Sermons

Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 6, 2021
Mark 3:20-35

The holy gospel according to Mark. Glory to you, O Lord.

Jesus went home; 20and the crowd came together again, so that Jesus and the disciples could not even eat. 21When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” 22And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” 23And Jesus called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24If a dominion is divided against itself, that dominion cannot stand. 25And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26And if Satan has risen up against Satan and is divided, Satan cannot stand, but is coming to an end. 27But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
    28Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—30for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
    31Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

We were in fifth or sixth grade when my friend, Danny, introduced me to the verse from the Bible that appears in today’s gospel reading from Mark: “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”

I’m sure I had no idea of what blasphemy meant, but I certainly knew it was not good! Danny was not accusing me, but informing me, maybe giving me a warning. But I was a very scrupulous child and serious about the Christian faith, so it didn’t take much to ignite the flame of fear. The idea of an unforgivable sin set me on a real tailspin for a while. Had I somehow sinned against the Holy Spirit and thus would not be forgiven?
That question with its possible answer was un-nerving to me in my vulnerability as a child who was eager to do the right things.

And that’s exactly how evil works and what evil does – it accuses us falsely, and scripture is easily warped, misused, and abused in the service of evil and its false accusations.

The Holy Trinity, May 30, 2021
John 3:1-17

The holy gospel according to John. Glory to you, O Lord.

1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jewish people. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the dominion of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to Jesus, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the dominion of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to Jesus, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
    11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son-of-Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son-of-Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
    16“For God loved the world in this way, that God gave the Son, the only begotten one, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
    17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

Last weekend, we returned to the fullness of our sacramental life as a congregation outdoors. On the Vigil of Pentecost, we celebrated the baptism of Axel Norwood Hedberg in the company of his extended family and some members from Resurrection. On the Day of Pentecost, we celebrated Holy Communion for the first time in over a year of fasting from our Eucharistic feasting.

Today’s readings for Holy Trinity Sunday help us make sense of what went on last weekend and what continues in our midst today as we celebrate the worshipful fullness of our life together.

Yes, today’s festival of the Trinity commemorates a doctrine, a teaching about God. But more significantly today’s festival celebrates the realities of the living God as we remember, acknowledge, confess and give praise to the God in three persons whom we’ve come to know through Jesus Christ.

So, let’s delve into today’s readings for the light that they shed on our sacramental life.

Day of Pentecost, May 23, 2021
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

The holy gospel according to John. Glory to you, O Lord.

[Jesus said,] 26“When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, the Advocate will testify on my behalf. 27You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.
    16:4b“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5But now I am going to the one who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. 7Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send the Advocate to you. 8And having come, the Advocate will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.
    12“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When the Spirit of truth comes, you will be guided into all the truth; for the Spirit will not speak out of the Spirit’s own authority, but will speak whatever the Spirit hears, and will declare to you the things that are to come. 14The Spirit will glorify me, taking what is mine and declaring it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that the Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

Jesus said to the disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, you will be guided into all the truth.” (John 16:12-13a)

I believe that this statement from Jesus recorded by John is among the most important in the Christian scriptures because it points to the evolving and unfolding qualities of the history of the church and of our understandings of the faith.

That is to say, the Spirit of truth has indeed been guiding Christians in the church into all the truth for some two thousand years.

This Spirit guided the church into truth in the development of the canon of scriptures, the books of the Bible that we hold dear.

This Spirit was at work in the early and ancient Councils of the church that led to the articulation of the Nicene, Apostles’ and Athanasian Creeds, which are summaries of Christian truth that we still confess and to which we still adhere.

Which is to say, the Spirit of truth nurtured the church’s understanding of Christ as fully human and fully divine.

The Spirit of truth guided the development of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, one God in three persons, a focus for our time together next week on Trinity Sunday, and the name of God into whom we are baptized.

Fast forward a few centuries… I believe that the Spirit of truth was vocal in the dynamics in Christian life that led to the Reformation in the West when the centrality of the doctrine of justification by grace effective through faith was recovered.

Advancing a few more centuries, I also believe that the Spirit of truth helped pave the way for the ordination of women, and the inclusion in the church’s ministries of persons from the LGBTQIA+ communities.

And more. You get the point. These highlights of church history are very much a partial listing of how, I believe, the Holy Spirit has been guiding Christians in the church into all the truth for two millennia, just as Jesus promised as reported in John’s gospel.

This guiding light of truth we celebrate on this Day of Pentecost.

Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 16, 2021
John 17:6-19

The holy gospel according to John. Glory to you, O Lord.

[Jesus prayed:] 6“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

You know me well enough as a preacher now to recognize that I am captivated by words, and how significant words in the appointed Sunday readings command our attention. Two weeks ago, it was the word “abide” that continued to echo. Last week, “joy” drew our attention.

This week, it’s the personal pronouns in today’s gospel reading from John: I, you, we, they, mine, yours, their, and on and on.

I have a sense that I have focused on personal pronouns in a previous sermon with you. But today, as far as I am concerned, we cannot escape attending to the personal pronouns in the passage from John, because according to my count, there are some 90 forms of personal pronouns in this comparatively brief passage of 14 verses. Generally, a word is significant if it’s used more than two or three times. Again, there are about 90 forms of personal pronouns in today’s gospel. That’s huge.

John records Jesus addressing God in prayer in this passage, a prayer he prayed in the presence of his disciples during the lengthy farewell discourse in John that occurred on the night of Jesus’ betrayal.

Listen again, briefly, to get a sense of the extent and significance of the presence of personal pronouns here: “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.” (John 17:6)

And again, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:11)

It’s normally pretty easy to overlook personal pronouns in discourse. In doing Bible study, pronouns may not be the first words one examines for discerning the meaning of a passage. But not in this reading for today with 90 forms of personal pronouns.

Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 9, 2021
John 15:9-17

The holy gospel according to John. Glory to you, O Lord.

[Jesus said:] 9“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in my Father’s love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” This is a lovely saying of Jesus that John records in his gospel.

Who doesn’t want joy that is complete? I’ve noticed a lot of commentary in the things I read on those who research happiness, scholars trying to explore just what happiness is. Researchers conclude that happiness is an elusive phenomenon and very difficult to define and challenging consistently to experience.

Finland was recently once again determined to be the happiest nation on earth – much to the mystification, apparently, of the Finns who admit to being often rather melancholy.

It may be that happiness research is driven by the fact that we seem to live in a particularly joyless era, made the more so by the ill effects of this long-lasting pandemic. Thus, questions of joy, of happiness, of contentment are front and center in these days.

Just what do these terms mean? For example, is joy the same as happiness?

Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 2, 2021
John 15:1-8

The holy gospel according to John. Glory to you, O Lord.

[Jesus said:] 1“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2My Father removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit my Father prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

If we took the time to read again this passage from John’s Gospel, engaging it slowly, savoring it, what words would stand out and continue to echo, reverberating in our minds and hearts?

Surely one such word is ‘abide.’ Listen again to Jesus’ words reported in John: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me…. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5)

The word, ‘abide,’ appears 8 times in this brief passage, clearly an important word in John.

Abide. What does it mean? If we allow our minds free play, other related words appear on our mental horizons which help reveal the meanings of abide – to remain, wait, delay, dwell, remain behind, survive, expect, to suffer, stay, continue, endure, last, pause, reside, sojourn, stand firm. And more perhaps.

Abide is an Old English word. And the New Testament Greek word also has many the senses of the words I just listed.

What’s striking to me is just how countercultural it is to abide. Abiding involves slowing down, staying in one place for a while.

Our fast-paced, multi-tasking contemporary world and its routines seem to demand the exact opposite of abiding.

We are today beckoned to live like humming birds in almost constant motion, flitting from one thing to the next.

Scholars and pundits and we in our common experience are beginning to become increasingly aware of the toll our multi-tasking busyness is taking on our mental and physical well-being.

Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 25, 2021
John 10:11-18

The holy gospel according to John. Glory to you, O Lord.

[Jesus said:] 11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

This day in Eastertide is Good Shepherd Sunday. Hence the inclusion in today’s readings the beloved Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters….” And on this wonderful psalm goes.

It does sound wonderful, doesn’t it? To lie down in green pastures. Picture that in your mind’s eye, occasions when perhaps you have laid yourself down in a meadow on a bright, sunny, warm day genuinely to relax and to be at peace.

The language sounds so gentle. The image so compelling. To lay oneself down for a nap or a good night’s rest after a long, hard day.

But lying down has other not so pleasant connotations. As when our beloved ones are laid to rest after death. Or in my Pittsburgh days where and when cremation was not common and visitation in funeral homes was the norm to view someone “laid out” in the coffin. Enquiring about which funeral home to visit, members routinely asked me, “Pastor, where is he or she laid out?”

Another unpleasant connotation is when something or someone is laid off or laid aside, laid down to be forgotten.

Or take the bedtime prayer that I grew up with – and maybe you did, too: “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

Wow. What an early childhood lesson in mortality to pray that prayer every night…. When my niece and nephew were young, my brother and sister-in-law changed the “if I should die before I wake” part to this: “guide me through the starry night, and wake me when the sun shines bright.” That’s much more palatable to our sensibilities.

But in a culture that routinely avoids the subject of death, maybe childhood lessons in our mortality are not such a bad thing (but maybe not in a child’s prayer every night just before bed).

Third Sunday of Easter, April 18, 2021
Luke 24:36b-48

The holy gospel according to Luke. Glory to you, O Lord.

36bJesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate in their presence.
    44Then Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

Just what is virtual reality? This is a question forced upon us by the necessities of the pandemic in concert with increasing availability of technologies which propel us into the realms of cyberspace for more and more of our waking hours.

Life online, our sharing in so-called virtual reality, is a huge elephant in our rooms demanding and commanding attention.

And there are attractive and perhaps even seductive dimensions to the commanding presence of cyberspace, even in the life of the church. Some congregations are reporting growth of participation online, in some cases far more than in person. Reportedly some congregations are receiving new members who have only participated in the life of the church online.

Thus, we are beckoned to begin to wrestle with the nature of virtual reality as it pertains to our Christian, communal life together.

Second Sunday of Easter, April 11, 2021
John 20:19-31

The holy gospel according to John. Glory to you, O Lord.

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Judeans, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
    24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
    26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas said to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
    30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book. 31but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing, you may have life in his name.

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

They say that “seeing is believing.” This adage seems to apply well to so-called doubting Thomas’ desire to see Jesus first-hand. And seeing is the focus of Jesus’ response to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

For all of the decades that I have engaged this passage from John’s Gospel, I have generally focused on the physical dimension of sight, of seeing the risen Jesus first-hand.

This view is reinforced by other New Testament writings that focus apostolic authority on being eye witnesses to all of the events surrounding Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. In fact, in the book of Acts, when the apostles seek one to replace Judas, a key criterion is that they need to select someone who also was a first-hand eye witness like the other apostles.

But this year, engaging the post-resurrection account that involves Thomas, I am struck by a wholly different dimension of the text which I generally overlook when I focus on sight.

If I were to give a title to what follows it might be something like, “Touching is believing.”

Resurrection of Our Lord, April 4, 2021
Mark 16:1-8

The holy gospel according to Mark. Glory to you, O Lord.

1When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint [Jesus’ body]. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

On this Easter Sunday, Resurrection of Our Lord, I have something of a confession to make as your pastor: during my adolescence, I was an agnostic. It may have been the tumult of my teenage years, my need for self-differentiation from my family which was very serious about both faith and life in the church, the influence of my skeptic friends whose parents were on faculty at the local college, or my mother’s struggles with her health – or likely some combination of all of the above. But I was a doubter during my teenage years, from early high school into college.

I recall looking for signs and evidence of the claims made by the Christian faith. Chief among those claims is what we celebrate today: Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

My brother, who also had his own versions of doubts but was older than I and came back around sooner than I did, put in my hands a book entitled, Who Moved the Stone? A Skeptic Looks at the Death and Resurrection of Christ. The book was written originally in 1930 by Albert Henry Ross, who was a British advertising agent and freelance writer.

Like many classic British empiricists, Ross examined the accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection in the Gospels, assuming them to be fully accurate accountings free from any authorial license, looking for evidence, if not to say, proof that Jesus indeed rose from the dead.

What Ross centered on was the stone at the entrance to Jesus’ tomb. In his reading of the accounts, he found no plausible or natural explanation for how it was that the large stone was moved from the entrance to the tomb.

On the basis of the stone being rolled away, Ross argued, if I recall his discourse accurately, that this was proof that something supernatural had happened and that, therefore, Jesus in fact rose from the dead.

While I found the book interesting, it did not convince me then as an adolescent, and it does not particularly interest me today. I’ve come to discover that faith does not need proof.

It’s a long story, which I’m happy to tell at some point, but many other things and people were responsible for my re-awakened faith – including biblical accounts such as the one from Mark’s Gospel appointed for today, namely, Mark’s account of the resurrection.

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