Archive for the ‘personal’ category

He’s Looking at You, Kid – a sermon on Isaiah 64:1-9 and Luke 1:46-48 by Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

December 3, 2017

So here we are on the opening day of Advent. Our word, Advent, comes from a Latin word meaning “coming.” We light the Advent wreath, week by week, to mark our anticipation, our “looking forward”, and we have a new liturgical color, blue, that symbolizes the hope that we have as we wait. But it’s very easy for all of our symbolism to be swallowed up by the great Coming of the Christmas Holiday, with all of our shopping and sending cards and responding to Christmas appeals for donations and decorating our homes and participating in holiday events. All of those are good things and real parts of our lives that won’t just go away, so it will take real concentration if we also want to make the quieter, more intentional journey of Advent over the next three weeks – only three, because this year the fourth Sunday of Advent is also Christmas Eve, so our Advent is unusually short.

A man named Bernard of Clairvaux, who lived about 900 years ago, gave an Advent sermon about the three Comings of Jesus Christ – not just one, but three.

The first Coming is the historical coming we celebrate at Christmas, the coming of God himself into the world as a newborn child – a child who was both fully and truly God, and also at the same time absolutely human: who cried and nursed at his mother’s breast and had to have his diapers changed, the whole package of humanity.

The second Coming of Christ is his future coming. Our Lord, who walked on this very earth for 33 years, and was killed, and rose again, and returned to the Father, still in the flesh, is going to come back to us. And when he comes, all evil will be destroyed once and for all, and every tear will be wiped from our eyes, and this good creation will be restored to the perfect goodness it was intended to have.

And the third Coming is between the two. “This middle coming,” Bernard said, “is like a road that leads from the first coming to the last. At the first, Christ was our redemption; at the last, he will become manifest as our life; but in this middle way he is our rest and our consolation.” This is the coming of the Spirit of Christ to his people, making his home in our hearts, being our Teacher and our Comforter and our Guide.

But if we are going to observe a holy and meaningful Advent, we’ll need to set aside time and energy however it is most helpful – because each of our lives is so different, with different demands and concerns. I hope that the devotional books we got this year will be useful and helpful. It can be a useful practice to make an Advent wreath at home – Carroll and I just have four little painted candleholders, it doesn’t need to be anything fancy – and to light them each evening during supper as we do with our wreath here, one candle this week, and two the next, and so forth. The important thing is to be intentional about living each day of Advent as we are able, because three weeks of business as usual plus Christmas preparations will go by in the blink of an eye. Stop, and take time to be astonished at the humility and compassion of God in his first Coming. Take time to prepare your heart and mind for the glory of his second Coming – being ready always, because he reminded us that no one knows the day and time of that Coming. Take time, too, to listen to the voice of the God that is with you always. There is no right or wrong way to observe Advent except to fail to observe it at all.

Today, in the first reading, Isaiah is in perfect Advent mode, pouring out his heart. “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!” he cries out, longing for the coming that would not happen for another 700 years or so. He remembers well what had happened when God had appeared to his people before, long before, when he had terrified and destroyed the powerful army of Egypt and had appeared to Moses and the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai in a vision of smoke and fire and thunder and lightning. He remembers and imagines the coming of God to be like a fire that blazes up in dry brushwood, so hot that it sets the water boiling furiously. He imagines the coming of God as a majestic and fearful display of power, “No eye has seen a God besides you,” Isaiah says, “who acts for those who wait for him.”

But in meditating on the glory of God he is also keenly aware of his own sinfulness, and the sinfulness of his people. We can easily understand that – just imagine how God must perceive what is happening today, in our time. Imagine God watching the evening news (and of course, we know that he does know and watch all things) – but just imagine what he thinks of the violence and the hatred and the name-calling, racism and sexual assault, lies and accusations. We can say with Isaiah, “In our sins we have been for a long time, and shall we be saved?”

Even our righteous deeds, he says, even our very best human efforts are like stained and ruined garments. Our noblest actions are spoiled by our pride and greed and self-centeredness, our resentment and our fear. We grow older, and more frail every day and there is nothing we can do against the limitations of our mortality – and not for lack of trying. We are carried away on the wave of our sins.

But then Isaiah comes to the real heart of the matter. “But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay and you are the potter. We are all the work of your hands.” God is indeed majestic and awesome and glorious. We are indeed desperately sinful, and our lives fade away like the grass of the field. And yet, God is our Father. We belong to him. He is the potter and our very lives take shape in his hands. That is the truth. “Don’t be angry,” Isaiah prays, “Don’t remember our sins forever. Please, look, we are your own. Please, come, and look on us.”

I remember more than once, when my kids were little, they would come to me when I was busy with all the things I was always busy with, wanting to tell me something that was important to them. And they would chatter on and on and I would nod and say “uh-huh, uh-huh”, listening with half my attention until they got frustrated. Then they would pull my arm or tug on my skirt and demand, “Mama, LOOK” They needed my full attention, my real compassion and concern, and they were right to demand it, just as Isaiah does. “Behold, please look! We are all your people.”

The first Coming of Jesus wasn’t anything like people expected. It was nothing like the fearful appearance of God that Moses had described. No thunder and lightning, no fire and smoke. Just the tiniest of human cells, quickened by the breath of the Spirit and implanted in the womb of a Virgin. That was all. But Mary knew right away that Isaiah’s prayer had been fulfilled at long, long last. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.” He looked.

The meaning of the first Coming of Jesus Christ is exactly this – that he has looked on us, his own people, sinful and small and unremarkable as we are, he looked on us with favor. He looked on us with compassion. He looked on us with love. God did rend the heavens and come down, to make his home among us, to be one of us.

As we begin our observance of Advent, we follow the example of Mary, who said “yes” to the Coming of God into the world through her, and who pondered all the words she heard about her son, keeping them in her heart. I want to close with these words from the Advent sermon of Bernard of Clairvaux:

Where are these words to be kept? In the heart certainly, as the Prophet says I have hidden your sayings in my heart so that I do not sin against you. Keep the word of God in that way: Blessed are those who keep it.

Let it penetrate deep into the core of your soul and then flow out again in your feelings and the way you behave; because if you feed your soul well it will grow and rejoice. Do not forget to eat your bread, or your heart will dry up. Remember, and your soul will grow fat and sleek.

If you keep God’s word like this, there is no doubt that it will keep you, for the Son will come to you with the Father: the great Prophet will come, who will renew Jerusalem, and he is the one who makes all things new. For this is what this coming will do: just as we have been shaped in the earthly image, so will we be shaped in the heavenly image.

Just as the old Adam was poured into the whole man and took possession of him, so in turn will our whole humanity be taken over by Christ, who created all things, has redeemed all things, and will glorify all things.”

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Half a Cloak Is Better Than One, a sermon on Matthew 25:31-46 by Kathryn Boswell

November 26, 2017

There is a very famous story about a man named Martin of Tours, who lived in the fourth century, just when Christianity had been declared legal in the Roman Empire. The background of this story is that it happened when Martin was still in his teens, a soldier in the Roman cavalry, and he was in the process of studying the basics of the faith in preparation for his baptism. At that time, a person studied quite a long time before they were baptised, and during their time of study they were called “catechumens”. As the story goes, Martin was in the city of Amiens with his cohort, and he passed by a beggar, who was barely clothed in rags and shivering with the cold. Martin immediately took off his warm cloak, and cutting it in half with his sword, he gave half to the beggar and wrapped himself in what was left of it. That night, Martin had a dream in which he saw Jesus himself, speaking to an angel. He saw that Jesus was wrapped in the very piece of cloak that Martin had given the beggar, and Jesus was saying to the angel, “Martin, who is a mere catechumen, gave this to me!”

Of course, this is a legend that has been passed down through the centuries and not inspired Scripture, but I would say that there is likely more than a grain of truth in a story that is so consistent with what we know about the real Martin, who was a courageous and dedicated Christian all his life, and the first person ever to be a conscientious objector – for which he was nearly executed. The great thing about this story is that it’s such a perfect illustration of two things that are important parts of the parable we read today about the sheep and the goats. First of all, when Martin saw the poor beggar, ragged and freezing, he immediately acted with compassion. He couldn’t pass by that poor, shivering man while he himself walked comfortably warm in his soldier’s cloak; his heart compelled him to action, and in his abundance of compassion he hacked his cloak in two pieces so that he could share his comfort with the beggar. He wasn’t even officially a Christian yet – but it was just something he had to do; he just knew it was right.

The other thing about the story that fits in so well with the parable of the Sheep and the Goats is the dream that Martin had, of Jesus clothed in his half a cloak. When Martin clothed the beggar it was an act of service not only to that poor man, but to Jesus himself. That is because when Jesus chose to be born on earth as a poor, unremarkable human being, he set his identity forever with us, his human creatures, and most especially with the poor and the vulnerable and the overlooked – the “least of these, my brothers and sisters” as he says in the parable. And so in the story, Martin’s act of kindness to a poor stranger in Amiens resounded to heaven itself.

And the idea that God takes it personally when his people are shown compassion, or when they are not shown compassion, didn’t begin in the New Testament with the birth of Jesus. Way back in the first book of the Bible, when God first called a man named Abraham out of his homeland, away from his family and everything he had ever known, to be the father of God’s own people, God promised this: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse.” The God of Israel tied himself so intimately, so personally, with the nation of Israel that a kindness to Israel was a kindness to God. And an attack on Israel was an attack on God. Throughout the Old Testament God’s judgment was on those who opposed his beloved people, and his blessing was on those who showed them compassion. That was part of his covenant with them.

When Israel was stubborn or rebellious, as people are, their God disciplined them, as a father disciplines the children he loves, sometimes even in anger. But always, God maintained that intimate, personal connection to his people. We know how that is in our human relationships. I might criticize my brother, maybe even harshly – but if someone outside my family were to criticize him, or to mistreat him, I would be personally offended. God chose to relate to Israel in that intimate kind of way.

Remember that Jesus was telling this parable that we read this morning to Jews, who knew all about God’s covenant love and care for them and their nation. It was their own family history to remember how he had fought against the powerful nation of Egypt on their behalf, how he had come to their aid during their wanderings in the wilderness, how he had blessed their relationships with the surrounding nations during the time of King David. They knew that it was God’s way to involve himself personally with the people he loved.

What Jesus was teaching that was a new idea was this: that he had come to do what God had always intended: to extend this intimate connection to mankind beyond the boundaries of his little nation Israel. “I will bless those who bless you,” he had said to Abraham, “and him who dishonors you I will curse. And in you,” God had continued, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” In his love for all his creatures, God’s ultimate plan had never been to love only Israel and throw the rest of the world to the dogs. His heart was always set on extending his love and blessing through Israel to every man, and woman and child on the earth. “God so loved the world,” John wrote. And especially, he has tender concern and fierce loyalty to the poor and the helpless, the unloved and the unwanted in every part of the world.

And that brings us to the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, where, in extending that kind of tender concern beyond the boundaries of Israel to all the families of the earth, Jesus extends that original covenant promise to all the nations. “When you bless one another you are blessing me,” he is telling us, “but when you dishonor one another you are dishonoring me and bringing down judgment on yourself. A kindness to the least of my family members is a personal kindness to me. And to pass by the least one of my family members in their time of need is to pass me by.”

Maybe the most striking thing about this parable is that every one of us finds ourselves on the King’s left hand and on his right hand. We are all both sheep and goats, depending on the day and the time and how much sleep we got last night. Which of us has, at some time, even many times, had compassion on someone in need, has fed the hungry or given warm clothes to someone who was cold or visited someone who was sick or lonely. Have we opened our home to our neighbors during an ice storm or brought dinner to someone who had surgery or bought food for the food pantry? Of course! So, we are all sheep, every one of us, because Jesus says, “As you did this to one of the least of my brothers or sisters you did it to me.” But then again, which of us has ever looked the other way, pretending we didn’t notice, when we passed a homeless man begging on the sidewalk, or decided we just didn’t have time to go see someone who was lonely, or who was in the hospital? Have we ever avoided a lonely neighbor so we wouldn’t get sucked into a lengthy conversation? The truth is that we are all goats, too, really, every one of us, because Jesus also said, “As you did not do this or that for one of the least of these my brothers or sisters, you did not do it for me.”

Just exactly because he has chosen to set his personal, intimate love and concern on all people, we find ourselves meeting Jesus every day, and just like the meeting of Martin of Tours with the shivering beggar, every meeting is a new opportunity for blessing that will resound to the heavens. We often just think of this parable as a picture of the great judgment day at the end of time: in fact, my Bible titles this section “The Final Judgment.” And we do believe, because Jesus taught us, that there will be a final day of judgment. But remember how the parable began, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.”

On this day we call Christ the King Sunday we affirm that the risen, ascended, Jesus Christ is enthroned in his glory, not at some time in the future, but now, today, and for all eternity. And that means that the judgment between the sheep and the goats is about the choices we make, not at the end of time, but now, today and everyday. As the people of Jesus Christ, the parable of the Sheep and the Goats is a warning to us to recognize our King in the faces and in the places and in the times we least expect to see him. And it is also a promise to us that when we do reach out with compassion to anyone, to our family members, to our brothers and sisters here in the Church, to our neighbors, and especially to the poor and the vulnerable and the stranger and the overlooked, those he names as his brothers and sisters, then we are serving our King and the blessing resounds to the heavens.

What Are You Going to Do with That Thing? A sermon on Matthew 25:14-30 by Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

November 19, 2017

So today we read the story we call “The Parable of the Talents.” And maybe the first thing to say about this story is to explain what a talent is. In English, a talent is an ability, a special ability, like having a beautiful singing voice or an ability to fix things or a head for mathematical ideas. It’s usually something we say about other people – rather than ourselves – because we think of it as something extra, a gift. “I’m not talented,” people say, “I just like to sing, or I just like to noodle around with broken stuff, or I just enjoy playing with numbers. But I’m not really talented.” That’s how we think about the word talent, I think, mostly, so that we might think Jesus’ Parable of the Talents is a story to encourage us not to be shy about using our natural abilities – if we have any.

But actually, that’s not what Jesus was talking about. Our English word, talent, was borrowed from the Greek word talanton, but as words do, the meaning has changed. The original word was actually a measure of weight. A talanton was a big, heavy chunk of something valuable – a talent of gold or silver or copper – that was worth a very large amount. The footnote in my Bible says that one talent would have been worth about 20 years wages for an average working man. Depending on where you were in the ancient world, and what kind of metal you had a talent of, the value of a talent could vary quite a bit, but it was always worth a considerable sum. So clearly, each of the servants in the story was entrusted with something enormously valuable, even servant number three with his one talent. So that’s what a talent is, in the world of this story, a hefty hunk of treasure.

And the second thing we have to know to hear this parable correctly is this – to remember who Jesus was telling the story to. Throughout his ministry, Jesus reached out to everyone, not just Jews but the Canaanite woman whose daughter was sick, the Roman centurion whose servant was dying – anyone in need. But he always directed his ministry primarily to his Jewish brothers and sisters. Remember, he told the Canaanite woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

So when Jesus tells a story about a Master who entrusts his servants with a treasure of immense worth, we can be sure that first of all he is talking about the treasure that was entrusted to the house of Israel. They had been entrusted with the riches of the written word, the writings of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms of King David. They had been entrusted with a Law unlike any of the laws of the surrounding nations, a law of justice tempered with mercy. They had been entrusted with the traditions of their worship and the glory of the Temple, constructed under the guidance of God himself. God had made his servant Israel into a nation for himself, a holy nation, and set them in the land he promised to their ancestor Abraham. And if all that were not enough, he set his own Presence among them, in the Most Holy Place within the Temple. A hefty hunk of treasure. An immeasurable wealth of precious gifts.

And, like the talents given to the servants in the parable, that wealth of gifts was intended from the very beginning to multiply and bear interest. When God first called Abraham, the father of all Jews, and promised him these treasures, he said, “I am going to make you a great nation, and I am going to make your name great, and I am going to pour so many blessings out on you that you will become a blessing, so that all the families of the whole earth will be blessed through you.” The treasures of Israel were intended from the very beginning to pay dividends throughout the whole earth. And yet, when Jesus told a story comparing a Pharisee – an upstanding, righteous, Jew – to a miserable tax collector, here’s the picture he drew of him: standing boldly before the altar of God, saying, “I thank you, Lord, that I’m not like other men – not like that miserable tax collector back there, for instance. I thank you that I keep your law perfectly.”

Living lives of religious purity and isolation, with careful and rigorous obedience to the Law, the Pharisees and Chief Priests and scholars had buried the treasure of Israel safely away, so safely that they had kept it out of the reach of the Gentiles, those unclean peoples of the earth – and even out of the reach of their own brothers and sisters, the multitudes of the poor and the sick and the troubled children of Israel. That’s why Jesus cried out to the teachers of the Law, “Woe to you! You load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves don’t even lift a finger to help!” The treasure of God’s chosen nation, the treasure of a God who came to his people in love, to heal and to save; that treasure had been buried away, and the blessing that should have overflowed to the families of the earth was held in fearful trust for a God that many Jews, especially the religious leaders, had come to see as a God of law, not a God of love. “Master, I knew you to be a hard man,” said the third servant, “so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.” And in the end, the way of fear only led to judgment, not blessing.

Jesus concludes the story by saying: “To the one who has will more be given, but to the one who has not, even what he has will be taken from him.” And that sounds so horribly unfair, so wrong. But we can see how that is exactly what happened with Israel. They had buried the riches of God’s salvation in self-righteousness and fear and legalism, instead of letting God bless the world through them as he had promised. And because of that, Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people, “I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits” – by which, incidentally, he was not referring to us Christians, because we were so much more righteous and holy and upstanding. He was talking about the sinners, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the lame and the blind and the deaf and the demon-possessed, the last and the least, who came to Jesus in their utter unworthiness and helplessness, and produced the fruit of love and thankfulness. “Truly I say to you,” Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the law, “the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.”

But it’s important, it’s crucial, for us NOT to read this story, in order to pass judgment on our brothers and sisters of Israel, first of all because they are still God’s beloved people, and he has by no means given up on them. But also, we need to hear the Parable of the Talents because as the Church of Jesus Christ we also have been entrusted with great and hefty treasures. We all have a lot to be thankful for in our individual lives – we have family and friends, homes to live in and food to eat, we have all had the blessing of an education, the ability to read and write, we are surrounded by the beauty of creation, I think particularly in our lovely North Country – the list could go on a long, long time.

But even more, as the people of God, as the Church of Jesus Christ, we have been entrusted with immense wealth: with the inspired Word of God; with the Good News of God’s love for the world; with the Sacrament of Baptism that unites us with God and one another; with the Sacrament of the Eucharist in which our God gives himself to us in the tangible elements of bread and wine; and with the indwelling Presence of His Holy Spirit – not in this building as he was present in the Temple but in our hearts, and even more powerfully in our midst as we gather together as his people. Treasures of great weight and unimaginable worth. And I think we could add to these treasures, too, the blessing of living in a country that allows us to worship God openly and freely.

If we hear the Parable of the Talents today, then, as Jesus’ word to us, we are called to ask ourselves how are we investing all these treasures he has entrusted to us? Because sometimes, just like Israel, the Church holds these treasures in fear. Sometimes Christians are so careful to maintain our own purity and self-righteousness, we fill ourselves so full of rules and regulations and condemnation that we fail completely to be what God intended, bearers of his love, “ambassadors of reconciliation” as Paul puts it, purveyors of grace, beacons of hope in a dark world.

Notice what the third servant says when he is called to give an account before the Master. “I knew you were a hard man,” he says, “I knew you reap where you didn’t sow and gather where you hadn’t even scattered any seed. I was afraid, so I went and hid my talent.” We can’t begin to invest the immense wealth God has given us if our image of God is of a hard and demanding Master, ready to condemn us if we put one toe out of line. The Church of that kind of God worships in fear. They obey the letter of the law to maintain the purity their God demands. They taking pride in their self-righteousness. They watch carefully to make sure nobody unworthy gets through their front doors. The Church of that God has buried its treasure pretty deep.

I have quite a few friends on facebook who are very anti-Christian, mostly because they have come in contact with that kind of Church. For them, and for more people than we might like to think, Christians are white people who don’t see racism as a problem, rich people who don’t care about the poor, people who think those who are gay or transgender are an abomination to God, people who hate Muslims, people who care about babies before they’re born but don’t really care if they have health care or adequate food or a chance to get an education after they’re born.

There was a song a few years ago called “Take Me to Church”, about a young man in Russia who was murdered for being gay, and some of the lyrics say, “Take me to church/ I’ll worship like a dog at the throne of your lies/ I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife”. These people, who are mostly decent, caring people, have come in contact with enough Christians who call themselves Christians but don’t look or act or sound anything like Jesus Christ, that they have become very wary of anything that calls itself Christian. A lot of people have become bitter towards the Church. And that is at least in part because the Church has buried, in fear, what was meant to be a blessing.

Because we know that when Jesus came down to make the one true God present and visible and touchable to us, he was nothing like that. Sinners – prostitutes, tax collectors, thieves and murderers, they were drawn to Jesus like starving people drawn to the scent of baking bread. The poor and the unwashed, lepers and the demon-possessed, little children and babies, they all flocked to Jesus by the thousands. Only the self-righteous were uneasy in his presence. If we are to be lights in the world we have to begin by seeing the Light that came into the world for who he really is. As John wrote, “There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love, because he first loved us.

A Church that invests the treasures of God in the world and reaps an abundance is a Church that knows that our God is not a hard Master, not a God of condemnation, but a God of love and mercy and grace. We have no excuse for self-righteousness, because we know that there is no earthly or heavenly reason that he should love and approve of us, except that it is his delight to do so. We have no reason for being exclusive, because we know if we only allowed good people in the Church we’d all have to stay home on Sunday morning. We have no reason to fear, because he has taught us to call him our Father. In Jesus we have seen God for who he is. He has entrusted us with wealth beyond imagining. It’s up to us to invest it wisely, for the blessing of his world.

And that’s why we do what we do: not out of the goodness of our hearts, but out of the abundance of God’s goodness entrusted to us. We invite and welcome in anyone who comes, no matter who they are, because God welcomes us, no matter who we have been. We share one another’s burdens in prayer, in our words and in our hearts and knitted into the warmth of shawls, because Christ himself intercedes for us continually. We do what we can to feed and clothe and provide for our neighbors out of the abundance of God’s provision for us. And as we do today, we pledge to God in thanksgiving a portion of what he has given us, for the work of the Church. In all that we do, we invest the great wealth entrusted to us, seeking the dividends of blessing to all the families of the earth, the children beloved by God.

Stormy Weather, a sermon by Mtr. Kathryn Boswell on Matthew 14:22-33

August 13, 2017

You can listen to this sermon, or read it, by taking the link below.

August 13, 2017, Stormy Weather – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

Is There Life after Doubt? – a sermon on John 20:19-31 by Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

April 23, 2017

To listen to this sermon, click here:   Z0000020

In the six short years since I’ve been here with you at St. Philip’s, we’ve had to say good-bye to far too many of our beloved friends – it seems like so many funerals and memorial services for such a small church family. It’s hard on those of us who are left behind. It’s almost impossible to look out over the pews on Sunday morning without noticing those empty places that our friends used to occupy – Harriett and Ruth and Dot and Joan and Laura – and to feel that loss all over again. That sadness is a right and proper thing, because they were all so important to us, and they all gave so much of themselves to us and to the Church for years and years. But I can say with confidence today that all of the good people who have gone on before us have gone in the firm assurance of the hope that we proclaimed together last week – the hope of Christ’s Resurrection, and the steadfast love of the Father, and the promise that death no longer has the last word. Those holy women who were part of our St. Philip’s family, and our friend Marge, and my Mom, and so many other sisters and brothers in the Lord, went home to be with God in peace, even joyfully, because they held firm to the truth, the real substance of what we celebrate at Easter.

But that doesn’t mean they never had any doubts during their lifetime among us. I think it’s safe to say that every human being, no matter how rock-solid their faith might be, is confronted with the thing we call doubt at some time in their lives – and generally, I would say, many times in their lives. It is a natural part of life in this world that we have questions – why has God allowed such terrible suffering to happen to innocent people or why is God silent when we have cried out to him or why do the rich just seem to get richer and the poor poorer? Why doesn’t God reward us when we do the right thing? Why is there so much injustice? Why so little fairness? Why why why? And our questions lead to uncertainty, and our uncertainty to fear – because it is fear that is the heart of all our doubts. Whether they are intellectual or spiritual or ethical, it’s all about fear, and fear is the enemy of life.

As today’s gospel reading opens, it’s still Easter Day: “On the evening of that day,” John writes, “the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’” We can easily understand their fear. Just two days earlier almost every one of them – all but John and a few of the women – had fled in terror as the Temple guards and the Roman legions had seized Jesus and condemned him to death. And the howling mob, egged on by the Jewish authorities, had thrown themselves in on the side of the killers.

Which one of us wouldn’t be cowering in terror in a locked room, wondering what on earth was coming next and how were they going to survive now that Jesus, their leader and teacher and friend, was dead and buried. Fear, and its close cousin despair, must have filled that locked room on that first Easter evening like clouds of black, choking smoke. But suddenly Jesus was there, right in the middle of them. Remember we read a few weeks ago, Luke tells us that they thought he was a ghost at first, reasonably enough, until he urged them to touch him, to feel the solidness of flesh and bone that meant he was no ghost but a living man. And then, John says, then they were glad when they saw the Lord. Glad and relieved and amazed and stunned: all those things together, I imagine!

Fast forward eight days, though, and we find the disciples right back in that locked room. Except this time Thomas is with them. Even having seen Jesus alive and solid and real, the disciples obviously hadn’t completely overcome the fear that still held them captive. They’d been telling Thomas about seeing Jesus, but Thomas was as doubtful as they had been. “Listen, I’d have to see for myself,” he told them, “because unless I see the scars in his hands and feet and side, unless I touch them with my own hands, how can I be sure it’s really Jesus himself?” And once again Jesus is suddenly just there, right in the middle of them. Locked doors aren’t an issue for somebody who just got the better of Death itself, clearly. And just like he had done with the disciples eight days earlier, he let Thomas touch him and be assured that it was really himself, not a ghost or an impostor, but the man, Jesus, that Thomas knew and loved and worshiped. “Don’t disbelieve,” he said to Thomas, “believe!”

When I read this story about the doubting disciples – because it’s only fair to say that Thomas wasn’t the only one with doubts – I am filled with gratitude to see how gentle and loving Jesus was in response to his fearful friends. Remember, he had told them, time and time again, as they traveled together; he had told them exactly what was going to happen. “The Son of Man must suffer at the hands of the authorities and be killed, and on the third day rise again.” Here they were, the hand-picked friends of the Lord, trained and taught by his word and example for three years, and yet when the time came and everything he had told them was going to happen happened – they went all to pieces and ran away in terror and locked themselves in a room like little children.

But when Jesus came to them he came to reassure them, to lay their doubts and fears to rest, gently, kindly, “Touch me – do I feel like a ghost to you?” he said. “Here, my friend, put your finger right here where the nail pierced my flesh – don’t disbelieve any longer, but believe!” Having shared in the full experience of our frail humanity, Jesus never, in any way, despises our doubts and fears. But lovingly, without condemnation or rebuke, he reassures us, even those of us who are not able to see or touch him in the flesh. “Blessed are those who have not seen,” he said to Thomas, speaking of us, who would come after him with our own doubts, “and yet have believed.”

And John tells us why it is so important for us to overcome our doubts. “These things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is truly the Christ of God, and that by believing you may have life.” Faith is like breathing; it connects us with the source of our life. When John talks about believing, he isn’t talking about knowing the right stuff about Jesus. Having faith doesn’t mean having a correct theology of salvation or passing an exam on the Nicene Creed with full marks. Having faith is just what the disciples did as they stood fearful in that locked room – reaching out and holding onto Jesus. When we hold tight even in the midst of our fears and questions – in fact, especially in the midst of our fears and questions – when we choose to put our trust in him in the face of the opposition of the world, even when the voices inside us are telling us we had much better look for something a little more realistic – that is faith. And that faith, faith in the real person of Jesus: that is our lifeline, our connection to the “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” life that Peter says is our sure inheritance in him.

As Christians, we believe what we proclaimed last Sunday and every Sunday. And yet, as long as we live in this world we will surely find ourselves struggling with doubt and fear from time to time. But today, on the day we call “Thomas Sunday”, we are reassured that when doubts and questions and fears surround us Jesus isn’t disappointed in us or disgusted with us or disapproving of us. Instead he stands in our midst and invites us to reach out and hold on a little tighter, so that we can receive his life and his peace in the midst of our doubts.

There is a story in the gospel of Mark about a man who was in the very kind of situation that fills us all with fear and doubt: his son was desperately ill. When the suffering of the world intrudes itself into our own personal world, into the lives of the people we love, surely then we are the most tempted to question the power and the goodness of God? Nothing shatters our world like seeing our child, or our husband or wife, or our elderly parent – someone we cherish, whose life is closely bound up with our own – seeing them suffer, and being unable to do anything to help them. That’s how it was for this poor man. His child suffered from life-threatening seizures, unable even to speak. Whether that was caused by demonic powers, as people were apt to assume, or whether it had a medical cause, like a severe form of epilepsy, really doesn’t make any difference. The father was desperate, and he came to Jesus with a confused mixture of hope and fear, asking, “If you are able to help my son, please have pity and do something.” Jesus reassured him, replying, “Everything is possible if you believe.” And then the man answered Jesus with complete honesty, “I do believe. Help my unbelief.”

We can use that father’s prayer in our times of questioning and fear and doubts – in all those times when the promise of Easter and the joy of the Resurrection and the love of God feel frighteningly far away from us. It’s not that we have lost our faith in those times, any more than the disciples had stopped believing that Jesus was their Lord and Master. They believed, as we believe, but fear and grief and uncertainty had overwhelmed them as it so often does to us – until Jesus comes into the locked room of our doubts and breathes his peace into us, and we are able to cry out to him, “We believe, we do have faith – but please, help us in our unbelief!” And without condemnation, without rebuke, without disappointment, he holds out his nail-scarred hands to us, proof of his humanity and proof positive of his great love for us, and he invites to reach out to him and hold on tight.

Which Blind Man? – a sermon on John 9 by Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

March 26, 2017

There are a lot of amazing stories of healing in the gospels, but the one we read this morning is a bit different. I say that because this story that John tells us about the man who was healed of his blindness isn’t mainly about the man who was healed of his blindness. He did get healed, and that did cause quite a commotion and much consternation among the Pharisees, who tried to shut the whole thing down. First of all, they wouldn’t believe that the blind beggar they all used to see by the roadside was really this articulate man who now had clearly regained his sight. They insisted it must just be somebody who looked like him, until the man’s own parents timidly assured them that yes, indeed, that was their own son, and yes, indeed, he had been blind from the time he was born, but hey, he’s a grownup now and why didn’t they ask him to explain what happened – they weren’t looking for any trouble. And then the Pharisees tried to discredit the man’s own testimony because after all, he was born blind, and that meant he was born in sin – even Jesus’ own disciples thought that was true. And THEN the Pharisees argued that even if this stranger had healed the man’s eyes so that now he could see, surely that man must be as great a sinner as he was because he broke the Sabbath law forbidding anyone to work on the Sabbath. So there.

It’s quite a story. But the thing is, it’s not only, not even mainly, about the blind man, who did get healed so that he could see the world for the first time in his whole life, and who, when he finally found out who Jesus was, bowed down to worship him. This story isn’t just about one man who was blind, but now can see; it is about a whole lot of people who were blind, but who couldn’t or wouldn’t admit that they couldn’t see.

The man who was healed had suffered from physical blindness; he had been unable, his whole life, to perceive light and color and shape, and that is a terrible thing. But we all suffer from far worse kinds of blindness – worse, because we don’t even understand that we are blind, and worse, because if we don’t know that we are blind, we can never be healed of our blindness. As Helen Keller once said: “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”

We can certainly see the blindness of the disciples, when they came upon the poor blind man begging by the side of the road. Their first thought was, someone must have done something very bad to cause this to happen to him. So they asked Jesus, “Whose fault is it that this man was born blind? Was it his parents’ fault? Or did he do something to bring it upon himself?” The disciples seem to have been guilty of some bad logic there, because how could anyone possibly commit a sin that caused them to come into the world blind? But basically, they reasoned like this – suffering is caused by sin. Therefore, if you see a miserable person they must have done something evil to bring that misery upon themselves. And that is a comfortable thought for us, because it means that as long as we are well and well-off we must be good people who don’t deserve suffering.

That was an ancient Jewish way of thinking, but I think it is also a pretty common American way of thinking as well. Until suffering affects us personally, or someone close to us, it is very easy for us to allow ourselves to be blind to the reality of suffering in the world. We can’t help but see starving children and the bloody carnage of war on the TV news, but as long as we can just blame it on poverty, or the politics in that foreign country or the violence of that religion; as long as we can convince ourselves that that’s just the way it is in those uncivilized third-world countries, we can allow ourselves to be comfortably blind to our common humanity.

It is very easy – and much more comfortable – to shut our eyes to the reality that those men and women and children are no less human and no more deserving of their suffering than we are deserving of our comfort and lack of suffering. Blindness can be so much more comfortable than sight. But if we refuse to admit that we have been blind in our lack of compassion, which means literally our “suffering with” our fellow human beings, how can we ever be healed? As Jesus said, as long as we say that we are seeing clearly, our sin remains.

The Pharisees may have been blind in many ways, but they weren’t deaf. They understood that Jesus was talking about them even if they didn’t quite get the point. “I came into this world for judgment,” he said. “ I came so that people like this poor man who can’t see can regain their sight, yes, but I also came so that people who claim that they can see may be shown to be blind.” The Pharisees were offended by this, and they said to Jesus, “Are you calling us blind?” And Jesus answered them, “If you were truly blind, there wouldn’t be anything sinful about that. But as long as you insist that you are not blind, your sin is still with you.”

The only way – for us, just the same as for the Pharisees – the only way to be healed of our spiritual blindness is to admit, first of all, that we are blind. And that is a much trickier thing than it might sound. After all, how does a person who has been blind from birth even know that there is such a thing as seeing? If we are blind, how can we know what it is that we don’t see? What Jesus was calling the Pharisees to; what he is calling us to, is a radical humility that is open and willing to accept his diagnosis of our blindness, a diagnosis that we could never have found on our own, a diagnosis that by definition we couldn’t discover by ourselves.

As Jesus said about his own people, who came by the thousands to hear him, but would reject him in the end: “These people fulfill the words of Isaiah, when he said: ‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.” For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’”

There are a lot of different things that cause our spiritual blindnesses. The community we grew up in, the values of our parents, the things we experience, especially in our growing-up years, our religious beliefs: all these things contribute to the limitations of our sight, or understanding. As individuals, we all have our own areas of blindness, every single one of us. We might be blind to the real need of our next-door neighbor. We might be blind to the way our careless words hurt someone we love. We might be blind to the way patterns of selfishness or greed or dishonesty are becoming established in our lives. We might be blind in many different ways, but the only way we can discover our blindnesses and be healed of them is to humbly ask God to reveal our blindness to us. Because there is no one else who can restore sight to the blind.

We also have blindnesses that we share as whole communities of people. One particularly deadly form of blindness that has afflicted our whole nation from its founding to the present day is the blindness of racism. Very few Americans think of themselves as racist, I think, and yet, we live in a country in which almost 150 years after black people got the right to vote and 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights act, churches and neighborhoods and schools, all across our nation, are still largely segregated by race. People of color can still expect to earn significantly less than white people in the same job – in fact, the wage gap last year between black and white was bigger than it has been in 40 years. Black people are still more likely to be stopped by the police or suspected of shoplifting than white people. We watch TV shows and movies in which the good guys are almost always white and the thugs are most often black and we don’t think twice about what that says about us. Our nation was established to a great extent on the blood and pain of slaves who were kidnapped from their homes and sold like livestock and to this day we have not yet overcome the blindness we had to assume to keep our white consciences at bay. As a whole people, we are in very great need of healing from the blindness of our racism.

If we tell ourselves that we can see just fine; if we refuse to ask God to reveal our blindness to us; then our sin will remain with us, and we have no hope of being healed. But if we turn to God, asking him to heal our blindness – only imagine what the world will look like when he takes the scales from our eyes and we see truly what we have never been able to see before!

I love the description of how Jesus healed the blind man. He spat on the ground and he took the mud and kneaded it in his hands. He took the mud he had made and spread it with his own hands on the man’s unseeing eyes. Then he told the man, “Go to the pool of Siloam and wash.” And when the man had washed the mud from his eyes, suddenly he could see, light and color and shape and movement, for the first time in his life. It is a beautiful picture of how our Lord deals with us in our blindness, too; how he tenderly re-creates our eyes when they have forgotten how to see, just as he formed the first human being from mud at the very beginning of creation. And then, notice how Jesus sent the man to wash his own eyes. He calls us to participate in our own healing, to take those steps we need to take to cleanse ourselves of the false ideas and resentments and fears that have helped to blind us; to reconcile with those we have hurt; to begin to learn new ways of thinking and seeing and doing.

But our healing can’t even begin until we come to him in humility, confessing to him that we are blind beggars ourselves, in desperate need of healing.

No Dirty Little Secrets, a sermon for Lent 1 by Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

March 5, 2017

My Mom was a good and truthful person, but I remember vividly one time that she told a lie – and not the fun, Santa Claus or surprise party kind of lie, but a real lie. I had gone with her in to the emergency room because she had fallen and broken her wrist. The ER doctor had come in to take her medical history, and as they always do, he asked my Mom if she was a smoker. Now, my mother had been a smoker, on and off, her whole life, and I happened to know for a fact that she was definitely on in those days. She never smoked when the kids or I were with her, but you know these things when you spend time with someone. So I was quite surprised to hear her answer the doctor, “No.” I think the doctor was surprised, too – I suspect he was pretty sure she was a smoker – so he asked her again, and she denied it absolutely. For my Mom, smoking was her dirty little secret, something she couldn’t bring herself to stop doing, and equally something she couldn’t bring herself to admit to anyone – and especially, I think, she was ashamed to admit it in front of her daughter.

I never said anything about it later, and I had never thought badly of my Mom whether she smoked or not. Other than worrying about her health, I have certainly never thought of smoking as a moral issue at all, for my mother or anyone else. But I bring up this experience, because I think many of us think about sin the way my mother thought about her addiction to cigarettes – that our sins are our dirty little secrets. We know we do things we shouldn’t do, and we feel badly about doing them, and we are ashamed to admit it, especially to the people who matter to us. Sin is a black mark on our record, and we come to church on Sundays, in the privacy of our hearts, or we pray in the silence and dark as we go to sleep at night, to ask God to forgive us and to clear our record once again. We think of sin as our private shame, and as we get older we get better at hiding our more egregious sins, the better to keep them private – and not because we are bad, sneaky people, but because we believe that is what we are supposed to do as good people.

But here we are today on the first Sunday in Lent, and in Lent we are going to spend a lot of time talking about repentance, as we always do in Lent, and so we also spend a lot of time talking and thinking about our sin, and it is absolutely crucial for us to understand first of all what sin really is, even though sin is probably nobody’s favorite sermon topic. And the first thing I want to say about sin is that sin is NOT anyone’s private, personal dirty little secret. Our sins are not a matter of breaking the rules we carry around with us, like the Ten Commandments, and the things our mothers drilled into us, and the things our society tells us are what bad people do. In other words, sin is not a matter of keeping the rules. But what is it, then?

If you look farther back in your Book of Common Prayer than we ever usually go, you get to a section called “An Outline of the Faith, Commonly Called the Catechism”, and on page 848 at the very bottom is this question: what is sin? And the answer given in the catechism is this: “Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.” The thing you notice at once about this is that this definition doesn’t leave any room at all for privacy. No dirty little secrets here, no rule-breaking that silently chalks up demerits on the personal scorecard of your heart. Sin can’t be private at all, ever, according to this definition, because sin is all about relationship. Sin, the catechism tells us, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Sin is when we choose to pursue our own will in such a way that it distorts, or breaks, or does violence to, our relationship with someone else – either God himself, or our fellow human being, or the natural world over which God set us. We never, ever sin – according to this definition – without hurting someone else.

So the question is: is that a good definition? Why did whoever wrote that catechism give that particular answer for that question? And the answer to whether that is a good definition relies on what it means to NOT sin; in other words, what it means to be good, obedient people. And we have that answer from Jesus himself. On a day when a lawyer had come to give Jesus a hard time, he asked, “What is the most important commandment?” And Jesus answered him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Obedience, it turns out, isn’t a personal thing at all – obedience, being “good” – is ALL about relationship with others. Obedience, Jesus told the lawyer – from the very beginning, obedience was neither more nor less than love. Perfect obedience is love of God and love of our neighbor. That’s it. Which is exactly what Paul said in that verse from Romans, that I am forever quoting: “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

And so, as the catechism answer tells us, sin is less about breaking rules and more about – in fact, ALL about breaking connections: connections between us and our God, or our brother or sister, or any of God’s creatures that dwell in this creation with us. If the way of perfect obedience is love, then the way of sin is simply – NOT love. To sin against another another person, or against our God, is to choose not to love them. And that explains a great deal about why obedience, being good, is both more complicated and much simpler than we sometimes think it is.

If “being good” is just a matter of following rules, then it is absolutely simple. If the commandment tells us X, then not-X is sin (there’s a little math metaphor for you). But let’s take a real-life example from the Bible – what about the Hebrew midwives, back when Moses was a baby, who flat-out lied to Pharoah when he told them to kill every Jewish baby boy that was born? Not only did God not punish those women, he rewarded them richly, with families of their own, which was the greatest joy he could give them. Not because it’s OK to lie when you need to, but because they acted out of love – love for their people, love for God. And you could even say they showed love to Pharoah, who would have had the blood of all those children on his hands if they had not refused his command. The choice before the midwives was not – to lie or not to lie. The choice was what it always is: to love, or to fail to love. We can easily sin against another person with the absolute truth – people do that all the time. We can wound each other cruelly without technically breaking any “rules” at all. But we who have been loved by God are called to do more – not less – than follow rules – we are called to love as we have been loved. And that’s the choice that is before us always, every day, every moment – love, or fail to love.

That connection of love is exactly what Satan was trying to destroy when he tormented Jesus out in the desert. Hungry, and weary, and alone, the temptations Jesus faced, one by one, were attempts to weaken the bond of trust and love between the Son and his Father. Will he really provide for you? Will he really protect you? Will he really reward you as he promised? Did the Father really mean it when he called you his beloved, the one in whom he delighted? And it was the connection of love, not just adherence to the rules, that held firm. Jesus was tempted in all ways as we are, but he did not break that connection of love.

When Adam and Eve failed in their test of love, the shock waves of that failure rippled through the whole world so that every connection between every creature in the whole of God’s Creation was distorted and weakened, and those disrupted connections are the source of all sickness and all hatred and all racism and all greed and all fear and all cruelty and all exploitation – and death itself. If Jesus, the second Adam, had sinned, if the Son of God had chosen not-love, that would have been a cosmic failure of love that rippled out and out until every connection in the entire Creation had been broken and corrupted beyond hope of repair. All would have been lost. But Jesus chose love. And the healing began.

Now, today, as we move forward in this journey of Lent, it is important to understand what it means for us to repent of our sins. In the silence before we make our confession together, instead of reviewing a laundry list of broken rules and failures of character, God calls us to seek where the connections in our lives need healing and strengthening. How have our choices this week done harm to the people in our lives? How have we broken faith with God? How have our choices failed to nurtured the creation within our care? Like John Donne wrote, no man – none of us – is an island. None of us stands alone. Everything we do, every choice we make, affects our connection with our companions in this creation – for good, or for harm. We love, or we fail to love, in everything we do, in every choice we make. There are no dirty little secrets in our closet that we can hide away as our private shame. We are not stand-alone creatures, whose choices affect only ourselves, and who are not affected by the choices of others.

Like our own human body, each part rejoices when the other members rejoice and each part aches when the other members hurt. And if we fail to love one another, we are like a body suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease or Parkinson’s disease, whose connections crumble one by one until the body can no longer function at all. That is the effect of sin on mankind.

Repentance is not about hiding our dirty little secrets; repentance is about restoring broken connections by turning away from our own not-loving will, back to the will of the One whose will is always love: connections between ourselves and the Father; and connections between us and our fellow human beings, and the connection between us and this whole Creation that our God created to be good and beautiful and whole. And every time we repent, every time we reject not-love and turn ourselves back once again to love, we join our Lord Jesus in the process of bringing healing and restoration to our Father’s world.