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: “My peace I give to you”

SERMON NOTES, EASTER VI, YEAR C (Preached at St. Peter’s/Ladue, Church_of_Christ_icon_wikiMay 5, 2013)

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you,” said Jesus to his closest disciples on the night that he was betrayed.

That seems like an odd choice of words, given that Jesus has just told them that he will be leaving them. Even the Apostles, as egregiously dim as they can sometimes be, have to know what that means.

After all, Jesus has hardly been a harbinger of peace, for himself or others. When he was just 12, not even a bar mitzvah boy, he was arguing with his elders and betters in the Temple.

When he re-emerges into the public eye, it’s one kerfuffle after another. Perhaps it was okay when he changed water into wine or healed a few lepers. Raising the dead, however, is a problem. So is raising serious questions about the social and religious order.

Jesus and his followers ignore the Sabbath when it suits them: healing a blind man, plucking and eating grain. Called on it, Jesus raises the hackles of the Pharisees by telling them that the Sabbath was made for people, and not the other way around.

Jesus’s associates are not the most respectable. They include drunkards and tax collectors. He’s allowed a woman of negotiable virtue to wash his feet. Lately he’s been dropping hints about being the Messiah and making some questionable prophecies. When Pharisees like Nicodemus come to talk with him, they do it secretly, under the cover of night.

The people in power spend a lot of time coming up with questions designed to trap Jesus, but he always has an answer, and he always ends up trapping them instead. People in power tend to dislike that.

Palestine is a part of the Roman Empire; its people live under the Pax Romana. That’s a peace maintained by the brutal repression of anyone the authorities think might disrupt it, and it is sealed in the grave.

Jesus has been on the watch list for a while. Now, from the moment that he entered Jerusalem in triumph on Palm Sunday, upset the apple cart by overturning the moneychangers’ tables at the Temple, and drew crowds to hear teachings that could be interpreted by the suspicious as inciting rebellion, he has been a marked man.

That night while Jesus is speaking to his disciples about peace, Judas has already headed out to betray him. We know what happened next. No rational person would think that peace had anything to do with that. No one would think that peace was reflected in the persecutions that Christians have suffered ever since, from the stoning of Stephen to last week’s government-sanctioned violence against the Copts in Egypt.

And yet Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” What is that supposed to mean?

He gives us some clues: “I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid.”

If the phrase “Do not be afraid” sounds familiar, it should. Thanks to the miracle of computer software, I can tell you that the New Revised Standard Edition of the Bible uses it a total of 76 times, not counting the many variations on the theme.

We find it in the Book of Genesis, when the Lord tells both Abram and his slave Hagar not to fear, and in Exodus when Moses reassures the Israelites of God’s faithfulness. We find it in First Kings in the tale of Elijah and the widow of Zaraphath, as the prophet promises her that she and her son will live.

We find it recurring constantly in the psalms and throughout the New Testament, where it’s usually an angel saying it: telling Mary not to fear, giving the shepherds the same message, reassuring the women who go to Jesus’s tomb on Easter morning, telling Paul that his voyage to Rome will be safe. It’s not the first time Jesus has said these words to the disciples, and the author of Revelation’s visions includes a variation on it.

Many of these incidents did not end well, from a human perspective. The Israelites still had to wander around a smallish desert for 40 years. Paul still faced execution as the ultimate conclusion to his voyage. After the Ascension, Jesus’s followers still faced a frightening new world without their teacher.

Yet Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”

We think of peace as the absence of strife, the absence of warfare, as physical and emotional safety. We think of it as a lack of bickering around the dinner table, or a lack of enemies at school or the workplace. To be at peace is to be secure in the world.

But that, while entirely understandable and perfectly valid, is considering only the small-scale human point of view. What’s more, the one thing that’s certain about Earthly peace is that it’s temporary.

Just follow the news for evidence of that. Treaties between nations are broken with numbing frequency. Freelance terrorists plant bombs at home and abroad. Teenage thugs with handguns turn porch-front gatherings into tragedy.

For that matter, just look at everyday life for evidence of that. Neighbors argue about noisy dogs. Couples argue about finances. Children argue about their shares of the back seat. Humans argue about everything. The possibility of strife is always present.

At the beginning of this passage, Jesus has given us another clue: “Those who love me will keep my word.” He and the Father will dwell with us. The Holy Spirit will come to teach and remind us of Jesus’s commandments.

And what are those commandments? Jesus taught many things, but they can all be boiled down to just two: to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and souls and minds, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

The peace of God, then, must be sought with God and within ourselves, as we open ourselves to God’s will and live that will. It is to be found in our relationship with God, and in how we express it.

Striving for God’s peace may still put us at odds with the world. The early Christians were as peace-prone as bickering human beings can be, but they still managed to aggravate their neighbors and each other.

To know God’s peace is to know that there is something more and better than this world, that its pains and griefs, as terrible as they may be, are temporary, that greater things than we can imagine await us. In the meantime, we pray for God’s peace, and we do what we can to bring a measure of peace to this world.

 – Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: On the mountaintop

Transfiguration_David_wikiSERMON NOTES, LAST EPIPHANY (YEAR C; 2/10/13; Preached at Church of the Good Shepherd/St. Louis)

This Sunday brings us to the end of a time in the Church year when we are constantly reminded of the miraculous. It starts with God’s messenger telling Mary that she would bear God’s son; then segues to the Nativity, proclaimed by angels and attended by wondering shepherds; and moves from there to the Epiphany, when wise men followed a star to find a King.

Today the season of Epiphany ends at a high point, as we hear of the ultimate mountaintop experience. Jesus and three chosen disciples, Peter, James, and John, climbed into the high places, saw Jesus transfigured and conversing with Moses and Elijah, and listened, slack-jawed, as God’s voice spoke from the clouds: “This is my Son, my Chosen: Hear him!”

From this peak, we head downhill into the long slog of Lent, where it’s all ashes and sackcloth, temptation and repentance, suffering to go, and Christ’s death on an executioner’s cross. No wonder the disciples wanted to build huts and stay in the heights a little longer.

The New Testament is filled with moments of wonder that transform their witnesses, at least for a time: divine healings, flashes of divine insight, the conversions of whole crowds to the truth of the gospel message. It can give us the impression that Jesus and his companions lived and breathed the miraculous 24/7/365.

We want that, too. We want to go up on the mountaintop and hear God’s voice. We want to have the experience that will set us apart, remove all doubts, give us enlightenment and understanding. We yearn for the transcendent and the extraordinary.

There are Christian denominations that seem to set that kind of occurrence as an expectation, that demand to know the time and day when a prospective member had a born-again experience. When did you meet Jesus? At what hour did you accept him as your Lord and Savior? What is your born-again date?

Those who haven’t had such an experience but still have profound Christian beliefs sometimes feel shame that Jesus hasn’t seen fit to visit them personally. Sometimes they worry that their faith might not be quite up to snuff.

What, I wonder, did the other disciples think, the ones who were also chosen by the Lord to be among his closest companions, but who were left behind when Jesus summoned Peter, John, and James to hike up the mountain with him. Did they feel left out? Did they feel second-best?

And what did the Three Amigos get out of the experience? Were they transformed for life? The record is silent on James and John, but we all know how Peter reacted when it came to the crunch: He denied Jesus three times, in fear for his own life.

I believe that one size does not fit all, and that God tailors our experiences of faith to fit us as individuals. Some people may really need a lightning bolt to get their attention, like Paul or Martin Luther. Some may need to stick their fingers into the nail holes, like Thomas. Some need to experience the miraculous, like the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well.

But others are converted by a simple hearing and explanation of the Word, like the Ethiopian eunuch whom Philip met on the road to Gaza. For others, the word and Christian witness work for years until they finally surrender, give up, and let God in.

That would include C.S. Lewis, who upon his acceptance of Christ called himself “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England”. Some simply absorb the Christian faith until it is an inextricable part of them, and quietly recognize its truth. That’s true of a lot of people I know. I imagine that it’s true of a lot of people you know, too.

Spectacular conversions are not given to everyone. Not everyone needs an extrovert experience. Sometimes slow and steady really does win the race. Whether it’s a voice booming from the clouds that compels us to listen or a small nagging voice that doesn’t quit until we stop and hear what it has to say, God gives each of us what we require.

However we come to faith is not really the point, though. The point is what we do with that faith once we have it.

We know that the path of faith doesn’t always run smoothly, and that temptations sometimes seem to increase once we’ve made a commitment to Christ. We don’t need to go further than the daily news to find examples of fallen Christians. All too often, the headlines are filled with the tales of noted evangelists and conservative politicians who have failed spectacularly to stave off temptation, or who have, indeed, actually sought it out.

How, then, are we to live as Christians? What are we supposed to do with our faith once we have it?

We have the answer, of course, right in the New Testament: Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, welcome the stranger at your door. Love God and your neighbor. Pray without ceasing. Don’t squabble with the rest of the Church about things that really aren’t that important.

If we truly accept Christ, we must live our lives according to his words and teachings, to the very best of our abilities.

Even the most spectacular of mountaintop experiences can last for only a few moments. It’s what we do with what we’ve been given there that matters in the long run.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: Peter’s confession

Christ_Peter_keys_wikiSermon notes, Confession of Peter (Preached 1/20/13 at St. Peter’s/Ladue; Matthew 16:13-19; Acts 4:8-13)

We have just heard one of the most argued-over passages in the entire Bible – and that’s saying something. Just what, exactly, is going on in today’s gospel reading?

Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter, in his capacity as the leader of the apostles, speaks for the rest of the group, making his confession, his statement of faith: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus tells him, “You are Rock, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

We don’t know if Peter was given his nickname – Kephas, Petrus, Rock – before this milestone event, but the confession and Jesus’s play on words certainly cemented it forever. The passage of time has polished it to a high gloss: There is no record of anyone being called Kephas or Petrus before the time of Christ, but there have been untold quantities of Christians given variants on that name in the twenty centuries since.

Jesus goes on to say, “”I will give you the keys to 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.”

That phrase is God’s special gift to cartoonists, who can always draw a St. Peter-at-the-pearly-gates gag whenever they’re short of ideas. But what does it mean?

That’s where we get into the arguments. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that Peter was the first Bishop of Rome, and that in giving Peter the “keys to the kingdom,” Jesus was establishing the papacy. From there, they have progressed to a belief in papal infallibility.

Other branches of the Church, not surprisingly, disagree with that view.

For one thing, there’s not actually any contemporary evidence that Peter ever lived in Rome or died there; that’s a tradition that developed later. Paul, who was in Rome, mentioned a lot of Christian leaders, but he never wrote a word about bumping into Peter. That’s not too surprising: Peter’s work took place in Antioch, in Asia Minor, and Jerusalem. Rome was a long, long way away.

Besides, it’s doubtful Rome even had a bishop in the early years of the Church there. Bishops were a later, post-apostolic development.

St. Augustine of Hippo believed that Christ was giving authority to the Church, not just to Peter. That’s the position of the Orthodox Churches, along with Anglicans and most Protestants. The Orthodox see the Church on Earth as infallible, but “infallible” is not a word with which we Anglicans are particularly comfortable.

The exchange, however, is still significant.

Peter is the most clearly drawn of the apostles, both in the gospels and in the Book of Acts. Frankly, he’s almost the last person you’d expect to get a nickname like “Rock.” On some days, he’s more like “Noodle,” going limp as soon as he hits hot water.

Peter changes his mind at inopportune moments. He starts to walk on water like the Master, and then wimps out and has to be rescued. Peter’s always saying the wrong thing, talking without thinking, even contradicting Jesus when he tells the disciples that he must suffer and die – and getting smacked down for it.

When Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, it’s Peter who pulls out his sword and cuts off the ear of Malchus, the servant of the high priest. Jesus has to fix that one, too. Most famously, after the arrest, Peter denies that he even knows the man he’s been following for the last three years.

In other words, Peter is a kind of stand-in for the rest of us, weak, sinful and eminently fallible. And yet Christ chooses him to provide authority to the fledgling Church.

Peter was always the natural leader of the little group of apostles, but by the time we see him in the reading from Acts, he has grown into the larger role of a spokesman and leader of the Church.

Peter, accompanied by John, has healed a crippled beggar, saying, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” That draws a crowd, Peter preaches to them, and the Jewish authorities arrest both apostles. The next day, the leaders of the Temple ask them, “By what power or what name did you do this?”

And Peter continues his sermon. An “uneducated and ordinary” man, he has been called forth to speak not only to the crowds but to the teachers of the Law, and we see him doing it with power and eloquence.

In that speech, he identifies the true rock on which the Church is built: Jesus Christ. “The stone that was rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone.”

And what is the Church? The Catechism (which you’ll find in the back of the Book of Common Prayer, beginning on page 845) provides the official word. The Church is the community of the New Covenant, the Body of Christ. The Church continues in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles, carrying out Christ’s mission, “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”

The Church is us, connected in faith beyond time and space, a vast throng of believers following Christ. Like Peter, we are imperfect; like Peter, we stumble and fall on a regular basis. Like Peter, we frequently misunderstand just what Jesus is getting at.

But, like Peter, we are called. The Greek word “ekklesia” means “assembly” or “gathering;” it also means “called forth.” We assemble here to hear God’s Word and receive the sacraments; we go forth into the world to share God’s love in every way we can.

We can take courage in the example of Peter; we can confess our faith and live it, too, as Peter did. I can’t think of a more appropriate patron saint, like us flawed and foolish, and, like us, blessed beyond all measure in the power and love of Christ.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: Jesus and the rich young man

SERMON NOTES, PROPER 23, YEAR B (Preached at St. Matthew’s/Warson Woods, 10/14/12)

It sometimes seems to me that we hear as many misquotations of the Bible as accurate quotations.

There’s the ghastly false platitude “God doesn’t give us more than we can bear,” which is a misquotation of 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” (Quite a difference, isn’t there?)

There’s “The lion shall lie down with the lamb,” which misquotes Isaiah 11:6, but at least retains its spirit: “The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat; the calf and the young lion will feed together, and a little child will lead them.”

And then there’s “Money is the root of all evil.” By shortening what 1 Timothy 6:10 actually says – “The love of money is the root of all evil” – that particular misquotation seriously misses the point of what the author of the epistle is trying to tell us.

And that brings us to the gospel reading for today.

It’s one of the most poignant stories in the gospels. A righteous, rich young man, who has always lived his life according to the precepts of the Law, comes to Jesus and asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus looks into the man’s heart and sees his goodness. He tells him, “Sell all that you have and give the money to the poor; then come and follow me.”

The rich young man is shocked by the very idea. He can’t bear to part with his possessions; he is too attached to his money and his belongings and his position in the world. He goes away, grieving, and Jesus tells the disciples, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

St. Francis of Assisi, who was a rich young man himself, took this seriously. When we think about him – as on his just-observed his feast day – we usually think about his recognition of animals as our fellow creatures, and the gift that they are to us.

But long before he became a bird bath model or spoke of “Brother Wolf,” Francis lived large, drinking, playing sports, and going off as a soldier. After his spiritual awakening, he nursed lepers and gave all his money to beggars. When his father denounced him to the authorities, he stood in front of the bishop and everybody, renounced his inheritance and returned even the clothes that he wore, then went off to live in extreme poverty. Francis truly lived Jesus’s words.

Such capacity for sacrifice is given to few of us. I don’t think that kind of sacrifice is asked of most of us.

As in 1 Timothy, I also don’t think it’s the money per se that’s the real problem. Jesus had disciples who were well-to-do; those included, notably, that closet disciple the Pharisee Nicodemus, who was also a member of the powerful Sanhedrin, and the much-slandered-by-posterity Mary Magdalene, who was not a prostitute but a woman of substance who helped to support Jesus and the disciples with her wealth.

In the case of the rich young man, the real problem is his overwhelming love of money, and the love of the perks attached to money: comfort, recognition, the ability to do as you want when you want. Who wouldn’t enjoy that? As the noted St. Louis-based philosopher Mary Engelbreit has observed, “It’s good to be Queen.”

Other people are more attached to other things. The love of power often attaches itself to the love of money, but not always: We see the urge to control at every level, in every aspect of the human condition. That particular urge has nothing to do with wealth. It exists among the homeless; it’s all too present in religious communities.

Some people become obsessed with other things: with their collections, or with their cars, or with their online games, or with their pets, or with sports, or with food, or sex, or exercise.

In most cases, the problem is not in their wealth, or in their cheering for the Cardinals, or in their interest in restoring vintage Mustangs, or in collecting political memorabilia or English porcelain, or in running. The real problem is that we can become so intent on those things that we forget to lift our eyes to God.

I suspect that God wants us to hold all these things lightly. Indeed, Peter – typically – starts to point out to Jesus that the disciples who follow him have walked away from their homes and families and trades. Jesus knows where he’s going with that, though, and interrupts: “No matter what you’ve given up, you will receive much more, along with eternal life.”

This is the season of stewardship. Every autumn, with the turning of the leaves, we’re asked to give of our treasure – and, if the stewardship campaign is being run properly, of our time and talent as well – to support the Church, so that the Church will be here to support us. That makes this a particularly good time to ponder the implications of this gospel reading.

Chapter 20 of Exodus lays out the Ten Commandments. The very first one is this: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of bondage; you shall have no other gods before me.” The danger is that our wealth, or our hobbies, or our passions will put us back into bondage, will become other gods for us.

So we can enjoy what we have, but always remember to share it. We can give guidance where it’s needed, but not try to play the dictator. We can follow our interests, but remember that there’s more to claim our attention.

In that way, we won’t be chained to those things; they will serve us, instead of the other way around. In that way, we can be free, free to go when Christ says, “Follow me.”

Lord, help us to hold the things of this world lightly, and bring us in time to your heavenly realm, remembering that “In God, all things are possible.” Amen.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: Miracle sandwich

Jesus heals the woman with a hemorrhage. (Image from the catacombs of Rome.)

Sermon on Proper 8, Year B (July 1, 2012) Preached at the Church of the Good Shepherd, St. Louis

Most gospel readings that deal with the healings or other miracles of Jesus focus on just one marvel at a time. Today’s reading from the gospel of Mark is a little different: it gives us a sort of healing sandwich, with one miracle enfolded inside another.

By this point in his story, Jesus is a celebrity. He no sooner gets out of the boat than he is mobbed by people who want to see him for themselves, to hear his teachings. Perhaps they hope to witness Jesus work wonders; perhaps they want to be the focus of a miracle, to be fed, or to gain healing for themselves or a loved one.

We meet two particular miracle-seekers in these verses. One is Jairus, an important man, a wealthy man, a leader of the synagogue, begging for his little daughter’s life. The other is a poor woman, a sick woman, not important at all, who decides to take the matter of her healing into her own hands.

Jairus is so desperately concerned about his child that he goes to meet Jesus himself, rather than sending a servant. He falls at Jesus’s feet, and says, “My little girl is dying. Come and lay your hands on her and make her well, let her live.” And Jesus and his disciples – and the crowd, sensing a chance to see or hear something remarkable – go with him.

In the midst of this, the nameless woman sees her own opportunity, and takes it.

In first-century Palestine, life expectancy was short; if you made it out of childhood alive, you might hope to hit your 50s. There were no hospitals, and there were many, many ills, from skin diseases and eye diseases to epilepsy, death in childbirth, parasites to cancers. Too many of them had no cure.

Although there were physicians, the first step in treatments for most illnesses was still incantations and sacrifices. Greek innovations in medicine were much celebrated in Rome, but it’s not clear how deeply those innovations had penetrated in backwater provinces like Palestine.

If conventional treatments didn’t work, you might seek out a magician. Demons were generally thought to be responsible for causing not only madness, but heart trouble and asthma, among a host of other troubles. Or it might be that your sins, or those of your parents, were responsible for your suffering. We see that in the case of the man blind from birth, whose healing, recounted in the gospel of John, so irritated the Pharisees.

The woman in the crowd had suffered from hemorrhages for 12 years – which, interestingly, is the age of Jairus’s daughter – and spent everything she had on physicians. They had not helped her.

Besides being poor, she was probably physically weak from her condition. She was almost certainly a social outcast: Anyone with a flow of blood such as she had was considered ritually impure. Anyone who touched her would be ritually impure as well, and face time-consuming rites, with a seven-day purification period, in order to be clean again. (Who could afford the time to be her friend?)

Imagine suffering all this for so long – and imagine realizing that perhaps someone who could repair your physical brokenness was at hand. She knew about Jesus and his healings, and when he stepped off the boat she saw her chance. In what must have been a mixture of faith and deep-seated desperation, she burrowed through the crowd until she got close enough just to touch his cloak. And she was healed.

And here we get one of those disciple “duh” moments, when the very men who have been traveling with Jesus and listening to his teachings and observing his miracles demonstrate how little they really understand of him. Jesus feels the power going out of him, and asks, “Who touched me?” And the disciples say, “What? Look at this crowd. We can hardly move. Are you kidding?”

But the woman knows what he’s talking about, and kneels in front of him to confess. And Jesus calls the pariah “daughter,” and tells her that her faith has made her well. Probably no one but the two of them and a few disciples even realized what had happened.

Then he is gone, with Jairus and the disciples and the crowd, tells the mourners who have already gathered at Jairus’s house that they are mistaken, that the child is sleeping. He raises the little girl from the dead, and, compassionately, orders that she be brought something to eat.

The way these miracles are juxtaposed shows, in compact form, that Jesus and his love were available to all, of both high rank and low. The important may have had easier access to him, but Jesus never turned his back on those in need.

We see, too, that Jesus put all classes on the same level, that he imposed an unheard-of equality on those he encountered. In this, in his calling an outcast “daughter,” we see the truth of what Paul would later write in the letter to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

And this radical equality in Jesus is one of the things that sets Christianity apart. Whatever our status in the world outside the Church, within it we are all accounted equal. We all share in Christ’s love to the same extravagant extent, rich, poor, or somewhere in between, status-heavy or status-free.

The world and human nature being what they are, the Church has struggled with staying true to this concept. Right in the very beginning of the movement, the well-to-do would come to the house churches for the common meal, and eat their own dainties without waiting for others, not sharing with those who had less. We only need to glance at the later history of the Church to see even more egregious examples of a class-based structure within it.

But Jesus calls us to step outside social expectations, to recognize and greet our fellow Christians as sisters and brothers. He calls us to help those who are in need, not only with our checkbooks but with our time and energies. Jesus calls us to be as radical and inclusive in our love as he was. If we truly intend to follow him, we can do no less.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes, Good Friday: Walking with Jesus

Jean-Jacques Tissot: What Our Savior Saw from the CrossSERMON NOTES, GOOD FRIDAY, April 6, 2012 ∙

Today, Jesus’s long journey to the Cross has come to its end.

We have been walking with him on his painful road for the last 40 days, in the Sunday Gospel readings, in the daily office readings, and in our own Lenten disciplines.

From week to week, we have followed the story: from Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan and temptation in the wilderness, to his teaching his disciples about his future suffering. We have seen him enter Jerusalem in triumph and drive the moneychangers out of the Temple. We have watched as he celebrates the Passover with his friends, and then as he is sold to the authorities by one of them.

The arc of the last day is particularly dramatic. Jesus goes quickly from hero, hailed by the crowd, to criminal, denounced by the mob. And it all happens so fast.

From the supper in the upper room, to the garden where he goes to pray, there is a sense of foreboding. Then he is betrayed, arrested, denied, taken to trial, scourged, condemned to death, all with bewildering speed. It cannot have been more than 12 hours from the time he was taken in the garden until he was nailed to the cross between two bandits.

By now, a little after noon, Jesus has been hanging on the cross for just over three hours. His followers have scattered, afraid of meeting the same horrible fate; only a few of the faithful, most of them women, remain to watch their Lord to the end. His earthly journey is nearly at an end.

Crucifixion has a long and loathsome history in the annals of human savagery. It was a regular feature in the Mediterranean world from the 6th century before Christ until the 4th century AD. For tyrants, it was the perfect combination of public humiliation and unspeakable torture.

Crucifixion assured that the victim would experience the maximum suffering possible, often over a period of several days. It thus had the additional benefit of providing passersby with a vivid incentive to toe the line. The Roman philosopher and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero called it “a most cruel and disgusting punishment.” I’m always impressed when the ancient Romans denounce a practice as too cruel.

He added that “the very mention of the cross should be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears.” Indeed, crucifixion was a punishment for slaves and criminals. To be crucified was to lose whatever status you had in that highly stratified world.

No wonder the apostle Paul found the cross a tough sell to Jews and Greeks alike.

The noted philosopher Mel Gibson has been quoted, in justifying the violence in his film “The Passion of the Christ,” as saying that no one else has ever suffered as much as Jesus Christ suffered. Not only is that untrue – many thousands suffered as much or more as Jesus suffered – but it misses the point.

This is a part of the path that Christ walked, a part of the miracle of God humbling himself to be born not just as a human but as one of low rank, and to die as the lowest. Born in a stable, extending the hand of love to the unclean, feeding the hungry and washing feet, even dying like a slave, Jesus consistently took the part of the poor, the weak, the despised. He died, as we will die, but in dying he gave us life.

We have been walking with Jesus all through Lent, all through Holy Week. In this hour, we watch his last agonies, and hear his final words from the cross.

We sometimes doubt and question God; and even Jesus, the Son of Man and Son of God, could cry out in his pain, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Even in his pain, Jesus prayed “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

We see the grief of his disciples, the women and men who had the courage to stay with him to the end. We see the courage of Joseph of Arimathea, who dared to ask Pilate for the body, and took it down from the cross for burial, and Nicodemus, who once came by night to see Jesus, from fear, but now openly assisted him.

We feel the faith of Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses, who watched as their Lord was buried, noting the spot. When all seemed lost, on that darkest of days, they still did not desert him.

We have been walking with Jesus all through Lent, but will we continue to walk with him when Lent is over? We will be freed of our Lenten disciplines, but will we remember why we took them on? We will celebrate the Paschal feast, but will we remember Christ’s humility and his love and sacrifice for us? Will we remain as faithful as those who watched and stayed?

Loving God, when the darkness of this day is past, keep us ever mindful of what our Lord suffered for our sakes, and ever walking in your way in faith and truth, that when our own trials are past we may join you in eternal light. This we ask in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: From the mountaintop

Sermon notes, Last Epiphany, Year B (Preached at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, 2/19/12)

There’s something about a mountaintop.

There’s something about the achievement of the climbing in itself, of making your way upward over steep, difficult ground. And there’s something fulfilling about being at the top: the sense of accomplishment, the views, the sensation of being closer to heaven.

It’s no wonder that mountains have such an important place in ancient religions. The Greek gods, you will recall, had their headquarters on Mount Olympus. The Tibetans believed that gods lived on every one of the mountains in that very mountainous region. And, of course, mountains figure heavily in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

Noah’s ark came to rest on Mount Ararat. God spoke to Moses on the heights of Mount Sinai, and showed him the Promised Land from the heights. The Devil tempted Jesus by taking him to the top of a high mountain, showing him the kingdoms of the world, and offering it all to him – if only Jesus would worship Satan.

In today’s Gospel reading from Mark, Jesus and three of his disciples have the ultimate mountaintop experience. After a long, tiring uphill slog, Peter, James, and John see Jesus transfigured, his clothes turned a dazzling white. They see Jesus talking with two great prophets, Moses and Elijah, whom, it was believed, God had spared from a normal death. They hear a voice from a cloud above them saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

It’s an incredible moment. It provides proof to the apostles of Jesus’s relationship to God, of the nature of that relationship. Everything becomes clear to them.

But they can’t stay on the mountaintop. They cannot remain in that moment of transcendence. They have to come back down again.

The Transfiguration is not only about the struggle to climb the mountain, and what was encountered at the peak. The moment is also about returning from the mountain, and what is brought along. A treacherously steep path can sometimes be harder to descend than it was to ascend. In the exertion of getting back down safely, and the worry about what will be encountered along the way, the wonder of the mountaintop moment can sometimes be pushed to the back of the mind.

The disciples have to return to all the troubles of the ordinary world, where the sick and needy push and clamor for Jesus’s touch, where the hopeful are looking for a different sort of messiah, where religious leaders regard them with anger and suspicion, and where the Roman authorities and their collaborators would just as soon beat them as look at them.

They have to return in the knowledge that Jesus will soon suffer and die on the cross. His assurances that he will rise again from the dead are probably not much comfort. But they have that transcendent experience, that mountaintop moment, to cling to.

We have mountaintop moments, too. What’s more, we don’t need to go to an actual mountaintop in order to experience one. A mountaintop moment brings a sudden clarity, a new and deeper understanding. It’s an epiphany that casts a fresh and brilliant light on life, a  “Eureka!” when the pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

Episcopalians aren’t much for talking about these things, but I have been blessed with several moments of that peculiar clarity. Two stand out.

One of them occurred when I was a teenager. My family had just pulled up stakes and made a difficult move to another part of the country where we knew no one. I wasn’t happy about anything in my life. I had recently decided that I was an atheist.

But there I was in our new church’s choirloft on Christmas Eve, gazing at the altar just before the consecration, when suddenly the very air seemed golden, and I knew, with absolute certainty, that God exists and that God cares for me and for all of us. I don’t know how long the moment lasted – I know I didn’t miss the choir’s next entrance – but I have carried it with me ever since.  (That was also, incidentally, the end of the atheistic phase.)

I had another moment almost a year ago, during what seemed like an endless course of chemotherapy. I was terribly sick and getting sicker, and my doctors were running out of ideas. I realized that I might well die soon, and I prayed for peace and grace, and for acceptance.

At that moment I felt Jesus’s presence. At that moment of crystalline certainty, I knew that, whatever happened, it would be all right – that whatever happened, it was not the end.

Those moments of true understanding aren’t that frequent. God seems to hand them out sparingly. Once we’ve experienced the purity of vision we find in the mountaintop experience, it can be very hard to return to sea level, to the struggles and pain of everyday life.

But we can’t stay on the mountaintop. The air is too thin; the sun is too harsh. This is where we live, in the clamor of daily life.

Jesus and the disciples came down from the mountain and started making their way to Calvary and the cross. When we follow Jesus, we may join him on the mountaintop, but like the disciples, we will also experience low points along the way. That discipleship comes at a cost, but it brings with it the greatest of rewards. Thanks be to God.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: the Confession of Peter

Sermon notes, the Confession of Peter (Preached at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church/St Louis, January 15, 2012)

The Gospels contain a veritable solar system of personalities. At the center, of course, is Jesus, the Sun around whom all others revolve. He is the Alpha and Omega, the focus and the reason for the story.

In our solar system, the Sun contains most of the mass – more than 99 percent of it, a full 332,900 times as much as our planet Earth. You could say the same for the Gospel accounts: Jesus is the source of light and life and energy for the rest of the people we encounter in them.

None of the rest of them approach Jesus in importance; his gravitational field pulls in fishermen and Pharisees, rich and poor, common men and uncommon women, the healthy and the crippled, centurions and Sadducees. In almost every case, we see them reflected in Jesus’s light, as they interact with him and are changed and reshaped by him.

Some stand out: John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha of Bethany and their brother Lazarus. And then there is Simon bar Jonah, known as Peter, who in today’s gospel reading is the first to give Jesus a straightforward answer to his question, “But who do you say that I am?”

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” he says, thereby earning a lasting nickname, “Rock” – Cephas, Petros, Peter – and his equally lasting place as the first among the apostles.

I should drop my solar system analogy right now, because I’m going to take it too far and find myself comparing Peter to a gas giant. But if Peter were a planet, he would be the greatest of them, Jupiter, instantly recognizable, and with more than a hint of turbulence swirling just below the surface.

In Jupiter, that’s evident in the Great Red Spot, a storm that’s been swirling around now for centuries. In Simon Peter, we see an impulsive nature that both helps and hinders its owner.

Today’s reading, in which Peter’s spontaneous words gain him the highest praise, is immediately followed in the Gospel of Matthew by a scene which is its polar opposite. When Jesus began to tell his disciples of the fate that awaited him in Jerusalem, Peter said, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” To which Jesus replied “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.”

The Gospel of Luke tells us that it was Peter who, when Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, pulled a sword and lopped off the ear of the High Priest’s servant. Shortly before that, he had promised Jesus that he’d follow him anywhere, even to death, a promise he almost immediately followed by vigorously denying that he even knew Jesus. (Who? me? a Galilean?)

We see this spontaneity everywhere in the story of this most colorful and memorable of the disciples. He and his brother Andrew were the first to drop everything and follow Jesus. When Jesus walked on water, it was Peter who decided to do likewise – and then panicked and began to sink, earning another memorable phrase from Jesus: “Oh ye of little faith!”

Peter sometimes stumbles and on at least that one occasion thinks that he will drown in his doubts. He denies Jesus at a critical moment, and once in a while he forgets his master’s teachings. But his overall trajectory is stable and as fixed as those of the planets, following his Sun, his Lord, growing in faith and strength in the power of the Holy Spirit.

In the Acts of the Apostles, we see Peter, the erstwhile fisherman, an “unschooled, ordinary (man),” as a leader of the new Jesus movement, speaking to the crowds with assurance, inspiring them with his faith and words and wisdom.

Later, we will see Peter healing the sick and the lame in the name of Jesus Christ, teaching and baptizing, both performing miracles and being the recipient of them. As the Church grows, and factions inevitably follow, we will also see him as the leader of the Circumcision Party, which held that all true followers of Jesus must first follow the Jewish Law.

Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Messiah is a watershed moment in the Gospels. In another watershed, in Acts, we will see him converted to the conviction that the Holy Spirit speaks to all people, and that to deny that is to oppose God. This is a fundamental change in attitude. It’s a change of a degree that few with an established position to defend could make, to admit “I was wrong” about such a basic issue.

The disciples were transformed by their knowledge of Jesus and their faith in God. Peter speaks to us in his humanity, in his tendency to blurt out the first thing that comes to mind, in the unfiltered honesty of his reactions.

He inspires us with his faith, the faith to emulate his master even when he lets his fear tip him into the drink, and even when he is led off to his own cruel crucifixion. He inspires us with his growth as both disciple and leader. He inspires us with his courage in changing his mind on the side of acceptance and love, on abandoning long-established tradition in favor of a greater one.

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” said Simon bar Jonah to Jesus. And Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, for flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

And blessed are we when we can follow his example in admitting our doubts but staying on the path. Blessed are we when we continue to grow in maturity and in understanding. Blessed are we when we can admit our mistakes and try to make them right. Blessed are we when we follow our Lord wherever he leads us, secure on the rock of his truth.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: Change

SERMON NOTES: EASTER VI, YEAR A (Preached at 8 and 10:30 a.m. at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, May 29, 2011)

It’s a cliché that nothing is certain in this life but death and taxes. I would add a third certainty to that list: There will be change.

Some change will be for the better. Some will not. Some of it will be natural and organic in the way in which it unfolds. Some change will come as a surprise, even as a shock.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is preparing his followers for change. Jesus is going away, but he promises to send another to comfort, guide, and and serve as advocate.

The disciples had already experienced major transformation in the three years of Jesus’s public ministry. They were drawn into something far greater than themselves. They saw and took part in miracles. They sat at Jesus’s feet and absorbed his teachings. They witnessed the power of God first hand.

As a result, by the time we see them here, the disciples themselves have changed and grown spiritually. But it will not be until after Jesus’s ascension that they emerge as preachers, teachers, and spiritual leaders in their own right. In order to continue in their relationship with their master, they must accept major, life-altering change – and there’s plenty more to come. In time, the faith nourished in that upper room will alter the world.

Change has been speeding up in the last few centuries. My great-aunt Eleanor was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1894, and died in 1990. I have long marveled at the change that she and others of her generation saw, surely unrivaled in human history: from horse-drawn conveyances and rutted roads to automobiles zooming along on superhighways, from the clumsy biplanes that her eldest brother flew to jets, from a world in which families made their own entertainment to one in which you can hardly get away from the sounds and images that others have made.

She went from a world with a strict, rigid social order to one which strove for equality. She lived to see men walk on the Moon.

I used to think that no generation had ever seen so much change as hers. Lately, I think that our own may rival hers when all is said and done.

The changes now come so fast that it’s hard to keep up with them. In Aunt Eleanor’s time, change most often came in the form of mechanical progress; in ours, it comes in the instantaneous and widespread dispersal of information.

When I started writing professionally, the primary tools of the journalist were words and facts, carefully assembled and edited.

Today, my colleagues and I are expected to tweet, blog and make professional-quality videos; mere writing skills won’t cut it anymore. Most people spend a large portion of the day glued to various glowing screens that Aunt Eleanor could not have imagined. There has been immense, sweeping change in just 20 years.

The Internet has spread both valuable knowledge and conspiracy theories. It has made it easier both to share the gospel of Christ, and to pervert it. We can praise others or defame them anonymously. We can share our innermost thoughts with the world; we have lost most of our privacy.

Not all change is so sweeping. Most of it is on a smaller scale, more incremental, but still of enormous import in our own lives. The seasons bring new rhythms. A child goes away to school, or launches herself into the adult world. A job is lost, or gained. Families are built, or broken. We move up to a larger house, or scale down to something more manageable.

Change is, however, inevitable in this world. A shark must keep swimming or die. We must react to new challenges.

The Church feels change as much as any other institution. Our own parish is now undergoing a new trial with the retirement of a beloved rector, and the long, just-beginning prayer-filled task of finding a worthy replacement.

In one sense, it’s an old task, something that the people of St. Peter’s have tackled many times before. In another, it’s always a new one. The congregation, the community, and the world never stand still.

But for all the changes that we have experienced and will continue to experience, there are things that never alter.

First among these is God. Our perceptions and understandings change, but never God, unchanged and unchanging, the same today and tomorrow.

The disciples learned that. The nature of their relationship with Jesus changed, but not the love they shared with him. After the crucifixion and resurrection, their understanding of him changed. And they could not receive the Holy Spirit until Jesus’s ascension.

Their experience shows us the importance of being open to changes and challenges, and, especially, of listening to the Spirit and following where God leads. To ignore them means stagnation; to rise to them will fulfill us as God’s people.

Lord, you have promised that we will live in you and in your love. Lead us in your paths and guide us, even when the way seems strange, to the glory of your name. Amen.