Feb 242015

Audio Sermon

In our lesson from Genesis this morning we receive the oldest of all God’s covenant promises.  It is the covenant of the rainbow, a symbol of the promise that God will never again bring destructive floods to the earth.  In my view of scripture, this story and the details of the great flood that precede it are to be understood as primordial history. That is, not as historical fact, but non-the-less as bearers of divine truth.

This and the other stories in the early chapters of Genesis offer a view of natural events and phenomena founded on deep faith in God, who created the world and walks alongside humanity.  It is likely that a great flood did occur in that part of the world (other sacred texts of other early civilizations speak of it also) and from that experience the Biblical writers found the truth of God’s growing commitment to humanity.

Theologian Bill Wylie-Kellerman writes this about understanding the significance of the rainbow covenant:

“We need to recall that this story shows the flood as God’s way of setting a limit to violence, and beginning again.  The opening chapters of Genesis are simply an escalating history of human violence: with the blood of Abel crying out from earth, a mushrooming of violence is set in motion. So God fights the chaos with the chaos of flood waters rolling in.”(Living the Word, p.56)

But if God wanted to put an end to the chaos of human violence why didn’t God wipe the whole slate clean and start from scratch?  Why did God keep 8 people and unnumbered pairs of all the animals alive in the ark?  Wasn’t that just inviting chaos to break out again?  In his PBS series “Genesis”, Bill Moyers hosted groups of Muslim, Jewish and Christian Scripture Scholars in a series of discussion about the Book of Genesis.  In the episode about the flood, Blu Greenberg, a Jewish Scholar said this about her understanding of the flood story:

“I think the story is not about the accountability of human beings.  It’s about the transformation of the relationship between God and humanity.  In the beginning, God was a perfectionist.  In desperation God would rather destroy His creation than accept it as less than perfect.  But then probably out of love and a sense of loss, God promises to accept human beings the way they are with all their flaws. And God promises never to destroy them again.  So the story of Noah is about God growing into the relationship, maturing in it… And this paves the way for the covenant.  That’s what a covenant is – a never-to-be-broken relationship, no matter who falls off the side. (From Bill Moyers Genesis, p.115)

Writing this week in the Christian Century Magazine, Pastor Paul Nuechterlein, of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Portage Michigan takes a slightly different tact than Blu Greenberg, suggesting that the evolution we see in the Noah story is not of God but rather of our perception of God.  He writes:

“Is the God at the beginning of the story, who tries to solve the problem of human violence with a violent genocide, truly the same God at the end, who apparently repents of it and promises never to do it again? Or does the revelation of Jesus Christ show us that these are really two different gods? The true God – revealed in Jesus to be nonviolent – is distinguished from the fall gods of our human evolution, false gods typified in flood myths from across the globe. (Christian Century, February 18, p.20)

Whether we think the change in God from the beginning to the end of this story of Noah is an evolution in God, or an evolution in human perception of God, or both, the story ends with the waters receding and “the weapon of god is hung up for all time.  The bow is set aside in glorious plain sight and by it all creation is drawn into covenant. “(Living the Word)

And we are witnesses that this covenant is still good and has found flesh and blood expression for us in the person of Jesus Christ.  Even as we may witness flood waters rising, tsunamis washing away whole communities or other natural disasters taking a heavy toll on humanity and other parts of creation, we can trust that God is not the cause, but rather the comfort close at hand.  Every time we see the spectacular beauty of the rainbow, may this assurance come back to us.  And given our acquaintance with the ongoing mushrooming of human violence – among ourselves and against God’s creation – may we cling closely to this covenant, and give thanks for a God who has chosen another way to wash away our sin.

As the writer of our second lesson, from the first letter of Peter, points out, all human sin is swallowed up by the embrace of Christ.  This is such an amazing grace, we can hardly believe it. As the litany of Ash Wednesday and the great litany we offered this morning both remind us, on a regular basis we fall into sin and consort with the powers of darkness.  Recognizing and admitting that is an important step in the working out of our salvation in Jesus Christ.  But we do not stop there.  Once we have recognized our sin as individuals and as a human family we must look up and see that God has tossed us a flesh and blood life raft – Christ Jesus.  If we can grab hold of him and let him take our sins from us, we become free to live and move in new ways.

And those are central themes of Lent: Recognition of our sin, and a desire and willingness to let those sins go and be taken from us by One who is mightier over them than we are.  One who is named by God in the waters of his baptism as the “Beloved”.  I believe he is named that not just because God loved him so dearly, but also because at his core he is Love, and operates only out of Love.  Therefore he can be trusted completely with any sin we have every committed.  But more importantly he can heal us of those entrenched patterns of sin that handicap our lives.  He will never condemn us.  He wants only to take our sin away so there is room for increased light and life.  I am always ready and available to talk to anyone who would like to know more about what resources our tradition offers to help us in this work of repentance and amendment of life. Lent is the season set aside in our church calendar for just this sort of work.

I want to end now with a wonderful story that illustrates the depth of trust God in Christ is worthy of in regard to our repentance.  It is the story of a young Roman Catholic nun who reported to her superior that she was having vision in which our Lord was speaking directly to her.  To help her discern whether or not these were truly divine visions, the Mother Superior called in an old and wise bishop.  The Bishop heard the young nun’s description of her visions and then said to her, “Next time He comes to you, ask Him what my most pervasive sin was before I became a bishop, then come report to me what he says.”  Since he had never confessed that sin to any person, but only to the Lord, the bishop was sure this would be a sufficient test of the authenticity of the young nun’s visions.  A week or so later the young nun returned to him. The bishop asked her, “And so, what did our Lord say when you asked him what my most pervasive sin was before becoming a bishop?” And the young nun answered him, “He said to tell you, ‘I remember your sin no longer my son.’” Upon hearing that the bishop fell to his knees and with tears rolling down his weathered cheeks he said, “It truly is our Lord and savior who comes to you in your visions!”

This Lent, let us remember our sins only long enough to let the Beloved, with a deluge of grace, wash them away, that we might find amendment of life, and our lives might reflect more of his glory.

In Christ’s name and for his sake.  Amen+

 Sermon for Sunday February 22 2015 The First Sunday in Lent  Posted by on Tue, 24-Feb-15 News, Sermons Comments Off on Sermon for Sunday February 22 2015 The First Sunday in Lent
Feb 082015

Audio Sermon



Grace to you, and peace, from God our creator, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Jesus left the synagogue at Capernaum, and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “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.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons. –Mark 1:29-39 (NRSV)

Why does Jesus tell the demons to keep silence? Let’s wonder about that together.

This Gospel passage is right at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. According to Mark, Herod’s soldiers have just arrested John the Baptist. Jesus has just finished his forty days in the wilderness. He called his disciples a few days before. And now it’s a Sabbath day afternoon in Capernaum. He was teaching at the synagogue. We heard that the congregation …

were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

And now they’re hurrying over to Simon and Andrew’s place, for a Sabbath night supper. This passage sets the scene for Jesus’s earthly ministry.

We, Mark’s readers, get to see Jesus’s saving work at two levels at once. Mark shows us his day-to-day work with his disciples and the people of Galilee. He goes about urgently proclaiming the good news of God, teaching, healing the sick with a word or a touch, and freeing people of their demons.

The second level is the epic confrontation between God’s realm and the demons. The demons know exactly who Jesus is –fully divine. They know their game is up and they’re defeated.  We can tell they don’t want to give up without a fight.

As readers we are witnesses to that apocalyptic ministry: Mark shows it to us clearly. At his baptism, we, and Jesus, see the heavens torn apart and the Holy Spirit descend upon him. With Jesus we witness Satan hassling him and angels waiting on him in the wilderness. We see, with God’s eyes, his confrontations with the demons.  But it’s not so for the ones Jesus is with – his disciples, Simon’s mother-in-law and the people in the crowds. They sense something big is going on, but don’t really get it.  And that’s the point. Jesus tells the demons to be silent.

Much later, as the temple veil is torn apart, and Jesus dies, the centurion in charge of his crucifixion squad says “Truly this man was God’s son” (Mark 15:39)  Only then, in the shadow of the cross, is the mystery of his divine work disclosed.  His victory and his strength come from his weakness.

So we have two levels. Both the human and divine levels of his ministry break taboos. At the human level he went from teaching in the synagogue to breaking the purity code. He takes a sick woman, not his relative, by the hand, and helps her up: observant Hebrew men don’t do that. She responds by serving food to the strangers in her house: observant Hebrew women don’t do that. She breaks the taboo of family privacy and honor. Together they show that perfect love conquers fear.

It’s hard for us to grasp how conspicuous and radical this taboo-breaking must have been at the time. Here’s the nearest thing I can think of: Some of us remember seeing the 1987 photograph of Diana (the princess of Wales) shaking hands with an AIDS patient. They followed Jesus’s example in that photo. She and that man, whose name is known only to God, broke the purity code. Together they showed that perfect love conquers fear. That photo changed a lot of hearts. In the human level of Jesus’s ministry, there’s no conflict. Nobody loses when those taboos are broken.

The divine level of his ministry breaks taboos too. At the divine level, however, the world sees them as win/lose taboos. The demons called Jesus “the Holy One of God.” That was blasphemy to the Hebrews and treason to the Romans. The demons are right. They’ve already lost. The Roman emperor, and Herod, and the temple priests, face the end of their age and their stranglehold on power. At the divine level, Jesus’s authority makes the demons recognize him. And that, in Isaiah’s words, “brings the princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.”

So why does Jesus compel the demons to be silent? Why doesn’t he force them into a great showdown after supper right there on Simon’s front stoop? With our eyes of faith we see no doubt that he will prevail.  So why not?

Let us remember the message he preaches on the human level: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” His message is to you, and me, and to the people of Galiliee. He’s inviting us to look into our hearts, to turn away from the realm of this world and toward God’s realm, and to believe. Like the disciples and the people of Galilee, we know something’s up but we don’t quite get it.

If Jesus invites us to witness an apocalyptic battle, the good news will be drowned out. We’ll be swept up in a vast drama, and we’ll lose sight of our own hearts. With great relief we’ll embrace the role of spectators in a drama that’s bigger than us. And his call to “repent and believe in the good news” demands my full participation, and yours.

This kind of thing is unfolding here in Newburyport right now. Last December some local teenage boys created an online video. In it, they took turns saying rude and hurtful things about another teenage boy. Their subject happens to be a Jew, and some of their words were virulently anti-Jewish and personal. This was bad, 20th-century bad. It demanded action. It demanded education. It demanded repentance.

How does a community like ours, who really hope to live as if God’s realm is drawn near, cope with this kind of thing? We have a choice as a community and as individuals. On the one hand, we can turn it into a cosmic battle between good and evil. We can treat the boys who made the video as if they were evil. We can blame them, shame them, punish them, and so convince ourselves that evil stands defeated.

On the other hand, we can find a teaching moment in the incident. As bad as it was, it’s not only about those young people. It’s about us all. It’s a mirror we can hold up. We can see ourselves and our community reflected in it. If we’re honest, we know we all struggle sometimes with bigotry, fear, and hostility to people who are different. This kind of incident invites us all to repent and believe in the good news.

Rabbi Avi Poupko met with those boys. He offered some teaching about the faith and history of the Jewish people.  Our local commission on diversity and tolerance is planning a forum – a public conversation – with the hope that knowledge will foster understanding, and understanding will let love in, the perfect love that casts out fear.

Where is the struggle between good and evil? Maybe it’s on a cosmic battlefield, or a courtroom, or even the opinion page of the newspaper. But it certainly is in my heart, and yours, and our neighbors’.  Jesus’s choice to silence those demons is the heart of his ministry. The demons, and the principalities, and the powers, are accustomed to great, dramatic power struggles.

Jesus’s carries out his divine-level ministry by refusing those struggles. He knows it’s too easy for the rest of us if we can just choose up sides. Instead, he goes about among us healing, casting out demons, and calling us to repent and believe in the good news.

It’s my prayer that you and I can follow him without the distractions of cosmic battles, and invite him to turn our hearts toward the realm of God.


 Quiet, demons! Jesus is changing our hearts! Sermon on Mark 1:29-39  Posted by on Sun, 8-Feb-15 News, Sermons Comments Off on Quiet, demons! Jesus is changing our hearts! Sermon on Mark 1:29-39