Sunday, October 31, 2021

23 Pentecost

 October 31, 2021

Deuteronomy 6:1-9; Mark 12:28-34

+ In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.


I know that I have preached many times here about my frustration with scriptures with which we must engage on a Sunday morning.


You have seen me approach this pulpit with a weary shuffle sometimes.


Or, worse…when there is a scripture I just don’t want to preach about…well, I don’t.


And that’s all right.


I can do that, as a preacher.


After all, sometimes that’s exactly what the Holy Spirit seems to be telling me.




Oh, glorious day!


Today! Today!


What do we get?


We get IT.


Capital I.


Capital T.


THIS is what it’s all about.


These scriptures are the penultimate scriptures.


And these scriptures are where the rubber meets the road in our journey as followers of Jesus.


You don’t believe me?


If you don’t, you  have not been listening to me over these last 13 years.


Because, the message we find in our reading from both the Hebrew scriptures and the reading we hear in our Gospel reading…well, this is the summation of it all.


This is the point I keep coming back to, again and again.


And if you take nothing else away from all those sermons I’ve shared from this pulpit, please, PLEASE! take this away.


What we find in our Gospel reading for today is everything I believe as a Christian, as a priest, as loved Child of God and as a passionate follower of Jesus.


That question I am asked, again and again, is what must I do to be “saved.”


And right here, right there in our readings today, is the answer.


Let’s examine the story.


A scribe comes before Jesus after listening to the Sadducees arguing amongst themselves.


Now, a scribe, as we know by now, was important in Jesus’ day.


They are the ones who transcribed the scriptures by hand.


There were no printing presses.


There was no publisher of scriptures.


And scribes took their job very seriously.


Every word they inscribed, every jot and dash, was sacred, and they treated it as such.


In the process of their transcribing, they also became somewhat of experts on scripture.


How could you not?


Day after day of transcribing these words and commandments and sacred stories.


So, this scribe comes to Jesus and asks which of the commandments is foremost.


And Jesus, seemingly without hesitation, says,


“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 


Now, Jesus is not just a cherry-picked scripture, mind you.


Jesus and every good, loyal Jewish male there on that day—including the scribe and those Sadducees— was required to pray a prayer every day.


Jesus no doubt prayed that prayer that morning, as did every devout Jewish male (and no doubt many Jewish females) listening to him that day.


The prayer is a recitation of the scripture from Deuteronomy.


It’s called the Shema


“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”


The Shema is, of course, the summary of the Law.


It is a summary of all belief for a Jew.


But Jesus doesn’t just leave it there in regards to what is the foremost commandment.


Because let’s face it.


If it was just that—just loving God with all our hearts—well, we could do that right now, right at home. All the time.


But no.


Jesus doesn’t let it stand there.


He then adds the second commandment.


 ‘To love one’s neighbor as oneself,’


The scribe is impressed with this answer, and tells him that this is more important than burnt offerings and sacrifices.


That’s a big statement from a scribe.


It is then that Jesus makes a huge statement hidden right inside a seemingly simple statement.


“You are not far from the kingdom of God.”


In fact, they were all so amazed by this, they didn’t even bother to question him anymore.


So, what must we do to be saved, according to Jesus?


Nowhere in our scriptures, nowhere in this discourse or in any other, do we find that all too familiar answer from the televangelists and others to our big question:


“One must accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior.”


It’s not in the Bible. Anywhere.


But what must we do to be saved, to draw near to the Kingdom of God, according to Jesus?


We must love God with everything that is in us.


And we must love others.


That’s it.


Anything else we add to that is just filler.


It really is just that simple.


Love God.


Love others.


Do those two things, and you will draw near to the Kingdom of God.


If you do these two things—if you strive to do these two things—in your life, you are a follower of Jesus.


You are doing what Jesus himself did.


You are living out your faith.


This is what it means to be a Christian.


It means to love fully.


It means loving God fully.


It means loving others fully.


It means loving ourselves fully.


It means living that love out in our lives.


I know.


It sounds so simple.


It sounds so basic.


We wonder why we ever thought it was hard or why others thought it was hard.


Well, it actually is.


It is a lot harder than it sounds.


Loving God sometimes is not easy.


Loving someone we don’t see with our eyes, or hear with our ears is not easy.


Loving others is definitely not easy.


People can be jerks. People sometimes ARE jerks.


Or worse.


They can be monsters.


It is hard to be a Christian in every aspect of our lives.


It’s hard to love God in all things.


It is hard to love our neighbors in all things.


It is hard, very often to love even ourselves.


Because, sometimes we are the jerks.


Sometimes we are the monsters.


And sometimes our ego prevents us from seeing that fact.


But that is what it means to be a follower of Jesus.


When we do those things—when we love fully and completely—we draw near to the Kingdom of God.


And not just after we die.


Not only when we have left our bodies behind.


Right here.


Right now.


When we do these things, we become conduits of that all-loving, all-accepting God.


We become bearers of that radical, all-powerful love of God.


Now, do you understand now why everything I preach and believe and do as a priest, as a Christian, is based on this scripture, on this belief?


As you know, I, like you, struggle with doubt and skepticism sometimes.


I get frustrated by the world, by the larger Church, by those in authority, by the unfairness and injustice of this world.


But one thing I do not doubt is the inherent truth that is contained in the summation of the Law.


Love God.


Love others.


Love yourself.


Do these things, and you will gain the Kingdom of God, both here and in the next life.


Knowing this, believing this with every ounce of my body, fills me with a strange, but very real joy.


I am so passionate in my belief in this that if I could do nothing else but preach this, over and over again, I would be content.


You, on the other, no doubt weary of your priest going on and on about this.


Well, that’s just the way it is sometimes.


You knew what you were getting when you hired me.


This priest doesn’t hide his flame under a bushel.


But, even so, let us truly take to heart what Jesus is telling us clearly today in our Gospel reading.


Let us truly love God.


Let us live out our lives in the love we have received from God. 


Let us live fully in this holy and all-consuming love, sharing what we are nourished on here with everyone.


And let us love others.


Even those terrible people who turn on us and make our lives miserable.


And let us love ourselves.


We are, after all, truly loved children of God.


Let us love ourselves as God loves us. 


And with God’s love within us in this way, let us be that radical Presence of love and acceptance to all those we encounter.


And when we are, it is then that we are bringing the Kingdom of God near.


Let us pray.


You, O God of Israel, are One. May we truly love you with all hearts, all our souls, and all our might; and may we truly love one another as you love us. And when we do this, help us to truly see your Kingdom drawing near to us. Amen.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

21 Pentecost


October 17, 2021


Isaiah 53:4-12; Mark 10:35-45


In the name of God, Creator+ Redeemer and Sustainer.  


A few weeks ago, I planned to preach about the recent death of a very influential person in the Church.


Sadly, I got sick and didn’t preach about him, although I published that sermon on my blog.


But I didn’t want to forget to do so.


I’m talking about Bishop John Shelby Spong, the former Bishop of Newark, New Jersey.


But he was also a very, very controversial person in the Church as well.


Bishop Spong was very much the personification of a “liberal” in the Church.


And through his many best-selling books, he laid out some very unorthodox beliefs.


He denied such things as a fundamentalist view of the Bible, bodily resurrection, the virgin birth of Jesus, a theistic God, the traditional views of the afterlife, and the traditional concepts of heaven and hell.


Now for some of us here at St. Stephen’s these are not all that controversial.


And many of us loved Bishop Spong.


When I first came to St. Stephen’s, there were a few people here who quoted him often in their sermons on Sunday.


One time, one preacher even just read a letter of Spong’s as their sermon.


I certainly respected Bishop Spong.


I voraciously read every book he published as soon as it came the press.


And Bishop Spong in many ways introduced me to the Episcopal Church.


I first heard about him when I was in my early 20s.


I was working at a United Methodist Church in Arthur, ND.

And the pastor there, Pastor Ray Baker, had a bottom shelf of Bishop Spong’s book on a shelf that were hidden behind the door to the office.


I remember borrowing his copy Resurrection: Myth or Reality? And was legitimately shocked.


I was floored to hear Bishop Spong say that when Jesus died on the cross, his body was taken down and thrown to the dogs, and that is why there is any empty tomb.


I want to be very clear: I do not agree with him on this view.


In fact, I never agreed with him on many other theological points he made, which I often felt were sensationalist in certain ways.


But what was refreshing about Bishop Spong was that he would’ve respected that opposition.


Still, I was encouraged to pursue my interest in the Episcopal Church, knowing that there is a wide spectrum of belief here at that could enclose people to such an extreme as Bishop Spong on one end and conservative thinkers on the other, as well as those like me who were squarely in the center of it all.


I can say with all honesty, that I am thankful for Bishop Spong and his voice in the Church.


But as you can imagine, someone like Bishop Spong also had a few people who did not agree with him.


Actually, there were a lot of people who were downright threatened by what Bishop Spong wrote about.


And as a result, he made a lot of enemies.


There is a very famous story about one of these people.


At the funeral for Bishop Spong’s first wife, Joan, who died in 1988, he was shocked when, during the service, he felt himself being pummeled.


He turned around and realized it was an old lady hitting him with her purse.


She was finally subdued and escorted out of the church.


As she left, she was heard to say, “I wanted to do that to that SOB for years!”


No matter what you and I may have thought about him—whether you agreed with him or not—we all have to admit one thing:


Bishop John Shelby Spong was a true disciple of Jesus.


And in many ways he was needed in the Church.


Sometime we need people who can rile us up, who can get under our skins, who can nudge us out of our complacency.


Certainly, we find some of this happening in our Gospel reading for today.


Today’s Gospel story is one that I think we can all somewhat relate to this story.


We have all had our own Jameses and Johns.


We’ve all had them as co-workers, or fellow students, or simply fellow parishioners.


I’ve definitely known some priests like this.


They are the ones who—while we quietly labor, quietly do our duties—they sort of weasel their way up the ladder.


They jockey for position.


They are the ones who try to get a better place in line by butting in front of everyone else.


They are the ones who drive us—who work and sacrifice and try to do the good thing—they drive us crazy.


Or maybe…and maybe none of us want to admit it …maybe, they are the ones that we relate to the most in this morning’s Gospel.


Maybe we are ourselves at times are the James and the Johns.


Maybe we ourselves are the Sons or Daughters of Thunder.


Whatever the case may be, the fact is James and John are really missing out.


Like some of the other apostles, they just don’t get it.


They don’t quite understand what Jesus is getting at when he is talking about the last being first.


They don’t understand him when he says that we are called to serve and not be served.


They just don’t understand that simple virtue of humility.


Their view of Christianity—their view of where they stand in relation to Jesus—is a constant jockeying for position.


And many of us to this day feel the same way in our own lives, in our work and in our faith lives.


There are many people who look to the Church in this way.


For many people in the Church, the Church  is simply a place that is here to serve them.


They feel that Christianity is all about being served by the Church.


Guess what?


I hate to break the news to you.


It is not.


The Church is not here to serve those of us who are in the Church.


It is our duty as followers of Jesus, as members of the Church, to serve.


What today’s Gospel shows us is that Jesus is calling us to something much bigger than we probably fully understand.


I think a lot of us—even those of us who come to church every Sunday—sometimes look at Christianity as a somewhat quaint, peace-loving religion.


We dress up, we come to church on Sunday, we sing hymns, we hear about God’s love, we receive Body and Blood of Jesus in the Bread and Wine, and then we go home and…and we don’t think about it again until the next week.


But the Christianity of Jesus is not soft. It is not just a whitewashed, quaint religion.


Bishop Spong certainly believed that with all his heart.


 The Christianity of Jesus, as we hopefully have all figured out here at St. Stephen’s, is a radical faith.


It is a faith that challenges—that makes us uncomfortable when we get comfortable, that riles us when we have become complacent.


It is a faith that works well here in church, on Sunday morning, but also should motivate us to get up from these pews and go out into the world and live out the faith we have learned here by serving others.


And it is this fact that many of us might find a bit frightening.


Like James and John, we all want to gain heaven.


We all want a nice place beside Jesus in that world-to-come.


I want that place!


But few of us want to live out our faith in all that do and say right now. And even fewer of us are ready to be servants—to be slaves for others.


We don’t always want to serve the lowliest among us.


We don’t want to suffer like Jesus suffered.


We don’t want to taste from the same cup of anguish that Jesus drank from on the night before he was murdered.


And we sure don’t want to be humble sometimes.


I will admit, I am in that boat a lot.


 I sometimes don’t want to be a servant or slave to others.


I don’t want to suffer like Jesus suffered.


And although I might try—and not always that hard—I am not so good at being humble sometimes.


But we all, I think, at least here at St. Stephen’s, are trying.


We all making the effort in some way.


As followers of Jesus, we are reminded that we are called truly to be servants to each other and especially to those who need to be served.


We are asked as followers to do something uncomfortable.


We are asked to take a long, hard look at the world around us and to recognize the fact that there are people living in need in our midst.


And we are called to serve them.


And in those moments when we ourselves may need to be served, many of us have discovered that serving others is sometimes the best antidote for that need.


What we cannot do is ignore those in need.


When I ignore those in need, when I don’t serve, when I don’t stand up against injustice—I am made very aware that in that moment, I am not following Jesus.


If I don’t do those things, but I still stand up here and call myself a Christian, then I have truly become a “Son of Thunder.”


And, for most of us, that is exactly what it sounds like when we want the benefits of our faith, without making the sacrifices of our faith.


In those instances, we truly do sound like a low, distant thunder.


We cannot bulldoze our way into heaven by riding roughshod over those we should be serving along the way.


For us, as followers of Jesus, our job is simply to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves—and when we do, in our lives, in our work, in the way we perceive the world around us, then a natural humility will come over us.


In those moments, we do recognize that God is in control.


Not us.


What is more humbling than that realization in our lives?


We are not in control of anything ultimately!


Again, here is another example of this radical Christianity.


It carries through in how we serve each other. Christians are not expected to bring anyone to God through an arrogant attitude.


We are not expected to come charging into people’s lives, making them tremble before us in fear.


We are not expected to thump our Bibles and wave the Words of Jesus before people in a desperate attempt to win souls for God.


We aren’t forcing God on anyone, nor should we.


In doing so, we dominate people.


We coerce them into believing.


But if we simply serve those Jesus calls us to serve, with love and charity and humility, sometimes that says more than any Sunday sermon or curbside rant.


Think of the words Jesus could use.


He could use, “power” to mean “dominance,” or “oppression” or “force.”


But he doesn’t.


Rather, Jesus uses the words “serve” and “servant”


In all of this, Jesus is telling us that we are to be servants—servants not only to God, but to each other as well.


I, as a priest, who stands here at this altar at each celebration of the Eucharist —I am not the only one called to be a minister of God.


We are all called to be ministers of God.


By our very baptism, by the Eucharist we share at this altar each Sunday, we are called by God to serve each other.


We are not here on Sunday morning to be served—to be waited upon, to be lavished with gifts.


We are here to serve.


And it is this sense of service that we must take with us out of here into the world.


James and John eventually figured this out.


They went on from that day and served Jesus in the world.


Eventually , they would both die for Jesus as martyrs—as very witnesses to Christ by their deaths.


So, for those of us who get angry at the daughters and sons of thunder in our lives—let us be patient.


For those of who recognize ourselves as a son or daughter of thunder—just relax.


God always finds a way to break through our barriers—if we let God.


It is this breaking through, after all, that makes our Christianity so radical.


So, let us serve God.


Let us serve each other in whatever ways God leads us to serve.


By the very fact that we are baptized and fed with Jesus’ Body and Blood in the Eucharist, we live out our service in the world.


And when we do, we just may find that the thunder we hear is the thunder not of arrogance or pride, but rather the thunder of the kingdom of God breaking through into our midst.


Let us pray.


Loving God, help us as we seek to quiet ourselves, as we seek to follow Jesus, as we seek to serve and not be served, for in doing so we know that your Kingdom will truly come and your Reign will truly begin. In Jesus’ Name we pray. Amen


3 Pentecost

  June 26, 2022   1 Kings 19.15-16,19-21; Galatians 5.1,13-25; .Luke 9:51-62   + I don’t want to toot my own horn, but for any of y...