Friday, March 12, 2010

Sermon - Palm Sunday 2004

Palm Sunday 2004
Grace Church, Utica

For reasons that are not easy to fathom people have always been attracted to the scene of tragedy. Years ago, in the American West, when a criminal was to be executed, entire families would gather with their picnic baskets to watch the hanging. We like to think that humanity has progressed beyond that, but I’m not at all sure it’s true. Even today within hours after a tornado cuts through some town, you’ll often find traffic jams as the curious drive through to see what’s happened. But then that’s quite tame compared to more recent pass-times. We send the men and women of our armed forces off to war, while people here at home pop popcorn and watch the actual battles on television.

Evidently we’re regressing. In the Gospels we’re told that most of Jerusalem gathered on Golgotha to witness Rome’s ugliest form of punishment. Crucifixions drew huge crowds. This day there are three— three men who have been convicted and condemned, tied and nailed to rough wooden crosses. The scriptures say that the people stood by watching. Even “....[Jesus’] acquaintances [and] the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching....” Jesus of Nazareth is dying. He is the one on the middle cross— he’s the preacher, the miracle worker, the prophet. Some believe that he is the Son of God, the Savior. But for now he is dying before the eyes of the crowd.

In a national poll taken several years ago people were asked what they thought would happen if Jesus came back. A majority felt that we would most likely kill him again, but that we would do it more quickly this time. Perhaps you find that surprising. People are drawn to Jesus, you say. We’re drawn to him ourselves. Yes, but there’s also something in us that is threatened by him, something in us that wants to hide from him, or maybe just get rid of him.

Early in Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus’ ministry has only just begun, we read that the Pharisees “...immediately conspired... against him, how to destroy him.” (Mk 3:6) Why? Why that kind of reaction? Jesus said it was because of their hardness of heart. You see people of that day believed that the heart was the center of thinking and feeling— not our heads but our hearts. They believed that the heart was the center of our will. Jesus said that their hearts had grown hard.

When he comes to offer us new life, Jesus also tells us that we have to be willing to change, to risk some of the earthly things to which we’ve always clung for security. That’s where our hardness of heart gets us into trouble. We tend to stiffen up at the idea of venturing out into something new. Often, we just walk away from it— and not necessarily because we place little value on our religion.

Remember that the two groups of people who were most opposed to Jesus were very religious people. The first group was the Sadducees. Their lives were centered in the religious institutions of Israel. The Sadducees had status and prestige, they were financially well-off, and they were absolutely inflexible in their interpretation of the Tradition. So when Jesus came into their midst and began talking about a relationship with God that wasn’t based upon the observance of the law but upon love and trust, the hearts of the Sadducees grew hard— they dug in their heels. They wouldn’t consider that kind of change because it would mean moving too far beyond the Tradition. It would also mean giving up a great deal of their own power and prestige.

The Pharisees were a little different. They were the legal experts— they knew Jewish law backwards and forward. They knew exactly what the law required and they would allow no less. On the other hand, neither would they offer any more— to God or to anyone else. They valued their own righteousness above everything. They expected recognition for it— from God as well as from other people. The Pharisees were also Israel’s first nationalists; if their first love was their own righteousness, then their second love was for their country. And they believed that their nation would be protected by God as long as the people would be faithful in observing what the Law required. So when Jesus came along healing a crippled man on the Sabbath day the Pharisees saw this as a threat to the security and well-being of the whole nation. Why? Because it was contrary to Jewish Law to do any such thing on the Sabbath.

There’s a story about the courtship of Moses Mendelssohn, a well-known 18th century Jewish philosopher. Mendelssohn was a small, hunchbacked man who fell in love with a beautiful woman. Several months after they met Mendelssohn visited her father and asked him how she felt about the possibility of marriage. The father said, well, the truth is that she’s very frightened of you, because you’re a hunchback. So Mendelssohn asked if he might see her just one last time.

He found her doing some sewing. She avoided looking at him during their conversation, which eventually came around to the subject of marriage. The young woman asked Mendelssohn if he believed that marriages were made in heaven. And he said, “Oh yes, in fact something very unusual happened to me. You see, when children are born, they call out in heaven, ‘This boy or this girl will get this or that one for a husband or wife.’ When I was born my future wife was announced, but then I was told that she would have a terrible hump on her back. And I shouted out, ‘O Lord, a girl who is hunchbacked will very easily become bitter and hard. A girl should be beautiful. Lord, give the hump to me, and let her be beautiful.”

The young woman was deeply moved. She saw Mendelssohn in a whole new way.

In assuming human flesh in the person of Jesus, God also embraced our human imperfections— our weaknesses, our failings, and our sin. He did it in order to destroy their power over us, and so that, by grace, we could become the people God calls us to be. Jesus experienced the depths of human suffering so that we could be assured of God’s presence with us in the midst of our own.

The Gospels tell us that the people who gathered at Calvary taunted Jesus, that they hurled insults at him: Save yourself! If you’re the Messiah, come down from the cross! The chief priests, the Scribes and the Pharisees said, `Yes, if he’s really the king of Israel, let him come down from the cross.’

Thank God he didn’t! And because he didn’t come down from that cross you and I can receive the strength to overcome our own hardness of heart. Because he didn’t come down we can see God and each other in a whole new way. And it’s that new way which is the true way, the one that will bring us to life, both in this world and in the next.

© James M. Jensen

Sermon - Epiphany VI - February 15, 2004

Epiphany VI — February 15, 2004
Grace Church, Utica

Today’s Gospel lesson is one that is comforting, but also disturbing. It is a mixture of blessings and admonitions. What is particularly bothersome is that the conditions and situations that are blessed, don’t really seem blessed at all; those that carry warnings, are very enticing. This is something Jesus frequently does in Luke's gospel. It seems as if Jesus is setting out to do what one famous preacher described as “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” The word “blessed” can quite appropriately be translated as “happy.” The word “woe” is used as a warning. There is a sense of doom about it. Jesus seems to be saying, “you who are really in hard places are blessed.” And, “you who are comfortable are doomed.” And let’s face it, this isn’t particularly good news for those of us who have a tendency to seek comfort and entertainment in our lives. Is poverty a prerequisite to being happy? God forbid, is being well-fed a sign of doom?

There is a story about a person who felt each of the messages in this gospel in a very personal way. It’s about a man who belonged to a congregation in the United States that did a number of shot-term mission projects in Latin America. In this particular instance, the mission work involved the funding and building of a medical clinic in a very poor community. The people of this community had no access to medical care— not even the most basic emergency services. There wasn't even a place to buy aspirin. A few years earlier, one visitor to the community reported, “if a sick child doesn't get well because it is loved and prayed for, then that child doesn't get well.” It was this observation that motivated the leadership of the parish to build the clinic.

So, money was raised, parishioners volunteered their time and talent to make the trip, and the clinic was built. For the first time ever, this village had a basic resource for health care. Lives were saved and changed; and it was done in the name of Christ.

A family that lived in the village decided to thank the people who had come there to build the clinic. They decided to have a meal in their honor. This family was very poor. Their home consisted of three non-mortared walls of cinder blocks. The roof was corrugated metal, laying on poles, held down by rocks. The kitchen was outside and consisted of a hearth with a grate and a clay oven. There were no chairs, no table. The plates were metal.

In contrast, the food was glorious. There was chicken and rice, beans, well seasoned avocados, a fresh salsa, tropical fruits, and sugared pastries. There were fresh, hot, hand-made tortillas. And there was Coke and even a bottle of rum to celebrate.

During the meal this parishioner from the United States realized that the cost of the food was equal to more than six weeks of income for the people hosting the party. His first thought was to give the hosts the money as soon as the meal was finished; but as he thought about it, he realized that this would be very patronizing and would dishonor the hosts. The next thought was to give the money to the village priest so that later on he could slip the money to them. But again, upon reflection, he could only conclude that action would also be insulting. Finally, he decided to simply enjoy the meal with profound appreciation and gratitude.

Later, in reflecting on this experience, he said, “It was the greatest honor I have ever received. That family spent six weeks of income to thank and honor me. No one else has ever come close to that. I realized that these people were the richest family I had ever known. They are so rich that they could spend six weeks of income on a banquet to honor people that they would never see again in this world. I only spent about a month's worth of income to celebrate our daughter’s wedding— a marriage that has given me grandchildren who are the dearest things in my life. How poor and stingy I am. My hosts, on the other hand, are rich and generous.”

In Christ, God is like those poor people of that Latin American village. Jesus, Lord of all, makes himself poor, even to accepting the worst kind of death, in order to generously shower us with love and forgiveness. What do we make of this? How do we respond?

First, we must accept that God’s ways are not our ways. God’s wisdom seems foolish and contradictory to most of us. God freely and unconditionally gave us love and forgiveness in a lavish fashion— not because we did something for him. In fact God's giving of love and forgiveness coincides with a horrible offense against God, in Jesus’ death on the cross. How different from the way most of us are. We try to reward those who do us great service, often in the cheapest way possible. If we’re honest, we’ll admit that we tend to seek bargains in our expressions of gratitude.

Secondly, There is no way we can repay God for this gift of unconditional love. There is also no way that we can earn or deserve it. It defies logic. But, it seems to be God’s nature to love the worst, most notorious and evil sinner in history as much as the most sacrificial saint.

Finally, since we can't really understand it and really can't deserve God's love, we are called to sit quietly and enjoy it--- to accept it, humbly and graciously. It’s only as we accept that we are absolutely, unconditionally, loved by God and then live in that love, that we can begin to gain some understanding of Jesus’ teaching and then begin to live with some of the freedom of those rich, but poor people. Then, and only then, can the paradoxical, seemingly contradictory teachings of Jesus begin to make sense to us. Then and only then can we truly be blessed.

© James M. Jensen

Sermon - Proper 6A - June 12, 2005

Proper 6A — June 12, 2005
Grace Church, Utica

In a recent church publication one of our bishops was quoted as saying that the Church today is more divided than a cut-up birthday cake. He went on to say that the various groups of people represented by each slice are all convinced that they and their cause, whatever it is, speak for God. The result, of course, is a great deal of turmoil, with a host of opposing forces all claiming to represent the cause of righteousness. It’s the work of one of the demons that has always plagued people of faith, a demon that gives us the desire to change everybody else into our image of what being a real Christian is all about.

A few examples....

You have the so-called pro-life people, versus the pro-choice people. The “pro-lifers” carry on vehement demonstrations against those they consider to be murderers and God-less heathens. The pro-choice group opposes those they regard as religious bigots who want to make their anti-abortion stand the only choice available.

There are the advocates of gay rights, in favor of the ordination of gay and lesbian people, who also believe that the Church should bless marriages or commitments between people of the same-sex. They tend to look scornfully on those whom they would characterize as narrow-minded biblical literalists who are still stuck in their homophobia. Then you have the people who continue to embrace the traditional arguments against homosexual behavior, who look at gays and those who take up their cause as shameful and immoral people who could not possibly know anything of God or of God’s will.

There are the Charismatic folks who think that the best way to glorify God is to hold hands during the Lord’s Prayer and otherwise let them fly-around at will accompanied by spontaneous utterances of various kinds. They tend to get disgusted with the stiff and formal worship of traditionalists, particularly their stained-glass music, seeing them as people whose spiritual lives are stunted and whose minds and souls have been hopelessly warped by professional musicians. On the other side of the spectrum you have the people who are moved and inspired by classical music, who view all those “turned-on Christians” as folks who have more than a few loose screws and whose musical taste has been forever ruined by “renewal music junkies.” However, they remain confidant that when we all get to heaven there will be no more sounds of “Kumbaya,” but only the glorious strains of Bach and Buxtehude, and Solemn High Mass with plainsong that never ends. After all, if God had wanted Folk Masses or Jazz Masses or contemporary Christian music, Jesus would have had a guitar and an electronic keyboard at the Last Supper.

And then, of course, there are the feminists, who want to change all the words we’ve ever used to talk about God, and drive most of the men in the Church over a cliff— following the example of Jesus when he healed a man who was possessed and sent all the demons into a herd of pigs. The arch-nemesis of every feminist is the traditionalist who is convinced that God can only be imaged and represented in male terms, can only be worshiped with the proper Elizabethan “thees” and “thous,” and the misogynists among them who believe that Adam would have been just fine in the garden if God hadn’t blown it by creating Eve.

And so it goes. If you think I’ve exaggerated things to the point of being ridiculous then I’d have to say you’ve been insulated from a great deal that’s going on in the Church today— for which you should probably be very grateful. But there’s an underlying issue here, and it can surface almost anywhere— within a parish, a family, in the work-place, for that matter in any situation in which we must live and work with other people. I’ll put it to you in the form of a question: How do we develop our own sense of values, have a commitment to them, and yet remain open to other people who may not share them? Can we be comfortable with ourselves and our own perspective on things, without feeling compelled to declare everybody else “wrong?” And an even more basic issue, are we often so concerned about being “right” that we are forgetting how to respond to people with love and respect?

These are serious questions, and they are becoming very critical for the Church as it attempts to respond to issues in our common life. I suspect that many of them are issues that will never be resolved once and for all, because no matter what decisions are made somebody or a group of somebodies is going to be dissatisfied and convinced that there’s been a big mistake.

Given the fact that there may never be unanimous agreement on some things, how do we, with so many diverse points of view, have any real sense of community? How do we continue to believe and give witness to the fact that we are one in Christ? We might take a clue from today’s second lesson, in which St. Paul writes to the Romans:

While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person— though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

The point is this: the only way we’re going to have any peace with God is to recognize and accept our reliance upon God’s grace and to let go of any silly notions of becoming virtuous through our commitments to the right things or right causes. It is not correctness— not political correctness, not religious or liturgical or theological correctness— that will make us worthy to receive the blessings of life in Christ; they always come as God’s gift, given to us freely, even though we are not worthy or deserving of them.

Let’s be honest. By the standards of the Sermon on the Mount there isn’t a single saint who ever lived who was free from sin. One commentator has written that: our self-derived morality is like the silhouette of a giraffe— lofty in the front, but far lower in the rear. And it’s true for every one of us. There isn’t a single Christian, living or dead, who has any room to boast. We all have our flaws.

The Gospel truth is that at the foot of the cross we all stand on level ground, and God has acted on our behalf in spite of our ungodliness. That means we stand on the same ground as those we oppose on any issue. It’s a truth that ought to keep us humble— humble enough to accept ourselves and each other despite our deep-seated differences. It should remind us that no human virtue entitles us to Christ’s healing, sacrificial love; and no human flaw is great enough to put us beyond the Lord’s reach.

If we believe that Jesus lived and died “for us and for our salvation,” then we need to come to grips with the truth that he did it for the pro-choicer and the pro-lifer alike; he did it for those of us who are straight and those who are gay; he did it for the traditionalist and also for those who live on the edge. Jesus came to seek and save the lost. May he give us the grace to see that we are all lost, and that he is the only one who can show us the way.

© James M. Jensen

Sermon Advent I -— December 2, 2007

Advent I — December 2, 2007
Grace Church, Utica

Every so often, while looking through a magazine, you’ll run across one of those cartoons that shows a barefoot man with long hair— probably wearing a tattered robe of some kind— standing on a corner holding a sign that reads, “THE END IS NEAR.” We usually smile, and probably recall a previous experience with somebody we’ve always thought of as a religious nut.

Or you’ll be driving down the highway and see a sign along the way that reads: “JESUS IS COMING. PREPARE TO MEET YOUR GOD.” And we chuckle.

Most of us don’t think much about those things; we’re not particularly concerned about the end of the world, and we’re not very worried about Judgement Day. Events like the attacks of 9-11 shock and frighten us— but only for a brief time. For the most part, we’re just too busy, too wrapped up in our own agendas. We take solace in our belief that life, like “Ol’ Man River”, will just keep rollin’ along.

But every year, just like clockwork, Advent rolls around; and we hear these Gospel lessons that speak of the Lord’s second coming. So what are we to make of it? Is it something we should dismiss as the misguided idea of times past? Remnants of another culture and another world view? Well, it’s not quite that simple. Every week in the Nicene Creed we affirm and give assent to the Church’s Faith that Jesus “...will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” So regardless of what our feelings and opinions might be, and regardless of whether or not we’re comfortable with it, one of the central beliefs of the Christian Church down through the ages has been that the Lord will return, and there will be an end to human history as we have known it.

This morning I’d like to say not only that I believe it’s true, but that it has some important implications for how we live. In fact, you might compare it to the secret ingredient in a recipe— the one that in the final analysis makes all the difference.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says:

“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.”

Now what’s wrong with eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage? Well, nothing’s wrong with it. The problem says Jesus, is that “...they knew nothing....” They knew nothing until the flood came. They knew nothing about what was going on around them, or why. In other words, they knew nothing about what God was up to; they had no awareness of God’s presence, and they took no account of God as they ate and drank and got married, and did whatever else they did. They were secular-minded people. They lived life as though it had no vertical dimension. They lived their lives cut-off from God and they pretended that there was no accountability.
Jesus goes on to say:

Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal togther; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

And here’s the secret ingredient. To all appearances the two men in the field will be alike. No difference will be apparent from the outside. The same with the two women at the mill— the way they work and the results they get will be the same. But here’s the difference: One goes about life with a knowledge of and love for God, and the other doesn’t. One eats and drinks and marries, and does it all with an awareness of the presence of God in his or her life; the other just eats and drinks and marries, and there’s nothing more to it. And while it may all look the same on the outside, it makes all the difference in the world in a person’s outlook and sense of purpose in life.

Just like food without salt or bread without yeast, you know there’s something missing when it’s not there. This secret ingredient, which of course is nothing secret at all, gives us a view of eternity. It makes us aware that all of life, everything that happens in it, has a particular end in view. That end is our salvation— living eternally in God’s presence. It also opens our eyes to the truth that God’s eternity doesn’t begin sometime later down the road. We’re already in it. And the choices we make each and every day determine whether or not our lives give witness to that truth, and whether or not we experience that reality..

Christians are called to live with that eternal viewpoint. It’s a spiritual reality. It’s not something your can weigh on the scales. You can’t dissect it with a scalpel. You can’t photograph it with x-ray equipment. One man, chopping weeds with his hoe, will have it; the other man, working just as hard and maybe doing just as good a job, may not have it. You can’t always tell. But it makes all the difference in the world in helping us to keep things in perspective, in giving us a sense of direction and motivation when things around us seem to be falling apart.

One theologian has said that preparing for the Lord’s second coming is a little like preparing for death. Well suppose one morning you feel a lump on your body. You go to the doctor and you find out it’s malignant. You’re told that at the most you have six months to live. Won’t that affect how you look at the farmland as you drive down the road? The way you savor your food? The way you talk to and with other people?

Well, six months, six years, six decades... not one of us knows how long we’re going to have on this earth. The truth is that this is the only day we know for sure that we’re going to have. So how small of me— on what could be my last day— to spend my time raking other people over the coals. What a waste, on what could be my last day, to spend it in anger and bitterness. How sad, on what could be my last day, to miss opportunities to do loving and thoughtful things.

On the other hand, what a privilege, on what could be my last day, to be living with a conscious awareness of God’s presence, both in my life and in the lives of those around me. What a breath of fresh air to be honest and open with people, loving and being loved, forgiving and being forgiven. What a pleasure, on what could be my last day, to respect the dignity of everyone I meet, no matter who they are or where they’ve come from.

This is the only day we have, for sure. What a privilege and what a pleasure to live it with a view of eternity— knowing that we are loved and valued by God for who and what we are, that God has a purpose for us, and always looks at our weaknesses with the compassionate eyes of His Son. And it’s that view of eternity and our place in it that can save us from merely existing, with no sense of purpose or direction.

Pray that the Lord will keep us alert and watchful, so that we’ll always be ready for Him— both today, when He comes in the common things of life, and tomorrow, when He comes in glory.

© James M. Jensen