Lent V Year B: Jesus Saves

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Hebrews 5:1-10
John 12:20-33

Emphasis on the death of Jesus as the act that brings about the forgiveness of our sins and puts us in union with God leaves a bad taste in many mouths. That is not surprising; it seems to make God a fan of death. Another reason for the growing lack of enthusiasm for so much importance placed on the death of Jesus as the source of our salvation is the fact that it has been a dominant theme for several generations, and so we feel the human need to swing the pendulum away from it and on to another way of thinking, just like we tend to do in the areas of politics and fashion. Swinging back and forth between what are often termed “theories of atonement” has been common in Christian history, and that can be surprising and unsettling for some people who insist on the need to believe in a set doctrine explaining exactly how “Jesus Saves”.

If one wants to get a glimpse of some of the theories of atonement that have been presented throughout church history, there are books in our library that carry that information, and they can be interesting and edifying. To be honest, I like some of the theories and dislike others, but what I really believe is that some of the truth is probably found in all of them. Theories don’t save; “Jesus Saves”, and maybe the important thing is not how but what and why. The what is a covenant between us and God, written in our hearts, stating that we and God belong to each other, as we heard in our first reading from the prophet Jeremiah. That covenant is ratified by Jesus as our priest, as we heard in the second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. The why is God’s love for us and the desire to bring us closer to God’s self, as we heard Jesus say in the gospel reading: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Jesus was lifted up from the earth on a cross, and we must admit that hanging from a cross is quite a way to get someone’s attention. Even with all the other thousands of people who had been crucified before and have been crucified since, God got our attention with that one, and has been drawing people to himself ever since.

The death of Jesus is an important aspect of God’s gift of forgiveness and reconciliation. It is important because death is a part of life, and God lived and still lives a full human life as Jesus. We might not ever understand all the facets of all the “theories of atonement”, but that is ok, because our union with God is not dependent on our understanding. Our salvation is dependent on God, who has already given us eternal life, joy, and peace. God wants us to have a relationship with him, not with a theory. So he lives with us, dies with us, and enters a new eternal life with us. God is here with us – his Holy Spirit is praying through us, binding us together with each other and with God’s self; God is here with us as we gather to be fed by God; God is with us as we leave the church and go about our daily lives. God is hanging on a cross, drawing us to himself, and God is risen from the dead to be with us always.   AMEN

Epiphany Last Year B: Come, Let Us Go To The Mountain Of The Lord

I Kings 19:9-18
II Peter 1:16-21
Mark 9:2-9

Our scripture readings have at least two themes in common. One is that of being on a mountain. The other is that of the human tendency to wrongly assume and presume. In the First Book of the Kings, we have Elijah on the run because he has just destroyed the prophets of Baal, and so he is afraid of what King Ahab and Queen Jezebel will do to him if they find him. He finally makes it to Mount Horeb, where our story takes place. In the Gospel according to Mark, we have Jesus taking Peter, James, and John up a mountain where he is transfigured and meets with Elijah (making his second mountaintop appearance this morning), and Moses (who is known for his mountaintop conversations with God on Mount Sinai or Mount Horeb, where we just met Elijah). Then, in the Second Letter from Peter, we hear Peter recalling the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain that we heard about in the gospel reading. That takes care of the first common theme.

The second common theme, that of God combating the human tendency to wrongly assume and presume, is a little more subtle. When Elijah finally meets with God on the mountain, the prophet complains that he is the only one left who is loyal to God. God tells him that is not true; there are seven thousand worshippers of God left. When Peter, James, and John are coming down from the mountain after the transfiguration, Jesus warns them to not tell anyone about it until after his resurrection. That seems an odd thing to say, and Jesus says that same thing to people throughout the Gospel of Mark, but as the abbot mentioned in a sermon a month ago, maybe Jesus did not want people to wrongly assume that he was who they wanted and expected him to be, because they would get it wrong. Jesus was and is different from and more than anyone could have ever thought. Just as Elijah had jumped to a wrong conclusion until he was corrected by God on the mountain, so would have the disciples had they not been silenced by Jesus.

It is the same with us; our experiences with God can cause us to jump to wrong conclusions about God, ourselves, and the people around us. That doesn’t happen because we are stupid. It happens simply because compared to God, our perspective is so small that we can see only a small glimpse of the infinite. We need to compare our experiences and understanding of God with others’. They won’t be the same, because just as everyone is different, so will their relationship with God be different. But we do need to be sure that our assumptions and presumptions about God are not totally out of bounds. As Peter says in his letter this morning: “…no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation…”.

So we need to be always open to others’ interpretations of and understanding of God. We don’t have to blindly accept everything anyone says, and we can honestly and politely let people know when our beliefs differ from theirs and we think they are wrong, but we ought to be open to the fact that they may be on to something – whether or not they are of a different opinion, a different denomination, or even an entirely different religion. We can do that by listening to others and allowing them to listen to us. We can also do it by reading works by people from different cultures and times. More specifically we can do that by being open to the Holy Spirit as we meet together here; seeing Jesus shining through each other, in the scriptures read, in the psalms sung, in prayers offered, and in the food on the altar. So let us go to the mountain of the Lord – the table where we meet with God individually and as a group, and let us not forget that every time we are up here, we are with everyone else at every other Holy Table with Jesus around the world and throughout time. The Lord is here to feed us individually and as a group. We all have much to learn from each other and from God.   AMEN

Epiphany III Year B: Be All That You Can Be

Jeremiah 3:21-4:2
I Corinthians 7:17-23
Mark 1:14-20

Our first scripture reading describes how the people of Israel and Judah had been relying on everything but God: foreign idols, military alliances, and economic power, and all it got them was disaster – the Kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyria and the Kingdom of Judah would be conquered by Babylon. Jeremiah says that the only way to get out of their mess is to confess their sins, stop relying on false hopes, and put their trust in God alone. Only then will they gain their true vocation as a blessing to the world around them, rather than their hollow and ultimately self-defeating pretensions as players in world politics.

While nowadays we would not be as nonchalant about slavery as Paul was, he does make a valid point in our second scripture reading about using our circumstances for good. It is true that we should not stay in bad or harmful situations, but we also ought not to waste all our time and energy constantly fantasizing about and pretending to be who we are not. We should instead rely on God to make us the best we that we can be, and then use our lives to help others.

In our gospel story, Mark tells about God using people just as they are: Andrew, Simon, James, and John went directly from fishing to following Jesus. Jesus gave them necessary training along the way and then sent the Holy Spirit to further guide them, but they never had to pretend to be who they weren’t. They had been faithful to their jobs as fishers, so Jesus upgraded them into fishers of people. Had they not been doing their jobs at the Sea of Galilee at the time, they would not have been able to respond to the call of Jesus.

It is the same with us. We don’t need to shy away from improving our economic situation or from educational opportunities, but we also don’t need to pretend to be anyone other than ourselves. God can not use fake images to bless people. God uses real people to make the world a better place. We must never rely on the false gods of wealth and social prestige to save us. God alone is the source of our being and fulfillment. Underneath all of our pretensions and dissemblings, we find that we are exactly who we ought to be, even though we are not the fully mature selves we will be someday if we only let God grow us. God does not make junk, and if we trust in God, God will take the good and worthy persons that we are and bring them to perfection. Like Jeremiah, Israel, Judah, Paul, Andrew, Simon, James, and John, we will be a blessing to the world around us. But we must start by being only who we are and trusting in God alone.   AMEN

Advent II Year B: Eternal Impermanence

Isaiah 40:1-11
II Peter 3:8-15a,18
Mark 1:1-8

Peter and Isaiah both remind us of an important truth in our first two readings this morning: the truth of material impermanence and divine eternity. They speak of people as grass that withers and of the dissolving of the elements while reminding us that the word of God will last forever and time is of no consequence to God for whom a thousand years is like a day and a day is like a thousand years. Another way to put it might be: all material things exist temporally because God creates by bringing them into existence, sustains by holding them in existence, and negates by ending their existence while God is eternal because God is existence. We all know that, but we sure don’t live like it, and that causes problems for everyone involved. We live like the things around us are so important that we push God to the background. Our hands are so full of temporary things that we can’t grab on to the eternity of God.

The things we fill our hands with aren’t bad; they are good, because God made them. They aren’t bad – they just aren’t God, and we are created to live with God. We don’t have to throw away our clothes and ovens and wear hair shirts and eat raw food like John the Baptist, but if that’s the only way we can get over the hurdle of material possessiveness, then that way of life is perfectly ok. To live as we should with eternity at the center of our lives, we must walk the middle way of rejoicing in the goodness of every person and every thing while never trying to possess them as substitutes for God. The best way to worship God is to enjoy and be grateful for the universe God has made. Part of that enjoyment of the world is realizing that it is not the ultimate reality and it won’t last. The noble path of the middle way or apatheia or detachment teaches us that the existence of every person and every thing in the world depends on God, not on us. It also teaches us that our own existence depends on God, not on us. The confession of those truths frees us from the heavy burden of over-inflated self-importance and replaces it with the yoke of responsible stewardship. We must truly and deeply love and respect every person and every thing without trying to possess them, and we must gratefully let them go when their time or our time is up.

Living that way is true holiness and true prophecy, as Peter and Isaiah call us to live in today’s scriptures. It is a life of holiness because it puts God at the center of everything, and it is a life of prophecy because it is the truth. The world around us will end someday. Many of us have already experienced our worlds coming to an end through unexpected tragedies or twists of fate. We need to start practicing lovingly letting go of things so that when the time comes to really do it, we can. We need to free our hands from desperately grasping the world around us so that we can hold on to God – not just for our own good, but so that we can be ready to help the people around us whose worlds are coming to an end and who need to hear of God’s unending life of joy and peace. We can be the prophet crying “Comfort” in the confusing wilderness of the world around us. We can prepare a way for the Lord, who comes to baptize us all with the Holy Spirit of true life, true existence, and eternity. The universe around us is beautiful and wonderful and good. God is infinitely more so. May we use the wonderful world around us to make a way for the Lord to come to us, instead of as a wall to keep the Lord away from us.   AMEN