When I’m working on a sermon, I usually keep a couple of questions in my mind. One is, where’s the good news? If I can’t answer that, then none of my listeners will be able to either. The other is, can I sum this whole sermon up in one sentence? If it takes me a whole paragraph to explain my sermon, then it’s not focused, it’s too complicated, or too long.
Using that same principle, I’m wondering this morning how I would sum up the entire Acts of the Apostles into one sentence. How would I do that? There is a lot going on in Acts, but in a sense there is only one thing going on. Luke tells us at the end of his gospel, and he repeats it at the beginning of Acts. You are my witnesses Jesus says to the assembled disciples in the Upper Room on that first Easter, and again just before his Ascension. You will be my witnesses.[2
If that is Acts in one sentence, what about my other question? Where is the good news? We hear it repeatedly throughout Acts, and we hear it again today. The good news of Acts is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike. That is the whole point of Acts, and it is certainly the whole point of the Council of Jerusalem which determined that it was good to the Holy Spirit and to [the Apostles and elders] to impose on [the Gentiles] no further burden than [certain] essentials. Had the decision been otherwise, in those days shortly after Pentecost, the tiny Christian community would have remained a small Jewish sect, probably being absorbed and finally disappearing into the dominant Jewish mainstream within a generation, and we would not be here. But this decision to impose no further burden than [certain] essentials breathed life into the Jesus movement in its earliest days.
As followers of Jesus, that remains our purpose, indeed it is the purpose of the Church, and the vocation of all the baptized: to be Christ’s witnesses. Part of our job as witnesses, is simply to state what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life, and what we know to be true. After that, we need to back off, get out of the way, and impose no further burden than [these certain] essentials. In that way we allow the Spirit to do its work in bringing people into an encounter with the living Lord, rather than our personal and singular concept of God.
That, it seems to me, is the good news of Acts, and while we have been invited to join in the work of introducing people to an encounter with the living God, it is our real privilege and great joy to step back and watch God at work, in the lives of those whom we serve.
Lectionary Year and Proper: Friday in the Fifth Week of Easter, Year 1
 Luke 24: 48
 Acts 1: 8
 Acts 15: 28
 1 John 1: 1
Note: This is the third and final part of a sermon preached by three Brothers: Jack Crowley, n/SSJE; Sean Glenn, SSJE; and Keith Nelson, SSJE.
I want to circle back to that obscure but evocative passage in John’s first Epistle:
The Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth. There are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree.
The testimony is one, as the Spirit is one, but it seems the encountering of it is (at least) three-fold: in the baptism we share; in the costly self-offering we must each make; and in the speaking of the Spirit of Truth on the tongue of each believer in living witness.
Three preachers do not regularly step up to this ambo on a single occasion, but the fact that today we are three merely underscores something essential about this life: the mutuality of our common witness and the complementarity of our testimony to the Truth. We are a community of preachers because we need each other’s help to lay hold of and live in the Truth. As the nucleus of a wider fellowship we are “sustained by many energies of mutual service”: the Truth proclaimed from many mouths, moving in many hearts, and lived in many lives.
Self-denial or dying to self are common themes among martyrs honored by the Church. In fact, our Gospel reading today has been used for The Martyrs of Japan, Blandina and Her Companions, John Coleridge Patteson and his Companions, and, Saint George, dragon slayer. In what way could these examples of suffering and pain, stories of self-denial, cross bearing, and loss of worldly life teach us more about the way of Jesus? Well, I’m inspired, especially, by the stories of Saint George and Blandina, because they show us two helpful ways of understanding Jesus’ words, and two ways of dealing with the fear we might feel in response to Jesus’ call. First, we’ll look at Saint George.
Saint George was a compassionate and loving Christian, known especially for being a warrior of unmatched courage who gave his life for his faith. He’s typically portrayed as the patron saint of soldiers, and although many Christians today might not be soldiers, we still have a spiritual battle to fight. We can remember the words of Saint Paul when he writes that “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
From a contemplative point of view these rulers or cosmic powers of darkness are the demons lurking within us, hard at work convincing us that we’re separate from God, from others, and our own True Selves. This spiritual battle is deceptively simple, because although it comes down to making a single choice, making the right choice can seem very difficult.
Commemoration of George Herbert
Our God and King, you called your servant George Herbert from the pursuit of worldly honors to be a pastor of souls, a poet, and a priest in your temple: Give us grace, we pray, joyfully to perform the tasks you give us to do, knowing that nothing is menial or common that is done for your sake; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In the calendar of the church, we commemorate today a 17th-century Church of England country parson named George Herbert.[i] Down through the centuries, he is most remembered for his arresting, revealing, passionate poetry.
How Herbert’s life ended is not how it began. The combination of his family’s tremendous wealth and privilege, his keen mind, his excellent education, his charismatic oratorical skills, his internal drive to be fabulous, and who knows what else, had brought him to the top of the heap. By age 30, he was counselor to two kings and a member of Parliament. He had gained the whole world but never found his soul.[ii] Two things happened, two breakdowns.
Judith 9:1-4, 10-14
2 Corinthians 5:14-18
While darkness still covers the world, the woman comes to the garden adjacent to the place of death. Finding the great stone moved away from the tomb of the Man, she runs to search for two of his disciples. ‘They have taken my Lord out of the tomb and I do not know where they have laid him.’ The two run with the woman to the tomb. Though the much-loved younger one arrives first, he does not enter; but from outside he observes the grave wrappings neatly folded and set aside. Upon arriving the older impetuous one goes in immediately; he sees the wrappings but finds no body on the blood-stained slab. It is only then that the first one enters; he ‘sees’ and believes. Both then leave the grieving woman at the tomb.
Though racked by tears, the woman continues her search for the missing Man, the Beloved One. Bending to look into the tomb, the woman sees what the other two did not. Angels in dazzling white frame and shelter the empty burial slab. Though not yet fully aware of it, the woman is granted entrance to the Holy of Holies, the throne room of the God from whom the Man has come and to whom he is returning. The burial stone has become the heavenly mercy-seat; it is now the blood-sprinkled altar of the self-offering and re-creating God who took on human flesh to redeem us all.
The Martyrs of Uganda, 1886
‘in a very little while,
the one who is coming will come and will not delay;
but my righteous one will live by faith.
My soul takes no pleasure in anyone who shrinks back.’”
[Hebrews 10:37-38 (cf. Habakkuk 2:3-4)]
In the community’s ‘Renewal of Our Foundations’ work this year, the most revealing discovery for me, was to learn of our founder’s deep conviction that the Society’s witness and mission was taking place in the ‘end times’. I do not think that Fr. Benson believed this in the fanatical manner of millenarian, end of the world predicters. Rather I would say that Fr. Benson’s end times theology arose from his unwavering faith in the victory over sin and death accomplished in Christ Jesus. For Richard Meux Benson, I believe, the abiding presence of the incarnate, crucified and risen Jesus in the outpoured Holy Spirit of God was ‘the’ reality, continually active in every age of history. He saw each historic era as an end time, a humanly constructed ‘world’ which would abruptly change as it was confronted by the kingdom of God in the followers of Jesus’s self-offering way of love. For Benson the urgency of the Society’s witness to a ‘world which is passing away’ was paramount.
On this day in 1886, thirty-two young Anglican and Roman Catholic men were burned to death for their refusal to renounce their Christian faith at the order of the king of Buganda. Their deaths signaled the beginnings of the end for the world as it was then perceived.
If some of you are scratching your head, feeling a little deja vu all over again, as some comic put it, there’s little wonder. We have been hit this past week with a double dose of Maccabees, and today that double dose is doubled, by the fact that we read, more or less, the same lesson at Morning Prayer, as we have just heard here in the Eucharist. So no, you’re not dreaming, and no the reader did not make a mistake. We actually did read portions of 1 Maccabees for the second time today.
So what is it with all this Maccabees stuff?
In a nutshell Israel and Judea have been occupied once again by Gentile forces. Observance of the Law has been banned. Circumcision has been outlawed. Jews are forced to eat pork. The Temple, as we heard at Morning Prayer, has been desecrated. But a small band of faithful Jews, led by Judas Maccabeus, rise up in revolt, push back the Gentile forces, rededicate the temple, as we have just read, and re-establish Jewish worship and customs. It is out of this story that comes the Feast of Hanukah, which Jews keep to this day.
The question for us is, why should we care? And I assure you, Christians have cared passionately about this story for centuries. Indeed in some places a feast of the Maccabean Martyrs is kept on 1 August. Curiously this feast of the Maccabean Martyrs was one of the few pre-Reformation feasts that was kept in the early Books of Common Prayer. So the story of the Maccabeans, is part of our DNA not only as Christians, but also as Anglicans.
What captured the imagination of the early Church, as well as people of faith on both sides of the Reformation divide, was the story of the woman with seven sons described in 2 Maccabees 7. In this story a mother of seven sons is forced to watch, as each of her sons, one after the other is tortured, and killed, for refusing to abandon the Law and eat pork. Some point to this story as the source for Hebrews 11: women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. It is the steadfastness of the mother, and the courage of the sons, that holds our attention. Do not fear this butcher, she exhorts one son. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again along with your brothers.
It is this faithfulness in the face of torture, and death, as a witness to the resurrection that makes the story of the Maccabeans, not simply a curious appendage to Scripture, but a pattern of life for people of faith.
We say in our Rule of Life that [the] grace to surrender our lives to God through our vows has been given to us in Baptism whereby we die with Christ and are raised with him. It is the same grace that gives strength to martyrs to submit gladly to death as witnesses of the resurrection. From the beginning monks and nuns have been encouraged to understand their own commitment in the light of the freedom and trust that enables martyrs to give up their lives to the glory of God. The witness of the martyrs should never be far from our minds as we go forward in the vowed life day by day.
And that is why we should care.
Since the beginning of the Christian Church, women and men of faith have suffered death at the hands of others, not as a sign of surrender, or defeat, but as a witness to the resurrection of Jesus. Like the Maccabeans, by their death, the martyrs declare that they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
As followers of Jesus, our witness is to his resurrection. For most of us that witness is the witness of baptism, whereby we die daily to our sin and pride, so that we may rise in Christ. For some of us, it will mean giving up our lives to the glory of God. In either case we do so in the confidence of a sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, as we say in the burial rite, and that’s why we should care about the Maccabeans today.
Homily preached by Brother James Koester in the Monastery Chapel, Friday, 22 November 2019
1 Maccabees 4: 36 – 37, 52 – 59
 The First Lesson at both Morning Prayer and the Eucharist this week (Proper 28) have been readings from 1 and 2 Maccabees.
 1 Maccabees 4: 36 – 59
 Hebrews 11: 35
 2 Maccabees 7: 29
 SSJE, Rule of Life, Life Profession, chapter 39, page 79
 Hebrews 11: 16
 Book of Common Prayer, 1979, page 501
This is one horrific story – so senseless, so tragic. It recounts the death of a devoted servant of God who played a vital role in salvation history. His death is no martyrdom. This is not Stephen, who after testifying to God’s faithfulness lifts his eyes to the heavens and beholds Jesus, as the stones batter his body and end his life. No, this death is brought about by a drunken, lustful ruler who allows himself to be seduced by the sensuous dancing of his teenage daughter and tricked by his cunning wife into making a foolish promise that he must then carry out just to save face in the company of his equally-besotted guests. This is a silent beheading, without witnesses or testimony, of a man of God who had been imprisoned for his bold witness to the truth.
The “king” was Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, who had married a Nabataean princess but then discarded her in order to marry his brother’s wife, Herodias. The dishonored princess fled in humiliation back to her father, which led to a military conflict in which Herod was roundly defeated and embarrassed by the Nabataean king and his forces. Nevertheless, Herod married Herodias, and no one except John the Baptist had the courage and moral fortitude to point out how wrong it was. No one except John made any attempt to hold this king accountable for his lies and deceptions, and for his evil actions. No one else had the courage to speak the truth to him. They were all afraid.
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.
Homily preached at St. Matthew’s Church, Ottawa.
Feast of Saint Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist
2 Timothy 3:14-17
Matthew 9: 9-13
For most of my life I have been fascinated by names. Never having been a parent before, I am curious why parents choose the names that they do for their children. I wonder why my Mum and Dad picked the two names that they did for me. My baptismal name is Colin James, but there is neither a Colin nor a James in my family tree for generations, so I often wonder what made them choose these particular names for me? What I do know, is that I wasn’t supposed to be named Colin. I was supposed to be named Cullen, after my paternal grandmother’s brother, who was given the maiden name of his paternal grandmother. But my aunt and uncle beat my parents to it by five weeks. My cousin, who was born on 1 July, was named Cullen, so sometime between then, and my birthday five weeks later, my name went from Cullen to Colin.