In the minds of many, we in America are living in an era of increased hopelessness. Many of us are experiencing a level of despair beyond anything we have ever felt before. The reasons for this sense of despair are many:
The gap between the wealthy and powerful and the needy and poor seems to widen year by year, in our country and in the world at large. Many of our citizens lack job security, health care, and a live-able wage. They face an uncertain future, while others have the power to indulge themselves in luxury and waste.
Racial, cultural and gender inequality still plague our society, despite long and hard-fought battles for civil rights, equality and justice.
Climate change threatens the earth and puts countless people at risk, and yet ours is the only country in the world to exempt itself from the planet-preserving recommendations of the Paris Climate Agreement.
Our political system seems to be dominated more and more by people of extraordinary wealth and privilege. Our leaders are hampered by rigid partisanship and cannot seem to agree on the common good. Those in power seem consumed with maintaining their power at all costs. As columnist Jeff Kirkpatrick notes, “Power supersedes morality, ethics, national security, logic, reason and sanity” in America right now.[i]
We remember today Margaret, Queen of Scotland. This brief description of her is drawn from For All the Saints, a resource of the Anglican Church of Canada:
Margaret was an Anglo-Saxon princess who became the [wife] of King Malcolm III of Scotland in 1069. She bore eight children and through her husband initiated civilizing reforms in the Scottish royal court, the Scottish Church, and the Scottish nation. But Margaret is chiefly remembered for her efforts on behalf of Scotland’s poor. She not only gave out large sums of money but also ensured that institutions already in place did indeed provide relief for the homeless, the hungry, and the orphaned. In addition, Margaret supplied the funds which purchased freedom for those Anglo-Saxons who had been sold into slavery by their Norman conquerors. Hence, to her title of Queen is added the still greater title for a Christian – “Helper of the Poor.”[i] [italics mine]
“Helper of the Poor.” Would to God that every Christian on the planet could be known by that title. To be a “helper of the poor” is to be one with the mission of Jesus who, according to his own testimony, was anointed by God “to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, [and] to let the oppressed go free…” (Lk 4:18). It is to be one with the mission of God in the world, whose deep concern and compassion for the helpless is so much in evidence throughout our sacred scriptures.
At first glance, these words of Jesus seem contradictory. ‘Do not fear human beings who can only kill the body,’ he says, ‘but fear God whose power extends through and beyond death.’ But having warned us to fear God, Jesus then reassures us of God’s lovingkindness towards us. “Do not be afraid,” he says, “you are of more value (to God) than many sparrows.” So which is it? Are we to fear God, or not?
The Greek word that is translated “fear” in this passage is phobeó (fob-éh-o), which can mean “to fear” or “to dread,” but can also mean “to reverence” or “to hold in awe.” It is this latter sense of reverencing or holding in awe that is the psalmist’s meaning when he says “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). It a state of being in which dread, veneration and wonder are mingled. To “fear God” is to have a profound and humble reverence for God, who is sacred and mysterious, and who is far beyond our human understanding.
Feast of St Philip, Evangelist
I’m intrigued by the question the Ethiopian eunuch puts to Philip in today’s lesson from the Book of Acts. Philip has joined this powerful man in his chariot and beginning with the words of the prophet Isaiah, has interpreted the scriptures and “proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). “As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’” (v.38).
The answer is ‘nothing,’ it seems. And so they stop the chariot, go down into the water, and Philip baptizes him. I suppose Philip might have objected to the fact that this man was a foreigner or suggested that he needed further instruction and formation, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t hesitate at all.
Except that some ancient authorities add another verse following the eunuch’s question in which Philip does add a qualifier. In response to the eunuch’s question, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip says, “If you believe with all your heart, you may” and the eunuch responds, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” (v.37) It’s likely that someone added that verse just to make sure that there was some agreed-upon criteria by which candidates would be admitted to the fellowship of the Church.
St Francis of Assisi
I have twice visited the town of Assisi, which rests on a hilltop in the breathtakingly-beautiful central region of Italy called Umbria. Assisi is, of course, the birthplace of the little poor man, St Francis, who has long been recognized as one of the most beloved saints of all time. I love to sit in the small chapel in the undercroft of the great Franciscan basilica, where the body of St Francis and four of his early companions are buried, and witness the silent, steady stream of admirers and devotees from all over the world, as they approach the tomb to offer their prayers and to pay their respects. I wonder, as I look on, how one man, one life, could have had such an enormous impact on the world and could have influenced for good millions upon millions of lives.
Francis was a man whose life was completely transformed by his encounter, and subsequent relationship of love, with God. He seems to me to have been a man who awakened to new life in God, and who, as a result, saw the world and other people and himself in a completely new light. It was as if he had been born again, infused with a divine light and presence, so that he saw what others could not see and perceived what others could not recognize or comprehend.
A sermon on the Feast of St Jerome
II Timothy 3:14-17 and Luke 24:44-48
There’s a wonderful exchange between two young boys at the beginning of Walk the Line, a 2005 movie about the life of Johnny Cash. Johnny (nicknamed “J.R.”) and his older brother Jack have just crawled into bed. Jack is reading his Bible and J.R. turns to him and asks, “How come you’re so good? …. You know every story in scripture.” “Look, J.R.,” Jack replies, “If I’m going to be a preacher one day I got to know the Bible front to back. I mean, you can’t help nobody if you can’t tell them the right story.”[i]
“You can’t help nobody if you can’t tell them the right story.”
Jack is already wise enough to know that reading and hearing the Word is essential to Christian faith and worship. The stories contained in Scripture form the foundation of our faith and steady us amidst all the “changes and chances of this life.” They shape and transform us, and equip us to live for God.
based on Exodus 3:1-15
We have come here today to celebrate the Eucharist, a service in which we offer God our thanks and praise. Perhaps you have come to church this morning full of gratitude. You may have good reason to celebrate and to give thanks. Life has been good to you and to your family. You have been blessed with more-than-adequate food and shelter, with access to good health care, with financial stability. You enjoy meaningful work and excellent health. There are many things for which you can give God thanks and praise.
But perhaps the opposite is true. Perhaps you find yourself today in a place of real suffering. It may be that someone close to you has died or is seriously ill. Or perhaps you yourself have fallen on hard times – having lost a job, or suffered a divorce, or been diagnosed with a fatal illness. Some of you may be wondering how you can pay the rent or how you will ever get out from under a crushing burden of debt. You may be asking yourself when (if ever) you’ll find meaningful and satisfying work, or whether your family will survive the crisis it is currently facing. Suffering is woven into the fabric of human existence. No one escapes it. Today you may be suffering.
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!
For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon,
they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”
I doubt there are many preachers who would clamor to preach on the gospel text we have just heard. We preachers tend to avoid the difficult sayings of Jesus and look for more comfortable and pleasing words. This straight-talking, hard-hitting, no-holds-barred Jesus disturbs us. And yet this may be one of the blessings of having texts chosen for us by a daily lectionary, which compels us forego, at least occasionally, the more agreeable stories and sayings of Jesus. In texts like these, we are forced to confront the message of Jesus in all its forms.
The gospel tells us that two followers of Jesus were walking and talking as they made their way to the village of Emmaus, a distance of about seven miles from Jerusalem. Just a couple of days had passed since the tragic death of Jesus, and the confusion, fear, disappointment, and grief of that event weighed heavily upon them. Some of those closest to Jesus had contributed to the tragedy: he had been betrayed by one of his own disciples, denied by another, and abandoned by his followers and friends, who had fled for their lives. Furthermore, the body had apparently gone missing! Some women who had visited the tomb earlier this same day had reported a strange encounter with“two men in dazzling clothes,” who had greeted them with the amazing news that Jesus was not there, but risen! They had reported this curious and inexplicable experience to the disciples, but the disciples took it to be “an idle tale” and sent them away.[i] And now, as these two were walking along, they were trying to make sense of all of this, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible, trying to work through their grief and confusion, trying to find some point of light to illumine the darkness and despair that had overshadowed their hearts.
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Some years ago I had the privilege of taking a course with Dr. Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian who was then on the faculty of the Divinity School at Duke University. Dr. Hauerwas, the son of a bricklayer, was a straight-shooting, no-nonsense kind of guy who believed that living as true disciples of Jesus in the world would necessarily put us in conflict with the culture in which we live. I remember being surprised to hear him say that participating in the Eucharist was one of the most radical actions any Christian could undertake. Tonight we will understand why this is true.
Tonight we watch in wonder as the only-begotten Son of God, the Eternal Word who was “in the beginning with God” and through whom “all things came into being” (Jn 1:1-3), stoops to wash the dirty feet of his disciples. Tonight we behold the Incarnate Son of God, the “King of kings” and the “Lord of lords,” tying a towel around himself, pouring water into a basin, and assuming the role of a servant. The King kneels before his subjects; the Master washes the feet of his disciples.