Sermon: “I Hope We’ll All Be Ready” (November 27, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“I Hope We’ll All Be Ready” (Matthew 24:36-44)
November 27, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When I was growing up the other kids in the neighborhood and I spent many hours on summer nights playing the classic game of Hide and Seek.  As the person who was “it” counted out loud to fifty, everyone else would scramble to their hiding place.  And then the person who was “it” would stop counting, and yell out for all to hear, “Ready or not, here I come!”

During the season of Advent the recurring theme of the scripture readings is preparing for the coming of the Lord—both preparing to celebrate anew Jesus’ first coming at his incarnation, and also preparing for his Second Coming.  All of this is reflected in the collect for today as we prayed:

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal (The Book of Common Prayer 211).

This collect was written by none other than Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), the leading figure of the English Reformation who compiled the first two versions of The Book of Common Prayer (1549 and 1552) for the Anglican Church, and who was burned at the stake on March 21, 1556 as one of the Oxford Martyrs.  In their book, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer Paul Zahl and C. Frederick Barbee observe the following about this collect:

The Collect for the First Sunday in Advent achieves an astonishing feat.  It ties together not only the first coming and the final coming of God—the two advents of Jesus Christ—but it binds together our human present with the future, which is even now rushing towards us…our present life is the incubator for our future and enduring life.  And every moment of this life is accompanied by Him who visited the planet in great humility (3).

This collect is rooted in today’s passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans in which the apostle exhorts:

You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.  For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.  Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light (Romans 13:11-12).

What “works of darkness” do you need to lay aside?  What immediately comes to mind when I ask you that?  Those “works of darkness” need to be addressed, and the best thing you can do is repent, and as it says in The Book of Common Prayer, ask God to “grant you absolution and remission of all your sins, true repentance, amendment of life, and the grace and consolation of his Holy Spirit” (42).

But on this first day of the new church year, and in light of scripture’s warnings about the Second Coming occurring when we least expect it, ready or not, I want to focus on something else: reaching out to others.  At the recent convention for the Diocese of Georgia in Augusta that was the theme of the convention, reaching out to others in three simple ways: inviting, welcoming, and connecting—inviting others to come to church with you, welcoming them to church, and connecting them with others at church.

I think Christ Church does very well with welcoming and connecting—I can attest to that personally for myself and my family—but I suspect we could probably do a better job at inviting.  Yes, we are far from a perfect church, yes, we have lots of areas in which we are working to improve, and yes, the rector is a bit neurotic and probably uses too many song references in his sermons—but the Holy Spirit is moving here, the grace of God is being preached and administered in the sacraments each and every week, and the members of Christ Church is one of the kindest and most generous communities I have ever known.

And we need to be sharing all this with others.  Yes, newcomers will probably not have the liturgy memorized or know exactly when to kneel or sit or stand, and there is a risk that they may even sit in “your” pew—but nonetheless, one of the best ways to “put on the armor of light” is to reach out to others—inviting others, welcoming others, connecting with others.

When I was growing up my family did not start attending church until I was ten years old.  I spent Sunday mornings playing outside or hanging out in my room.  And do you know why we started attending church?  Because a friend of my dad’s named Ken, with whom he worked, invited him.  I have often wondered what would have happened in my life if Ken had not done that.  What would have been the trajectory of my life?  Not a pleasant thought.  But thankfully Ken reached out to my dad by inviting him to church, and because of that simple act of reaching out the trajectory of my life was eternally changed for the better.

A couple weeks ago Steph and I went with some friends to see Hacksaw Ridge, the powerful film that portrays the true story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who served as a medic in the Pacific Theater during World War II and who ended up saving seventy-five fellow soldiers who were wounded and facing certain death.  Early in the film Doss, whose childhood had been overshadowed by awful domestic violence, decided that “With the world so set on tearing itself apart, it don’t seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together…While everyone else is taking life, I’m gonna be saving it.  That is gonna be my way to serve.”

During his heroic rescue of the seventy-five soldiers Desmond prayed again and again, “Please Lord, help me get one more.  Help me get one more.”  Imagine a church full of people like Desmond Doss, a church full of people like my dad’s friend Ken, full of people reaching out to others.

In the gospel lesson for today Jesus said this about his Second Coming:

About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father…Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.  But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.  Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour (Matthew 24:36, 42-44).

In addition to Jesus emphasizing that his Second Coming will occur “at an unexpected hour”—ready or not—as if that were not challenging enough, he gets even more specific:

For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.  For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.  Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.  Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left (Matthew 24:37-41).

And now for a song reference…As a high school student I spent most of the money I earned from delivering newspapers and mowing lawns to buy cassettes (yes, cassettes, this was in the 80’s), especially Christian rock cassettes.  One of the pioneers of Christian rock was the late Larry Norman, whose brilliant 1972 album, Only Visiting this Planet, includes a beautiful but sobering song called, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” which specifically refers to today’s gospel passage:

A man and wife asleep in bed
She hears a noise and turns her head, he’s gone
I wish we’d all been ready
Two men walking up a hill
One disappears and one’s left standing still
I wish we’d all been ready
There’s no time to change your mind
The Son has come and you’ve been left behind…

There’s no time to change your mind
How could you have been so blind?
The father spoke, the demons dined
The Son has come and you’ve been left behind

Lest you be tempted to dismiss this is as a “Jesus People” evangelical guilt trip from the 70’s, remember it is based solely on Jesus’ words from today’s gospel lesson.  The truth is there are probably wounded people in your life who need you to be a Desmond Doss for them, who need you to pray, “Please, Lord, help me get one more.”  There are probably people in your life who need you to be a Ken for them, who need you simply to invite them to church.  What a wonderful way to “put on the armor of light.”

A few weeks after speaking the words in today’s gospel lesson Jesus, who had entered in humility this “world so set on tearing itself apart” was himself left behind—left behind by none other than his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane when he was betrayed and arrested—for when that happened, as Matthew put it, “all the disciples deserted him and fled.”

And what happened the next day?  Jesus, the “light of the world” (John 8:12) took all the works of darkness in the world, including the works of darkness in your life and mine, upon himself, in order to save us from our sins.  Scripture tells us “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

And the Risen Jesus, still bearing the scars of his victory over the works of darkness, will return at an unexpected hour, ready or not, as Charles Wesley describes in his classic Advent hymn:

Lo! He comes with clouds descending
Once for our salvation slain
Thousand thousand saints attending
Swell the triumph of his train
Alleluia!  Alleluia!  Alleluia!
Christ the Lord returns to reign…

Those dear tokens of his passion
Still his dazzling body bears
Cause of endless exultation
To his ransomed worshippers
With what rapture, with what rapture, with what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars
(Hymn 57 in The Hymnal 1982)

On that day Jesus Christ, the One who has accompanied you every moment of your life, will indeed “come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead.”

I hope we’ll all be ready.

Amen.

Sermon: “In the Eyes of Christ the King” (November 20, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“In the Eyes of Christ the King” (Colossians 1:19-20)
November 20, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

On his classic 1986 album So Peter Gabriel had a hit that many consider to be his best song ever, a song called “In Your Eyes.”  See if you can relate to these lyrics:

Love, I get so lost sometimes
Days pass and this emptiness fills my heart
When I want to run away
I drive off in my car
But whichever way I go
I come back to the place you are

All my instincts, they return
And the grand facade, so soon will burn
Without a noise, without my pride
I reach out from the inside

In your eyes
The light the heat
In your eyes
I am complete
In your eyes
I see the doorway to a thousand churches
In your eyes
The resolution of all the fruitless searches

Today is the final Sunday of the liturgical year, Christ the King Sunday, in which we are reminded that Jesus Christ, our Risen King, is the One who brings about “the resolution of all the fruitless searches.”  The collect for today beautifully sums up the reality of the brokenness of the human condition, and points to the cosmic restoring work of God, “whose will it is to restore all things” in Jesus Christ, “the King of kings and Lord of lords” (The Book of Common Prayer 236).

Along these lines I am preaching on the final two verses of today’s lesson from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, where the Apostle wrote:

For in (Jesus Christ) all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (Colossians 1:19-20).

Again, in Jesus Christ “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things…by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

What is it in your life that needs to be reconciled?

Many years ago when I was in my early twenties I received a bank statement and when I went to reconcile the statement with my checkbook I thought I found an error on the part of the bank.  I went to the bank to “straighten it out,” only to be gently shown by the patient manager of the branch that I was the one in error, not the bank.  My checkbook needed to be reconciled according to the bank statement, not the other way around.

In our lives we do not need to look far to see things that need to be reconciled.  It may be our bank statement, or it may be something much more important, like a relationship, or an event or memory of something hurtful, something with which you thought you had already dealt, something with which you thought you had already achieved closure.

The problem is that closure is often a myth.  Closure is something we try to achieve in order to gain some sense of control over something over which in reality we actually have no control at all.  Again, Peter Gabriel opens “In Your Eyes” with a confessional statement, “Love, I get so lost sometimes.”  The reason for this is that we have suffered what is known as “ambiguous loss.”

Ambiguous loss is a loss that happens in which there is neither closure nor understanding, a loss that cannot be fixed or cured or categorized.  Such ambiguous loss may involve physical absence with psychological presence—the person is physically gone but always on your mind.  This may result from divorce, adoption, or when a loved one moves away or is institutionalized or incarcerated or missing.  In physical ambiguous loss the person has left without saying goodbye.

Or ambiguous loss may be the other way around and involve physical presence but psychological absence.  This can happen with a loved one experiencing depression, dementia, addiction, or mental illness.  The loved one is present physically but absent psychologically.  In psychological ambiguous loss the person has said goodbye so to speak, without leaving.

Such ambiguous loss, whether physical or psychological reminds you of things in your life, very important things, that are not reconciled, and leaves you feeling a sense of hurt and loss that is anything but ambiguous, because the need for reconciliation is still there.

In the moving 2001 film I Am Sam Sean Penn plays Sam Dawson, a developmentally disabled man who loses custody of his seven year-old daughter Lucy.  Sam is experiencing physical ambiguous loss.  His lawyer, Rita Williams, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, is a beautiful successful attorney on the outside, but under the surface struggles with a marriage that is falling apart, and a strained relationship with her son William, who blames her for the family stress.  Rita is experiencing psychological ambiguous loss.  Late in the film Rita comes to Sam’s apartment to encourage him to keep fighting for custody, and Sam unloads on her.

“You don’t know!  You don’t know!” Sam yells.  Rita throws her hands into the air, “I don’t know what?”  Sam continues, “You don’t know what it’s like when you try and you try and you try and you try and you don’t ever get there!  Because you were born perfect, and I was born like this, and you’re perfect!”  “Oh, is that right?” Rita interjects.  “People like you don’t know!”  Rita gently asks, “People like me?” Sam keeps yelling, “People like you don’t know what’s like to get hurt, because you don’t have feelings, because people like you don’t feel anything!”

At this point Rita has had enough—“You think you got the market cornered on human suffering?  Let me tell you something about ‘people like me.’  People like me feel lost and little and ugly and dispensable.  People like me have husbands (having sex with) someone else far more perfect than me.  People like me have sons who hate them…It’s like every morning I wake up and I fail, and I look around and everyone seems to be pulling up but somehow I can’t no matter how hard I try.  Somehow I’ll never be enough.”   Sam has calmed down and softly responds, “You’re enough.  You’re much more than enough.”

What is it in your life that needs to be reconciled?  Have you suffered ambiguous loss that is either physical, psychological, or both?  Like Sam Dawson do you ever feel like “you try and try and try and try and you don’t ever get there”—or like Rita Williams do you ever feel “lost and little and ugly and dispensable” or that somehow you’ll never be enough?  If so, you are not alone.

And that is exactly where the good news of the gospel enters the scene.

Again, as the Apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians, in Jesus Christ “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”  Jesus’ “reconciling all things” includes all the things in your life that are unreconciled or when it comes to your ability to fix them, irreconcilable—and yes, Jesus’ “reconciling all things” includes all the ambiguous losses in your life, whether physical, psychological or both.

This points us to today’s gospel lesson in which we read the final earthly words of Jesus as he was dying on the cross to reconcile all things.  What were the first words Jesus said after being crucified?  “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).  But people continued mocking Jesus, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”  Little did they know they were not only mocking the King of the Jews, they were also mocking the King of kings.  Then in response to the penitent thief whose last request was “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).

On the cross Jesus himself experienced both physical and psychological ambiguous loss in suffering that was anything but ambiguous.  And yet the good news is that the blood Jesus shed on the cross is enough—it is much more than enough, for people like you—to reconcile all things to God.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19), and as he put it in his Letter to the Romans, “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life” (Romans 5:10).  We do not reconcile God to ourselves according to our own “checkbook”; we are reconciled to God according to Jesus’ blood.

An Episcopal priest from Virginia named Francis Bland Tucker, who later served as rector of Christ Church in Savannah, summed it all up this way:

All praise to thee, for thou, O King divine
Didst yield the glory that of right was thine
That in our darkened hearts thy grace might shine

Thou cam’st to us in lowliness of thought
By thee the outcast and the poor were sought
And by thy death was God’s salvation wrought
(Hymn 477 in The Hymnal 1982)

Through Jesus’ blood shed on the cross “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things.”  In other words, ultimately God will do what only God can do, bring closure, and that is no myth.

One final illustration…In The Return of the King, the final volume of J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, is a chapter entitled “The Houses of Healing” in which one of the characters named Ioreth longingly says, “Would that there were kings in Gondor, as there were once upon a time, they say!  For it is said in old lore: The hands of the king are the hands of a healer.  And so the rightful king could ever be known” (The Lord of the Rings, 50th Anniversary One-volume edition 860).  Later Aragorn is revealed to be that king, and when he returns to Middle Earth and the healing work has begun, Ioreth, speaking to her friend just prior to Aragorn’s being crowned king, joyfully says: “He has a golden heart, as the saying is; and he has the healing hands.  ‘The hands of the king are the hands of a healer,’ I said; and that is how it was all discovered” (966).

Indeed the scarred hands of the Risen Jesus are the hands of a Healer, the One whose shed blood ensures that in time God will indeed reconcile to himself everything in your life that needs to be reconciled.  And in heaven you too will join the penitent thief in Paradise, where you will, as we prayed in the collect for today, “be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule” (BCP 236).

And you will finally see “the resolution of all the fruitless searches” in the eyes of your Savior, Christ the King.

Amen.

Sermon: “The Sun of Righteousness” (November 13, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Sun of Righteousness” (Malachi 4:1-2a)
November 13, 2016
Philip Ryan

My eyes shot open, my heart was pounding, and I jumped out of bed barely missing running into the door. It was one of those moments that terrifies parents. You are woken up because your child is not crying but screaming. Whatever is going on is serious. I rush into Greta’s room and she’s sitting there in the dark, sobbing. She’s crying so hard that when I sit on her bed to give her a hug her whole body is shaking and my shirt is instantly soaked under the weight of her tears. I can’t console her either; she’s too worked up. I crawl into her bed and hold her for several minutes before she finally calms down.
I ask her, “What was the matter?”
“I had a bad dream,” she says still shaky.
“You know it wasn’t real, right?”
“I know” she mumbles.
“What do we say when we get bad dreams?”
“That’s wasn’t real. Jesus’ got me.” She says and she finally cracks a little smile.
“That’s right. Did something else scare you?”
Shaking her head yes, she pointed to her dresser and informed me that a monster had been crawling on it. As we laid in the dark, she continued to point out things and ask, “What’s that daddy?” It was usually her chair, a book, the lamp, the dress she was wearing the next day. But in the darkness she was gripped by fear so that she couldn’t see things clearly, everything was out to get her. Sadly, these nightmares went on for the next week or so. We eventually decided to try a night light. We bought one and told Greta we were putting a little light in her room so she could see at night. Greta was so excited! We got her ready for bed and Greta turned on her nightlight. The next morning, Greta slept through the night, at breakfast Greta said, “Thank you for the nightlight. It keeps away the bad dreams.” My daughter’s fears were of course real and legitimate. Darkness has always scared humanity because if we can’t see then we don’t know if there is danger coming at us. The Prophet Malachi whom we heard from this morning was writing to a people stuck in uncertainty, fear, and anger. They were not in physical darkness but a time where God seemed to be absent, which is the equivalent of darkness. The Lord speaking through Malachi reminds the people that not only does he remember them and hear them, but he is sending “the sun of righteousness” to illuminate and heal them.

Who is this “sun of righteousness” who rises with healing in his wings? The Bible associated images of sun, light, fire, with the coming of God’s anointed. One of Isaiah’s passages describing the coming of Jesus begins, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone” (Isaiah 9:2). Luke would begin his gospel describing John the Baptist’s ministry as preparing the way for the “the sunrise shall visit us from on high, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Lk 1:78-79). In John’s gospel Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Finally, when the new heavens and the new earth come, the book of Revelation says there will be no need for sun or moon because “Night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light” (Revelation 22:5).  Jesus is the light of God who drives away all darkness. His light brings hope, salvation, healing, power, and grace to a world shrouded in the darkness of despair, pain, sadness, terror, and fear.

But Jesus isn’t the only person described as being light in the Bible. Israel was called to be a light to her surrounding nations so that salvation may reach the ends of the earth (Isaiah 49:6). During his great Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls us to be the light of the world, so that we can help extend salvation, deliverance, and hope to others, leading them to glorify God (Matthew 5:14-16). Finally, in John’s first epistle, he says, “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Because Jesus is the true light, we are called to reflect his salvation and glory in the world.

We live in a world that is illuminated with artificial light. Electricity, computer screens, cars, cell phones, etc all make it hard for us to imagine complete darkness. The occasional blackout from a storm or power shortage might remind us of how dependent we are but it is always restored and we forget. However, it is not hard to see that we are in a constant state of figurative, but no less real, darkness. We are on alert because terrorists have harmed us, natural disasters seem to get worse, the economy has been shaky, and I don’t need to remind us all of our political and civil rhetoric. How are we to be light in the darkness of our world? As usual, the best advice is to follow Jesus. Love others with reckless love like Christ loved you and you will spread the light of God’s kingdom. Speak truth in the midst of misinformation, bullying, and vitriolic speech and you will spread the light of God’s kingdom. By a peacemaker in the middle of a conflict and you will spread the light of God’s kingdom. And when it gets hard, and you feel like giving up, and you think I am more of a birthday candle about to give up remember that you are the light because of Jesus. The sun of righteousness is what gives you the power to be light and his light, “shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5)  Amen.

Sermon: “In Your Flesh You Shall See God” (November 6, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“In Your Flesh You Shall See God” (Job 19:25-27)
November 6, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Even if you have been living under a rock you undoubtedly know that after a 108-year drought, the Chicago Cubs finally won the World Series.  Taken as a whole, game seven was the greatest baseball game I have ever seen—great pitching, gutsy base running, exceptional fielding, clutch hitting—as well as some errors and second guessing because baseball players of course are human too.  The last time I was this blown away by a baseball game was in game six of the 1977 World Series when the Yankees’ Reggie Jackson hit three homeruns off three straight pitches against the Dodgers to lead the Yankees in clinching the championship.

All year long there had been a refrain in Chicago about the Cubs winning the World Series, “It’s Gonna Happen!”  You saw it on signs, t-shorts, bumper stickers—“It’s Gonna Happen!”  After the final out the other night someone in the crowd was holding up that same sign, but with one all-important change— “It’s Gonna Happen!” now read “It Did Happen!”

In the collect today we are reminded that Jesus “came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life” (The Book of Common Prayer 236).  John records Jesus as proclaiming, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.  I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).  One of the “works of the devil” that Jesus came to destroy was the power of death.

Today I am preaching on something we reaffirm we believe every week when we recite The Nicene Creed: “the resurrection of the dead”—“We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come” (BCP 358).

Scripture never turns a blind eye to suffering and death.  The Book of Lamentations poignantly portrays corporate suffering in its description of the razing of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 B.C., and the Book of Job poignantly portrays individual suffering in recounting the miseries of Job.

Job had suffered massive financial loss as all his livestock were stolen or destroyed, severe personal loss as all his sons and daughters were killed in an accident, and subsequently found himself suffering from a severe disease, “loathsome sores” covering his body “from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head,” sores he scraped with a potsherd as he sat among the ashes (Job 2:7-8).

To top it all off, Job’s wife gave him the following advice, “Curse God, and die” (2:9).  Most of the Book of Job then consists of dialogue among Job, who was asking why he had to suffer so much, and his friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, who were explaining to him that he must have done something to deserve it, to which Job eventually responded in anger, “miserable comforters are you all” (16:2).  And yet, in the midst of all this we find one of the most moving passages in all of scripture about the resurrection of the dead, as Job proclaims: Continue reading

Sermon: “Good News for Those Lost in the Cosmos” (October 30, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Good News for Those Lost in the Cosmos” (Luke 19:1-10)
October 30, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In the summer of 1976, when I was seven years old, my family rode in a beige 1974 Chevy Malibu from Springfield, Virginia to Denver, Colorado to visit our extended family.  My two sisters and I shared the back seat and exchanged delightful dialogue along the lines of “He’s in my space again!” or “She won’t stop staring at me!” or asked our parents equally delightful questions like “Are we there yet?” or “When are we eating?” or “Can we stop at a bathroom?”

The radio played hit songs that summer from the Eagles, Elton John, and of course, KC and the Sunshine Band—changing stations as the static dictated.  I remember how excited I got as we crossed state after state—Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas—and finally seeing the Rocky Mountains emerge out of the Colorado horizon.  I loved watching the terrain change and my dad pointing out to me our location on the maps posted at the rest stops.  Dinners at McDonald’s, nights at Howard Johnson’s—life was good.

One afternoon during our visit in Denver I got on my skateboard and headed off from my grandparents’ home to visit my great-grandmother who lived down the street.  I thought I had remembered where her house was, but I missed it and ended up wandering around downtown Denver.  At first it was exciting, but the excitement was soon replaced with fear.  I tried to retrace my path but still had no idea where I was.  As my fear began to change into panic, I saw something that immediately brought relief—our 1974 Chevy Malibu with my dad at the wheel.  He had driven around, and had not stopped driving around, until he had found me.  I can still remember the overwhelming relief of seeing his smiling face.

In today’s gospel lesson Jesus proclaims why he left heaven to come to earth, why he left his throne at the right hand of his Heavenly Father to be born in a barn, why, as scripture puts it, Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Philippians 2:7).  “The Son of Man,” Jesus proclaimed, “came to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

“The Son of Man came to see out and to save the lost.”  There are a lot of lost people out there—and there may be some lost people in here today.

In his 1983 book Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, the late Walker Percy describes how in spite of all the effort expended to help people understand themselves and get to where they think they need to be, many people are still just as confused and lost as ever.  Percy actually offers a variety of alternative titles for this book, including “How you can survive in the Cosmos about which you know more and more while knowing less and less about yourself, this despite 10,000 self-help books, 100,000 psychotherapists, and 100 million fundamentalist Christians” or “Why it is that of all the billions and billions of strange objects in the Cosmos—novas, quasars, pulsars, black holes—you are the strangest” or, one more, “Why it is possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is six thousand light years away, then you presently know about yourself, although you’ve been stuck with yourself all your life.”

When I lived in Charlottesville I became good friends with the members of a brilliant Americana band called Sons of Bill.  On their 2014 album Love and Logic they tip their hat to Walker Percy in a song also called “Lost in the Cosmos” which describes this:

Dangerous and desperate and young
Fixing your eyes on the distant horizon
And waiting for dawn
For the sun to shine on

Something so pure and so bright
You caught it in glimpses but never could catch it
The harder you try
It’s still passing you by

But the farther and farther you crawl
Bringing it home don’t make no sense at all
And you’re seeking your way
From the lines lying under the snowfall

You’re weary but carrying on
Don’t you march to the beat of a heart
That’s been beating too hard for too long?
Too hard for too long…

And I’m lost in the cosmos again
Deeper and deeper in what could have been
As the fits and the starts
They go spinning around in your brain
Oh you just should have listened to me
All that there is now is all there can be
And just lighting your way and fighting away the pain
Still lighting away and fighting away the pain

In today’s gospel lesson Jesus is on a road trip that took him through Jericho, the home of a diminutive tax collector named Zacchaeus, who was despised by the Romans because he was a Jew, despised by the Jews because he was a tax collector, and ridiculed by both because, as Luke notes, “he was short in stature.”  Zacchaeus was so excited that Jesus was passing through he scurried up a sycamore tree to get a glimpse.  Apparently he had previously had an encounter with Jesus, because when Jesus saw him, he called him by name, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down for I must stay at your house today.”

Luke then notes that Zacchaeus “hurried down and was happy to welcome him.”  The Greek word for “happy” here is chairo, which also means “glad, delighted, or joyful.”  This word also has the same root as the verb for “rejoice,” which Luke uses in Jesus’ parable about the shepherd who leaves his ninety-nine safe sheep to find the one lost sheep—and as Jesus emphasizes, “When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices” (Luke 15:5).  Similarly, in his parable of the prodigal son Jesus says that the father told his older son, who resented the party being thrown for his returned lost slacker younger brother, “We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” (Luke 15:32).

In other words, Zacchaeus was happy to welcome Jesus because when he had been lost in the cosmos, Jesus had sought him out until he found him because “the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”  Moreover, Zacchaeus was happy because he was forgiven, as we read in the psalm today, “Happy are they whose transgression are forgiven, and whose sin is put away!  Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no guilt” (Psalm 32:1-2a, The Book of Common Prayer 624-625).

When I was in my mid-twenties I served as a youth minister at an Episcopal church in Fairfax, Virginia, and volunteered occasionally at the jail.  One Sunday afternoon I went there to lead a chapel service.  With an ironed shirt, striped tie, sweaty palms clutching my Bible I was admitted into the meeting room.  A few moments later about thirty inmates entered the room and joined me in the circle of folding metal chairs, each of which had a delapidated Methodist hymnal.

Without my saying a word, they began singing hymns acapella, taking turns shouting out hymn numbers.  Only a few glanced at the hymnals, most of them knew the words by heart.  When they were done, one of them said to me, “Okay, you’re up!”  I stumbled through my teaching and when I was done there was an awkward silence, and then one of them asked, “Um, can we sing some more?”  And we did, and the singing was beautiful, and the joy was palpable.

As they filed out at the end of the service, laughing and cutting up, one of them shook my hand and looked into my eyes, “You know why we’re so happy don’t you?” he said, “We’re happy because we’re forgiven.”  As I drove home his words echoed in my mind, “We’re happy because we’re forgiven.”

Zacchaeus was happy because he was forgiven, and therefore happy to welcome Jesus into his home for a dinner party with other forgiven sinners.  As people respond to the forgiveness of God by forgiving others, the happiness spreads.

When I was a kid I remember hearing about Corrie Ten Boom, who had been sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp for hiding Jews in her home during World War II, the basis of her classic book The Hiding Place.  In her 1974 book Tramp for the Lord she recounts the following story:

It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives…And that’s when I saw him working his way forward against the others….a guard—one of the most cruel guards.  Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: “A fine message, fräulein!  How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!”

And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand.  He would not remember me, of course—how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?  But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt.  It was the first time since my release that I had been face to face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.

“You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there…but since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian.  I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well.  Fräulein, will you forgive me?”

And I stood there—I whose sins had every day to be forgiven—and could not forgive…I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart…“Jesus, help me!”…And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me.  And as I did, an incredible thing took place.  The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands.  And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.  “I forgive you, brother!” I cried, “With all my heart!”  For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner.  I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then (From Brian Zahnd’s 2013 book Radical Forgiveness 31-33).

The gospel is good news for those feeling “lost in the cosmos again,” “fighting away the pain,” and “waiting for dawn,” because the Lord of the Cosmos, Jesus Christ, came to seek out and to save the lost, including Zacchaeus, including you.  Jesus did not stop driving until he found you, and on a different tree Jesus died so that you could be forgiven, so your sins could be cast to the bottom of the sea.

Jesus invites you to climb down from the tree, and welcome him into your house again—to join the party of sinners who are happy because they have been found, happy because they have forgiven—the party of sinners who have experienced the overwhelming relief of seeing Jesus’ smiling face.

Amen.

Sermon: “Moralism vs the Gospel” (October 23, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Moralism vs the Gospel” (Luke 18:9-14)
October 23, 2016
Philip Ryan

When I was growing up I had all these expectations thrusted on me. I was supposed to BE a good boy and BE brave during my parents divorce. I was supposed to BE a good boy and get along with my new stepmom and her children. I was supposed to BE a good boy and do better at school, not get in trouble, go to church, read my Bible, pray, fast, BE successful, and of course always BE myself. I said the verb BE five times just then. That’s one time more than this Pharisee says “I” in his self-centered prayer. We all feel the constant pressure to perform and to BE something. What does this have to do with today’s gospel reading? This reading is so saturated with grace and simultaneously so dangerously close to the law that if the preacher or listener is not careful, we will moralize Jesus’ parable and rob it of its power.

Here’s how we can rob this parable of its power and miss grace. Luke gives us the explanation of the parable right from the start, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt…” (v. 9). We are given a picture of two men. One has nothing to confess but only thanks God for how awesome he is. The other is a humble man who beats his chest in desperation and cries, “Mercy, have mercy on me.” A brief complaint of all modern translations. With the exception of the New American Standard Bible, all modern Bible translations have the Tax Collector referring to himself as “a” sinner, but the Greek has the definite article, “the” sinner. He doesn’t bother listing out sins because he is sin embodied. After we eavesdrop on the two men’s prayers, Jesus says the Tax Collector went home justified. So here is the application “be humble” like the Tax Collector and not like the Pharisee. Amen…isn’t that awful? Is that all there is to this passage? Is this another moralistic admonition to add to all the other things you are supposed to be in this life – be humble? What is going on in this passage and where is the gospel in it?

Again Luke gives us the key, in the last verse Jesus says that this parable is about justification – “the judicial act of God pardoning sinners, accepting them as just, and so putting permanently right their previously estranged relationship with himself” (JI Packer). If the Tax Collector is the one declared to be justified where does that leave the Pharisee? Why is he looked over? It could be because he’s got it all together. He fasts more than required by the Law; he tithes more than the law requires; and he apparently comes to the Temple to worship and pray. Despite his prayer, why is the Pharisee in desperate need of God’s justifying word? Because he has falsely claimed his goodness as his own, leaving nothing to God. If you have nothing to forgive why would you need mercy? He has fallen into the false theology that truly speaks to all our hearts “the theology of BE.” As I said earlier the moralistic reading of this text would exhort us to “be humble.” It could also say “be pious,” “be good,” “be anything BUT this Pharisee over here.” Boom! There is the heresy of “the theology of BE”. We think we are being pushed towards something good only to end up like that which we are trying to avoid. If you try to be like the Tax Collector you very well may end up a Pharisee, laying claim to a certain type of behavior and looking down on those who do not behave similarly.

This might be hard to understand when we are talking about a class of religious people centuries removed from our context. So let me illustrate it this way. A new show has recently come out that is receiving amazing reviews. It is called “This is Us” it’s on NBC on Tuesday nights at 9:00 PM (I wonder if I’ll get a kickback for this plug?) It tells the incredible story of three siblings (two biological and one adopted) and how their upbringing has consequences (good and bad) later in life. It parallels their childhood (late 70’s early 80’s) with today (they are now 36). In one of the early episodes Randall, the adopted child, is told by his mother “Promise me you’ll always be good.” What a terrible burden to lay on a child. As he grows up he becomes by all outward appearances not just good, but perfect. He is the perfect father, husband, son, boss, and is a very successful businessman. Except he can’t “always be good” like his mother asked and the promise demands too much. One morning, as his wife tells us, he woke up completely blind. The years of pursuing a theology of BE GOOD brought Randall to blindness. That’s why the Pharisee needs justification and why we need a justification that is not our own. The human need to self-justify leads to death. The only way we can survive being human is for God to save us. “The theology of BE” is so dangerous that in his famous book on preaching Bryan Chapell warns preachers to avoid the “deadly be’s,” which is the tendency for preachers to turn to moralism by telling his congregation to be better, spiritual, loving, etc. SO please, don’t accept from me or any other preacher “the theology of BE.” Don’t leave here today thinking, “how can I BE more humble?” Here’s a gentle gospel reminder that humility isn’t our own doing but God’s. The Psalmist declares, “Good and upright is the LORD; therefore, he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way” (Ps. 25:8-9).

How do we resist “the theology of BE”? Trust that God is the one who justifies not you. Trust that the cure for self-justification is trusting in Jesus’ work on the cross. As St. Paul tells us, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:23-24).”  Trust that this whole parable is about God’s saving work and not yours. Trust that mercy and goodness belong to the Lord alone and he gives it to you as a gift. Trust that Jesus’ work on the cross is better for you than anything you can do for yourself.

Sermon: “All Scripture is Inspired by God” (October 16, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“All Scripture is Inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:14-17)
October 16, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

If you knew your death was imminent, and you had the chance to write just one more letter, to whom would you write, and what would you tell them?  Today’s epistle lesson is from the last of the thirteen New Testament letters written by the Apostle Paul.  Rather than writing his final letter to all the churches he had planted during his missionary career, he wrote it to his protégé Timothy, who was serving as bishop at Ephesus.  One of the recurring themes in Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy is the authority of scripture, as found in today’s reading:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:14-17).

In seminary biblical studies often include viewing the Bible through various critical lenses, each of which are to help one analyze scripture as a literary document rather than how Paul describes it as the inspired word of God.  These critical lenses include historical criticism (interpreting scripture according to the historical context in which it was written), textural criticism (establishing the most authoritative version of a specific text), literary criticism (focusing on the literary genres within a text), form criticism (classifying a text as some type of pre-literary form)—on and on it goes. Continue reading