The Word became flesh

PetrusPictaviensis_CottonFaustinaBVII-folio42v_ScutumFidei_early13thcHappy Third Day of Christmas!

On Christmas Eve, we heard the story of God’s plan for our salvation in the simple story of one woman, one man, one infant: the story of a newborn babe laid in a manger, warmed by the breath of animals in a stable, because there was no room at the inn.

We heard Luke’s timeless narrative of shepherds and angels, of the star blazing as a beacon to the world. We heard God’s message of the birth of a savior, given through the angels and delivered to a group of society’s outcasts, in a miracle that telegraphed the direction of Jesus’s coming ministry to the poor and despised peoples of the world.

In its universal humanity, the Christmas story is one that never fails to touch the heart, whether it’s played out by children in the parish Christmas pageant or read silently at home. In a sense, in zeroing in on that one family, that one baby, and the events of that one moment in time, it’s the micro version of the history of Christ’s coming.

In this morning’s reading from the Gospel of John, we heard the macro version of that same message. John speaks in language that does not lend itself to pageants, in language that reaches the head before the heart. But this one brief and poetic passage is packed with essential points that help to define our Christian faith.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” On Christmas night, the angels announced Jesus as Savior and Messiah. Now we see him revealed as something even greater: as God, present from the beginning of time, in on the Creation, with all that that implies.

“Logos,” translated into English as “Word,” has many meanings in Greek. It can mean “an opinion,” or “to reason,” or “a plea,” as well as “speech” or “word.”

It has a long history and evolution in Greek philosophy. The Stoic philosophers of the third century BC used “Logos” to describe an aspect of the divine. Philo, a Jewish philosopher born about 20 years before Jesus in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, integrated that with the concept of Wisdom in the Hebrew scriptures.

John digested Philo’s work and adapted it to his gospel. The concept of Jesus as the Word of God, so imperative in our Christian tradition, is introduced here.

That’s the first big point. The second is like unto it: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

“Life,” for John, means “eternal life,” a life beyond death. The presence of light is an essential part of God, from the oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible onward. The importance of that symbolism was particularly pronounced in that world, where light was scarce after the sun set. Without light, we cannot see; we blunder in the darkness, threatened by all the enemies that dwell there. But with the light provided by the Word, the spiritual darkness is driven away, and everything becomes visible.

But – next big point – not everyone recognized the light for what it was. John the Baptist, whom some at the time of Jesus believed was the Messiah, went ahead to prepare the way for the Word.

Those who do recognize the light of Jesus have the power to become God’s children, filled with God’s grace. That’s important, because, as the reading from Galatians explains, those who have accepted Christ are freed from the burden of the Law of Moses.

The Law started out as a commonsense guide to living and to honoring God, and grew from there; the consensus among Jewish scholars is that there are a total of 613 commandments in the Hebrew Bible. That’s far more than most people can remember, let alone observe. Jesus cut through the thicket to get back to basics: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

John’s language takes a little unpacking, but it provides the ideal balance to the simplicity of Luke’s narrative. It provides a key to understanding the meaning of the story of the birth in the stable.

The biggest of all the points in this reading is God’s love for us. Everything else just tells us how that love is manifested.

God is too immense for the human mind to understand. But because God loves us, “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” born as one of us, in a smelly barn, a human being with human challenges. Because God loves us, Jesus stepped out of the security of a quiet life into the spotlight, preaching and teaching and healing, setting himself on the road to Calvary.

Because God loves us, we can experience the grace of God. Because God loves us, Jesus brought us the gift of eternal life, the gift of becoming God’s children. There is no greater gift than that.

Merry Christmas!

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Doers of the Word

SaintMaryMagdalenRCChurch(BrightonMichigan) MotherTeresaiconWhen I was in college, my roommate and best friend Chrissy said, “Jillian, you can be mean when you want to be.” And I was like, “Uhhh…okay.” She said, “No no no, I want to go on a diet and I need you to help keep me accountable.” So even though it turned out to be funny and not a big deal, it made me think.

I can be mean. I’m not the best person sometimes. I’m not the kindest, the most caring, or the most loving. I don’t always act like a Christian should. I’m not the best at being, as it says in today’s lesson from James, a “doer of the Word.” I constantly deceive myself. I hear the WORD and I’m like “Totally. This is super. I’m all about this.” And then I leave the pew or the class and I…forget. Either consciously or subconsciously, I forget.

So let’s back up. We hear this phrase a lot as Christians: “the Word.” And I’ve always wondered, what the heck is the Word exactly? Is it the whole Bible, is it Jesus’s teachings, is it the 10 commandments, what is it? Or could it be many things (which is probably the case)?

We read in John’s Gospel that “the Word was God.” Thanks, author of John, not vague at all. And while God is so many things, one of my favorite verses comes from 1 John: “God is love.” So while God represents so much more than that, love is my interpretation for the day. So to be doers of the Word, we are to do love.

But it’s hard to love, right? It’s a simple idea that’s difficult to execute. It’s hard to be doers of the Word, particularly when other people mistreat us and aren’t really being doers of the Word, either. And sometimes, we just flat out ignore what we know we should be doing and how we should be treating others.

I get it. We all do it. We’re all guilty.

We’re all deceivers of our hearts. I’ve patted myself on the back for being a loving Christian and then talked horribly about people I’ve called friends, dehumanized homeless people by refusing to look them in the eye, and turned away in the face of blatant injustice when I should said “NO MORE.” I should have loved my neighbor. I should have been a doer of the Word.

Because when it comes to being doers of the Word, doers of love, truly enacting what God calls us to do, it’s a lot easier to claim that we’re Christians and that loving people, our neighbors, is a priority, and then to just…not.

It’s easier. And because we’re doers in so many other ways, often for other people, why not take the easier route on something as emotionally and spiritually taxing as being doers of the Word? I know it’s who we want to be in our hearts, and we know we should do it…

But life is demanding. We have a lot to do. And somewhere along the way, we forget what it means to be doers of the Word. What it means to love.

So a few years ago, I was playing Ultimate Frisbee. In the middle of the game, this giant dude and I reached up for the disc at the same time, and upon coming down, his entire body weight landed on my thumb. I ended up spraining it so badly that I couldn’t use it for several months, and my muscle atrophied.

Embarrassingly enough, I had to go through physical therapy for my thumb.

I had exercises I was supposed to do every single day, multiple times a day, and sometimes, my hand was so sore that I just wanted to quit. I didn’t want to do it and it was certainly easier not to. I whined to my mom and my physical therapist, and they reminded me to keep going.

They were right. I mean, this was my thumb! I couldn’t even imagine what people with worse injuries had to go through. Some people have to literally relearn to use their muscles. But even still, it was hard some days, and sometimes, I didn’t do my exercises, even though I knew it was best for me.

I think remembering how to love and to be doers of the Word is very much like physical therapy. For instance, it’s easier not to some days. It’s easier to stay in bed. We see what we need to do, what we should do, how we should treat people, but it’s difficult. Uncomfortable. And sometimes, we just don’t want to.

We’re jaded by the world. Why bother being a doer of the Word? Why love in the face of so much hate? Why not stay in bed?

But society isn’t always as keen on reminding us about all the good in the world…all the examples of Christ’s love that happen before us every day…love that we, too, are capable of showing and doing.

Even still, being “doers of the Word” can feel like an impossible standard. A Buddhist monk once described sin as the “failure to do concrete acts of love.” So Christ, our example and teacher, lived a life without sin, meaning every action was motivated by love. Even his final act, dying on the cross, was just one giant act of love. No big deal or anything.

How in the world can we possibly do that? Just like the end result in physical therapy, it may be what we want and what we know is best, but it’s daunting. It seems like too much.

But imperfect as we are, we can do it. We just have to try. My friend Chrissy from earlier taught me that small acts of love, like smiling at your cashier at the grocery store or putting yourself in someone’s shoes, still matter.

We have to start somewhere. We aren’t going to run a marathon the day after our legs are broken. It’s a process. We are in need of therapy. And like a doctor or a mom, I think God is standing right beside us saying “You can do it! You can be the Doers! You can love!”

And, as Mother Teresa said, “God does not require us to succeed. He only requires that we try.”

We have to try to be the doers of the Word.

We have to try to love with our whole hearts and to pray with our feet, to live out the Word through our actions, which will always speak louder, to recognize that church is not a building and being Christian isn’t just the Sunday mornings we decide are worthy enough to be church days, and that when we leave, we can’t just forget what it means to be followers of Christ and doers who act and love, even with all the other things we have going on.

We can start small. It will not be easy. Some days we will want to stay in bed, and some days we will. And we may never fully get there.

But we must try. We are capable of so much more than we realize, and God believes in us so much more than we know. God is beside us, all the time, reminding us that we can and should be doers of the Word…that we can love. We just have to be quick to listen.

Today is Day One of our physical therapy. I want to take that first small step, with God’s help, to being a true, imperfect doer of the Word. I hope you’ll join me so we can all live as we were meant to live: loving each other.

Because, otherwise, what are we doing?

Amen.

  • Jillian Smith

How should Christians fight?

FearCharlesLeBrun1760_wikiSERMON NOTES, PENTECOST 11 (Proper 14, preached August 9, 2015, at Church of the Good Shepherd, Town & Country, Missouri)

Family fights are often the ugliest. They can get nasty fast, and they’re very often over the smallest things. Someone takes offense at a remark; two people disagree over the right way to do things. Grudges can be held for years. When things get really bad, one branch may stop communicating with another for generations.

That’s not just true in families. It can be true in communities. It can be true in the Church. Some of the bitterest fights are over the best ways to honor God.

As Christians, we often think that we shouldn’t argue among ourselves. We shouldn’t fight. We shouldn’t bicker. We tend to think that that we should, instead, always get along, because isn’t that what Jesus expects of us?

The problem is that we’re human, and fighting amongst ourselves is a part of the human condition. When it comes to church matters, we’re going to disagree over the essentials of theology, and we’re going to disagree over how to do coffee hour, and we’re going to disagree over everything in between – and there’s a lot of in between. That’s true at the parish level, and it’s true of the national and international Church.

When these fights blow up and go public, it’s embarrassing to all of us. Non-Christians look on our quarrels as signs of hypocrisy: “See how these Christians love one another.”

We’ve been fighting over a lot of things in recent years. When I was young, I knew people who left the Episcopal Church over changes in language in the liturgy. Then there were people who left over changes in the role of women in the church. More recently, people have left over the inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the full life of the church.

The fights have been ugly, with plenty of nastiness on both sides, with little sign of the love we are commanded to have for one another, with little evidence of attempts to understand where our opponents are coming from. It echoes our country’s unfortunate political dialogue today. But as Christians, we are supposed to be better than that.

There have been conservatives who accused liberals of apostasy, and liberals who accused conservatives of bigotry. There was the bishop who told conservatives, from the pulpit, “This isn’t your church any more,” and to leave. There have been lawsuits, from all angles. None of it has enhanced how those outside the church view us. None of it has demonstrated the love of Christ.

It’s not a recent problem. It goes all the way back to the foundation of the Church. You had the party that believed that Gentile Christians should first convert to Judaism, complete with circumcision, and the party that wanted to welcome all regardless. (Fortunately for us, Paul won that one.)

From reading the epistles, we know that disagreement was rife in the early Church. That’s why, in today’s reading, the author of Ephesians tells us how Christians ought to fight.
It’s okay to be angry, he says, but don’t dwell on it. Stick to the facts; don’t exaggerate. Don’t gossip. Work through your anger, and turn it into something useful, something positive. Don’t tear down others; don’t divide. Instead, work to build up the whole community.

“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander,” he says, “together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

Well, that’s a lot to ask, isn’t it, when our side is clearly right and the other is wrong? How are we supposed to be kind or forgiving to bigots, or to apostates? Isn’t that a sign of weakness?

No, it’s a sign of paying attention to what Jesus has taught us. The gospels are filled with that lesson. How often are we to forgive? Seventy times seven, as often as it takes. Nobody says it’s easy, but loving our neighbor and forgiving wrongs is a basic part of our faith.

“Be imitators of God,” says the author of Ephesians, “as beloved children, and live in love.” We need to rise above the petty stuff, the coffee-hour disagreements, and put them aside. We need to find ways to reconcile the larger issues, or find ways to part in love and understanding, rather than in bitterness.

“Live in love, as Christ loved us.” That’s the takeaway for this reading, and it applies to every area of our lives: in our families, in our workplaces, in the Church, and in the world outside.

Lord, give us loving and understanding hearts, and the grace to get past our anger and bitterness toward one another when we disagree. Help us to live as you have commanded us, and in the spirit in which you yourself lived among us. Amen.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

 

Sermon notes: Seeing things differently

SERMON NOTES, PROPER 6, YEAR B (Preached at St. Peter’s/Ladue, June 14, 2015)

Conrad_von_Soest,_'Brillenapostel'_(1403)_wikiThe way we look at things makes all the difference in the world.

When I was a girl, I never knew what anyone was talking about when they mentioned depth of field, or 3D effects. I swung at balls that seemed to be close, but turned out to be far away, much to the disgust of my teammates. I could see the blackboard, though, and read even tiny print from a distance, so nobody worried about it.

Then, in college, my ophthalmologist discovered the reason for at least some of my athletic failures. We knew that one eye had perfect vision, while the other was extremely near-sighted. He realized that the good eye compensated for the blurry-visioned one. My brain processed only its signals when it came to seeing things from a distance. I had monocular vision, so my brain had no idea of where that ball might be.

When I got my first pair of glasses, I suddenly saw things differently, in ways I had never imagined. The world had more variation, more depth. It didn’t seem flat at a certain distance. Colors were brighter. I could spot birds in trees. I could probably even have caught a ball that was thrown at me, except that by then I instinctively ducked.

It was an epiphany. My point of view had changed.

Paul is talking about spiritual vision and spiritual points of view in today’s lectionary reading. Paul knows something about looking at others, and about changed points of view.

When we first meet Paul, in Chapter 7 of the Acts of the Apostles, he’s named Saul. He’s witnessing the stoning of the deacon Stephen, the first Christian martyr. The others in the mob have placed their coats at his feet while they carry out the execution. Saul saw the new Christians as a threat, and he watched the bloodshed with approval.

Two chapters later, Saul heads to Damascus, “breathing murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples,” on a mission to root them out. Instead, Saul comes to see things differently. His feet are knocked out from under him as a bright light flashes, and a voice asks, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

The voice belongs to Jesus, who sends him on into the city, a changed and shaken man. For a three days, Saul can’t see anything, until the Lord sends the reluctant Ananias to lay hands on him and baptize him. Scales fall from Saul’s eyes, and he sees clearly.

Paul, as he comes to be known, clearly knows something about walking by faith, not sight. Seeing doesn’t always tell us the whole truth. Seeing can sometimes mislead us.

Paul is very definite about that, and about what we should be doing in this regard: Christ died for us all, and we are to live in and for him. That means that we are to look at each other as if we were looking through the eyes of Jesus.

I doubt that any of us need to be told what an enormous challenge that is. We are, by definition, not up to Jesus’s standard.

We can aspire to that standard, though. We can make for ourselves another point of view, make for ourselves a pair of Christ-colored glasses. We can try to see the world through his eyes.

I find that the best way to do that is through prayer. There is a well-known saying, attributed to the fifth century bishop Prosper of Aquitaine: “Lex orandi, lex credendi,” which translates, loosely, to “Praying shapes believing.”

This is a principle dear to the hearts of Anglicans, as the late liturgics professor Leonel Mitchell noted in his book, appropriately entitled “Praying Shapes Believing”: Our belief is shaped by our Book of Common Prayer. As we pray, so over time, do we think.

And I think that the present Book of Common Prayer encourages us in doing as Paul tells us, to see each other through Christ’s eyes.

Just for starters, the Baptismal Covenant asks, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” Say that often enough, and the words and their meaning start to sink in.

In the aftermath of Ferguson, there has been a lot of talk about how we see each other, too often seeing each other as the other. I think there’s a parallel problem: Too often, we don’t see each other at all, at least not as people.

We see the clerk whose line is moving slowly, with us at the back of it; we don’t see the single mother who’s having a hard time today because she was up half the night with a sick child. We see the teenager with attitude and falling-down pants; we don’t see the young man who’s trying to find his place in the world, and to figure out the tools for making it a good place. Sometimes we even see the stranger who’s sitting in our preferred pew, but not the seeker who’s uncertain of her welcome in a new church.

My prayer of the last few years, which I started saying every morning, every night, and every time I climb behind a steering wheel – because I really need it most of all when I’m driving – is “Lord, help me to see your face in all I meet, and to do your work in the world.” I can say that it helps me, although I really have to work at it with a few people.

The point is our point of view, to see each other as Christ would have us see one another, not “from a human point of view,” but as Jesus sees us. When we manage that, everything old does pass away; everything becomes new – sharper, clearer, fresher.

Sermon notes: Expanding the family

Christ_preaching_before_a_crowd._Woodcut._Wellcome_V0034716_wikiSERMON NOTES, PROPER 5, YEAR B (June 7, 2015; preached at Church of the Good Shepherd)

Most of us, from time to time in our childhoods, tried to persuade our parents to let us have or do something because all the other kids had or did it.

Many parents respond to this with, “If all the other kids decided to jump off a cliff, would you jump too?” My father would make me name all of said other kids, who usually turned out to number a minority in the class, and who were not infrequently the same group in any recital of this sort. Then he’d point out how many other children also had mean daddies, and that would be the end of the discussion.

Some parents give in to this form of pressure, whether because of weariness or because they actually believe that it is important to be like all the other kids. One of the more surprising examples of a parent who caves – and I am sure that, in this case, it’s due to weariness with whiny children – is Yahweh, in the reading from 1 Samuel in today’s lectionary.

The Israelites were traditionally ruled by judges, like Deborah and Samson. They decided thorny matters for their people. The nations around Israel, however, had kings, and they wielded more power. The people decided that they wanted a king, too.

God had the prophet Samuel tell them all the things they’ll hate about having a king: “He’s going to take your sons for soldiers and farmers and workmen, and your daughters to be cooks and perfumers and other things we won’t mention. He’s going to grab the best of everything you have – your fields, your vineyards, your orchards, your crops, your slaves – and divvy them up for himself and his pals. He’ll grab everything he wants, and you won’t have any say in the matter. You’re going to hate it.”

But the people refused to listen to Samuel, and said “No! We want to be like all the other kids!” And God sighed, and the people ended up with one tall and handsome but incompetent king, one very handsome and extremely cunning king who was also a fine musician, and one who wasn’t able to hold the kingdom together, so that it fell apart even before various empires started running roughshod over its fragments.

The kings were supposed to protect the people from the other kings and kingdoms, and they didn’t do that. And the people did hate it.

Most of us, at some point in our young adulthoods, asserted our independence from our parents. It’s a necessary part of growing up.

We see Jesus doing that in today’s reading from Mark. When his mother and siblings heard what people were saying – “He’s out of his mind!” – they braved the crowds and went to fetch him home.

I have no doubt that this was because of genuine concern for Jesus. He was challenging authority, in a time and place where challenging authority was not remotely a good idea. He was getting the Temple authorities worked up over his words and deeds; he was getting the better of them in their impromptu debates.

They’d say, “He has an unclean spirit,” which translates to, “He’s nuts,” and he’d respond in a fashion that proved emphatically that he was perfectly sane. He was drawing unwelcome attention to himself, and in first-century Palestine that was not a safe practice.

So Mary and her other children went to bring home the wayward one, and talk some sense into him. And he refused.

This is a big change. In the second chapter of the gospel of John, we read about the wedding at Cana. They ran out of wine, and Mary turned to Jesus and said, “They’re out of wine.“ Jesus told her, “That’s not my problem; it’s not my time.” She ignored him and told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” So Jesus had them fill up the water jars, and he turned the water into excellent wine.

Now it is his time, his time to stand up and follow the path set out for him.

His words – “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” – are sometimes interpreted as a rejection of his family, and, even, sometimes, as a suggestion that others’ family members who don’t go along with a particular version of God’s will should be cut off. (That’s not a typically Anglican response, I am happy to note.)

Jesus is clearly not rejecting his family, however. We later see Jesus speaking tenderly to his mother as her worst nightmare comes true; we know that Jesus’s brother James became the head of the fledgling Church in Jerusalem.

Instead, we see Jesus resolutely pushing aside the protection his birth family attempts to give him. We see him stepping out, eventually to be hailed as the Messiah, even though he knows what happens to those who disturb the status quo in Roman-occupied Palestine.

In that time and place, the extended family was the foundation of society. Everything was calculated by kinship – for an extreme example of that, see the priestly caste – with cousins most often marrying cousins. And if you weren’t family, you weren’t anything, at least as far as most people were concerned.

In this moment, we see Jesus opening a door to wider considerations of what constitute family. In the same way, the new Church will open the faith to “the nations” – the Gentiles – as well as to Jews. In the same way, the Church will overcome tribalism and nationality, and welcome all to the Body of Christ.

It’s a courageous act and a meaningful act on Jesus’s part. It is one of the first of many such that we will see from him along these lines, from speaking to Samaritans to healing the slave of a Roman centurion. Jesus is giving notice that the Kingdom of God is open to all.

The ancient Israelites made a mistake when they decided it would be better to be ruled by human kings than by judges. But Jesus was right in his choice to go forward on the path that his Father set out for him.

When he did, he opened the door so that we who believe in Jesus have become his brothers and sisters. And that is a priceless gift.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

 

Sermon notes: The Good Shepherd, and the sheep

Good_Shepherd_wikicommonsSERMON NOTES, EASTER IV – GOOD SHEPHERD SUNDAY (April 26, 2015 – Church of the Good Shepherd)

If you were paying attention just now during the readings – if you were actively listening, as opposed to wool-gathering – you will have noted two dominant themes today.

The first is of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. The second is closely related to it: The good shepherd is the one who is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. They’re creatures who need the help.

Today, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. This is the closest that the people of this parish [the Church of the Good Shepherd] are going to get to a patronal feast day, so it’s important to make the most of it.

Thanks to the miracle of computer searches, I can now tell you that there are a total of 118 references to shepherds, as well as 200 references to sheep, in the Bible when we combine the Old and New Testaments. 23 of the shepherds and 50 of the citations appear in the relatively brief New Testament. (That’s in the New International Version; your translation may vary.)

The ancient Israelites were herders, and the greatest portion of their flocks were of sheep. Jacob, whose sons would give their names to the tribes of Israel, was a herdsman.

Jacob was an intelligent and an observant man, and he used his understanding of what we would call the science of Mendelian genetics, of dominant and recessive traits, to conspire against his equally tricksy father-in-law, Laban. By encouraging the birth of striped and spotted sheep, which he got to keep, Jacob built the numbers of his own flocks, and thus profit for himself.

David, the youngest son of Jesse, kept his father’s flocks. He was out in the fields with the sheep when the prophet Samuel came calling, looking for the Lord’s new choice of a king to replace the disappointing Saul. David picked up some handy skills with a simple but effective technology, the sling, in protecting those sheep from predators.

By the time of Christ, the local economy had diversified somewhat. Other career paths had opened between “shepherd” and “warrior.” This was fortunate, since neither profession was very highly regarded.

The issues with soldiers, who were often indistinguishable from bandits, aren’t hard to figure out. Soldiers are strong, and armed both with weapons and authority. They take what they want, whether it’s your money, your food supplies, your person, or your life. It’s wise to keep a low profile around them.

The reasons that shepherds were held in low esteem are a little less obvious to us today, but they were then at the bottom of society’s ladder. They tended to be light-fingered drifters, men of no property and no repute. Although hired to tend the sheep, they were unlikely to endanger themselves on behalf of the flock. When the going got tough, they usually simply slipped away.

Shepherds have hard jobs, physically difficult and sometimes dangerous. In lambing season, they can be up all night, helping the ewes in their labor and then standing ready to drive off all the predators who crave newborn lamb as a midnight snack. They’re out in all kinds of weather, and their food rations were typically meager in centuries past.

This isn’t the pretty pastoral picture we get from images of shepherds leaning under trees, playing their flutes while the sheep doze in the shade. They have to work to build the trust of their sheep; the sheep do get to know the shepherd’s voice, and to come when called – sometimes.

We don’t think about how the tough job of the shepherd is when we hear the Christmas story. We don’t think of how radical a concept it is that shepherds first heard of the birth of the Messiah from a cloud of angels, instead of the more respectable and well-to-do folk in town.

But all this makes Jesus’s portrayal of himself as the Good Shepherd considerably more striking than it might have been on its face. Once again, he has identified with the poor and lowly, the despised, the rejects of good society. The shepherd was a part of the reality of first-century life, along with the crucifixion of criminals. but both were parts of that reality that the educated and people who strictly kept the Law preferred not to notice.

The one shepherd who would really care about the sheep, and about keeping them safe, was the owner of the sheep – or the son of the owner.

Then there are the sheep themselves. As the singing mice in the classic movie “Babe” told us, “Sheep are definitely stupid.”

Sheep may be herd animals, but they have a disconcerting tendency to wander off on their own. The paths they take on those journeys often seem to make no sense. (The phrase “wool-gathering” comes from the Scottish Highlands, where small children were sent to gather the bits of wool that caught on the heather and gorse plants as the sheep passed by. It’s a task that took them wandering in seemingly pointless paths around the fields.)

Sheep have ways of getting themselves into situations from which they cannot easily extract themselves. Sheep and lambs need a lot of care. They range over large tracts of land in order to feed themselves, and they can be tough to locate. They’re easy prey for all manner of killers, from wolves and wild dogs to eagles to people.

Sheep frequently act without thinking and against their own interests. Sheep, in other words, are a lot like people.

Both sheep and people need caring leaders to watch over them and lead them in the right direction, to guide them to a safe pasture, to find water and shelter, and, if necessary, to lay down their lives for them.

Shepherds need help in keeping the sheep together when it’s time to move. The traditional assistant has been the dog; now, according to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal, drones are increasingly coming into use to find and round up sheep. But regardless of the nature of that assistant, a shepherd must still be in charge.

For us, as God’s people, Jesus is that shepherd. He came not just for the House of Israel, as he tells his disciples in today’s reading from John, but for all of us.

Jesus, the good shepherd, is calling us, ready to lead us where we need to go. Our responsibility is simply to listen to him and to follow. We know, we have his promise, that he will lead us to the safest of pastures, and that no danger is too great for his protection. With his help, we can fear no evil.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

 

Excitement

I love being excited.

It’s the best feeling. I can be reserved and keep to myself, depending on the situation, but when I get pumped about something, you probably won’t get me to calm down. Especially if someone surprises me with good news that gets me excited…I’m basically beside myself.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I auditioned on cello for the Tennessee Governor’s School for the Arts. It was a five-week program in the summer for rising junior and seniors, and they only took six cellists from across the state. You got to stay in a dorm at a college and spend a little over a month immersed in your discipline. One day after swim practice, probably in late January, I went out to the mailbox for a routine check.

Inside was my acceptance letter. I read it again and again in the middle of the street, in the freezing cold, with my soaking wet hair, still in my bathing suit. I screamed and jumped up and down with excitement. I’m sure the neighbors thought I was absolutely insane.

I was excited then, and totally beside myself, but think of the rush of emotion that the people in today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke must have been feeling. Picture it: They had just witnessed the most surprising and beautiful thing, potentially ever, Jesus himself, risen from the dead. Seeing him in the flesh, feeling his wounds…all after they thought he was gone.

How exciting that must have been? We cannot know, and I even find it a little hard to imagine the true level of joy they were feeling. It must have been out of this world.

But Luke tells us that, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering…”

Now, I don’t know about you, but those are some emotions I don’t have to try as hard to imagine: Disbelief, wondering.

You see, the people in Luke’s Gospel were so lucky. They got to experience the joy of Jesus’s resurrection first hand. They got to see him, to touch him, to know. But it says, even in the midst of that unfathomable joy, they were disbelieving and still wondering.

Talk about getting the short end of the stick, right? We were born a couple of thousand years too late. For us, as modern followers of Christ, it is far more about faith.

Faith is something that has been a part of me for as long as I can remember. I’ve been an Episcopalian my entire life. I started acolyting at age 6, and went on from there to be active in Sunday School, my youth group, the Episcopal Church camp in Tennessee, and various other church retreats for many, many years. I even went on to be in the Episcopal Service Corps, and now (I know this is news), I work in a church!

Some of the greatest moments in my life have come from my experiences with my faith…with Christ…with God. I am overwhelmed with joy by the power of Jesus’s story, his teachings, how he treats others…his whole life, including his death and resurrection.

But even in the midst of that overwhelming joy, I sometimes find myself in an overwhelming state of disbelief…and I am still wondering.

I ask myself all the questions I’m sure those in today’s Gospel were asking: “Are you kidding me? No way. This is crazy, right? Is this for real? Is he for real?” And maybe you ask some of your own questions, too.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe in the story of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. It’s just plain difficult to be a Christian. This is a safe place, so let’s not pretend.

It isn’t always easy to trust. It isn’t always easy to have faith. We do not have the luxury of getting to see Jesus’s flesh and blood. For us, it is a matter of finding meaning and truth in a story that is, well, really old and investing our beliefs and our lives in it. Even with all the joy, that’s really hard. Naturally, we have doubts about all of it. We’re human.

And then comes Jesus’s immediate response to those who were disbelieving and still wondering. He’s showed them his wounds, his flesh, and then he’s just like, “Yo, I told you guys this would happen. Can I can get some food now, please?”

Okay, I joke, but think about it.

They were all both excited and unbelievably uncertain, and Jesus’s reactions in the rest of the reading are so steady. They touched, they saw, and Jesus told them what would happen. He opened their minds and they witnessed the resurrected Christ, so the faith and the action will come. It seems so simple, laid out plainly for us in scripture.

Honestly, though, I don’t know if it was simple, or if it will ever be simple for any of us. But the really exciting thing about Jesus’s resurrection and Easter is that it means that God forever has our backs: loving us, forgiving us, and waiting to help us engage in a joyful, faithful relationship, even when we disbelieve and wonder and life is anything but simple.

In spite of all that, it’s still all too easy to forget about the excitement of Easter and resurrection once all the eggs have been turned into egg salad or left too long in the fridge. It’s easy after a while for that excitement and joy to be overshadowed by our disbelief and our wondering.

And you know what? I think we should still be wondering. Every day.

Because it is kind of unbelievable, right? Jesus’s entire story? It’s messy and it’s complicated and hard to swallow sometimes. But that doesn’t make it any less important or any less magnificent.

I hope that — even in the midst of our disbelief, our wondering, and any difficulties that life throws our way — we are always able to feel that absolute joy when it comes to our faith, the same joy we have already felt in our own meaningful experiences with God and with others, the same joy we feel at the celebration on Easter morning, and that very same joy felt by those who were able to touch and to see.

Because, in a way, we have touched and we have seen.

So, just like them, when we remember Jesus’s life: his teachings, his death, his resurrection, and what all of those mean for us as a faithful people, I hope we are always, always able to think: “How crazy. How beautiful. How…exciting.”

Amen.

– Jillian Smith

Jillian Smith, a former member of Deaconess Anne House in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri, is the Director of Youth Ministry at St. Peter’s/Ladue.

Sermon notes: Why did Jesus have to die?

Alwan_CodexSERMON NOTES, GOOD FRIDAY (April 3, 2015; preached at Church of the Good Shepherd/Town and Country)

After we hear today’s gospel lesson, the long, detailed account of the trial, execution, and burial of Jesus, the fundamental question remains: Why was he put to death on a cross?

As is so often the case, there’s more than one answer. In the death of Jesus, there’s a political reason, and there’s a theological reason. I think the theology has been misinterpreted for a very long time.

Let’s take the easy one first.

That would be the political reason. The Roman Empire was not built on a foundation of international brotherhood, loving one’s neighbor as oneself, and warm fuzzies. On a very fundamental level, the Roman Empire was built on terror.

When the Roman army came calling, the locals could try to fight, or they could surrender. Surrender, and they’d take only a tribute of the population as slaves; resist, and the whole population could be put to death or hauled off to be sold.

Resist, or, after the conquest was completed, revolt against Rome’s authority, and crosses would rise along the roads, sometimes hundreds of them, “Pour encourager les autres,” as Voltaire put it. The idea was to show as many passersby as possible the monstrous consequences of fighting back.

Crucifixion was ideal for the Romans’ purposes in subjugation. It was public and it was slow, sometimes involving days of excruciating torture before a body could finally be declared a corpse, left to rot for the birds of prey.

The Roman prefect Pontius Pilate had no problems with ordering crucifixions. We know from the contemporary Jewish writers Philo and Josephus that he was a cruel, capricious man, corrupt and ill-tempered. He liked to jerk around the people he ruled, putting objects they considered idolatrous in Jerusalem just to get them going. He stole money from the Temple treasury to build an aquaduct. Pilate’s ill-judged and contemptuous behavior meant that the threat of insurrection always simmered and sometimes boiled over in Palestine. For that, he once drew a rebuke from the Emperor Tiberius himself.

Philo wrote that PIlate feared that some of his subjects might go to Rome and “expose the rest of his conduct as governor by stating in full the briberies, the insults, the robberies, the outrages and wanton injuries, the executions without trial constantly repeated, the ceaseless and supremely grievous cruelty.”

After a particularly egregious massacre in Samaria, Vitellius, the Roman governor of Syria and Pilate’s superior, finally sent him back to Rome. The Romans might not have cared that much about the fates of their subjects, but they preferred to keep the peace. Pilate was the kind of ruler who made men desperate.

From reading both the gospel accounts and other histories, I think we can assume that, while Pilate might enjoy toying for a few minutes with a crackpot Messiah, he wouldn’t have cared one way or another about his fate. The gospel writers cut him a lot of slack, in an effort to assure their overlords that honestly, no, really, they didn’t blame Rome at all.

The Jewish authorities were well aware of Pilate’s proclivities, of course. Faced with a troublesome prophet, a man with crowds of followers who were starting to use the M-word – “messiah” – when they talked about him, they took care of the problem.

“It is expedient that one man should die for the people, so that we don’t all find ourselves dead,” said the high priest Caiaphas, a sensible man and experienced politician. In fairness, he and his colleagues were concerned about the suffering of the people, as well as themselves.

And so they arrested Jesus, trumped up some charges against him, and turned him over to the Romans. The rulers had the power to execute, and no compunctions about using it.

There we have the political reasons for the torture and execution of Jesus. What about the theology?

I’ve struggled for some time with the idea that God demanded such suffering in order to pay off the debt of humanity’s sinfulness. It’s a doctrine known as “penal substitutionary atonement.” We sin, God demands an enormous sacrifice, and Jesus steps up to the plate and takes one for the team.

I don’t like that. Then again, I don’t much like the story of Abraham and Isaac, when God ordered Abraham to slaughter his son, only to say, at the last possible moment, “Just kidding!” It makes God into a cosmic bully, like some of the pagan deities against whom both Judaism and Christianity rebelled.

The concept of substitutionary atonement is not central to the faith. It’s not an ancient belief. It was invented during the Reformation, and not by tolerant Via Media-type Anglicans, either. It’s from the unpleasant “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” folks, who may preach the grace of God, but who sometimes don’t seem to really endorse it.

As the Roman Catholic writer Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry puts it, sin is not a debt that can be repaid; sin is an insult that separates us from God.

We have insulted God with our sin, and God takes that insult seriously. God treats sin with contempt, “and a love that breaks the barrier that sin tries to put up. Where sin abounds, grace superabounds. The answer to sin is not punishment, it is grace.”

Salvation by grace is what we teach, and what most of us believe.

Okay, but we still have the question of why Jesus had to die upon a cross.

Presbyterian minister Mark Sandlin says that it was for love, and I agree with him. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” Jesus said. And that is what Jesus did.

Jesus died because he loved the world too much to stay quiet in the face of injustice. Jesus died because those in power were threatened by his actions, whether it was healing the sick on the Sabbath or preaching the coming of the Reign of God.

Jesus died because of his love for God’s people. In the face of his suffering on the cross, we see the true extent of God’s love for us.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

See the video from Church of the Good Shepherd.

Sermon notes: Cleansing the Temple

ChristCleansingTempleCranachSERMON NOTES, LENT 3, YEAR B (Preached at St. Luke’s/Manchester, March 8, 2015) John 2:13-22

If you have ever labored under the misconception that Jesus was just a very holy, very nice guy, then today’s gospel reading is for you.

A thorough reading of the gospels reveals to us just how multifaceted Jesus was. There is the teacher, dispensing wisdom, and making people think with his parables and sayings. There is the miracle-worker, healing the lame and making the blind see.

There is the prophet, proclaiming the good news of the Reign of God. Occasionally, we even get to see the very human Cranky Jesus cursing a fig tree, or getting snarky with a Gentile woman who wants his help.

In today’s gospel reading, we see Jesus taking on the roles of judge and enforcer, going on the warpath in the Temple, upsetting the tables of the moneychangers, to say nothing of the status quo, and scandalizing the (easily scandalized) priestly class. It’s not a side of his character that we frequently see, but it’s an important one.

A version of this episode appears in all four gospels, but with some important differences. The three Synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – all put the cleansing of the Temple into what we know as Holy Week, after the triumphant entry into Jerusalem. In those accounts, it’s one of the last things Jesus does as a free man. It’s also one of the immediate causes of his arrest, trial, and execution.

The gospel of John, which draws on a different early tradition, places it near the beginning of Christ’s public ministry. In fact, it comes right after the wedding at Cana, when Jesus changed water into wine, performing his initial public miracle.

Both put it right before the Passover, but at different times. John’s narrative shows Jesus’s public ministry taking place over the course of three years, with multiple trips to Jerusalem. In the Synoptics, it’s all compressed into a single year, with his time in Jerusalem coming only at the end.

The animal sellers and money changers were performing an important and officially sanctioned function. All the rules for what they’re described as doing are set forth in the book of Leviticus, the work of an early bureaucracy that was focused on centering all worship at the temple. Sacrifices were made by the priests on behalf of the people, for the forgiveness of sins, or for thanksgiving and celebration. These rules are major additions to the Ten Commandments, as we heard them read in the first lesson this morning, but it is in human – and, especially, bureaucratic – nature to expand on and further embroider existing regulations.

Since the animals were being sacrificed to God, they had to be absolutely perfect, with no blemishes. You couldn’t just bring in a dove off the streets and offer it for sacrifice, or lead in a lamb from your farm. It had to be certified and sold by an approved merchant, rather as our Cardinals team regalia has to be approved by Major League Baseball.

In the same way, the moneychangers made the use of coinage acceptable in the sacred precincts of the Temple. A Roman or other coin, bearing the image of an emperor or foreign god, was unclean for sacrificial purposes; it had to be traded in for a coin that had no pagan taint. The bankers at the Temple exchanged pure money for the impure.

Of course, everyone involved in this business did well while doing good. The Temple authorities got a cut of everything that went on there. The priests ate most of the sacrifices of grain and animal offerings. The money changers made a tidy profit, as did the animal sellers. Given human nature, it’s likely that there was some quiet price-fixing going on, and not in the consumer’s favor.

It all took place in the Temple’s outer court, the Court of the Gentiles, and it must have been a mess. There were the animal sellers, with their cattle, sheep and doves, all bellowing, baa-ing and cooing. There were the money-changers at their tables. There were even souvenirs for sale to those Jews who traveled from around the Mediterranean world in order to worship at the Temple.

We can be sure that there was plenty of huckstering going on, with all those wares and services being loudly advertised. We can be equally sure that it was not a scene to lift one’s thoughts to the beauty of holiness.

This wasn’t the first time Jesus had been to the Temple. This wasn’t the first time he’d made his way through the holy hucksters who hawked their wares. But this was the first time he reacted so passionately to what he witnessed.

Except for Mark, the Synoptics give the incident a set of fairly cursory paragraphs. Luke puts it this way: “Then he went to the Temple and began driving out the traders, with these words: ‘Scripture says, “My house shall be a house of prayer,” but you have made it a den of thieves.'”

Compare that to the level of detail we’ve just heard from John. Jesus went to the Temple, saw – and heard, and smelled – the market, and saw red. He made a whip out of cords and drove out the dealers and their herds. He overturned the moneychangers’ tables and set their stacks of coins bouncing and spinning across the pavement. He ordered the pigeon-mongers to take their cages full of birds and leave.

Jesus was like a one-man riot squad. The salesmen must have been stunned by his actions, because there’s no record that they resisted.

The Temple authorities weren’t so easily cowed. They ordered Jesus to justify himself.

He answered with a response that must have seemed absurd on its face: “Destroy this temple,” he said, “and in three days I will raise it up again.”

Literal-minded men, they assumed that he was talking about Herod’s Temple, which, as they pointed out, had been under construction for 46 years. But Jesus was talking about his own body. Jesus was talking about his own eventual death and resurrection.

So what does this mean?

First, Jesus is making a clear connection between himself and God, very early in this gospel. The message is that he himself is God’s dwelling place.

Second, as we see time after time in the gospels, Jesus was an observant Jew. He had come to the Temple in preparation for the Passover, after all. He did not, however, have a lot of patience with human regulations and additions to the law. Jesus had a common-sense gift for cutting through to the basics. That’s true whether he’s healing someone on the Sabbath, or reminding us that God’s House is there for worship, and not for the benefit of those who make their livings from it.

What does this mean for us today?

As Jesus makes clear, he was the Temple, God’s dwelling-place on Earth. After his resurrection and ascension, however, the Church became the Body of Christ. As the Temple had to be made pure and returned to its purpose, so, too must we, the people who are the Church, look carefully at ourselves.

Have we, like the Temple authorities, become too rigid and self-involved? Has the process become more important than the purpose?

Do we follow the first and great commandment, and love the Lord with all our hearts and souls and minds, or have we invented little gods of our own design that we follow in God’s place?

Do we really think about Christ’s second great commandment, and love our neighbors as ourselves? Do we think about what that means, or do we just give lip service to the Golden Rule while doing pretty much what pleases us?

Do we reach out to those in need – the hungry, the oppressed, the sick – and strive to help them? Or do we just read along on the prayers in church and figure that should cover it?

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably aware that you fall short in at least some of these basics. The fact is that we all fall short, each in our own way.

Fortunately, this is an excellent time to consider what we have done and left undone. The season of Lent gives us the opportunity, the liturgical space, to think about what God really wants from us and how to do a better job of living up to that standard.

On the second Sunday in Lent, we still have time to cleanse our hearts, to put ourselves on a better, straighter path, to make ourselves ready before the joy of resurrection and Easter Day.

Thanks be to God.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Love and the Christian life

St. Paul took the concept of agape seriously.

St. Paul took the concept of agape seriously.

SERMON NOTES, PENTECOST 13, YEAR A (Preached at the Church of the Good Shepherd/Town & Country, 9/7/14)

Most of the time, it’s hard to beat the English language for depth and breadth of vocabulary. Being a mashup – or a mélange – of other tongues makes it hard to learn, but easy to use. English is capable of expressing ideas and feelings in many different ways.

We’re cheated in an important respect, however. One word, “love,” has to bear far too many different burdens.

We use the same little noun to indicate the most profound affection for a spouse, parent, child, or friend; a romantic attachment; a sexual affair. We use it to describe how we feel about things – “I love your hair!” “I love fresh home-grown tomatoes!” – and enthusiasms – “She loves cats,” “He loves baseball.”

The great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis recognized this problem. In his brief but thoughtful book The Four Loves, he breaks down the varieties of human love and gives them their proper names: affection, friendship, Eros, and charity.

They can and do mingle in our feelings, but we shouldn’t mistake them for each other. Lewis saved the highest and most important of them for last: charity, caritas, or, in the Greek of the New Testament, agape.

Agape is at the heart of our faith. It is the most central concept in Christianity. Agape is a completely selfless love, a love that gives without keeping track, a bottomless well of love, a love that sacrifices willingly. The word agape sums up God’s love for humanity. If you’ve ever seen someone holding up a sign that says “John 3:16” at a sporting event, you know the Reader’s Digest version of the New Testament: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that everyone who has faith in him may not perish but have eternal life.”

“Agape” is the word that’s been translated as “love” in today’s reading from Romans. Paul is setting out instructions for members of the young Church here, and he makes a lot of important points about Christian life and behavior. The one that really popped out at me as I first began to work on this sermon, though, is that agape isn’t a one-way street. Sharing it is essential.

The idea is that we respond to God with the closest approximation of God’s infinite love that we can manage. The idea is that we love those around us as selflessly as God loves us. That sets a high bar, and it’s not really negotiable.

It is easy for us to look exclusively inward, to become insular, to focus on what we need, as individuals, families or communities. That’s human nature. But if we take agape seriously, we have to look outward as well.

Paul echoes Jesus’s words from the gospel of Matthew: Asked by a Pharisee which was the greatest commandment, Jesus responds, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

“Love does no wrong to a neighbor,” Paul adds, “therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Thanks to the parable Jesus told of the Good Samaritan, the outcast who helped an injured man when two leaders of his own religious community passed him by, we know that our neighbors aren’t just the people who live near us. They’re not just the people who worship with us, or who share our opinions. They’re not just the folks who hit “Like” on our Facebook posts. It’s a much larger group: They’re the ones who help us, and who need our help.

Particularly in the internet age, our neighborhood spans the world. The world is certainly not short on places where Christians are called to love, to help, and to pray. This summer has set out a veritable smorgasbord of crises; the conscientious Christian could get spiritual whiplash just trying to keep up with them all.

There’s Ukraine, there’s the West Bank and Gaza, there’s Syria. There are the kidnapped girls and others stolen or murdered in Nigeria, and the Ebola epidemic in west Africa. There are the Christians of Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, an ancient community targeted for extermination, and yet of oddly little interest in the West.

Closer to home, of course, there’s Ferguson. Ferguson chased all the other horrors from the cover of the Post-Dispatch for weeks. Ferguson led the news in the United Kingdom and in Germany. I don’t need to go into the details here.

The good news about Ferguson is that it began a conversation, and that Christians have been involved from the start. When the Rev. Steven Lawler, the rector of St. Stephen’s/Ferguson, told a TV reporter that the parish’s little food pantry was cleaned out, and that the stores where they got donations were closed, people responded from all over the region with food and household basics. The parish hall was completely filled. The hungry were fed.

The good news is that Christians worked during the demonstrations to keep people calm and maintain the peace. The good news is that Christians are still working there, and will work there, long after the TV news producers have forgotten all about it.

Good Shepherd does an amazing amount of sharing the love, with your garden, collecting for the Trinity Food Pantry, serving at the St. John’s/Tower Grove Peace Meal, and more. I suspect that it’s a large part of what makes you strong as a parish, these constant acts of looking outward as well as inward. It’s certainly something that strengthens you as Christians.

It’s hard work trying live a genuinely Christian life, seeing all the world and its people through the lens of God’s love. It’s not easy to balance our intentions with our responsibilities and the often-aggravating realities of everyday life. It can be inconvenient to put the needs of others ahead of our own. But in order to truly, fully experience the love of God, we have to pass it around.

– Sarah Bryan Miller