the law.”

So we’re wrestling with this case, wondering how Jesus will make his way through this conflict and this challenge, when Mark offers us a second story that’s even a little fuzzier.  A man who was born with a withered hand, unable to work, unable to support himself or his family, to participate in the economy… he might has well have been exiled in his own land; is there in the synagogue when Jesus enters on the Sabbath.  And the Pharisees are watching to see what he’ll do.

Jesus knows what’s in their hearts and he calls the man forward; and then asks the Pharisees is it permissible to heal or to kill, to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath?  The Pharisees recognize that the cameras are on them, the nation is watching, and they’re afraid to answer Jesus’s question.  That’s because they know, they already understand what Jesus said to them in the grain field.   And that is that the Sabbath was made for humankind.  Humankind was not made for the Sabbath.

It’s not as if the Sabbath and its attendant regulations are some goal in and of themselves.  Even here in Deuteronomy we hear that people are supposed to do no work, they’re not allowed to work on the Sabbath, so that they and all of their household, even the aliens sojourning in their land, may have a day of rest.  God gives us this commandment not because it accrues some benefit to God for us to obey it, but because it accrues benefit to us!  So the Sabbath and all of its attendant regulations are for our benefit not for God’s!  That’s the spirit of the law!  But in these two challenges that Jesus faces in today’s reading it is the letter of the law it’s being thrown in his face.

Clearly, if the Sabbath is made for us, then if you’re hungry you need to eat.  And if you have been cast into the margins because you are unable to work, being healed on the Sabbath is in line with the spirit, if not the letter, of the law.

Now it’s important, I think, for us to know that biblical scholars believe that the first books of the Torah, including Exodus, and including the book of Deuteronomy, were written down and formalized when the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon.  So all of their oral traditions, all of the stories they had been telling about themselves: who they are, and their relationship with God, were codified during that period.  They thought that the soul of their nation was at stake.

There in Babylon their children were marrying Babylonians.  Their traditions and their customs were being ignored.  They could feel their very identity beginning to dissipate.  And what was worse, the stories they heard from back home said that people had taken over their property, they weren’t worshiping anymore…  They were terrified that they were lost.  And so they wrote down all of these laws, and rules, and regulations as a way to make themselves distinct from the people around them.  In an attempt to save their identity as a people, strict adherence to these laws became incredibly important.  But here they are now back at home, in the land, and that strict adherence to the letter of the law is still the rule of the day.

They thought that the soul of their nation was at stake when they were in exile in Babylon.  What Jesus is telling them in these two passages is that the soul of the nation is still at risk, because we are no longer a nation that’s identified, that’s set apart, by its compassion, and its love for God, and his love for God’s people; no longer a nation ruled by the spirit of the law; laws which are established to uphold everyone; to make sure that the slaves, and the resident aliens, and even the animals get a day of rest; laws that are meant to nourish, and sustain, to make us all whole, and to allow us flourish.  In this moment of conflict Jesus is saying we are becoming a nation that is focused on the letter and not the spirit the law.

I think that this is a lesson that stands out and rings true across time, and across the waters.  Our laws, we are a nation of laws, are designed to hold us all up, to hold us together, to give us an identity as a people.  And if God’s laws are all about compassion, and relationship, about nourishment, flourishing, being whole, then the laws of this land need to be focused on those same goals.

Again and again in the courts of law, and in the court of public opinion on the evening news, we see the letter of the law being upheld over the spirit of the law.  And if Jesus’s heart was grieved at the hardness of heart of the people he confronted in these stories, I shiver to think what his heart is doing in response to the stories that we are seeing on the evening news.

Here in this moment of conflict there is a choice to be made.  Jesus is threatening the rule and the authority of the most religious people in the land, people who are set up to guide, and to govern, to rule and to make decisions, to interpret, to discern.  There is a choice to be made.  Will the people follow leaders who are focused the letter of the law, enforcing the strict reading of those texts, or will the people follow leaders whose hearts are focused on the spirit of the law; the spirit that flows from God into each and every one of us; telling us that every person, every one of us, every one of us, is beloved and has value and is worthy of respect; should have what we need to flourish, and to be a whole, and to thrive.  Will we follow leaders who are functioning out of a mentality of scarcity and the need to control for fear of losing something, or will we follow leaders who are calling us to a better vision, to a theology and a mentality of abundance, of love, of grace, of sacrificial giving in order that we all might be whole?

This morning, buried within this text, there is a question for each and every one of us.  The soul of our nation is at stake.  Who will we be?


The Discovery of the Power of Fire: A Sermon for Pentecost 2018

This sermon, offered by the Rev. Andy Jones at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin on May 20, 2018 is built around the readings for the Day of Pentecost in Year B 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.  Amen.

Please be seated.

What a powerful, and rich, and exciting day.  During the prelude you could feel the Holy Spirit brooding over the water, waiting to create all that is.  And then we process in to the glorious sound of the organ and the saxophone.  We hear the story of the Holy Spirit enlivening the bones of the people of Israel in their time of desolation; sinew upon bone, flesh upon sinew, breathing breath and life back into a people lost in exile.

We hear Jesus and his discussion with the disciples after the Last Supper preparing for his departure, talking about sending the advocate, the comforter, the Holy Spirit.  And then with a sound like the rush of a violent rainfall…  I mean wind… the Holy Spirit fills this room where we are gathered.  Flames light on top of our heads, and the church, the church is born.

We the disciples are filled with power, and grace, and the ability to proclaim the gospel in ways that will change the world.

There’s so much to talk about this morning, so much that we have already heard…  I want to focus our attention for just a minute on words that we haven’t yet heard this morning.

In a few moments we will stand and we will baptize Sean Patrick Fedler Campbell into the body of Christ, making him a full member of the church. And once we have completed that act, we will say this prayer.

In the first half of the prayer we are thanking God for something that God has already done…

Heavenly father, we thank you that by water and the holy spirit you have bestowed upon this your servant the forgiveness of sin, and have raised him to the new life of grace (BCP page 308).

We’re celebrating and thanking God for something that God has done forever, is doing in this moment, and promises to do for the rest of his life.  But then this prayer changes, and instead of thanking God for something that’s already happened, we’re asking God for something more.

Sustain him, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit.  Give him an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works”     (BCP page 308).

An inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works…

Those are powerful, powerful words.   But they’re powerful, or just as powerful, for what they don’t say as what they do say.

They don’t say “help him to memorize this list of theological assertions which bind us all together.”  They don’t say “get him to walk in lockstep with all of the rest of us so that he’ll know that we are a community bound together by the things that we proclaim and declare.”   They don’t say “help him to know all the answers so he’ll be safe and find his way every single day…”   These words actually talk about a journey, a process, discerning, inquiring, continuing to learn, to wrestle, to engage, to find a way forward.

These words also say that it won’t be easy.  It asks for the courage and will to persevere and there will be times when the lack of clear answers will be dismaying, and frustrating, and may even bring tears.  A spirit to know and to love you, to remember our goal, to remember where it is that we are going; always seeking, striving to come ever closer to the heart of God; to know that we are beloved, and to feel that love in the way changes us and changes the world around us.

And then, the gift of joy and wonder; awe reverence, surprise, delight.  The world is a fantastic and beautiful place, filled with God and God’s revelations.  And sometimes, even though they may be hidden, we will need these words and God’s help to see the good, what is light, and what is beautiful.

This is who we are as a church of people bound together by the struggle, by the journey, by the commitment to finding our way forward together as a community led by the Holy Spirit into a future that is filled with God light.

We mark this day, the day when the church finds its birth in the coming of the Holy Spirit, a day when we baptize people into this body, we mark this day with fire; red balloons to symbolize the flames of fire that lit on the heads of the disciples as they gathered in that upper room… fire…

So a little aside for a minute.  My alarm clock is set for 4:30 in the morning every Sunday.  But it’s not often that my alarm is set for 4:30 on a Saturday.  How many of your alarm clocks were set for 4:30 in the morning yesterday so that you could get up and watch Michael Curry preach at the Chapel at Windsor?  That was why we got up… right?   To hear our Presiding Bishop preach!  Yeah, Harry and Meghan were there too.  Bishop Curry did us a great favor yesterday.  Well and I guess actually it was Harry and Meghan that gave us the favor.  They were the ones that chose the reading from The Wisdom of Solomon that Bishop Curry used as his text.  Here’s that part of that reading which was read by Princess Diana’s sister The Lady Jane Fellowes:

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.

(Wisdom of Solomon 8:6,7)

In the wisdom of Solomon love is described as a flame, as fire, a fire that cannot be quenched, even by the rain that we’ve had for the last several days.  And as Bishop Curry talked about that flame he quoted Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French idealist philosopher, Jesuit Priest, who was trained as a paleontologist and a geologist; who talked about fire as the thing that changed and advanced humanity and our civilization.  It is our ability to manage, and control, and Channel fire, he said, that allows us to cook food, to preserve food, to warm cold climates.  Controlled fire moves our cars, our airplanes, our ships on the sea.  Controlled fire gives us electricity to light the room so that we can read at night, and have leisure time to read and explore, and to think.  It is fire that changed the world.


And Pierre de Chardin says”

“Someday after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides, and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

Fire.  We mark this day, the birth of the church, when we the disciples are given the courage, the strength, the power, to go out into the world and to proclaim the good news God in Christ Jesus; we mark this day with the coming of the fire of love; unquenchable with flashes that flare like a mighty flame.  We mark this day when we baptize people into this body, into this fellowship, with the fire that will change the world.

The candles are lit.  The flames are dancing.  Sean Patrick, we’re about to set you on fire.  But don’t worry.  We’ll rescue your hair with the water of baptism!  As we go forth from this place singing the songs, praying the prayers, and celebrating the life to which we are called, don’t forget that we are on fire too!  We are called to carry that flame with us into all the dark places of the world, shining that light, God’s love, so that others might see the lantern that we are, placed upon a hill; that the world might be drawn to that flame; that the world might be changed once again by the discovery of the power fire.


Too Good to be True? A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

This sermon, offered on April 29, 2018 at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin, by the Rev. Andy Jones, is built around the readings assigned for the Fifth Sunday of Eater in Year B 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.  Amen.

Please be seated.

I want to talk a little bit this morning about rituals.  Rituals.  The world is filled, our lives are filled, with rituals.  Just yesterday we experienced one of our annual Madison rituals the crazy legs run here in downtown Madison.  The streets were filled with people.  It was difficult to get where you wanted to go…  and if that wasn’t enough, the other ritual that was happening on Mifflin Street, just sort of made everything a little cloudy and obscure…

Rituals, we all have them; whether it’s what we do with the family at Christmas time, or Thanksgiving, things that both reflect who we are and what we believe; and shape us, and who we are and what we believe.

I have a little ritual that I do almost every day and I’m guessing a lot of you have the same ritual in your own context.  I drive home at the end of the day. I pull into the garage. I walk back out to the curb.  I get the mail out of the mailbox.  On my way back in I stop at the recycling can, just outside the kitchen door, haven’t even gone in the house yet, and I start going through the mail.  Ooooh!  Somebody’s offering me a free dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, a free vacation in the Caribbean… all I have to…  oh… a timeshare….

Again and again, things that seem too good to be true… aren’t.  All of these great offers that come with the catch.  And so as I throw all of those things into the recycling can there are a couple of things that sort of re cycle in my head.  One of which is “there are no free lunches,” and the other is “If it seems too good to be true it probably isn’t.”  So I think it’s with that backdrop, that ritual that both describes who we are and what we believe, and shapes in and informs who we are and what we believe that we hear this reading from the first letter of John today.

I want you to imagine for a minute that you’re standing there, just outside the kitchen door, in the garage, next to the recycling can, and you pull up an envelope that says “Love is from God.  God is love.”  And then again, “God lives in us and his love is perfected in us.  God is love.”  And then, in the biggest font of all, there on that envelope it says, “There is no fear in love but perfect love casts out fear.  For fear has to do with punishment and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”

So you’ve thrown away the envelope from Ruth’s Chris steakhouse.  You’ve thrown away the thing from the vacation resorts in the Caribbean.  And you’re telling yourself “if it seems too good to be true it probably…   How do you respond to this statement?

It’s really critical, I think to, examine our response.  Do we really believe that God loves us so much that God came to us, walked among us as one of us, before we could do anything to respond to that love from God.  Unearned, undeserved, no interaction yet on the table for evaluation, and God already loves us.

It’s really not that surprising if you look back over the biblical record.  God chose Abram long before he gave Abram any rules about how to behave.  Long before the Ten Commandments were handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai God chose a people as God’s own and loved them.  So before we do anything, God loves us.  I think that that changes everything.

Dr. William Self, a prominent Baptist leader and longtime Atlanta area pastor, writing in the Feasting on the Word commentaries on this passage from the 1st letter of John says, “Against the lovelessness of fear John sets the fearlessness of love.  No longer must we have the anxious self tormenting endeavor to placate God, but rather the response of a loving confident heart to a love already shown and shared.”

I don’t want to speak for everyone in this room, but I want you to just wonder for a minute, or think about, the amount of time and energy that we put into earning another person’s love, to meeting the grade, to measuring up, to doing the things that we believe we need to do in order to be worthwhile, to be seen as good, as strong and as capable, so that the people around us will value and love us.

If we feel the same way about God then we are going to find ourselves driven in a way that is bound to induce fear, because there is no way we can maintain any level of excellence, or productivity, or goodness, that will earn gift God is giving us and the person life death and resurrection of Jesus, and the love that God showers upon us all the time, before we can do anything to respond.

So if we can, if we can, get beyond the conditioning that there are no free lunches, and I’m sorry to any Keynesian economists in the room, if we can get beyond the conditioning that, if it seems too good to be true it must not be true, and believe that what happens in the life death and resurrection of Jesus is in fact representative of who God is and how God loves us, then we can be set free from the fear that something we might do will lose God’s love for us.

Just imagine for a minute how you will walk into the world, set free from that fear, liberated, knowing, that you are loved.  And then imagine for just a minute, what your presence will do for the world around you, if that’s who you are and what you believe.  Because in both his letter to us, and in the gospel narrative, John tells us to abide in God as God abides in us, and to love others in the same way that God loves us.  And that’s only possible if we really are willing to believe that God’s love is true.  So we can go into the world and love others unconditionally, the way that God loves us, and they will find themselves being set free by the love of God expressed in our lives.

Dr. Self, I love that name, wouldn’t you like to be Dr. self, goes on to say, “Fear cannot generate love, sympathy, tenderness, or compassion.  We cannot scare people into tolerance or terrify them into kindliness.  The fruit of fear ends up being distrust, suspicion, and resentment.”

If we can walk into this world loving other people the way that God loves us then the level of fear, suspicion, distrust, and resentment will go down.  The trick is, I think, for us to believe and recognize that God’s love is a true gift and not something that we’ve earned.  That’s why we gather here every week.

Rituals both describe who we are and what we believe, and form us in who we are and what we believe, and the principal ritual for us, as Christians, is to come forward and hold out our hands, and receive a gift; something that we can’t possibly have earned, something that we can’t possibly deserve, and this very posture demonstrates our attitude towards what it is that we need… a gift.

We don’t stand here waiting for our paycheck, for just compensation.  We don’t stand here waiting for our due.  Here in the season of Easter we do stand, but a lot of the year we kneel, and hold out our hands in deference and in awe, to receive a gift.  That gift is mirrored in our love for the world.  That gift comes from, springs from, God’s love for us.

So as you pass the recycling can on your way out the door this morning, don’t throw this in there.  It may seem like it’s too good to be true, but it is in fact God’s honest truth.