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Sermon, March 4, 2018

Monday, March 5th, 2018

Sermon.03.04.18

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Exodus 20.1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1.18-25; John 2.13-22

 

The scripture readings for today cover a lot of territory – the ten commandments, a psalm proclaiming the glory of God as revealed in creation and the law, Paul’s proclamation of Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, and Jesus’ zeal for God’s house as seen in the cleansing of the temple. With Lent in mind, what is it that unites these readings? Is there some unifying theme not readily apparent?

The Fertile Crescent gave rise to several ancient legal codes, but the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, is radically different in three ways: First, unlike these other codes, it is God-given. Abraham’s descendants were encamped near Mount Sinai. The Lord descended on the mount and told Moses to warn the people not to break through to look upon the Lord lest they perish. After having done so, we are told, “Then God spake all these words” (Exodus 20.1; NRSV). Second, the commandments are set within the context of a loving, salvific relationship: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20.2: NRSV). And third, the nature of the people’s relationship to God, which is lacking in these other codes, is stipulated – the people are to worship no other gods (they were to abandon their polytheistic practices), nor to make any idols for the sake of worship, nor to use God’s name in vain. The quality of a right relationship to God is first spelled out, then the quality of a right relationship to our neighbor. These commandments set forth God’s design for life – a design which, if lived, will yield peace and wholeness.

Why is it that God gave us the commandments in the context of God’s love and mercy, yet we have received, perceived, and attempted to observe them in the context of God’s wrath? We have negatively construed what was positively given.

Our negative response becomes more apparent when we contrast it with the response set forth in Psalm 19 (you may wish to follow the reading in your bulletin). The first six verses invite us to consider the awesome glory of God as revealed through creation: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork” (Psalm 19.1; NRSV). Although the heavens and the firmament “have no words or language,” no voice, “their sound has gone out into all lands and their message to the ends of the world” (Psalm 19.3-4; NRSV).

Having touched on the awesomeness of God as seen through creation, the psalmist then turns to the awesomeness of God as revealed through the law. Note the positive aspects of God’s law as portrayed by the psalmist: “The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure and gives wisdom to the innocent. The statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean and endures for ever; the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” (Psalm 19.7-9; BCP). The psalmist tells us God’s judgments are “more to be desired…than gold” (Psalm 19.10a; BCP), for they serve to enlighten us; those who observe them are greatly rewarded. We should rejoice! The law of love was given through God’s love and mercy, yet we have turned it into an onerous burden and we seek to circumvent it.

The psalmist notes our proclivity to sin, to miss the mark, and prays for cleansing: “Who can tell how often he offends? Cleanse me from my secret faults” (Psalm 19.12; BCP). He further prays that God would keep him from “presumptuous sins,” i.e., from overstepping his bounds, from insolence; that such sins “not get dominion (or take control) over him.” Should God grant this, he would “be whole and sound, and innocent of a great offense.” The psalmist then closes with the prayer: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer” (Psalm 19.13-14; NRSV). We often recite these words before the sermon; Oh, that they would be on our lips at the start of the day!

In God’s immense love, God sent Jesus, his only Son, that we might see how to live more fully in love. In John 2 we read of how Jesus went up to Jerusalem as the Passover was near, of how, upon entering the Temple, he “found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables” (John 2.13-14; NRSV). Imagine the shock Jesus must have experienced at seeing the temple profaned. “You shall have no other gods before me,” yet here were the money changers worshiping wealth and robbing the poor in God’s temple. In Mark’s account, we read that following the cleansing, Jesus taught and said, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations?’ But you have made it a den of robbers” (11.17; NRSV). Jesus made a whip of cords, drove out the cattle and the sheep, poured out the coins of the money changers, overturned their tables, and told those selling doves. “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace” (John 2.15-16; NRSV)! In this instance, Jesus did more than teach – he acted in a manner which had some shock value. Gentle words and admonitions would not have made a difference.

The Jewish leaders then asked, “What sign can you show for doing this?” In other words, “By whose authority do you act?” And Jesus replied, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” This was madness to the Jewish leaders who reminded Jesus that the temple had been under construction for forty-six years; I suspect they rather sneeringly said “Will you raise it up in three days” (John 2.18-20; NRSV)?

John further tells us that the disciples, looking retrospectively on this event, later remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me” and realized that Jesus was speaking of himself when he said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2.17,19; NRSV).

Jesus’ life of love was more than this world could tolerate. He was crucified on the cross that those who believe in him might have everlasting life. From the world’s point of view, it was all madness. As St. Paul tells the Church of Corinth (and us), “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe” (I Corinthians 1.18, 21; NRSV). Paul further notes how the Jews demand signs (as noted above) and the Greeks desire wisdom, i.e., reason and deliberation. In contrast, Paul says, “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (I Corinthians 1.23-25; NRSV).

So, what’s the upshot of all this? The commandments and the gift of God’s son reveal God’s immense love for us; God desires that we know how to live and that we benefit from so living—that we have fullness of life. Eleanor Stump, a noted Catholic philosopher, says “God’s instruction manual…is not limited just to the sets of rules in the ten commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. There is a medieval saying: every act of Christ is a teaching for us (Omnis Christi actio nostra est instructio). Christ’s life and actions, as they are set out in the Gospels, are our best help for seeing how to live our lives well” (http://liturgy.slu.edu/3LentB030418/reflections_stump.html).

Ron Rolheiser, who I often quote, tells us more about the nature of love as it was displayed in Jesus’s life and actions:

What Jesus did in his passion and death was to transform bitterness and division rather than to retransmit them and give them back in kind. In the love which he showed in his passion and death Jesus did this:  He took in hatred, held it inside himself, transformed it, and gave back love. He took in bitterness, held it, transformed it, and gave back graciousness. He took in curses, held them, transformed them, and gave back blessing. He took in paranoia, held it, transformed it, and gave back big-heartedness. He took in murder, held it, transformed it, and gave back forgiveness. And he took in enmity, bitter division, held it, transformed it, and through that revealed to us the deep secret for forming community, namely, we need to take away the hatred that divides us by absorbing and holding it within ourselves and thereby transforming it. Like a water purifier which holds within itself the toxins and the poisons and gives back only pure water, we must hold within ourselves the toxins that poison community and give back only graciousness and openness to everyone. That’s the only key to overcome division (http://liturgy.slu.edu/3LentB030418/reflections_rolheiser.html). [Emphasis mine.]

 

What an awesome God we have, and how awesome is what God would have us become. May the Spirit lead us in the work of transformation.

Amen

Sermon, February 25, 2018

Monday, March 5th, 2018

Sermon.02.25.18

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22.22-30; Romans 4.13-25; Mark 8.31-38

 

We Can Be So Right, But Oh So Wrong

 

“Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mark 8.33b; NRSV). Strong words addressed to Peter; perhaps some of the strongest words Jesus ever spoke, yet, as paradoxical as it may seem, I believe they were spoken in love! What led Jesus to address Peter so sharply?

According to Mark, Jesus and his disciples have recently been in Bethsaida, roughly three miles inland from the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus restored a blind man’s sight. They were now en route to some villages near Caesarea Philippi, about 25 miles north and slightly east of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus asked, “Who do people say that I am?” They replied, “John the Baptist, and others Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” Then Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” Then Jesus sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him (Mark 8.22-30; NRSV).

Matthew 16 gives us a more complete account of this initial interchange between Peter and Jesus. In this account, Peter answers, “You are the Messiah; the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16.16-19; NRSV).

In both Matthew and Mark, Jesus then proceeded to openly teach that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. This was too much for Peter, who said something like, “Come on over here, Jesus, we need to talk!” Peter rebuked Jesus; “You have it all wrong, Jesus! This isn’t the role of the Messiah!” Jesus turned, looked at his disciples and rebuked Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mark 8.33b; NRSV). For we teachers, this is like our star pupil having the right answer, but totally misunderstanding what it all means. Peter was so right, but, oh, so wrong!

Peter’s understanding of the messiah was the authorized Jewish interpretation. On this view, the messiah was to come to liberate God’s chosen people, to overthrow the oppressor, to rightfully ascend the throne, and to rule with liberty and justice for all! Well, I barrowed those last words, but you get the idea. The messiah was to usher in a reign of peace and prosperity. Jesus, where’d you get this stuff about undergoing great suffering, being rejected, killed, and rising again? In contrast, Jesus had the divine understanding of messiahship. Although Peter had been rebuked, the lesson was not over.

Jesus next “called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’” (Mark 8.34; NRSV). Talk about divine things versus human! From the human standpoint, inviting someone to die is no way to begin a movement!

What is the literal meaning behind “taking up one’s cross?” Crucifixion was a horrendous form of capital punishment perfected by the Romans. After one had been severely flogged such that their back was lacerated, they were to pick up the cross bar, place it across their shoulders and lead the procession to the place of their death. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me.”

Taking up one’s cross may not lead to physical death, but it always leads to the death of our egoistic self. Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life” (Mark 8.35-37; NRSV)? How are we to understand these verses? What is Jesus asking?

All sin is at root a failure to love as God would have us love – the failure to love God and the failure to love our neighbor as we love our self. In Matthew 22.40, Jesus said, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (NRSV). Our human sin nature would have us love ourselves and the things of this world, things such as pleasure, wealth, power, and prestige above all else. Our fundamental choice in life is between love of self (including the things of this world) or love of God (including our neighbor, and the kingdom of God). When we choose the love of God, we participate in the crucifixion of our worldly self (we take up our cross) and we are born anew into our eternal self as followers of Jesus. This is the meaning of “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” On the one hand, we can choose the way of the world; we can pursue all the pleasure it offers and glorify the self. On the other hand, we can choose God’s way, the way of love, whereby we experience God’s grace, participate in God’s kingdom, and glorify God.

Our reading from the gospel closes with these words: “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, (I think that applies to all generations) of them the Son of man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the Holy angels” (Mark 8.38; NRSV). Our reading ends there, but the first verse of Mark 9 is clearly connected to this passage: “And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power’” (NRSV).

In closing two things come to mind. First, those who choose the way of the world, those who are ashamed of Jesus’ words, have willfully cut themselves off from God’s kingdom. Given God’s great love for us, I believe the Son of Man will not only look upon them with a sense of shame, but also a sense of pity which stems from the knowledge of what could have been theirs. Yet they have freely chosen and have sealed their fate. God’s justice cannot be separated from God’s love. You may be thinking, no one is fully capable of living a life of love. You ae right. Thank God for faith and the mercy of God’s grace in Jesus Christ through whom we are made righteous.

Second, I believe that Jesus’ reference to “some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” refers us back to his sharing of all the Messiah would undergo: great suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection. We know from Jesus’ words to the Pharisees that the kingdom of God was already among them (Luke 17.21), but the kingdom of God came with power in Jesus’ resurrection.

There are many who would follow Jesus without taking up their cross. They want to follow Jesus with one foot in the world. They are right in that they want to follow Jesus, but they are oh so wrong in that they are unwilling to take up their cross. Jesus invites us to take up our cross and follow him, to live in God’s love and to live into the kingdom of God.

“O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him” (Psalm 34.8; NRSV).

 

Amen

Sermon, February 18, 2018

Monday, March 5th, 2018

Sermon.02.18.18

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Genesis 9.8-17; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.9-15; Psalm 25.1-9

 

The Gospel of Mark begins with the words, ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1.1; NRSV). We have heard these words numerous times; imagine hearing them for the first time apart from any knowledge of Jesus Christ. Who is this Jesus Messiah? What do you mean by “the Son of God”? And what is this ‘good news’? Mark would surely have had our attention.

Mark then reminds his reader of Isaiah’s ancient prophecy – that a messenger, the “voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” would come to “prepare the way of the Lord.”  Mark identifies that messenger as John the Baptist, one who is baptizing in the wilderness on the banks of the River Jordan.  Mark quotes John, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1.7-8; NRSV).

With this as the background to today’s gospel reading, Mark ever so briefly tells us of Jesus’ baptism, his temptation in the wilderness, and the beginning of Jesus’ proclamation of the good news.

According to Mark, when Jesus came up from the waters of baptism, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove,” and he heard a voice from heaven which said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1.10-11; NRSV). The account is ever so brief. We are left wanting to know more. Nonetheless, what a revelation! What an affirmation! Had Jesus any doubts concerning his identity and mission, this experience likely would have removed them.

As I have noted before, the predominant ethos of Middle Eastern culture is honor and shame. John Pilch, an authority on Middle Eastern culture, observes, “From the Mediterranean cultural perspective, the temptation of Jesus by Satan is inevitable after the honorable tribute by the voice from heaven…Every claim to honor is sure to be tested. Someone will try to prove that the compliment was false” (http://liturgy.slu.edu/1LentB021818/theword_cultural.html). Mark does not tell us whether anyone else heard this voice; for that matter, neither do Matthew and Luke. But Satan must have felt the sting and heard the voice. Satan was ready to test Jesus’ honor and to prove the compliment false.

Following Jesus’ baptism, there was no special time with the family, no celebration with the congregation and friends, not even a special time of fellowship with his cousin John the Baptist, for Mark tells us, “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him” (Mark 1.12-13; NRSV). Again, the account omits the details; we are left wanting to know more.

Mark then tells us, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’” (1.14-15; NRSV). John’s ministry was ended; Jesus’ time had come.

Even though Mark’s account is ever so brief, we can still derive several lessons or insights. First, when God calls us into ministry, we should expect confirmation of our call. We are unlikely to see the heavens torn asunder and the descent of a dove, and we are unlikely to hear God’s affirming voice. Yet one may experience God’s affirmation through the voices of friends, through the feeling of a deep peace, a calm assurance that this is indeed the right direction for one’s life.

Second, despite the affirmation, the deep peace, or a calm assurance, we can be certain of the testing which will follow whether we have just surrendered our life to Christ as a new Christian or whether we are being called into some form of ministry. This testing is part of our preparation for a deeper walk in the Spirit. How did Mark put it? “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” Note that Satan was not the one who drove Jesus into the wilderness – it was none other than the Spirit. Further note this was not a momentary test in pleasant conditions – it lasted forty days and it took place among the wild beasts. And Jesus was alone – no family or friends were present.

As John Justus Landsberg, a 16th century Bavarian priest wrote: “Jesus left his kinship network in Nazareth of Galilee…Jesus subsequently finds himself alone with Satan…The Mediterranean reader realizes that without his kinship network, Jesus is particularly vulnerable to attack by anyone and everyone” (http://liturgy.slu.edu/1LentB021818/theword_journey.html). One’s kinship network is important, and as we know, the kinship need not be immediate family – it is extended to include like-minded friends. Withstanding temptation is easier when you have the support of a like-minded brother or sister. There’s strength in numbers! I suspect Paul and Silas knew it was easier to sing in prison when one had company. I am not sure if they ever got enough company to sing four-part harmony – although they may have been joined by angel choirs.

Concerning testing, Landsburg states: “Human life on earth is a life of warfare, and the first things Christians must expect is to be tempted by the devil. As scripture tells us, we have to be prepared for temptation, for it is written, ‘When you enter God’s service, prepare your soul for an ordeal’” (http://liturgy.slu.edu/1LentB021818/theword_journey.html). Here he quotes Ecclesiasticus 2.1: “My child, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for testing.”

Third, Mark’s account testifies to the presence of heavenly aid amidst our testing: “And the angels waited on him.” God’s love also comes to us. As we read in 1 Peter 3.18-22, God, in and through the love of Jesus Christ, “suffered for sins once for all…in order to bring us to God” (NRSV). In the days of Noah, God delivered eight persons through the water; in like manner, we are delivered through the waters of baptism.

It has been a thoroughly unsettling week. In many respects, Wednesday was an emotional roller coaster. Wednesday, Valentine’s Day, for many of us brought forth the remembrance of our love, the call to a Holy Lent and the imposition of ashes. As the day wore on we watched the numbers of schoolchildren and staff killed in Parkland, Florida, slowly rise to seventeen. I have experienced my own anger and frustration, and I have heard the same anger and frustration expressed by many others. We can quickly spend billions to implement a Department of Homeland Security in response to foreign terrorists, but we cannot forego the payments from lobbyists and implement reasonable legislation related to the possession of assault weapons. Admittedly, banning assault weapons in and of itself will not stop school shootings, but it may reduce the number of victims.

I earlier referenced the Middle Eastern culture of honor and shame. Might our culture suffer from the lack of both, especially as relates to our elected officials? While working on this sermon, I was reminded of another portion of 1 Peter’s message to the Christian church: “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time.  Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour” (5.6-8, NRSV). I will be the first to admit, I find it hard to cast all my anxiety on him, yet I know that I am called to do so, and to bear witness for having done so.

In light of these events, in light of being tested that we might proclaim the good news that the kingdom is near, I can say with the psalmist:

1 To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul;
my God, I put my trust in you; *
let me not be humiliated,
nor let my enemies triumph over me.

2 Let none who look to you be put to shame; *
let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes.

3 Show me your ways, O Lord, *
and teach me your paths.

4 Lead me in your truth and teach me, *
for you are the God of my salvation;
in you have I trusted all the day long.

5 Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love, *
for they are from everlasting.

6 Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; *
remember me according to your love
and for the sake of your goodness, O Lord.

And once again, the words of the collect ring so true: “Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.” Amen.

Sermon, February 11, 2018

Monday, March 5th, 2018

Sermon.02.11.18

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Genesis11.1-9, Psalm 33, Acts 17.26-31; John 10.11-16

 

The August 25th, 2017 issue of Time has an article by Rev. Brian D. McLaren, a leader of the emergent church movement and author of The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian. McLaren was in Charlottesville as part of the clergy protest countering the Unite the Right Rally. McLaren reports: “I got to look into the faces of ‘out’ Nazis and white supremacists for the first time in my 61 years. And they looked scarily normal. They’re the guys arranging stock at the local big box store or the desk jockeys in a cubicle farm. Decent. Clean cut. Surprisingly young. And white.” McLaren then asks: “What would possess these young white men (and a few women) to chant hateful anti-Semitic and racist slogans, to shout homophobic, xenophobic and misogynistic slurs, to speak of putting Jews in ovens and driving people of color off of “their” soil (land stolen by their immigrant ancestors from the Native Peoples)?” and he observes,  “That’s the question many of us are asking.”

Shortly after returning home, McLaren read “an interview with Christian Piccolini, a former white supremacist.” Piccolini said, “There are so many marginalized young people, so many disenfranchised young people today with not a lot to believe in, with not a lot of hope, so they tend to search for very simple black-and-white answers.” As McLaren notes, “savvy extremists”, using the Internet, are “ready to dispense those easy answers” whether “in Afghanistan or Syria, Virginia, Ohio or Arizona.”

The draw, the attraction, according to Piccolini, is not really the ideology; “the ideology is simply a vehicle to be violent.” Piccolini maintains that people become radicalized or extremist as a consequence of “searching for three very fundamental human needs: identity, community and a sense of purpose.

McLaren also cites Jim Friedrich’s reference to the Nazi historian Richard J. Evan’s and his description of young German men in the 1920’s who “were attracted to extremism and violence ‘irrespective of ideology.’ They weren’t looking for ideas, but for meaning…a pick me up to restore a sense of personal significance. ‘Violence was like a drug for such men…Often, they had only the haziest notion of what they were fighting for.’ …Hostility to the enemy de jour – Communists, Jews, whomever – was the core of their commitment.”

McLaren further informs us that white nationalist Richard Spencer, famous for his “Hail Trump!” Nazi salute following the election, understands the “desire for meaning.” Spencer’s description of Charlottesville employs religious terminology: “’I love the torches, It’s spectacular; it’s theatrical and mystical and magical and religious, even.”

Toward the end of the article, McLaren astutely observes (and here I quote at some length):

“Piccolini, Evans and Spencer himself are telling us something we need to understand: White nationalism isn’t simply an extremist political ideology. It is an alt-religious movement that provides its adherents with its own twisted version of what all religions supply to adherents: identity, a personal sense of who I am; community, a social sense of where I belong; and purpose, a spiritual sense of why my life matters. If faith communities don’t provide these healthy, life-giving human needs, then death-dealing alt-religions will fill the gap.”

So as traditional Christian institutions shrink, stagnate and struggle, Spencer and his white-supremacist allies, feeling supported by Donald Trump, are creating a violent alt-Christianity, as their counterparts in the Middle East have created an alt-Islam. They are supplying their followers with alt-liturgies, alt-mysticism, and alt-magic and are willing to smash, burn, destroy and kill for it, as they idolize their vision of “America” as a white “ethno-state,” an absolutized, divinized race and nation.

Germany also had an alt-Christianity with an absolutized, divinized race and nation.

As an aside, McLaren’s reference to the creation of an alt-Islam intrigues me. The Iraq War began in 2003. Many young Iraqis cannot remember a time when their country has experienced peace.  I cannot help but wonder to what extent our Middle Eastern foreign policy has deprived Arabs of their identity, community, and sense of purpose. Walt Kelly’s character, Pogo, may well be right: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Let’s return to the “vision of ‘America’ as a white ‘ethno-state,’ an absolutized, divinized race and nation.” What is the origin or origins of this vision? Permit me to suggest several at the risk of greatly oversimplifying things. First, we have the Great Chain of Being, first proposed by Aristotle and refined over the centuries until it achieved its fullest expression in the Middle Ages. This view holds that life exhibits a linear hierarchy from the lowest amoeba to God. As such, humans are the highest of the animals but the lowest of the gods. The notion of the Great Chain of Being was embraced by the Church on the basis of scriptures such as Psalm 8.4b-8:

What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God (or than the divine beings or angels), and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas (NRSV).

When scientific theories of race began to appear in the 1600’s, the concept of race was wed to the notion of the Great Chain of Being. Humans were no longer looked upon as a uniform species but were hierarchically classified into races on the basis of physical features such as skin color, hair color, and physical features; Caucasians were highest — Africans were lowest. As Audrey Smedley observes, “Race ideology proclaimed that the social, spiritual, moral, and intellectual inequality of different groups was, like their physical traits, natural, innate, inherited, and unalterable” (http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-02-09.htm).

By the late 1700’s labor in the New World was in short supply. Many Irish and Native Americans were forced into slavery, but Native Americans were highly susceptible to Old World diseases. As Africans had been exposed to these diseases, they had better immunity; once transplanted to the New World, where were they to go if they chose to escape? Enslavement of Africans was justified on the basis that they were heathens; through slavery, their souls might be saved. The Church, through the Doctrine of Discovery, tragically justified slavery and the appropriation of lands. The resultant system of slavery was exclusively “racial,” the only such system in the world. The concept of “race” was used to justify separateness and inequality (http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-02-09.htm). The inferior attributes of enslaved Africans were soon extended to all Africans – slave or free, which resulted in negative stereotyping long after the abolition of slavery. We still contend with it today!

The concept of ‘race’ is not a biologically-based construct; it is a social construct which ultimately came to be employed for the subjugation of peoples. Scientists today recommend that race not be used in the study of genetics. Why not? “On average, in DNA sequence, each human is 99.5% similar to any other human” (https://www.genome.gov/10001551/genetic-variation-program/).

As a social construct, ‘race’ may have some utility in the study of social phenomena such as segregation and discrimination, but genetically, we are one people, one human family, and our very survival may come to rest on the recognition and acceptance of that fact.

Despite some current events, there are signs of hope. Much of Christ’s Church has asked forgiveness for its use of the Doctrine of Discovery as a means of exploitation and enslavement of indigenous peoples. Nonetheless, As McLaren and others have noted, we still have a lot of work to do. What are some of those actions?

Permit me to suggest three actions: First, the Church (that’s us) needs to think biblically about race and ethnicity. We need to recognize that God’s love extends to all; Jesus Christ did not die for some, he died for all. Our failure to embrace those who appear to be different reflects our own fears and prejudices. It is the presence of sin within our lives, for all sin is at root the failure to love. We need to study Jesus’ interaction with those who were different such as the Samaritans who were despised, and to emulate his actions.

Second, the Church needs to foster education about race and racial prejudice. We need to study how racism derives from social constructs which have become embedded in our social and economic systems through practices such as stereotyping and profiling. We need to promote programs which teach acceptance of those who differ from us. We need to recognize and to confess our own complicity, our own refusal to love as God calls us to love.

Third, the Church needs to provide young people greater opportunities for identity, community, and a sense of purpose. I recognize this is easier to accomplish in larger churches who have a ‘critical mass,” so to speak, but what do we want for our youth at St. Paul’s? I don’t pretend to have the answer or the solution. When trying to schedule confirmation classes, I found it difficult to find a time to meet due to the schedules of our youth. Transportation is also an issue. Some tough questions confront us regarding youth ministry. Given the fact that youth are our future, what do we want our youth ministry to be?

The Church, our own congregation, and each one of us have work to do. We are all called to ministry; the priest might be pretty good at some things, but not all things, nor can he accomplish all things. We have new leadership and new vestry members. It is time for us to once again consider our mission and our effectiveness.

Amen

Sermon, February 4, 2018

Monday, March 5th, 2018

Sermon.02.04.18

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Isaiah 40.21-31; Psalm 147.1-12, 21c; I Corinthians 9.16-23; Mark 1.29-39

 

As I have noted in the Messenger, the Collect for the Day collects certain sentiments that are collected from the Epistle and the Gospel. With that in mind, let’s examine the start of the collect: “Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ.” Freedom from the bondage of sins and the liberty of abundant life – if God would grant us spiritual freedom from the bondage of sin and the liberty of spiritual abundance through Jesus Christ, why do we see so little of either evidenced in the lives of so many Christians? Why do so many Christians remain trapped in narrow, negating legalism when they could experience the abundance of the loving, liberating Spirit of God? What would the assigned reading from the gospel and the epistle have us hear and live?

Remember, Jesus has recently called Simon and Andrew, James and John, has taught in the synagogue with authority, and has healed a demoniac. Mark tells us after they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever; Jesus took her by the hand and lifted her up. The fever left her, and she began to serve them. According to the established law, Jesus should not have performed this healing for it was still the sabbath. According to established custom, Jesus should not have had any physical contact with this woman. Yet Jesus would have her live abundantly, so, not permitting legalism to stand in the way, he freely gave what she needed.

At sundown, at the close of the sabbath, the people of Capernaum brought the sick and the demon possessed to Simon and Andrew’s house. Mark tells us “the whole city was gathered around the door” (1.33; NRSV). In the intervening hours between the healing of the demoniac and the close of the sabbath, the word must have spread. Jesus healed many, and cast out many demons, but he did not permit the demons to speak for they knew him. In the early morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and left the house for a deserted place where he prayed.

If you have ministered to people, if you have listened with your mind and your heart, you know it is exhausting for you journey with them on the road of pain and suffering. One who loves others in this manner is constantly reminded of peoples’ loneliness and suffering, of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, of the darkness of this world. Yet, as St. Paul notes, we are commissioned to carry the light and love of the gospel.

St. Paul further tells us how he became “all things to all people.” How although free with respect to all, i.e., not constrained by any one’s expectations, he made himself a slave to all; how he became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; how he became as one under the law that he might win those under the law; how, although not free from God’s law but subject to Christ’s law, he became as one outside the law to those who were outside the law; and how to the weak he became as one who is weak that he might win the weak (1 Corinthians 9.19-22; NRSV).

A rather critical interpretation of these verses asks if St. Paul was a man without principles? Can one really become all things to all people without sacrificing one’s own sense of identity? Where was Paul’s sense of personal integrity? This interpretation is more closely aligned to the perspective of the values of this world as opposed to the values of the kingdom of God. If Paul were here to answer these charges, wouldn’t he tell us he had died long before, that he was crucified with Christ that he might receive the power of Christ’s resurrection?

Here is how Paul put it in his letter to the Galatian Christians: “For through the law, I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2.19-20; NRSV). This is Paul who was present at the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7.54-60). This is Paul who confessed, “You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” (Galatians 1.13-14; NRSV). Paul is a new creation filled with God’s love.

It is this very love, the love of God, through which Paul becomes all things to all people. Paul is living from the center of a new identity and a new integrity. It is this transforming love of God which unites all of Paul’s actions, but Paul also tells us of the need to rejoice, to pray without ceasing and to give thanks in all circumstances (I Thessalonians 5.16-18; NRSV).

One cannot consistently live in the center of this love, one cannot live with integrity, apart from renewal. Yes, in Christ, we are a new creation, but the process of creation continues in us just as it continues in nature.

The words of the Psalmist illustrate our need to rejoice, to offer praise, to pray without ceasing, and to give thanks, and to wait upon the Lord! Listen to how God heals, renews, and re-creates:

1 Hallelujah!
How good it is to sing praises to our God! *
how pleasant it is to honor him with praise!

2 The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem; *
he gathers the exiles of Israel.

3 He heals the brokenhearted *
and binds up their wounds.

6 The Lord lifts up the lowly, *
but casts the wicked to the ground.

7 Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; *
make music to our God upon the harp.

8 He covers the heavens with clouds *
and prepares rain for the earth;

9 He makes grass to grow upon the mountains *
and green plants to serve mankind.

10 He provides food for flocks and herds *
and for the young ravens when they cry.

12 But the Lord has pleasure in those who fear him, *
in those who await his gracious favor.

And as if this is not enough, the revised common lectionary reinforces these thoughts with the words from Isaiah 40.31:

But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

In the wee hours of the morning, Jesus met with God in prayer. Jesus often drew apart to pray. Although fully divine, he was also fully human. With one exception, his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, we are never told the content of those prayers. Over the years, I have come to the realization that we need to do less talking in our prayers, and more listening. Yes, it is good to praise God in our prayers, to confess the nature of our struggles and our feelings, to ask for grace and strength, but we also need to listen for the still, small voice of God. We may hear it best when we attend to the silence. Prayer renews us; it is the gentle rain upon the parched earth of our spirit. It is the bread and water for our journey in the wilderness. Apart from prayer, apart from drawing away into deserted places of our mind, we cannot experience freedom from the bondage of our sins nor the liberty of the abundant life of the Spirit which come through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen

Sermon, January 28, 2018

Monday, January 29th, 2018

Sermon.01.28.18

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Deuteronomy 18.15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8.1-13; Mark 1.21-28

 

Jesus was not your ordinary teacher. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus, and his four newly called disciples (Simon, Andrew, James, and John) have traveled to Capernaum on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. As it was the sabbath, Jesus entered the synagogue and began to teach, but this teaching was different. Those who heard him were astounded, “for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1. 22; NRSV). The scribes typically cited the scriptures and appealed to tradition; their approach was deliberative. In contrast, Jesus spoke more from the heart; his teaching was declarative.

The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew gives us a great example of Jesus’ declarative teaching – “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 21-24; NRSV). Jesus teaching recast the Ten Commandments.

The focus of the commandments had always been on external action; but Jesus teaching focused on our internal state of mind which leads to action. In the commandment prohibiting murder, Jesus was encouraging us to look at our state of mind that would lead us to murder – anger. When something violates the normal terms of a relationship, we become fearful and tend to get angry. The other may have acted very selfishly, may have slighted us, insulted us, or in some way, impugned our honor. Honor was, and still is, at the very core of Middle Eastern social customs. Jesus’ teaching looked at the practical implications of our anger. If our heart is filled with anger, how can we approach the altar and worship God? We need to first reconcile things with our neighbor such that we can approach the altar with purity of heart.

When Jesus taught, he went well beneath the surface of things. He did not wrestle with ideas and cautiously come to some conclusion. He declared what was critical. I suspect he may have wrestled with the ideas during his period of temptation in the wilderness. Hence, he spoke with authority.

In Jesus’ time and culture, people commonly believed in demonic possession. Instead of demonic possession, we now speak of mental illness. Even so, Jesus’ healing ministry addressed both the body and the mind.

As Jesus was teaching, a man with an unclean spirit cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (Mark 1.24: NRSV). Notice three things: First, at this point of his ministry, Jesus was not well-known, yet the demoniac recognized that Jesus was from Nazareth. Second, the demoniac uses the plural voice (“Have you come to destroy us?”) as well as the singular voice (“I know who you are.”). The gospels tell us of instances where Jesus cast out multiple spirits from the same person. Luke tells us seven demons left Mary Magdalene (Luke 8.2; NRSV). Third, the demoniac recognized Jesus as the “Holy One of God.” Calling someone the “Holy One of God” was considered blasphemous. These were signs of possession.

Jesus exorcised the spirit: “Be silent, and come out of him!” (Mark 1.25; NRSV) The account says the spirit convulsed the man, cried out with a loud voice, and came out. Those who witnessed this were amazed. Had we been there, I suspect we also would have been amazed. The witnesses asked, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him” (Mark 1.27; NRSV). No, this was not your every-day occurrence at the synagogue. Consequently, Jesus’ fame began to spread throughout the region. In his gospel, Mark focuses on Jesus’ authority. In Mark 4, Jesus’ authority extends over the storm, over the winds and the waves. Mark reveals Jesus’ authority to extend over all – over the spiritual and the physical realms.

It is interesting to note how, or with which act, each evangelist chooses to depict the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. As we have seen, in Mark, it is Jesus’ teaching and the healing of a demoniac. Both teaching and healing demonstrate Jesus’ authority. Matthew briefly notes Jesus’ teaching and healing, then turns to a rather extensive treatment of the extraordinary nature of Jesus teaching as depicted in the Sermon on the Mount. In Luke, after Jesus’ time in the wilderness, Jesus enters the synagogue in Nazareth, his home town, and reads from the scroll of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4.18-19; NRSV). Then Jesus handed the scroll to the attendant, sat down, and said to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4.21; NRSV). At first the people were amazed, then Jesus shared how God had fulfilled these promises to those who were not among “God’s chosen,” to the widow at Zeraphath in Sidon and to the leper Naaman the Syrian. Their amazement turned to rage. In John, Jesus’ public ministry begins at the wedding in Cana of Galilee with the miracle of turning water into good wine through which his glory was revealed.

In each, we are confronted with an epiphany – in Mark, authority; in Matthew, extraordinary teaching which recasts the Law; in Luke, the fulfillment of prophecy for both the Jews and the Gentiles; and in John, the revelation of God’s glory and abundance. How is God revealed to us? How do we experience the Epiphany—the dawning realization that God would come to us?

The man who was possessed experienced God’s power through love and healing. Forces were at war within him such that he knew no peace. Are we really all that different? Aren’t we beset by competing views and conflicting impulses? We may desire to love but find ourselves filled with anger and a desire for revenge. Are we willing to accept Jesus’ authority, to accept the healing and the forgiveness that he offers such that we might be made whole and experience peace?

Amen

Sermon, January 21, 2018

Monday, January 29th, 2018

Sermon.01.21.18

Brookings – St. Paul’s

Fr. Larry Ort

Jonah 3.1-5, 10; Psalm 62.6-14; 1 Corinthians 7.29-31; Mark 1.14-20

 

When God Calls, What Do You Do?

This question contains an assumption – that we hear God’s call. Last Sunday, we noted three imperatives – “Listen! Come and see! Follow me!”  Today’s readings reflect two very different responses to God’s call.

First, we have Jonah. The text for today begins, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh” (Jonah 3.1-3a; NRSV). God had a bit of work to do to get Jonah to this point of obedience.

The book of Jonah begins, “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me’” (Jonah 1.1-2; NRSV). But what did Jonah do? He went down to Joppa, on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, caught a ship, and fled to Tarshish. Scholars are not sure of the location of Tarshish – suffice it to say, it was figuratively as far away from the Lord as Jonah could go! Jonah thought he was safely ensconced below decks; he was sleeping when a mighty storm blew up. It was so bad the sailors were jettisoning the cargo. The captain found Jonah sleeping and said: “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your God! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish” (Jonah 1. 6; NRSV).

The sailors decided to cast lots to determine on whose account the calamity had befallen them, and the lot fell to Jonah. They said to Jonah: “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” Jonah answered, “I am a Hebrew…I worship the Lord the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1. 8-9; NRSV). Hearing this, the sailors were even more afraid, and they asked Jonah: “What is this that you have done!…What shall we do to you that the sea may quiet down for us?” Jonah, having previously told them he was fleeing the Lord, responded, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you” (Jonah 1.11-12; NRSV). To the sailors’ credit, they continued to fight the storm only to see it worsen. They finally threw Jonah into the sea and the storm abated. As you know, Jonah was swallowed by a big fish, and was in his belly three days and three nights. Yuck! That must not have been too pleasant! It is one thing to gut a fish; another thing to be in the guts of a fish!

Jonah began to pray! God had his attention! The last few lines of his prayer are a wonderful confession: “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple. ‘Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.’ But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed, I will make good. Salvation comes from the Lord” (Jonah 2.7-9; NIV). The Lord then spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon dry ground. I suspect Jonah washed in the sea; it probably took him a while to look reasonably presentable.

God then commanded Jonah (the second time) to go to Nineveh, and we are told, “So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh,” where he proclaimed God’s message, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3.3-4; NRSV). Nineveh repented! Jonah was indignant! He probably thought, “I went through all of that, I delivered your message, and they repented! Here I was looking forward to a good old fire and brimstone destruction, and you changed your mind!” The story tells us Jonah “prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning: for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live’” (Jonah 4.2-3; NRSV). Although Jonah experienced the belly of the fish, he was in a good pout!

Well, that is one reaction to God’s call. Let’s consider other reactions. In Mark we read that Jesus was walking on the shore of the Sea of Galilee when he spied Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net. Jesus said, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (Mark 1.16-17; NRSV). They immediately dropped their nets and followed Jesus. As Jesus walked a bit further, he spied James and John, the sons of Zebedee, repairing their nets. Immediately he called them, and they left their nets, their boat, their father, and the hired men to follow Jesus.

How have you responded to Jesus’ call? Were you more like Jonah who ran away, or more like Simon, Andrew, James, and John who immediately dropped everything to follow Jesus? It is probably safe to say that most of us are more like Jonah – after running away we discover we must jettison some idols and spend some time in the “belly of the fish.”

And just like Jonah, I suspect we also know how to pout when God doesn’t do things as we would like! “God, you know I deserved and wanted that promotion; you let me down!” “God, you know how hard I have worked to be financially secure; you let me down! This is going to wipe me out!” “God, you know how much I loved her; why did you allow her to reject me? You let me down!” “Why did you allow my child to die? You let me down!” These instances reflect something in common. We tend to see God as visiting these calamities upon us—”It’s God’s fault; God let us down!” In the stories of Job and Jonah, God is portrayed as either permitting the calamities or as bringing the calamities upon us. Once again, we come face-to-face with the classic problem of evil. If God is all-loving, all knowing, and all-powerful, why does God permit us to undergo such experiences and so much unhappiness?

Our portrayal of God as visiting these calamities upon us reflects our view of God as wrathful and judgmental. Yet, Jonah said, “For I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Ibid). If we think of God more as we would think of a loving parent, we realize that God may allow us to experience the consequences of our own decisions and actions. This experience leads to knowledge (if we learn from our mistakes). Yet this does not account for illness or the untimely death of a loved one. We experience these things, not at the hands of a wrathful God, but as the natural consequences of a fallen order. Our loving God assures us that someday all things shall be made whole. As we come to understand the amazing love and mercy of God, we can say with Job, “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things to wonderful for me which I did not know…I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42.3,5; NRSV).

Simon, Andrew, James, and John had it right! When Jesus calls us, we are expected to drop everything, and follow him. Yet some of us, yes, perhaps even most of us, must experience the belly of the fish before we are ready to drop everything and follow Jesus. But even that experience reflects the marvelous grace of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. For this very reason, St Paul reminds us, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5.16-18). Remember, Jonah discovered his song of thanksgiving in the belly of a fish!

Amen

Sermon, January 14, 2018

Monday, January 29th, 2018

Sermon.01.14.18

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

1 Samuel 3.1-20; Psalm 139.1-5, 12-17; 1 Corinthians 6.12-20; John 1.43-51

 

“And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening’” (I Samuel 3.10b; NRSV).

 

“Philip said to Nathanael, ‘Come and see’” (John 1.46b; NRSV).

 

“Jesus found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me’” (John 1.43b; NRSV).

 

These imperatives confront us, and they have a lot to say about our faith experience. Let’s look a bit more closely at each imperative.

Speak—listen: In 1 Samuel, we are told that Samuel was lying down in the temple in the area where the ark of the covenant was located. This must have been in the Holy of Holies or very near it. God is calling him, but we are told “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him” (Vs. 7; NRSV). Samuel was young, and even though he was serving in the Temple, he had not yet had a personal encounter with the Lord. I suspect that held true for many of us when we were young. We may have attended church school and church for a few years, but only learned about Jesus. We did not yet know him. God becomes real when we have a personal encounter, when we enter into relationship — “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

When we are listening, we may hear God in the words of scripture, a hymn, a sermon, even the words of a loved one or a friend. In some cases, as with Samuel, people claim to have heard God speak directly to them. Saul was riding on the road to Damascus when Jesus spoke to him: “Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ … ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’” (Acts 9.3-5; NRSV). Talk about an epiphany! Paul encountered the Lord; he listened; his life was changed. Samuel listened, and the Lord was with him.

Come and see: Philip encountered Jesus and wanted Nathanael to do the same. Upon finding Nathanael, he said, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael knew of the reputation of Nazareth, and he responded, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip issued an invitation – “Come and see” (John 1.45-46; NRSV). When Jesus saw Nathanael he said, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael, somewhat taken aback, asked, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Nathanael encountered Jesus and made his confession of faith. But Jesus asked him, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?” Then, pointing to future things, Jesus said, “You will see greater things than these. . . Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1.47-51; NRSV).

In the account which precedes this story, Andrew, one of John the Baptist’s disciples, followed Jesus after hearing the Baptist’s words, “Look, here is the Lamb of God.” After his encounter with Jesus, Andrew found his brother, Simon Peter, and said, “We have found the Messiah.” Andrew must have said, “Come and see,” for he brought Simon Peter to Jesus. When Jesus saw Peter, he said, “You are Simon, son of John. You are to be called Cephas (which is translated Peter)” (John 1.35-42; NRSV).

Nathanael and Peter were both invited to “Come and see.” In both instances, Jesus revealed something about their past and their future.

Follow me: Philip’s experience with Jesus was a bit different from that of Nathanael and Simon Peter. John tells us Jesus decided to go to Galilee where he found Philip and said to him, “Follow me” (John 143; NRSV). We can’t say for certain, but it appears that Jesus was intentionally looking for Philip, was seeking him out to be one of his disciples.

So, what can we make of these incidents? What lessons would they reveal? Perhaps these incidents serve to remind us of some things as opposed to revealing new insights.

First, these stories remind us that God seeks us out; God calls to us. The good news is that God loves us so much that God entered our human form and lived and walked among us as Jesus Christ, our Lord. But even before the Incarnation, God sought us out as we see from the stories of the Torah and the prophets, e.g., the call of Abraham in Ur, the call of Moses in the burning bush, the commissioning of Isaiah and Jeremiah. Are we listening?

Second, evangelism consists of inviting others to “Come and see.” Philip said to Nathanael, “Come and see.”  What did the Samaritan woman at the well say to her fellow villagers? “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he” (John 4.29; NRSV)?

Very few are satisfied with their life; very few are living a life that is fulfilled and meaningful. If you have that life, will you share it? We enjoy a rich and loving fellowship at St. Paul’s—a fellowship of love and grace. Sure, we sometimes have our moments, as does every family, but there is no doubt that God’s love characterizes our relationships.

Will we keep this for ourselves, or will we share it with others? Many churches make the mistake of keeping God’s love and fellowship for themselves, and to themselves. Over time, such churches lose their vitality, for they are no longer bearing fruit. Very often, the death of the congregation results. Our numbers indicate that we are slowly growing. Having said that, our chief concern should not be numbers. More importantly, we need to be concerned that each of us is growing spiritually, is living more deeply into the fullness of God’s love.

When did you last offer to share your faith experience with others by extending the invitation to “Come and see?” As you come to know someone, do you share how you have listened and heard God’s voice? Have you shared how you encountered God? Have you invited others to “come and see” the love we enjoy at St. Paul’s? If not, please do, for as I mentioned, most people are searching for fulfillment and meaning. You may be the one to help them hear God’s call.

Third, when and if we encounter Jesus Christ, our encounter always comes with the invitation, “Follow me.” Of course, we must be careful to actually follow Jesus, as opposed to following our own ideas, or someone else’s idea, of what it means to follow Jesus. A post appeared on South Dakota Forward a couple of days ago in response to some dialogue concerning the racist remarks our president made: “We believe that the United States of America was founded to welcome only citizens willing to honor and extend equal charity, goodness, kindness and peaceful tolerance to all men and women, regardless of faith and to pledge allegiance and loyalty to the United States Constitution which guarantees religious freedom and freedom from violence to all peoples” (Name withheld). I suspect this person believes he or she is following Jesus. In response, I raised the following question, “Would you agree that we extended that ‘charity, goodness, kindness, and peaceful tolerance’ to the indigenous people living here?” I followed with, “If that is a measure of your charity, please do not offer any to me.” The person has since edited their comment.

If we are following Jesus, our actions will reflect God’s love as revealed through Jesus. I know that several of you have been responding to current events from your love for Jesus. Know that I encourage you, and I appreciate your witness. Hopefully our actions will help others to see the Gospel, and to encounter Christ!

This week, I encourage you to ponder, what do you hear God saying to you, where have you seen Christ working in your life and in the lives of others, and when have you followed Jesus?

Amen

 

Sermon, January 7, 2018

Monday, January 29th, 2018

Sermon.01.07.18

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Genesis 1.1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19.1-7; Mark 1.4-11

 

Yesterday was Epiphany – the last day of Christmas. If you have not done so already, you may now throw out the Christmas tree, but hopefully you left it up through Epiphany. Epiphany occurs on January 6th, the 12th day of Christmas, and the baptism of Jesus is celebrated on the Sunday thereafter. In the Eastern Church, Epiphany emphasizes Jesus’ baptism; in the Western Church we emphasize the visit of the Magi. In that epiphany means “manifestation,” “revelation,” or “appearance,” both events qualify. Other instances of epiphany include the miracle of turning water into wine. In the early history of the Church, before Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25th, both Jesus’ birth and baptism were celebrated on Epiphany.

On the first Sunday of Advent, we read from Isaiah 64, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence (Vss. 1-2; NRSV)! In today’s reading from Mark, the account of Jesus’s baptism, we read: “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1.9-11; NRSV).

Our readings are connected by their shared references to water and the Spirit. In Genesis 1.1, we read, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (NRSV). Other versions read, “the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” In Psalm 29.3 we read, “The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders; the Lord is upon the mighty waters” (NRSV). In Mark we read of John the Baptist’s saying, “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1.8; NRSV). And in Acts 19, Paul asks some early Christians in Ephesus if they had received the Holy Spirit. They reply that they have never heard of the Holy Spirit—they were baptized into John’s baptism. Paul baptized them “in the name of the Lord Jesus” and when Paul laid “hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them” (Vs. 6; NRSV).

In our baptismal service we acknowledge water and Spirit in the prayer of Thanksgiving Over the Water: “We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit… Now sanctify this water, we pray you, by the power of your Holy Spirit, that those who here are cleansed from sin and born again may continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior” (BCP, pp. 306-7).

It is the power of the Holy Spirit which brings new life; through the Spirit we become the children of God, and in so doing, we, too, are recognized as God’s beloved. It is the power of the Spirit which enables us to live in the risen life of Jesus Christ. Ideally, our baptism is an epiphany—it should lead us into a life that is filled with further moments of epiphany.

What is it like to have an epiphany—to see with new eyes and understanding?

One of my favorite short stories, Pigeon Feathers, by John Updike provides a wonderful example of epiphany. The main character is David Kern, a fourteen-year-old boy. In the first sentence of the story, Updike masterfully sets the mood: “When they moved to Firetown, things were upset, displaced, rearranged.”

Throughout the story, David Kern wrestles with the question of immortality. In a confirmation class, he asks Rev. Dobson about immortality. Dobson tells him it is much like the goodness Abraham Lincoln did living after him. David feels betrayed. He longs for the assurance that God grants us everlasting life; he wants to know more about the life to come.

Near the end of the story, David is given the task of shooting some pigeons which inhabit the barn and are making a mess of a tarpaulin which cover some furniture. As he sets about the task, David comes to see himself in the role of God, as one having power over life and death. After killing several pigeons, he is told to bury them. This is Updike’s closing paragraph:

He dug the hole in a spot where there were no strawberry plants, before he studied the pigeons. He had never seen a bird this close before. The feathers were more wonderful than dog’s hair, for each filament was shaped within the shape of the feather, and the feathers in turn were trimmed to fit a pattern that flowed without error across the bird’s body. He lost himself in the geometrical tides as the feathers now broadened and stiffened to make an edge for flight, now softened and constricted to cup warmth around the mute flesh. And across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers played idle designs of color, no two alike, designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him. Yet these birds bred in the millions and were exterminated as pests. Into the fragrant open earth he dropped one broadly banded in slate shades of blue, and on top of it another, mottled all over in rhythms of lilac and gray. The next was almost wholly white, but for a salmon glaze at its throat. As he fitted the last two, still pliant, on the top, and stood up, crusty coverings were lifted from him, and with a feminine, slipping sensation along his nerves that seemed to give the air hands, he was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole creation by refusing to let David live forever (John Updike, Pigeon Feathers).

 

What masterful imagery and writing. The tension introduced at the beginning of the story is resolved.

David’s epiphany does not arise solely from reason; it is grounded in, it arises from his whole being. It has physical, rational, psychological and spiritual elements: “and with a feminine, slipping sensation along his nerves that seemed to give the air hands, he was robed in this certainty.” There is a mystical air to this revelation. Some of my philosopher friends might argue that Updike’s story depicts the classical argument from design for the existence of God. Granted, these rational/logical elements are present, but the story goes far beyond those elements. It covers all dimensions of David’s experience.

How does God make God’s presence known to us? I can’t help but wonder—do epiphanies related to our faith always have this experiential dimension? In the Road to Emmaus story, a post-resurrection story, we are told a “stranger” overhears two disciples conversing about recent events in Jerusalem. The “stranger” joins them, and ultimately says, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiahshould suffer these things and then enter into his glory” (Luke 24.25-26; NRSV)? Thereafter the “stranger” began to interpret the scriptures. When they came to Emmaus, the disciples convinced the “stranger” to stay with them. At the table, the “stranger” “took bread, blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them.” The account reads, “Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.  They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within uswhile he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us’” (Luke 24.30-32; NRSV)? Again, we see this was more than reason at work—the experience was grounded in their whole being.

We may sometimes question the existence of God. Such epiphanies give us the assurance that God is real, for we experience God’s grace with our whole being rather than solely with the mind. When we share our epiphanies with other Christians, we are likely to hear their epiphanies. In these stories we move beyond the domain of proof, for heart speaks to heart, Spirit speaks to Spirit. Share your stories of epiphany, and experience anew the power of the Spirit.

Amen

Sermon, November 26, 2017

Tuesday, December 26th, 2017

Sermon.11.26.17

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Ezekiel 34.11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1.15-23; Matthew 25.31-46

 

Matthew 24-25 is often referred to as Jesus’ eschatological discourse – his discussion of end times. Jesus cautions the disciples to stay awake, to remain alert, for no one knows the day or the hour when the Lord, the King of kings, will come. Jesus reinforces this message with the parable of the ten bridesmaids and the parable of the talents. Today we consider Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats – the last parable before Matthew addresses the passion narrative. This parable also serves to instruct, to caution the disciples, and by extension, us.

The parable begins with the Son of Man, accompanied by all the angels, coming in his glory. The Son of Man takes his seat on the throne of his glory. All the nations are gathered before the king and he proceeds to separate people “as a shepherd separates sheep from the goats,” putting “the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left” (Matthew 25.32-33; NRSV). This imagery is grounded in rich symbolism and cultural practices, some of which have been transmitted to the present.

I suspect many of you have heard someone called an “old goat.” Hopefully none of you have been accorded that less than honorary title! What does it mean to call someone an “old goat”? A check reveals two meanings: “an elderly man who is disliked, especially for being mean to or disapproving of younger people” or “a lecherous man, especially one considerably older than those to whom he is attracted” (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/old–goat). If you are looking for some contemporary examples, simply turn on the news! More are coming to light each day.

In middle-eastern culture, according to John Pilch, “goats were considered lascivious animals. Unlike rams (male sheep), goats allow other males access to their females . . . Goats symbolize shame and shameful behavior.” In contrast, “the ram was associated with honorable Greek gods like Zeus, Apollo, and Poseidon, while the goat was associated with Greek gods known for shameful and unrestrained behavior like Pan, Bacchus, and Aphrodite” (Pilch, John. http://liturgy.slu.edu/ChristKingA112617/theword_cultural.html).

During the day, goats and sheep commonly graze together. At night, the shepherd separates them. Sheep, in that they have a fine fleece, prefer to sleep in the open, whereas, goats prefer shelter. Hence, the separation of the sheep and the goats was a well-known practice. So, in our parable, the sheep are at the Son of Man’s right hand and the goats are at his left hand. On the day of his return, the Son of Man, Jesus says, will address both, beginning with the sheep, to which he will say:

‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger [homeless] and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me’ (Matthew 25.34-36; NRSV).

 

Why these actions? These actions respond to our most basic bodily needs, but there is more to it. Jesus was emphasizing the prophetic call to righteousness found in Isaiah 58:3b-9 (NRSV):

3b Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicatorshall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

Here’s the crux of the issue – true worship consists in performing acts of mercy and love. These six actions later came to be known as the “corporal acts of mercy” to which one more was added from the book of Tobit – to bury the dead.1

How will the righteous respond? Jesus said they will be shocked! They will ask, “When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink, etc.?” Jesus said, “And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’” (Matthew 25.40; NRSV).

Having addressed the sheep (the righteous), the King will then turn to the goats (the unrighteous) and will say to them,

You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me (Matthew 25.41-43; NRSV).

 

The goats, like the sheep, also register surprise, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you” (Matthew 25.44; NRSV)? And the King will answer, “‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25.45-46; NRSV).

What lessons can we glean from the parable of the sheep and the goats? I am sure there are several, but let me suggest three.

First, true worship consists of acts of mercy and love. In that all persons are created in the image of God, we need to recognize and respond to the Christ in each other. Love and mercy is not something to be guarded and selectively shared with those we deem worthy – they are to be shared with all persons, and especially with “the least of these.”

Second, there is no indication in this parable that we will be judged on the basis of what we believe; we will be judged on the basis of how we have responded to the needs of others. The criterion of assistance is not the worthiness of the individual according to our measure; it is the need of the individual. The rich and the powerful would rather not be confronted by the needs of others. They build towers and gated communities which permit them to live above or apart from those needs. Let’s keep those needs out of sight and out of mind! In many cities, they have passed legislation which makes it a crime to feed the homeless – after all, if you give them a free meal, they are only going to hang around. They are currently attempting to pass legislation which would absolve them from assisting in meeting the basic health care, child care, and education needs of others. How long, O Lord? “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5.24; NRSV).

Third, some may object that our salvation is not something we earn through good works, that it is a gift of God’s grace. Indeed, it is! However, if we have experienced the gift of salvation, if we have truly encountered the risen Christ, our orientation is forever changed. We are a new creation. In that we have experienced, and are the recipients of, God’s love and mercy, we are called to live out God’s love and mercy such that we extend it to all whom we meet.                As James 2.17 reminds us, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (NRSV). Let Christ be your King, and live in love and mercy.

Amen

 

1 The corporal acts of mercy are intended to relieve bodily suffering; correspondingly, the spiritual acts of mercy are intended to relieve spiritual suffering. The spiritual acts of mercy include the following:

  1. To instruct the ignorant.
  2. To counsel the doubtful.
  3. To admonish the sinners.
  4. To bear patiently those who wrong us.
  5. To forgive offenses.
  6. To comfort the afflicted.
  7. To pray for the living and the dead. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Works_of_mercy)

One who lives out the corporal and spiritual acts of mercy is fully engaged in the practice of love.