Sermon for Lent 1, Year B, RCL, February 18, 2018, St. Thomas, Oakmont, JDMurph

One day, when I was still in college, I came back from church (yes, college students actually went to church in those days) and met my roommate.He was very excited (he went to a different church). “Hey, Jeff, I’m getting baptized this afternoon and I wondered if you would be willing to come!”“You’ve never been baptized?” I asked quickly–it can amazing what you don’t know about even close friends.And then I added, “Sure, I’d love to come”.So later that afternoon, I stood with a crowd of other people around a swimming pool at the Chapel Hill Country Club (which seemed more like a swimming pool club) and watched while my roommate, along with several others, made his way into the water to be baptized.(This was a complete immersion kind of baptism).It was great and very happy but I had never seen a baptismal service like that ever before.He was elated.Now it seems like just about a month ago that we were celebrating the feast of the baptism of Jesus (in fact, we had to do it in the parish hall when Dean Markham came to preach) and so why are we hearing about it all over again so soon?This time, of course, we hear a bit more of the story because we hear about Jesus being driven into the desert by the Holy Spirit in order to be tempted by Satan, which is, as you know, the model for the forty days of Lent.Yet this time we also get, from the other two readings, these strange connections of baptism with the story of Noah and the Flood, when Noah and his family are protected in the Ark but everything else is washed away.We even hear from Peter’s first letter, about Jesus’ visit to the “spirits in prison” who had been there since the days of Noah.So why are we talking about this again so soon and what is all this connection with Noah?

Well, to start with, Christians stand before God on the basis of the fact and the meaning of baptism.Baptism is so much more than just a few dribs of water with some words!Baptism picks up SO many biblical events: the Creation (which was brought into being out of chaotic water), the Noah story, the Exodus (when God’s people were delivered through the Red Sea waters) and now Jesus–with his death and resurrection.Baptism contains the themes of being washed, of dying to an old way of broken life and of being raised to a new life that Jesus gives us.

Baptism symbolizes passing through all kinds of trials and tribulations (the worst being death itself) to stand before the throne of the Ruler of all the Universe–as opposed to the petty popinjay despots who oppressed people in Jesus’ day like Herod or Pilate.And Noah, who prefigures baptism, symbolizes God’s grace: the ark, the saving of the animals, the rescue of his whole family, the promise of the rainbow are all things that God does for Noah out of his desire and love for humanity in order to preserve Creation for a new beginning.The catastrophe of the Flood, on the other hand, which represents the cost and the power of sin, was largely brought about, according to Genesis 6:2, by the influence of wicked angels, what the bible calls spiritual forces of evil.Jesus, by appearing on the scene and announcing the breaking in of the Kingdom of God, announces that the rule of spiritual evil, based on sin and death, is over.He goes on to demonstrate the truth of this announcement by healing people, casting out demons and even raising the dead.And on the cross, Jesus empties these oppressive powers of all authority and defeats them utterly, not with a flood but with his own death.So story of Noah is an early symbol, through baptism, of who we Christians really are (God’s People) as well as a reminder of the One before whom we stand–the Father of all.

Now, we modern Western people do not normally think of the world in these sorts of terms. In fact, we tend to ignore concepts of spiritual power altogether.So that may be why this particular message of Scripture makes such easy sense to Christians who are in the midst of persecution than it does to us.Yet to be honest, their experience of suffering for their faith may be far more common than ours.We tend to think of the persecution of Christians as something that happened under the Romans over a thousand years ago, but, in fact, more Christians were martyred in the twentieth century than in all the first nineteen centuries combined.Even today, Christians in certain parts of the world are hauled in front of kangaroo tribunals and deal with casual injustice and suffering that we would find hard to imagine.

So for them, Peter’s letter, writing to this very experience of Christians in his day, is very relevant.For them particularly, it is one of the answers to the question of why bad things happen to good people.In the context of this–that suffering is part of a broken world where evil is still at work–Peter urges his readers that it is better to suffer for doing right than to suffer for doing wrong.He points to the example of Jesus’ own innocent suffering and then he ends with a reminder that Christians will stand before the true, righteous and merciful judge–not some puffed up tyrant.He holds up the vision of “Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.”

If the world is a screwed up place (as the events of this past week have made so abundantly clear), where so many things are unjust and events seem fixed by those who have power then these passages offer a glimpse into a more accurate world view; a reality that will be revealed to everybody in due course.It is a reminder of the message that, as Paul says, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12)Indeed, until what is inside the hearts of men and women change, there will always be violence and cruelty and evil in the world.And so, what are we to do?

Peter’s advice is not to cave into the craziness around us but to speak and act in the light of God, even if that means suffering, which it may very well. “Christ suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.”So, he says, “Keep a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.”His reason for this advice is that we have already been claimed for God by Jesus (so there is nothing permanent that evil can do to us) and that he is the true authority–not evil.

A number of years ago, a friend of mine told me a story that I think might help to illustrate what I think St. Peter is trying to communicate.He had been brought up as Southern Baptist, although by the time that I knew him, he was an Episcopal priest.This story, however, came from a time when he was a very young man.He and his father were at a conference together that was meeting in New Orleans.One afternoon, during a break for lunch, they were walking down the street to find a place to eat.If you have ever been to New Orleans, you will know that there are things there (especially in the French Quarter) that are not commonly seen in the nicer districts of other cities.A scantily clad hawker was standing on the sidewalk trying to lure customers through the open doors of a club.Visible inside were dancers even more scantily attired, yet even so, they were losing clothing by the minute.Caught by complete surprise and shock, my friend was stopped by the hawker, who tried to direct him in.“No, thank you very much,” he replied, when he could collect his wits enough to speak.He and his father continued down the sidewalk, a little more alert to hawkers than they had been before.In explanation, he simply said, “That just wasn’t who we were.”

Faith and baptism into Jesus Christ gives us an identity because we are brought into an intimate relationship with God. And all the old claims are broken and made null.“You are my Son, the Beloved”. The identity is everything.This identity we have in Jesus gives us a whole different way of perceiving the world because of the One with whom we are in relationship–the God and Father of all.“To you, O Lord, I life up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you;…Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long.”This Lent, in good times as well as bad, in prosperity as well as suffering, remember whose you are–because that makes you who you are. Amen+

Sermon Epiphany 5, February 4, 2018, Year B, RCL, St. Thomas, Oakmont, JDMurph

Every place on the face of the planet has its own unique culture and customs.  I can tell you this because I am not a native-born Pittsburgher.  So when I came here over twenty years ago, once in a while I would run into cultural differences that were not familiar to me–and I had to learn how to negotiate them. The first and foremost learning, of course, was that Pittsburgh is the capital of the Steeler Nation.  Early on, I learned never to try to compete with a Steeler’s game–so no big church event will ever be scheduled at St. Thomas at the same time as a game, unless it’s one of those holidays I have no control over–like Christmas.  With so many years here, I hope I can legitimately be considered a real Pittsburgher now and that I have overcome my cultural liabilities, although today I will be pulling for the Eagles.

Maybe partly for this and many other reasons, I love St. Paul because Paul was always doing ministry in a culture that was different from his own. He was a Jew but he was the apostle to the Gentiles and though so many of the churches he started were made up both of Jews and Gentiles, they were all in Gentile areas. Today’s passage from his first letter to the Corinthians is actually set in the middle of a section about the raging first century debate in the church over whether it was permissible to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Now, for us, this seems a completely irrelevant cultural issue that is far removed in time and distance. Only, as a parishioner told me last week, it may not be so necessarily a first century issue as we might imagine. Our parishioner who served for a time in the country of Nepal, a Hindu country where there are many idols, told me that many Nepali Christians faced a real question as to whether they should accept invitations to share festival meals with Hindu friends and family, because the meat there was likely to be from the local temple. And in a sacrifice to an idol, part of the meat was burned on the altar, some of it was set aside for the priests and the rest was returned to the worshiper, who would prepare and eat it as though sharing a meal with the god to whom it had been offered. So perhaps it is understandable that Christians would be wary of participating in a supper that was supposedly a sharing the table with a pagan god.

Paul’s answer is that idols are not really gods (there is only one real God) and so eating whatever food that is set before you is not a problem since they are nothing more than carved wood or stone or metal. UNLESS, Paul qualifies his answer, that by eating food offered to an idol you might shock or scandalize a new Christian who is trying to leave idolatry and paganism behind. In other words, sometimes Christians might voluntarily forego something that they have a complete right to–out of love for another person’s conscience. This is a very important principle of love.

In today’s passage, Paul gives the example of his own ministry: he has the perfect right to receive support for his work of evangelism but he chooses not to exercise it in order to place no stumbling block before anybody and so no one can ascribe wrong motives to him. He then offers the further example of his behavior of submitting to whatever customs he finds in a particular community, not because his own salvation depends upon doing so but because it can make it easier for those with whom he is sharing the good news of Jesus. Paul writes, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews…  To those outside the law I became as one outside the law…so that I might win those outside the law. …I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. Out of love for those who did not know the gospel, Paul set aside his own customs and preferences and, in fact, his own status as a Jewish rabbi and adopted the norms of wherever he went.

There is, of course, a boundary to accommodation, as we see in the gospel story for today. Jesus goes to the family home of Peter and Andrew and, finding Peter’s mother-in-law sick, he heals her. Yet by sundown, every sick person within walking distance had beaten a path to his door–all wanting to be healed, quite understandably. But Jesus had not come just to be a wonder-worker. He had not come just to set up the Miraculous Healing Clinic in Capernaum. He had a message that needed to be proclaimed–and he wasn’t willing to let others redefine his mission. “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” Of course, it would have been a lot easier if Jesus had decided to set up a healing center in Capernaum: who would be threatened by a healer who stayed put? Lots of people would have been healed; and yet Jesus’ mission would not have been fulfilled to heal all people from the tyranny of sin and death.

In the two New Testament passages, what we see is that both Jesus and Paul trusted the purposes of God the Father above all else. All the human customs and structures that mean so much to people are nothing compared to the sovereignty and supremacy of God. Isaiah describes the Lord God as the one “who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in.” Isaiah asks, “Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name”. He is speaking of all the stars of the heavens. For those who trust in the purposes of God, Isaiah says, “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” And in the psalm, David says, “The Lord has pleasure in those who fear him; in those who await his gracious favor.”

Now at the beginning of this service, remember we recounted the words of Simeon, who had been promised that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah–the light coming into the darkness. He waited until he had come to great age, knowing that the Lord would accomplish his purpose and that his word would not return to him empty. It can be so much easier, safer and more comfortable to follow the familiar, to trace the tradition, to conform to the customs. And believe me, those things are not without value–they can teach us much. And yet, sometimes God will remind us, in a particular case or at a particular time, that his purpose is greater than all those things. Especially, he may call us to be willing to be willing to respect another’s custom or another’s concerns out of love for them, even if we know that we are not bound by those things. After all, isn’t love, at its heart, putting someone else’s needs above our own?

Let me close with a story that I hope will be an illustration. Many years ago, I was going with someone for a medical procedure to a very large hospital that was unfamiliar to both of us. It was quite early, about 5:00am and the lights in some of the hallways were still on dim. We followed signs we thought had led us to the right place and filled out the proper paperwork and waited until a nurse came to ask questions. In the course of her questioning, we immediately realized that we were in the wrong place, which did not help reduce the anxiety both of us were feeling. She could have just said, “Well, you need to follow these others signs to the right department.” Instead, however, she actually took us and led us to the right place. It was probably not the right protocol for her to do that for us; certainly, it was not her job to be a hospital guide. And, in fact, it seems like such a very small thing. But what I will say was that it created such a sense of relief and gratitude that she did it. If she bent a rule that morning, I am glad that she did it.

The purpose of God is to heal his whole Creation, one person at a time. The one language that most everyone is able to understand is love acted out in service–love that recognizes another’s needs even before our own. Paul says, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.” Has anyone ever done this for you? Amen+

Sermon, Epiphany 2, RCL, Year A, January 15, 2017, St. Thomas, Oakmont, JDMurph

My very first job was to mow the lawns of the neighbor who lived behind us; I was maybe 11. I still remember being so excited when he first hired me. He was an older man and his yard was a bit bigger than ours but on Saturday morning, after doing our own yard, I would go over and mow his lawn and do the trimming and, if I remember correctly, got paid $3–although, after a couple years, I think it went up to $5. For whatever reason, I was the only boy in our neighborhood who was interested in mowing lawns, so after building up regular customers, I could earn some money. Many people I know started their work experience by doing some kind of serving work: mowing lawns, delivering newspapers, washing dishes.  I know that I did all three of those things. If those folks were like me, then they were excited to get paid for something for the first time. The older a person gets, however, especially the jobs that require muscle and hard labor can get a little more difficult and sometimes less enjoyable, because our bodies begin to protest. In fact, maybe that is why that older neighbor of ours hired me to mow his lawn in the first place. I start with this example because our readings today start with a portion of what biblical scholars call one of Isaiah’s servant songs. God is calling us to do a job for him. “And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’”

But if you read the passage, you might ask, who is really the servant? It seems, at first, that Israel, the nation, is the servant–“my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” But then things switch and it seems that it is maybe a remnant of the nation or even that it is the prophet who is the servant, “the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him and that Israel might be gathered to him,…”It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” We Christians, of course, say that it is Jesus who is the servant that Isaiah foretold. After all, isn’t Jesus the one who is the light to the nations so that the salvation of the Lord might reach to the end of the earth? That’s what today’s opening prayer said, “Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world. Grant that thy people, illumined by thy Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth”. But if we read further, we discover that it does not even end there, because Christ’s PEOPLE are supposed to shine as well. Paul, who was called to be a servant of God on the road to Damascus, in his first letter to the Corinthians, reminds the Christians in Corinth of their own servanthood, “in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind–just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you–so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for he revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.“ Remember, the gifts of God are given for a purpose! Paul says that, “by him (that is, Jesus)”, these Corinthians were “called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” But that fellowship is not only just some dinner club, its mission is to meet the sin and pain of this broken with the love and forgiveness of God revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ. This fellowship, which is the church, of course, is to model a new way of being human that directly confronts and empties the power and overturns the mindset of this broken world; and more often than not, it happens through servanthood. Even the gospel points again to servanthood; this time the servanthood of John the Baptist, who baptized Jesus, “This is he of whom I said, ’After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’” And, at the end, as soon as a couple of John’s disciples start following Jesus, he renames one of them, Simon, “You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter)”–or in English, “Rock”–the rock upon which he would build his church. As soon as Simon follows Jesus home, he gets a job. Yes, by his cross Jesus, the true Israelite, is the one who accomplishes salvation for the whole world, without our help. Remember, John says about Jesus, “Look!  Here is the Lamb of God!” But that does mean that the world and the human race are simply passive thereafter! No, of course not. God continues to work his salvation in Jesus Christ THROUGH his people, us. And the payment for this servanthood we have as followers of Christ is not money but rather the chance to be finally truly LIKE God, which is what Adam and Eve wanted when they ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden eons ago. Remember how the serpent tricked Eve, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God”. The desire to be LIKE God was the main reason Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. But now, of course, in Jesus, however, we finally get to be truly like God and in the right way. God, by working in and through us, enlists us as his partners in the work of redeeming the world–a calling that even the angels do not share. So what does this mean?

Despite the victory of Jesus on the cross, the world is sometimes overwhelmingly full of sin and pain. Even people who live in warm houses and can pay their bills sometimes live lives of aching loneliness and contend with sorrows unknown even by the ones they count as friends. Others live in regular fear or anxiety perhaps because their debts are so high or their work is precarious. Some go to work every day but their jobs are so corrosive that they hate every morning. Still others live with chronic pain, illness or depression, or may be afraid that their marriage or other relationships are unraveling without being able to do anything about it. Some, because of their own pain, have either alienated themselves or alienated everyone around them to the point that they are cut off from meaningful human contact. Finally, far too many in our community live with addictions of all sorts. What does Jesus have to offer to people with this kind of fear or despair or trouble?

Jesus offers forgiveness. He offers the love of God–that is always more abundant and urgent to fill our lives than we expect. He can offer meaning and purpose to lives that are lost and confused. He can offer healing–especially when we are ready to receive it–healing of the body, the heart, the mind and even our relationships. And so many times, he does this in and through his servants, his followers, those who trust in him. Consider an early example of this way that God works. In Acts 9, we are told of the conversion of St. Paul, who had been a fierce persecutor of the church. He sees a blinding light on the road to Damascus and hears a voice. After this experience, he is literally blind and must be led into the city. After this happens, the Lord came to a believer in a vision named Ananias and told him to go to the house where Paul was staying and heal him of his blindness. Ananias responds, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to thy saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon thy name.” It was always interesting to me that Ananias felt it necessary to acquaint the Lord with this information, as if he might not have known. The Lord tells him to go anyhow–and Ananias, a servant of the Lord, bravely does as he is instructed. Now, why did God need Ananias to go heal Paul–certainly, he could have done it himself, and in fact, when Ananias arrived, all he did was lay his hands on him and pray–the Lord accomplished the healing. Perhaps he needed Paul to know that it was he, Jesus, who was giving the healing (because Ananias identifies Jesus with the healing when it happens). But if Jesus could appear to Paul on the road then surely he could have appeared to him at the time of the healing.  I think Jesus sent Ananias to Paul in order to connect him to the church in Damascus. In fact, later the Christians help Paul escape the city by lowering him from a window in the city wall when others were lying in wait to kill him at the gate. And the Lord uses other Christians to accomplish this purpose; the same thing happens when Paul later is finally brought into service to the church when Barnabas recruits him to help teach the new Gentile Christians at Caesarea–since they know nothing of Scripture. Though knowledge and teaching, as well as worship and divine experience, are essential parts of spiritual growth for a Christian, isn’t it really the compassion and care and love of other Christians that really bring a person to know the love of Christ? Doesn’t St. Paul tell us that we can have all kinds of spiritual gifts, like prophecy, knowledge and faith, but that if we do not have love then we are nothing more than “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1). Think of your own experience; maybe you believe in Jesus because you were raised in the church, or maybe you read the Bible and the Holy Spirit touched you, or maybe you stumbled into church and God met you here. But I will bet that somewhere along the way, some Christian showed you love and compassion and they did that because the love of God had already filled their own heart. That is what it means when the opening prayer asks for Jesus’ people, “illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory”. When we shine with Christ’s glory, then we reflect his light, we act as his servants, and we join with him in saving and healing the world. Amen+

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