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"OH WOW" – Br. Mark Brown

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Rev. 7:9-17; Ps. 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3; Mat. 5:1-12

There are two things a little out of the ordinary this evening. On this “First Tuesday”, which happens to be All Saints Day, we invite you to come downstairs after the service for a soup supper.  And this feast of All Saints is one of the occasions when we renew our Baptismal vows. Following these reflections, we’ll stand together, renew our promises and be sprinkled with water as a reminder of our baptism into Christ, into his death and resurrection, baptized into his likeness.

We stand together in this life on a kind of threshold, a threshold between two rooms.  The room before us and the room behind us are both infinities, infinities that we only vaguely comprehend. The room behind us is an infinity of nothingness, of un-being, of non-existence.  We have come out of that “un-beingness” and now actually do exist. The other room, the room before us, is an infinity of being, of what we call “eternal life”. The threshold upon which we stand partakes of both rooms. Like in the narthex of this chapel, we can hear the sound of traffic from one direction and we can smell the incense from the other, and yet not be in one place or the other.

Something of the room behind us and something of the room before us make their way into this threshold life. Un-being, non-existence is with us in the decay and demise of all things, even our own death.  The life of eternity before us filters into this threshold place in the guise of grace, beauty and love, love in its many manifestations. Living as we do in this threshold can be difficult and disorienting, with both life and death making claims upon us. When our suffering threatens to overwhelm us, we can fail to notice the light that filters through even now into this threshold life, this liminal place.

A church can be a liminal place.  A church can be a numinous place where our vision of that infinity of life is renewed.  It’s one reason we renew our baptismal promises. A church can be a place where we come to know that this new infinity is our birthright.  That having called us up and out of non-existence, the creator invites us to be with him in the place of infinite life.  The place where the Saints have gone before us.

The visions of the Book of Revelation take us to the very throne of God.  The One who is and was and is to come.  The One who is himself the Lamb.  The Lamb of God.  Who has taken away the sins of the world.  Guaranteeing access to the throne room for all—a free pass for all, all who wish, that is. All who wish may join the heavenly choir, dine at the heavenly banquet. We’re all “unworthy” of such a thing, but the Lamb is worthy.  His blood assures us that, regardless of our sense of unworthiness (be it from sin or any human frailty), we are still invited.

Ancient Israelite religion held two contradictory intuitions in a kind of dynamic tension. On the one hand, our sense of being drawn into relationship with God, our desire to be close to the One who created us.  And on the other hand, a sense of our unworthiness to be in the presence of One so holy. The gap between these two, between the desire to be close to God and our sense of unworthiness to be in God’s presence, was bridged by a system of sacrifices, animal and otherwise. The purpose of the sacrifices was to make us acceptable in the eyes of God, to restore the relationship. Even in the Hebrew Scriptures, however, we see some skepticism about whether this works.

Christians believe that God has himself bridged the gap—a gap that no merely human efforts could fill.  Permanently, once for all, by the death on the cross of Jesus. He is the perfect sacrificial Lamb whose worthiness is bestowed upon us as a free gift. We may now not only enjoy being drawn into relationship with God, but know that through the worthiness of Christ, we too have been made worthy, worthy to enjoy his nearer presence, and, ultimately, worthy to cross over from this threshold into the fullness of eternal life.

Standing on this threshold as we do, we don’t see either the room behind us or the room before us very clearly. We have only a vague sense of the infinity of non-being, and only a vague sense of the infinity of eternal life. Partly because “What we will be has not yet been revealed.” [1 John 3:2]  And partly because this threshold life is itself magnificent beyond description, vast beyond comprehension, and—as you have probably discovered by now—sometimes deeply compelling in its joys and sorrows, and sometimes unbearable.

There’s a paradoxical quality to living this threshold existence as Christians. We are called to live in this world for a time, fully engaging its joys and sorrows, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, striving for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being–as if this is the only world that really matters.  And we are called to live in anticipation of the life to come, as if it, too, is the only world that really matters.

We do well to engage this present life fully—we’ll find ourselves in the next room soon enough.  Maybe today, maybe tomorrow.  Maybe later—but not much later.  I keep forgetting that my soul may be required of me this very night.  I wonder if you might have forgotten.

As we make our way through this life some of us behave well.  Some of us behave badly. Most of us behave well and badly. But the Lamb says, “Come”.  Come anyway, come as you are.  The Lamb says, Come—I’ve paid your admission.

“The Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come’.  And let everyone who hears say ‘ Come’. And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” [Rev. 22: 17] A gift!

Many, of course, have come.  “A great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” [Rev. 7: 9] Many have come through this great ordeal, having “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” [Rev. 7: 14]

All the Saints who have come came not because they were worthy, but because the Lamb is worthy. They came not because they were good or beautiful or intelligent or successful or strong or fast or rich—or even all the above. They came because the Lamb is worthy. “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.” [Rev. 5: 12]

A church ought to be a place where the Lamb is lifted up, lifted up for all to see, for all to be drawn, for all to know that all are welcome to come. Pre-paid admission for all, all who wish.

We know not the day or the hour, but the day will come, the hour, the very moment will come and we shall stand no longer in this threshold life, this threshold life magnificent beyond description, vast beyond comprehension, overwhelming in its joys and sorrows.  But the moment will come. “OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW.” The last words of Steve Jobs, quoted by his sister in her eulogy*.  Steve Jobs (?!)  Apple computers… “OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW,” he said, looking past his family gathered bedside.

But we are here, so we strive.  We strive to be “worthy of the promises of Christ”, as one of our prayers puts it. That all we are, all we say and do might partake of the grace and beauty and love of what lies ahead. We turn our backs on death and its legions. We turn our gaze instead toward resurrection and its infinite epiphanies. Death has been defeated, “swallowed up”! The Saints stand ready to greet us.  They join the Lamb, the Spirit and the Bride saying, “Come”.

“To God and to the Lamb, I will sing, I will sing, to God and to the Lamb, I will sing.  To God and to the Lamb, who is the great I AM, while millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing, while millions join the theme I will sing.” [Hymnal 1972 #439]

*Op-ed piece in New York Times, Oct. 30, 2011, by Mona Simpson, Jobs’ sister

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21 Comments

  1. Jim Doran on September 7, 2017 at 08:41

    “C’mon! I’ve paid your admission….”. I treasure this image; what a relief to be unburdened of our inadequacy, our sinfulness, and be invited inside by one who loves us enough to have bought a ticket for us, too.

  2. Marshall Keys on September 7, 2017 at 07:55

    Thy will be done.
    Thy Kingdom come.

    The one begets the other.

  3. SusanMarie on September 7, 2017 at 07:04

    Again I find myself feeling so very sad that the misguided message of atonement and Jesus as sacrifice to make us worthy before God is being promoted. This makes Christianity the religion of shame and guilt. The “Oh Wow” for me is that anyone still teaches this and that anyone still believes in it! GOD IS LOVE AND NEVER NEEDED TO HAVE ANYONE KILLED TO BE THAT AMAZING GOD OF LOVE! And we wonder why we’re still killing others and thinking we’re right and good to do so and that some deserve to be killed. And we wonder why people are turning away in droves from Christianity and this way of “believing”. As long as we continue to believe that God needed atonement in order to love us, we will continue to hate and kill in the name of worthiness. Who can be worthy before that kind of God? Why would anyone love that kind of God? God help us!

    • Ruth West on September 8, 2017 at 04:22

      Oh, SusanMarie, Your post tells me you are not familiar with the scriptures. However, I am encouraged for you that you would come to this site and read this wonderful sermon. You have not totally rejected God. The scripture tells us, “Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission for sin.” In the Old Testament, the Old Covenant was followed by the people of God obeying the requirement by the sacrifice of animals on their altars. But in the New Testament, the New Covenant was totally realized in the sacrifice of Jesus on the altar, the cross, where he gave himself as “the lamb of God” once and for all. By his blood, we are saved from our sins. He died for you, as well as for me and all mankind.
      This great sacrifice was not the bottom line, however. The fact which separates Christianity from all other religions is the Resurrection. He died. He arose. He is coming again. I beg of you, dear one, to read and inwardly digest the scriptures. You will have a whole new attitude. The Book of Hebrews will explain this so much better than I can. Blessings on you.

      Ruth West

      • SusanMarie on September 8, 2017 at 09:01

        Dear Ruth,

        I very much appreciate what I believe is sincere concern on your part for my relationship with God and Scripture. I have read scores of your posts on the SSJE site over the years and you are clearly a faith-filled woman with an extraordinary love for Jesus. However, none of what you assumed about me is true.

        When it comes to Scripture, I am not a literalist, nor a fundamentalist, nor a proof-texter. Along with many other followers of Jesus — including many theologians past and present — I do not believe that Jesus sacrificed Himself on the cross for our sins. This understanding comes from the realization that there are/were translation errors, misunderstandings of Scripture, and long-held beliefs through misguided teaching. These beliefs are very hard for some to let go of. Usually this occurs in people who are unwilling to grow and let go of things long held true in their tight-fisted hearts and minds (I was there once myself). This is why it took so long for women to be ordained or even to become lectors or Eucharistic ministers, why it took so long to allow priests to be married, to accept that divorce happens and it’s not a sin, etc., etc. Sometimes we just get stuck and are unwilling to move out of our comfort zone.

        I encourage you to open your heart to another understanding of Jesus’ death on the cross. While there are many theologians and wisdom teachers who write and speak on this issue of atonement, I have provided three links from Richard Rohr, a priest of the Franciscan Order. He is by far not alone in this teaching. I’ll let you find others if you so choose.

        With love for you and confidence that God will continue to bless us both,
        SusanMarie ~

        https://cac.org/substitutionary-atonement-2017-07-23/

        https://cac.org/jesus-reveals-lie-scapegoating-2016-10-13/

        https://cac.org/love-not-atonement-2017-05-04/

  4. William King on September 7, 2017 at 06:20

    I read the short meditation just about every morning. What a gif you share. The
    Meditation on Paradox this morning was right on
    Point, given that my wife and I are on vacation in Canada for two weeks spending money on ourselves.

  5. Elizabeth Hardy on April 19, 2017 at 08:37

    Thank you Br. Mark. This homily has given me some comfort in the confusion and fear I feel when I contemplate what happens “after”. The threshold metaphor is extremely helpful. It allows me to redirect my thinking to a completely new perspective, by virtue of thinking of the beginning of earthly life as well as the end. I have been struggling with this for awhile.

  6. James on April 19, 2017 at 01:18

    Thank you for sharing – I find the commentaries from yourself and your brothers to be true soul food. I may not eat everyday, but when I do the spirit fills me up.

    Many thanks,
    James
    Southend-on-Sea, Essex

  7. Church | The Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana on September 1, 2016 at 00:07

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  8. Chris Rhoads on April 22, 2016 at 10:21

    Your words, your thoughts gathered in this sermon really blessed me. They confirmed some things for me and brought me peace and joy, as well as the courage to continue to reach out to God. I had somehow managed to forget (woe was me!) how very worthy is the Lamb, who loves us all so very much. You well explained why I had recently, rather than run to The Lamb of God, I was .,.pardon the idiom: chickening out! God bless you as you continue in this luminal space and share your thoughts!

  9. Rhode on April 22, 2016 at 08:53

    Thank you for this. In readings of the OT the sacrifice was a perfect unblemished cow, lamb or dove. Forgiveness cost. I am thinking they were mostly not wealthy people. This sacrifice must have involved a continuous life of choice, cost, time, humility, repentance. Then going home to live the 10 commandments plus the more than 600 other smaller aspects of the law (not wearing blended materials as symbol of purity and apartness) to live a more righteous life if one wanted to be justified before God. But, have we, as a people improved in worthiness for all this religiosity? Too few, so it seems.
    How amazing, then, to be offered the gift of Messiah. Jesus went as our lamb to slaughter. This blows my mind all the time. The Son of God, creator of everything, humbles Himself to live 33 years, offering to die one of the most horrible deaths man has forced on other men. Then gives us, and the whole unbelieving world, His resurrection as proof we can also trust his promise to be resurrected with Him after death. OH WOW, indeed!

  10. Ruth West on August 31, 2015 at 16:43

    Br. Mark, this is a highly significant sermon, summing up the gospel message, I feel. “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain…” He calls to us day and night, “Come.” We truly are not worthy, but He says, “Come” anyway. I am so blessed in that I heard His voice inviting me to come; I came; I am coming; I will come. His presence is so precious. Thank you, dear brother.

  11. Susan Gorman on August 31, 2015 at 13:37

    An interesting discussion about important Christian words: worthiness, unworthiness, acceptance, value. To define them might be helpful as they can have different meanings for different people. I like to remind myself often that that God’s grace of forgiveness in the cross of Christ is over us all which makes us all worthy in spite of our unworthiness, our sinfulness. The cross of Christ demonstrates the value and worth of each soul before God which is ‘good news’.

  12. Christopher Engle Barnhart on August 31, 2015 at 09:35

    Change is the only thing we can count on in this life.

  13. Susan McLeod on August 31, 2015 at 06:49

    Just listened at least for the third or fourth time to this sermon. Heard it as if for the first time. Thank you, Br. Mark for the image of earthly life as a threshold between nothingness and eternal life. A simple idea and yet also a marvelous and wonderful reality to this seventy-year-old believer. Thank you.

  14. Jennifer on December 31, 2014 at 22:57

    What a perfect meditation for New Year’s Eve, which is also about being on a threshold, looking back and looking ahead. I am so thankful for so many things in the past year. I also feel so imperfect and know that I have fallen short of many resolutions from the last new year, now the year past. And yet, God welcomes me into a New Year again. He runs to meet me.

  15. Douglas Rose on May 21, 2014 at 14:42

    Thank you Brother Mark. This reminds me of something Brother Curtis shared during a sermon within the last year: We don’t have to change for Jesus to love us, but because Jesus loves us we will change. Thank you for your words of reminder.

  16. Michele on May 21, 2014 at 09:16

    Brother Mark, I have and still do feel “unworthy” at times. I often wonder if it is part of my traditional Catholic “guilt” that was instilled within me along time ago 🙂 Your sermon has touched me deeply, and as the previous responder indicated, I too appreciate the metaphor of the threshold. Thank you.

  17. Selina from Maine on May 21, 2014 at 09:00

    oh, Wow ! sums it all up , for me at least, All gift :eternity , the here and now, grace and works , the atonement , love .And so hard to accept that it is not we ourselves who need to make it happen. And to just say : Thank You Thank You , Thank You !

  18. Leslie on May 21, 2014 at 08:14

    Thank you, Brother Mark, for putting the indescribable into a metaphor I can hold. Yes, that is what it feels like on the threshold.

  19. Karla Schmidt on May 21, 2014 at 07:44

    Dear Br. Mark,

    You write. “And on the other hand, a sense of our unworthiness to be in the presence of One so holy. The gap between these two…”

    Does this sound as hermetic to your ears as it does to mine? Probably not, or you would hardly write it that way. If I said something like this to one of my students, he would look at me in a very puzzled manner, because he would find the logic totally closed and inaccessible to him.

    My student does not feel “unworthy”. He may feel imperfect, but he does not see his basic lack of perfection as a lack of personal value, and even if it were an indication for lack of value, he does not see himself as responsible for the condition! Were he to enter your logical realm, he would question the sense of a devaluation of the creature in the eyes of the Creator, especially if that devaluation were to be attributed to the lack of worth of the creature! Who is the Creator here, anyway?

    Of course, nearly nobody feels “adequate” in this life, and most of us will not bother to blame God for this condition (aside from my student, but only if he reasons in my context, as he himself is an atheist). My imperfection and lack of “worthiness” does not, to my mind, devalue me in God’s eyes.

    I refer to Galatians 3 – 5. We are invited to “put on the righteousness of Christ”, that is, not assume our unworthiness, but rather act as free people: “For you were called to freedom, brothers…through love serve one another.
    For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” !

    If the “gap is bridged”, as you state and we are freed, as St. Paul states, then our emphasis should be on our acting as those freed from our imperfection and not on questions of “worthiness”.

    This occurred to me upon reading the daily quotation in “Brother, give us a word” today, and I thought I would share it with you – for whatever it may be “worth”.

    Karla Schmidt
    Hannover, Germany

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