Sunday, March 30, 2008

Forgiving and Retaining - A Sermon

You could do a lot with this passage.  Doubting Thomas is a beloved story, and when we talked about it with the confirmation class, his doubt was instructive -- after all, what are Inquirers Classes if not a chance to question one's faith and practices?  

BUT there's more here than Thomas, and what's more interesting for us today is when Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into the disciples during his first visit -- and said, "if you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven, and if you retain them they are retained."

This is John, so you know this is different from the other gospels.  In other "Commissionings", the apostles are sent to be witnesses (Luke) or to baptize and "teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you." (Matthew)  Mark's first ending has no commission at all, while the second has the order to proclaim the good news and baptize -- but also the strange signs afterward:  those who don't believe are condemned, and those who do believe "will cast out demons...speak in tongues...pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover."

But John -- John is different.  (1st off, it's more than the 12 -- the "disciples".  It's the entire community he's addressing).  There's a sending, but no real order to proclaim anything.  There's only this one command to the disciples: receive the Holy Spirit.  "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.  If you retain them, they are retained."

Aside from Jesus' later order to Peter to "feed my sheep," that's the only commission he gives in John.  

But, what the heck does it mean?

Yes, it is clear that Jesus came and preached forgiveness in all the Gospels.  When Matthew said "teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you," he surely included forgiveness.  When Luke wrote that the disciples should be witnesses, surely he meant witnesses to Jesus' mercy as well as his power.  But only John puts it in words.  And not only forgiveness but also retaining that sin.  That's the curious thing.

On first blush, it sounds like Jesus is giving the disciples the power to send people to heaven or hell.  But is that what's going on?

What does it mean to forgive sins?  In John, sin is more than just bad things that people do to each other, although that is part of it.  Rather, sin is missing the mark -- missing the Love of God embodied by Jesus Christ.  For John, sin is that thing that gets between us and the life-saving relationship with God.  Not only were the disciples to forgive the personal sins against them but to forgive those who did not believe them, who did not accept Christ.

But a bigger question is, what does it mean to RETAIN the sin?  Nobody else uses this word "retain" in the gospels.  And John only uses it here.  But why? If the sin is retained, whose does it become?  

Maybe Jesus only means that a retained sin is not forgiven, but when we don't forgive, don't we, in fact, retain them?  Don't we, the one who has the power to forgive, hang onto them, refuse to let them go so that they become ours?

It doesn't matter if the sin we retain is something personal -- be it a petty slight or a vicious crime -- or if it is a person's refusal to follow Christ as we do.  If we hang on to that sin, we make it has us.  If we refuse to let go of that sin, then doesn't it have a hold on us?

Perhaps what we have here, then, is not so much an empowerment to put people in their place.  Perhaps it is a warning to the entire church -- not just the leadership -- that inability or unwillingness to forgive others will ultimately harm only us.

We know this in human experience.  Those who refuse to see others as equal in God's eyes because their faith isn't "the right faith" -- they are eaten up by their own tunnel vision and separated from part of the Body of Christ.  Those who refuse to forgive sins committed against them by others ultimately feel the weight of that sin more than the person who committed it.

In contrast, those who witness Christ's love while never condemning those who see it differently live a more joyful and certainly freer life.  Those who can forgive even the most horrendous crimes against them are able to release the shackles that bind their souls.

Forgiveness, then, is what John says our mission is as followers of Christ.  We forgive those who refuse to see what we see, and we forgive those who hurt us.  And in doing so, we make ourselves free.  Amen.

Saturday, March 29, 2008


Lots of folks don't like "organized religion" because it supposedly tells you what to do.  You can't kill, steal or lie -- that sort of thing.

Of course, there are pickier regulations: you can't play Linkin Park during your wedding ceremony.  In our church, we don't allow the coffin to be open during funerals.  People chafe against being told they can't do something.

But if you think it's bad at church, it's worse in the business world.  Just read the headlines about corporations who don't want to be regulated.  They say that the market will make them behave in the consumer's best interest.  They say that everything they do should be voluntary.

They say, "Trust us!  We'll do the right thing."  This came up recently when New York State's "Airline Passenger Bill of Rights" was rejected by the state's high court because interstate travel is the federal government's responsibility.  But representatives of the airline industry said it should not be regulated at all.  It was a fluke that passengers who sat for more than twelve hours without food, water or bathrooms.


The reason we have regulations is because corporations tend NOT to do the right thing.

One reason why we cannot trust corporations is because they have no conscience.  They are amoral entities responsible to nameless, faceless shareholders.  Their allegiance is to making more money, and nothing else.  But even privately owned companies tend to cheat -- anything to cut corners and maximize profit.

In other words, they want to win.  And the fewer rules that govern them, the more they can get away with and the more profit.  

So, we have inferior building materials, lead in children's toys, poison toothpaste (okay, so that's China, but we're the ones selling), cars that burn gas at the same rate they did in the 1930's.  You get the idea.  If there were no regulation, this world would look a lot worse than it is.

Besides, human nature dictates that, while many will voluntarily do the right thing, many others will not.

Now, you may know that I like hockey.  Talk about a sport that needs regulation.  And wants it.  We need to have a referee who enforces the rules because we get carried away.  I've sat in the penalty box before, and I've watched my own teammates do dumb things because they got mad or just plain sloppy.  

At our level of play, we all have to go to work in the morning and don't want to get hurt.  So, we have somebody who tells us, "You can't do that," or "You have to do things this way."

We accept the regulation because it's the only way we can all enjoy the game together.  Without it, there is chaos, anger, and harm to the rest of us.

The same is true in church, where we define and redefine standards of behavior as best we can so that we can all serve Christ as a community.  Without those standards, we are no community at all.

The same is true for the nation in relationship to its corporations.  We do not want a system where everyone does what they alone believe is right because quite often what we get is each company doing what is right for them alone.

For all who dislike regulation, I say grow up.  My kids don't like me telling them what to do, either.  But even they like it when some elderly lady says to their mother, "It does my heart good to see such well behaved children."

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Good Friday and Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday

One Easter Vigil many years ago, just before midnight, I stood at the baptismal font surrounded by candles, incense, clergy and a family.  The church was dark, and there was a mystical feel to the place, a feeling that something important was happening.  The death of the old life was giving way to the rebirth of a new.


On the faces of the inlaws, however, was shock and horror.  They stared wide-eyed at the thurifer, and the vestments, at the little font that was so unlike their Baptism pool where only full-emersion believers baptism was practiced.

At midnight, one said to the other, "I was waiting for the animals sacrifices to start up."

They did not appreciate the lateness of the service or the sense of mystery.  But I did.  Maybe it's because I was born just minutes after midnight.  Maybe it's because I get up every morning several hours before sunup so I can enjoy the quiet in those dark hours.

Maybe it's because it was in that strange dark interlude that is neither night nor day that Christ worked his own rebirth which tells us, "Christ is real.  God's love is real.  Whatever darkness we experience in this world will give way to God's light."

Tonight, I will once again enter into that mystery, lighting the new light, chanting by firelight, listening to the salvation story, waiting for and welcoming the birth of Christ and our own lives.  And as before, so now, it will be good.


Good Friday

Matthew 25:34-40 (American Standard Version)

 34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 

 35 for I was hungry, and ye gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; 

 36 naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me. 

 37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee hungry, and fed thee? or athirst, and gave thee drink? 

 38 And when saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? 

 39 And when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? 

 40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me. 

When we meet our Maker, will Jesus tell us that we are blessed of the Father. How do feed the hungry, give drink, take in a stranger, cloth one, visit the sick or those in prison in the world today?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Obama's speech.

Aside from the fact that this is Holy Week, two important things happened this week (three is you're a New Yorker).  That third thing is the swearing in of David Paterson as our new governor, the first black governor of this state and the first legally blind governor in the country.  

I had an opportunity to meet Governor Paterson last January when we both took part in the official observance of Franklin D. Roosevelt's birthday at the presidential library.  He spoke about being a disabled person in public service - much like FDR.  Most of what I remember is that he was very pleasant, spoke well, and was not wearing a coat in those freezing temperatures.  I kept thinking, "The man's Lieutenant Governor, for goodness sake.  Get him a coat!"

The other big thing this week is the fifth "anniversary" of the Iraq War.  Ignoring protests around the country, President Bush said the world is a better and safer place for it.  His supporters condemn those of us opposed to it as defeatists who want to "surrender".  They are wrong.  We lost the minute we invaded a country that had not so much as threatened us.  We could not win even if we had any concept of what a victory might look like -- which we don't.  We cannot win, because we were wrong to start, and we have made a mess of their country and ours.

But what I want to look at most -- because it may be the most important event of this week -- is Barack Obama's speech on race.  

I did not hear the speech, but I read the transcript.  And then I read numerous commentaries on it.  

One of the biggest criticisms of the speech was that Mr. Obama did not renounce Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor who has made incendiary remarks about race in this country.  

I say, good for Mr. Obama.  You do not shut out a person because he says things we don't like.  Christ wouldn't.  But more than that, what we know of Rev. Wright is contained in CNN and Fox sound bites.  Mr. Obama knows him much more intimately -- and he has said over and over that there is much more to the man than what we have seen.

What's more, Martin Marty, one of America's prominent theologians, knows Rev. White and Trinity Church quite well, and he says what we see is not what you get.  Marty, a white, noted that Rev. White and Trinity have done great things for the poor and race relations in their community.  Those who say the church is only about racism most likely have never been there or met the man.  I haven't either, but if there's anyone I trust, it's Martin Marty.

Besides, I'm a pastor.  I say things some of my parishioners hate (like, "This war is immoral").   But I've buried their loved ones, baptized their children, officiated at the marriages of their sons and daughters, listened to their troubles in my office.  We are more than our differences, even when those differences are extreme.  It would be easy for Mr. Obama to cut all ties with Rev. Wright -- and cowardly.  Much more difficult and brave to say, "We are not in agreement with these views, but we share more than just that."  It seems to me, Mr. Obama has a healthy understanding of being a Brother in Christ.

As to the speech itself, I believe it will be taught in schools for years to come because it does something that few speeches (and certainly not campaign speeches) have done in recent decades.  It elevates us.  Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" said he spoke to us like adults.  Amen.

Obama's speech acknowledged the anger on the side of blacks as well as whites.  He acknowledged that there was hurt on many sides and reminded us that we are more than merely those hurts.  We are, as he said, more than the sum of our parts.  

His was a visionary speech, not naive but hopeful.  And as we walk through the dark days of Holy Week -- Good Friday is tomorrow, after all -- hope is what sustains us.

Holy Week Meditations

I have slacked off this week.  Here are the meditations for Holy Week.

Holy Monday, March 17

Lessons for the Day:  Isaiah 42:1-9;  Hebrews 9:11-15;  John 12:1-11

The three readings for today, taken together, make an extraordinary, connected line from the presage of Jesus in Isaiah, predicting God's 'chosen one', 'a light to the nations', 'new things not yet come'.  In John, Jesus has not only come but fulfilled the prediction, becoming a light to many.  He is in the house of Lazarus whom he raised from the dead.  But here one sees the divisions among those who hear his word.  Mary is anointing Jesus feet with expensive ointment.  Judas asks why the money it cost wasn't given to the poor.  And we hear of all those who come to hear Jesus because he raised the dead (not for his Word of Love).  Finally, the letter to the Hebrews first speaks of Jesus as ' The High Priest of the good things that have come'.  Then his death is defined as the perfect sacrifice to redeem mankind from all transgressions.

Looking at all three together I see the prophecy revealed but also the hostility to the new message; taught in parables, shown in miracles, based not on the law but on unconditional love.  Since it did not change every life, it was for those whose life it DID change to carry it on.   Many of the early saints sacrificed their lives to spread the Good News of Jesus.  St. Patrick who we honor  today spent his life traveling and spreading the word of Christ.  The lives of the saints and their words give amazing testimony to the lengths of sacrifice they endured gladly for their Lord.

We may be far weaker vessels, but, in these disquieting times, it is for us by our actions, our personal choices and our love of one another to spread the Jesus' message of Peace and to be the Light of Jesus' Love in the world.  I'm constantly reminded of

the song many of us know and used to shout out - ' This Little Light of Mine, I'm going to Let it Shine'.  Its not only immensely cheering, but, really, its the whole point and message.


Holy Tuesday: March 18

Lessons: Isaiah 49:1-7;  1 Corinthians 1:18-31;  John 12:20-36

From Isaiah – The Lord called me from the womb…

From 1 Corinthians – God chose what is foolish in the world [and] God chose what is weak in the world…

From John – Shall I say ‘Father, save me from this hour’?  No, for this purpose I have come to this hour.


Doesn’t it seem we all have a calling?  Whether it is listening, working tirelessly, or sharing song, healing, wisdom, leadership, good food, or simple affection.  When we examine ourselves closely, we all do have unique gifts.  Lent seems a good season to reflect on why the Lord called each one of us from the womb. 

These callings need not be magnificent - God chooses from among the foolish and weak - but rest assured that we are called.  

But how do we respond to our calls? 


Often I respond: Father, save me from this hour! 

But that is not the best response, because it is for these purposes that we were called.



Holy Wednesday: March 19

Lessons for the Day:  Isaiah 50z;4-9; Hebrews 12:1-3;  John 13:21-32

This passage deals with the disciples at the Last

Supper finding out that one of them was going to

betray Jesus and them wanting to find out who it was. 

I could imagine how they felt - physically - when they

heard this information.  I imagine they had a true

pain in their guts because of the way they felt toward

Jesus.  Certainly an uneasy feeling and maybe a

generally nervous-shaking body.  The way one feels

when you know or think something awful is going to

happen to you or a loved one.  The way you feel when

you just avoided an accident on the highway - a

tension that occurs then slowly goes away when you

realize that you are safe.  It makes me wonder how

they could have even eaten under those conditions. 

    I'd like to finish with the next words Jesus will

say as written by Tim Rice in Andrew Lloyd Weber's

"Jesus Christ Superstar"  "For all you care, this

bread could be my body.  For all you care, this wine

could be my blood.  The end.  This is my blood you

drink, this is my body you eat.  If you will, remember

me when you eat and drink."



Maundy Thursday: March 20
Lessons for the Day:  Exodus 12:1-14;  1 Corinthians 11:23-26;  John 13:1-17, 31b-35


There is always a sad time of the church's season, the beginning of Lenten season, preparation for Jesus Christ crucifixion, death, and his resurrection.  You all must be familiar with the picture of Jesus Christ praying on his knees in the garden of Gethsenine.  Do you feel the coldness of the ground and the coldness of the rock? 


Psalms have a deep meaning for all who really should absorb their messages.  Psalm 25 v1-11, "To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul; my God, I putmy trust in you; let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me.  Let none who look to you be put to shame; let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes.  Show me your ways, O LORD, and teach me your paths.  Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long.  Remember, O LORD, your compassion and love, for they are from everlasting.  Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; remember me according to your love and for the sake of your goodness, O LORD.  Gracious and upright is the LORD; therefore he teaches sinners in his way.  He guides the humble in doing right and teaches his way to the lowly.  All the paths of the LORD are love and faithfulness to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies,  For your Name's sake, for give my sin, for it is great.  Who are they who fear the LORD?  he will teach them the way that they should choose."

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Living in the Tension - A Sermon

On this strange day in the Church year where we start outside of the church yelling Hosannah and end up in here yelling Crucify, there's a word we need to talk about.  It's in the news and it's in our scripture.  That word is Tension.  The tension that we all live in and that brings us all to the breaking point time and time again.

We all know the sad news of our governor -- tomorrow to be ex-governor.  We know the good he had done in the past and the shooting star fall he had in less than a week.  How can there be such entirely opposite traits in one man?  It was like a light switch.  One minute there's a bright light and the next that light has been extinguished.   Between the light and the dark is the tention.  When we are at our best, that's where we live.

Historian and Sociologist Parker Palmer said in a recent speech that living in the tension is our calling.  He speaks of it in terms of finding ourselves between two possibilities and choosing to allow them to work themselves out rather than go for the quick fix.  

The example he gave was the 18th Century Quaker John Woolman.  In the 1740s John Woolman became convinced that owning slaves was against the will of God.  He took it to his Quaker meeting to discuss, and they were not convinced.  Some of them owned slaves and did not want to give them up.  But, in the Quaker manner, they agreed that if God had put this in his heart, they should listen.  So, the Quakers agreed to pay for Woolman to go around the countryside and talk to all the Quaker meetings, trying to convince them of the rightness of abolition.  If he could convince them, they would believe.

For more than twenty years, he traveled the country preaching release of the captives.  He died on a trip to England trying to convince English Quakers, but never saw his dream fulfilled.  And yet, not too many years after his death, the Quakers throughout the country agreed that slavery was evil and abandoned the practice en mass.  80 years before the Civil War.  

Their willingness to live with the tension -- to say, "We're not sure what the answer is, and we don't have to have it right away" gave them a united and inspired answer -- that turned out to be faster than those who wanted abolition "right away."

I bring this up because the notion of living in the tension is vital.  Just as the temptation to jump quickly to conclusions or actions -- the human tendency to go from light to dark with the flip of a switch -- resides in all of us.  

Just look at those two radically different gospel passages we lived through today.

We -- the crowd -- cheer Jesus entering Jerusalem on the donkey.  We yell, "Hosannah" and lay our palms down.  And less than a week later, we scream, "Crucify Him!"  We cheer on the soldiers who whip him and nail him to a tree.  Like a light switch -- we jump from the light to the dark.

That light and that dark does not rest only in our governor -- nor is it limited to those folks in the bible.  It is in us all.  Living in the tension is the balancing act of neither believing that we are all dark or all light, of neither losing hope when we fall short, nor of taking ourselves too seriously when we are good.

If Palm Sunday teaches us anything, it is that we are constantly balancing that light and dark side, constantly living in the tension.  We are intensely complex creatures, and yet God loves us completely -- not just when we are good.  Not just when we yell, "Hosannah!"  No -- God loves us even as we cry "Crucify."

That's living in the tension, and that is our calling.

Good thing, too.  After all, Anglicanism is the "both/and" denomination.  Both Protestant and catholic.  We, of all denominations, can understand what it is like to feel tugged in different directions -- both with their good and evil.  We know how easy it would be to just fall into one camp or another and close off the other.  But that's not who God calls us to.  We are called to live in the tension.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Carbon Fast

Day 37: Put a lid on it. That’s pans when 

cooking and use a kettle to boil water. 

Daily Lenten Meditation

Each day in Lent, I post a meditation from one of our parishioners. Their names are not listed to protect their privacy

Lessons for the Day:  Exodus 9:13-35; 2 Corinthians 4:1-12; Mark 10:32-45

Two bits of Lenten Wisdom:

He who takes an early morning walk will be inspired by God's creations  (from my mother)

The pressures you perceive in life are a thin veil easily brushed aside to see what is truly important