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: 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: The Light of the World

BlakeBirthOfChristSermon notes, Christmas Day 2013

“And the Word became flesh, and lived among us.”

Last night we heard the beloved Christmas story, Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus: How Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem for the census, and found nowhere to sleep but a stable; how Mary gave birth to her son there, and laid him in a manger. We heard of angels appearing to a group of shepherds, praising God and telling them of the birth of the Savior; we heard how the shepherds hurried to the stable to see the infant King for themselves.

It’s a powerful story, and a universally appealing one. The image of the young mother and her child, the helplessness of the baby whose bed is a feeding trough for cattle, speak to us all. So does the miracle of the angels making such an announcement to a group of shepherds. God’s own messengers gave the good news of hope to lowly shepherds, members of one of the most despised castes in the ancient world, in a foreshadowing of the coming career of Jesus. It is a story of God’s promise, of the commonplace rendered miraculous. It’s an origins story that we can understand.

This morning we turn to the Gospel of John. The message it bears is no less universal, and no less hopeful. In fact, it gives us the deeper reasons for that birth in a barn. The Word, who is Christ, became flesh – became human – as we are, and lived with us, as one of us, but the phrasing is a little more esoteric. Luke’s description doesn’t require much explanation, but John’s could use some unpacking.

As much as I love the angels and the baby in the manger, I find John more substantive and satisfying. Like many people, I was briefly an atheist in my teens. When I was coming back to faith, I picked up the Bible and opened it to the first chapter of John. It was electrifying and illuminating: Christ as the Word, as the Light in a dark world.

The Gospel of John is very different from the other three canonical gospels, those of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. It comes from a different tradition, and its emphasis is on the spiritual.

The opening of the gospel is dramatic and emphatic. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

This is the back story to the much-loved baby in the manger. The Word is Christ, and Christ was with God, in God, and of God throughout all eternity, there at the creation of the universe. He was the light of humanity from the beginning of the world, and the darkness could not – does not, will not – prevail against that light.

There are reasons that Jesus’s birth is celebrated at the darkest time in the Northern Hemisphere. Although it’s long been thought that the date of the Nativity was fixed to take advantage of existing celebrations, some scholars have recently concluded that he actually was born in late December. It appears that some of the pagan festivals that Christmas was thought to be exploiting were actually attempts to save paganism from the growing popularity of Christianity. Whatever the case, this is the time of year that we need him most.

Darkness, real and metaphorical, lies heavily upon us now. There is the steady loss of daylight as the Earth turns toward the solstice, the getting up and coming home in increasing gloom. There is the emotional darkness of the pressure that, ironically, is a standard of the season, as we strive to have the perfect Christmas, filled with perfect decorations and perfectly chosen and wrapped gifts, a perfectly set table on which to place the perfect Christmas dinner, to serve to our perfect families. When we, or those around us, inevitably fall short, we can become perfectly stressed out.

There is the darkness of events in the world around us. This has been a year of more than the usual unrest and violence, with tragedies unfolding before us in in Egypt, in Pakistan, in Syria, in South Sudan, and elsewhere. Much of it is directed at Christians: An article in Friday’s Wall Street Journal noted that “Christians today indisputably are the most persecuted religious body on the planet,” with Islamists, Hindus, Communists and others all engaged in slaughters of Christians and the destruction of churches, everywhere from Africa and the West Bank to North Korea, and assorted locales in between.

There are other kinds of darkness that can engulf us if we let them. There is the darkness of want, of cold and hunger. There is the darkness of troubled minds, and the suffering that it places on individuals, families, and communities. There is the darkness of physical illness, the pain and distress that arise when our bodies betray us, when our personal worlds slowly crumble or suddenly fall apart. The is the darkness of seeing those we love afflicted, and the burdens that the care of the ill place upon others. There is always more than enough darkness, of every variety, to go around.

But the darkness is not the end, is never the end. Through the centuries, it has sometimes seemed insurmountable, but the Light of Christ keeps shining through. The knowledge of that light and love keep us moving forward through the pain and fear.

This is the Christmas miracle: The true Light has come into the world, and it can never be put out. The Word became flesh and lived among us, suffered like us, died like us, and brought us everlasting life. We have seen his glory, full of grace and truth, and having witnessed it, we can never be the same. Thanks be to God.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Grateful hearts

Not, in fact, the first Thanksgiving.

Not, in fact, the first Thanksgiving.

SERMON NOTES, THANKSGIVING DAY 2013

I cannot remember a time when people didn’t complain that the Thanksgiving holiday was being lost in a premature rush to Christmas. Lately, though, the chorus is getting more frantic. More and more, retailers are trespassing on one of the few holidays left that is nominally devoted to family. The Post-Dispatch tells me that many people will be having what amounts to Thanksgiving lunch so that they can hit the sales at dinnertime.

In a way, though, it’s not inappropriate, because the origins of the holiday as we know it were specifically built around retailing: Franklin Delano Roosevelt deliberately placed it on the fourth Thursday in November in order to kick off the Christmas shopping season.

But that shopping season has spread inexorably back to October and even earlier. The Christmas decorations go up as the Hallowe’en decorations come down.

Thanksgiving now occupies a position in the cavalcade of fall and winter holidays like that of Philadelphia in the Boston-Washington Corridor. It’s just one more stop in the megalopolis, and not even the most memorable one.

The American Thanksgiving has its own mythology: the Pilgrims, fleeing persecution, celebrating the first Thanksgiving dressed in their best black-and-white, chowing down on turkey with the Indians and then playing football after dinner.

In fact, the Pilgrims weren’t persecuted; they just wanted to run things in their own grim Calvinist way, without the distraction of neighbors who had fun. Theirs was not the first Thanksgiving in North America; the colonists of New Spain have that distinction. Theirs wasn’t even the first English Thanksgiving observance; the Anglican colonists in Jamestown held services of thanksgiving with the Book of Common Prayer and followed them with feasts for 20 years before the Puritans arrived. They wore clothing in all sorts of colors. Peace with the natives was a sometime thing, and venison seems to have been more important at that dinner than wild fowl. (I just made up the part about football.)

The concepts embodied by the myth, however, are what we should remember: gathering with family and friends, enjoying God’s bounty, and, most of all, giving thanks for all that we have.

We seem to be better at the first two of those than at the third, and by “we,” I mean “human beings.” The Israelites grumped at Moses in the wilderness because they got bored with the perfectly filling and nutritious manna that God provided, and wanted more variety in their diets. When Jesus healed 10 lepers, only one bothered to come back and say “Thank you.” And in today’s gospel, the crowds who were miraculously fed bread and fish the day before have chased him across the Sea of Galilee to ask for seconds.

Jesus calls them on it: “You’re only here because of the bread. You’re ignoring the point, which is to believe in God and seek eternal life.” We have the same tendency. We’re quick to ask God for the things we need and the things we want, but when we receive them, we often forget to send our thank-yous. We have so much for which to be thankful, but during the Prayers of the People, there’s a lot more murmuring during the moments allowed for special intercessions than there is during the time for offering our gratitude.

We could start by reflecting on the blessings we have right here, right now. It’s a beautiful day that didn’t give us any weather-related excuses to stay home. We’re worshipping in a beautiful church with our families and friends, with a meaningful liturgy and good music. When we leave this place, it will almost certainly be to head to a big meal filled with the favorite foods of our particular tradition, again with family and friends. We live in a country in which abundance is the rule and not the exception, something that too much of humanity does not share. That just scratches the surface.

Sometimes we take our blessings for granted. Sometimes we only appreciate them fully when they’re threatened or lost: a parent, a friend, a job, good health. We have a new appreciation for electricity when a power outage forces an abrupt change of lifestyle. I awoke this morning to discover that the hot water wasn’t working. I had taken for granted that it would be there when I turned on the tap. I’ll appreciate it actively when it’s fixed, but soon enough I’ll be taking it for granted again.

On Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, when my daughters were small, they would always ask, “Why isn’t there a children’s day?” We would always answer, “Because every day is children’s day.” We take a day once a year to honor and remember the people we usually take as a given, but we can and should do better.

We can make something more out of Thanksgiving Day than most of us currently do, too. We can remember to start every day by giving thanks to God for all that we have, not just the big things but the little things as well. We can remember to thank everyone who helps us. We can make a habit out of gratitude, in every aspect of our lives.

Grateful hearts help to open us to the love of God. They help us to share that love with our neighbors. We can make Thanksgiving more than a bump in the rush of retail madness by pondering its meaning and lessons, and remembering them in the weeks to come: to be grateful instead of greedy, to appreciate the small and simple things as well as the big-ticket items, to make the life of a harried clerk or a frazzled mother a little easier. We can remember that the greatest gift in any season comes from God and God alone, the gift of the Bread of Life.

Gracious God, give us grateful hearts that rejoice in all your gifts. Help us to be glad in giving as well as receiving, and remind us to treat every day as a day of thanksgiving. Amen.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

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: Giving up, taking on

© BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons

© BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons

SERMON NOTES, ASH WEDNESDAY (2013, Preached at St. Peter’s/Ladue)

The party’s over. It’s time to hang up the beads. Today we embark on the season of Lent, the forty days leading up to Easter.

The time span reflects the period that Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting, praying, preparing for his ministry, facing and resisting temptation. The purpose of Lent may be found in the collect for the day: We ask God to give us new and contrite hearts, to help us to acknowledge our sins, to receive forgiveness for them.

That’s something we should do every day, of course. But Lent gives us a focus and a framework for accomplishing it.

This is a period of preparation for us, as followers of Christ, for the world made holier by the light of the Resurrection. In the early Church, Lent was the time when new converts were prepared to receive baptism, learning about the doctrines of the faith and what is required of believers. Through the centuries, this season has been a time to focus on prayer and penitence, on doing without and doing for others.

How do we keep a holy Lent?

When I was a child in a High Church household, it was all very straightforward. I gave up sweets, which I loved – I mourned whenever Valentine’s Day arrived after Ash Wednesday – and my favorite television show. I put money – the pennies, nickels, and dimes which still had some value then – in my mite box, to help poor children. I tried to do my chores more cheerfully, and without being reminded. I said my prayers. On Fridays, I ate fish sticks.

In later years, it got more complicated.

There were years when I gave up chocolate. There were years when I treated Lent as a sanctified diet aid. There were years when I did nothing at all to observe the season.

In all of that I had plenty of company. There’s a tendency among some modern American Christians to observe Ash Wednesday as a sacred New Year’s, to focus on personal self-improvement instead of the spiritual: to give up alcohol, or smoking, or fatty snacks because giving up alcohol, or smoking, or fatty snacks is good for us physically.

It is a sacrifice to give up things we enjoy, whatever they are, but sometimes we don’t look beyond a few obvious suspects. It might be more useful to examine some of the other things in our lives, and consider the importance they hold for us. Sometimes we may find that those things have become little gods for us, and that we are worshipping at other altars.

It’s a good thing to exercise; it’s not so good to obsess about it and run roughshod over family life. It’s a good thing to connect with friends; it’s not so good to spend whole evenings on Facebook, or to check the Twitter feed every few minutes. It’s fun to play video games, but not to the point that they make us cranky and obsessive. It’s fun to play Words with Friends, but this Lent I’m going to play just a couple of times each day, instead of grabbing the phone every time my day slows down.

At least as important as giving something up is to take something on. We can check the daily meditation from “Forward Day by Day” every morning, or be conscientious about reading Morning and Evening Prayer. We can walk a labyrinth, or join a Bible study. We can work to increase our giving of time, talent and treasure, both at church and in the community. We can take on something new, as well as give up something familiar.

There’s another important point to keep in mind, and that’s the one that Jesus is talking about in the gospel reading from Matthew: Don’t make a big deal about it. At a restaurant with friends, don’t announce, “Oh, I’ve given that up for Lent” when the wine list or the dessert menu comes around. It’s human nature to want to get credit for our sacrifices, but, as Jesus notes, the announcement itself then becomes our reward. Just smile and quietly decline. Even if you’re suffering withdrawal symptoms, don’t say anything. Keep them guessing.

Practicing our chosen Lenten disciplines is a form of spiritual exercise, and the point of the exercise is to bring us closer to God. The ways in which we observe a holy Lent have changed over the centuries, but not the reasons that we do it. Like the earliest Christians, our aim is preparation to lead new lives in Christ Jesus.

– 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: Logos

stars_wikiSermon notes, Christmas I, Year C (Given at St. Peter’s/Ladue, December 30, 2012)

On Christmas Eve, we heard the story of Jesus’s birth, the story of how Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem and found that there was no place for them in the inn. We heard how Jesus was born in a stable and placed in a manger. We heard of the shepherds, visited by angels, and how they ran to see the newborn king.

This morning, we heard about Jesus from a decidedly different angle: “In the beginning was the Word.”

We have moved from the specific tale of one family, of one baby, to something that human beings cannot wrap their minds around: the nature and immensity of God. It’s as though we’re looking at a close-up of that family in that stable, when the camera pulls back, up from the streets of Bethlehem, up from Palestine, up from the Earth, beyond the Solar System, and into the vastness of space, its blackness blazing with an infinitude of stars.

God is simply too boundless and utterly other for us to comprehend. That’s why we need the baby; that’s why we need the family. Perhaps that’s one reason why we needed the Incarnation in the first place: to show us God in a form we can begin to understand.

This passage, the introduction to John’s gospel, establishes Jesus as an aspect of God. It’s also a foundation for the doctrine of the Trinity. “The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” There are several lifetimes’ worth of study in these few phrases.

Here is John’s version of the Nativity story: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.” It’s the other side of the intensely personal, intensely human story we have from Luke. It’s a reminder that this story has to do with more than the milky infant in the manger who tugs at our hearts, the babe that launched a thousand Christmas carols. There is also a deeper meaning in this birth, a meaning to engage our minds. We need both sides of it in order to grasp the gift that we have been given in Jesus’s birth.

The Nativity story is filled with images of light. There must have been a light in the darkened stable, a little stoneware oil lamp, casting wavering shadows on the walls. When the shepherds saw the angels, the glory of the Lord shone around them, illuminating the night. The light of the star guided the Magi to the infant Jesus.

John introduces Jesus to us as the Light: the light of all people, the light that shines in darkness, the true light which enlightens our hearts and minds. The little oil lamp in the stable could not drive away the shadows, the star faded from sight, but the undistorted light that is Christ lifts the darkness and penetrates our hearts and minds.

The evangelist John’s use of “Logos” – Word – has its foundation in Greek philosophy. Along with the obvious, “logos” could mean reason, order, knowledge. It could mean “expectation.” There are, in fact, as many possibilities for meanings as there are in the English word “love.”

And love, God’s love for us, is one of John’s chief themes here. God loved us so much that Christ came to live with us, to be truly one of us. Jesus gave us “grace upon grace;” Jesus made us children of God, and opened the door to eternal life.

“The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ,” John writes. The law was added onto and built up until it became an immense structure; until, for some, it became an end in itself.

Jesus came and boiled the Law down 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. Jesus provided grace and salvation for all who accept it, out of love.

We cannot comprehend God in all God’s infinite grandeur, but we can comprehend Jesus, a man much like one of us. We cannot comprehend God’s purposes for us, or understand why the world is what it is, filled with sorrow, sickness, and suffering, but we can comprehend Jesus, healing the ill and feeding the hungry, and suffering just as we do. We cannot comprehend the mind and the power that created the universe from nothing, but we know a mother’s love for her baby.

The Christmas narratives in Luke and Matthew show us how God made Man came into the world. The opening verses of the Gospel of John show us who Jesus was, the Word, the Light of the world, Love made manifest. We need both of those accounts, for balance, to take us beyond the stable to the greater meanings and truths of the Nativity. Thanks be to God.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: Christ the King

SERMON NOTES, CHRIST THE KING (Year B, 11/25/12; preached at St. Peter’s/Ladue)

Through the Church year, the gospels show us Jesus in many different roles: as an infant in a stable, worshipped by shepherds; as a boy, confounding the scholars at the Temple; as a reluctant miracle worker-slash-sommelier at Cana. We see his baptism, his time in the wilderness wrestling with temptation, his gathering of the disciples. We watch him as healer, as teacher, as occasionally cranky prophet. We look on as his public ministry flourishes, and then as he suffers, dies, rises from the dead, ascends into heaven.

Today, we see Jesus as Christ the King.

We’re at the end of the Church year; the cycle begins anew next Sunday with the start of the season of Advent. Advent is a time of preparation, both for the coming of that baby in the stable and for beginning new lives in Christ.

Today’s readings contrast John of Patmos’s apocalyptic vision with the evangelist John’s account of Jesus’s words to Pontius Pilate. Revelation was probably composed during the Church’s first major bout of persecution, under Nero; it is concerned with suffering and tribulation, and with the ultimate triumph of Christ and the Church.

In the gospel, Pontius Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And Jesus replies, “My kingdom is not of this world… For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

In hard times, frightening times, it is easy to get caught up in the world of the Revelation of John. Its frequently feverish imagery has appealed to Christians besieged by everything from paganism to Islam, from the Inquisition to modernism.

Such elements as “the Number of the Beast” encourage the ignorant and the self-certain to indulge in celestial conspiracy theories about the identity of the Beast. Like the occupants of Dante’s Inferno, who (curiously enough) tended to be the poet’s political enemies, the Beast always seems to be someone or something in philosophical opposition to the self-anointed prophet who’s doing the interpreting. (In fact, the numerology involved adds up clearly to “Neron Caesar.”)

More importantly, the Revelation, arising from cruel persecutions, is a book that encourages an intolerance of the imperfectly faithful and the unorthodox. It’s a book that sometimes doesn’t seem to reflect that message of grace and God’s redeeming love which informs the rest of the New Testament.

Revelation is a direct descendent of the Book of Daniel. Daniel is another apocalypse, but one dating from a disastrous period in the life of Judaism. Both books are best appreciated in the context of their difficult times.

The elements that save Revelation for me are its sometimes dazzling, often indelible poetic images, combined with its central emphasis on Jesus Christ as king and savior. Among those images is the vision of Christ which we just heard, from the book’s opening: the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, the ruler of kings, the Alpha and Omega, the one who is and who was and who is to come.

That passage ties in perfectly with Jesus’s answer to Pilate’s scornful question in the gospel: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus replies, “My kingdom is not from this world.” His kingdom is not dependent on human power or authority, but comes directly from God. It is a different kind of kingship than anyone on Earth could then imagine.

Jesus was a different kind of Messiah than anyone could then imagine. The Messiah was to be a divinely anointed king of the House of David, who would save Israel from her enemies and bring all the world to the worship of God.

What that had come to mean – what all previous Messianic candidates had presented themselves as being – was a soldier-king, a man on a horse, a general blessed by God who would defeat Israel’s enemies in battle and then rule an empire.

That all previous Messianic candidates had wound up dead by unpleasant means, at the hands of the Romans or their surrogates, did not stop new ones from emerging. There was a particularly ugly case in 6 AD that resulted in hundreds of crucifixions lining the roads, as the rulers slaughtered the would-be Messiah and his followers. It was another would-be Messiah who led the revolt in 70 AD that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem.

Jesus was something different. Pilate, who saw only a troublesome Jew brought by the tedious Jewish authorities, asked him questions but didn’t listen for the answers before condemning him without another thought.

Even Jesus’s own disciples had trouble understanding just how different he was. He was anointed by God to heal, not to overthrow; he came to bring peace, not rebellion. He threatened the establishment not with force but with a new way of following God’s law and of living. He gave his people a new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.” That love is to be the sign that we are Christ’s followers.

Since the Ascension, Christians have awaited Christ’s return in power and glory, coming from heaven as a conventional messiah, an earthly king with heavenly clout who will reign for a thousand years and set everything right. Dates for that return have been set down the centuries by assorted would-be prophets, with the same kind of accuracy that accompanies those speculations on the Beast.

I do not know whether we will see Jesus riding on the clouds in glory. I think we should do our flawed best to live both as if he will show up right after coffee hour this morning, and, at the same time, as if the world will see another millennium of business as bloody usual.

I think we will find the answer if we listen to what Jesus told Pilate, and take those words to heart. Jesus’s authority is from God, not the world. He came to preach truth, and those who listen to that truth and follow his commandments are his subjects. His kingdom is not established on earthly power, but as we live according to his commandments.

Jesus is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, the ruler of kings, the Alpha and Omega, the one who is and who was and who is to come. His kingdom is here, in our hearts. He rules in love, always, and in us.

Lord, grant us the ears to hear your truth, and the strength to live in your love, in the expectation and knowledge of your kingdom. Amen.

– 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