Lent I 2018

This morning I deliver a sermon I don’t want to preach. You’ll see what I mean in a bit.

We have now begun our 40 day Lenten journey to Holy Week, Good Friday, and Resurrection – “new life in Christ.”  Most of us in the room here have been around for a while.  We completed our youth a long time ago.  We’ve been through marriage and family and career, and now maybe grandchildren, and we wonder “new life in Christ?”  Is there anything “new” at this point?  Haven’t we just about seen it all?  Can there be any growth, any progress, any deepening of our Christian faith?  Or has our faith become as calcified as our knee joints sometimes feel?  When we learned to balance a check book did we also learn who Jesus was for us and it hasn’t changed much since?

It matters who we think Jesus is, and what is important to him.  If you’re going to follow someone you better have a pretty good idea of who he or she is or you might find yourself in a place you never intended to go. And, of course, Jesus is not the same person for everyone – not even for everyone who claims to be a follower.

“What would Jesus do?”  That’s what it all boils down to, and unfortunately he is no longer in the flesh to tell us straight out. So, we have to keep our ears and our hearts and our minds open and pray that we get it right, always mindful that we might not.

In today’s gospel we hear that Jesus is baptized by John and receives God’s holy spirit. He returns to his homeland of Galilee up north and begins to proclaim the good news. Now not everyone agrees today on what that “good news” looks like.  For example, some people think it means doing away with abortions, but others disagree. Some people think the good news means strictly following the law of the land, while others claim to act out of a “higher law.”  Interpretation is everything.

Now in spite of all the various interpretations of who Jesus is and what he would do, I believe there are a handful of basic interpretations upon which all of Jesus’ followers would agree.  For example, every person is to be respected by virtue of their creation. If God saw fit to bring someone into existence, we must show that person respect.  Even the worst, most heinous criminals must be respected as human beings and given due process under the law.  And with respect comes consideration for everyone’s unique and specific personality. (You know you are the only person like you in the entire world, right?  Unique and specific.)  There is no level playing field in this life.  Instead everyone has been dealt a hand and like master poker players our job is to play the hand we’ve been dealt to the best of our ability.  There are other things we all agree on, but this morning I would like to focus on just one – in fact, we said it just a few minutes ago when we recited the Ten Commandments, and that is: murder is wrong.

Now “murder” and “killing” are not the same thing.  We sometimes kill animals for food or protection, but that’s not a sin, not evil.  We kill human beings sometimes when they become a danger to themselves or others, and in times of war.  In such cases it is always a tragedy but its not a sin.  “Murder” is defined in the religious community as the “wanton destruction of innocent life.”  Even when there is no immediate threat or danger, a murderer will take a life because he or she decides it would be better for them to do so.

In a few minutes we will pray for the 17 teenagers and teachers who were murdered in Florida this past week.  They posed neither a threat nor a danger to the shooter, yet their lives ended.  They had families and friends.  The were making plans for college and work.  They were just beginning their lives and then, in a moment, no more.  This is not the sermon I want to preach, yet I feel to keep silent dishonors those who died.  What would Jesus do?  The coach who took the bullets so his students could escape – he is the Christ. He gave his life as a ransom for many.

But what about us?  What us as followers of Christ?  What would he have us do?  Here’s my answer:

I don’t claim to know what a legislative correction looks like.  I don’t think changing our laws, by itself, will solve completely what’s going on.  And I’m not opposed to guns.  If people want to hunt, or if they live in an unsafe neighborhood and feel they need a gun for protection, I see nothing wrong with that.  In fact, I wish the hunters would take out a few more of the deer that eat the flowers and shrubs here in our churchyard.  But an assault rifle in the hands of a troubled and unstable teenager makes absolutely no sense to me.  As I read the Constitution that’s not what the 2nd Amendment is about anyway.  Some may disagree – okay.

But something needs to change, and we, as followers of Christ, need to be part of it.  What would Jesus do?  Overturn the money exchange in the Temple courtyard.  Make a fuss.  Speak out. Call. Write. Visit.  Demand saner laws.  I don’t have the whole scenario worked out, but we need to start because if nothing changes, nothing will change.  If nothing changes now, we cannot expect a different outcome in the future.

Finally, what’s at stake here?  Were the teenagers who died “our children” or were they “Florida’s children?”  If we answer “Florida’s children” we are in trouble.  Those teenagers were ours.  They were family, our sons and our daughters, and they must not die in vain.  Columbine. Sandy Hook. Benton, KY, San Bernardino, Marysville, WA, Knoxville, Parkland, and that’s just a partial list.  Who’s to say Saugerties won’t be next?  Do you think we are immune? Do you think we are special or more favored than those other communities?  Who’s to say some troubled person down the street is not storing up guns and ammunition right now?  It’s legal.

What would Jesus do?  Act.  The time to act is now, not when they start carrying the body bags out of the high school.  I’m sorry to be so graphic.  Remember, I didn’t want to preach this sermon and I hope I never have to again.  But if we sit idle and silent, when another shooting occurs, the blood of the murdered will be partially on our hands.

We follow someone who believes that every life is sacred and worthy and valuable.  Let’s prove him right.  In His name.  Amen.

Easter IV, 2018

Every year on the fourth Sunday in Easter season we hear readings about Jesus as the Good Shepherd. 

You may remember it from last year and it will happen again in 2019.  Shepherds and sheep were a crucially important part of life in the ancient Middle East.  Sheep were well adapted to the climate and terrain, and they provided essential materials to sustain human communities, such as meat, milk (which could also be made into cheese) and wool for clothing, which was especially helpful on chilly nights.  However, being somewhat dimwitted and having no features like horns or fangs for fighting and defense, sheep needed guardians, protectors, shepherds.  Because if sheep disappeared; if they were completely wiped out by predators, life in the ancient world would change dramatically.  Shepherding was an essential role in the survival and well-being of ancient communities, and so it is not surprising that the bible contains over a hundred references to sheep and shepherding.

Shepherds were strong, constant, courageous, and dedicated workers who knew each sheep under their care individually.  So why, I ask myself, does this topic always occur during the Easter season?  What does the risen life have to do with the devoted and caring work of shepherds?  Well, if you ask the question that way, the answer is: not much, really.  However, if you listen carefully to the gospel I just read to you (John 10: 11-18) there is a line that provides a link, a point of connection to the passion narrative: Jesus says, “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  As soon as we hear that line, we are instantly transported back to Calvary and cross, agony and death.  Of all the biblical references to shepherds in the bible, this is the only one in which the shepherd considers sacrificing his own life so that the sheep may live.

I wonder what it takes to do that?

We hear stories of soldiers on the battlefield taking enemy fire to save their brothers.  Or you may have heard the recent news story of a police officer who traded places with a hostage of a bank robbery and it cost him his life.  I tell myself that I would gladly – immediately – sacrifice my own life for one of my children. (Although I also pray regularly that neither of my children are ever in a position that their lives are threatened).

Now what these three examples have in common: the soldier, the police officer, the parent, is that they all have a deep, deep, all-encompassing love.  I’m not talking about romantic love, but rather a love that puts the welfare of the other above one’s own welfare.  They all possess a love greater than life itself and so one life is sacrificed in the service of love.

The gospel reading is very clear about who will NOT give their life for the sheep: the hired hand, the paid-by-the-hour shepherd who is just doing his job - watching sheep.  “They pay me to watch, not to die.”  The hired hand has no love for the sheep themselves.  When his shift is over, presumably, he goes home and doesn’t give the sheep another thought.

On the other hand, John tells us that Jesus is the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep.  Now there is another and more important aspect to this arrangement.  I’d be willing to bet that in those three examples I gave you: soldier, police, parent, the only thing in their minds was showing their love.  The soldier sees that his brothers are in danger so he steps into the line of fire and takes the bullets himself.  The police officer is not thinking, “Is this a situation where I might lose my life?”  No, all he thinks is that a young woman, a mother of two needs to survive so she can continue to raise her children.  And the parent will do anything, give anything, stop at nothing to preserve the life of a child.  Worries, concerns, or fears of losing one’s own life in the process never come up.  There is only love.  And when we show our love for another we may end up losing our life.

But its not suicide, in fact, if anything it’s the exact opposite of suicide.  The goal of suicide is to end one’s life.  The goal of love is to give everything to the beloved, even if that is the ultimate gift – one’s own life.

The paradox of love is that when we love someone we give everything we’ve got. We empty ourselves out.  It’s all gone.  We drain every last drop of who we are, and yet……we feel like we are the one’s who have received it everything.

When we love deeply we will lose our life.  We surrender it all to the beloved and on some occasions that might mean our physical death as well.

John’s gospel is not a training manual for beginning shepherds. Instead John uses the common and well-known profession of herding to illustrate what’s involved in the deepest expression of love.  Jesus said, “As the Father loves me, so I love you.  Now you love one another.”

In Christ’s name.  Amen.

- Rev. Michael Phillips, Vicar