Sermon at St. Mark's, Port Royal
Third Sunday in Lent: March 24, 2019
Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; I Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
The Gospel today raises some interesting questions as we seek to be faithful disciples of Jesus and not merely in passive resignation to what we find swirling around us. As Jesus continues to move toward Jerusalem, the place of his execution, the context reflects the commonly held conviction of the day that illness and misfortune were God’s punishment for sin.
Now, lest we think that this understanding was held only by ancient and unsophisticated people who did not know better, think again. Can we debunk this kind of thinking, at least among us, once and for all? Last hurricane season, in the face of natural disasters, we heard some popular TV preachers say that certain storms were sent by God to punish us for our sins. Or more to the extreme, we get people of Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas (not fair to all Baptists by the way), who demonstrate at military funerals and scream out epithets saying that the reason these dedicated soldiers have died is God’s punishment on the United States for its tolerance of gay and lesbian people. Even last week, there were Islamophobic rants from people blaming the victims of the murders in the two mosques in Christchurch, NZ, saying that they deserved what they got.
Those are attitudes that are rather easily seen as nonsense if we use our brain just a little bit. Why isn’t God zapping us for how we treat the planet in the pollution of our water and soil as we continue to feed our addiction to fossil fuels, or sending major calamities on parts of the international banking industry for its collusion with the governments of Iran and Iraq, in effect stealing from the pockets of people like you and me as well as aiding and abetting terrorist activity? Or again, unless we think we are too sophisticated for such thinking, I cannot tell you how many times I have heard someone say from a hospital bed, “I wonder what I have done to deserve this,” thereby linking personal behavior to being punished by God with sickness and misery.
Jesus is saying – there is no necessary connection at all! And he uses the story of the horrible murder of some Galileans and the tower of Siloam falling on the eighteen people to say that their sin was no worse than anyone else’s. So the first thing of which Jesus is asking us to repent, in order to walk in a new direction, is theological thinking that makes God into a terrorist going around looking to pick off who God can pick off when you or I or anyone else misbehaves or even is perceived to have misbehaved! Jesus says, “Do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?”
Even more, he points us to shift our attention toward impending catastrophes for which human beings, not God, bear total responsibility. While wanting to give comfort and assurance for a person who stumbles, he is also looking to light a fire under the too comfortable, the self-righteous, and other unproductive disciples. We have work to do in the life of faith! Look again to the commitments to which we are called in our baptism and the vows those being received today are making with us: calls to be disciples of Jesus’ justice and peace; standing for the dignity for every human being. Let’s go back to the story. What was happening there when Jesus says, “Repent, or you will all perish as they did?”
Pilate, the Roman governor, had just had killed some people from Galilee. Apparently he had killed them in Jerusalem, where sacrifices are offered at the temple, because Jesus is told that Pilate “mingled their own blood with their sacrifices.” So a question – why would Pilate be killing Galileans in Jerusalem, in the temple? Only one answer is possible: he believed they were rebel insurgents. He had brought the power of Roman rule down on them.
Even the tower of Siloam falling on the 18 people is most probably one of the towers of the wall of Jerusalem that had been toppled in a siege attempt by the Roman soldiers under Pilate’s command. Key here, again asking the question of what to repent or change one’s mind, is when Jesus says, “…unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” AS THEY DID, that is, at the hands of the Roman army under Pilate’s direction. The repentance, or change of mind and new direction Jesus is calling forth here is not personal sin. He is saying, and get this, unless you stop participating in this armed violent rebellion, you will all get killed in the same way they did; compliments of Pilate and the Roman army.
Jesus saw people caught in self-destructive behavior and was seeking to warn them, pulling them back from the edge of the cliff. His message was precisely the opposite of “God is punishing you.” We see this in the parable of the fig tree where the owner is looking to cut it down for its non-production, but the farmer wants to give it more time. The image conveys God’s patience with us, God’s never failing mercy, giving us always the opportunity to change course, to adjust behavior, like giving a gardener another chance to fertilize a fruitless tree.
So what at first glance today may have looked like a word of threat is in fact a word of promise and hope. Jesus, on the Cross, is our intercessor. He is the Gardener who in the act of the Cross and Resurrection accomplishes the new chance you and I and all of creation has to be made new. Jesus is working the soil, if you will, so that new life can happen and the sign will be when you and I have a change of heart and mind, when in response to God’s patience we are more awake to the Spirit’s movement, more just and more compassionate in God’s service.
In Lent, Jesus recruits us for this work of insisting on a collective repentance for policies, plans and attitudes, that are threatening entire systems on which human well-being depends. It is the work we are called to do as Christ’s people. Who will do it if we don’t?
First Sunday in Lent: March 10, 2019
Jesus would have known of the public ritual set forth in Deuteronomy today, whereby the people recall God’s faithfulness to the Israelites in the wilderness. He would have done this himself some thirty times over his life to this point. Beyond that he would have heard it read and likely read it himself hundreds of times.
Jesus was formed by this story from his time as a child through the synagogue lectionary as well as at home. It would give him his grounding as he faces his own time in the Judean wilderness. In Luke’s account we note at least two things. First, Jesus was tempted. This may be obvious, but it is important since it informs us that Jesus experienced temptation in every way we do and links his humanity to ours. As Hebrews tells us: “We do not have a great high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but we have one who in every way has been tempted as we are, yet did not sin.”
Secondly, note that the temptations are not trivial. They are related to the very core of Jesus’ calling and identity. Jesus is tempted here to modify his ministry to serve purposes other than what brings life, freedom and hope.
If you are hungry – get some bread. What could that hurt? Isn’t eating a good thing? Rule over the kingdoms of the world – gosh, you’re a good guy. You’d probably do a great job of it. Jump off the temple roof – didn’t God promise to protect you? Do you trust God or not? In the exchange the character of the devil says, “If you are the Son of God,” do this! Do you see what is going on here? The clever plot seeks to plant the thought in Jesus’ mind that he needs to prove his identity through these parlor tricks after he had just been told at his baptism, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Make no mistake. Jesus is being tempted here to the depth of his being. He is being tempted to forget who he is, to whom he belongs, and to live out his mission and ministry in a manner better suited to what the world tends to value rather than God’s desire for us. The enemy, the liar and deceiver, seeks to sow in the human heart the promise of bread and comfort conjoined to greatness, fame, being number one, power and prestige, at the expense of others. The warning here is to measure such desires at the cost of one’s soul, for often the battle waged is not an exterior, objectified wilderness, but the wilderness of our own heart.
Our worth is found in who God says we are: beloved, made in his image, worthy of respect, of inherent value for no other reason than that we were born. Anything that tells us that we, or for that matter any other human being, is not of infinite worth to God, loved beyond our wildest imaginings, is a lie. It is true even when Scripture itself is used to devalue, dehumanize or demonize any person of the earth. We learn from Jesus in the wilderness that this is Satan’s ruse. This is where bigotry in all its forms is born. Jesus didn’t fall for it. Nor should we. Lent takes us back to the wilderness once again to give us the opportunity to consider deeply who we are and who we want to be as Christ’s own. It has us ask the question of how we engage our neighbor, whether here in Denmark or halfway around the world.
To engage the wilderness to where the Holy Spirit led Jesus, or even to enter the wilderness of the Israelites, can perhaps challenge us to see that our address right now is just that, wilderness. It is true for each of us individually, for us as a Diocese, and for us on planet earth. In our wilderness we get to confront our deepest fears, reestablish where we find our identity, and embrace what gives us hope. We also get the amazing opportunity to reconnect to all who are in their various wildernesses with us, all who are oppressed, treated wrongly, judged, devalued. “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien…,” and there with him we find sibling journeyers, migrants, refugees, all of us together on the way seeking liberation. The wilderness experience can give us our life back in order to be set free for a true home that trusts in God’s who has said through Christ that you and I and all are worth dying for.
One of Jesus’ responses to the lies was to do what? Worship! That means, among other things, to become ever more clear about what truly is of worth, as in “worth-ship.” In worship we give supreme worth to God, and by a beautiful turn of grace find ourselves “made worthy to stand before him.” We come together to hear the sacred story over and over, to remember, to be sustained by one another, have our imaginations stirred, then set free to be who God calls us to be.
The discipline of Lent is to get clear one more time about our center, our identity in Christ. When temptation comes, and it will, we have an opportunity through a life of prayer and worship to remain grounded in who we are in Christ and to live out of that truth alone. Then, when we fail, and we will, we know we are forgiven and still loved as we find our center once again. Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom is not when everyone gets it all right. His vision is when all will worship the One God.
You and I go through Lent and indeed all of life knowing the end of the story – Jesus is Risen! We are resurrection people called to worship God above and before anything else. As Christians our life is to be rooted in thanksgiving that leads us to be profoundly grateful for God’s act in Christ on the cross. Only there will we find that we are truly set free to be who God calls us to be, to see others as God sees them, and remember who we truly are – God’s own people.
Dear Friends of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina,
On Ash Wednesday we go to the altar twice. We go first to receive the imposition of ashes and second to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Both of these actions name a reality and a hope.
Going forward to receive ashes marked on our foreheads is an imposition, even a startling one. We are told that we “are dust and to dust you shall return.” The truth is we are mortal, finite, and subject to all the chances and changes of what it is to be human. Our Prayer Book calls it this “transitory life.” We hear similar words uttered by God to Adam in Genesis. We hear them at every funeral. It is a statement not of curse, but of reality. We are dust.
To be dust is, however, also a sign of hope. To embrace this truth means that we have named who we are without sentiment and come to the awareness that we have no hope in and of ourselves. We are stripped of our nonsensical illusions about our own power and ability to control, and are taken back to the wilderness where we can rediscover our need of God’s grace and mercy. To acknowledge that we are dust can prepare in us a place for God.
Now we are hungry and thirsty. Now we long for something that can refresh us and make us new. Now we return to the altar to be fed with Christ’s very self offered for us in the Sacrament of Bread and Wine. The reality that gets named is that we come forward needy and incomplete. Even more importantly, however, we come forward to meet the ultimate reality, God, and our God reaches out to feed us and make us whole. We are made worthy in Christ in the very act of eating and drinking from what God offers us in Christ.
Participating in Eucharist is then also our hope. We meet Christ Risen and alive in us and among us. It reminds us of who we really are: the redeemed, loved and embraced people of God empowered to be Christ for the world. Once again you are invited by God through the Church to begin the Lenten journey. Walk with us and discover again your reality and even more, your hope.
The Last Sunday After the Epiphany: March 3, 2019
Listen to Good Shepherd's podcast of this sermon.
We stand at the edge of the season of renewal we know as Lent. Ready or not, we transition into its wilderness of honest introspection of who we are as God’s own people. Yet before we make this shift, we are given the opportunity to look through the window of the Transfiguration, the crowning event of this season of light, as we are introduced once again to the clarity of Jesus’ identity. From the holy mount we hear: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” His Baptism and Transfiguration are bookends of the season after the Epiphany, each a manifestation – an epiphany – of who Jesus is.
Note, however, that this day is not only about who Jesus is. It is also about who you and I are. We are invited to contemplate the heart of God as seen reflected in the radiant Christ, and see ourselves through the One who is unbounded love, shown forth perfectly in his departure, that is, his exodus, on the cross.
On the holy mountain Jesus’ identity was affirmed amongst the community of Peter, John and James, descendants of the historical witness of Elijah and Moses, the great prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. They also had experiences of the glory of God on holy mountains. We too are descendants of what occurred on the mountain, as the identity of those receiving the laying on of hands by the bishop is reaffirmed. Just as Jesus, you are God’s chosen, sealed by the Spirit, Christ’s own forever, and empowered for service to be God’s ambassador of love and grace for the sake of the world.
One of the purposes of the liturgy is to draw us into a relationship with God and one another, where the veil is pulled back just a bit, in order to catch a glimpse of the glory of God. We are given the opportunity to fall in love with the Holy One as we bask in the light of God’s love for us. Hopefully, we find ourselves reminded of who God is, who we are, and what God intends the world to be. We see on the holy mountain a vision that all creation is full of God’s glory, that beauty is everywhere, and that each moment vibrates with God’s presence, if only we had eyes to see and hearts ready to be opened. Such awakening, or heart-opening, is the primary purpose of prayer, where bit by bit our marination in the Spirit occurs, and we are formed more deeply into the mind of Christ.
Some years ago I was travelling on a warm summer day on my way to a diocesan meeting. Part way there I came upon road construction where one lane was shut down. There was the guy doing his job, holding the sign that said “Stop!” in large letters, causing us to wait for the other side to clear. I found myself irrationally irritated that this interruption in schedule might cause me to be late, because clearly, the universe is all about me.
While waiting, however, by grace I was able to slow my breathing and look around, slowly letting it all go. Out of my peripheral vision I saw a Wooly Bear, one of those fuzzy fat caterpillars walking across the yellows stripe of the road. Each undulation of its body and the manipulation of its many legs moved it along at a rather rapid pace. I found myself relieved when it made it to the side of the road not being squished by a tire.
I looked out the window on the other side and gazed upon a red-winged blackbird, perched on a cattail as it swayed back and forth in the breeze, glowing iridescently in the sun. Transfiguration? All of the sudden what seemed like an inconvenient interruption was transformed into a moment of grace, even contemplation on the beauty of God’s creation. I was awakened by that grace to a reality that was present whether I noticed or not, but fortunately circumstances caused me to slow way down, pause, and see with different eyes. The veil was being pulled back.
I wonder if you have heard of something called “the sacrament of the moment?” In essence it means that each second of life, every breath we take, is full of the grandeur and wonder of God. Too often, however, we are too busy, too preoccupied, too distracted to notice. Someone has said that in our time we are not suffering from a decay of beliefs as much as a loss of solitude. We are being called to stand boldly before the radiance of Jesus. Today, as some of you come forward, I hope you will know that it is not as much about standing before the bishop as it is standing before the Christ, veils removed, in the desire to be made new.
That is what this day seeks to do as it calls forth from us a new way of seeing. This life isn’t the only one there is, but we are called to live this life in a way that respects what God has made, including ourselves, and calls us to be stewards of every relationship on earth to which we are called. What we discover in Jesus’ Transfiguration is that each human being is made in God’s image. How we treat every human being matters, and is why we promise again today in the Baptismal Covenant to “work for justice and peace among all people” and “to respect the dignity of every human being.”
The nature of life is always to be in transition. We often resist since we human beings really like the status quo. Yet this day teaches us, once again, that the journey into holiness is not only to change, but to change often. Or to put it more eloquently from today’s Collect as it echoes II Corinthians, to be “changed into his likeness from glory to glory.” Hopefully, by grace, we’ll be opened to the possibility, discover the joy of being co-creators with God for the “metamorphosis” of the world, and find ourselves transfigured along the way.
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.