April 7, 2019 Sermon

               It is sometimes dangerous to call Biblical stories drama, because it can make us look at them from something of a distance, analyzing the stories like an English Major with a term paper due.  But it is hard as we approach Holy Week not to see the drama building.  Jesus is journeying towards Jerusalem.  He made it be know a few weeks ago that Jerusalem is the place that kills the prophets.  And today we find him in Bethany, which is basically a suburb of Jerusalem, being located about 1.5 miles to the east of Jerusalem on the southeastern slope of the Mount of Olives.  In a few weeks the Mount of Olives will again become important, as it is the place from which Jesus will ascend to heaven.  But for today Jesus is at a dinner party and at this dinner party we read, “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’"  John adds a little editorializing after and says that Judas only said this because he wanted to steal the money.  Whatever the case, we see the drama building between Judas and Jesus, with Judas chastising Jesus about how this whole Son of God thing is supposed to work. 

But let’s step back for a minute and ignore the potential kleptomania of Judas and the tension between these two characters and reflect for a moment on the question that is raised by Judas and that question has to do with the allocation of our resources.  Judas is saying that anything excessive should be given to the poor.  The answer that Jesus gives to this objection comes in the context of the larger drama.  He is going to be crucified and so he chastises Judas by saying, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."  If we want to look at the commentaries (and who doesn’t) we read that this act, quote, “Reminds the disciples of the limited time of Jesus' presence among them and the urgency to respond to Jesus while he is still here. Mary has recognized this limitedness and responded to it.”  

And that seems a good interpretation, but what I want to do is take this story and mix it together with Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative and I promise that this will be just as exciting as it sounds.  For while I am sure you are all familiar with Kant’s categorical imperative I thought I might just reiterate it a little so that it is fresh in your mind.  There are actually three imperatives but we are just going to go with number one, which states, “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.”  Put another way this says to only do things that you are comfortable with becoming something that everyone is obliged to do.  So for example, you are in the Louvre in Paris and are gazing at Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa and suddenly decide that it would look nice in your living room.  So you decide to drop it down the front of your pants and bring it home with you.  But if you are a disciple of Immanuel Kant you would ask yourself the question before you did any of this of whether or not you would be comfortable living in a world where everyone is allowed to take things because they really like them.  In other words would you like to live in a society where there was a law that says if you like it, take it? 

Okay with that out of the way let’s return to this debate between Jesus and Judas.  What I want to do is see if we can create a universal law based on this discussion.  In the debate between indulgence and altruism, if there is a categorical imperative that we can create from these two conflicting uses of resources?   Or put another way how much are we meant to spend on ourselves, how much on God and how much on the poor?  Judas makes the argument that there is no room for indulgence, anything extra must be given to the poor, but Jesus suggests that God takes precedence.  But which side wins?  If we made a rule from either Jesus or Judas we would either give everything to the poor or everything to God but does that make sense?  So let’s do what it is we should do when in doubt and look a little more in depth at what Jesus is telling us. 

Jesus seems to allow room for us to use our resources on any of the three possible categories –ourselves, God or the poor.  It is just dependent on the context, suggesting that we cannot come up with a hard and fast rule.  Which means we may have to get rid of Immanuel Kant.  And the reason is that the Christian life needs to be more animated by love than it is by law.  In the moment when Jesus says that he will not always be there he is saying that there are times and places that are appropriate for different allocations of assets.  In the Book of Ecclesiastes we hear this famous verse, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”  It goes on for a while longer and you can listen to the Byrds Turn, Turn, Turn if you want to hear the rest.  But the point the author is trying to make is that there is a time and place for everything, and that the art of living in communion with God requires us to discern when those times are.

            Years ago I read an interview with the author Michael Crichton who wrote Jurassic Park among many other books.  He said something that I thought was odd at the time about the scientific method.  He predicted that in the next century we would reach a point where the scientific method will have run its course.  I don’t know if I would go as far as him, but I think what he was getting at is the amount of things that can be declared with absolute certainty is limited and that a lot of our life is lived in nuance.  So while I could easily say that 10% of your resources should be given to the Church, 6.3% to the poor and the remaining 83.7% can be spent on yourself, I don’t think that works, because it really comes down to priorities and our relationship to God.  And here is the point where I will get preachy.  As the Episcopal Church has fractured in the past decades a lot of it has happened because of a lack of nuance.  The sides that have split have happened largely based on the answers to a few questions – are you for or against women’s ordination?  What do you think of homosexuality?  And based on responses to these questions we decide who is in and who is out.  Judas today presents a similar rule – all excess must go to the poor at all times and in all places.  If you don’t do this you are wicked.  But Jesus points out that there are times when this is not the case.  In our present trouble we have used differences on a few questions to trump the animating force of God, which is love.  And love is not always reasonable or does it fit well into certain sets of rules.  We may not always agree with others and they may in fact be wrong, but we cannot stop loving them.  Jesus today points out that we must first love God.  And this is not because he is a narcissist but because he realizes that we cannot love others fully unless we first love God.  Life is full of odd situations that do not lend themselves to rules, but if we first love God then we will have an easier time of it, loving God and one another now and forevermore. 

April 6, 2019 Sermon

Last week we remembered the Russian Orthodox Bishop and Saint Innocent of Alaska.  I figure since we are on a role let’s keep going with the Russians and so tonight we remember Tikhon, who was also a Russian Orthodox Bishop and Saint.  His day is actually tomorrow although in the Orthodox Church it was yesterday so we can split the difference.  In all honesty I was thinking of skipping him because this is a lot of Russians in a two week period, but he has a number of local connections, so he is probably worth recalling.

         If you were here last week you may recall that Saint Innocent was Bishop of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska.  Well by happy coincidence so was Tikhon, but we will get to that in a minute.  Tikhon was born on January 31st, 1865 in the area of Toropets in Russia, which is west of Moscow and south of St. Petersburg.  As a bit of trivia he was born on the same day that Congress passed the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States.  And one more thing before proceeding, I should put the same caveat in effect as I did last week that I am going to butcher a lot of Russian names before I am done.  Tikhon’s given name was not Tikhon but was Vasily Ivanovich Bellavin.  In 1878 he went off to seminary in Pskov (which is near Estonia) and after that he went on to St. Petersburg Theological Academy from which he graduated in 1888.  Interestingly, he did not get ordained at this time but instead became an instructor of Moral and Dogmatic Theology at the seminary in Pskov.  It would not be until 1891 that he took a monastic vow and as part of this new life he got a new name, that of Tikhon which he did to honor the 18th century Russian saint, Tikhon of Zadonsk who was known for being a bishop and for his spiritual writings.  If you want a sample of those writings (and why wouldn’t you) here is a little blurb that I kind of liked:


"Try to know yourself, your own wickedness. Think on the greatness of God and your wretchedness. Meditate on the suffering of Christ, the magnitude of Whose love and suffering surpass our understanding. Ascribe the good that you do to God alone. Do not think about the sin of a brother but about what in him is better than in yourself .... Flee from glory, honors and praise, but if this is impossible, be sorry that such is your lot. Be benevolent to people of low origin. Be freely and willingly obedient not only to those above you but to those below .... The lowlier we are in spirit, the better we know ourselves, and without humility we cannot see God”


Not bad stuff, but enough of that Tikhon and back to our Tikhon.  He rose up through the ranks pretty fast being appointed Bishop of Lublin in 1897.  Lublin is in modern day Eastern Poland.  He only stayed in that position for a year before being appointed Bishop of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska on September 14, 1898.  When we last visited this Bishopric it was part of Russia, but now with Tikhon it is part of the United States.  While it was called the Diocese of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska in practicality it covered the entirety of North America.  And so Tikhon found himself taking care of various Orthodox emigrant communities in the United States especially around New York, Chicago and the steel making regions of Pennsylvania and Ohio.  In this time Tikhon would become a naturalized U.S. citizen.  Recognizing his new role he changed the name of his diocese in 1900 from Diocese of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska to Diocese of the Aleutian Islands and North America.  He raised funds to build a cathedral in New York and even Czar Nicholas II donated some money to this venture.  1900 would also be the year that Tikhon would get his connection to Wisconsin. 

He realized that there was a tremendous amount of diversity in American Christendom and so he set about to establish relationships with various denominations.  Enter into this a former priest at St. Matthias in Waukesha by the name of Reginald Heber Weller, who had been elected Bishop Coadjutor of the Diocese of Fond du Lac.  In a show of ecumenism Tikhon came and in one of the more famous and somewhat scandalous actions a photograph was taken of his consecration.  This photograph was and is somewhat disparagingly referred to as the Fond du Lac circus (and there is a copy of it at the end of your bulletin – Tikhon is on the far right of the photo).  The reason this photograph was so derided is that all of the bishops present were pretty gussied up wearing things like copes and mitres.  In those days many in the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America were pretty protestant.  So a lot of the dress up that we take for granted was scandalous in those days to many…but back to Tikhon.  He would stay in the United States until 1907 when he returned to Russia.  He continued to do Bishop-y type things there and on August 14, 1917 he became metropolitan of Moscow. 

If you remember your history a lot went on in 1917 in Russia.  For example on October 28th of that year the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd on their way to taking over the entire country.  The Bolsheviks as you probably know did not have that old time religion and were very hostile towards anything that competed for loyalty to the party.  A good rule of thumb is that if the ideology you follow describes religion as the opiate of the masses the church is probably going to go through some rough times.  In this time many bishops were exiled, imprisoned or that Bolshevik favorite – shot.  Tikhon somehow survived for a while.  In 1922 when the Bolsheviks did what communists do best and created a mass famine they blamed the church.  In 1922 he was placed under house arrest for protesting the government stealing church property.  In 1923 the Soviets set up their own church council wherein they deposed Tikhon and decreed that he was "henceforth a simple citizen—Vasily Bellavin.”  The Russian Church never recognized this action.  In 1924 Tikhon fell ill and died on April 5, 1925.  An interesting footnote to end this.  St Tikhon's relics were believed lost, but on 19 February 1992 his coffin was found in a hidden crypt in the Donskoy Monastery (which is in Moscow).  A few days later the coffin was opened and his body was discovered to be almost entirely incorrupt.  This means his body had not decayed in the normal way unlike Lenin who had to be pickled to keep his radiant glow.  

         There is a curse that is attributed to the Chinese, but is probably a British invention, which says “May you live in interesting times.”   Tikhon seemed to have been cursed with this.  Perhaps his greatest witness may have been that he remained human in a very inhumane time.  The church for which he had worked his entire life was suddenly labeled as an enemy of the people and he had to live into that new reality.  The church has been attacked in the past and will be attacked in the future and the best that we can do is to remain Christian to follow the witness of Christ and the witness of those like Tikhon who continued to do what he was called to despite the madness going on around him.  When you can be jailed for protesting theft, you know the world has truly turned upside down.  A definition of evil is that up is down, down is up, left is right and right is left.  When such times as those come, our job is to continue to live in the reality that says up is up and down is down.  In a world gone crazy we are called to witness to the world the life that Christ calls all of us to both today and forevermore. 

March 17, 2019 Sermon

When looking at our readings it would seem that today is something of foreshadowing Sunday, which I don’t think is a real day, but you never know what days congress will designate next.  I mean in 1998 they declared April 6th National Tartan Day.  As a Scot and proud owner of a kilt and some pretty sweet plaid pants I still have to say that this is a bit much; but back to foreshadowing Sunday.  Two of our verses the Old Testament and the Gospel are a little odd or at least a little hard to decipher but if you take a little journey through the commentaries you can see how they might be pointing to what happens on Good Friday and Easter.  Before going forward I should give you a spoiler alert that what I am about to tell you will give away some of Holy Week.

We start with Genesis and Abram (he would later become Abraham but you probably knew that already).  First we hear this, “[God] said to [Abram], ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.’ He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other.”  So just to recap the scene is this: We have a heifer, a goat and a ram all chopped in half, lying on the ground, creating a sort of morbid garden path.  After this we read, “When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.”  So just to reiterate a smoking fire pot and a torch float through three chopped up animals.  And since this is not something that we see very often, unless we are on drugs, the natural question is what does this all mean? 

First, it is probably safe to assume that the smoking pot and torch represent God.  But for the next part we have to look elsewhere in the Bible and that elsewhere is Jeremiah 34:18 where we read, “And the men who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant which they made before me, I will make like the calf which they cut in two and passed between its parts.”  This would seem to infer that in a covenant, if you were the person who passed through the chopped up animals and if you subsequently broke that covenant to which you had agreed in this stroll through chopped up animals then you could expect the same thing to happen to you (i.e. you would be chopped in half).  I have read elsewhere that in this type of covenant it was the weaker party who was generally the one who had to do the stroll past the ram intestines, which seems to make sense because generally the weaker party is not in a place to make such threats to the stronger party.  So let’s now get to a little symbolism time.  If we assume that God is the stronger party (which is a pretty good assumption) we need to ask the question of why God would have voluntarily taken on the roll of the weaker party?  For remember that is God in the form of the smoking pot and torch who passed through the chopped up animals.  Well this is foreshadowing Sunday, so in the case of the smoking pot and chopped up heifers, we see that the stronger party has agreed to take on the punishment of the weaker party; that is if the weaker party breaks the covenant then the stronger party will get the punishment.  I assume that this is all clear by now but just in case.  We believe that Jesus, the Son of God, died for our sins.  We sinned but God took the punishment.  So in this act way back in Genesis God is agreeing to the rules that will be in effect with the life of Jesus of Nazareth.  God has agreed to take the punishment that we deserve for our sins. 

         Okay so now onto part two of foreshadowing Sunday, which comes from the Gospel of Luke.  Jesus after pointing out how Jerusalem loves to kill prophets states, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”  So for this one I had to do a little bit of barnyard research having no real experience with hens except when they went to be processed at the Foster Farms kill plant in Livingston, California.  And here is what I learned.  According to N.T. Wright, “There are stories that after a farmyard fire, those cleaning up have found a dead hen, scorched and blackened – with live chicks sheltering under her wings.  She has quite literally given her life to save them.”  So this one I would imagine takes a little less explanation – hens give their life to save their chicks, Jesus gave his life to save us.  Jesus is telling the Pharisees what the plan is, the plan that appears to have been first foreshadowed in the covenant with Abram back in Genesis. 

So now that we are done with this explanation of just what was going on in our readings we might be wondering so what.  In some ways we have kind of been told something that we already knew.  And I would agree but the thing is sometimes it is worth reflecting on the things that we already know because when things grow too common we often lose the wonder and excitement in them.  It is sort of like the electricity in our house.  We tend to take it for granted except when it goes out.  When it comes back on we tend to be genuinely excited about it because we have seen (or actually not seen) what life looks like without it.  And so there are times where it can be useful to do sort of a reset and look at what God has done through fresh eyes. 

         The German Romantic poet Heinrich Heine is reported to have said on his deathbed, “Of course God will forgive me, that’s his job.”  I don’t want to be to hard on old Heinrich but I think he displays a mentality that all of us run the risk of displaying.  And that mentality is not just one of simple ingratitude, but of entitlement; the belief that the death and resurrection of Jesus was something that was owed to us because we are just so awesome.  But let’s go back to Abram.  God made a covenant and then willingly took on the role of the lessor party.  In Jesus’ example it is the strong hen who defends the weak chicks.   In none of these examples is humanity the strong party, the party that has earned what God has done.  God has come to save us of his own freewill.  God was willing to suffer to save us from ourselves.  I think to be a Christian we need both an understanding of our sinful nature and an understanding of the lengths God went through to save us from that sin.  It is only in this that we can have the feelings of joy and gratitude in understanding what happens on Easter.  The same sort of joy and gratitude we experience when the power comes back on.  And part of the gratitude in the power coming back on is the realization of all the things that we could not do without it. 

         The thankfulness that we should have on foreshadowing Sunday should be the result of realizing that we are not capable of achieving our own salvation and it is only through God’s love that we can do any of it.  The author A.J. Jacobs recently came out with a book entitled, Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey.  The premise of the book is that the author, who really likes coffee, sets out to thank all of the people who make his morning cup of coffee possible.  From the book jacket we read that he, “discovers that his coffee—and every other item in our lives—would not be possible without hundreds of people we usually take for granted: farmers, chemists, artists, presidents, truckers, mechanics, biologists, miners, smugglers, and goatherds.”  If this guy can go to such lengths of gratitude for a cup of coffee, what should we do for the creator of the universe who desired communion with us so much that he suffered and died to achieve it?  That is something to contemplate this Lent so that we may be truly ready for Easter and be God’s own both now and forevermore.