Jul 132017


Sermon for Sunday, July 9, 2017 – The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost


On this Sunday 15 years ago, I was just returning to the pulpit after a maternity leave/Sabbatical.  Here is part of what I said to the congregation at St. Mark’s, Penn Yan that Sunday:

“You know, when I was pregnant, I got used to a lot of attention – people holding doors for me and asking time and again how I was feeling.  Now the focus has shifted.  It is amazing how attracted most people are to babies! So, I’m having to become used to the fact that when Marcella is on the scene, the one pushing the stroller is of little interest.  But that is how it should be.  And really, I couldn’t be happier.  When people dote on her, I feel affirmed in my own head-over-heels infatuation with her.”

Reading that really took me back!  And I had the same experience when Nicolas came along – most people are just so drawn to babies.  What is it, do you think that makes babies so attractive?  Part of it is of course that they are just so small – those tiny fingers and toes amaze us – how is it possible that they will eventually grow up to be a big as we are?  But it’s more than that.  I think we are also drawn to babies because of their utter, untarnished openness to the world.  Babies don’t have any defenses up.  The open their eyes in the morning and they just take it all in.  Ant there is no pretense with babies.  They haven’t learned to fake it in any way yet.  They are authentic in their interactions with us.  You can easily tell what they like and don’t like by their honest expressions.  And is there anything much better than the feeling you get when you strike on something they like?  The way their little faces light up can make you feel like a million bucks!  And there is no cynicism in a baby.  Think of a baby you know.  Aren’t their bright little eyes and their inquisitive and engaged nature part of what draws you to them?  I think that’s because in a way, we all long to get back to that place somehow.  Back to a time when the world was new to us and each moment was an adventure.  Back to a time when we were not in any way weighed down by the worries, griefs and injustices of this world.  Basking in the glow of a baby can take us back, even if just for a moment.  Spending time with a baby can get us back to basics and remind us about what is really important in life.

Maybe that is why Jesus refers to those who have truly received the good news of the gospel as infants – or in some Bible translations babes.  He is talking here about those who may lack in what the world counts as wisdom and understanding, but who possess the clear vision that does not filter out the goodness in the good news.  They are bright eyed believers who are bubbling over with enthusiasm.  God has shown them something earth shattering and life changing in him and they are excited about it.  These are the ones that Jesus gives thanks for in this morning’s Gospel lesson.

Now let’s be clear, Jesus is not suggesting that his followers need to remain in some sort of infantile state.  He is not recommending a halt to the natural maturation process in our minds and in our spiritual lives.  But he seems to be recommending an approach to the life of discipleship that moves away from pride and self-sufficiency, and instead bends toward dependence on the presence of God. 

St. Paul, who penned the letter to the Romans which we have been reading from over the last several weeks liked to use his own life as an example of how off track we can get when we think we have reached a place of spiritual maturity and acumen.  You will remember that before he took the name Paul, he had lived under the given name Saul.  Under that earlier identity, he did everything in his power to destroy the community of faith growing up around the disciples of Jesus.  On one such campaign of violence to Damascus, Saul was knocked off his horse, had a vision of Jesus calling to him and asking him why he was persecution him and his followers.  Then Saul went physically blind and had to be carried to DaMarcus by others, where he spent 3 days in darkness.  The darkness only broke when a follower of Jesus came, laid hands on him and prayed with him in the name of Jesus. It was this experience that led him to admit his own great lack of spiritual vision and to take a radical turn in his path of life, renaming himself as Paul, servant of Christ.  Even years later, after becoming a central leader in the early Christian movement, Paul admits that though he strives to put the Gospel law of love always at the center of his life, he struggles, and is not totally free from the tendency to think that he can live on his own power alone.  He describes this struggle in words we heard read earlier from his letter to the Romans.  He writes, “I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.  For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind…with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.”

If he were living today, perhaps Paul would say, “Sin is cunning, baffling and powerful.”  A simple definition of sin is, the self trying to occupy the center of life, thus sidelining God.

I love that Paul, the great and renowned apostle, makes this confession in this letter to the Romans.  He, to whom God has revealed so much about the salvation available in Christ Jesus, is just like the rest of us – he struggles with the cunning and baffling power of sin to recommend itself to us over the power of God.  There is no way around this.  If the great apostle himself cannot over-come it completely, what makes any of the rest of us think we can?

Instead, we must go through life, not trying to defeat sin ourselves, but rather with the one who has done so already for us – Christ Jesus.  In the closing words of the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus invites us into a life of mature spiritual connection to him.  He invites with these words:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Writing about these words this week on the website “Working Preacher” Biblical Commentator Colin Yukman writes:

Jesus’ promise of rest should not be taken as guaranteed vacation time, but a kind of theological category. The language clearly recalls Moses’s own vocation (Exodus 33:12-17). To ease Moses’s anxiety about the uncertainty of the wilderness journey, God promises to accompany God’s people along the way: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:14…Jesus incredibly offers the rest which only the God of all Creation could extend to a weary Israel longing for the Promised Land.

 As disciples, we do not simply attempt to duplicate the actions of an absent master; on the contrary, we rely on the ongoing presence of Jesus himself. This, too, is included in what Jesus means by “rest.” As Matthew reminds us early on, Jesus bears the name of the one promised in Isaiah: Immanuel, “God with us” (1:23). All who take the yoke of discipleship upon them can experience a kind of new creation sustained by the ongoing presence of the Creator in a life of discipleship.

          Babies know that they are totally dependent on their parents, those who brought them into this world and who go on caring for them.  Babies grow up and face a world of complexity that they were not aware of in their infancy.  Their strong connections to parents who care for them all along the way is what makes them able to both face the world as it is and trust that they have many gifts to offer for the good of the world. Those who are mature in their faith and spiritual path have reached the same conclusions based on a strong and daily renewed connection with God.  May this weekly worship we share in Jesus name be part of that strong connection for each of us alongside the daily practices of prayer and action that sustain us individually.  All for the good and gracious purposes of God for God world.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen+ 



 Sermon for Sunday, July 9, 2017 – The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost  Posted by on Thu, 13-Jul-17 News, Sermons Comments Off on Sermon for Sunday, July 9, 2017 – The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Jul 052017


When I was a child I thought of sin in very concrete terms – sins were bad things that you did. My first memory of committing a sin is from age 4.  I took my sisters hair clip for my dresser drawer and then lied about it even though I was holding in my hand in plain view of my mother. 

As I grew my definition of sin deepened. I remember as a teenager reading the version of the confession in our prayer book service of compline, and thinking “yes, that is it!” It reads, “Almighty God, our heavenly Father: we have sinned against you through our own fault in thought, word and deed and in what we have left undone.” That last part is what got me- that sin includes not just my misdeeds, but also missed opportunities for good deeds too. (By the way compline is a wonderful way to end each day, and if you are not familiar with it check it out sometime on the Book of Common Prayer page 127.)

In my late 20s when I got to seminary and encountered St. Paul’s writings in-depth, my thinking on sin expanded further. In our lesson from the letter to the Romans this morning, Saint Paul talks about Sin, singular with a capital S, not sins, plural with a small s. Writing about St. Paul’s concept of sin in the letter to the Romans The Rev. Beverly Gaventa comments that:

 “Paul defines Sin as that universal and intractable refusal of human beings to acknowledge that God is God and that they are but the products of God’s hand (Rms. 1:18-23).” (From “The Christian Century Magazine, June 2-9, 1993, p.595).

So Paul’s Capital S Sin is not about action or in action, it is about how one grounds one’s life – on God or on self? Rev. Gaventa goes on to write:

“What antidote can there be for sin when it is understood in this way? Forgiveness works well enough as a cure for the sins of the small s – a vicious deed here and kindness withheld there can be forgiven. But Sin with a capital S which holds human life in a stranglehold cannot be shooed away by talk of forgiveness. Paul resorts to the more forceful language of new life and liberation.” (Ibid)

Many people in our day can  find Paul quite frustrating at this point because he does not go on to elucidate a list of what we are to do in response to this incredible new life and liberation from the strangle hold of Sin that he is speaking of.  In our world we are looking for the details of how to enact the changes we want.  We want to know, “what do we do to put this liberation and new life into motion?” Paul does not answer this question. Rather, Rev Gaventa writes: 

“He sketches our task in general terms. For example, he speaks of believers as ‘slaves to righteousness’ and urges transformation ‘by the renewing of your mind’ but offers little and way of a list of action steps or rules we crave.”

This reminds me of a dynamic that one often sees in those who come into the 12-step fellowship that exist as a way of healing for those suffering from addictions in their own life or the life of someone they love. Often people come to a 12 step meeting for the first time when the pain of life lived in the shadow of addiction becomes too much to bear and they have heard the good news that the 12 steps are away out. They arrive ready and motivated to make changes in their lives. Many start out by thinking that the 12 steps are something to be climbed through will power and stick- to- it -iveness. What we quickly learn is that the first step requires no forward moving action – rather it requires surrender.   The first of the 12 steps reads: “We admitted we were powerless over addictions and that our lives had become unmanageable.” So nothing to do but to admit how bad it is and how powerless we are over it.  Some then move quickly to step two, but that is not much more satisfying to those who crave activity. It reads “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Some wonder, “What are we supposed to do about that? “ Others may say, “Hey who are you calling insane? I may be living with addictions but I am not crazy – give me some tasks to do and I will show you.”

These first 2 steps can be uncomfortable if we are looking for some way to solve our problem through our own action.  It is only when we become willing to admit defeat that we become ready to receive the help the steps extend to us.  In his writing about sin in the letter to the Romans St. Paul calls us to the same place of surrender.  He calls us to admit just how bad the effects of Sin are in our lives and how insane we have become under its influence.  He then invites us to accept that it is only through God’s intervention, which we must willingly invite, that we will be restored to sanity.

If we reach that willingness, the third of the 12 steps invites us to complete the work of surrender – it reads “Made a decision to turn our will and our life over to the care of God as we understood God.”  We Christians understand God to be fully present to us in God’s son, our Lord Jesus Christ.  For me, Paul’s words about being “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” and what the first three of the 12 steps are saying fit well together.  They both tell me that when I become willing to surrender my sinful approach to life – run on self-will, self-centeredness, and self-seeking behaviors- when I surrender that, I create an opening for God to enter and liberate me from bondage to self.

For some – like Paul on the Damascus Road – this liberation is a sudden all at once experience.  For many others this liberation into a new life is experienced more as a process. But the result in both cases is that our lives begins to take shape around God’s will, or plan, or purposes and not our own.  To be sure there are then actions to be taken by us – steps 4-9 of the 12 steps are full of faithful actions.  But these action steps can only be taken on the good foundation of surrender of self-will and acceptance of God’s will in our life. 

In his words to us in the Gospel Jesus also describes the marks of a life that is built such spiritual liberation. He speaks of someone who welcomes other people with open hearted and radical hospitality.  He describes someone who receives a prophet and a prophet’s message, even when it is not easy to hear.   He even points to the person who could go totally unnoticed – the one who is present to God and others in what might seem like inconsequential ways – one who extends a cup of cold water to a thirsty one – but who is nonetheless motivated by a sense of God’s purpose- one for whom no act for God’s sake is too small. All these Jesus says are disciples following in his way listening for his direction. And Jesus says that none who act on this premise – of listening for his guidance – “will lose their reward.”

And what is this reward Jesus speaks of? In my experience it is the reward of relaxing into a posture of trust that what I am going to be called to for God’s good ends will be revealed to me each step of the way.  It is the reward of not needing to burn precious energy struggling to figure out on my own what I am supposed to do. And when I am faced with uncertainty it is the reward of knowing that I can ask for that guidance and inspiration and the reward of finding that when I do this – and I do not do it perfectly – God never fails to show up and lead me to wonderful possibilities for service, giving and growth that are beyond my wildest imaginings.   I know many you receive this reward daily also – thanks be to God! 

My prayer is that liberation from the way of Sin may be ours and the reward of the new life of grace in Christ Jesus will continue to be seen to abound among us, one day at a time. 

In the name of our Great and Loving God.  Amen.


 Sermon for Sunday, July 2, 2017 – The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost  Posted by on Wed, 5-Jul-17 News Comments Off on Sermon for Sunday, July 2, 2017 – The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost