Sheep and Freedom

The Fourth Sunday of Easter
Good Shepherd Sunday

Our Readings for this week are:
Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

Click here to access these readings

        Sheep get a pretty bad rap in our culture.  Sheep are seen as obedient, simple, and sometimes rather stupid animals in God’s great Creation.  Sheep follow without thinking, do what they are directed to do without much foresight or reflection, and often get themselves into trouble.  There’s a word in pop-culture, “sheeple”, that is a merger of the words “sheep” and “people”, and it means that people who are, simply, sheep: they are dull, uninteresting and uninterested people who just follow the status quo.  Sheeple are not individualists, striking out into unfamiliar territory and striving against expectations.  Sheeple, sheep-people, just do what they are told.

        And so it is, perhaps, a little strange that we Christians are so often described as, and describe ourselves as, sheep.  In our Baptismal Covenant, we are asked to continue in the apostles’ teaching, persevere in resisting evil, proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, seek and serve Christ in all persons, and strive for justice and peace among all people – not exactly dull and unimaginative work.  Christians are called to be a people apart from the world.  We are called to be not citizens of our present world but of the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus proclaimed.  We are to be in the world but not of the world.

        If we are, then, sheep, we are a very strange sort of sheep.  You see, when we Christians talk about “following”, we are saying something very special.  It’s not “following” like a duckling follows a mother duck, all nice and tight in a row, or how a train car “follows” the locomotive, just being pulled along a track without much will of its own.  It’s more like how we talk about how we’re asked to read and “follow” the Bible.  The Bible isn’t just a rulebook, like you use when you open up a new board game but don’t know how to play it yet; or when you are preparing your taxes, and you don’t understand the forms and so you look at one of those instruction sheets for which figure to put where.  Parts of the Bible are about instructions, certainly, and there are a few books that are, quite literally, a set of laws: when this happens, do this; when that happens, don’t do this.  But on a whole, the Bible isn’t a set of do’s and don’t’s, but is instead a story, and we follow stories much differently than laws books or instruction manuals.

        Think back to some of the stories that you’ve told me since I arrived last summer.  I’ve heard stories about how you celebrate: and not just Christmas and Easter, but birthdays and anniversaries, Thanksgiving and even that light, calm, joyous celebration of coffee hour.  I’ve heard stories about Ann Drake, Barbara and OJ Endicott, about who brought you into this church and why you stayed.  I’ve even heard stories about the different plants and trees around the church building, so that when the bushes outside the office erupted with blossoms, I had already been waiting all year in joyful anticipation for them.  You’ve told me stories while laughing, while in tears, while in hope, and while in grief.  You’ve told me stories of your life.  And while I’m sure some of those stories were meant to teach me something specific, or to make sure I do something (or don’t do something) very specifically, you told me these stories because you love your church, you love one another, and because you love your life in God.  And you want me to be a part of that, not just because you hired me to be your priest, but because you want me to love St. James, too, and to love you all and the way you all live your lives to God.  And I do, which helps me (I think) lead you into a deeper love of all those things as well.

        This is how we follow the Bible.  We hear its stories and we allow its love and hope to work within us.  And yeah, sure, there are times when Jesus says do this and don’t do this, and St. Paul, it seems, even moreso.  But are these the parts that really speak to us?  Truly?  Those parts that move us, that dig deep into us and challenge us to live more fully and opening and with more love, are those parts like the Annunciation, where the angel comes to Mary and says, “Rejoice!  For you shall bear the Son of the Most High!”; or Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, where he prays, “May this cup pass from me; but not my will, but your will.”  We read about Adam and Eve, about Cain and Abel, about David lamenting the death of his son, his son who betrayed him and revolted against him but was still his son and so beloved.  We read these stories and don’t learn something that we could answer on a test but, instead, learn about life and what it means to love God through thick and thin.  And even in that great passage in St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, where he writes that love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boatful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Even here, where Paul seems to be teaching specific lessons to be followed and obeyed, we give ourselves to this sort of love not because Paul said so but because we know, in our hearts and minds, in our guts and in our spirits, that love is the ground of all Creation.  And we want to live a life to God in love not because it has the greatest results in controlled experiments, but because the call to love answers something at the center of our being. 

And so we answer that call, given forth by Jesus on the cross and on the morning of the Resurrection, and follow the way of love.

        We are sheep, we Christians.  We are sheep, and we are called on to follow God in Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit.  But in doing so, in following and modeling our lives on our great shepherd, we are led to freedom.  And this freedom is a freedom from sin and despair, from hatred and malice, from our own slavery to evil.  In this freedom we find true health, true hope, true goodness that is so great that it cannot be contained in this world but smashes even death, which seemed to have the last and final word for we humans.  We follow, not just to obey, but to live, and to live without end, forever and ever with our God.

Life and Resurrection

The Second Sunday of Easter

Readings for this week are:
Acts 5:27-32
Psalm 118:14-29
Revelation 1:4-8
John 20:19-31

Click here to access these readings.

After Christmas, there’s always this discussion of when to put away our decorations.  And this is an important question during Christmas because decorations often involve a huge tree in your living room, a tree that is beginning to dry out and get a bit withered-looking.  But even still, we don’t want to let Christmas go.  We prepared all through Advent, we celebrated on Christmas Eve, we continued celebrating on Christmas morning and during our Christmas nap (I hope you take one of these, too) and at Christmas dinner.  But by the New Year, we kinda start to feel that maybe we should put it all away, or maybe at least tone it down.  We might let Christmas linger, but by the first week of January, most of us, and our culture included, are looking forward to the next holiday.

        Easter is no different, though here in the springtime we don’t have a big evergreen tree to hold us back.  We prepare and prepare and prepare all through Lent, then celebrate Holy Week and Easter Vigil and Easter morning and, on Monday, begin to put away the plastic eggs and baskets and little bunny figures.  And even if we don’t, even if we keep Easter deep into the Easter season, our culture puts it away pretty quickly.  And that’s because, our culture is a culture of anticipation.  We look forward to holidays, celebrate for a single day, then move on and, often, forget.  What happened last week is not always as important as what will happen next month.  If you need any evidence of this, look at all the Easter candy in the discount bins.

        The Church, however, does things differently.  Holidays start seasons.  Christmas isn’t the end of the Christmas season: it’s the beginning, the start of the twelve days of Christmas.  Nor is Easter the end of the Easter season.  Easter is only the beginning.  And we don’t do this just to be different, but because Christians are called on to live not in anticipation but in the presence of God.  Christianity is less about looking forward and more about living.

        Here’s an example of what I mean.  Gwendolyn was born in 2015 and Fiona was born just last year in 2018.  And let me tell you, in case you forgot, that there’s a lot of planning that goes into welcoming a new baby into the world.  You’ve got to get a crib, and then you’ve got to put it together.  You’ve got to have baby clothes and bottles and blankets and stuffed animals that don’t have little sequins or buttons that the baby can bite off.  You’ve got to tell your parents and your siblings and your aunts and uncles and your cousin that you haven’t seen in ten years and your best friend from collage, but also the government and the insurance companies so everything is squared away when the big day comes.  And when Fiona was on the way, we lived an hour from the hospital, and there was often traffic, so I went out in the car and drove all through the back roads to make sure, in case there was a traffic jam, I could know the perfect way to get Helene to the hospital in time.  We prepared and prepared for that one, single day.

        And when that one day came, and first Gwendolyn and then Fiona came into the world, I felt a relief and a joy.  I was a father, and here were my two little daughters.  And now, we thought, with the birth over, we could finally rest and sleep.

        But the thing about being a parent is that you don’t really get to rest, not in the way you do beforehand, that is.  Being a parent isn’t just having children; being a parent is about waking up in the middle of the night to feed the kids, to read books to them, to think about their diet and their exercise, who the children are and how you can best encourage and support them.  Being a parent is about talking to them about bullies, about how to respect and love others, how to live a life to God, and then to love them even still, and perhaps even moreso, when they fail.  Being a parent, like being a Christian, is much less about preparing for the day when the child is born and much more about living a life dedicated to the life of our children; or, as a Christian, living a life dedicated to God.

        We do this same thing in the Church for Easter, and the same thing during Christmas and for Epiphany, and for Pentecost as well.  And we do this because, just like when we have a child, or when we get married, or when we make our confirmation, in Easter we remember and enter into the new reality that was given to us the morning of the Resurrection.  And all that preparation for Easter morning was important, so desperately important, and that’s why we still model our lives on the Jesus’ teaching.  But what is important – what is essential to us as Christians, is that the tomb is empty – that Jesus is alive.  Because Jesus’ Resurrection was not just about some guy two thousand years ago coming back from the dead, but that in being raised, Jesus poured out Life into this world.  And not just once but for all time.  The disciples, as we read today, and as we will continue to read, met with the Risen Christ and experienced this outpouring of Life.  And in this Life they were moved to speak forth the Gospel and to dedicate their lives to God with a tenacity and a joy that they had never before known. 

Nor was it only the disciples who Jesus knew who felt that Life, but it continued to be felt beyond their time and place.  In medieval times, people experienced this same Life and were moved to found orphanages, hospitals, and universities, and they were moved to live lives of deeply dedicated prayer.  In each age we see again and again, be it medieval or Renaissance or our own time, that Life present and thriving – or, better, causing we humans, who grow weary and tired, causing us to thrive and live to a fullness that we had never before thought possible.  And all this because that one man, who was more than a man, but was God, died and rose again.

And it is this Life that we are living in right now.  That Life is what we meet in the Eucharist, which is the Body and Blood of that Life, each and every Sunday.  And that Life is what was planted firmly in our hearts in Baptism, and what speaks from us when we love our enemies, tend to the sick, give hope to those in despair, and spread the Good News that the Creator of Heaven and Earth, the very foundation of our world, is Love and Truth and Beauty and Goodness. 

        Easter season, then, is not just about remembering but living the abundance of life that was given to us and all the universe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Easter season is the cup that runneth over from the 23rd Psalm.  Easter season is the flowers that are blooming all around us, and just when we thought everything was done, another bush erupts in pink or white.  Easter season is having a need for something sweet and looking in the refrigerator and discovering that there’s more cake.  Easter season is that scene at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life”, where people keep on flooding in to tell George Bailey just how much they love him.  Easter season is the Eucharist, where the fullness of all Life is poured forth from a little bit of bread and a sip of wine. 

Easter season is all these things, and more, because Easter is the true reality.  Beyond all doubt and despair, all death and sorrow, Easter is our true home.

Palms and Crosses

Palm Sunday

Readings for this week are:
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 22:14-23:1-49

Click here to access these readings.

        There is something troubling about Palm Sunday.  I mean, generally, it’s a pretty fun day, and I’ve always liked it.  I love processions, and I love the way palms feel when you wave them or bend them, or how they fray when you play with them too much.  I like the dramatic reading, too, where it’s not just one person, or just me, reading the gospel, but everyone, even people in the pews.  It’s a fun day, a good day, but there is also something troubling about it.

        “Crucify him! Crucify him!”  It’s a horrid thing to say, and we are asked – not told or ordered, but asked – to say it, even to shout it.  And on Palm Sunday, it’s not just a line in a book, or something that some other people said, but something that we say.  And with such a thing on our lips, we are asked to turn an eye to the darkness in our own hearts.

        But isn’t it too much?  We didn’t crucify Jesus – those other people, 2,000 years ago – they did it, not us.  But, in truth, it wasn’t people who demanded Jesus hang on a cross – it was humanity.  It was the humanity that we share with them.  That darkness, that potential for hatred and evil, is also inside us as well.  And it’s something that we look at today on Palm Sunday.

        And we should, rightly, remember and say, “But we are redeemed!  Christ is alive in us!”  And so he is, working out that great Salvation which no force on earth, above it or below it, can touch.  And yet the darkness is still there, present, within our hearts, a darkness that can move our hearts so quickly, so suddenly, from praise and palms to hatred and the cross.  We see it often in our world.  And we see it, too often, in our own lives as well.

        All through Lent, and during Advent, I gave reasons why we do this: why we focus, for a time, on our own darkness, on penitence, and self-reflection.  And I have done this because I think many people wonder why not just be happy?  Why not just shout for joy to the rock of our salvation and be done with it.  Well, because God didn’t.  God didn’t just turn from the darkness to light.  God looked death and hatred in the eye on the cross.  He didn’t look away.  God looked at the worse part of us possible, and he said, “I still love you.”  And he’s asked us to do the same: with ourselves, with our enemies, and with all Creation.

        That’s a hard act to follow, you know?  But luckily, we don’t have to be perfect at it.  That love is given to us freely, whether we’re a perfectly loving person or not.  So let us give it, and be it, to help God heal a broken and shattered world.

An Outpouring of Love

Fr. Tim’s sermon for Lent 5 – April 7th, 2019

Readings for this week are:

Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8

Click here to access these readings.

        Last week we heard the story of the prodigal son.  We heard how a young man, having squandered his father’s inheritance, is welcomed home by that same father.  I preached on the joy that this father must have felt, that sense of unbelievable joy and sense of wholeness at the return of the beloved.  And this week I want to talk a little bit about joy as well, though a different sort.  For this week we have the story of Mary washing Jesus’ feet with perfume and wiping it with her hair.  These two joys are a sort of bookend to one another, or two different sides of the same coin.  These two stories tell both of joy exuberant and joy in sorrow, something that I alluded to at the end of my sermon last week.

        Now, this week’s gospel reading is one of complete, unguarded love.  You see, all along, Jesus has been telling people that he’s about to die, that he’ll go to Jerusalem and be killed, and that this is necessary for his work here on earth.  But no one believes him.  Everyone doubts him, tells him he’s crazy, or tries to shut him up.  Jesus is alone; no one will listen to him.  No one, that is, except for Mary.  Mary gets it.  Mary hears him.  Perhaps the death of Lazarus shocked her into having a more open ear.  Perhaps Mary has heard Jesus all along.  Whatever the case, in this moment, she knows that Jesus will soon die – in six days he will die.  And she wants to do something to show her love for him.

        And so she anoints him, not beginning with his head, where you would anoint a king, but starting with his feet, where you would begin to clean a corpse. For what Mary does here in anointing Jesus, and in the words that St. John uses when he describes the scene, show that Jesus is being marked for death.  And marking him in this way, Mary gives up (she sacrifices) something extremely valuable and precious.  Mary has lavished this costly gift on someone who, very soon, she knows will die.  Why?  Because she loves him, and she wants to show him that before he goes.

        And this act alone, this act of abject love, is a beautiful one, and one that we ought to sit with and pray with for a long time.  This act is, though, in a very complex and complicated scene.  A lot is going on here.  On the one side is Judas, who, if he cares at all, thinks the best way to solve problems is to throw money at them.  There is also Jesus’ comment that “the poor will always be with you”, a comment that’s often taken to saying that the poor don’t really matter, or that we can’t end poverty.  But Jesus’ comment, instead, looks back to the fifteenth chapter of Deuteronomy, where laws are given for jubilee, and forgiveness, and the promises of peace and safety being extended to everyone, not just a few.  The scene is actually a culmination of Jesus’ dedication to help the poor, the lonely, and the downtrodden. 

And all of this is important, but, first, I want to start with Mary’s love.  Because this act of love, I think, says something very, very deep, and it says something that Jesus was trying to get everyone around him to understand: and that is that everything must begin in love.

I think, often, we hide our hearts away.  We see our hearts, and our love, as a bottle of pure nard, of something precious that we need to protect.  “I can’t let this go,” we think.  “It’s too important, it’s too fragile.”  And so we hide it away.  We keep it locked down deep.  And we do this, probably, for good reasons.  We’ve been hurt.  Our love has been abused, and we want to protect our hearts from being battered, or misused, or ignored. 

But Jesus says: let it out.  Don’t hide it like a candle under a bushel; let it out!  And the image of love that he gives us here is of a woman pouring expensive perfume on a dead man.  Will doing this save Jesus?  No.  Will is add one day, even one hour to his life?  Probably not.  It is pointless, perhaps, and certainly wasteful of good perfume, but often love is pointless.  Love doesn’t always make a big splash in this world.  But love isn’t always about doing something; love is about being, about not just being in love but about being love.

I think about this when I think about the pets I’ve grown up with.  I grew up with dogs, and the love they gave didn’t have a goal or a point.  They didn’t love to get something (except food sometimes, but we can forgive them for that!).  They didn’t love to prove themselves, or even to be loved back.  They just simply loved because loving is the perfect way of being.  And it’s an image of that same kind of love that we see in Mary at Jesus’ feet.  And each of these images of love is a small part of the love that Jesus had for us on Good Friday two thousand years ago, when he hung on the cross, and the love he has for us now, each and every day.

And Jesus says that this outpouring of love, this is actually what will heal the world.  Not fix it, not tweak it like it’s some machine and not a group of human beings trying to figure out how to live together.  No, not fix the world, but heal the world.  We can’t “fix” humanity.  Grief is a natural part of life, and, even though I really enjoy science fiction about the future, I really don’t think that science will get so good that we humans won’t need to worry about death.  And while we can certainly alleviate the pain of the poor, there is no perfect form of government or society where everyone is happy. 

We can’t fix humanity to be perfect – but we can heal them.  And we do this with the sort of outpouring of love that Mary shows us in our gospel story today and that Jesus spends his whole ministry preaching.  Because that outpouring of love bonds people together much more deeply than our society, or our government, or even our families.  This outpouring of love that Mary shows in washing Jesus’ feet, it bonds us together in God, who is love, and there is nothing stronger and more joyful than that. 

And it is from here, from this deep and all-encompassing love, that we can do great things.  Jesus is dedicated to the poor, to the hungry, to the sorrowful, and to the lost, but he is dedicated to them not just in fixing their problems and sending them out, but loving them into the fullness of being.  And that is the sort of love that we Christians are called to as well.  This love, though, is not an easy love.  It is the love of a man who has seen his son waste everything he is and yet is filled with joy when that son returns.  It is the love of a woman who wastes something incredibly previous just to show her love for a man about to die.  And it is the love of a man, who was not a man, but who was also God, who came into this world and died on a cross, just so that he could heal – fully heal – a wayward and lonely humanity.  It is the love of God in Jesus Christ breathed by the Holy Spirit.  And it is a love that is yours and ours and everyone’s for evermore.

Tears of Joy

Father TIm’s sermon for March 31st, 2019

Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

       There is a joy to this story that Jesus tells, isn’t there?  There’s a deep joy, an unspeakable joy, right there in those last words of the parable: “this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”  It’s a joy that is reflected in the prayer at the end of the sacrament of confession and reconciliation.  After the person confesses their sins and is absolved, the priest says: “Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Go in peace.  The Lord has put away all your sins.”  The joy of the father in Jesus’ parable: it is an overflowing joy, one that doesn’t even listen to the elder son’s apology but is already calling for a feast and a celebration, that can’t even wait for everyone to gather before the party begins.  It is a joy that breaks the heart and remakes it in the fullness of Life.

       But where does this joy come from?  Well, in a way, it’s obvious.  Anyone who has lost something dear to them knows this joy.  Anyone who has loved something or someone more than anything else in the world can imagine this joy.  Ever since I became a father myself, I’ve stopped seeing this story as a penitential parable, or as one about fairness and unfairness.  The parable is certainly about these things, but my perspective has changed, and the parable has new meaning for me.  Now that I am a father I can more easily imagine what it would be like for me if one of my children became estranged and then, suddenly, out of the blue, returned, unannounced and unexpected.  It is a joy pure and open that the man feels, and that I would feel if I were him, and that I have felt (and surely, you too have felt) when something long lost has suddenly appeared.

       But even still, where does this joy come from?  This is the question that the older brother asks of his father, and this question speaks pretty loudly.  And we may ask: why is this elder brother so angry?  Well, in Jesus’ time, a father’s inheritance meant a lot.  This isn’t just the money or house that parents might leave a child when they die.  This isn’t a few stocks and bonds in a bank.  One’s inheritance represented something much more than a few material possessions.  It represented, instead, one’s whole livelihood and connection to the past.  A child relied on their parents’ inheritance, because going out and making it in the world wasn’t like it is today, where there are a variety of jobs, even if work is scarce.  Inheritance was a connection to one’s family, to one’s past and one’s history before they were even born.  An inheritance was about one’s name, one’s place in society and history, and one’s connection to the land.  The young son didn’t just waste his father’s money, he squandered his name, his family, and his father’s love. 

       But the father isn’t mad.  He just isn’t.  And not only is he not mad, but he’s happy that his son returned.  You can see why this older son is so frustrated, and why he may ask, “What gives, Dad?  Where does all this joy come from?”

       Well, there is a distance between us and God.  There’s something that separates us from our Creator.  And part of this separation, this difference, is good: we aren’t just extensions of God.  We’re not beings that God can control like a remote-controlled car.  God gave us free will, so that we can choose for ourselves how to live our lives.  God hopes, of course, that we choose a good life, a life lived to love, beauty, and truth.  But, too often, we choose otherwise.  We choose to do wrong to our neighbor and slander them, or cheat someone over, or sin, even when we know the right thing to do.  We humans make bad choices, we misuse our free will, and we make a mess of things.  And we, and others around us, have to pay the price.

       And Jesus says, return, repent, change the way you are living.  Making bad choices doesn’t shackle us to those bad choices: we can change how we live, we can return to a path of truth and beauty and goodness, we can walk with God again.  But here is the miracle in all this, that when we return, we are not met by an angry, resentful, vengeful taskmaster who demands we make up what we’ve lost in sin, but a joyful father, his arms wide open, cheering and skipping down the walk to hold us tight because he’s missed us just so much.  We hear the word “repentance”, and we think of long, hard hours praying on our knees on a hard, stone floor, or we think of guilt and grief and sorrow and a valley of tears.  But Jesus, apparently, doesn’t hear any of this.  When he hears the word “repentance”, he thinks of a party.  He thinks of a man who has his son back, whose joy is so deep and so overflowing that maybe he risks even becoming that joy himself.  “Repent”, for Jesus, means “Come home.  The fire is burning, the kettle is just singing, and your place is set at the great table of my Father.  Oh, and by the way, I’ve made your favorite dessert.  Come home, come home, come home.”

       So, then, why do we do all this stuff for Lent?  Why do we cover the crosses, get dressed up in purple and black, put ashes on our foreheads, and talk about carrying the cross?  With life shining forth from the open hands of God, why not just take it?  Well, in a word, we have.  We have taken that light: in Baptism.  And in the Eucharist.  And in living as a part of a beloved community, the body of Christ that we call the Church.  And it is this life, this joy, that we have received from God, that is purifying us and making us whole.  It is Jesus Christ himself, born again within us, that is laying our hatred and our fear and our despair to rest.  And all these practices of Lent are us reaching up and training ourselves to stand as God hopes for us to stand.  And some of that work is tough, just as the tears of the father over the prodigal son are in utter relief, but also a little painful, too.

       Joy is not just an emotion.  It’s not just being happy or glad.  When we Christians talk about Joy, we mean something much deeper than our feelings.  Joy is in the laughter but also the tears of a longed for home-coming.  Joy is in caring for one another, through thick and thin, in the fun of life but also in the trouble and the tragedy.  Joy is in saying hello well and in saying goodbye well.  And that is because Joy is the light of God that sustains us, uplifts us, holds us, and makes us new.  Joy is the open arms of God, open in Love, no matter how far we’ve traveled to get away from him, no matter how far we have to travel to come back.