A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost


A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Based on Romans 7:15-25a and Matthew 11:28-30

Richard L. Jeske, Vicar


     Of all the things you can find on your computer nowadays, there is a special website for Murphy’s Laws.  “The origin and laws of Murphy in one place,” it says.  The original Murphy’s Law was formulated in 1949 at an Air Force base where a Captain Edward Murphy, surveying his unit’s capabilities, uttered the basic Law:  “If anything can go wrong here, it will.”  Immediately, of course, variations of that original formulation arose:  “If everything seems to be going well, you have obviously overlooked something.”  


     What he started was a tradition of Murphy’s Laws that now cover all walks of life.  There are love laws, tech laws, computer laws, real estate laws, teaching laws, police officers’ laws, nurses laws, lotto laws, etc.  Students, for instance, should remember that “the clock in the instructor’s room is always wrong.”  Teachers, on the other hand, are to remember that “the problem child will always be a school board member’s son.”  Potential lovers should remember that “if the person isn’t taken, there’s a reason.” The one that always works for me is that “the line you’re waiting in is always the slowest, and if you change to another line that one will suddenly become even slower.”  


     So we come to church on this Fifth Sunday after Pentecost only to hear of another law written long before Captain Murphy got to his Air Force base.  It’s from St. Paul, who taught us a lot we should remember:  “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”  This is not an attempt to be funny, like admitting that he’s some kind of klutz.  It is something Paul feels deeply, after thinking about himself.  But it is not the statement of someone with an eternal black cloud hanging over his head consigning him forever to one screw-up after another.  This is the struggle of a man who is pursuing the nature of his inmost self with the strictest and most brutal honesty he can muster.  But it’s quite an admission.  Even in our quietest moments alone with ourselves it is not easy for any of us to say, as he did:  “The good that I want is not what I do.” 


     By the time Paul wrote those words he certainly could look back on things in his life he’s not particularly proud of.  He thought that he was doing God a great service by persecuting those heretical Christians, those Jews of his generation who had fallen away from the Torah to believe in this Jesus, this false Messiah, who got crucified.  The good he was trying to accomplish was to save Israel from this new false belief.  But now he knows that he could not save Israel at all.  


     But he’s a Christian now, and still his words are not past tense; he did not say “The good I wanted I did not do.”  Not past tense but still present tense:  “The good that I want is not what I do.”  He’s a Christian now, and he’s made amends with those he persecuted.  He’s shown them his own willingness to die for Jesus.  He’s traveled night ..and day, suffered hunger and imprisonment, mockery and ignominy – all for the gospel – and his missionary work has had tremendous success. He gathered around him some of the brightest and most energetic co-workers and established Christian congregations in every major metropolis of the Greco-Roman world.  He wrote letters that turned out to be classics of religious literature, letters that became the major content of the Christian Scriptures and the inspiration for every renewal movement in the history of the church after him, from Augustine to Luther, from Wesley to Kierkegaard to Bonhoeffer.  He is a saint of the church, right?  And yet it is this man, this gigantic shaper of the faith we all confess, this huge influence at both pastoral and theological levels, this dynamic leader, who sat down and wrote to people in Rome whom he had not yet met:  “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”  


    Is this conscience speaking?  Maybe, and maybe not.  Was Paul burdened with a heavy conscience for his misdeeds?  If so, what does his conscience have to do with ours?  Isn’t conscience a private matter?  And doesn’t one’s conscience depend on every person’s own individual background, its influences and education?  You know, I’ve never placed much value in the statement:  “Let your conscience be your guide,” because with little ground in our society for common moral discourse, consciences can range from the very over-active to the active to the totally non-existent.  For instance, this society is used to promises before elections without fulfillment afterward, and we wouldn’t ever accuse our politicians of having a conscience problem.  Modern business practices are suddenly addressing human conscience only because the law is knocking at the door.  We fudge a little on our taxes because everyone else is doing it, we say.  We gossip about others whenever we feel like it, even though we might be able to recite the Ninth Commandment in our sleep, the one, you know about bearing false witness.  Yet it was a wise person who once said:  “When I chew on the sins of others, I suspect that the chewing gives me more pleasure than the sinning did the sinner.”  


     We can momentarily submerge our conscience to go along with the crowd.  “I’m just going to take life as it comes.  I’ll grab what I can, where I can, and how I can.  And that’s life!”  And yet, every once in a while you hear that little voice within you that says, “Shame on you.  You’re not what you could be.”  But that voice is quickly shoved back into the darkest recesses of our being, until the tide, after its ebb, returns again to seek its own level in the ground of our souls. 


     Sometimes, and St. Paul knew this, our consciences can paralyze us, and make us fear doing anything in order to avoid making a mistake.  A chronically burdened conscience can take insignificant acts, and suddenly a very healthy, progressive, positive person turns into a negative, whimpering grouch.  Children who learn early on in life that they will never quite live up to their parents’ expectations of them, that only a 4.0 grade point average will ever make them happy, that only medical school or Carnegie Hall or the Olympic Team would ever bring them worth in their parents’ eyes – talk to them sometime about the shape of their conscience and it’s not a pretty conversation.  Conscience can take a person who has long been forgiven and make that person’s life a literal hell because that forgiveness has never really been accepted.  


     So St. Paul, the former legalist, the former persecutor, did a lot of thinking about the law of God, about human guilt, and human conscience.  And he is able to say that forgiveness is no luxury at all, but rather a necessity. And he knows that it is not just in a fit of conscience or in a moment of deep depression that he says, “The good that I want is not what I do,” but it is in a moment when he is being brutally honest about the whole of the human condition.  He knows that the little game of conscience is but a paradigm of the bigger game of human existence entirely.  


     Paul looks back on his life and sees that every time he has struck out on his own to do good for God he has simply struck out. On his own he persecuted the church, to do good for God, and struck out.  On his own he sought to obey the law of God – to the point he thought he was blameless, he said – and just struck out.  The good that he wanted, namely life with God, was not something that he did.  Because life with God is not something that you do, it is something that you are given.  And ever time you set out to do it on your own, you will fail.  Every time you set out to achieve God’s love and acceptance on your own, the evil of boasting lies close at hand, the boast that you didn’t need God after all to feel free and liberated, accepted and loved.  And that boast is the worst possible evil, for it rejects the very way God himself has chosen for you, namely to “give you the victory through Christ Jesus your Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:57). 


     Therefore you receive another picture of things on this Fifth Sunday after Pentecost.  Today you hear about Paul’s attempt accurately to describe the human condition.  But you also hear someone else speak to you.  You hear the words of Christ himself, speaking to you, to all of us who fall short of God’s glory:  “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” 


     You will always hear Christ say that to you, as he did to St. Paul. Especially when you are in a quandary about your life:  there you will find your risen Lord yoked with you, that means walking with you, next to you, as a team, taking on every new field of life.  That life with Christ is a good that you cannot do, because it is a good that is given to you, so that you can have rest for your souls. a gift that prepares you for life in every next new day.  


     Where do you find it?  How do you get that gift of life with Christ that is preparation for every next new day?  You don’t find it on your own.  But here, in the company of Christ’s people, where you hear it spoken to you, where you receive it in bread and wine, and where you sing hymns with each other and speak the creeds of the faith to each other.  Here you will find the place to set your burdens in a new light.   Teamed with Christ your burdens become lighter and easier, and a heavy conscience is rested.  In the company of Christ’s people you will receive again and again the gift of that peace of God that passes all human understanding and that will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.


                                    -- Richard L. Jeske


A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost


A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

Based on Matthew 10:40-42

Richard L. Jeske, Vicar


     During this Pentecost season most of our Gospel readings will be coming from the Gospel according to Matthew.  From beginning to end this Gospel has a lot to do with Christian mission.  Already at the start of the Gospel, Mary and Joseph have to be on the run, because their own government is out to kill their newborn child.  The only people who show up to honor the child are foreigners, the Wise Men from the East.  In the middle of the Gospel Jesus sends his disciples out into the local villages to offer his message of peace, even to people who will be hostile to them.  He even said, “I’m sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves” (10:16).  And at the very end of the Gospel he sends his disciples not just to local villages but into the whole world, to “make disciples of all nations” (28:19).  Now if it’s not going to be easy locally, it’s not going to be easy globally, in foreign countries, either.


     So we know that the task of the Christian church is one of mission, and we think of it as a task.  But we often overlook the promise that Jesus puts into every single assignment to go out and speak in his name.  We heard it today:  “Whoever welcomes you welcome me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”  Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – none of these will lose his reward.”  The promise is first of all that Christ is going with us, and when we introduce ourselves to other people in the name of Christ, we are introducing them to Christ, and if they welcome us they’re welcoming God himself.  And there is going to be reward to those who treat the Christian missionary well.


     There is the well-known story in Mathew 25 about all the nations being gathered at the end of time before the Judge of the world.  He separated them like a shepherd separates the goats from the sheep, the goats on his left and the sheep on his right.  He says to the ones on his right that they are now going to receive eternal life, the kingdom prepared by his Father, because of the way they treated the members of his family, namely his followers.  Then he says to the ones on his left that they are going to be given eternal punishment because of the way they treated the members of his family, namely his followers.  They rejected his followers, didn’t welcome them, didn’t feed and clothe them in their need, and in rejecting them they were rejecting him, and his Father as well.  In other words, the world will be judged on the basis of how they treated the ones Jesus sent to them.


     There is a story like this in Mark’s Gospel (9:38-41).  Jesus’ disciples tell him that they just saw a man casting out demons in Jesus’ name and “we told him to stop it because he wasn’t following us.” Jesus then responded by telling them not to stop him, because if he was healing people “in my name” then he can’t be speaking evil of him.  And he added:  “whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”

That is the promise to the missionary:  people will be judged on the basis of how they treat the followers of Jesus.  


            One Sunday during our first vacation in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina we pulled into the parking lot of All Saints Episcopal Church and noticed four spaces marked “Visitor Parking.”  One was still vacant, so we used it.  As we approached the church, the Rector was at the front steps greeting everyone who came in.  Entering the door we were welcomed by a smiling lady wearing a name badge and asking our names and where we were from.  “Is this your first time at our church?” she asked, and we said it was.  She then ushered us over to a desk where another cheery lady offered us a name badge, but one with a red rose drawn onto to indicate that we were visitors.   After we took our seats, at the beginning of the service, the Rector asked all us visitors to introduce ourselves to the congregation, which numbered about 250 in attendance.  After each introduction, another lady came forward to present the visitors with the gift of a small loaf of banana nut bread, and after the service several people made it a point to invite us to coffee hour, and showed us the way to get there.  It was a lively coffee hour, with people welcoming us and telling us how glad they were that we were there.


     It is a growing church, a vibrant church, with a certain energy and joy that was palpable.  It was also an aging church, Hilton Head being a destination for retirees and “snowbirds” from the north.  A couple days later I went back to the church to see the Rector.  I wanted to ask what he had done to make his church such a welcoming church.  “How did you get this church to be so oriented toward the visitor?” I asked him.  He was surprised I asked the question. “Isn’t that our mission?” he replied.  “Isn’t that why we are here, to welcome everyone in the name of Jesus?”  He had taken Jesus’ mission seriously, and the reward was a growing and a healthy church.  So when we came back to Hilton Head for our next vacation, where do you think we went to church?


     We are enjoying our July 4th weekend, celebrating our country’s independence from a monarchy and its journey as a democracy.  It’s exciting for us Americans to celebrate 251 years of being our own country, which has become a leader among the nations of this world.  But what are we looking like now?  Are we “one nation, indivisible” as our Pledge of Allegiance has us say?  Or has our discourse with one another become so divisive that our government finds it hard to govern?   Do we like to label people “liberal” or “conservative” in order to dismiss what they are saying to us?  Do we use words like “left-wing” or “right-wing” in such ways that we don’t have to consider the points others are making?  Are Republicans and Democrats at such loggerheads that the great art of compromise has become a dirty word, even if such compromise would be for the good of the country?  Has our discourse become so uncivil that we cannot hear points of view other than our own?  If so, then the Christian task of welcoming one another in the name of Christ and offering Christ’s peace to each other is all the more important now than it ever was.  And if we can’t do it locally, then how are we toing to do it globally?  


     So we need to remember the marks of Jesus’ disciples:  they welcome one another, because when they do so they are welcoming Christ, and welcoming God himself.  “Isn’t that why we are here? – the Rector’s words kept ringing in my ear.  We are sent out with Jesus’ commission of peace, and sometimes, he told us, sometimes that message of peace won’t work out so well.  But that doesn’t mean we quit, because at other times people will give that gift of peace back to us.  And when that happens, even if it’s a little cup of water, none of them will lose their reward.  And Jesus’ promise, that the way we’re treated when we offer Christ’s peace, will be fulfilled. 

                                    -- Richard L. Jeske 


A Sermon for Trinity Sunday, the First Sunday after Pentecost


A Sermon for Trinity Sunday, the First Sunday after Pentecost

Based on Genesis 1:1-2:4a

Richard L. Jeske, Vicar


      There’s a well-known popular song that seems so simple, and yet it is very profound.  You know it – it goes like this:


I see trees of green

Red roses too

I see them bloom

For me and for you

And I think to myself …. What a wonderful world.


I see skies of blue

And clouds of white

The bright blessed day

The dark sacred night

And I think to myself ….  What a wonderful world.


Various popular artists have recorded this song, but the one that sticks in my mind most is the rendition by Louis Armstrong.  He was the first to record it as it was released in 1967.  In 1999 his recording of it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.  The fact that he was an African-American makes the bridge in this song so profound:


The colors of the rainbow

So pretty in the sky

And also on the faces of people goin’ by

I see friends shaking hands, saying “How do you do?”

They really are saying “I love you.”


And the fourth verse completes the profound nature of this simple song:


I hear babies cry

I watch them grow

They’ll learn much more

Than I’ll ever know

And I think to myself ….  What a wonderful world.


     One can’t help think of that song as we read the story of Creation in Genesis 1-2 (:4a), our first reading for this Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday of the Pentecost season.  The author of this reading also thought to himself:  “what a wonderful world.”  And just like the song, he wrote it from the vantage point of what he saw:  first of all, he lived in a seven-day week; he also looked from horizon to horizon and experienced the sky as a dome sheltering the earth from the waters above it; it had lights fixed to it to separate the day from the night: sun for the day, moon and stars for the night.  It’s what he saw, and he wrote it down as he saw it.  He was expressing his faith: he attributed all that he saw to God, the Creator.


     Remember how we used to fight over this story – whether it was part of world history to be taught in our schools?  We even knew that the Bible had several other renditions of the Creation – like the one in Genesis 2 that follows our reading, a rendition of the Creation happening in only one day.  There is a poetic version of the Creation in Psalm 104 and another one spanning the last five chapters of the Book of Job.  But today’s reading from Genesis 1 has always been important to Christians, so important that it is read on Trinity Sunday.  


    Today is the only Sunday of the church year that is named after a doctrine, a doctrine about God.  It’s at the core of our faith, and our worship service keeps reminding us of it – from the first words of our liturgy (“Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”) (BCP, p. 355) to the last words of our liturgy, when the priest pronounces the final benediction (“The blessing of Almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be among you and remain with you always” (see p. 339).  In between are the Gloria in Excelsis, the Creed, and the Eucharistic Prayer – all which accent God in Three Persons, Holy Trinity.  Not to mention our hymns for today, there is also the apostolic greeting written by Paul in our second reading:  “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” 


     And today’s Gospel reading is made up of the ending of Matthew’s Gospel, letting us hear what the risen Jesus expects of his followers:  they are to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and to teach everything that Jesus has taught us.  It gives us a hint about why Matthew wrote his Gospel in the first place:  he wrote a compendium of what Jesus taught, from his baptism to his death and resurrection.  And everything that Jesus taught, especially about God, can be heard in the creation story of Genesis 1-2, and if we look for what it tells us about God, we will come to a new appreciation of it.


     First of all, God’s word is a powerful word.  “`Let there be light,’” God said, “and there was light.”  When God speaks, things happen.  New things come into being.  Like Paul wrote to the Romans (4:17), God “calls into existence things that do not exist.”  Light is shed on things when God speaks; darkness is broken up; darkness never overcomes the light of God – even in the darkness of night there are lights in the sky.  God never lets us alone in darkness:  he always has some light there for us.  His Word is powerful, creative, done with care for us, and whenever we read the Bible we will come face to face with the light of God.  


     Second, God is a God of order.  Chaos and formless voids do not suit him.  The waters and the seas have their place, and the dry land has its place – because both of them will produce their own things, for the benefit of the whole creation. The earth will produce vegetation; there will be wild life there, and the seas will produce “swarms of living creatures, big and small.” There is order in the way the author tells this story:  God creates, and “God saw that it was good.  And there was evening and there was morning, the first day …,  the second day …,  the third day….  

     Third, God is a God of life.  He produces, and he wants what he has created to continue to produce.  The life God gives is to be extended by the beings he has created – they are to participate in creation building: plants yielding seeds for more plants; fruit trees whose fruit has life within it for more fruit; animals with the capacity to “be fruitful and multiply.”  God sees that life is good, and gives to his creatures the ability to bring new life into being.  


     Of course, the thing that connects Genesis 1-2 to Trinity Sunday is God’s decision to create human beings.  Our ancestors in the faith have always pointed to this decision, when in v. 26 God said, “Let us make humankind in our image….”  Some would say that the “us” is just the royal plural, as when a king or a queen uses a plural in reference to him- or herself: “we,” as is the royal “we.”  But because of Jesus, Christians tend to look at the Old Testament rather differently, in order to see Christ there.  Early Christian hymns in the New Testament speak of Christ as present at the creation (John 1:2-4, Colossians 1:16-17), so when God says “let us” Christians have always seen more than the royal “we” there:  it is the Triune God at work in that decision. 


     Again, when God speaks there is power in that word, creative power.  “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.”  God gives life to human beings, and for what purpose?  To bring order to the creation, because God is a God of order.  The human being is to live from the produce of land and sea, and to make sure the creation continues to produce.  They themselves have within themselves that same capacity to create life, and they are to be mindful of the generations to come, which themselves will be nourished by what land and sea continues to produce.  And after humankind was created, God looked at his entire creation and saw that it was not just good, but very good (v. 31).  And this God of order, this God of life, wants his creation to stay that way, especially now that he has someone, the human being, to watch over it -- someone created in his own very image, both male and female.  


     There’s one thing left – and it’s the final day of creation.  It’s a rest day, and God blessed it and hallowed it.  The seventh day, the Sabbath, Saturday – the day of rest for God.  In Israel the Sabbath – a Hebrew word that means “seventh – came to be strictly guarded as a day of rest, because God blessed and sanctified that day.  It was written into the Ten Commandments:  “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.”  The earliest Christians, Jews themselves, continue to worship on Saturday, but added Sunday to it as the day of Jesus’ resurrection.  It became a foundation for the observance of both days in the Christian world as rest days.  Of course, that has changed.  When I studied in Heidelberg back in the 1960’s stores were generally closed both days – with only one Saturday per month having the stores open, but only until 2:00 p.m.  Now, both there and here, stores are open both days, and both Jews and Christians try mightily to hold onto their days of rest even as sports programs continue to make it a problem for our families.


     Our Genesis writer thought rest was important.  In fact, he obviously was observant of the Sabbath day, and said that it too was part of God’s creating.  Rest is important for our health, and for the health of the whole creation.  Plants and animals have their seasons of dormancy, and so should human beings.  It is a way of caring for God’s creation, to acknowledge its need for rest.  Did you know that our country gives its workers the least paid time off in the developed world?  This is in contrast to 41 days of paid leave (including holidays) in Brazil and 38 days of paid leave in Austria.  In our country employees do not have the legal right to paid leave, except on national holidays, if that.  But care of workers is part of the caring for creation, and we ought to do a better job of it.  We shouldn’t be last in the community of nations when it comes to days of rest.  


    This Creation story tells us a lot about God, and every step of the way it tells us something about ourselves.  God has made us partners with him in the care of his creation, and in caring for each other.  And Trinity Sunday comes at us to remind us that God is the source of our lives, who sent his Son to redeem us from the chaos and darkness that we often make for ourselves, and who sent his Spirit to join us together into a community of faith, where we can show to each other the love and peace that also come from God.  And every holy day we are never sent away from this place without that blessing of love and peace that comes from God -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- that it be among us and remain with us always.

-- Richard L. Jeske                      






A Sermon for Pentecost


A Sermon for Pentecost

Based on Acts 2:1-21 and 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

Richard L. Jeske, Vicar

St. John’s in the Wilderness


     I don’t know whether I should tell you this – after all, pastors are supposed to build confidence in the church, and this might not do that.  But I get a bit annoyed when people – well-meaning people who are trying to help us – put things in the biblical text that aren’t there.  Take our first lectionary reading for today, from Acts 2:  it starts off by saying “When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place.”  But in the original Greek text the word “disciples” is not mentioned in that sentence.  It’s only “they all,” and somebody back in the churches’ publishing units decided that the “they all” were the disciples.  But to do justice to the “they all,” we should go back to chapter one to see what the antecedent for the “they all” really.  It just happens to be the 120 followers of Jesus that were trying to figure out what they should be doing now that Jesus had left them by themselves.  120 people having a meeting.  The disciples of Jesus, of course, are there, but the text also adds “together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (Acts 1:14).  The “they all” of Acts 2:1 refers back to this group, and what happens on the day of Pentecost happens to this group, including the women.  Our well-meaning church publishing people have eliminated 108 people from having that first Pentecost experience.  


    This is not to fault them, because we’ve traditionally read the “they” in Acts 2:1 as the twelve disciples.  Christian art throughout the ages has portrayed 12 people with tongues of fire on their heads.  Maybe 120 would burn the house down.  And like I said, maybe we pastors shouldn’t mess around with that image.  It’s just that people like me are interested in getting the story straight, with our reading into it as little as possible, even if that’s what we’ve been taught over the years.  It’s what makes Scripture study so interesting:  you can get surprised; your old images can get shaken; what you thought you knew can often get suddenly adjusted.  I thought it would be important to mention this to you.  But I only hope I haven’t ruined your Pentecost by telling you that women were also among those who had that first Pentecost experience.  But that’s important to know, especially for the church of today.     


     This day, the day of Pentecost, is often called “the birthday of the church.”  And there is some truth to that.  Of course, that in itself would occasion some hefty debate.  Didn’t Jesus really found the church?  Or, some would argue, wasn’t it really St. Paul?  After all, he was the earliest of the New Testament writers and he wrote most of the New Testament and he was the one who founded congregations all over the Mediterranean world and if it weren’t for him Christianity would be just one little sect within Judaism, but he opened up the church to the rest of the Gentile world, with his teaching of justification by God’ grace through faith apart from works of the Law.  


     But in our first reading, Luke clearly describes the beginnings of the church as the work of the Holy Spirit.  It is the Spirit who shakes up their quiet little meeting, who interrupts their prayers, who bursts into the room “with the sound of a rush of a violent wind, who provides split, fiery tongues in the air, who gives them the ability to speak in foreign languages.  They were trying to figure out what to do next, but nothing was decided until the Holy Spirit decided it for them:  the foreign tongues mean they weren’t to stay in that little room – not even in Jerusalem, but, as Jesus told them, in the previous chapter:  “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  That’s what the tongues were for, starting in Jerusalem:  the gospel would be proclaimed everywhere, to all peoples, “to the ends of the earth.”


     So today the color is red – fiery tongues, the Spirit (like the blood in our bodies) giving life to the Body of Christ, the beginning of ministry (the color for ordination is red), and the memory of every saint’s and martyr’s day on our calendar.  And red signals a shift in our church calendar, from the white of the Easter season to the green of the Pentecost season.  From Advent to Easter we’ve covered the events of Jesus’ life, from birth to resurrection.  Now in Pentecost we’ll turn again to Jesus’ teaching, and the color green is the color of growth, because no matter where we are in life, we can always grow more maturely by turning again to Jesus’ teaching.  We’ll be learning from him again, and growth is the order of the day, of the season.


     The violent entry into that staid little meeting is done on purpose.  Things quickly go from tranquility to upheaval, because the 120 have to go from hiding into the dangerous streets of the city.  Of course, they had not been without warning, or better said, without preparation.  John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus gave them a heads-up about it.  He’ll be going away soon, he told them, but when he does the Holy Spirit will come, and he tells them about the things that the Holy Spirit will do for them.  He calls him “the Spirit of truth,” something the rest of the world isn’t interested in (John 14:17), and they soon experienced that disinterest in truth, something that has happened also before our very eyes.  Some people have said we live in a “post-truth age,” and there are signs everyday that we do.  But Jesus gives to his followers the “Spirit of Truth,” and he said that that Spirit will continue to guide us into all the truth (16:12).  He also used another name for this Holy Spirit:  he called him “the Advocate,” the “Counselor” who would keep reminding us of everything Jesus taught (14:25).  That’s what the Pentecost season is for:  to concentrate on what Jesus taught.  It is the Spirit of Truth at work among us, so that we would not get cynical and think with the rest of the world that there is no such thing as “truth.”


    In today’s second reading St. Paul talks about the work of this Holy Spirit.  It’s all about the giving of the Spirit:  the many gifts the Spirit gives to every Christian congregation, like ours:  wisdom and knowledge, faith and healing, working of miracles and prophetic preaching, the ability to distinguish between a good and a bad spirit, and various kinds of tongues and their interpretation.  We just had an exhibition of that, because the community of the Spirit is where the gospel is preached in all the world, and different languages are no barrier to that.  


    By the time Paul thought about the Holy Spirit, after he saw it at work in the church, his churches, he wrote one of the most profound statements in the New Testament:  "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good." It says that every Christian is a recipient of the gifts of the Spirit. "To each is given'" means that to each member of the body of Christ the Spirit's gifts are given. Not just to charismatic Christians who have to feel it, not just to heady theologians who have to think it, not just to clergy whose ordination claims it for them, not just to certain Christians who think they alone are living it. "To each," that is to every one of the baptized, "is given a manifestation of the Spirit." A red flame of fire sits on your head too. 


     So don't think that you missed out. Don't think that you, as a baptized Christian, got passed over when the Spirit started giving out its gifts. Don't think that just because you don't feel it, you must not have a spiritual gift -- because then you would be judging yourself on the basis of someone else's gift. Most of the Spirit's gifts listed by Paul are not to be felt but to be used.  There are varieties of services, and varieties of activities - and your ability to carry out one variety of service or one variety of activity in the church doesn't depend on how you feel about it but about whether you can do it.  Can you say: "here is something I can do for the church!"?  If so, then you are blessed: you have received a manifestation of the Spirit, whose gifts are given for the common good.   That word "manifestation" simply means "a disclosure," a "making evident," an "appearance." Each gift exercised in the Christian congregation is a disclosure of God's Spirit at work in the community. 


    For what purpose? Why are these gifts given? The most important thing in Paul's statement is yet to come. "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good." In other words, the gifts God has given you are not yours to keep for yourself. In a real sense God gives gifts to the whole congregation, through the individual members of it. God's gifts are meant for the whole congregation, and they are put to work by individual Christians within it. A person avails himself or herself of the gifts of the Spirit only as a member of the congregation: the Spirit's gifts are given for the common good, for the good of the whole Christian community. That concept of the "common good" is expressed by the Greek word Paul uses: it is the word for "symphony." A Christian congregation is to operate like a symphony orchestra: each instrument is not on its own, but each works for the common good; each instrument contributes to the whole sound of the group. In order for an individual's gift to be an actual disclosure of the Spirit, it must contribute to the common good. The Spirit of God does not give gifts to individuals for the purpose of division, but for the common good. And when division occurs in a congregation some attention must be given to see whether or not the Spirit of God is at work, or another spirit. But there you have it. Paul says: "there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit, and there are varieties of services (a word that means "ministries"), but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good." 


     Today is Pentecost, and we need to thank God for the gifts given by the Spirit to this congregation, for the purpose of carrying out God’s mission in this place.  What richness of gifts the Spirit has given to this congregation for our own ministry in this world!  St. Paul's words remind us today that such gifts are not given just for the benefit of an individual, but for the common good. They are to be used for the benefit of our life together - to build us up in the Body of Christ, to bear one another’s burdens and share one another’s joys.  Every one of us is a recipient of God's special giving. And only when we realize that we are recipients of God’s good giving are we able to say, "Thanks be to God." 


                                                -- Richard L. Jeske


A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter


A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

Based on John 14:1-14

By Richard L. Jeske, Vicar



     Today is Mother’s Day, that day on which we say thank you to our mothers for putting up with us and for giving us what they thought would be most important for us in the future.  And when we think of all the pressures on mothers in our current society we often wonder how they do it all:  stay-at-home Moms and working-Moms, school-Moms and soccer-Moms, single Moms and foster-Moms, mechanical fix-it Moms, and hi-tech-Moms.  Without them we wouldn’t even be here, so today we say thank you to them, and will include them in our Prayers of the People.


     There is a poignant story about Anne Lamott, who wrote a book called “Traveling Mercies.”  In it she tells why she makes her son, Sam, go to church.  She started going to St. Andrews Church in San Francisco early in her pregnancy, and when she was introduced as a newcomer and was asked to say something about herself, she came right out and said she was pregnant – and single.  She did not know how that would be received.  But suddenly, to her surprise, the congregation broke out in applause.  It was a congregation in the inner city, made up of people who had experienced the crushing problems associated with poverty.


     She tells how they reached out their arms and adopted her.  They brought clothes and blankets for the new baby.  They lugged in casseroles that she could freeze and use later.  They told her that this new baby was going to be a part of their church family.  A bent-over woman on Social Security would sidle up to her and stuff her pockets with ten-dollar bills.  Ancient Mary Williams always sat in the back row and brought Anne baggies filled with dimes week after week.


     Anne brought Sam to that church when he was five days old and he was baptized.  Church members stood in line and called him “our baby” and “my baby.”  They cared, reached out, prayed, and loved her and saw her through some hard days.  She wrote that Mary Williams kept giving her bags of dimes even when Anne’s financial condition had improved.  Anne said that she would often pass on those bags of dimes to homeless people she encountered on the street.  And now after several years, she writes:  “Why do I make Sam go to church when none of his other friends go?  I make him go because somebody brought me dimes.”  Because there, in her church, Anne saw the face of God.  There was a unity there, of spirit and mind and purpose, the same unity of spirit and mind and purpose that exists between Jesus and God.  (Anne Lamott, “Traveling Mercies,” NY:  Pantheon Books (1999), pp. 95-105.  Quoted in PR 33 (2005), pp. 26-27.)


     In today’s Gospel that is what Philip wanted to see:  the face of God.  Jesus kept telling his disciples they didn’t have to wait to see that face.  So Philip said:  “You’re always talking about God as your parent, as your Father, so when are you going to show him to us?”  Jesus answer was to the point:  “You mean to tell me, Philip, that you’ve been around me these three years and you still don’t know me?  If you can’t take my words for it, then think of what I’ve been doing.  Whoever has seen me has seen God at work.  So whenever you ask God for something, just mention my name.”   


     Actually, John the Baptist asked the same thing of Jesus:   “Are you the one who is to come or do we look for another?”  Jesus answered:  “Look what’s been happening:  the blind received their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news brought to them.  And blessed are you for getting the right idea about me” (Matthew 11:2-6).


     We’re still in the Easter season, a season that lasts a couple weeks longer than the season of Lent, because we have a lot more to celebrate since Easter.  But today our Scripture readings begin on a sad note:  the story about the first Christian martyr, Stephen.  In that first generation of Christians it wasn’t easy to talk about Jesus as he did, because Stephen told them that the one they crucified was the one that God had promised them through the ages – and that was blasphemy for some people around him.  And as they dragged him out to be stoned, he saw nothing other than the face of God:  “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 


     Martin Luther liked to talk about God as hidden.  He called God the deus absconditus, the hidden God. God shows up in the least expected places.  Remember what happened when Jesus died on the cross:  the Roman centurion who had just participated in Jesus’ suffering and death, looked up in astonishment, and said “Truly this man was the Son of God.”  God was hidden in suffering, until someone sees in that suffering the very face of God.  And Stephen saw it, just as he was being dragged to execution.


     Of course, that’s all over the Gospels.  “When I was hungry you fed me,” Jesus said; “when I was a stranger you welcomed me, when I was sick and in prison you took care of me and visited me.”  “When did we ever do that?” his listeners said, and he answered:  “Whenever you did all that to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”  The face of the hidden God was there in the face of Jesus.  


     Remember last Sunday’s Gospel reading, that beautiful story of the Walk to Emmaus.  The two disciples didn’t recognize the stranger who had come to walk along with them – until they invited him to their home for dinner.  And there at the table, during the “breaking of the bread,” they recognized him; they saw the risen Jesus face to face.  Then they remembered their discussion with him out on the road, and they said to each other:  “that’s why our hearts burned within us, as he opened the Scriptures to us.”  Before they knew it, thehidden God had acted again, and in the risen Jesus they came face to face with the key to understanding the Scriptures.  

     So forever after the church in its worship has two basic things to do:  we come face to face with God in Word and Sacrament, in preaching and in the breaking of the bread.  That’s why we take sermons and Holy Communion seriously, because if we don’t God might remain hidden to us.  We preach Jesus in order to see God at work, and we receive his body and blood in the Sacrament in order to take Jesus into ourselves so that we can show his face to the rest of the world.


     So today we thank God for our mothers, because in most cases our mother and our fathers brought us to the waters of baptism.  They did that so that we could be equipped with Word and Sacrament, so that we can become the Body of Christ to the rest of the world.  That’s another way God is hidden:  it is through us, with all our shortcomings and weaknesses, we are Jesus’ body, doing what the Body Christ does in the world:  we welcome the stranger, we bring food and clothing to the homeless, we share our dimes with the poor, so that through us they can see the face of God.


One day we will be with our mothers and fathers as they take their final breaths, just as our children will accompany us on our final journey. But we have some words of Jesus to sustain us in those moments of sorrow: “Don’t ever let your hearts be troubled,” he said, “because I’m going to prepare a place for you, so that where I am, there you may be also.”  When we take our last breath, our family will be there surrounding us with their love, and the pastor, representing the whole Body of Christ, will say a prayer for us:  “May you see your redeemer face to face and enjoy the sight of God forever.”  And our hearts will not be troubled, because we know that the one who meets us when we depart this life is the one who has been here before, and we have already seen the face of God in him and in his church.  Here we’ve seen Jesus, who in the future will welcome us with open arms, just as he has in the past.  

                                                                                                                                           -- Richard L. Jeske



A Sermon for Easter Sunday


A Sermon for Easter Sunday

Based on Matthew 28:1-10

By Richard L. Jeske, Vicar


     It was a lousy job, but somebody had to do it.  You know, go check out the tomb.  The women were picked to do it, because the men still had their heads down, somewhere in hiding.  Nobody would bother women coming out to the cemetery, so they got picked to do it.  Jesus, their leader was now in Joseph’s tomb, where it all ended – or so they thought.  They came in sorrow, to do their grieving, like you do at cemeteries.  But when they got there and the earth heaved and someone from outer space started talking to them, they stood there in shock.

The stone was rolled back and they were told to look in:  nobody was there.  “He’s been raised,” they were told, “now go tell his disciples to get back to Galilee and they’ll see him there.”  Talk about mixed emotions:  how can you be scared and happy at the same time?  But they were, and they started running, “with fear and great joy,” Matthew says.  But on the way somebody blocked their path:  it was Jesus – and it wasn’t just a ghost, because they got to touch his feet.  And he told him the same thing the guy from outer space said: “Go tell the men to get going to Galilee; I’ll see them there.”


     That’s the Easter Gospel that we heard today – and it had to be written later, because the women didn’t exactly have their notepads with them.  All the stories of Easter were written long after the fact.  But they all say one thing:  no one was prepared for what they encountered.  They stumbled all over each other getting back to the men in hiding to tell them what they had seen and heard.  John’s Gospel says they all waited a week to absorb it all and get moving.  And when they did get to it, they could have written heroic tales about themselves, at least correcting the ones that made them look so bad.  But they didn’t. 


     Instead of making themselves look good, they told how everything had gone wrong.  How one of their inner circle had betrayed their leader.  They all had sworn to stick with him, but they wound up denying him, deserting him, not being near him at his death, and now they did not discover the empty tomb.  These shirkers were the people the women had to report to.  The women had to go running to some rather depressed men and tell them the last thing they ever expected to hear, and it was this.  “Jesus has been raised from the dead.  And he wants you to go to Galilee and meet him there, because he’s got a job for you to do.”  They talked about something called “resurrection,” and that it wasn’t over yet.  That was just the first chapter.  The second chapter was about to begin.  The risen Jesus is going to meet them in Galilee, of all places:  you know, where it all began. 


     Why Galilee?  Why go back home?  After you’ve been away, home is never the same.  There are more people there that we don’t know now.  There are more buildings, more strange institutions, new neighbors, new shops, a new city government with different laws.  Go back home?  Where people we did know can tell us that our failed little revolution didn’t make sense in the first place?  We’ll have to hear “I told you so” again and again.  But that’s what the women had been sent to tell them, “Go back home.  He’ll meet you there – because he’s been raised from the dead.”


    It took a while, but on the way back to Galilee it began to dawn on them that there was some reason for all this madness.  They soon saw that there was a reason why this person, their teacher, had been raised from the dead.  The very disciple that denied Jesus finally figured it out, and he stepped forward to do some telling himself, as we heard today in our first lesson.  He said to some people he had never met before:  “Yes, Jesus preached peace to everyone – beginning in Galilee after John’s baptism.  God appointed him to speak the love of God to everyone, to heal, and to do good things for everyone, and he didn’t exclude anyone.  Back then I saw in him the power of God.  And now we finally get it:  God was not going to let this person stay in the grave.”    


    It took a while, but when they got to Galilee they heard that they had some telling to do.  There they learned that they were to be his witnesses, because God doesn’t want that message of peace and healing to die a sorry death in Jerusalem.  We’re going to start again, and do the same things he’s trained us to do.  We just have one extra thing to carry with us.  We get to tell people that God has raised this Jesus, this healer, this bringer of peace, from the dead.  And we’re also supposed to quit being afraid to tell people that, and then see what happens when we do.


      The message of Easter is that we’ve got something to celebrate, and it’s God’s victory over the violence that human beings try to force on each other.  That’s worth celebrating.  Joy, yes, but maybe a little fear too, because when the celebration is over, we’ve got work to do.  It may not be easy, but there’s work to do, and today we’re told not to be afraid of it.  So today we’ll celebrate, but ahead of us we’ve got some work, we’ve got some telling to do.  There are two chapters to Jesus’ resurrection; he was raised from the tomb, and he is raised in our telling it and living it.


     And it’s not exactly an easy thing to do.  For instance, we know some people who don’t want peace, but somebody has to do the telling of it, because that’s what God wants everybody to hear.  We’ve got people around us who don’t like to forgive, but that means we’ve got some telling to do, some inviting of them to pray with us, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  We’ve got some people around us to who like to tear down the reputations of others, and that means we’ve got some telling to do, that Jesus is raised whenever we build others up and not tear them down.  The new life of Easter means that we start again, from the beginning, and offer God’s peace to each other.  Because, remember, the one who taught us to do that was raised from the dead, and he is lives again whenever we tell about it.    


     The telling about it is often not easy work, but the message of Easter is not to be afraid of it.  We have people around us in this world who don’t care about the poor, but that only means we have some telling to do, that God raised from the dead the very one who taught us that God’s blessing rests precisely on the poor. “Blessed are the poor,” he said, “the kingdom of God belongs to them.”  There are people around us who like to divide people into “we and they,” who separate rather than unite, and that means we have some telling to do, that God raised from the dead the one who told us, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for another” (John 13:35).


    Celebrating Easter is a necessary thing to do, because it reminds us of who it isthat God raised from the dead.  He is the one who told us to love not just our friends, but (of all things) our enemies, and even though that’s hard to do in our world, we are not to be afraid of doing it.  When we so often read about someone abusing, even killing, others because of the color of their skin, we have some telling to do.  When in our world synagogues are vandalized, and mosques and churches are attacked, we have some telling to do, and we are not to be afraid to do it.  Celebrating Easter is to hear again the message of Easter, that God will have his message of love and peace and forgiveness and unity prevail over all human doubts and fears.  Jesus is raised into the preaching of the church and into the lives that Christians live.  And the hard work of being God’s witnesses in the world is given right over to us.


     To go to Galilee and start over again does not mean same-old same-old.  The women did what they were told, and yes, their emotions were mixed.  They experienced fear and great joy, both, because of what they saw and the telling of it that they had to do.  And that’s why they were told not once, but twice:  “Forget the fear; you’ll see him in Galilee – now go tell about it.”  And they did.  And they saw him in Galilee, and in Jerusalem, and in Damascus, and soon in Rome, and soon in London, and they saw him in New York, yes, in Dobbs Ferry, because you are here and now you have some telling to do. The long season of Lent is over, and now that Easter is here there is one thing new to tell, and it goes with us wherever we live and it is this:  “Alleluia.  Christ is risen;” now you get to tell me:  “He is risen indeed.  Alleluia.”

    -- Richard L. Jeske






A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent


A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

Based on John 11:1-53

Richard L. Jeske, Vicar


     John, the Gospel writer, ends his Gospel with the words:  “There are many other signs that Jesus did in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:30-31).  He doesn’t like to use the word miracle, because that would suggest magic, and for him Jesus is more than a magician.  The things Jesus does are “signs,” because they point to something else, something beyond him, something beyond us.  


     In fact, John counts Jesus’ signs.  The changing of water into wine, he says, was the “first sign” (2:11) Jesus did; the healing of the royal official’s son is the “second sign” (4:54).  Today we get to number seven – the number for completeness – the raising of Lazarus is the seventh “sign,” a sign that points far beyond it to something else.  John’s Gospel trains us to see signs – for something other people can’t see.


     Over the past three Sundays we’ve seen people in John’s Gospel that have a hard time seeing what Jesus’ “sign” point to.  Jesus told Nicodemus the teacher, “You have to be born from above to get into the kingdom of God, and Nicodemus answers:  “How’s that?  Enter our mother’s womb a second time?”  He says to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, “I’m going to give you living water,” and she says “you don’t have a bucket.”  Jesus comes across a blind man, and his disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And when Jesus “Neither” and gives him his sight, the onlookers say “Wait a minute:  doesn’t he know the rules?  It’s the Sabbath, and no one should be working.”  He feeds five thousand people from five loaves and two fish, and they want to elect him king if he can keep feeding them like that.  Signs happen, and people aren’t reading them right.


     So today we get sign seven, that perfect number, and people in the story have a hard time seeing through it to what the sign “signifies.”  


       Mary and Martha send a message to Jesus:  “Your beloved friend, our brother Lazarus is ill.”  So he tells his disciples they’ve got to go to Judea, where Lazarus lives – but not right away; only after two days do they start the journey.  “Judea is a dangerous place for you,” his disciples tell him; but he decides to go there anyway. He finally arrives in Bethany, and Martha stomps out to meet him and chews him out: “Lord, if you had been here my brother wouldn’t have died.”  Jesus says:  “Your brother will rise again.”  “Yeah, sure,” said Martha, “in the resurrection on the last day.” Martha calls for Mary to come out of the house, and the first thing Mary says is the same thing her sister said:  “If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”  As Jesus sees the sisters and the crowd weeping, he also weeps.  “Roll away the stone,” Jesus says.  So they do.  Then Jesus says a prayer, and calls with a loud voice to Lazarus, “Lazarus, come out.”  And he did.  “Unbind him, and let him go,” Jesus said. 

     Every step of the way John sees a deeper meaning. First of all, Jesus isn’t worried about Lazarus’ death, because he’s not worried about his own death in Judea either.  While his friends talk about the future resurrection, Jesus tells them “I am the resurrection and the life,” and waits for the response of faith and Martha finally gives it.  Then before turning to the work at hand, Jesus starts weeping, because he knows human sorrow, especially in the face of death, and he wants everyone to know that he shares that sorrow over dying that they have.  But he’s already told them (v. 4) “this death is only to show God’s glory.”  Lazarus’ dying, and his being raised again, is a sign:  it shows God’s glory.  It is a sign:  it’s not all about Jesus, and there are people there who can’t see the sign:  instead of saying “Thank God, Lazarus is alive,” they are so scared that they make plans to get Jesus out of the way (vv. 45-53). 


     What John the Gospel writer does is to provide a commentary for his readers on the story, every step of the way:  1) Because of Jesus’ resurrection, death is no longer a barrier for us.  2) For us as human beings, death – especially of a loved one – makes us sorrowful.  Jesus – and by extension God -- sheds tears with us too, because of his love for us.  3) We are able to see in death just another prelude to the glory of God – the life eternal that he calls us into. 


     For John, Jesus is not just a human being located in a given point of history.  He is the Word from the beginning (1:1-14), the Word from eternity, the ruler over death and the giver of eternal life.  What Jesus of Nazareth does on earth is always a “sign” that he brings eternity to us now:  he was with God at the beginning of creation, and so a small thing like human dying is absolutely no barrier to him.  Because of his resurrection we look forward to ours.


     John’s Gospel trains us to be comfortable with “signs” – and to see deeper meaning in earthly things, like water, bread, and wine; God is at work in them to let us have new life, and to let us take into ourselves Christ’s body and blood.  A book called “the Bible” is for us more than a book; the Bible a “sign” of God’s word and work and how God gets his grace and love to his people.  And the church is not just a club, another social group, but it is a “sign” of the power of the Holy Spirit at work in human lives.


     We moderns are always shy about miracles:  skeptical, dubious, reluctant to accept the miraculous as a daily occurrence.  Maybe we should adopt John’s language and call them “signs” instead.  My friend the late George Shearing was born blind; his six brothers and sisters all got to take piano lessons, but George’s parents told him, “sorry, George, you’re blind, so no sense in having piano lessons for you.”  But as you know, George Shearing grew up to become one of the greatest jazz pianists that have ever lived.  Then there was Jim Abbott, a boy born without a right hand, and when he complained about it, his father said, “You have a left hand, don’t you?” and Jim Abbott grew up to become one of the premier baseball pitchers in the American League; in 1987 he was awarded the James E. Sullivan award for the nation’s best amateur athlete, in 1988 won a gold medal at the Summer Olympic Games, and in 1993 as a member New York Yankees he pitched a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians. He did it all with one hand. And I do not know how a man who is both blind and deaf composes the greatest symphony ever written, Beethoven’s Ninth.  But I do know that at the heart of every one of these stories is a “sign” of the power that has been loosed in this decaying creation by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.


     The raising of Lazarus has happened again, right here.  Not long ago this church couldn’t fill two pews on a given Sunday.  But suddenly the voice of Jesus began being heard, and when he called out, “St. John’s, come forth,” the miraculous happened.  No, let’s say it in John’s language:  a “sign” happened, that here the eternal Word appeared and life began anew for this place.  From one end of our property to the other, there are signs of new life, “signs” of God at work, to build a loving and energetic and committed community of people who hear Jesus say to them every Sunday, “I am the resurrection and the life.”


     What we have to do is be careful we don’t miss the “signs.”  And every time we think our mission here is dead, a stone is rolled away and new life emerges, and we are called into action again. We are given a glimpse into God’s eternity again, along with God’s promise that this mission will continue to have results beyond our imagination.  Because of Jesus’ own resurrection, we can see things other people cannot see.


                                                                                                                        -- Richard L. Jeske 





A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent


A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

Based on John 4:5-42

St. John’s in the Wilderness, Stony Point, NY

Richard L. Jeske, Vicar


     It all began when Jesus asked the woman at the well to do something.  He asked her to give.  "Give me a drink."  Not much to ask, you say?  But in that culture it was.  That a man and a woman, a Jewish man and a Samaritan woman, a transient Jewish man and a Samaritan village citizen, should even be seen speaking together in public was not routine, but even culturally almost forbidden.  And yet, it is the longest conversation Jesus had with anyone in the New Testament, and our lectionary for the Third Sunday in Lent wants us to hear all of it.


     "Give me a drink," Jesus said.  And the woman replied:  "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?"  (And then John, the Gospel writer, adds:  "Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.")  Jesus' reply does not answer her cultural objection; instead he keeps the focus on giving:  "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, `Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water."  In other words, Jesus invites her to give, but she can’t, until she receives something first:  "if you knew who I am," he says, "then you would be receiving first, and then giving."  


     Have you ever been in a conversation with someone and found it difficult to remain on the subject?  Listen again to the back and forth in this one:     

     Jesus asks:  “Give me a drink.”

     The woman answers:  “What's the matter with you?  Aren't I, as a Samaritan, unclean for you Jews?  Don't you know the rules?  How can you ask that?  Jews, remember, don't use things in common with Samaritans, whom they consider unclean.”

     Jesus said:  “If only you knew who I am, you would be asking me, and I would give you living water.”

     The woman answered:  “You don't have a bucket.”

     Jesus said:  “If you receive the water I can give you, you will never thirst again.”

     The woman answered:  “Good, then I won't have to come back here and work so hard with all these buckets.”

     Jesus said:  “Call your husband, if I make you so uncomfortable.”

     The woman answered:  “Don't have one.”

     Jesus replied:  “I know.  You've had five plus.”

     The woman said:  “Oh-hoh.  A real prophet, huh!  Good, then tell me where the true temple is, the one you use or the one we use.” 

     Jesus said:  “God is not bound to buildings, but is present in spirit and in truth.”

     The woman replied:  “Oh well, who knows, when Messiah comes, then we'll get all the answers.”

     Jesus said:  “The one with the answers is speaking to you.”  

     And the woman took off running into town.


     One has the impression from this conversation that the woman had been running from the moment that Jesus first began the conversation.  She uses all the dodges, all the evasions she can possibly think of.  And in the process she is attempting to control the transaction.  If he asks for something, inquire whether he knows the rules for proper social distance (4:9).  If he offers something, ask if he is properly equipped to give it (4:11).  If he tries to get beyond surface talk, humor him a little (4:15).  If he does get beyond surface talk and a little too close for comfort, flatter him -- tell him you think he's a prophet (4:19).  

     Have you noticed that the woman in this story is given no name.  It is John, the Gospel-writer’s way of telling us to give her one.  She really is not all that unknown to us, is she?  Have you ever met someone like her?  Have you ever met someone who has been confronted with a word from eternity and doesn't know what to do?  Have you ever attended a social gathering in which the greatest conversation-stopper was the word "God" or "church?"  Have you ever had the word from eternity spoken so clearly to you that you've wanted to run the other way?  If so, the woman in this story doesn't need a name, because we all know her quite well.


     But the story isn't over yet.  The woman didn’t run just to be running.  She ran to tell others about the person she just met, about the person he just might be.  Oh, she isn't quite convinced yet herself.  When she tells others that she just met someone who told her all that she ever did, she is not exactly reciting the Nicene Creed! [as one commentator (Craddock) put it]   She actually puts it rather unconvincingly:  "This guy can’t be the Messiah, can he?"  Yet, her halting, stammering witness is effective, because it is an invitation to others:  "Come and see."  Come and see.  Come and make your own conclusions.  Come and make your own commitment.  And the others did.  The townspeople came and saw, and they returned the invitation:  they invited Jesus to stay with them, and he did:  this Jewish man stays in the Samaritan village overnight, this living water that transcends earthly wells.   And they make their own conclusions:  "This is truly the Savior of the world."


     It all began when Jesus asked the woman at Jacob’s well to do something.  He asked her to give.  But she could not do that until something else had happened.  And when we see it in this story we will understand that we are at the very heart and core of New Testament theology, really at the very heart and core of Christian believing.  Jesus told her:  "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you `Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water."   Jesus tells the woman that she does not understand the gift of God, and that therefore she is unable to ask from him and receive from him the living water of which he speaks.  


     Now all of her dodging answers fall into place -- her place.  Jesus, the Word from eternity, wants to talk about God's giving, but the woman's answers show that she is not yet used to that topic.  She has to point to the kosher distinctions between Jews and Samaritans; she has to ask Jesus if he thinks he's greater than their father Jacob, who, she still thinks, "gave us this well"; when she thinks he's a prophet from Jerusalem, she wants to defend her own temple on Mt. Gerizim.  And through it all Jesus patiently asks her to keep thinking about God's giving:  that God has given something far greater than human distinctions, man-made wells, and separate temples.  "If you knew the gift of God," he tells her, "you would have asked, and he would have given you living water."


     "If you knew the gift of God," Jesus said to the woman, "you would be able to receive from me."  And as soon as the woman is able to say, "Give me this water," her journey into believing begins.  It is this action of giving and receiving that is the very content of Christian believing, and therefore we should not be surprised that we see it in the New Testament wherever we look.  


     “If you knew the gift of God,” Jesus said to that nameless woman in John chapter 4.  The name of the woman is left blank in John 4, but we are to fill in the blanks in John’s Gospel.  “If you knew the gift of God....”


     Bruce Marshall, a professor of Religion at St. Olaf College, wrote an article that states that while 45% of Americans regularly attend public worship services, over 90% say they believe in God (or in a “higher power”).  That means that for every one American who believes and prays with other people, there is another who believes and prays on their own.  That means that the vast majority of these Gallup poll theists are not staying away from worship in general, but from the Christian church in particular.  They consider themselves as believing more or less what their church-going friends and neighbors believe, but see no reason to be bothered with the church.  So Prof. Marshall asks, “Why, in fact, bother with the church?”  And he gives this one simple but profound answer:  because that is where the Lord’s Supper is.  “We should bother with the church, Christians have proposed from an early point in their history, because the church is where the Eucharist is celebrated.”  “The practice which, more than any other, lets us taste the life of God is eucharistic worship.”  “Faithful participation in this particular communal practice makes us nothing less than ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1.4).”


     Here, in the church, in this church, in the midst of Christ’s people at worship, is offered something that is offered nowhere else in the world other than places like this:  the body and blood of Jesus.  Not by the side of a lake, not in the rustling forest, not in one’s own private room -- only here in the midst of the Christian community at worship.


     Prof. Marshall again:  “The gift which makes us “partakers of the divine nature” first happens not in the depths of (individual) human hearts ... but in the Eucharistic worship of the Christian community.  Jesus utterly binds up his gift of himself with the Christian communal meal of bread and wine, offered in thanksgiving to the Father and in obedience to Jesus’ own command:  `This’ -- and nothing else in the world -- `is my body, given for you.’”  In the Lord’s Supper Jesus gives us his whole self and asks us to remember it:  his blood that flowed on the cross and his body that rose from the tomb.  Remember it and take it into ourselves.  Our body and blood are joined with his, and we are drawn into the eternal and infinite love of God that the Father and Jesus have for each other.  Our lives are joined to his, and we realize within ourselves the chief good for which we are made.  (From The Christian Century,  January 24, 1996, (pp. 74-6), p. 74)


     “If you knew the gift of God....”  Here at this altar the gift of Christ’s body and blood are offered.  Knowing that, who would not want to receive it -- and to receive it every time it is offered?  I was thrilled when a confirmation class a few years ago asked me if they could have communion at the end of each class session, and when I asked them why, they answered:  “Twice a week is better than once.”  And they are right.  And I was pleased.  They had learned their lesson well.  Do we need to learn from them?  Do we need to recapture that desire for being a recipient again, for receiving that gift of Christ himself which is offered only in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper?  “If you knew the gift of God....”


    All that we do here in this congregation must project that giving of God.  Every sermon, every hymn, every piece of liturgy, every ministry of stewardship, every piece of music and conversation must help us remember God's giving, a giving centering in Christ's own giving of himself even into death.  For our Lord himself took all his own achievement to the cross and gave it up and himself became the recipient of God's giving, in that his life beyond the cross is God's gift to him.  That gift is from a giving God, a God who, St. Paul said, “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist" (Romans 4.17).


     The amazing story of the woman at the well still has something more to tell us.  Those who finally understand themselves as recipients before God immediately know they have a mission:  to enable others to understand that they are recipients of God's giving as well.  The woman invites the people in her village to come and see.  And they come and see.  And they enter into giving and receiving with Jesus:  they invite him to stay with them.  They receive from him, and they give to him, because they know him as the Savior of the world.


    In her own unsure and halting way, the woman had spoken the word to them, and they knew themselves as recipients of God's giving, as only believers can do.  The woman remains unnamed, but now we know her:  she is one of us.  Now do we know the gift of God?  And does all that we do here in this place reflect God’s giving, and that we are thankful recipients of it?  


     Our Catechism (Book of Common Prayer, pp. 859-860) teaches us what the benefits of the Lord’s Supper are:  “the benefits we receive are the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of our union with Christ and one another, and the foretaste of the heavenly banquet which is our nourishment in eternal life.”


     Another Small Catechism, the one I grew up with (Luther’s), puts it this way:  all of God's creating, giving, sustaining, providing and protecting is done without any merit or worthiness on our part.  "For all this," it says, "I am bound to thank, praise, serve and obey him."  That is what only recipients, i.e. believers can do.

                                                                                                                     -- Richard L. Jeske


A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent


A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent

Based on John 3:1-17

St. John’s in the Wilderness, Stony Point, NY

Richard L. Jeske, Vicar


     Today’s Gospel reading tells of a quiet, secret meeting that Jesus had with someone from the group that later condemned him.  In this story Nicodemus is introduced simply as “a Pharisee” and “a leader of the Jews.”  Obviously, the writer of John’s Gospel is Jewish, as is Jesus; but throughout this Gospel “the Jews” is a technical term for “those opposed to Jesus,” and “the Pharisees” comprises the group put forward as the “authorities” who secretly meet to arrest Jesus and to have him killed. 


     Nicodemus is mentioned only in John’s Gospel, and nowhere else in the New Testament.  In today’s story he comes to inquire about Jesus’ teaching, to meet him, to see what he’s all about.  Later in John’s Gospel he asks his colleagues, as they are getting ready to condemn Jesus, whether they have observed their own Law, that people are to receive a proper hearing before anyone decides to condemn them (7:51).  And then Nicodemus appears in the story again, much later on, as one who, along with Joseph of Arimathea, participates in the burial of Jesus.  Throughout John’s Gospel, Nicodemus appears as a sympathetic figure, trying to listen, trying to be fair, and finally giving evidence of his compassionate feeling toward Jesus and his followers.


     There are also some vitally important things we are to learn from the story we have heard today, on this second Sunday in the season of Lent.  All of a sudden Jesus says to Nicodemus, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  The old English translation, the King James Version, used a term that has influenced hundreds of thousands of Christians over the last four centuries since the King James Version appeared in the year 1611.  Since then, in the last 406 years, we have learned more and more about the ancient Greek language in which the New Testament was written.  And we have come to learn that the Greek word for “born again” really should read “born from above.”  That is crucial to a correct understanding of what Jesus said to Nicodemus:  “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  “Born again” just doesn’t do it; the word means “born from above.”  Nicodemus wants to have a nice philosophical discussion with Jesus -- man to man.  But Jesus’ answer is that Nicodemus won’t be able to understand Jesus -- man to man -- unless God is in this discussion.  In fact, Jesus goes further than that.  He makes the point that the human being’s whole life is stuck in human origins, unless he begins to see his life and all that he does not from human vantage points, but from God’s vantage point.  Nicodemus is stuck in the human vantage point:  “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” he asks, “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  Nicodemus is a symbol for the natural human being stuck in the human vantage point.  But Jesus’ point is that human vantage points don’t give us authentic life.  Authentic life, life meant to be lived the way God wants us to live, is something given to us after our human origin:  it is a gift from God, ready for us to receive it.  It takes us above our natural desires, our natural prejudices, our natural inclinations, to a new level, God’s level.  If we want authentic life -- which is what “eternal life” means -- then we must be born not only from human natural origins, but also “from above.”


     People who say that they have been “born again” may still be stuck in human origins, in their own natural prejudices, in their own human hatreds, and in their desire to make others agree with them.  To be “born from above” means to be lifted above our own natural inclinations, to see things from a higher vantage point, to be born of God and to see things from God’s vantage point.  The First Letter of John tries to give an example:  “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (4:7-8).


     So we won’t use that phrase “born again” anymore.  Because that doesn’t do justice to the New Testament.  The phrase is “born from above,” and that gets us into a level beyond ourselves, to the point where we can understand what it means to be “children of God.”


     Another important phrase in Jesus’ talk with Nicodemus explains what being “born from above” is all about.  It begins first with Jesus’ explanation of what is about to happen to him.  He says this:  “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  At first we think that this phrase “lifted up” refers to Jesus’ ascension, when we was “lifted up” from the earth after his resurrection.  But it means more than that.


     The reference to Moses is to the story in Old Testament Book of Numbers, about Israel’s murmuring against God and against his prophet Moses when they were in the wilderness after their liberation from Egypt.  They were acting out against God’s will for them.  So, the story in Numbers 21 says, poisonous serpents attacked the people, who finally asked God for forgiveness for their reaction against God, and they asked for healing and release from the poisonous serpents.  Moses was told to take a poisonous serpent and put it on a pole, so that the people could look up at that serpent and be healed.  


     “So must the Son of Man be lifted up,” Jesus said, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  When will that be?  The further we get into John’s Gospel, the clearer the answer:  “when you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize who I am,” Jesus said later (8:28), “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people all people to myself” (12:32).  When is that lifting up:  it is when Jesus himself is lifted up on the cross, that all people may look toward him for healing.  It was the will of God, against which Jesus does not resist, his lifting up.  His lifting up from the earth begins with his cross and is completed in his resurrection and ascension.  But no cross, no resurrection, no ascension – then there is no healing, no lifting you and me up to be born from above.  


     That’s why Jesus says that no ascension of the Son of Man is possible unless the Son of Man descends.  No exaltation without humiliation, no victory without the cross.


     And it all was an act of the love of God, an act of God’s giving:  “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  As Jesus speaks of our being born from above, he also speaks of his own being “lifted up,” according to the will of God -- his cross, resurrection, and ascension, done as an act of God’s giving, so that we might have healing, i.e. salvation.


     Today we have just heard the most well-known verse of the Bible:  John 3:16.  “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  Everyone knows that passage.  John 3:16 meets us on signs behind baseball backstops, at basketball half-courts, behind ice hockey penalty boxes.  Sometimes the weirdest people hold it up, the guy with the multi-colored hairdo, the college student in the tank top with Red Dog beer written on it, the shy pledge sister out fulfilling her sorority initiation requirement.  The people who hold up the sign are almost as surprising as the very message of the statement itself:  “God so loved the world....”


     Think of it:  “... the world!”  Not “God so loved Episcopalians,” or Methodists, or of all people especially Unitarians -- but “the world”!  One could even have expected Jesus, or John, or anyone in that first Christian generation, to say, “God so loved his people Israel that he gave his own Son,” because that’s what they believed anyway.  But that God so loved the world -- that is so surprising, so mind-blowing, that the thought of it has to be (simply and purely) from above.  The world that rejected God, that does things as it wants to, that eventually wound up crucifying the one whom God sent -- that the object of God’s love would still not be only the good ones in it, but the world, the whole world.  That’s mind-blowing -- and hardly something any one human being or any one group of human beings could think of.   Can you think of the Ukrainians right now saying the “God loves the Russians” – or vice versa?  If they could say that (and they both purport to be Orthodox Christian countries!) would they then proceed to lob missiles at each other?  What a total offense it was to the whole Christian Church to see Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians in Ireland blowing each other’s heads off!  Remember, we may not like it, and certainly we would never have thought of it, but “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”


    That message -- that came “from above” and speaks of the “lifting up” of the Son of God -- is put into practice at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  If you and I wanted to start an effective movement for a worthy cause, we would certainly start out with articulate, respectable, influential people who could win others right away.  But Jesus starts with down-home fishermen whose very speaking ability targets them as common, uneducated nobodies.  Jesus knows that the Pharisees will be out to get him, so whom does he choose to be in his closest circle of disciples:  a Pharisee.  He knows that tax-collectors are hated, so he chooses a tax-collector to be in that circle.  He knows that people who belong to the party of the Zealots are dangerous -- and that Pharisees hated both tax collectors and Zealots -- so he chooses a Zealot to be in that circle, and tells them to get along with each other, to work together.  Why?  Because God loves the world!  That means everyone.


     Do you know how rich that is, how enriching a course that was that Jesus set his followers on from the very beginning of his ministry?  It was a whole new thing. Think of the world religions, how each of them is culturally associated with a particular environment:  Islam for Arab cultures, Hinduism for Indian cultures, Buddhism for China, Shintoism for Japan, etc.  But Christianity learned one thing, from the beginning:  God loves the world -- and sent his Son to die for it and everyone in it -- and that Son sent his followers out into the whole world to tell everyone that.  


     Do you know how enriching that is?  To belong to a congregation that includes within it people from various cultures, who really believe that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  What a blessing it is to belong to such a congregation!  Because it is only in such a congregation that we discover that racism is not an attack on just some of us, but upon all of us.  Racism is a sin not just against some of us, but against all of us who believe that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”


     That kind of witness enriches us all, not just in this country, but everywhere else in the world.  It is a specifically Christian witness, one that comes not from human origin, but “from above,” based on what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, the one who was “lifted up” for our salvation.  And this congregation will live as an example of a wonderful workshop, because it witnesses to one faith from many cultures.  And we get to say to everyone what Jesus said to Nicodemus:  “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  What a positive gift, a positive message; it’s “from above,” and we get to act it out to everyone.  

                                         -- Richard L. Jeske



A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent


A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

Based on Matthew 4:1-11

St. John’s in the Wilderness, Stony Point, NY

Richard L. Jeske, Vicar


     One of my favorite activities as a pastor is teaching Confirmation Class – especially when it’s full of sharp, frisky kids who aren’t afraid to ask questions, when you don’t know what to expect from them.  In one class I was leading a discussion on the story of Jesus’ temptations that we have just heard as our Gospel reading for today.  And of course, the first thing they wanted to know was how anyone can go forty days and forty nights without eating.  To say that afterwards Jesus was “famished” was an understatement.  They said, “OK you could maybe go 40 days without pizza – but no Taco Bell?  Or peanut butter? Or nachos?”  He would at least have to drink water.  


     Then one of them said, “You know, if you went 40 days without eating in all that desert heat, you’d be seeing devils all over the place.”  Did he really have this talk with the devil, or was he just delirious?  And where was that very high mountain where you could see “all the kingdoms of the world” from?  And you’re really tempted to say, “Oh well, the world wasn’t very big back then.”  Or even better:  “What’s the matter?  Can’t you believe in a flat earth?” 


     It is a rather fantastic story that always begins the season of Lent – this story of Jesus’ temptation.  Of course, our modern world view does make us a bit skeptical – talking with the devil, flights to the top of the Temple, views of the whole world from the top of a mountain.  But then later in his ministry he did make bread, for 5000 people at one time, and then they wanted to make him king, and they were always asking him to do miracles.  These three temptations were previews of what went on throughout Jesus’ lifetime.  People wanted three things from him:  bread, power, and authority.  And if he could do those things they would believe in him.


     But this story isn’t so distant from us after all.  In fact it happens every day.  Somewhere today in our modern cities someone says to the twelve-year-old on his way to school:  “You’re a smart kid, so why don’t you skip school today and you can earn $100 being the look-out for us while we work in that building over there.”  And at the end of the day the kid is given his hundred dollars and is told:  “You know, for $50 we’ll sell you this gun, and you’ll still have enough bread left over to buy a cool jacket for yourself.”  And in an instant, just by skipping one day of school, the seventh-grader has bread, power, and authority.  In an instant he is shown the kingdoms of the world and told that he can rule now.  And the demonic thing about it is that he is convinced he really didn’t do anything wrong -- that he was hungry in the first place and just wanted to help himself.  And pretty soon his friends want to know where he got the jacket, the gun, and the new attitude (you know, the bread, the power, and the authority), and he tells them, and soon his friends are out there doing their hundred-dollar-a-day look-outs, their short cuts to bread, power, and authority.  And pretty soon there’s a gang, and then another gang, and then there’s a turf-war, and the twelve-year-old with such promise takes a bullet in the back of the head.   And it all started like radical evil always starts, like there was nothing wrong with it at all, just a part of life and culture, even to the point where everybody thinks of Mafia “godfathers” as folk-heroes, just another neighborhood friend.  Their stories are hits on TV and in the movies, and we will still feel the lowest contempt not for the “godfather” but for the informer who turned state’s evidence against our folk-hero (we’ll call him a stoolie, a pigeon, a rat).  And while we’re still arguing whether we can really believe a story with a personified devil working on a flat earth, evil is at work, in a systematic way, right before our very eyes.


     So every year Christians get a gift.  They get the season of Lent, a season that has been observed in the church since the fourth century, originally set aside as a period of preparation for those who were considering baptism.  Forty days to think about what you’re getting yourself into when you put Jesus’ cross on your forehead.  It’s a lifetime of recognizing evil when you see it, a lifetime of deciding for what is good, and true, and eternal.  It’s a lifetime of deciding what’s good only for you, or what’s good for other people as well.


     And every year, on the first Sunday in Lent, when Christians gather together for worship, they hear the story about some of the choices Jesus had to make:  shortcuts to a victory only for himself -- or the way of the cross for us.  At first it is a story rather remote from us, strange and inaccessible.  But as the Word comes nearer to us, we can see how the choices Jesus faced are also our choices:  whether bread, power, and authority -- or the way of that cross we bear on our brows.  To live under Jesus’ cross means to ask what is important to you in your life, what are your life’s priorities.  So during Lent Christians ask what is important, really important to them.  They think about Baptism, their baptism, and they think about the sign made over them then, and the promise given them:  “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”  It began again last Wednesday, when ashes were placed on our foreheads in the form of that cross, and we were reminded of our beginning and our endings:  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  And we are now invited on a magnificent journey to reflect on what is happening in between:  forty days of discovering and rediscovering what is important to us:  just bread, or the bread of life; just power, or God’s power, just the authority we take or the authority God gives.  It’s a magnificent journey, and you’re invited, and at the end of it is a victory that offers you the peace of God that passes all human understanding, and that will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus forever.

                                             -- Richard L. Jeske


A Sermon for Ash Wednesday


A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Based on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

St. John’s in the Wilderness, Stony Point, NY

Richard L. Jeske, Vicar


The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ:


     "Take care not to act out your righteousness in the public view, so that it may be noticed by everyone; for then you will have no reward from God.

     "Therefore, when you perform your deeds of charity, don't blow your own trumpet as the hypocrites do both in the church and outside the church, so that they may be praised by everyone.  Truly I say to you, they have been paid in full.  But when you do your acts of charity, when you give, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be done in private.  God who sees in private will reward you.

     "And when you pray, don't be like the hypocrites, who love to show off their praying both in the church and outside the church so that they may be noticed by everyone.  Truly I say to you, they have been paid in full.  But when you pray, go into your room, shut the door, and pray to God who is in secret; and God who sees in secret will reward you.  

     "And when you fast, don't look dismal like the hypocrites, who disfigure their faces so that their fasting may be noticed by everyone.  Truly I say to you, they have been paid in full.  But when you fast, fix up your hair and wash your face so that your fasting is not noticed by everyone but rather by your God who exists in secret.  And God who sees in secret will reward you.

     "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and worm consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor worm consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."  (Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21)

The Gospel of the Lord


     People are always telling us that they’re spiritual but not religious.  They say they’re not into organized religion (so I tell them to come in and see my desk and they’ll like how disorganized it is!).  Our church leaders are in a deep worry cycle about decreasing church attendance.  Smaller churches are finding it more and more difficult to afford full-time clergy.  Clergy are often working two jobs just to make ends meet.  Some clergy are just giving up and pursuing other professions.  But Ash Wednesdays always give me pause – people come for ashes, people I’ve never met.  Some clergy are standing at railway stations meeting people as they’re coming home from work, just in case people want to take some ashes home with them.  Today I was Helen Hayes Hospital, where more than 100 people came for the imposition of ashes.  If you walked around the streets of Manhattan today, it’s not at all odd to see hundreds of people with ashes on their foreheads.


     And then there is you, here, tonight, not just to receive ashes, but to begin again the journey with Christ to his cross.  I applaud you, because you are not just stopping for a minute after getting off the train, or dropping in to the hospital chapel for a moment.  You are on a journey, and you’re letting the church’s liturgy carry you to places where we by ourselves would seldom go.  For us ashes are no longer a passing custom, something you just “do” mechanically, like getting a coke out of a vending machine.  The liturgy digs in and makes us brutally honest about our own mortality:  “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”


     What Jesus just said to us – those tough words that are read every Ash Wednesday – ask us to be just that:  honest about ourselves.  He talks about a public version about ourselves, a very human version that likes to look good in front of everybody; we want everybody to notice that we are doing some good stuff in this world.  That’s why we need the church’s liturgy:  to get at the truth about ourselves.  We’re very good at telling the truth about ourselves when the liturgy forces us to do so.  Like when would we ever publicly say?  “we haven’t loved our neighbors as ourselves … and we haven’t forgiven people like we’ve been forgiven …  we haven’t been true to the mind of Christ … we’ve been prideful, full of envy and self-indulgence, blind to human need and suffering and we’ve been indifferent to injustice and cruelty… we’ve wasted and polluted your creation…”  We don’t want to say all that in public about ourselves:  it doesn’t belong to our public persona.  But our liturgy gets us to tell the private truths about ourselves:  we’re still mortal, we’re still sinners, and we’re still scared. 


     Our liturgy wants us to think about that for a while – for forty days, in fact.  Because after our confession this evening, we received no absolution. We just asked God to forgive us, but that forgiveness for tonight’s confession doesn’t come until Maundy Thursday, when we embark on the last three days before Easter.  We’re to think about these things, and live with them for a while.  That’s what Lent is for:  to see, to feel, to absorb how our mortality gets in the way of connecting us to the eternity of God.


    But thank God for the Sundays in Lent, which are not counted among the forty days we’ve now started.  Thank God for Sundays, when we hear that God doesn’t believe the public versions we’ve constructed about ourselves, because he sees in private.  The Sundays in Lent are way-stations to give us nourishment for the Lenten journey.  God sees our public versions and God also hears us when the liturgy brings our private versions into focus.  And guess what?  God’s version about us is the one that counts, and that version is that God has redeemed us through Christ the crucified, and is there to connect us with his eternity, now and in the future.  


     The ashes of Lent mean that we know about our mortality, but we don’t define ourselves by it.  Because on the other side of this cross is resurrection, and we live new lives because of it.  God has transformed us into living beyond ourselves, equipped by the eternity of God to do God’s work in this world.  And all our shortcomings, our weaknesses, yes, our sins are overcome by the Spirit of God that dwells within us. 


                                        -- Richard L. Jeske






A Sermon for the Last Sunday in Epiphany (Transfiguration)


A Sermon for the Last Sunday in Epiphany (Transfiguration)

Based on Matthew 17:1-9

St. John’s in the Wilderness, Stony Point, NY

Richard L. Jeske, Vicar


     Today is the last Sunday of the Epiphany season and this coming Wednesday the season of Lent begins.  It helps us in our spiritual growth to pay attention to this rhythm of the church year, because it parallels so closely with the rhythm of our own lives.  The Gospel reading we have just heard has within it this dual rhythm:  it is a massive, spectacular vision, but it’s only momentary:  the three disciples want to make it permanent, but Jesus sends them back down the mountain to continue on his way to the cross.  And he wants them along.  They get a glimpse of Easter:  Moses (whose grave nobody knows) and Elijah (who was taken up directly into heaven) are already there, and they see them.  Their number one lawgiver and their first great prophet are in conversation with Jesus, and he is looking very resurrected.


     It is a glimpse of victory, victory over death, and a glimpse of the perfect future.  And just like we would do, Peter, James, and John want to keep hold of it.  It’s something we all want:  the victory now, without the pain of life’s struggles.  We want the win, without the losses that go with it.  Why don’t we just get on with Easter, without all this Lent stuff?  It’s like the student in my university classroom who said to me, “You know, Prof, I don’t think you ought to be giving us all this homework.  Isn’t it your job to teach us in class what we need to know to pass this course?  Why should we spend our time studying when we’re paying good money for this class?”  Another student asked what grade he got on the last quiz.  I said, “Well, I handed the quizzes back last period; weren’t you here?”  “Oh no,” he replied, “I don’t come to class that much.”  “Why not?” I asked. “Well, Prof, your class starts at 10:30 in the morning and I don’t get up till noon.”  Obviously we all had the same goal, to get those students to graduate with a college degree.  But I had made the mistaken assumption that they were going to exert some effort in the process. 


      Epiphany is over, and Transfiguration Sunday gets us in touch with the rhythm of our lives.  Oh how we want to avoid the hurts, the deep, dark valleys of human existence, the pain and the struggle that life on this planet holds before us!  And once we have been on the mountain and seen the promise of what lies ahead, we want to stay there; but we don’t get to – not yet.  We are directed to another season first, the season of Lent.  And on Wednesday we will have ashes put on our foreheads in the form of a cross, and we’ll hear the words:  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  


     Of course, it won’t be the first time that Jesus’ cross has been applied to us.  It first happened at our baptism, when the pastor made the sign of the cross on our foreheads and said the words:  “child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”  And today we’ll get the chance to renew our baptismal vows as we officially welcome the Burgess family into membership, and as we invite each other into the Lenten journey that is ahead of us.  

Affirming our baptism gets us to say to each other that we have work to do before that final Easter comes:  “to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”


     So we can speak of the church year’s rhythm, how it carries us forward in our spiritual development, if we let it do so.  An example of this is that during Lent Christian churches omit certain things from their liturgies, like Alleluias.  Jesus’ way to the cross is not to be willy-nilly strewn with Alleluias, as if he’s happily dancing all the way.  Omitting Alleluias is a small gesture to help us take Jesus’ cross seriously, in fact it helps us take our own crosses seriously.  Christian worship addresses the whole of our lives, not just a part of them, and there are moments of heaviness and pain in our own lives, and shouting “Alleluia” is better done when they’re over.  So we’ll sing about this in our last hymn, which is a hymn saying farewell to Alleluias during Lent.  Listen to what the third verse has us sing:

Alleluia cannot always be our song while here below;

Alleluia our transgressions make us for a while forgo;

For the solemn time is coming when our tears for sin shall flow.


     Our lives are not always full of Alleluias, that old Hebrew word that means a joyful “Praise be to God.”  Yes, there are times in our lives when we don’t feel like shouting praises to God, but rather to ask where’s he’s been and why hasn’t he helped us.  But that is why we come to church, because here when one member suffers, all suffer together, and when one member is honored, all rejoice together. The season of Lent helps us get on with the journey, not only of Jesus’ life but also of the hard roads in our own lives.  That’s why we sing hymns together, even during Lent, because death, like all tyrants, wants us to be silent, forever silent.  So Christians, ever since the beginnings of the church, sing hymns, because in Christ’s cross and resurrection death has been overcome, and that is something to sing about.


           Did you know that just before Jesus’ journey to the cross began, he had his disciples first sing a hymn?  Then after Easter when the earliest apostles found themselves in prison, what did they do?  They sang hymns.  The Roman writer Pliny noted that when Christian groups were being persecuted, of all things, they sang hymns.  Our church is in the Reformation tradition, and there is one thing that the Reformation added to the ancient liturgy of the mass:  a hymn after the sermon.  That was to emphasize the fact that lay people, not just clergy, were “the church,” and that after they heard the gospel read, and after they heard it preached from the pulpit, lay people themselves would sing the gospel.  So each Sunday our hymns are carefully chosen to enable you to do that:  they relate to what you have just heard from the lessons, and from the sermon.  It becomes your turn to sing the gospel, and visitors to our church are invited to do something they’re not used to doing, namely singing the gospel with us.  


     So today, on Transfiguration Sunday, we’ll sing the gospel, the good news of what the disciples saw that day on the mountain, that glimpse of Easter that propels us through all the struggles and the dark days of this life.  We’ll sing what they saw:

Beautiful Savior, King of creation,

Son of God and Son of Man!

Truly I’d love thee, truly I’d serve thee.

Light of my soul, my joy, my crown. 


-- Richard L. Jeske


A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany


A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

Based on Matthew 5:38-48

St. John’s in the Wilderness, Stony Point, NY

Richard L. Jeske, Vicar


     Sometimes clergy are judged by the hymns they choose.  If they’re hymns the congregation doesn’t know, then we get criticized for not knowing that already.  If they’re the same old golden oldies we like to sing, then kids finally tell us that we’re boring.  If they’re hymns that make us think – what are we doing that for?  Two things at once?  We can’t sing and think at the same time, can we?   So we clergy have learned to take the easy way out:  we say, “I didn’t pick the hymns, the organist did.”  And then we get to take the organist aside and say to her:  “Way to go, Suzanne, you’re the one.” 


     Well, today we began our worship service with one of the great hymns of the church, one that everybody knows.  “Holy, Holy, Holy,” we sang – and it was chosen because of the Scripture readings that we have just heard – where the word “holy” keeps being repeated.  Trouble is, the hymn made us sing words directed to God, “Only thou art holy, merciful and mighty.”  God and only God is holy, says the hymn.  But our readings contradict that.  Our first reading, from Leviticus, has Moses telling the Israelites that they are holy.  Then our second reading has St. Paul telling his Christian readers in Corinth that they are a “holy temple.


     Actually, the word “holy” has several meanings.  We usually think it means “sinless,” but in Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, the basic meaning of the word “holy” is “set apart,” set apart from the ordinary, set apart for a different kind of life that what is usual.  In the Old Testament God is called “holy” and that is why people are cautioned not to make any graven image of God, because God cannot be compared to any created thing; as the Creator, God is “set apart” from all other things we see, and no image can capture the full nature of God.  In our creeds we call the church “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.”  We refer to the church as “holy,” because it is set apart from all other institutions to do the work of God in this world.  In our second reading St. Paul tell his Christian readers in Corinth that they are a “holy” temple, not because they are sinless but because they are set apart for God’s work in the world.  We refer to the “holy” Sacrament, to “Holy” Baptism, to the “Holy” Bible, and other “holy” things – and all these things are grounded in what we call God.  In our Prayer of the Day, we address God as “Holy God,” and then we ask him to make us the way he is, set apart from the ordinary.


     When it comes right down to it, we don’t use that word “holy” very much, do we, especially when we’re talking about ourselves.  We never want anyone else to say of us that we’re a “holier than thou” person.  We kind of avoid the word, unless we’re saying “holy mackerel” or “holy moley” or “holy cow.”  In serious talk the word “holy” sounds so prissy, or not-with-it, or so remote from where we are, like holy is something we know we’re not.  So we come to church today and hear that word applied to people like us, and our lessons want us to think about why.   


     Let’s start with our first reading, from Leviticus; it’s a part of the so-called “Holiness Code” in Leviticus, a code that “urges people to be holy since God is holy.”  And the first example of being that is striking:  don’t keep all of what you produce for yourself:  remember the poor.  So in ancient Israel a farmer would leave the crops at the margin of his field unharvested, so that “the poor and the alien” can have something to eat.  That’s the firs definition of the word “holy”:  provide for the poor and the alien.  We might not be farmers, but the holy people of God have a duty to provide for the poor and the alien.  That’s why the question that people are asking now is a good one:  if we don’t like the Affordable Care Act, then what are we going to replace it with?  People are asking that question, and they should.     


     To be holy, according to Leviticus, is to honor and respect our fellow human beings.  Actually it is more than that:  “Love you neighbor as yourself” comes from this Holiness Code, and Jesus quotes it as one of the two greatest Commandments in the Scriptures.  It gets very specific:  you don’t revile a disabled person, you don’t disadvantage them, of slander them, or exploit them.  You don’t take vengeance on others, and you don’t bear grudges.  That’s what being holy means, in the Holiness Code, because you’re set apart from the way people act who don’t believe in God, or who don’t want to act like God acts.


     Jesus’ words in our Gospel lesson show that he knows the Holiness Code in Leviticus.  But he takes it one step further.  “You know the old rule,” Jesus said, “love your neighbor as yourself,” – love your fellow countrymen as you would yourself-- but I say to you, Jesus told his disciples, love not only your fellow-countrymen but also the enemy.  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven.”  Again, it all starts with God:  God loves not only those who love him; God also loves his enemies, so why shouldn’t you?  After all, if you love only those who love you, why expect some sort of gold star for that?  Don’t say you’re loving if you reserve it only for your own inner circle.   Here’s what I want of my disciples, Jesus says:  “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  


     When we first hear that, we already want to give up.  That word “perfect” holds a high bar in front of us.  Because it came out that way in English translation, American Christians have held up that bar as a goal to strive for.  Whole denominations have built themselves around a concept of Christian “perfection.”  The Methodist tradition, for instance, has placed great emphasis on moral values, and still believes that “moral perfection” is attainable in this life.  But the New Testament was written in Greek, not Hebrew like Leviticus, and the word used for “perfect” here is teleios, and we’ve learned a lot more about that old Greek word, teleios, that is translated “perfect.”  Teleios in Greek really means “mature,” and it fits much better into the context than does the word “perfect.”  “Be mature,” Jesus says, “as your heavenly Father is mature.”  In other words, “grow up.  Learn from God.  God extends his love even toward those who sin against him.  That’s maturity.  Loving only those who love you – that’s immature.  Be like God:  love your enemies too.  That’s what I want from my disciples, Jesus says.


     Once again, Jesus’ words come from the Sermon on the Mount, a collection of Jesus’ teachings that Matthew forms into a sermon.  And remember, the season of Epiphany is the season of the church’s memory, to review why we do the things we do here when we gather together to worship God.  Our activity of giving sermons goes back to Jesus’ sermons, and we use him as an example of what we say in our sermons.  After all, we are disciples, i.e. learners, and we continue to learn from Jesus.  

     And Jesus started with a text, a biblical text, like Leviticus.  So we do that too.  We have three biblical readings in our worship services, and the sermon is based on them.  The sermon is not based upon the newspaper, nor upon any political ideology, nor upon any allegiance to any social or national group.  A Christian sermon is also to be “holy,” i.e. set apart from the ideologies of the world around us, free from the pressures of our society in order to let us hear the Word of God and pass it on to those who want to listen.  Sermons are “holy,” because God, their subject, is “holy.”  Sermons may be the only time in your whole week where you are lifted above things human, above the pressures to fit in, or to cave in, or to go along to make others happy.  Christians need sermons, to help them focus on the God, on God’s will, on God’s claim on us which it total.  You need to have a voice in your life pointing you to God’s way, so that you’re not dominated only by human vantage points and human prejudices, and listening to Christian sermons shapes you to be that holy temple of which St. Paul speaks – set apart for God’s use in this world.   Christian sermons help us remember that God is not to be put into any box of our making, and God needs to speak to us, freely, without any human constraints, because God is holy, set apart from them.


     So our pastors preach sermons, and they’re good for us.  Sometimes you won’t agree with what a pastor has to say in a sermon, but maybe that’s a good thing; maybe you’re being stretched beyond your routine thinking patterns, like Jesus’ hearers were.  At the end of Jesus’ sermon Matthew says the crowds were “blown away” by what they had just heard.  If you do hear something in a sermon that blows you away, or that goes against your grain, ask first of all whether the preacher actually preached the text that he was given that day.  If he did, then perhaps your disagreement is not with the minister, but with the biblical text, with Jesus, or St. Paul, or even God.


     “God’s temple is holy,” St. Paul said, “and you are that temple.”  Why?  “Because the Spirit of God dwells in you.”  That is both a fact and a promise.  The Spirit of God dwells in you – so that you can be a holy people, set apart, mature, just as your heavenly Father is mature.  The Spirit of God dwells here, so that we can rise above the immature ways of the rest of the world.  For St. Paul, that gives us a special sense of belonging:  “you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”  

-- Richard L. Jeske



A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany


A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

Based on Matthew 5:21-37

St. John’s in the Wilderness, Stony Point, NY

Richard L. Jeske, Vicar


     Our Gospel reading for today reminds me about an interview I saw on TV some years ago; it was with Billy Graham, the great American evangelist. He was being interviewed on the subject of the Ten Commandments.  At a given point in the interview the interviewer asked him if he could candidly say whether, in all his 45 years of marriage, he had ever thought about having an affair with another woman.  Graham said, “I can honestly say that, in my 45 years of married life, I’ve never once contemplated adultery.  Now, murder….”


     Today’s reading also brings to mind the many people who like to say they take the Bible literally – something usually heard among our fundamentalist Christian friends.  If they really mean it, then, according to our Gospel reading today, there must be a lotof one-eyed, one-armed fundamentalists around today.  


     Today’s Gospel lesson begins rather abruptly, diving right into the middle of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  We should have begun today’s reading with the last verse we heard last Sunday, which would have been a proper introduction for today’s Gospel reading.  You might recall Jesus’ words from last Sunday (5:20):  “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”   Remember, in Matthew Jesus directed the Sermon on the Mount to his disciples.  They get to find out what following Jesus is going to mean:  their righteousness will now have to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees – and even those fishermen knew that the scribes and the Pharisees were the model, the epitome, of spirituality and godly behavior.  Now Jesus tells them, they have to do better than that, if they want to be his disciples: “Outdo the Pharisees or you’ll never make it into the kingdom of heaven.”


      So we start today in Matthew’s Gospel where last Sunday’s left off.  Today we get to hear examples of what it means to outdo the scribes and Pharisees.  Remember, they are in the tradition of Moses, and we in our first lesson today, from Deuteronomy, we heard Moses speak, as he said:  “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God … his decrees, and ordinances … then the Lord your God will bless you….  But if your heart turns away and you do not obey (God’s commandments), then you will perish.  So you have a choice:  life or death, blessing or curse.  You choose” (Deuteronomy 30:15ff).  So the scribes and the Pharisees made it their duty to learn and to obey every commandment God had ever given in the whole Bible, or literally get cursed to death.  You have to be better than that, Jesus said.


     So Jesus starts ticking off the commandments, like a new Moses.  He starts with the commandment about murder, but he doesn’t let anybody off the hook, not even the scribes and the Pharisees.  They would say, “I haven’t killed anybody, so I’ve kept that commandment.” But Jesus says, “Don’t stop there.  You’ve broken this commandment if you’ve been angry with someone, or insulted them, or disrespected them.”  Don’t stop with physical damage; even if you’ve injured someone psychologically, you’ve broken the commandment of God.”  


     He does this with the other commandments as well.  Just because you’re not divorced, or you haven’t committed adultery, don’t say you’ve kept the will of God; ask yourself whether you’ve ever damaged someone psychologically in matters of human sexuality.  Ask yourself whether you’ve ever broken human relationships that God has joined together.  If so, don’t say you’ve kept God’s commandments.  


     What about taking oaths?  Have you ever sworn something using God’s name?  Why?  God’s name doesn’t belong to you.  Not even the ground you walk on belongs to you – that’s God’s earth.  Not even the city you live in, or the head you’ve been given on top of your shoulders.  You don’t own them; they aren’t yours to swear by.  Why don’t you just give your word and keep it.  Just say, “Yes” or “No – that ought to be enough, if you’re a truthful person. 


     With Jesus, just living by the letter of the law isn’t enough.  That was the problem with the scribes and the Pharisees:  they used the commandments to make claims on God.  “Haven’t killed anyone, so I’ve kept God’s commandment and God has to accept me.”  But for Jesus God’s commandments are not your claim on God, but rather God’s claim on you.  And God’s claim on you is total.  The purpose of God’s commandments is to leave us no escape from God’s claim on us.  They are to drive us to the point where we must say, “We have fallen short of God’s claim; we cannot make any claims on God that we have done his will and now he owes us something.  God’s commandments are there to drive us to the point where we must rely on nothing else than the grace and forgiveness of God.  And that is something that is always there for us, as God’s gift to us.  The Commandments, when led to their obvious conclusion, always move us toward relying not on ourselves but on God’s gift of his grace, mercy, and love.  God’s love goes beyond the letter of the law, far beyond what even the old Moses thought of.  Now you go beyond it too.


     What Jesus has to say in these words has affected the way Christians worship.  Hostility between Christians is not something Christians are just to live with.  So later in this Sermon on the Mount (6:12), Jesus teaches his followers to pray “Forgive us our sins, as we also have forgiven the sins of others.”  In other words, it is not commandments that make us pray differently, but the grace of God.  If God forgives us, we are to forgive others.  We can’t expect to avail ourselves of the love of God, if we can’t pass it on to others.


     But not only in our praying, but also in our act of coming before God’s altar, we are to think about God’s claim on us.  Jesus said:  “when you come to church and are offering your gift at the altar, and there you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there and go get reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come back and offer your gift.”  This altar is the place we are offered reconciliation with God; but God’s reconciliation is something to be shared, and not just obtained for ourselves alone.


     That is why we exchange the peace on Sundays.  It has become part of our worship, because Christian worship is best understood as a workshop for living out the gospel.  The exchange of peace comes right after we have received the promise of God’s peace and before the offering, followed by the Eucharist, the celebration of God’s reconciliation with us. And maybe if we think about Jesus’ words that we’ve heard today, the three worship actions – peace, offering, Communion – they should form a united sequence, without interruption. Many people think that the exchange of peace is just a break in the formality of the worship service, like saying “Hi, how are you” to people we seldom see.  The exchange of peace has a real meaning in our worship, because we are offering someone else the same “peace of God” that we have received.  And it comes right before we bring our offerings to the altar, and right before we come to that altar to participate in the sacrament of God’s reconciliation with us.  Our exchange of peace is the hinge between God’s offer of peace and the Eucharist, to form a connected series of worship actions.  That’s why worship is such an important part of our lives, because it makes us do things that we might not otherwise find ourselves doing very often. We like to do physical exercise.  Well, Christian worship is spiritual exercise, meant to get us back in touch with God’s claim on us.   


     The point of Jesus’ teaching is that God’s claim is a total one.  The people of God cannot escape the fact that God has claimed them as his own and now he wants them to act like it. Commandments are to remind us of that – that God expects the best of us.  But we also know that we fall short of God’s claims and expectations.  Now what?  The function of God’s law is not to be the means of our salvation.  The function of God’s laws is to drive us to the point where we say:  “Who will deliver me from the dark shadows of my life?”  Jesus gives us an answer to that.  “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). His last word in Matthew’s Gospel is not a law, but a promise:  “I will be with you always to the end of the world.”   


    Remember, at the end of this Sermon on the Mount, Matthew says, the people who listened to what Jesus was teaching his disciples were “blown away” by what he taught. Our translation says they were “astonished,” but the Greek word literally means “blown away.”  They were “blown away,” Matthew reported, “because he taught as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (7:28-29).  Jesus taught with authority, because he had more in it than their scribes did.  He would be giving himself as an offering to God, so that we could be raised above all our striving and achieving, and learn to be recipients like he was.  We live from his cross, where he was a recipient of the life God had to offer him beyond his cross.  He could speak with authority, because he would live what he would teach, a lifetime of giving for us.


-- Richard L. Jeske


A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany


A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Based on Matthew 5:13-20

Richard L. Jeske, Vicar

St. John’s in the Wilderness, Stony Point, NY


     Last Sunday our Gospel lesson had us begin reading the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ teaching to his disciples, which goes from the beginning of Matthew chapter five all the way to the end of Matthew chapter 7.  It’s all about what Jesus expects of his disciples – “disciples,” a word that means “learners.”  And at the end of chapter seven, Matthew says that the crowds who dropped in to hear Jesus’ sermon were “blown away” by what he had to say to those who wanted to follow him.  “Blown away” – it’s like standing in the batter’s box and getting knocked down: “The ball kept getting bigger and bigger, and then it hit me.”  Jesus’ expectations could have blown those disciples away, but they kept coming back. 


     So we as a congregation gather on Sundays and listen to Jesus’ expectations, which are sometimes pretty hard-hitting, yet we keep coming back.  And that’s good.


     “You are the salt of the earth …. You are the light of the world,” is what we hear today.  The words are good news to us, gospel, but they have expectations within them. We’ve come to adopt that first one as a cliché:  we use the term “salt of the earth” to describe someone who is a “good ol’ person,” a regular guy, a solid citizen.  But Jesus really means “salt,” like the seasoning we use on food to spice it up.  And he adds “light of the world” to underscore the fact that Christians are to make a difference in the world.  Jesus’ followers are not to be just passive characters, waiting around for the end of the world with nothing to do in the meantime.  Instead, while we live in this world, we are to be active ingredients against dullness and darkness.


     It’s too bad we have to read the Sermon on the Mount together in little portions, because something gets lost when we do. (Let me encourage you to read the whole Sermon, Matthew 5-7, in one sitting in your own private devotions at home.)  For instance, as we saw last Sunday, the Sermon opened with beatitudes, blessing after blessing – that God blesses the poor, on those who mourn, on those who hunger and thirst for God’s justice, for the merciful, for the peacemakers.  But the last one was that God’s blesses you:  “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say every kind of evil against you for (Jesus’) sake.”  We’re to “rejoice and be glad,” because that’s what happened to the prophets who went before us.  


    And that where today’s Gospel takes up the Sermon:  “Blessed are you … because you are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.”  That means that Jesus’ followers are supposed to spice up the earth when it wants to be dull, or bring some light into the world when it wants to sit in darkness.  That’s what prophets did, like we heard from Isaiah:  “You’re not here to serve your own interests – to oppress your workers:  you’re here to share your bread with the hungry; bring the homeless poor into your house; to cover the naked; to loose the bonds of injustice.  Then,” Isaiah said, “your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your acts of healing shall spring up quickly, for the glory of the Lord….”   It’s like Jesus had the prophet Isaiah in mind when he said to us today:  “Let your light so shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”


    That’s a tall order, isn’t it.  We think we’re too small and helpless to make any kind of difference in this world, overwhelmed by the conditions of life and caught between the wealth and poverty, between the powerful and the powerless, between justice and injustice, between war and peace.  But Jesus wants us to get involved in the earth and its life, get down into the dirt of which this earth is made and spice it up with some salt and with some light.  He expects that because we are blessed.  Remember, the blessings come first, so that we can make a difference in this world. 


    So Jesus is talking about a life under hazardous conditions.  He told his disciples:  “Look I’m sending you as sheep into the midst of wolves” (Matthew 10:16).  That means that some people aren’t going to like it when we tell them that we’re people who listen to Jesus and try to do what we wants us to do:  help the poor, welcome the stranger, share with the hungry.  People will persecute us when we do that; that’s why Jesus says “Blessed are you; God blesses you when you do that.”  That’s what he’ll say later in Matthew’s Gospel:  “I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked and you gave me clothing.” And people asked:  “When did we do that to you?”  And you know the answer he gave:  “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:34-40).  


      Jesus wants us to get down into the soil of this earth and be the kind of salt that doesn’t leave the earth on its own, to stay uncaring and unfeeling.  We are to be the movers and shakers that get the earth out of its muddy paralysis.  Life around us may want to stay in its comfortable darkness, but we’re to move it and shake it up with the light of Christ.  But the whole purpose is that the rest of the world will see what we’re doing, and give praise to God.  Through our giving them the light of Christ, they become recipients, and only recipients can say thank you, thank you to God.


    Today we heard from St. Paul, who came to Corinth, a city known for its decadence and indecency, and before he knew it a Christian congregation rose out of that muddy darkness, a vibrant and creative congregation.  And this morning we heard him tell them:  “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God in lofty words or wisdom.  For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  That was the message he needed to build a vibrant and creative congregation.  And when he got down on himself and asked God to help him overcome his own weakness, he got his answer from God:  “My strength is all you need, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).


    So when we feel too weak, too helpless, to be a salt and a light in this world, just remember the strength we have been given in the message of Jesus’ cross; there, in his weakness, the power of God was at work.  The crucified was raised from death, so that we could believe in his promise:  “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20).  The very last words in Matthew’s Gospel are Jesus’ last request of us, delivered with a promise:  “You teach people what I taught you, and I will be with you always, to the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20).


     That’s power, the power behind our salting and lighting the world around us.  And it’s what following Christ is all about.  And that old prophet Isaiah’s words will come true:  “you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”

-- Richard L. Jeske


A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany


A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Based on Matthew 5:1-12

Richard L. Jeske, Vicar

St. John’s in the Wilderness, Stony Point, NY


     We have been calling the season of Epiphany “the season of the church’s memory,” because it reviews how everything we do as a Christian congregation got started. Today’s Gospel talks about preaching, something that Christians have been doing for 2000 years.  Why do we continue to give sermons and listen to them?  How do we gauge our preaching today?  Well, we go back to how it all started.  Today’s Gospel reading takes us back to Jesus’ own preaching, to the beginning of his first sermon, the Sermon on the Mount.  If you think that some of our sermons are a bit long, look up this sermon in Matthew’s Gospel – it goes on for three chapters – Matthew chapters 5-7.  And if you think that was easy to listen to, here’s what Matthew wrote at the end of it:  “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astonished at his teaching” – the Greek word literally means “blown away” – “the crowds were blown away at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as their scribes” (7:28-29).


     So Matthew the Gospel writer starts Jesus’ ministry with a sermon.  Remember, we’re dealing with Matthew this year, so we want to keep one eye on him as he tells the story of Jesus.  Lots of people asked him, “What made Jesus of Nazareth so special? What made him so unique that people left everything and followed him?”  So we want to listen to the answer Matthew gave them.  The first thing Jesus did, Matthew said, was to start gathering his disciples.  That’s already something different from what people were used to.  Back then you chose your own rabbi.  But Jesus didn’t wait for that:  he went out and called people to him, and he took four of them off the lake and out of their fishing boats and called them “disciples,” a word that means “learners,” and began to teach them.  That was the first thing that made him unique:  they didn’t choose him; he chose them – and he kept reminding them of that throughout his ministry:  “You did not choose me; I chose you” (John 15:16).


     And he chose them first of all to be learners.  If you’re a disciple of Jesus, you don’t stop learning.  That may strike many American Christians as rather odd, that Jesus calls them to a lifetime of learning, learning from him.  Many American Christians think that once you’ve accepted Jesus as your personal Savior, that’s all there is to it and you’re in.  The most recent poll about biblical literacy says that atheists and Jews know more about the content of the Bible than do most Christians.  One poll recently asked “Who preached the Sermon on the Mount,” and a lot of people answered “Billy Graham.” So Jesus starts out with four people, calls them “disciples,” meaning “learners,” and takes them to a quiet mountainous place, and starts to teach them what being his disciples is all about. 


     So often we don’t think of the church as a place where you go to learn something.  We like to turn it into a place of performance, even of entertainment.  In many cases our churches have abandoned their role as educational institutions, and Epiphany is here to remind us that that’s what we’ve always been, or what we are supposed to be:  disciples of Jesus live here and they know that they are called to a lifetime of learning from Jesus. Sometimes that’s not easy, because what he has to teach us is always unique, different from all the teachers they went before him.


     So Matthew writes about that.  He places Jesus’ first teaching on a mountain, and his readers could not miss the contrast with Moses, the man of Mount Sinai.  And people were “blown away,” Matthew said, because they didn’t miss the contrast.  From the start there was something different, something unique about this teacher.


     And it is simply this:  the old teachers always said, "Do this, and you will prosper.  Keep God's laws, and you will live.  Do this that it may be well with you and that you live long on the earth.  Act and you will be rewarded.  Do justice and charity and God will bless you.  Give to the poor and God will prosper you."  It all sounds so logical.  Matter of fact, we hear it a lot today -- even in its secular dress:  you must get in touch with the transcendent and if you make your own connection with the transcendent you will have personal peace, power, and control.  Now the book stores around us have a section called "Self-Help" -- think of it:  "Self-help" -- with volume after volume promising those with "dysfunctional gaps" in their lives that they can cure themselves.  There is plenty of advice out there, telling us that if we "get in touch with ourselves” we will experience that we are “star-child creatures of a unified universe who can lift ourselves above our brokenness by denying the negative blockages to our holistic inner-connectedness."  In other words, do this, follow this advice, go through these exercises, lift yourself up to a new mode of being, and you will live better lives.  You must, you ought, you should -- strive, achieve, act now, and at the end of the journey you will be blessed.


     The different thing, the unique thing about Jesus is that you get the blessings first.  And don't say that's easy to understand, because it is not; and that's why being a follower of Jesus is being first and foremost a learner.  The first thing we must learn is that our Teacher starts us out not with laws but with blessings first.  From the old mountain Moses brought commandments; from this mountain a sermon is spoken that doesn't begin with the shoulds and the oughts and the "you musts"; from this mountain you get the blessings first.  We are called to learn from Jesus and to learn something new.  And from my experience as a pastor and teacher in the church, it's one of the most difficult things for us to get straight:  we are not motivated by God's law, but by God's blessing.  Around us we have all the voices shouting in the opposite direction:  do this or you won't be promoted, accomplish this or you won't get the contract, achieve this or you're fired.  So we actually get to the point where we simply cannot conceive that it could be any other way, and we come to church and expect to hear it there too.  Command, action, and obedience, and the blessings will follow.  Here's what you do, and you will be rewarded.  Don't do this, or you'll be cast away from God into hell forever. 


     So what was different about Jesus, Matthew says, is that Jesus went to a mountain, like the greatest of all law-givers did, and he sat down to teach, and when his disciples were in their places listening, he began.  And the first thing he said was not:  do this and you will live; if you want to be my disciples then you should, you must, you'd better, you ought....  No. The first thing he said was:

     Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

     Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

     Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

     Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

     Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

     Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

     Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.

     Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the

          kingdom of heaven.

     Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds 

          of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is 

          great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were

          before you.


     The Sermon on the Mount is three chapters long in Matthew's Gospel.  But before a single instruction is given, before a single admonition, exhortation or command, before there is anything resembling "marching orders" to the newly gathered disciples, before there has even been time for obedience and disobedience, before any directives at all, there is beatitude after beatitude, blessing after blessing.  And that must be remembered by every Christian today:  the blessings come first.  And if you don't hear the blessings, you're not ready for your marching orders.  Because it is the blessing of God that enables you to become what God wants you to be.


     And who is it that receives God’s blessings?  Who is on Jesus’ list?  We can see that there isn't an achiever in the whole lot!  The poor, the depressed, the hungry, the persecuted.  If God's blessings were reserved for only the achievers, then they would come at the end of the Sermon:  "Do this, and you will be blessed."  But appearing at the beginning they say that God's favor precedes all our endeavors.  In fact, all our own efforts to live under God and his kingdom are not conditions for receiving God's favor, but responses to it.  And again, that seems so difficult for us to remember, for us caught up in a world of achievement.


     But once you know you are blessed, you’re only half-way there.  There are expectations attached to those blessings.  But they are not legalistic directives, things that you feel you have to do.  Now that you are blessed there are things you will want to do.  Now that you know you are blessed by God, you are a changed person, changed from someone who is just on your own, by yourself, left to you own devices.  God is with you now.  But now, because you are a changed person, there are some expectations.  How are you going to use the blessing God has given you?  How will you use all the gifts God has given you?  What will you want to do now?


     What we will want to do is to recognize that there are people in the world poorer than we are, who mourn every day like we do not, who are not wealthy like we are, who hunger and thirst for better lives, who are persecuted in their own countries.  We will want to recognize that.  And since we are full of God’s blessings, what do we do?  What do we want to do?  We will want to be instruments of God’s blessings to them, because that’s how God gets his work done, through us.  And if we cannot be such instruments of God’s blessings in the world then perhaps we will not be entrusted with them for very much longer, and they will be given to others who will get God’s work done in the world.  So we will listen to Jesus’ beatitudes and make sure we are not among those who reject the poor in the world, the mourners and the persecuted who seek better lives.  We will not want to be warmongers who inspire fear in the world, but we will want to be peacemakers, for only peacemakers can be called the children of God. 


     At the end of this service you will receive the blessing of God once again, and then you will be told:  “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”  You are given something you will want to use, everyday, as a sign of God’s love and God’s peace.


     So when you listen to Christian sermons, you should first listen for the sign of God's favor, for the good news that you have been redeemed by Christ the crucified.  But don't stop listening, as if that sermon is just there to make you feel comfortable by all that divine favor.  The sermon is there to bring us to the next step:  what am I to do with such abundant giving from God?  And if we feel some discomfort, then perhaps that is what we need.  You have been redeemed by Christ the crucified; now take that gift of God, and live as one who has been redeemed.  You have been loved by God; now live as one who has been loved by God.  You have been blessed; now live as one who is under God's blessing.  And if you feel like you're being blown away, shocked to hear what is expected of a redeemed person like you, for goodness' sake don't stop listening.  You are a disciple of Christ -- and that means that you have been called to be a learner.  All your lives you remain learners.  Don't stop learning.  The crowds may have been blown away, as even his own disciples eventually fled when the cross came his way.  You stay, at the feet of Jesus, and learn from him.  Because you have not chosen him; he has chosen you.

           -- Richard L. Jeske



A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany


A Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Based on Matthew 4:12-23

By Richard L. Jeske

St. John’s in the Wilderness, Stony Point, NY


     You would have thought that these four rough and tumble fishermen would have laughed their sandals off.  “Fish for people”?  Is that what he said?  We’re supposed to come with him and start “fishing for people”?  Wait till the neighbors see the sign on our doors:  “Gone fishin’ -- for people.”  I imagine Simon could have said to one of the Zebedees, “Look, fish are dumb – that’s why they end up in nets or on hooks; is this guy saying people are that dumb?  So what’s he going to do with all these people when he gets them; we net these fish and then sell ‘em; is that what he’s going to do?  Fishin’ for people?” – You’d think they’d be saying something like that to each other.  But not, Matthew says.  No conversation at all.  No raising a quizzical eyebrow, no cynical shrug of the shoulders.  “Immediately,” Matthew wrote; “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”  All he did was say, “Come along, boys, and I’ll make you fish for people.” And “immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.”  And Matthew’s next three chapters are all Jesus’ teaching them, his first called disciples, about what “follow me” is going to mean for them.  And at the end of those next three chapters, Matthew wrote, “they were blown away” by what Jesus’ taught them.  And the rest of the Gospels’ story talks about how hard that was -- to follow Jesus, and be taught how to fish for people.


      Our Eucharistic liturgies urge us to include an exercise of confession and absolution.  One of our confessions has us ask God to forgive our sins, “known and unknown.” We want God’s forgiveness for sins we didn’t even know we committed.  That’s being consistent with Paul’s statement that we human beings, by nature, are “sold into slavery under sin” (Romans 7:14).  Sin, for St. Paul, is something that holds us captive and we can’t get our from under it by ourselves.  That’s exactly what these four sailors found out about themselves when they went off trying to keep up with Jesus.  Enslaved, captive to sin and cannot free ourselves:  there’s a problem there, isn’t there, when we say that about ourselves.  That’s saying that there’s some force within us that we can’t get rid of by ourselves.  It made St. Paul say, “Wretched man that I am:  who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24)  That’s what those four fishermen actually saw with their own eyes:  nothing but themselves.  Jesus brought their deepest selves out into the open, and got them ready for a better way.   They were captives, and he let them prove it to themselves.


     For instance, he stopped them one day as they were walking along, and said, “What are you guys arguing about, anyway?” They got silent, and sheepish, and told him they were arguing about who was the greatest among them; who was number one (Mark 9:33-36).  We know that one, don’t we?  Our team can have no wins and ten losses, and when the cameraman pans our section of the arena, what will do?  Raise those hands and point to the sky and yell, “We’re number one!”  We’re the greatest; we’re first; our team, our school, our country first; America first!  (We are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.) And Jesus said: ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).  “He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, `… Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of God.  Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of God’” (Matthew 18:2-4).  What did he say?  “Unless you change?”  We can’t ever change, because we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.  Now what were we saying:  who’s the greatest?  And another real argument broke out when ten of them found out that James and John had asked Jesus to have them sit at his right and his left when he comes into his glory (Matthew 20:20-28).  They couldn’t quit arguing about who was the greatest – because they were captives, slaves, to a force that controlled them.  It was called “sin,” and the greatest one was claiming to be the greatest, number one, the first.


     But they kept following him, and they kept arguing with each other.  And Jesus would say, “Well, if you’re the greatest, and if you’re so blessed by God, then do this:  “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42). After all, I called you to follow me, and I came not to be served, but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for others” (Mark 10:45).  They didn’t know what to say to that.


     But they kept following him.  And they said, “OK, but at least our families come first, don’t they?” He said:  “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37-38).  Oh, that one was tough.


     But they kept following him.  And they saw rich people come to Jesus and then turn around and walk away, and they asked why; why let the rich walk away?  “Certainly,” they said, “the rich are rich because God has made them rich; they have God’s blessing upon them.”  And Jesus told them:  “Are you kidding?  It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25).  Now that left them scratching their heads, the Gospel-writer says (Mark 10:24).  In fact, the first thing he taught these four sailors was:  “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” [[Luke’s (more original) version (6:20) of Matthew 5:3]].  But they flunked their first lesson.  


     But they kept following him.  And they kept seeing all these foreigners:  a woman from the town of Tyre, a Syro-Phoenician woman, asks him to heal her daughter; a Roman centurion wants him to heal his slave; a woman of Samaria has a long conversation with him, and that’s taboo. Somebody asked him, “Who’s my neighbor?” And Jesus responds by telling a story about a “Good Samaritan” (like one really exists).  All these foreigners – what are they doing around Jesus?  He actually touches these epileptics and lepers.  And then these outcasts – crooked tax-collectors, street-women, and other social rejects – he lets them all sit at his table.  And they had to defend him when people said:  “Look at that:  you call him your “teacher”; well, your teacher eats with tax-collectors and sinners” (Matthew 9:11).  And they didn’t know what to say, so they asked him about it, and Jesus told them:  “Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick. … I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.”  Of course, that meant them.  He called them.


     But they kept following him.  And Jesus kept teaching them.  “Don’t call anyone names, because that might drag you into hell” (Matthew 5:22).  But they had been taught to get even with their enemies, you know an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But Jesus told them to forget that: “Don’t repay evil with more evil.  Someone hits you, let him hit you again.”  Now that one was really hard to take; don’t know about that one.  Because we are captives, and cannot free ourselves.  


     But they kept following him.  And then he told us to love our enemies.  Now that’s something we’ve never heard before.  We were taught to love our neighbor and hate our enemy, but he told us to love both of them.  To love our enemies, of all things.  And he told us why:  you are to love your enemies, because God loves his.  God loves his enemies, even us, especially us, because we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.


     And when they saw that Jesus was really serious about this cross stuff – “Take up your cross and follow me…” and when we saw him turn his other cheek to those who hit him, when we saw him love his enemies and pray for them while they were pounding nails into his hands and feet-- well, we couldn’t take it anymore.  That was it.   We scrammed, we fled, we ran, we got outta’ there, and went back to fishing – for fish, not for people anymore.  Because we were captives, and slaves, to sin.


     But then something happened.  Mary Magdalene and some other women came and told us that Jesus had been raised from the dead.  We didn’t believe that at all, until we were behind our locked doors and he came and stood there in front of us.  He even came and found us out there on the lake.  And he told us we had work to do.  We had learned from him, and now we were being sent out into the world to teach everyone else what he had taught us.  And then we figured out what “fishing for people” really meant.  We used to keep our fish in the nets and took them back to sell them.  That was just our business.  His way of fishing was to nurture them and then to release his catch back into the streams where they came from.  We were to fish for people and teach them what he taught us, and then send them back into the streams of life so that the witness to the crucified and risen Christ could spread and become the good news of God for the rest of the world.  Because that is the message that sets us free from our captivity.  Because of Jesus, sin no longer has us enslaved.  And when fall back again into it, because of Jesus we can ask for the forgiveness of God and for the strength to stay out of captivity.


     But it’s been quite a journey. And if we all started over again and Jesus came and called to us, “Come and follow me,” would we do it?  Would I do it?  Yes, I would.  And I know you would do it too.

          -- Richard L. Jeske    


A Sermon for Christmas eve 2016


A Sermon for Christmas Eve 2016

Based on Luke 2:1-21

Richard L. Jeske, Vicar


     Eight days later, the next verse after our Gospel reading tells us, it was time for Jesus’ Brit milah, or his Bris, his circumcision: “and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”  What a combination – a specific time, a specific operation, an angel, and a name.  “He was called Jesus.”   It’s part of the story. 


     Do you remember the American general who became the hero of Desert Storm, the war against Iraq in the early 1990s?  He was General H. Norman Schwarzkopf.  After the war he was being interviewed on TV, and the interviewer asked him what the “H” in his name stood for.  The general replied, “H -- it stands for H.”  “You mean your parents named you `H’”?  “That’s right,” the general replied.  “You see, when my father grew up he didn’t like his first name, which was Herman, so he was always known by his second name “Norman,” and he signed everything `H. Norman Schwarzkopf.’  But when he enrolled at West Point, he had to give his full name on all his official forms, including when he registered for every one of his classes.  So everyone at West Point wound up calling him “Herman,” which he detested.  So when I came along, my father didn’t want the same thing to happen to me.  So he named me `H,’ period.  And West Point and the rest of the world had to settle for it!” 


     Names are important; they are personal possessions, part of who we are.  But have you noticed how namelessness has become a way of life in our world?  Students at large universities complain about it, workers in large factories live with it, and now during Christmas season long lines at gift-wrapping counters are victim to it.  “Get a number,” they tell you, and “for goodness’ sake don’t tell us your name.”  Airlines give you a confirmation number, HMO’s know you by your social security number, and direct marketers – well, they only want to know your phone number:  “Hello, is this Mr. Jesk, or is it Mr. Jessick, or is it Jekes?”  It’s a wonder, if we’re ever in a large crowd, that someone ever calls us by name.  Namelessness means distance:  impersonal, an abstraction, a statistic.


     The witness of the Scriptures is that God doesn’t work in generalities.  The God of the Bible does not work in abstractions, or count people as statistics.  God doesn’t stay at a distance from the world God created.  God has a name and wants to know everyone else’s.  Throughout the Scriptures God gives people new names, specific names:  Abram is renamed “Abraham,” and Sarai “Sarah.”  Jacob becomes “Israel” after wrestling with the stranger God put in his way, because “Israel” has a meaning, “you have wrestled with God and you have won.”  Moses is picked out of the crowd and told to go lead the people to freedom; so Moses asks God who’s sending him.  “What’s your name,” Moses asked, and God tells him:  “You want a name?  OK, How’s this:  `Yahweh,’ that is my name, and it means `I AM WHO I AM’.”


     Judging from the books that flood the religion shelves in our bookstores, people aren’t that sure that they like getting too specific.  Maybe they have gotten used to namelessness, and like it.  They get to take refuge in the cosmic, in lofty flights into the spiritual stratosphere, and don't have to deal with the messy details of a Syrian governor and a census and an indelicate pregnancy, or with a couple making a hasty trip from nowhere Nazareth to backwater Bethlehem.  Popular religion likes grand ethereal doses, straight from the outer spheres of cosmic consciousness, from which the gross particularities of history and geography have been distilled.  We get to escape into abstract notions of ethereal consciousness, existential union with the divine, and vague fulfillment of a vague selfhood. 


     But in contrast to such an ethereal journey of the soul, Christmas invades our time and place and reminds us that God acts with surprising particularity.  There is a purpose for this.  Yes, God is eternal, inscrutable, wholly other, a cosmic force outside of us to whom we look when we desperately need to.  But Christmas tells us that the eternal has journeyed to us, to Nazareth, to Bethlehem, of all things to a stable -- quietly, unobtrusively, without our doing it, the eternal has become specific.  Our journey to discover that God is love is turned by Christmas into God's journey to us, sending the word to some sleepy shepherds to go find a person named Mary, and a person named Joseph, and a child in (of all things) a bed of straw, and in it an infant called Jesus, “the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”  Yes, God is love, but Christmas invades our abstractions with the message that God got specific:  when a Caesar named Augustus was in power, with his Syrian governor named Quirinius, with a Joseph that went to pay his taxes (I mean, who does that anymore?) in his ancestral town named Bethlehem.  It’s all so specific:  God loves a people named Israel, chose Mary, spoke to Joseph, sent his Son to deliver you and me from resignation and despair.  Christmas teaches us to put together the eternal and the specific, so that abstract notions like justice and peace are now acted out in our lives, in our offices, in our neighborhoods, and in our homes.


     The God of the Bible isn’t satisfied with generalities:  he always puts a name and a face on his deeds, human ones in fact.  God didn't decide stay at a distance and to strew humanity with sunbeams and scatter his presence like falling stars into our souls.  He didn't decide to enlighten us with divine knowledge of the cosmic spheres.  The God of the Bible gave particularity to his actions, and chose a human vehicle for his purpose, and called on someone whose name was Mary; a home, a human home, not big, not grand, was needed for this purpose -- and it meant another face, another name, called Joseph.  The message of Christmas is that God's purposes are accomplished in the midst of the ordinary, and when that happens there is a name and a place connected to it. 


     And the shepherds – doing their ordinary thing out there in Bethlehem’s fields – heard something that became very specific.  When everything lit up around them, they were scared out of their wits.  And they were told to quit being afraid, because something good was happening to them:  “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  TO YOU.  That’s specific.  And forever after Christmas breaks into our lives every year, and we get to hear something specific, directed to us and everyone else who wants to listen:  “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  It’s not just a story anymore:  it’s a message to you; it’s good news of great joy for all people.   And it’s about Christ, your Lord.


     Maybe that’s getting too close for us.  Maybe we’d rather to take refuge in generalities, and in namelessness.  Maybe you’re someone who might want to get a box of long-stem red roses with the message attached to it:  “You are a representation of the absolutely highest dimensions of cosmic being, universal perfection in all its ultimate manifestation.”  You might like that.  But you might also like that person to tell you, specifically:  “I love to hold your hand, to be near you and watch you laugh, to share your tears, to heal your hurts, to feel your caress.  I love you and always will, (signed) Tom.”  That is specific.  A specific message with a name attached to it.  And today God has a message specific to send to you, and there is a name attached to it, along with another name.  First, there is Jesus, and then there is your name.


     So what will you do with that name now?  You’re going to get rid of the fear and the divisiveness that pervades our lives, especially now.  You’re going to live in that name and look for truth, not fake facts or impersonal hatred.  You’re going to put to work what Isaiah said that name means:  Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Peace?  You’re going to take that name Jesus and work for peace, and justice, and unity in this world.  You’re going to get specific, because to you, to you, is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ your Lord.

                                                                                                                 -- Richard L. Jeske


A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent


A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent

Based on Matthew 11:2-11

By Richard L. Jeske


      It’s not hard to think of someone in our memory who did not live up to expectations.  We can think of that college classmate who was a straight-A student, only to flunk out of grad school and later in life was constantly out of work.  We can think of people who sabotaged themselves – a Pete Rose or Daryl Strawberry who could have been candidates for baseball’s Hall-of-Fame, or a Fritz Wunderlich who could have been one of the world’s greatest tenors but who broke his neck falling down the steps after some hard drinking at a pub.  When we remember them we say, “How sad, how sad.”


     Certainly it is with sadness that Jesus was approached that day by some disciples of John the Baptist.  They had been burned once, with their teacher winding up in a jail cell.  Now he’s sending them to someone else, saying, “It’s all over for me here; I want you to go join up with Jesus of Nazareth.  If you have any doubts, go seek him out and ask him if he’s the one we’re all expecting.”


     So they go to Jesus and tell him, “Look, John’s movement is about dead.  He’s in jail, and he’s sent us to you.  But we want to know first, we want to hear it straight from you:  “Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for someone else?”


     What a chance for Jesus to say:  “Yes, indeed.  I’m the one you’re looking for.  I’m the one who has been promised by the prophets.  I’m the Messiah.”  But he doesn’t say that.  He says instead:  “You make the decision.  Tell John what you see:  the blind seeing, the lame walking, the dead living, and the poor are getting the gospel, the good news of God.  Oh, and by the way, tell him that those who take no offense at me are blessed.”

     What did that last statement mean?  “Those who take no offense at me are blessed.”  One of the newer translations of the Bible, the Contemporary English Version, puts it this way:  “God will bless everyone who doesn’t reject me because of what I do.”


     Jesus said that because he anticipated rejection.  After all, John was sitting in a prison cell, rejected, and about to be rejected for good.  And Jesus could see the looks of apprehension on the faces of John’s disciples.  Their leader, their teacher, the one who gave them their identity, was about to be executed.  


     Certainly that was not in their plan.  It wasn’t what his followers expected.  After all, John had the crowds.  They came out into the desert, all the way to the Jordan River, to hear him and be baptized by him.  Now look, it’s all over.  Maybe he didn’t play his cards right.  Maybe he shouldn’t have taken on the religious and political authorities.  His movement had all the marks of success, but look at him now.  He’s a sorry mess, waiting to die.  Now many people would call him a failure, someone with so much potential but who didn’t live up to everyone’s expectations.  

     Jesus could sense their thoughts and their apprehensions.  So he asks what everyone expected from John.  The word was that a real prophet was speaking out there in the wilderness – and that doesn’t happen every day.  A prophet from God.  What should everyone expect to see in a real prophet?  A people-pleaser?  A keep-smiling entrepreneur in soft robes?  A culture-friendly manipulator?  He did his work in the wilderness; the stark desert is where you found him: you’re not going out there to visit a playboy in a palace.  What did we expect to see?  Was he supposed to be like tall grass blown over by the wind, or a sideshow threatening to no one?  “What did you go out there to see?”  Jesus asked them.  And then he answered his own question.

     “You went out there,” Jesus said, “to see something else.  And here’s what you saw:  you saw the greatest of all human beings, someone not impressed by designer clothes or by those who wear them.  Someone intent on delivering the call of God to everyone, peasant or king, religious or non-religious, priest or lay.  And if he’s really effective, and he calls all people to examine themselves in view of God’s nearness and to turn around from their games, why are you so surprised if he ruffles feathers, and lands in the dungeon?  So I’m not going to tell you what to expect from me.  You think it through yourself and make your own decision.  But when you do, remember, God blesses those who don’t freak out over what I do too.”


     The greatest of all human beings, as Jesus called him, was sitting in a prison cell waiting to die.  Most people would call him a failure.  But Jesus called him the greatest of all human beings.  Let’s see:  there was Moses and David and Solomon; there was Homer and Plato and Aristotle; there was Alexander (whom people called “the Great”) and Julius Caesar and Augustus, Confucius and Gautama Buddha – all before him.  But no, Jesus said, “no one ever born on this earth is greater than John the Baptist.”


     Now that’s hard to believe, isn’t it?  Lists come out all the time about the greatest people who have ever lived.  Secular lists, historical lists, artistic lists.  Have you ever seen John the Baptist at the top of anyone’s list?  I haven’t.  Many polls even have Jesus at the top of the list of most influential people in history.  The only trouble is:  Jesus says that John the Baptist is Number One.  But we don’t believe that, do we?  Not even Jesus’ disciples believed it, because they are soon arguing among themselves about who was the greatest (Matthew 18:1 = Mark 9:33-34; Matthew 20:21 = Mark 10:37), and they had the list down to twelve, namely themselves.


     Who would you think is the greatest human being?  George Washington, Bill Gates, Donald Trump, Lady Gaga?  Be careful about your answer, because it will say something about your expectations, and also about you and your faith.  Remember that when Jesus voted for John the Baptist he was also quick to add:  “And yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”  And he showed his arguing disciples a child and said, “Unless you become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 18:3).


     With total singularity of purpose, John the Baptist had become like that child.  He was one who was totally dependent on God, who clearly and without calculation spoke the truth of God without wavering, even if it brought him into conflict with the authorities.  That is a hard act to follow, especially as we see our lives cluttered with so many other loyalties.  For John, there was one loyalty, to God, and to what God means for the present and for the future. 


     So what about our expectations?  What do we expect of God?  Is that the most important question?  Or is the important question what God expects of us?  Do we want to fit God into our kingdom, i.e. into our expectations, or will we fit ourselves into God’s?  “Are we supposed to look for someone else,” John’s disciples asked Jesus.  “It all depends,” Jesus said, “on what you’re looking for.  Is the good news being preached to the poor?  If so, don’t take offense.  Just come with me and enter into the work of the kingdom of God.”


     A mark of Jesus’ ministry is his preaching good news to the poor.  He doesn’t say “to the rich,” but “to the poor.”  What kind of church do we want, then?  A church that is rich first before it does the work of the kingdom of God?  Maybe if John the Baptist would have waited until he had the rich people on his side, maybe he wouldn’t have landed in prison.  Maybe he could have had more influence then.  But he didn’t do that.  With singularity of purpose, he did the work of God’s kingdom.  And Jesus placed him at the top of the list of the greatest human beings born on earth.


     If we have a hard time with that, then we need the adjustment, not God.  What we would call a failure, God doesn’t.  What we would call success, God doesn’t.  A prison, or a cross, does not meet the standards for success in this world.  George Washington, Bill Gates, Donald Trump – they meet the standards for success in this world.  But again and again, in the world of the Bible, there are the stories of those prisoners – Paul and Silas and Peter and John of Patmos and Jesus himself – doing the work of God’s kingdom, with John the Baptist at the top of their list.  And the blind see, and the lame walk, and the good news is preached, to the poor of all people.  And God blesses those who do not reject all that.


     So Jesus told us, “You seek first God’s kingdom, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).  I believe that.  We do not wait for the benefits to be there first.  We do the work of the kingdom and the benefits will come.  That’s the lesson of all the prisoners of the church’s past:  they looked for what God wanted them to do, and the benefits did follow.  The Crucified was raised from the dead, by God’s doing, not ours, so that we can have hope in our lives, and trust, and faith, and love.


     So Jesus says:  “Blessed are the ones who take no offense at me.” That statement is beatitude, and whenever we hear beatitudes in the New Testament we know who is doing the blessing.  God blesses those who take no offense at Jesus.  Those are the words John needed to hear, words of hope in a desperate situation.  And John had that hope, and could point to the one who comes after him to bring people alive with water and the Spirit. So when we sing “O Come O Come Emanuel,” we invite into our own lives the one who died for us and rose again so that we can have hope in every dark situation we have to face now or in the future.  Jesus’ work of restoration is always there to move us beyond our prisons, and to give us hope, real hope, which no one can take away.

                                                        -- Richard L. Jeske     



Advent 2


A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent

Based on Matthew 3:1-12

By Richard L. Jeske


     Whenever anyone wants to read up on the story of Jesus, they soon find out that it all begins with someone else.  All four New Testament Gospel writers begin their reports about Jesus with reference to a strange, rather mysterious character known as “John the Baptist.”  (I really wish we could say it was “John the Episcopalian,” but no, that won’t work, will it?  In the four Gospels he’s known simply as “John,” but historically he has come down to us as “John the Baptist,” not because of the church he belonged to but because of what he did, namely offering a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  We really should call him “John the Baptizer,” but that’s a losing battle.  So we’re stuck with “John the Baptist.”)  But why is his story always the prelude to Jesus’ story in our New Testament Gospels?  Was it to provide a contrast?  Or set a precedent?  Or to give the readers an idea of how dangerous it was in those days to be on a mission for God?


     In comparison to Jesus, John was a real character.  His very appearance was something worth mentioning, as well as his diet.  Not everyone wore camel’s hair tunics belted at the waist, dining only on what the stark Judean wilderness could produce.  As far as we know, John stayed out in the desert, lived in the desert, preached in the desert, and was finally imprisoned and executed in Herod’s desert fortress.


     That was a huge contrast to Jesus, who lived in town, and whose ministry took place in the towns and villages of Palestine.  Jesus accepted invitations to dinner, to banquets attended by rich and poor, to weddings, to quiet weekends at home with friends.  John drew crowds out to the wilderness, the Gospels say, where he worked alone.  Jesus often tried to avoid the crowds, worked with a close circle of disciples, and sent them into the villages and homes of Palestine.  The two were quite different.  But both, it turns out, spoke the same message:  “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”


     So we come to church on this Second Sunday of Advent and we are asked to begin where the Gospels do, namely with John.  Different from Jesus, he is also quite different from us, but we’re asked to listen to what he had to say to people.  And what he said was the same thing Jesus had to say:  “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”  Now what is that supposed to mean?  To them or to us.  After all, people are people, and they, even 21 centuries removed, still saw what we see.  They saw politicians lying to them.  They saw streets where you wouldn’t want to go after dark.  They saw people making heroes out of the worst human examples imaginable.  They saw money managers ripping off their clients.  They saw public servants gouging the poor, and stores not being responsible for the goods they sell.  They saw soldiers harming innocent civilians, and they confused junk culture with genuine artistry, the fake being accepted for what is real.


     They saw those things and they would often get depressed about it, like we do.  They would say that they’ve really made a mess of things, and that only God could ever change things and make things right again.  They would get moody, and angry, and hopeless about the world they lived in because they saw a lot of dysfunction at work.  And lo and behold, two people, two very different people, came one right after the other saying, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”  What were they to think – and what are you to think when the same thing is said to you? – as it is today, the Second Sunday of Advent, the Second Sunday of this new Church Year.


     The first thing they did, we are told, is go out to see one of them.  They had to walk out to the Jordan River to see him.  “The people of Jerusalem and all Judea went out to see him,” Matthew says, “and all the region along the Jordan.”  Only to hear him tell them to repent – i.e. to change their minds about things – about their hopelessness, about their despair, to change their minds about the dead-end streets they think they’re in.  Things are changed now, because God in his ruling activity has come near to them.  That’s what he told them, to stop being hopeless, and angry, and negative – because God has come to change that, and to change their minds too.


     It was not only atheists who went out to see John at the Jordan.  Very religious people came out there too.  Pharisees and Sadducees came too, people at the top of the religious ladder.  Sadducees were the paid leaders; they ran the Temple and provided priests for the people.  Pharisees were laypeople, not priests, and they studied the Scriptures daily and tried to apply them to every aspect of daily life.  So what did John say to all of them when they finally arrived out at the Jordan River?  “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit that befits repentance.  Do not presume to say to yourselves:  `We’re OK.  We have Abraham as our father.’  God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  A harvest is going on.  Get ready for it.  God is at work gathering.  Gathering.  The harvest is at hand.  Do you want to be a part of it?”  -- What would you think?  What would you do in the face of this pointed, direct message?


     I know what some people would do.  I’m sure some of those Pharisees and some of those Sadducees weren’t impressed at all.  I’m sure some said, “Who does he think he is to talk to us like that?  If he were a real prophet, he would have told us how good we are.  He would have singled us out as the real true believers in the world.”  Instead, he called them a bunch of snakes.  They were part of the dark streets and the crooked stores, part of the daily despair and part of the mean spirit that had to be shaken, that had to get prepared for the coming of God.  Their lives had to get turned upside down, to get the blinders off and get a new start so that they could see God at work, now, among them.


     And Matthew simply says they did it:  “they were baptized by (John) in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”  They heard him and they knew that they needed to do something.  And John’s hard words meant that baptism was not simply a return to the status quo, but a new start.  The kingdom of God has come near – or in today’s language, “here, right next to you, God is at work” -- and that should make a difference in your life.


     That John said these things to religious people shouldn’t be so surprising.  People are people, and we fall so easily into our self-made ruts in life.  Of course, in my naiveté I have always wondered about that.  I know a man who had been in church every Sunday of his life, had heard the gospel of Christ for over 50 years, served as a member of all church committees and boards – and when his unmarried daughter came home to tell him with tears that she was pregnant, he kicked her out of the house.  What would John say to him?  He’s call him a snake, and that he’s got some changing to do.  I know another man in the same church with the same record of leadership in that congregation whose daughter came to tell me, sobbing, that her father in real life was a cheat and a thief, and that the ring he was proudly wearing was stolen, wearing it on the same hand that each Sunday received the body and blood of Christ.  I wonder what John the Baptist would say to him. 


     People made the trek out into the wilderness, through the desert to the river, to see John, and yet he still had the hard word to tell them.  Because he was a man on a mission – not of his own making, but of God’s.  He could do no other.  He was a prophet, one who spoke of repentance, of changing minds, and who offered water to signify a new start, away from duplicity and negativity, a new start with the kingdom of God, with God at work right now in human hearts.


     In other words, the man on a mission made others men and women with a mission.  They came out to him.  And then he told them that someone was coming after him, whom he said was more powerful than he was, and he would have the same mission.  But instead he would not be waiting for people to come out to him.  He would be sending his followers out now to reap the harvest.  John described him:  “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary.”  John waited for people to come to him.  Jesus wouldn’t wait.  He would be sending his disciples out to “make disciples of everyone else, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).   He sent them out saying, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40).  


     The Second Sunday in Advent wants us to think about John, that strange voice in the wilderness, calling to us in all its directness and bluntness.  But there is a contrast with Jesus that we also get to think about.  John waited for people to come out to him; Jesus sent his followers to others to tell them that God is at work right here and that they can be part of it.  


     During the past few years we have all been pleased at the growth we have seen here at St. John’s, we all want our little church to continue to grow.  But now we get to choose what’s right for us, and we have two examples before us today.  We kind of fit more with John the Baptizer; after all, “wilderness” is part of our name now.  And we really have been waiting for people to come out here in our wilderness to us?  Maybe we’ve reached a second stage now:  maybe we need to adopt the other approach, and find ways to get the word out to people that “right here and now, among us, God is at work – come and see” – like our Lord Jesus Christ taught us to do.


     Jesus’ story begins with John, so that we can see the contrast.  But both John and Jesus said the same thing:  “you are wanted and you are needed, and your baptism is proof of that.  There is wonderful work for you to do, and God is here right now next to you helping you do it.  You have a mission, now let’s get on with the harvest.”  

      -- Richard L. Jeske