For the Fallen

BY LAURENCE BINYON

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children, 
England mourns for her dead across the sea. 
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit, 
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal 
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres, 
There is music in the midst of desolation 
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young, 
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow. 
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted; 
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: 
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 
At the going down of the sun and in the morning 
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again; 
They sit no more at familiar tables of home; 
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time; 
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound, 
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight, 
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known 
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust, 
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain; 
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness, 
To the end, to the end, they remain.

Source: The London Times (1914)

Wisdom Wednesday

Remember, light is not so much what you directly see as that by which you see everything else. This is why in John’s Gospel, Jesus Christ makes the almost boastful statement “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). Jesus Christ is the amalgam of matter and spirit put together in one place, so we ourselves can put it together in all places, and enjoy things in their fullness. It can even enable us to see as God sees, if that is not expecting too much.
Richard Rohr: The Universal Christ

Sermon: Imagine

I genuinely believe that love is central to Christian identity. Love is central to the Gospel, and love is the beginning, middle, and ending of human existence. In the end, love is the only thing that matters. I have spent the better part of my adult life reading and studying scripture and theology I can tell you that if we strip away all of the pronouncements by church councils and theologians all that remains is love. Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, says, “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (NIV)

In Today’s Gospel from John, Jesus tells those with him, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35, NIV) Let’s pick apart this verse a little.

“A new command I give you.” I always like to begin with definitions, so there is a clear understanding of what is being spoken of. Command; an authoritative order. The disciples believe Jesus is their teacher, their rabbi this is a position of authority. “The people were amazed at his teaching because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.” (Mark 1:22, NIV) “because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.” (Matthew 7:29, NIV) So Jesus is the authority, and he is giving them a new command.

Jesus is giving them a command; he is not making a suggestion. He is making this a command so they have an understanding of the importance of what he is saying and how central to everything that he has done, or will do in the future, love is.

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40, NIV)

All of the law and all of the prophets hang on this. Love is the fulfillment of the entirety of the law and all of the prophetic words of the prophets that came before Jesus. That is it, love!

Love is a complex emotion that has so many meanings it would be impossible to give it the treatment it deserves so, for now, we will move to pass the actual word love and towards something else.

Jesus tells them to “Love one another. As I have loved you” so to truly understand we have to look at how Jesus has loved them. There is no better place to start then “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NIV) The outpouring of God’s love manifested itself in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. God’s love for the world and those in it was so profound that God gave everything, including his son so that we might have eternal life. God sent Jesus to show us the way so we would stop wandering in the darkness. God sent his light into the world to light the path of righteousness. This is how much God loves us.

Jesus love for his disciples and those he ministered too was perfect and unconditional. Jesus never put obstacles in the way for someone to have to reach. He never told them that to be saved they had to follow a complex set of rules and regulations, he told them to believe. Hanging on the cross, Jesus turned to the thief and said to him that he would join him in paradise. The thief recognized Jesus for who, and what he is, he confessed and asked Jesus to remember him when he came into paradise. Jesus reassured him that he would be with him. The man was not baptized, he did not say the sinner’s prayer, he was not on his knees, and he never took communion or even attended the church he just believed. The example is that we are to love everyone without condition.

Everywhere Jesus went he healed; he fed, he preached, he reconciled, he forgave all without stopping to inquire if the people he was serving were worthy of his ministry. There was no credit check; he did not ask to see a passport or inquire about their immigration status. Jesus did not care where they had come from or how they got there he just met their needs with love. In his ministry, Jesus set no conditions on those that he would minister too, and he told the disciples the same. The only admonition he gave them was this, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.” (Matthew 10:14, NIV)

Notice, Jesus did not tell his disciples that if people did not listen, they were to go to the Congress and pass legislation to force them to believe. There is nowhere in that statement that tells the disciples that if the people do not believe they are to take them to court and sue them into believing. Jesus told them to present the Gospel, and if they believe great and if they do not, walk away. Apparently, people tend to ignore this passage if history is any judge.

I mentioned earlier that love is a complex emotion, and it is, but to do what Jesus has commanded us to do, we have to try and understand what love is. There is no better definition of Christian love than what St. Paul has to say about it in his First Letter to the Corinthians; I quoted part of it already. It comes from the 13th Chapter and is considered the “Wedding Reading:”

“Love is patient; love is kind. It does not envy; it does not boast; it is not proud. It does not dishonor others; it is not self-seeking; it is not easily angered; it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8; NIV)

Love does not keep people out love finds a way to invite people in. Love does not force one segment of the population to follow one set of rules while allowing another to follow a different set of rules. Love does not hold things over other’s heads, and love certainly does not use people for what they can get out of them. Love does not keep a tally sheet or good and evil. Love does not make fun of others or rejoice when others make fun of them. Love always tells the truth, no matter how harsh that truth might be. Love honors vows and honors all people. Love always protects especially those who are vulnerable or marginalized. Love always hopes and brings hope to others. And in the end, love never fails.

I gave this sermon the title “Imagine” because I wanted us to be able to imagine a world where love is the first and the last, where love and what is good for everyone is how we deal with situations in all of our doings. Imagine if love was the shining example in the laws we passed and the candidates we voted for. Imagine if love was the guiding principle in church affairs, and we did what was right rather than just what we wanted or because we have always done it that way. Imagine if we loved enough that we listened when someone we disagree entirely with speaks and that we love humanity enough that we seek to find solutions to problems that do not including destroying each other verbally or with bombs. Imagine loving so much that we allow people to decide for themselves what is best for them in their situation and their families, even if we disagree and we do not try and pass legislation that takes that choice away. Imagine if we loved each other and those we do not even know the way Jesus loved, without condition. Imagine what the world would be like if we just loved a little more starting with loving ourselves.

“But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now, we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:8-13, NIV)

Prayer of St. Brendan

Lord, I will trust You,
Help me to journey beyond the familiar and into the unknown.
Give me faith to leave the old ways and break fresh ground with you.

Christ of the mysteries,
Can I trust You to be stronger than each storm in me?
Do I still yearn for Your glory to lighten me?

I will show others the care You’ve given me.
I will determine amidst all uncertainty always to trust.
I choose to live beyond regret, and let You recreate my life.

I believe You will make a way for me and provide for me, if only I trust You and obey.
I will trust in the darkness and know that my times are still in Your hand.
I will believe You for my future, chapter by chapter, until the story is written.

Focus my mind and my heart upon You, my attention always on You without alteration.
Strengthen me with Your blessing and appoint to me the task.
Teach me to live with eternity in view.
Tune my spirit to the music of heaven.
Feed me, and, somehow, make my obedience count for You.

Sermon: The Way Forward

A few days ago I had the honor of presiding at a funeral for a 95-year-old woman. Her name was Catherine, and I did not know her apart from one visit I had with her just before she died. Presiding at a funeral, for me anyway, is a difficult task. What am I going to say? What words of comfort can I be to those grieving?  This was made all the more difficult because I did not know Catherine.

Catherine was born in 1923 that made her 96 years old. Her mother was a terrified 14-year-old girl, and she was given up for adoption right after her birth. She never knew her birth family, and she was never adopted. As was the rule at the time, she was given a new set of clothes and a little money on her 18th birthday and shown the door. She was thrown out of the only home she had ever known, she had no education, she could not read or write, and she had no skills other than her ability to care for children. She went door to door asking if she might care for the children until she came upon a family that took her in. Catherine was an amazing woman.

I sat there during the funeral as two of Catherine’s “children” rose to speak to the close to 100 people that had gathered for her funeral. They talked about this woman with warm, loving words that made me sad I did not get a chance to meet the real Catherine and not the frail, old, worn woman that I had met a few days before. She was full of life and love and, in the end, had a larger family than anyone could have ever hoped for.

While I was listening to the words spoken, I got to thinking about what people would have to say about me at my funeral. I decided, at that moment, that I was going to write my own eulogy. I am not going to leave it to chance for someone else to do.

But I sat there listening and wondering, what have I done with my life? Have I lived true to my calling from God to speak for those who have no voice, to advocate for those who have no one to advocate for them? Did I genuinely love everyone as equals, did I love myself, and did I genuinely love my God? I am often asked and sometimes criticized when I speak about current events and that I preach about love too much. Yes, I am criticized for this believe it or not. But while I was sitting in the funeral home, surrounded by the friends and family of Catherine, I knew I was on the right track.

Last week, a 19-year-old man walked into a Synagogue in Southern California and started shooting. Worshippers had gathered for their weekly service, much like we are doing now and were praying and singing when he walked in. One person was killed when she jumped in front of the rabbi and literally “took a bullet for him.” These types of shootings have become common here in the United States. While we fiddle or time away being afraid of an imaginary threat coming across the border, white men with guns are blowing people away at an alarming rate.

But what is more alarming than that, if that is not enough, is that this young man, just the week before was sitting in a pew, in a Christian church and it was in that Church that he was radicalized.

The shooter belongs to a church that is part of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a small breakaway group from the larger Presbyterian Church here in the United States because the larger group was not Orthodox enough. This Church, founded to combat the spread of liberal theology in the 1930s is rooted in the Calvinist belief of Predestination. In short, you are predestined before your birth, whether you are to get into heaven or not.  You don’t know if you are or you are not, and you cannot change your position.

In 1993 they petitioned the President of the United States to disallow gay people in the military. The petition included this statement, “homosexuality is a reproach to any nation. It undermines the family, and poses a substantial threat to the general health, safety, and welfare of our citizens.” The 68th General Assembly declared that women serving in combat positions in the military were contrary to the biblical role of women. In 2007, the Church released a doctrinal statement that although the Church should do everything within its power to help immigrants, they must first repent of their “illegal” status. The Church does not ordain women to serve in any leadership capacity. By the way, the Church across the country is majority white. All of this, by the way, is buried deep within the pages of their website.

Now I am not one who usually criticizes other churches for their beliefs; however, when your Church believes that gays, immigrants, women, and people of color are less than, we have a problem. Part of the preaching includes blaming the Jews of the death of Jesus. When we dehumanize people when we treat them as less than it makes people believe it is okay to treat them not as humans, but as something else. Ideas like this are what led people to think it was okay for one human being to own another, why, because they were property and not human. It is what led people to believe that Jews were responsible for all of their problems and therefore the “final solution” was okay, and they simply looked the other way. And it is theology like this that leads a 19-year-old man to walk into a place of worship and start shooting. This young man was radicalized in his Church because the Church never spoke out for those who had no voice. It is young men like him, and all the rest that force me to speak out. This was not the sermon I had planned for today.

By the way, that liberal theology they were trying to combat; equal rights of all humans, feeding the hungry, peace over war, creation of housing for the homeless, integration of schools, civil rights, women’s suffrage all of those horrid liberal ideas.

And that brings me to today’s Gospel. As I read over this passage this week, I came up with at least four different sermons. There is one on seeing Jesus in others. Another on the abundance of God’s grace and love. Another of the three great loves, love God, love neighbor, love self. There is one on feeding the people of God. And the final one, forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation. Any of these would preach, and I just wonder how different the situation would have been last week in Southern California if that young man had heard anyone of those sermons.

I want us to look at the dialogue between Peter and Jesus that begins in verse 15. We spend a lot of time focusing on the miracle of the catch of fish, but we ignore the miracle that takes place here at the end of the passage. There is no doubt in my mind that Peter has some lingering confusion about his denial of Jesus. I am sure there is a little guilt lingering in the recesses of his mind, and it has caused him pain and caused him to doubt. Jesus questioning of Peter must make that all the worse. Jesus asks Peter not once, not twice, but three times if Peter loves him and each time Peter answers yes. When Jesus asks Peter the third time, scripture tells us that Peter was hurt, but he did not realize what was happening, Jesus was forgiving Peter. Peter denied Jesus three times; Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him and Peter’s response was yes, each time. After each yes Jesus tells Peter, feed my lambs, care for my sheep, feed my lambs. In other words, Peter, I forgive you now go and do my work. Peter was not perfect; none of the Apostles were perfect. They all made mistakes, I have made mistakes, but when God speaks to me he tells me I am forgiven; now go and do my work.

I believe that God has called me and given me a voice to speak out against hatred in all its forms. I am here today and every day that you will have me to preach the good news that God loves everyone and we are to love everyone no matter what they look like or where they worship. If your Church, if your preacher teaches that it is okay to think of another person as less than, then very simply, you need to find another Church. Jesus was murdered because he welcomed all to the table. Jesus was killed because he loved all without condition. Jesus was killed because he made the religious leaders look bad because of the way they were treating the other.

I will not let myself be silenced. I will continue to shout from the rooftops if I have too. I will continue to strive to show God’s love to others and to tell them that God loves them just the way they are and that God welcomes them to the table. I have been an outcast, I have had backs turned on me, I have been told I am not worthy, I know how it feels, and if I can prevent just one person from doing what was done last week, then it was all worth it.

Sermon: Its Okay to Doubt

Have you ever heard a story that was so far-fetched, so crazy that you just could not believe it? We all remember where we were on the exact moment of significant events that happened to us or to others. It is within the memory of most people in this room to know where they were when John Kennedy was shot in Dallas. Or when we heard news of the Space Shuttle explosion. Or when we stopped dead in our tracks when we heard the news of the terrorist attacks on September 11th. But they don’t have to be tragic, maybe it was a special birthday or the report of a friend or family member having a child all of these events have left an impact on us in our memory.

It has become all too easy these days to share stories that may or may not be valid. We are bombarded by 24-hour news and in a rush to be the first to break the story they may not always get it right. I recently re-watched the movie “All the President’s Men.” If you are not familiar with the film, it follows the investigative reporting of the Watergate break-in and the cover-up that followed. The investigation by the reporters took months and just when they thought they had the story, the editors wanted more verification and more verification. They sat on the story for weeks just to ensure they had it right. Today, for good or bad, stories get leaked before all the facts are in place, and if they are wrong, they just apologize later, or not.

But it is also hard to believe the worst about someone we know or someone we trust and if we do not want to believe the story we just simply brand it “Fake News” and go on with our day. We demonize those who disagree with us and those who report on things that we disagree with. We try and distract away from what the truth is by discrediting the source of the information and we really don’t care whether it is true or not. Once branded as “Fake News” we just simply believe that everything that is said cannot be accurate.

Then we come to today’s story from the Gospel of John.  It’s Easter night, and everyone is gathered together in the Upper Room. Perhaps they have gathered to watch the 10 Commandments or the Sound of Music but, whatever the reasons, they were all together, and the doors were locked. They were afraid. Remember, their friend had just been killed, and they thought they were next.

I can only imagine what was going through their minds. Jesus was dead or was he. They saw him crucified only a few days before. They watched taken from the cross, placed in the tomb, and the stone rolled in front of it. They Mary comes along and tells them he is not there and tells a story, so hard to believe that today we might call it “Fake News” that Jesus has risen. They run to the place of his burial, and he is, in fact, not there. Mary tells them again that he has risen just like he told them he was going to do. But they just cannot wrap their heads around it.

All day they have been discussing this. While the kids were out in the yard for the annual Easter egg hunt, the parents were inside debating what they had just heard and still they cannot believe it. For three years they walked and talked with Jesus. They witnessed Jesus giving sight to the blind. Healing those who cannot walk. They saw him walking on water and feeding 5,000 with only a few scraps of bread and fish. They saw Lazarus come out of tomb yet they are having a hard time with this news that Jesus has risen.

But there they were, all together, except for Thomas. We do not know why he was not there, and there is speculation that he was not there just so we could have this story about faith and doubt. But never the less, they were gathered in that particular place, the door was locked, and suddenly he was there with them.

Just to take a little turn here for a moment and stray away from my main point, Jesus just simply appears before them and says to them, “Peace.” Now I have to laugh every time I hear this read. They were all there, the door was locked, and Jesus just appears. No flash of fire, no smoke, no trumpet sound, he just appears. I can imagine he said “Peace” to them because they were like “holy ….” He had to calm them down. But I digress…

So he appears to them, and as proof, he shows them his hands and his side. They rejoice because they know it is him, they cannot believe it but they know, somehow, it is him. He breathes on them and tells them to “receive the Holy Spirit.” This harkens back to the beginning of Genesis when after God creates humanity he breaths is humanities nostrils to give them life. Now Jesus has come, breaths on them, and gives them spiritual life. And just as he came, he left.

Then Thomas comes, and they tell him that Jesus popped in for a visit, breathed on us and then left. Thomas is like “ya right” “Fake News” I want proof. Thomas wants to see what they saw, Thomas wants to believe, but he needs some reassurance that it is Jesus they are talking about.

Thomas has to wait a week before Jesus comes to them again. Once again they are gathered together in the Upper Room. The door is locked, and Jesus comes among them and bids them peace. He looks to Thomas and tells him to touch his hands and to place his hand in the side of Jesus so that he will know it is really him. Thomas falls to his knees and proclaims, “My Lord and my God.” Jesus asks him if he believes because he sees and then Jesus says, “blessed are those who believe and have not seen.”

There is a belief in the Christian world that we cannot question faith, we just have to believe that what we read in the bible or hear the preacher say has to be true. Many of us were taught that if we question an item of faith, we somehow lack confidence or that we are not strong in our faith. I believe just the opposite, it is our questions, our disbelief, our doubts that make our belief stronger, I few are seeking answers to those questions. As Christians, we are asked to believe a lot that is just beyond the possible and sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between what is true and what is not true. We have to discern right from wrong on so many issues and what we thought we understood maybe we no longer understand.

Having doubts about your faith is just fine, not seeking understanding of those doubts or clarity of thought is not okay. Doubting the resurrection or any other article of faith does not make us any less a Christian than one who simply believes the struggle to come to an understanding of our faith is real, and many of us wrestle with this daily. Maybe I have said something that has made you question something you believe. Perhaps one of the TV preachers has said something that has caused you to doubt. That is fine, come and seek the answers to your questions but when you do you need to leave all of your preconceptions about things behind and approach with an open mind and an open heart. Just because you were taught something in Sunday School all those years ago does not make it true or false. God gave us intellect and reason so we can search for the answers.

When Jesus appeared to them for the second time, he did not scold Thomas. Jesus did not put him down and call him a backslider for not believing the story he had been told he simply provided the proof that, in Thomas own words, Thomas needed so he could understand. I am not sure what scripture passage this quote comes from, but it is from Peter. Peter says, Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” It is okay to have doubts, it is okay not to believe it is all part of the journey.

Sermon: The Came the Morning

For some 2,000 years, people have stood in pulpits and tried to explain the events that have brought us here today. For centuries theologians have been attempting to make sense of someone willing to die for those he did not even know.  But since you got all dressed up and made an effort to be this morning I will add my voice to the thousands that have come before me and offer some thoughts on this Easter morning.

I have given this sermon the title, Then Came the Morning, but I want to back up a couple of days, to Good Friday.  There, Jesus is hanging on the cross. He has been given a death sentence because he dared to stand up to the religious and political establishment of his day. He gave voice to those without a voice and told his followers that they were to love everyone no matter what.

So there he hangs, between two thieves, crucified like a common criminal. One of them asks Jesus to forgive him, we have no idea what he did to deserve the same sentence of death, but, he asks Jesus to forgive him.  Without hesitation, Jesus forgives him and tells him that they will be together in paradise. A few moments later he looks around at those who have just carried out his death sentence, and he asks God to forgive him. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

From the cross, the instrument of his death, he asks God to forgive those who have just killed him. The story of the crucifixion, in fact, the entire salvation story is all about forgiveness, and that story continues today.

It is always the darkest just before dawn. Jesus’ friends had seen him taken away. They followed him to the Governor’s house where the death sentence was pronounced. They saw him beaten and then saw him carry his cross to the place of his death. From far off they saw him die and his body placed in the tomb, and the stone rolled in front of it. They watched their friend and their teacher die, and they did not know what to do.

Then came the morning

After the Passover Mary, one of his followers went to the tomb. They had to bury him quickly and did not have time to prepare the body, so Mary went to finish the burial process. But, the tomb was opened, and he was gone, she was distraught, what happened, where did he go. Then, Mary saw him. At first, she did not know who he was but then, after hearing his voice, she knew it was the master.

Jesus told her to go and tell the others. In another version of this story, he told her to go and tell the others, and Peter. Jesus was offering forgiveness to Peter for his denial. He was offering forgiveness to all of them for abandoning him, but he especially granted forgiveness to Peter.

Mary raced back to tell them what had happened and became the first evangelist, the first one to preach the Easter message.

Their world would never be the same again and neither would the world.

Jesus left us with a way, a path to follow, a path of love and a path of forgiveness. A path he calls us to be the voice for those who have no voice in our world and a way that requires us, if we are to claim the title of Christian, a path of love for all, without conditions.

But he also left us with a way for forgiveness and reconciliation. God loves us so much that he sent his son to become like us, to understand us on a deeper, more intimate level and to offer us forgiveness. Yes, God loves you just the way you are.  Sure, there are voices out there that will tell you differently.  There are elements of the church that want to dictate who you can love and who can come to the table, but make no mistake, this church and this minister is here to proclaim to the world that God’s loves you just the way you are.

In a few moments, I will invite you to come to the table, the table of love and the table of reconciliation. This table of simple bread and cup is a symbol of unity where all are equal, and the love of God is evident to all. This table, just like God’s love,  is for all and we welcome all.

The message of Easter, the message of our entire Christian way is a message and a way of love. My prayer for all of us on this day is that we truly know that God loves us and that we take that message of love from this place out into the world that is so desperate for that message and that love.

Sermon: The Last Supper

Today we celebrate the Triumphal Entry of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ into Jerusalem or as it is today known as, Palm Sunday. Today is the day we commemorate Jesus riding into the City of Jerusalem on a donkey, the noble beast, and where he will be proclaimed King by the people. As I mentioned last week, this is one of the events that pushed the political and religious leaders of the day over the edge, this was, in fact, an act of treason and one punishable by death.

Historically there are two ways for a conquering king to enter the city he has just conquered. The first is to come as a military leader that is about to impose martial law on the citizens of that city. He comes, usually, on a white horse to signify his power over the people and that he intends absolute rule. The second way for the king to enter the city he has just taken over is to come riding on a donkey, as a symbol of peace. Riding the humble donkey, with armaments shows the people that the king comes in peace and hopes to rule his new city in that peace, this is how Jesus came into the town, not as military ruler to smite everyone, but as the King of Peace to bring that peace and he was met with cheers and palm branches, but soon those cheers would change.

But today is also Passion Sunday, and traditionally on this day, churches would read the passion account, part of which we heard this morning. Today we turn the page, Lent is finished and the holiest of weeks is starting, and we begin this Holy Week by calling to mind why we are all here and the example that Jesus Christ left for us. But let us be clear as we begin this journey. Jesus was not killed as some sort of divine retribution, or to fulfill some plan hatched long ago by a God that required a sacrifice, no, Jesus was killed, murdered if you will, because he dared to stand up to a corrupt, oppressive system that dehumanized people. Jesus was murdered because he came to show us a different way, a way in which all were invited to the table; all would be treated equal, and way a love, love for all including our enemies. That is what the week ahead of us is all about.

I would like us to focus on one small part of the passion story. It’s a small part of the story but it is a large part of or should be anyway, of our spiritual practice, and that is the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The events that took place in the Upper Room on that night that he was to be betrayed. The night he gathered for the last time with those closest to him in a very intimate way. They shared their last Passover meal together and after the supper was ended the events unfolded.

Historically, there has been a lot of time and energy spent on what actually happened. Did the bread contain leaven or not? Who was there? What did Jesus actually mean, was this his actual body and blood or was it a mere symbol? Thousands have died because of their answer to this question. Many more thousands have been turned away over the last 2,000 plus years and told they were not worthy, they were not part of the club and therefore they could not partake of the bread and cup of salvation. Wars have been fought over this simple command to remember Jesus and his sacrifice for all of us.

But what is this simple meal all about?

I reminded you last week that all of the Apostles, all of those that Jesus chose to follow him were present at that meal. Everyone, including Peter that would deny him, Judas that would betray him, and all the rest who would run and hide and abandon him just when he needed them the most. All of them were present. Jesus knew what each of them was about to do yet he sat with them at the table and broke himself open for them. He shared his last meal with them, and now, in a very intimate way, he was sharing himself. Think about that for a moment, those who were about to hand him over to be killed were with him at that table yet we would exclude someone because of who they love or the color of their skin!

We call communion one of the Sacraments of the Church. The reformers believed that there were in fact sacraments but only two, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. So it would not be abused; these same reformers decided that once a month or maybe even only once a year, the people should gather for this feast and celebration. But is a sacrament, so we need to define just what a sacrament is. The classic definition of a sacrament is an outward sign of inward grace and the means by which we receive it. In other words, this is not just another meal something is happening here that we need to pay attention to.

Now I grew up believing that a transformation takes place during the communion prayers that the simple bread and wine, I am using wine today as it is more poetic than grape juice, but that simple bread and wine transform through the power of the Holy Spirit into something other than what it was. My belief has changed over time, I still believe that a transformation of a sort happens, I cannot explain it, and I am not quite sure what that change is, but those elements of bread and grape juice cease to be ordinary and become extraordinary, not is a “we must bow down and worship” way but in a blessed and sanctified way and they become for us that outward sign, they become holy to make us, in some way, holy.

By our participation in that meal, we receive grace from God, not that we would not receive it if we did not take the elements, but grace is imparted on us. This is why I believe in a sense of formality, dignity, and solemnity on Sundays and other times of the year when we celebrate communion. It is a holy time, a particular time when we recall the life that was sacrificed, not on the cross but in the dedication that Jesus had to show us a new way to live and that he was willing to die, not to right some ancient wrong, but because he believed in what he was doing.

The act of partaking in communion is to bring us together. I know this might sound trite, but there is a Union in Communion. So powerful was this image of union that people were instructed that of they held anything against another they were to go and right that wrong and then come back to the table. We say a prayer of confession, and it needs to be more than just words that we say, but we say this prayer before we partake so we are, spiritually, in the right place, not that God cannot work in us and through us if we are not, but by confession we are setting the best table we can and we invite the King to come and dine with us.  What we do is not a sacrifice. What we do is not merely symbolic. What we do is holy and, and we do it to remind ourselves that we are to love everyone and that we are to take that love from this place out into the world and spread it.

In the coming days, we will have two opportunities to receive this Sacrament of the table. Maundy Thursday, the day we commemorate the institution of the Sacrament, and on Easter, after all, it is what it is all about. My prayer is that we will have a better understanding of what takes place and a more spiritual understanding of what we are supposed to do with it. I hope you will spend time this week meditating on the events of the week. I hope you will spend time in prayer that these days make a difference in your spiritual life and that there is a renewal of spirit and soul. These are dark days ahead, but we know that the morning is coming and the light will shine again.

Sermon: Something New

Have you ever received a gift that changed your life? These types of gifts do not have to be extravagant; perhaps it was a kind word when you needed one the most.  Perhaps it was a card in the mail that came at just the right moment and brightened your day. Maybe a friend stopped by your house or popped into your office just to say hello.  Gifts come in all shapes and sizes, and our response to those gifts vary depending on the impact they may or may not have on us. In the Gospel passage from John, we see a reaction to a gift that is also a sign of things to come.

We have to back up a little in the story. In the previous chapter, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. We learn that Lazarus and Jesus knew each other, although we do not know how, and we also learn that Lazarus has two sisters, Mary and Martha. Mary is the doer, and Martha is the planner and the dreamer. Jesus got word that his friend Lazarus has died and he sets off to Bethany. Upon his arrival, he is scolded by Mary, “If you had been here he would not have died.” Jesus takes this in stride because he knows he is about to raise Lazarus. Jesus waited four days to prove that Lazarus was, in fact, dead.  The implication is no one could survive being in a tomb for four days. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, and all is well, or so we think.

The raising of Lazarus is the one incident that turns the tables on Jesus. Although the authorities, both religious and secular are worried about Jesus and his growing popularity, it was the raising of Lazarus that got their attention and made them nervous.  Perhaps Jesus is who he truly says he is and if so, we will lose power. To preserve our control, we will have to kill him. They were willing to compromise their morals, looking past certain things, to get what they wanted.  They did not care who that had to hurt along the way to get what they wanted as long as they get it.

So now Jesus returns to Bethany, and it is six days before the Passover, Jesus last Passover on earth. He is at the home of his friends when Mary approaches and anoints the feet of Jesus with Nard. If you read my “from the pastor” column this week in the email, you would learn that nard was costly and it only came from a plant that grows in the Himalayan Mountains of India and China. Mary uses this on the feet of Jesus and wipes of the excess with her hair. Judas objects, Jesus rebukes, and the meal goes on. So let’s unpack all of what is going on here.

This story also appears in Matthew and Luke, but in those stories, it is another Mary that does, Mary Magdalen who has a storied and uncertain past in the Gospels. What we do know is that she was welcomed by Jesus and forgiven of whatever it was she had done in her past, and that forgiveness was very public. As a way of thanking Jesus, she anointed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.

Just as an aside, the washing of feet was common when guests came to the house. The roads were dusty, and one wore sandals, so one’s feet were often dirty. A basin and a jug of water were kept by the door to wash one’s feet before entering a home. In larger homes, a servant would be dispatched for this task, the lowest member of the household.

In the “From the pastor” article I have already mentioned, I pointed out that anointing is part of the ritual of the coronation of kings and queens.  Oil is placed on the head, in biblical times it was poured on the head and ran down but in modern society that is too messy so it is merely placed on the forehead of the one who is to be king. But in this story, Mary does not anoint the head of Jesus and thus proclaiming him King, she anoints his feet, a sign of what is to come, his death. Mary is not signifying that Jesus is to be crowned the king; she is preparing Jesus for his eventual burial.

Then we have the objection of Judas. His opposition can be perceived as two-fold one, he objects for economic reasons. That perfume could have been sold for 300 denarii, a year’s wages for some. But there is also another possibility, Judas objected because he was not ready to hear the truth, the truth of Jesus death. Judas, like the other 11, have been with Jesus since the beginning and now he is coming to the realization that he is going to lose his friend and he does not want to hear it. We all know that ultimately Judas becomes the betrayer of Jesus but let’s set that aside for a moment and think of Judas as one who is about to lose a very close friend, perhaps the only person in his life that has ever accepted him.

Jesus knows he is coming to his end and he has become bolder in his ministry and in the things that he is saying and very soon, he will ride into Jerusalem and the most provocative way he can and be proclaimed King by those around him. The authorities cannot let this happen, so they are plotting against him.

But what we see today, in this tender, personal moment between Jesus and his friends is a model for Christian discipleship. The Christian disciple is neither Mary nor Judas but a little bit of both. In Mary, she is performing an act of adoration and gratitude for the gift she has received, the gift of the life of her brother but also the gift of life, spiritual life. She does this in a silent way that draws us into the story and into her story, but the attention is not on her but on the one she is anointing.

In Judas, we see God plan being worked out. In the eventual betrayal of Jesus by Judas, Judas is serving God’s purpose, and if the mission of Jesus was to save the lost, surely no one in the Gospel is more lost than Judas even if that is what Judas is called by God to do. If Jesus the Good Shepard can go to any length to save the one, is Judas beyond the grasp of God’s saving power? Are there those that Jesus is not able to love and to save? Is there a limit to the reach of the saving arm of Jesus? I do not believe so.

Jesus risked it all to show us the way. Jesus knew that by raising Lazarus from the dead, and all of the other things he did and said, would eventually lead to his death, his willing death. He died so that we might live. He came to show us the way of love and forgiveness, and I believe that this love and forgiveness includes the one who betrayed him.

Jesus love is so open and so vast that it includes even those who reject him. The love of Jesus is so open and so full that he can forgive you and me and welcome us into his loving embrace. If there is one thing, we learn from this story today it is whether we anoint his feet in adoration or reject him he still loves us.

I try and spend a little time each day reading scripture. I find great consolation and comfort in the words I read. There are those, professing to be Christian, who would like us to think that God does not love us. Perhaps it’s due to a theological or political open we hold that differs from theirs. Maybe it is because of who we love or the way we chose to live our lives. But the other day I came across a passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and it reminded we, once again, just how deep, and wide the love of God truly is:

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39

If you remember nothing of what I said today or any other day, please remember and know this, God loves you and cares for you just as you are.

Sermon: Embracing Love

The grace of God is an amazing thing. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but, now I’m found. Was blind but now I see. We sing this song at various times during the church year but do we really listen to the words that we are singing?  God’s grace is amazing, and the best part about that grace is that it is not dependent upon us.

The parable of the Prodigal Son is used during the time of Lent to remind us of the power not only of grace but the power of reconciliation. This story has it all, the son who wants what he wants when he wants it. He goes off and squanders it all. He needs to work so he can live and he takes the lowest job and eats the lowest of foods. He comes to the realization that he has done wrong and that he needs to return home, but he is not sure how he will be received.

We have a father who wants to give his son everything, even though he knows it is not good for him. We have a father who is worried for his son and for where he is and for what he is doing. We have a father who runs, not walks when he sees that his son is returning home. And we have a father who throws that son a party upon his return.

We have the other son. I am not sure if he is older or younger than the other one but, he stuck around and worked and cared for his father and the family business. He did not run off and squander his inheritance. He is, understandably so, a little upset when he finds that his brother has returned and his being thrown a party as a reward, in his mind, for being irresponsible while he stayed behind.

We have all of this in the parable, but we also have grace. Grace lies at the heart of this parable, a scandalous grace, a grace that defies all earthly rules and conventions.

I am not a parent, but, as I understand these things, parents only want what is best for their children. Parents want their children’s lives to be better than theirs, and many, many parents sacrifice everything to make that happen. Some parents, allow their children to make mistakes, to fail, because learning how to fail, learning how to lose at something, teaches the life lesson that not everyone gets a trophy.

During my time in ministry, I have known parents who have had to let their children go. Their son or daughter was involved in something that they could not get out of, drugs, alcohol, gambling and all the rest. For years they tried everything, counseling, rehab, giving them money, and nothing worked. Finally, they had come to the decision that they had to cut them off. This was and is an agonizing decision, but they felt, it was in the best interest of their child. It does not always work, but sometimes it does.

The father in today’s parable gave his son everything and let him go. He did not turn his back on him. I can only imagine he was not happy that his son was leaving but, being the dad that he is, he let him go to find his way. He never stopped loving him. The parable hints that the father kept a daily vigil waiting for the day he would return. We read that he “ran out to greet his son” while he was “still far off.”  Grace is what welcomed him home. Grace is what gave the father the ability to run to his son and welcome him back to the family.

Grace is what allowed the father to give the son a hug upon his return, to place the finest robe and a ring of gold on his finger. Grace is what allowed him to throw the biggest of parties because that which was lost has been found.

The son took his fortune. He left the family and went on his merry way. He spent it all and when there was nothing left he “hired himself out” he became a slave, a slave to his lifestyle and to the choices that he had made. He was sent to “feed the pigs.” Keep in mind that pigs were considered ritually unclean so for a Jew, as we suppose this man is to feed the pigs would make him ritually unclean. Now he has not only left his family but because of the choices he has made, has found himself outside of his faith and community. He has hit rock bottom. Because of the decisions he made, he is eating what the pigs eat and sleeping where the pigs sleep. And then grace appears. Grace gives him the realization that he has done wrong, wrong to his father, wrong to his family, wrong to himself, and wrong to God. Grace gives him the ability to see for himself how far he has gone from his father’s house. Grace is what will help him get up and grace what will lead him home.

When the son saw his father running towards him, he was filled with shame and grief. He had rehearsed a little speech all the way home, “father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy of being called your son.” But grace stepped in, and the father changed all of that.

Then we have the one who stayed behind. This son does not get a lot of ink and when he does it is usually bad. This son is portrayed as being jealous and upset, and, he has a right to be. He is the responsible one. He stayed at home, working the family farm and taking care of the family. He did not run off and spend everything, and when he hears of his brother’s return, he gets angry and feels a little rejected. He thinks that he should be rewarded and his brother should be dismissed, thrown out of the family. He is, after all, a sinner and there is no room for sinners in the house of God! He tells his father that for all these years he has obeyed the law. He has done everything that was required of him, and he has not had so much as a goat to celebrate with his friends. But grace steps in and his father tells him that everything that the father has belongs to him, but he is happy that the lost one has been found.

So how does this apply to us?

The father, in this parable, is God the loving father who gives us what we need and is always there, holding vigil for us when we stray away from him and his love. He is the one who rejoices when we return. God is the one who runs to us when we start on the path that will lead us home. God is the one that said to the thief hanging on the cross next to Jesus, “today you will be with me in paradise.”  God is the one whose arms are so broad that no matter what we have done, or what we have thought we have done, there is room for it all. God is love, and God is grace.

We are the prodigal. We are the one who strays, who takes what we want, who wants to live life as we want to live it, without consequences. We are the ones who think we know better. We are the ones who make choices that are not always good and end up eating and living with the pigs. And we are the ones who, through grace, realize that we have done wrong and desire to come home.

And we are the one who stayed behind. We are the ones who feel that obeying the law is enough. We are the ones who rightfully can be called Pharisees for the way we look down on others who do not live up to our standards. We are the ones judging who gets God’s grace and who does not get God’s grace. We are the ones who feel that we have the right to be the guardians of heaven and determine who gets into heaven and who does not. We are the ones who think we have the right to decide who is and who is not worthy of our help. We are the ones who look at other human beings and tell ourselves that because of their color, their place of birth, their socioeconomic level that we have the right to discriminate against them. We are the ones who interpret the word of God in such a narrow way that there is only enough grace for us, we have all been this person.

This is a story about God and God’s life-giving love and mercy. We are not the arbiters of God’s love and mercy, but somehow we have convinced ourselves that we are. Somehow we have convinced ourselves that we need to help God to determine who God should share that love and mercy with. We are afraid that if God loves them, there will be no room for us. But every time God’s active, stretching, searching, healing love finds someone and calls that person back home, it does not mean there is less for the rest of us. It means there is more. More wine. More feasting. More music. More dancing. It means another, and now a bigger, party.