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: How should Christians live?

Sermon notes, Proper 17, Year A (Preached at St. Peter’s/Ladue, August 28, 2011)

How should Christians live?

It’s a question that’s been asked and discussed for almost two millennia. But in today’s lectionary reading from the Epistle to the Romans, Paul provides us with a handy template that still holds true.

At first glance, it comes across as a long list of the obvious: Do good, avoid evil, be generous, don’t fight, keep praying.

But not all of it was obvious to Paul’s original audience – a mixture of Jewish and Gentile Christians living in the Empire’s capitol sometime between 55 and 58 AD – or to later converts. And not all of it is now or has ever been easy, whether for us as individuals or for the churches to which we belong.

“Love one another.” This part we get. We understand “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” We recognize helping one another. We know it’s important to welcome strangers and to offer them hospitality.

We understand that Christians should be patient in suffering, whether personal pain or something that affects us all. We are aware that we should be modest. We know that our prayers should be frequent and from the heart. We may not always live up to these ideals, but most of us accept them as a given.

Other parts of Paul’s message are a little more difficult: Bless those who persecute you, don’t try to pay back evil for evil; leave it up to God.

This concept, based directly on Jesus’s teaching to turn the other cheek, was a new one in its day. The normal human tendency is to want to smite those who do us wrong, often out of all proportion. History is full of such excesses, in all times and places.

Earlier laws were enacted to limit the smiting. The Code of Hammurabi, composed around 1780 BC, and reflected in the Hebrew Bible, called for exact reciprocity: Actions that cost someone an eye were repaid with just one eye, not death. A murder was repaid with just one death, not the slaughter of an entire clan.

Seen that way, “An eye for an eye” represents real progress in human affairs. But Jesus went radically further. In the Sermon on the Mount, he says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”

This could be a survival technique in the face of a brutal occupation. It certainly applies to the persecutions that Christians had already faced in the first years of the faith and would face again.

But most cheek-turning is far less dramatic. It takes place on a much simpler level. It was and is important for Christians to be good citizens, to make an effort to get along with the neighbors and respect their traditions. Don’t go ballistic if they don’t clean up after their dog, or if their kids follow a ball into your flowers. Paul urges seeking peaceful solutions to stress points and sore spots.

In the early years of the Church, there were inevitable cultural differences between Jewish-born Christians and those who converted from paganism; there were unavoidable misunderstandings because of their different backgrounds and preconceptions. Paul tells them to find ways to honor each other and live in harmony together.

And, through all the intervening years, he’s telling us to do the same. (Too bad the Congress doesn’t seem to get that.)

There’s no fight like a family fight; nobody holds grudges quite like close relatives. Church families can feud over the smallest things, from items of décor to which liturgical prayer to use to what ought to be served at coffee hour. Those arguments can go on indefinitely, and they can get ugly.

Different Christian traditions have a tendency to see themselves as the only ones who are truly doing church properly, the only ones who really interpret God’s law in the divinely approved manner. In this country, there are any number of sects and denominations who are more than happy to tell one another what they’re doing wrong, on every side of the spectrum.

One can only imagine what Paul would think of the situation at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. One of the holiest sites in Christianity, six different sects claim rights to it and control different areas. Periodically, fistfights break out between rival groups of monks, and they have been known to change the locks on each other. The keys to the church are entrusted to a Muslim family, and the Israeli police are called in to break up the arguments.

Paul’s advice is worth heeding. He quotes from Proverbs 25: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.”

The modern version of this passage is “Kill them with kindness.” Make an effort to smile at the colleague or neighbor who has wronged you. Do them favors. Keep them guessing. Make them question their assumptions. And it may well be that you’ll come to understanding, if not agreement. If nothing else, you will not be guilty of perpetuating a feud.

This passage is really focused on love – love for our fellow Christians, love for our neighbors, love even for those who injure us – because it’s focused on following Christ. Jesus practiced what he preached, feeding the multitudes, welcoming the sinner, returning blessing for curses, forgiving even his executioners.

It’s not easy to see the face of Jesus in those who have done us wrong. It’s not easy to take the first step toward reconciliation, especially if we’re the ones who have been wronged. But it is one of our Lord’s great commandments. As servants of Christ, it is the one that we are called to obey.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Apocalypse when?

Where are they now? A screenshot from this week's Millennialists.

“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.”

– Matthew 24:36

Judgment Day started out sunny and warm, and perhaps a bit too humid for comfort: no worse than most days in this part of the world at this time of the year. Should I turn on the air conditioning and run up my power bill? Why not, if the Rapture is on the way?

Of course, the Rapture never came. Nobody but a handful of sincere but delusional oddballs thought it would. After all, everyone knows the grand finale will come  – in accordance with the prophecies of Nostradamus and ancient Mayan calendars – in 2012.

Predictions of the end of the world abound in times of great stress, and these are times of extraordinary stress around the world. It’s nothing new: many Europeans expected the second coming of Christ in 1000 AD, no less a figure than John Wesley thought he would arrive in 1836, and there have been a wearying number of apocalyptic forecasts in our own day.

I don’t buy into Premillenial Dispensationalism, as the concept is known in theological circles. I have trouble with the whole “Left Behind” scenario for more than the goofy quasi-Bible-based reasoning behind it; I don’t believe that a few will be hoovered up to heaven while everyone else is left to suffer horribly on Earth. It’s just not the sort of thing that the loving God I worship would do.

Ideally, we should all live our lives as if they might be demanded of us at any moment: virtuously, faithfully, generously, thoughtfully, in harmony with God and our neighbor. Repent now, and avoid the rush.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: “Love one another”

SERMON NOTES, MAUNDY THURSDAY (Preached April 21, 2011, at St. Peter’s/Ladue)

Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.”

What would it take to love each other as Jesus has loved us? What would we have to do?

First, we might consider some of the ways in which Jesus showed his love for the disciples. We can start with tonight’s reading from the Gospel. Jesus, their teacher, their Lord, tied a towel around himself, and washed the disciples’ feet. It was an act of both humility and intimacy, and one that showed his love and care for them.

It wasn’t a task for a teacher; it was a servant’s duty, and we have the evidence that at least one of the disciples was shocked by it. But Jesus performed it with love – and as an example for them, and for us.

How else did Jesus show his love? Think back to other occasions in the gospel narratives. Think back to Jesus healing lepers, and feeding crowds of the hungry. He made the blind see and the lame walk again. He cast seven demons out of Mary Magdalene, enabling her to return to respectable society, and brought a little girl back from death.

Those spectacular physical miracles served as signs that he was the promised Messiah, but they were also important ways of showing his love for his people.

Just as importantly, Jesus taught his disciples. He told parables and stories to make them think, and to help them to understand his teachings. He gave them a new perspective on the Law; he gave them new understandings of how to honor God and help God’s people. He taught them how to pray, in the words of the Lord’s Prayer. That’s still the most basic, most foundational prayer we say today.

On this night, he gave them the sacrament the Last Supper, the sacrament of his body and blood. Then he gave himself up to be tortured and killed, and so gained the salvation of us all.

What would it take to love each other as Jesus has loved us? What would it take for each of us to live Christ’s commandment?

Today on the BBC, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, suggested that “all Cabinet members and leaders of political parties, editors of national papers and the hundred most successful financiers in the UK” be required to “spend a couple of hours every year serving dinners in a primary school on a council estate, or cleaning bathrooms in a residential home,” or serving as street pastors “ready to pick up and absorb something of the chaos and human mess you will find there, especially among young people.”

I’m not sure making it a legal requirement would work, but it’s an interesting and worthwhile idea.

Christians are certainly called to serve others. We may not be able to work miracles, but we can still feed the hungry and help to heal the sick. We can reach out to those in need, whether nearby or far away, and help them. We can’t claim divine authority, but we can teach and share our knowledge. We can tell the good news of salvation. We can offer our own prayers and thanksgivings.

We can never live up to his example, but we can still strive to love others as Jesus loved us. Foot washing may have gone out of style, but we are still called to be servants, even as Christ humbled himself to serve others.

For me, this is one of the most meaningful services of the Church year. In a few minutes, we will re-enact the Last Supper. Then the sanctuary will be stripped, and we will exit the church in silence.

Jesus and his disciples went from the upper room to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane. There he was betrayed by one of his own disciples, and taken to be tried, beaten, humiliated, and sentenced to die like a criminal, upon a cross.

It’s natural to focus on Jesus’s sufferings in Holy Week – but we don’t want to fall into the Mel Gibson “Passion of the Christ” trap of making those agonies the sole focus of our devotions.

Jesus came into this world out of love for us. Remember his commandment: “Love one another, as I have loved you.”

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: Temptation

SERMON NOTES – LENT I (Year A; preached at 10:30 a.m. March 13, 2011, St. Peter’s/Ladue)

Welcome to the season of Lent, the forty days and forty nights in which we are to prepare ourselves – not only for the events of Holy Week and Easter, but for our lives as Christians.

In Lent, many people give up things, like favorite foods or pastimes.  Others take things on, in various forms of service or aid to others, and in trying to live a more spiritual life.

Ideally, our Lenten practices do not stand by themselves – as in, “I’m giving up my daily Starbucks Venti Half-Caf Double Espresso Java Chip Frappucino for Lent. Pass the chocolate truffles” – but as a whole.

Whatever we take on, we can be sure that we will face temptations – to cheat, to give up, to brag on ourselves, and to focus on our wants rather than our true needs.

Today’s lectionary is all about temptation, particularly the story of Jesus’s temptations in the wilderness. It’s a compact section of Matthew’s gospel that contains a world of import and meaning.

The Devil presents Jesus with three propositions that flatter, attract, and test. Each begins with the phrase, “If you are the Son of God…” Each time, the tempter is trying to get Jesus to prove that he is who he says he is – that he is, as we heard at his baptism in the passage just before this one, God’s beloved Son, in whom God is well pleased – by demonstrating it in a way that would definitely not make God pleased.

First, the Devil focuses on the sheer basic physical stuff: You must be hungry after fasting for forty days. If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread. If you’re the Son of God, you don’t have to play by the rules. It will do what you tell it! Eat hearty!

Jesus moves the focus back to the spiritual, and quotes Scripture to make his point: “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke differ on the order of the other two temptations. Matthew next has the Devil work on spiritual pride, taking Jesus to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem, the holiest place in the world, and invite him to jump off, quoting a little Scripture of his own: If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, because it’s written, “He will command his angels concerning you,” and “They will bear you up, so that you won’t dash your foot against a stone.”

Talk about an attention-getter. But Jesus replies, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Finally, the Devil offers Jesus something to which his followers will soon assume he’s entitled, but which he will not claim: Worldly power. The tempter takes Jesus to the top of a high mountain, where he can see powerful kingdoms spread out. If you are the Son of God, fall down and worship me, and I’ll give you all of this.

And Jesus dismisses him: “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

Having swung and struck out three times, Matthew’s Devil returns to the dugout. Luke’s, in contrast, withdraws to bide his time, awaiting another opportunity – and when you’re dealing with a human being, even one who is also divine, there’s always going to be another opportunity.

Tempting us is usually pathetically easy. If it’s not simple hunger or thirst on a fast day, it’s a craving for something specific: the more we think about the fact that we have specifically and nobly given up that daily Venti Half-Caf Double Espresso Java Chip Frappucino from Starbucks, the more we want it. The more we want it, the more likely we are to break down and order it – just this once. Hey, there’s still lots of Lent to go.

Some of us are prone to intellectual and spiritual pride. There’s a reason the Devil takes Jesus to the top of the Temple: as C.S. Lewis’s master tempter Screwtape notes, some of Hell’s best work is done in church.

Human beings want and need to think of ourselves as at once a part of the group and as special and set apart from it. But if we’re not careful, we can find ourselves up to our eyeballs in sins that range from the major – God likes us best! We’ve got truth locked up right here! – to the minor but depressingly common: the nasty, petty politics and gossip that sometimes seem to afflict church organizations more than anyone else.

Then there’s worldly power. Few of us have power to abuse others on the order of, say, a Colonel Qaddafi, but most of us regularly find ourselves in a position to mistreat someone else: a child, a colleague, a clerk in a store, or some one who comes to us looking for help. Sometimes it’s just so satisfying to balk someone in a small way, or to administer a major smackdown. But we need to think about whom we’re worshipping in the process of gaining that satisfaction.

Each of these varieties of temptation is constantly with us, crossing our paths, whispering to us, forcing choices. Few of our temptations will be as spectacular as those with which Jesus deals – but, like the Devil urging Jesus to prove his identity, they will be tailored to us, and to our own weaknesses.

During this Lent – during this life – we will never manage to resist every temptation that comes our way. Most of us can do a better job of recognizing and resisting them.

Perhaps if that becomes our focus, the rest will fall into place.

Gracious Lord, who fasted forty days and forty nights, help us to follow your example in our own lives, now and always. Amen.

Sermon notes: Following Jesus

Preached at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church Sunday, 8 and 10:30 a.m. January 23, 2011 (Epiphany III, Year A)

“Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

That’s a powerful statement, direct but eloquent in its simplicity. No wonder it’s one of the most familiar phrases in the Gospels. Jesus spoke to Simon and Andrew, James and John, in terms they understood.

They probably knew of Jesus already; Andrew, at least, seems to have been a follower of John the Baptist before his execution. But the account of how they dropped everything to go with Jesus remains compelling.

How might he have spoken to other people in first-century Palestine? To farmers, “Follow me, and I will make you tenders of God’s harvest.” To weavers, “Follow me, and I will make you weavers of the fabric of heaven.” To bricklayers and carpenters, “Follow me, and I will make you builders of the Kingdom.”

There are two basic elements in Jesus’s command. The first is “Follow with me.” The second is “I will make you.” If we follow Jesus and his teachings, he will make us into something more than we could ever be on our own, in his service.

After all, who would have guessed that Galilean peasants like Peter and Andrew, James and John, could have grown into Christ’s chosen foundations for his Church? Who could have guessed that shoot-from-the-lip Peter would grow into the eloquent preacher and teacher we meet early in the Book of Acts? Who would have thought that the Church founded under persecution in Jerusalem two millennia ago would be still rooted and still growing throughout the world today?

They followed Jesus, and he made them much more than they ever imagined they could be.

The earliest disciples came with Jesus in a very literal sense, sitting with him at meals or gathering to hear him teach, in the synagogue or on a hillside. They saw with their physical eyes; we have to see with the eyes of faith. But we can follow Jesus just the same.

That journey begins here in the church, where we hear the gospel preached and explicated, where we join the Body of Christ in the sacrament of baptism and share in it in the Eucharist, where our faith is reinforced and refreshed in Christian fellowship. But it doesn’t end here.

Jesus, after all, used words – but he didn’t restrict himself to them. Today’s passage in the Gospel of Matthew concludes, “He traveled throughout Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every kind of illness and infirmity among the people.”

All three of those things are important. To a suffering people, Jesus made known the power of God by healing the sick and the crippled. To an oppressed people, he declared that God’s kingdom was at hand. To a faithful people, he taught his message in the context of Scripture.

That means that, ideally, the church is our launching pad – and our place of refreshment – for service in and to a hurting world. It’s not our destination, not a fortress against the world. It is not enough to praise God and give witness to our faith within the walls of St. Peter’s. It is not enough to care for our own. We can’t leave that witness behind in the pews with the Sunday bulletin: To really follow Christ, we have to take it another step.

There are many ways to do that. It may mean working as a volunteer with the St. Peter’s-Shendandoah School Partnership, or helping the Sunday sandwich makers, or knitting for Ministry on the River. It may mean service with an agency outside the parish, volunteering or contributing in another fashion to any of a multitude of charities that serve God’s people, from those in our own neighborhoods to others a few miles away on the north side of St. Louis, from Haiti to Sudan.

One thing it definitely means, wherever we are, is striving to see all others as Christ does, as children of God, and not as flawed, sinful, cranky human beings. This is the part I sometimes have problems with (particularly when it comes to, for example, all those other imperfect drivers with whom I am obliged to share the road). We are all flawed and sinful, and most of us have our cranky moments, especially when someone cuts us off.

We can be better than we are, but it’s hard. The good news is that we don’t have to do it on our own. In fact, we can’t.

“Follow me,” Jesus says. “Follow me, and I will make you builders of the Kingdom. Follow me, and I will make you healers of God’s people. Follow me, and I will make you teachers of God’s children.

“Follow me, and I will make you more than you could ever imagine, in my service, for the glory of the Kingdom of God.”


– Sarah Bryan Miller

The baby shower

It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a baby shower. In fact, the last one I attended might well have been the one given for my daughter-in-utero and me a little over 17 years ago. My life is in a different stage right now, the pause between my generation having children and our children having them.

So it was both an honor and something of a novelty to be invited, with my friend and fellow alto Linda, to a baby shower given for Kate, a talented young soprano who sang – beautifully – in our church choir. She left us in order to be able to go to church with her husband, and it’s hard to argue with that.

The shower was given by Kate’s sister-in-law Rachel, in Rachel’s mother’s big made-for-entertaining house a few miles west of here, and held outdoors on a beautiful made-for-entertaining day. The women, creative in ways that would never occur to me (nor be within my capacity to execute if they did), had transformed house and garden in fine baby-celebratory style.

Kate was well and generously showered by friends and family, and it was instructive to see how some gadgets have evolved and others stayed essentially the same. (The latest generation of cloth diapers, multi-layered and colorful: very cool.)

The baby is coming at a somewhat awkward time; Kate’s husband Kevin is still in law school, and she works in a field not noted for overgenerous compensation. They’ve moved in with her mother, to be near their families and caregivers, but their little house has yet to sell in a difficult market, and both job and school are a long commute away.  It must surely be a strain.

But babies (note: the first lesson of parenting) seldom do anything on our particular schedules, and this is a family solidly grounded in faith and rooted in caritas. However awkward the timing might be, this is a child who will be swaddled in love and embraced by a large, close cast of aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and friends, a child who will grow up with parents who are committed to their faith.

My prayer for them is that they may have a sense of joy, but know that weariness is normal; to have a sense of calm, but understand that it’s okay to lose it completely from time to time; to realize that all the mistakes they will inevitably make have been made many, many times before, and usually without lasting trauma; and to walk on in the light of God’s deep love, whatever comes their way.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: Faith and the race

Runners, 2007 Paris Marathon (Wikicommons Share Alike photo)SERMON NOTES, PENTECOST 12, Preached at 8 and 10:30 a.m. August 15, 2010, at St. Peter’s/Ladue

What is faith? It’s an important word in the Church, but it’s also a word with a variety of meanings.

In one sense, faith can mean “confidence or trust in a person or thing,” as in “I have absolute faith that the choir will do its collective best in singing the anthem.”

In another sense, faith is “a system of religious belief,” as in “I am a member of the Christian faith.”

In the highest sense, faith involves “trust in God and in God’s promises,” as made through Christ and in Scripture. You can find the specifics on that in the Bible, in the Creeds and in the Book of Common Prayer.

Most of us are here this morning because we are members of the Christian faith. More specifically, we are Episcopalians, whatever that may mean to us as individuals: prayers, the liturgy in general, the Eucharist in particular, music, service to God’s people in need, Sunday School… coffee hour.

Ideally, on a higher level, we are here because we have faith in God’s promises, and in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, as our Savior and Redeemer.

How should that faith be expressed?

Some people think it’s enough to say, “I believe in God,” and let it go at that, to float along through the world without ever sticking a paddle – of prayer, of thought, or action – into the water of faith.

The problem with that approach is that when an unexpected storm blows up, they have no way to propel themselves toward safety – and this life is full of storms, whether they involve individual health issues, crises in human relationships, problems in society, or disasters in the world outside.

Millions of people are paddle-less occasional Christians, most at home with the fashions and mores of the secular world – but that is clearly not the model set out for us in this morning’s readings from the New Testament. That model concerns commitment, action, and the price of faith.

In the Gospel, we heard from Cranky Jesus, frustrated because the crowds aren’t really listening to what he’s telling them about the judgment to come. People are enjoying the miracles and the healings, but they’re not paying attention to the deeper meaning of what Jesus is teaching: Discipleship has a cost. If we really commit to following Christ, we will frequently find ourselves in disagreement with the world outside the faith, and even with those we love the most.

The author of Hebrews goes into more detail. He speaks of how faith in God sustained and aided God’s people, from triumphs like Moses’s parting of the Red Sea and David’s victories, down through the centuries to what was then relatively recent history, the uprisings against Greek authority in the time of the Maccabees, 200 years before.

Faith assists us in dealing with the world, but it also sets us apart in the world – and the world has a way of smacking down those who stand apart. We heard in some detail about what kinds of smacking that particular group of faithful endured, from mocking to flogging, from impoverishment to imprisonment and painful death.

Elsewhere in the world, they’re still making martyrs; witness the most recent murders of Christian aid workers in Afghanistan, and the continuing trials of Palestinian Christians, caught between one army that despises them because they’re Palestinians, and another that attacks them for being Christian.

Few of us in the United States face more than mockery. Some of that mockery is due to the perception that Christians are prudes in a society in which just about anything goes. Part of it is the fact that identifying publicly as a Christian means being held to a higher standard of morality.

You’ve probably noticed the unseemly glee with which my colleagues in the news media seize upon each new case of a prominent figure in the “Christian Right” caught stepping out with an attractive young person of negotiable virtue. Those stories get a lot of play – a lot of ink, a lot of air – and one reason is that they are saturated with the irresistible odor of hypocrisy.

We can’t sigh in relief when those caught telling lies, or behaving unethically, or exploiting the powerless turn out to be members of other denominations. The non-Christian world lumps us all together. The shame sticks to all of us, like an oil slick coating the beach. We are all diminished by it.

Christians are called to better behavior, to walk humbly with our God, to live what we preach. It is inevitable that we will stumble from time to time; that’s a fact of being human. Acknowledging and correcting our missteps is a part of being faithful.

The best-known section of this passage comes near the end: “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” There are many kinds of races, from sprints to marathons, and the strategy for each of them is different. A brief race requires full power and full speed for its duration; a long one demands endurance.

A full marathon is 26 miles, and takes runners through all kinds of terrain, in all kinds of weather. Except for a few elite athletes, most people who enter a marathon train for months not with any idea of coming in first, but in the simple hope that they will be able to cross the finish line, that although they may be slowed they will not stop, that when they stumble they won’t collapse.

Life, of course, is a kind of marathon, except we have absolutely no idea of how long it will be. It’s different one for each of us, and few are fully prepared for it. It’s not easy to run a good race. There are distractions, and temptations and difficulties.

But we are blessed to have “a cloud of witnesses” to cheer us on, those saints who have run and completed the race before us. I believe that if we persevere in faith, even when that faith comes hard, God will sustain us to the very end.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

After the fall

In April, I took a tumble: lacking much in the way of depth perception, I failed to see a step and went straight over, landing on my left arm and shoulder.

Happily, I didn’t try to brace myself, and didn’t break anything. I got right up, and thought a little bruising was the only consequence of my clumsiness.

Wrong again: The bruised feeling didn’t go away, but turned into pain and then numbness. Two months later I found myself with an orthopedist, a physical therapist, and a brand new load of sometimes taxing exercises. In this case, the cliché – “no pain, no gain” – is absolutely true.

As it turns out, this fall was a blessing.

I have scoliosis, a hereditary affliction that shows up in adolescence. My spine has a double S curve that, left alone, will eventually turn me into a human pretzel. (It’s usually a bad sign when medical professionals remark on how “interesting and complicated” something is, and bring in their students to check it out.) Despite my years of preventative exercises, it turned out to be further along than I’d realized – but now I have a chance to do something about it, to strengthen myself, to control it before it’s too late.

Had I not fallen, I wouldn’t have have sought medical help, wouldn’t have been sent to therapy, wouldn’t have realized how advanced my condition really was, wouldn’t have received new tools to fight it.

Sometimes it takes a wake-up call like this one to force us to recognize and address serious problems, whether in the physical or the spiritual realm. It may not feel like one right now, but it was a blessing to have this particular call arrive in time: Thanks be to God.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: “Mandatum novum”

Sermon notes – Maundy Thursday (Preached at St. Peter’s/Ladue, April 1, 2010)

You can find just about anything online, including several lists of fun reasons to be Episcopalian: “Pew aerobics,” “color-coded Church year,” and one of my favorites, “We use cool words like ‘verger,’ ‘crucifer,’ ‘undercroft,’ ‘warden,’ and ‘narthex.’”

Add to that list of cool, special Anglican words “Maundy,” as in “Maundy Thursday,” as in “tonight,” one of the most important and meaningful services of the Church year.

Maundy comes from the Latin “Mandatum,” the first word of the version of John’s gospel heard in medieval churches: “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos:” “A new commandment I give unto you, That you love one another; as I have loved you.”

Just what does that commandment mean for us? And just how has Jesus loved us? In this next 24 hour period, he’s going to conclusively demonstrate the latter. It’s up to us to figure out the former.

In the reading from 1 Corinthians, one of the oldest segments of the New Testament, we heard the Words of Institution, as recorded by Paul: “This is my body. This is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.” Jesus gave himself for us, and commands us to remember and relive it.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus – the host at dinner – has just humbled himself by taking on the role of a servant, and washing the feet of his disciples. Jesus is constantly challenging his followers, but, interestingly, the simple gesture of humbling himself in that way seems to cause more disquiet than some of his more radical actions.

Peter, typically, rejects the idea of Jesus kneeling before him and tidying up his toes. It makes him uncomfortable. Jesus says, “Fine, but unless you let me wash me, you have no part in me.” Peter, again typically, then goes overboard and demands to have his head and hands done as well. The footwashing episode ends as Jesus issues his “new commandment” – his “mandatum novum” – as a call to love and serve others as he has loved and served us.

Taken together, these passages comprise a one-two punch for Christians. By accepting Jesus’s gifts and partaking of the sacraments, by sharing his body and blood and thereby declaring ourselves a part of the Body of Christ, we also commit ourselves to live and act as Jesus did: as servants who choose to serve, out of love. We really can’t have one without the other.

There is a strong temptation for us to stay within our comfort zones, with the well-worn habits to which we are accustomed. Interestingly, in parishes I’ve attended which practice Maundy Thursday footwashing, with priests toting the towels, it can be hard to get volunteers to come forward.

People usually claim they’re embarrassed by the condition of their feet – but I suspect there’s also an element of that embarrassment that seized Peter, of the sense of wrongness that a priest – a leader, a teacher, one in spiritual authority – is doing so humbling a job. And if it’s difficult for ordinary people to accept that service, imagine the disciples’ reactions at receiving such care from the one they knew as the Messiah.

There is a danger of our not taking Jesus’s commandments beyond the altar rail. But if we simply receive him in the bread and wine without remembering the other part of his commandments in the upper room that night – “Love one another, as I have loved you” – we haven’t really been paying attention.

I believe that Jesus is calling us to open ourselves to experience his love for us, and then to share that love with one another. Service that is not motivated by love is empty, and it’s easy to resent the giving of it. Service given in a Christlike spirit enriches us, and helps to shine a light in a dark world: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

We probably won’t have to wash anyone’s feet – but we could be called upon to push a wheelchair or help a child, to comfort the bereaved or visit the sick, to listen to the lonely or provide a meal for the hungry, to help a friend to accept a difficult truth or help someone pay the rent. The way in which it’s done is as important as the doing.

The next three days are the fulcrum of the Church year, the literal and symbolic focus of our identities as Christians, of our acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord and Savior. In a few minutes, we will re-enact the Last Supper. Afterward, the sanctuary will be stripped of all the things that make it meaningful, and we will exit the church in silence.

Somewhere beyond time, Jesus will pray in the Garden of Gethsemane, be betrayed and seized and taken off to trial. He will be tortured, and suffer a criminal’s hideous death upon a cross.

His agonies are a natural focus for our prayers and meditations – but so is his love for us. So, in that darkness, is the shining brilliance of his new commandment: “Love one another, as I have loved you.”

– sbm