Archive for the ‘personal’ category

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.

It’s Quiet Out There, a sermon for Ash Wednesday, by Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

March 2, 2017

Preachers and writers, people like me, are very fond of using the image of the desert when they talk about Lent. It’s a good image for several reasons. One reason is that the forty days of Lent remind us of the forty years the people of Israel spent wandering, in between their escape from slavery in Egypt and their entry into the Promised Land. Forty years wandering – in the desert. The forty days of Lent also remind us of the forty days Jesus spent after his baptism, when the Holy Spirit took him away and he was tempted by the devil. Forty days of testing – in the desert. The number forty has significance in the Scriptures as a number about trials and testing. And so it just makes sense to think of the forty days of Lent as a time of trials and testing in a spiritual kind of desert.

And because we are so used to thinking of Lent as a desert full of trials and testing, one of the first things we think of when we approach the season of Lent is what kinds of trials and testing we’re going to take on ourselves this year. “What are YOU giving up for Lent this year?” we ask each other. “Well, I was going to give up desserts, but my wife doesn’t really let me eat dessert that often anymore, and I was going to give up watching TV in the evenings but there isn’t anything good on anyway. So I thought I’d give up cigars, because I really like having a cigar on Sunday afternoons when my son comes over to hang out in the workshop. Yeah, I’d really miss those cigars…..”

Lent seems to be particularly confusing if you’re an Episcopalian. If you’re Presbyterian they’ll tell you that giving stuff up for Lent is only for Roman Catholics. If you’re Roman Catholic the Church will tell you what to give up and when to give it up – meat on Fridays and so forth. And if you’re non-denominational they’ll just look at you funny and say, “What’s Lent?” But the Episcopal Church expects us to make our own choices. Being Episcopal is hard like that. The one thing we think we know for sure is that we’re supposed to give up something we like a lot, because it’s supposed to make us unhappy. That’s what this whole desert image is all about, right? Because deserts are places of thirst and hunger and  snakes and sunburns and sore feet. People die in deserts on all those old Western movies; we know that.

The thing is, the children of Israel, and Jesus, God didn’t take them out in the desert to punish them or to make them tougher or more spiritual by making them miserable. It’s true that there were hardships in the wilderness when Moses led God’s people out of Egypt. They faced hunger and thirst and enemies out there. But they faced hunger and thirst and enemies in the Promised Land, too – that’s not what they were out there for. And it’s true that Jesus had to do battle with the devil out there in the desert. But Jesus had to do battle with the devil all the time in his ministry; he didn’t have to go out in the desert to find Satan. No, the reason God brings his people out into the desert is not that it is a place of misery and danger and discomfort. The reason he brings us out into the desert is because it is quiet out there.

God took his people out of slavery in Egypt and he led them by the hand into the desert, because in the desert he could talk to them, away from the oppression and noise of Egypt; away from the demands of the slave-drivers, away from the lure of the pagan temples; away from the temptations of being poor, and wishing they were rich, in a land of luxuries and opulence; away from the cruelty of a ruler that demanded the murder of their children. Out in the desert, for all its emptiness and harshness, it was finally quiet enough for God’s people to hear his voice. It was in the quiet of the desert that those downtrodden descendants of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob became the nation of Israel, God’s beloved chosen people, the unique, strong people that they are even today.

And God’s Holy Spirit led Jesus out into the desert after his baptism, after the proclamation from heaven “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased, in whom I take delight.” He led Jesus out into the desert, away from the awe-struck crowds; away from the suspicious Scribes and Pharisees; away, for just a little while, from the clamoring people who needed him desperately: the poor, the sick, the blind, the lame, the demon-possessed. Even away from the biological distractions of food and drink; for forty days Jesus fed on, and drank in, only the Presence of his Father. And in the quiet of the desert the Father prepared his Son for the ministry of the next three years, that would extend from the shores of Galilee to the hill of the Cross.

Jesus’ time of testing came at the very end of his long retreat in the desert, when his body was physically weak from long fasting, and when his spirit was primed and ready to take on all that the Father had for him to do. And doesn’t that sound familiar? When we are tired, when we are hungry, when we are hurting, it is then our demons begin to hammer at our weak spots: our fears, our worries, our insecurities. It is almost unimaginable to think that Jesus had fears or insecurities, but the gospels reveal to us how Jesus was fully human even in facing those human weaknesses that cause us so much suffering. Listen to how the devil really zeroed in on him. Jesus’ temptations weren’t general, one-size-fits-all temptations; they were tailor-made for Jesus. “IF you are really the Son of God,” he said. “you could make those rocks into loaves of bread.” “IF you are really the One in whom God is well-pleased,” he insinuated, “take it out for a spin – jump off the pinnacle of the Temple and show me how he’ll send his angels to catch you. IF he will.” And he said to Jesus, “IF you are really the One the Father delights in, you deserve to own the whole world. He put it in my hands, you know; just bow down to me and it’s all yours right now. No muss, no fuss – and no cross.” But Jesus had been in close communion with his Father out there in the desert, and he had all the answers; he couldn’t be tricked.

Know that if you do enter the quiet of the desert during Lent your demons will definitely stow away with you and cause you grief; that’s how the world works, and sometimes it is rather clever. But remember that doing battle with your demons is not why you’re out there. And feeling miserable and deprived is not why you’re out there. You’re out there because it’s quiet. You’re out there because it’s a lovely place to be alone with your Father. You give up the distraction of your little treats, or you give up the time you would have spent on computer games or TV; you set aside extra time to meditate on Scripture, or you let yourself feel what real hunger and thirst are for a meal or two. As the gospel reading reminded us, we can even be distracted by the good things we do, if we are worrying about what people think of how generous or kind we are; how faithful we are in our prayers; or how admirable we are in our fasting.

The truth is, we’re not any holier because our stomachs are growling. We’re not any more virtuous because we powered down our laptop instead of playing Minesweeper. Heading out into the desert of Lent isn’t about self-improvement or self-denial – though we often have to deny the demands of our bellies or our insatiable thirst for entertainment to get there.  But letting the Holy Spirit lead us out into the desert is joy and life to us. Listen – it’s quiet out there, without the distractions, without the entertainments, without having to answer the incessant calls of our demanding bodies and our social engagements and our childish boredom. It’s quiet out there. Make full use of this Lenten journey through the desert in the weeks to come – because your Father is waiting eagerly to journey along with you.

 

Despised and Desperately Needed, a sermon on Matthew 5:13-16 by Kathryn Boswell

February 12, 2017

One of the many impressive and somewhat unbelievable things on TV police dramas is the way the official sketch artist is always able to sit down with the witness and make a drawing that looks exactly like the perpetrator of the crime – the “perp” in police lingo – so that the detectives can find him on the traffic cameras conveniently located a block from the crime and run his photo through the facial recognition software and come up with his name and phone number and current address and go lock him up.

Last week we read what we call the Beatitudes, which is a list of qualities that were a different kind of sketch: Jesus’ own sketch of what a disciple looks like. Paraphrasing a little bit, it went like this:

blessed are those who know how needy they are;

blessed are those whose hearts are broken by all the pain and suffering in the world;

blessed are those who put the needs of others before their own;

blessed are those who long for the right thing to be done so desperately they can taste it;

blessed are those who show kindness;

blessed are those who open their hearts to me,

and who remember to keep the main thing the main thing;

blessed are those who bring people together instead of dividing them.

Jesus told us that that’s what a disciple looks like – and maybe it’s not who we are perfectly and completely now, but it is exactly what we are growing up to be if we follow him, which is what it means to be a disciple.

And after he gave his description of what a disciple looks like, Jesus told the disciples two things about being a disciple in the world. The first thing, he said, is that the world is really, really going to hate you. They are going to say nasty things about you and accuse you of doing stuff you never did; and they are going to do hateful things to you, because of me. When it happens, he told them, and it will – remember that you are in the best of company.

But the second thing about being a disciple, Jesus told them, is that this world that hates you so much, needs you even more than it hates you.

You – you needy, gentle, merciful, broken-hearted seekers of justice – you are the salt of the earth, Jesus said. Now, we use the expression “salt of the earth” in English to mean people who are just the most excellent, down-to-earth, highest-quality kind of folks. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about. Because salt in those days wasn’t just something nice, something you sprinkle on your French fries, or abstain from if you have high blood pressure. Everyone needed salt, because without salt food would last a very short time. All those fish that Peter and Andrew and James and John caught would very quickly have turned into a stinky mess without salt. We could misquote the old commercial and say, “Without salt, life itself would be impossible.”

And you – you needy, gentle, merciful, broken-hearted ambassadors of peace – you are the light of the world. In our culture that is so very focused on fame and celebrity that might make you think of someone standing in the spotlight, but that’s just the opposite of what Jesus is talking about. Nobody lights a lamp and sticks it under a basket, he said; no, they put it up on a lampstand so that it gives light to everyone in the house. Being the light of the world isn’t about being seen at all; it’s all about making it possible for others to see, and especially it’s about helping others to see God, who is their Father.

Probably the most well-known verse in the whole Bible is John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who put their trust in him might have life in abundance.” If we are disciples of Jesus, we are disciples of the one who came to rescue and to serve the world because God loves them so much. Being salt and light are our ways of being servants to that beloved world – to the people of the world, in particular, but also to the whole of God’s good creation. We are salt to this earth not to draw attention to ourselves but to preserve its goodness and to work against the rot of hatred and greed and fear that destroys its goodness. We are light, not to call attention to ourselves, but to bring hope, to dispel the shadows, to illuminate the truth. “As my Father sent me,” Jesus said, “so I am sending you.” As Jesus came not to be served, but to serve, so we come as servants to the world.

No disciple has ever been perfect, but there have been times in the history of the world when the church has failed miserably at this job of being salt and light. There have been times when the church has made friends with the darkness and become utterly saltless. There were times when the church hid the light of the gospel under the bushel-basket of worldly principles. It happened in the early centuries of our country, when men who called themselves disciples of Jesus forgot who they were. They forgot they were needy; they forgot to be broken-hearted at the suffering of their fellow man; they forgot kindness; they forgot mercy; they forgot to long for righteousness. Instead they used the word of God to defend their right to use and abuse other human beings for their own profit.

They, many of whom were our own brothers and sisters in Christ, failed to be servants of God’s world, and especially they failed to be servants of the African men and women and children who were also God’s beloved children. And so the rot set in, and darkness reigned, and our country has not yet recovered from that failure; the injustice of racism and the inequity of slavery haunt us to this very day. We can see echoes of our failure everywhere, from the hateful racial remarks that have been made about President Obama and his family, to those TV police dramas I was talking about, with their persistent and harmful stereotypes of the heroic white police detective and the black thug who gets what’s coming to him.

In 1845, Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who became a brilliant writer and speaker and abolitionist, wrote these words that justly condemned the Church in its failure to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ in his time. He wrote:

I . . . hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of the land. . . . I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. . . .

I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me.

We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members.

The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. . . .

The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master.

Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity.

Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other—devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.”

I’m not saying that the church was single-handedly responsible for the evils of slavery and racism. But the effect of the church not being salt and light in that time; the effect of the disciples of Jesus not opposing the rot of greed and cruelty, and not shining light on the truth that the men and women who were being enslaved were human beings created in the image of God exactly like themselves – the effect of that failure continues to be devastating down into our own time.

We are not disciples merely for our own personal salvation. When the church fails to be light, the world is plunged into darkness. When the salt of the church becomes saltless, the gospel is trampled underfoot. We are not called today to build an ark and be good people keeping ourselves all pure and holy and separate, and letting the whole world go to hell; and we are not called to play by the world’s rules, lobbying for political power and wealth for the kingdom of God, as it were – Christians have been known to fall off both ends of that spectrum. We are called to be simply and essentially disciples of Jesus Christ, offering ourselves in service to one another and to the world.

Our power is in being servants as our Master also served: in meekness, in humility, in sacrifice, in kindness, in love. We are called to recognize the immense value of every human being because they were created by God. We are called to stand with the despised and rejected because our Lord made himself one with the least of these. We are called to spend ourselves for the good of our neighbor, like the Samaritan in the story. We come not to be served, but to serve, as he did. There is a desperate need for us out there right now, if we will be what we are called to be, salty and full of light, servants of the world God loves.

The Parable of the Searching Woman, a sermon on Luke 15:1-10 by Kathryn Boswell

September 11, 2016

To listen to this sermon, click here:  130119_001

People love to hear a dramatic conversion story, the experience of someone whose life was going down the drain, who was addicted to drugs and alcohol, who indulged in all kinds of aberrant sexual behavior, and who finally fell into a life of crime and ended up in jail, where he found Jesus and got saved. We are so inspired to see him stand up at the microphone, clean and happy, with a hair cut and a shave and a nice suit. We know that the angels in heaven are rejoicing, because here is that lost lamb Jesus was talking about, home safe and sound. Here is that lost coin the woman in the parable was searching for so desperately, all shined up spiffy and new. And there is rejoicing in heaven over this one who was lost, but now is found.

That kind of transformation really happens; God rescues people from every kind of danger and trouble, including and especially the trouble we bring upon ourselves. We could all tell a story or two about our own foolishness and meanness and self-indulgence and helplessness, and how God in his mercy rescued us out of it. But when Jesus told his parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, he wasn’t just talking about the shiny, respectable convert on the other side of the search. He was also talking about the search itself, with all the dirt and mess and un-respectability that goes along with it.

The problem that got the whole parable thing going this time was that Jesus had been altogether too friendly with the tax collectors and the “sinners” – and sinners might have meant anything from somebody who didn’t wash his hands before dinner according to religious law, to a woman who made her living as a prostitute, to a man who collected taxes for the Romans and made a tidy profit overcharging his fellow Jews. Sinners basically was a wholesale term for the disreputable masses, unholy and unwashed and unacceptable in polite society. All those sinful, unrespectable-type people were coming to hear Jesus. But Jesus wasn’t preaching hellfire and damnation to them, as any respectable preacher ought to do – to straighten them out and set them on the right path. No, not at all. He was meeting them at the diner for a cup of coffee. And he was going to their sinful, dirty homes for potluck dinners with their sinful, dirty friends. He touched them, and he healed their hurts, and he took their children into his arms. He was welcoming those sinners, as if he were really glad to see them. Because he was.

And meanwhile, the Pharisees and Scribes were watching all these goings-on from a safe distance, careful not to accidentally rub elbows or anything else with some low-life so that they would become unclean by association. Luke tells us that these men, who really worked very hard to live their lives absolutely by the Book; these godly men were watching Jesus closely and grumbling among themselves, “Do you see how this guy welcomes sinners with open arms? He even eats with them! What kind of a holy man acts like that?”

Grumbling, no matter how quiet it was, rarely went unnoticed by Jesus and that was the case this time. It was in response to their grumbling that he told the stories of the lost lamb and the lost coin. We usually think of those stories being told to the people in trouble, to give hope to sinners, reassuring them that no matter how lost they are God will seek them out and bring them back to safety. But actually, Jesus wasn’t telling these stories to the crowds of “sinners” who had come to hear him; it was to the grumbling Pharisees and Scribes that Jesus told these parables about lost lambs and missing coins.

I don’t know about you, but our household is very familiar with losing things. Over the years, we have found we are extremely good at losing everything from the phone number I just wrote down on a scrap of paper yesterday, to essential documents like birth certificates and social security cards. And so we have also become very familiar with the searching process. You begin with the obvious places – the last place somebody remembers seeing it, the drawer, the file cabinet, the closet shelf – all the places the missing thing is supposed to be. But eventually, since whatever it is is rarely where it is supposed to be, the search becomes more general and more extensive, with (hopefully) no nook or cranny left unsearched.

Anyone arriving at our house at this stage of the search would be sure to observe one thing: that we are in total chaos. Nothing is messier than the middle of a real, thorough search, when every last thing has been pulled open and turned inside out and unpacked and disassembled. But it’s only by entering completely into the mess that we are sure to finally arrive at the goal – of finding that very important scrap of paper or piece of jewelry or check or birth certificate or whatever it was we wanted so very much to find. And after the mess and after the finding, then comes the rejoicing.

But when the Pharisees and Scribes looked at all those people swarming around Jesus, all they could see was the mess: all they saw were people whose lives were out of control, people not living by the rules, people whose very presence was an offense to everything they had been brought up to value and strive for. It wasn’t that the Pharisees and Scribes were unusually heartless, I don’t think. We might have felt the same in their position. You probably don’t have to think too hard to remember feeling like that about someone; we all have known people whose lives seem to be a hopeless mess. It wasn’t even that they were wrong in seeing the mess.

The difference was that Jesus knew the mess was just part of the search.

Jesus didn’t open his arms to all of those people, because they happened to be in trouble and he was a nice, liberal guy. Jesus was so glad to see them because he was searching for them. In the middle of the mess of their poverty, and disease, and fear, and human weakness; in the middle of bad choices, and worse luck, he was searching high and low for each and every one of those people because they were precious to him. Like the lamb that was lost in the hills; like the coin that rolled away down a crack in the floor, he would do anything and go anywhere to find them. He was willing to search high and low; he was willing to turn rules and traditions upside down; he was willing to offend sensibilities; he was willing to wade through any amount of mess to find them. Because after the finding, then comes the rejoicing.

We usually call the parables we read today the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin. But it might be better to call them the Parable of the Searching Shepherd and the Parable of the Searching Woman, because Jesus was telling the Pharisees and Scribes – and he was telling us – that he is the one who searches for us all in the messiest of our messes. Human life is rarely, if ever, neat rules and tidy, logical procedures. Life is a messy process, from birth to death and everything in between. But if we remember that in the mess of our lives, in the chaos of our own bad choices and our misfortunes and our sorrows and fears, Jesus is always there to welcome us with open arms. Because it is in the very middle of the mess that he searches for us. And it is in the middle of our mess that he finds us. And then, there is the rejoicing.

Jesus told these parables to the Pharisees and Scribes, because they are not just about our personal reassurance – though they are greatly reassuring. No matter how lost we feel ourselves to be, these stories remind us that the Shepherd will not rest until he fnds us again and brings us home. But the first purpose for these stories was to change the way we see our fellow human beings. When we look at any man or woman or child, do we see only the mess of their lives, or do we see the search that makes sense of the mess? Are we able and willing to see the value in that person that makes all the mess and the searching worthwhile? Because the Shepherd that is searching tirelessly for us is also searching tirelessly for our brother or sister, and the mess is just part of the search. And to paraphrase the words of our Lord: “there will be more joy in heaven over one messed-up person who is found than over ninety-nine “good” persons who don’t even know they are lost.”

A Homily on Psalm 5 by Carroll Boswell

June 15, 2016

Let’s start this way. Picture in your mind one person you regard as an enemy. I am not talking about public enemies like ISIS; make it personal to yourself. I bet many of you are having a hard time coming up with even a single enemy; we are a congregation of really nice people; and I’m not joking. But a few of you may find it hard to narrow down to just one or two. But even if you can’t think of a single enemy, there has probably been someone in your past life that was.

The reason I ask you to do this is that dealing with enemies is the focus of Psalm 5, which we are going to be looking at now. This is one of David’s Psalms, and David was an expert on enemies. He was a king and had a lot of military enemies, and for a king that kind of enemy is pretty personal. He went to war with the Philistines, with the Edomites, with the Ammonites, with the Moabites, and there were others I can’t remember off hand. Before he was king, the man who was the king – Saul – was also David’s enemy; he hunted David like a dog to kill him so that David had to hide in caves in the wilderness to escape. David’s own son, Absalom, became his enemy later in his life and tried to kill him as well. David understood enemies very well, and so we have this Psalm.

At first Psalm 5 doesn’t seem to be about enemies. The first three verses are a cry for help without specifying any reason. “Consider my groaning” he says in verse 1 but doesn’t say what he is groaning about. “Give attention to the sound of my cry” he says in verse 2 but doesn’t say what he is crying about.

The next three verses are all about how much God cannot abide evildoers. Specifically, the boastful, the liars, the bloodthirsty, the deceitful, those are all people David singles out as the kind of people who can’t stand before God. But David was also an honest man. Even as he wrote the psalm, memories of his own past would have haunted him. David was boastful; he would well remember how he treated his ex-wife’s second husband. He was bloodthirsty; he would remember more battles than he could easily count and how he delighted in the violence. He was a liar. His conscience may have still been tender when he remembered how one of his lies had cost the lives of 85 priests. He was deceitful, willing to use people for his own gain as he would deceive Uriah the Hittite. In short, a man as honest as David would be forced into admitting that he was one of those evil people whom God could not abide.

So you can feel his amazement when he gets to verse 7: “But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter you house.” He knew as plainly as he knew the shepherding business that God could not abide evil, and yet he equally well knew that God did abide him. How could those two things both be true? He didn’t know why God loved him, but he didn’t waste time figuring out the details of it all. He experienced it, he was thankful, he was joyful.

But he didn’t take it for granted. “Oh, I am an evildoer and God’s steadfast love is still mine, so I have got it made; I don’t need to take this whole evildoer thing very seriously; that’s for other people,” he might have said. It would have been easy, but David was too honest with himself. And so in verse 8 he comes back full circle to what he was groaning about in the first place. “Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness because of my enemies. Make your way straight before me.”

It was not that David didn’t know how to handle enemies. He had handled more enemies than all of us put together. He had handled more ruthless enemies than any of us have ever met. But David did not know how to handle enemies righteously. “Lead me in your righteousness because of my enemies.” He wasn’t groaning about being in danger. He wasn’t crying out for deliverance. There are other psalms where he does, but here he faced up to how dealing with his enemies had made him an evildoer. “Lead me in your righteousness because of my enemies.”

Fortunately, our enemies are on a less lethal plane than David’s. There are four kinds of enemies people like us face, four kinds I can think of: people who hurt us, our feelings or finances or reputations; people who make us afraid; people who make us angry; and finally many of us are our own worst enemies. So how well are you doing handling your enemies in righteousness?

God answered David’s prayer in verse 8 most perfectly when He sent Jesus. He led us in His righteousness because of our enemies. Are there people who try to harm you in some way? “Do not return evil for evil, but overcome evil with good.” Paul said that but it was Jesus who taught him to say it. Are there people that scare you? “Do not be anxious about anything, but with prayers and petitions bring your requests to God.” (Paul again.) Are there people that make you angry? “Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness God requires.” (James this time) Are you always doing the same stupid things over and over again and messing up your life? “He will never fail you or forsake you.” Have you been hurt? Do good to the one who hurt you. Are you afraid? Pray and commit everything to God’s care. Are you angry? Try really listening and hold your tongue. Are you disgusted at your own failure? Remember that God never fails and never gives up.

Here is the point of the homily: Make verse 8 your prayer this week. When you are hurt or afraid or angry: “Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness because of my enemies.” Pray it in the morning like David says in verse 3. Pray it repeatedly all during the day.

If you go on in this psalm you can see just how much David needed God’s leading. He didn’t understand God’s righteousness. He showed how much he didn’t understand in the rest of the psalm. “Make them bear their guilt, let them fall, cast them out.” Really? The path of righteousness was something that David didn’t know, was always learning, and never got quite right; you as well. You will stray from the path, maybe during coffee hour in a few minutes. You may be an evildoer before you walk out of the door of the church, and you know God can’t abide evildoers. But astonishingly He abides in you. You know He does. That’s why you walked in those doors this morning. “But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house” verse 7. You are just like David, an evildoer who is amazed every day to be stuck in the abundance of God’s steadfast love. That’s us. We need to pray this prayer as much as David ever did. “Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness because of my enemies.”