glory of god

glory of god

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Walking on Water: A Sermon on Fear, Racism, and the Hand of Christ

The past several weeks, for me, have been filled with adventure—some planned and some less so. The biggest part of the adventure was my first-ever cruise, a 7-day journey traveling from England to Norway and back. It was wonderful, gliding into the Norwegian fjords at sunrise, standing out on my balcony sailing past snow-covered mountains —that was spectacular. I don’t know that I have ever been anyplace so beautiful in my life.

Now as some of you know, my mom invited herself on this trip, with the argument—persuasive enough, I guess—that she and her husband Jerry had been on several cruises before while Jeffrey and I hadn’t. So, she told us, she would be a good guide. And, in the main, she probably was. But, she also had this tendency, from time to time, to mention the unmentionable, which if you are on a cruise ship would be what? The Titanic. Which, as it happens, launched from the same port that we did. Not a happy coincidence if you ask me! Even at dinner, with other people at the table—since you often have to share, she brought up the Titanic. When the water starts getting choppy, things start swaying a bit... it’s probably not the best topic of conversation.

I understand that once, on a cruise to Alaska with friends, as water was crashing over the sides of the ship and it was kind of lop-sided, so much so that they had to drain the pool because it was spilling water everywhere, she actually said, “I wonder if this is what it was like on the Titanic.” Her friend Morrie, who was more than a little on edge to start with, just about had a nervous breakdown. Thankfully, for us, in July, there were no icebergs between England and the Norwegian fjords. Though, it did get rough as we entered the North Sea on approach to Scandinavia, with white caps on the waves and darkening skies. One night I wondered if the swaying was from the ship or my having drunk too many Manhattans. The feeling was much the same.

It was, perhaps, a lot like the waves and storms experienced by Jesus’ disciples out on the sea in today’s evocative gospel reading. Only they were on a small little boat, easily tossed, while we were more safe on a large ocean-liner. And what’s interesting to notice in this story is how Jesus actually sent the disciples out on the boat by themselves. A better translation might even be that Jesus forced or compelled them to get into the boat. Which kind of makes me wonder if maybe, for a time, he just a needed a little space to himself—a mutual “time out.” In the gospel, this follows directly on the feeding of the multitudes with a few loaves of bread and two fish. After that chaos, maybe Jesus was just done with people for a while, with the crowds, and with even his own friends. So, he sends them far away, out on a boat, while he climbs a mountain to pray. Water and mountains, it’s a lot like the Norwegian fjords, as it happens.

I remember about 11 years ago, teaching confirmation class at another parish, and the young boys, especially, were inquisitive about this story and whether it was all really possible—Jesus walking on water, even Peter walking on water for a time. After all, there’s nothing that excites young boys like the possibility or hope of having super powers. One boy, in particular, said that if he were Jesus he’d be using his superpowers all the time and not for boring things, either, like multiplying bread and fish. I had to explain, unfortunately, that the point of Jesus’ miracles is not so much to do cool things (though that might be a side benefit). Rather, they are there to tell us something about God, about ourselves, and about God’s love and care for us.

So, then, what does this story tell us? Well, first, one rather obvious thing to notice is that the miracle happens on the water, during a storm. In the Bible, in both the Old Testament and here in the New, the sea is a place of mystery, of chaos and danger, even the home of monsters, which God alone has the power to control. In the biblical mindset only God would have the ability to walk on the waves, going ahead of God’s people to bring them to safety—whether those people are the 12 tribes of Israel escaping slavery in Egypt and crossing the Red Sea, or here today, the 12 disciples rocked by waves.

Second, it’s interesting that Jesus says to the disciples as he walks to them, “Take heart; It is I; do not be afraid.” We often read in the Bible, when something extraordinary happens or is about to happen, that a divine messenger will say “do not be afraid.” As many as 70 times angels and prophets, Jesus and God himself say “do not be afraid.” To Abraham and Hagar, Joseph and Moses, David and Solomon. Also to Joseph and Mary, to the shepherds keeping watch in their fields, to the disciples on the Transfiguration mountaintop which we heard about last week, and finally to the bewildered and grieving women at the empty tomb, the greeting is always the same: “Do not be afraid.” Know that God is doing something amazing for you and for the world.

Then, perhaps even more significantly Jesus also says, “It is I.” But in the original Greek it is closer to: “Take heart: I AM; have no fear,” using the same words God used in the burning bush to reveal the divine name to Moses so long before, calling himself “I AM.”  As on the Transfiguration mountaintop, here too on the stormy sea Jesus reveals himself to be one with God—one in power, one in identity, one in meaning and purpose—an extension of God in human life. It is the revelation and the reminder that God is not locked up in the heavens above, far away, but alive, among us and even in us. We can reach out our hands to touch him, and he can pull us up when we stumble or sink.

Which, of course, leads us to Peter’s attempt to walk on water himself. There seems to have been something special, if rather impulsive, about our friend Peter. He had these fantastic moments, glimpses of faith, which impress even Jesus. But, alas, they invariably fade and he ends up saying or doing really stupid things, and then sinking into the deep. Of course, Peter’s a lot like us. Like him, sometimes, our faith is clear and strong. But then, there are those other times…. And like Peter, when we doubt, often we too say and do stupid things. We engage in wars, we believe that there’s not enough land, or love, or even enough God to go around. We try to horde everything we can to ourselves, and like Peter, weighed down, we, too, start to sink into the seas and deeps of our own lives.

This weekend’s appalling, racist, white supremacist march in Virginia is, I am convinced, a stark and powerful manifestation and revelation of this very belief, wrong as it is, that there isn’t enough—there isn’t enough wealth, there isn’t enough prosperity, and there isn’t even enough life to go around. And so, as a result, many, many lives are little or no consequence—especially the lives of people who are African American or Mexican American, or Jewish or Muslim American, gay American, or anything that does not fit into a narrow and exclusive definition of “White America,” which they seek to “take back.”

So, what do they do? They take out their torches, their Confederate and Nazi flags, and try to hoard what they can for themselves, chanting “Blood and soil” and “You will not replace us.” They took one life and injured many more, driving a car into the crowd and engaging in fist fights. Sadly, the driver of the vehicle was just 22. Already at that age he was infected with hate. If that isn’t a manifestation of sinking in the muck and mire of human greed, hatred, sin, I don’t know what is. It is painfully clear that our nation and its people are being rocked by waves and storms, much like the disciples out in their boat—all the while looking, desperately, for a savior.

For some, unfortunately, that savior is exclusion, repression, violence, racism, and hatred. That savior carries a torch and wears a swastika, or romantically recalls the “good old days” of “honor and glory,” when some Americans kept others in chains.

Thankfully, for others, the savior we seek is love and understanding. And for those of us here this morning, and in churches across the nation and world, the Savior we seek is love and understanding embodied in Jesus Christ.

As a Christian, as a disciple and follower and friend of Jesus, I simply can’t imagine anything further from his life and teaching than the displays of racism and hatred that have so infected and infested our nation and world. As our Bishop Alan Gates, said: “the hatred behind Saturday's gathering in Charlottesville of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other purveyors of bigotry… is equally un-American and un-Christian.” Waves and storms, sometimes even hurricanes and icebergs, threaten to sink us.  

But, when we have faith—when we reach out and grasp Jesus’ hand, when we grasp God’s hand and when we let go of all that weighs us down, especially jealousies and fears, racism, hatreds, and the vain hope for power and prestige and privilege, especially when they come at the expense of others—well, then, we inevitably find that once again we are able to walk, toward Christ and toward abundant life. We find that we are full of the mighty power of God—not a superpower, like Superman, Spiderman, or Wonder Woman—but a real power, a life-giving, world-transforming power rooted and nourished in love.

Amidst all of the politicians I heard yesterday, speaking against racism and hatred, I thought two stood out. One was Utah’s Republican senator Orrin Hatch, who said: "Their tiki torches may be fueled by citronella but their ideas are fueled by hate, and have no place in civil society. We should call evil by its name. My brother didn't give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home." The other was former President Obama, who powerfully shared the words of Nelson Mandela. Mandela knew and experienced the full power of racism, but he—better than almost anyone--also knew that we are not powerless to overcome it. He said: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

As it happens, that’s exactly what Jesus, the human embodiment of love and compassion, the human embodiment of God—the great I AM—teaches us as well. He teaches us that in God there is neither Jew nor Greek, as Paul reminds us in our epistle reading this morning. He teaches us that there is no room for hate or exclusion in God’s kingdom. He teaches us that left to our own devices, desires, and narrow interests, we will undoubtedly sink beneath the waves of the world. But with him, through him, in him, we can and will rise.

So, now, today, in the midst of this chaotic, storm-tossed, and ever challenging life, I invite you, in fact I urge you, to reach out and grasp the hand that is seeking to draw you up. Grasp the hand that will keep you afloat, and will fill you, and us all, with the ability to love, and heal, and transform life—whoever we are, where ever we are, whatever our race or background. The events of the past days tell us that our nation and the world need us. They need us to be filled with the transformational, life-giving power of God, now more than ever. 
Do not be afraid. Reach out. Rise. Walk. Live.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Summer Jobs, Independence Day, and Following Christ: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

I had originally intended to preach this morning on our first reading from Genesis, with the near sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham. Last week I preached on Isaac’s older half-brother Ishmael, whom Abraham sacrificed in a way by sending him and his mother Hagar out to try to survive in the wilderness. It seemed like a good pairing, and I haven’t preached on that passage since 2011 (you can find the previous sermon here). But something about today’s gospel reading coming just before the Fourth of July called out to me. Before we get there, though, I want to reflect for a moment on summer, and in particular summer jobs.

When I was in high school, my first job was working at the local Dairy Queen, which seems appropriate to think about on a hot summer day. In Minnesota, Dairy Queens are ubiquitous. Just about every town has one, and where I grew up it was a Dairy Queen Brazier restaurant—like Wendy’s or McDonald's—there were tables to sit at and we served hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken and fish, French fries, even soup, in addition to the Blizzards, Dilly Bars, and Peanut Buster Parfaits.

The hours were long, sometimes working until 2:00 a.m. And it was messy—mopping the floors took hours, cleaning up melted soft serve, chocolate sauce, M&Ms and Oreos ground into the floor. I always thought that working for Dairy Queen was harder than other fast food places because you had to know how to make everything—every crazy Blizzard combination, ice cream cakes, buster bars, and all the food. And on hot days, like today, sometimes there would be lines out the door, in addition to 10 to 15 cars in the drive through.

Once, I was working the drive-through—not at the register or the window, but behind the scenes making orders. And I had made an ice cream cone and was rushing to bring it to the window, only the floor was really wet, so I slipped and went down belly first, hydroplaning about 20 feet across the floor. I didn’t drop the cone, but I crushed it and had to get up and start all over again.

I stayed with that job well into college, going back and working those long hours in the summers. But the summer after my junior year I was just tired of it, and wanted to do something a little more “meaningful” than making Blizzards and dilly bars. So, I checked the want ads in the newspaper and was hired by MPIRG—the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group.  There are PIRGs all over the country—here it’s called MassPIRG and you often encounter students with clipboards on street corners in Boston and Cambridge wanting to talk about various issues for the public good. In my case, our focus was on environmental justice and renewable clean energy—like solar and wind energy.

Only, we didn’t stand around on busy streets, accosting passers by. Instead, we were driven out to various neighborhoods to knock on doors and discuss energy issues. First in pairs, and then singly. The goal was to secure donations to support MPIRGs research and lobbing efforts. While the hours were better than working at Dairy Queen, we weren’t there until 2:00 a.m., the work itself was tough. Not in the sense of slipping on a mess of melted ice cream and chocolate or having to mop for hours, but finding the inner strength and courage to knock on doors, discuss political issues, and ask for donations.

Suffice it to say, I didn’t do very well. In fact, I think I only lasted in that job for a week and a half, maybe two at the most. I was never even paid. One day the thought of going back just made me sick, so I quit. And, I went back to the Dairy Queen for one more summer.

24 years on, though, I still remember some of my MPIRG door-knocking encounters. For example, I noticed that people tended to be more generous and more interested in less affluent neighborhoods. They presumably had less income or resources to work with, but somehow they seemed to care more. Rich neighborhoods were much tougher.

In one very wealthy neighborhood, I remember knocking on a door and giving my spiel and the woman who answered said that she wasn’t interested in supporting our cause—in fact, as I recall she said that her husband was a vice president for the local nuclear power company, in sharp contradiction with our renewable clean energy mandate. Can you say, “Awkward!”

Even so, she said that she noticed through the window as I knocked on her neighbors’ doors that I was working hard on a hot summer evening, so she offered me a cold can of pop—that’s soda or tonic to most of you. Dr. Pepper it was, I think. In my week or two of door-to-door canvassing, she was the only person to offer me a drink. I’ve never forgotten that kindness and generosity, despite our significant disagreement on energy policy.

Obviously, this encounter comes to mind after hearing Jesus say in today’s gospel: “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” That’s because, for Jesus, hospitality was everything. He didn’t much care if you agreed with him on matters of faith and doctrine—in fact he performed miracles for all kinds of people with all kinds of beliefs—but he did care about how people were welcomed and treated.

Jesus was a regular dinner guest (he never invited people to his own house for dinner so far as we know), at the homes of people who agreed with him and others who didn’t. So he had first-hand experience of being treated well and poorly. He regularly ate with those who were considered “sinners”—for whatever reason—that didn’t seem to matter to him in the least. What did matter was how God was made known, across differences in belief and lifestyle, in the breaking of the bread, in hospitality, in crossing boundaries and barriers, and then in breaking those borders and barriers down.

As we approach our Fourth of July Independence Day celebrations this week, boundaries, borders, and barriers are much on our minds as well. And also, who and if and how we can or will welcome those who may come to our shores, to say nothing of treating well neighbors already here. It is a time when our nation’s most deeply held and cherished values—values that are reflected in Jesus’ teaching this morning—are increasingly vulnerable, and even under attack in some quarters.

Sexist tweets. A rollback of civil rights protections. Immigration bans. Threats to cut Medicaid. These are the realities we face this Independence Day. For me, they are sobering realities. Challenging realities. Realities very far from what I understand to be the very best of who we are, and who we are called to be—as Americans, as humans, and most definitely for us here in church, as Christians and followers of Jesus.

So what do we do? How do we reclaim our values? How do we bring our nation back to its moral center? How do we follow Christ in this challenging time?

Well, I think we start by actually following Christ. This is not to say that everyone in the nation has to become Christian. Far from it. But, for those of us who are disciples of Jesus, it is time for us to take up our crosses and truly follow him—as he told us to do in last week’s gospel passage—across the boundaries and the borders of the world and of our lives. It is time to offer that cup of cold water to any who come to us, thirsting for life, thirsting for freedom, thirsting for hope. As disciples of Jesus, it is time for us to speak up and speak out against sexism, and against racism, and against xenophobia. It is time to challenge narrow world views—not only with arguments, but with love and with life. It is time to recognize that our own best interests—as individuals, as families, as communities, and as a nation—will only be realized when our neighbors’ best interests are realized as well.

These were the rules of Jesus’ life. And as his disciples, as his friends, they are meant to be the rules of our lives as well. Now, I know that we may think that sure, we can do this hard work, we can speak out against sexism and racism, but what difference will it make in Washington or New York or wherever decisions are made? Well, that’s where our Christian faith comes in as well. Because through that faith we know that the movement we are part of began with just 12 disciples, and as one commentary I read for today reflected “even our smallest acts of kindness and generosity reverberate with cosmic significance,” like that Dr. Pepper offered me so long ago. It broke down a barrier and helped humanity to flourish. If we can do the same, our lives will be richer, and our nation—built on the hopes and dreams of people of every color, religion, language and background—will be all the more whole.

Last week I was in New York City for a couple days. On that trip I spent a lot of time in cabs, talking with drivers who came to this country from all over the world, making a home here and in that city which includes the whole world. For me, the archetypal image of New York, and really of the United States, is the Statue of Liberty. At her base is printed the famous poem—“The New Colossus”—by the Jewish American poet Emma Lazarus. It seems appropriate to hear it again at this moment as we ready ourselves for our Fourth of July celebrations and reflect on what it means to be American in this land of freedom, liberty, promise, and hope:

“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Jesus said: “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple-- truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

The call is much the same. The time is now. The moment and opportunity are ours.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD

Monday, June 5, 2017

Where is God? A Sermon for Pentecost

As we gather to celebrate Pentecost today, I find myself asking lots of questions: the most important of which is probably, “What is God up to in this crazy, messed up, broken world of ours?” What is God the Holy Spirit up to, with so much pain and division, discord, disagreement and even hatred among people, among God’s beloved, cherished, holy people? You may well be asking these same questions, too. What is God up to? Because it certainly doesn’t make sense.

Yesterday’s horrific news from London—a van running into a crowd of people at 50 miles per hour, and then people stabbed on London Bridge and elsewhere in the city—only reinforces how profoundly broken and discordant human life is today. And, of course, that’s just the latest example. There are many places that are far, far worse, in which regular violence is an expected reality of life. Where is God today, in this mess? That’s what I am wondering. That’s what I want to know. And, I think, that’s what the world wants and needs to know. Where is God when we need him, where is God when we need her?

Sometimes, especially lately, it seems that all we hear is a cacophony of voices and languages, much like that first Pentecost day. Only in that case, we read that although the languages spoken were many and varied, they miraculously could be understood. Today, unfortunately, understanding is a lot harder to come by. Perhaps that’s because we prefer to listen only the voices in our own heads—or the voices on our favorite cable news station—and so we don’t hear, and we certainly don’t understand voices and languages that differ from ours.

But even that can’t be the whole answer. It can’t explain why life is treated so expendably. It can’t explain why hatred is so rife, or what God is doing to transform the world from this mess into something that more closely resembles the Kingdom of Peace and Justice, the Kingdom of wholeness and abundant life that Jesus envisioned and taught us about.

Thankfully, despite all the discord and confusion, our scripture readings for today can probably help, if we consider them carefully. First, let’s recall the powerful reading from the Acts of the Apostles. In it we heard: “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a rush of violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit ....”

Like the rush of a violent wind. Not hesitantly or wimpy. But forcefully. Revealing the power of the God. You may know that although we focus on the gift of the Holy Spirit especially at Pentecost, we find references to the Spirit throughout scripture–in both the Old and New Testaments. Interestingly, while in the church we have often used a gender neutral pronoun (it) or male pronouns (he, him), for the Holy Spirit, in the Old Testament and in the Hebrew Tradition, the Spirit is called Sophia, and referred to using feminine pronouns—she and her.

This is the same Spirit who enlivens and inspires the prophets, speaking through them to call God’s people to work for justice and peace. This is the Spirit who descends on Jesus in his baptism and drives him into the wilderness. And, of course, the Spirit blows in on the disciples at Pentecost. In fact, the Spirit doesn’t just blow in on them. The Spirit fills them, scripture tells us.

The second source for encouragement and understanding in our complex world situation is the gospel reading from John. In terms of the timeline, this gospel passage comes earlier. It actually takes place on Easter day. But we are hearing it again for its description of Jesus sharing the Spirit with his friends. What’s especially interesting is that these friends of Jesus are doing what a lot of us would like to do when our hearts and souls are filled with fear. They are in a locked room. They are trying to stay safe in a society that to them feels increasingly dangerous.

In their case, so long ago, they were worried that they might be arrested and crucified like Jesus. In our case, we might want to lock ourselves in out of fear of terrorism and violence. We may convince ourselves that it isn’t safe to go outside, to walk city streets, to take trips to London, Paris, Munich, or Stockholm. We may even start to believe that we can’t trust the people around us. Like the disciples, fear often grips us as well.

I remember after both 9/11 and the Boston Marathon Bombing I was uneasy about going out. On 9/11, I was working in Boston for Episcopal City Mission at the diocesan offices and I worried about riding the subway home from work downtown to Jamaica Plain, especially since two of the planes came from here. Once I was home, I didn’t want to leave the house again. I felt the same following the Marathon Bombing. Not the day of the attack so much, but the Thursday evening and Friday after, when the brothers reappeared in Watertown and the younger was at large.

Do you remember that bizarre day, when large swaths of the of Boston area were in lockdown? Quincy wasn’t, so we were able to go out for lunch and a walk, but I was nervous doing so. It was eerily quiet, with just the sound of sirens ringing through the air. Tanks rolled through city streets and SWAT teams knocked on doors in Boston, Cambridge, and Watertown, until the younger brother was found in a man’s boat. Thinking of it again, 4 years later, makes me a little uneasy. I just wanted to be home, with the door locked. I have no doubt that today people all over the world feel much the same.

But scripture tells us that it is precisely into those same locked rooms, and into our own locked and fearful hearts, that the Holy Spirit breaks in, breathing life and fire, power, strength, and courage into human souls. What’s more, and this is the truly challenging part, we read that from their locked rooms and from their locked hearts the disciples, the friends of Jesus, were in fact sent out. Do you notice how Jesus says, “’Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

They receive the Holy Spirit and then they are sent out, maybe even driven out, much like Jesus was driven out by the Spirit into the wilderness following his baptism, to confront demons and temptations, and to contend with fear, uncertainty and a world of pain and loss. On Pentecost the disciples were sent out into wildernesses as well. They were sent out to be the Body of Christ, to be Christ’s presence, to be God’s presence—God’s living, breathing, loving presence—in a wilderness world that desperately needed them.

And, by now, you’ve figured out where I am going with this. We—who have likewise been filled with the Holy Spirit—are being sent out as well. God’s Spirit empowers us to unlock our doors—whether to our homes, our church, or our hearts—so that we can let God in, and so that we can go out, like the first disciples, to be the Body of Christ, to be Christ’s presence, to be God’s living, breathing, and loving presence, in a wilderness world that desperately needs us.

To return to my opening question, where is God in this crazy, messed up, broken world? God is right here. Right here with us, and in us. Alive in us. Propelling us forward, to confront evil. Propelling us onward, to transform cold and hardened hearts. God is right here, burning in us, giving us the power to heal and hope, to love and make whole.

On Pentecost, God’s power becomes our power. On Pentecost God’s life becomes our life. And on Pentecost God’s love becomes our love. It’s not the end of an ancient story, typing up the loose ends of Jesus’ life long ago. Rather, it is the beginning of an ever new story, and ever new reality—inspired by the life of Christ, in fact continuing his life, in new ways and in new places. Pentecost is the story and reality of God’s presence in and with and for the world now and today. It is nothing less than God’s Spirit, alive in us, that gives us the power and strength and courage we need to take on this messed up, broken, painful reality that we know, and transform it into something better, something whole, something alive. Because if we don’t do it, who will?

Where is God? God is right here. Can you feel him? Can you feel her? Alive in you, burning in your heart, taking hold of your soul? “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a rush of violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit ....”

To God be the glory: Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD

Thursday, April 20, 2017

On Resurrection, Star Wars, and Special Effects: A Sermon for Easter Morning

Those who are regular parishioners at Emmanuel Church, and those who visit us often for big festival days—like Easter and Christmas—know that I am a major Star Wars fan. They know because I talk about it lots. In fact, I think some parishioners even place bets on whether (or how often) I will mention Star Wars in my holiday sermons. I don’t do it every Sunday, just so you know, but holidays somehow bring out my youthful enthusiasm. So, if you made such a bet this year, you definitely won. And since the next movie—The Last Jedi—is coming out at Christmastime this year, you can place your bets early that I won’t be able to restrain myself, and will be talking about it again then. Almost certainly

Well, the reason I mention Star Wars this morning—beyond the fact that an exciting new trailer was released on Friday, along with some behind the scenes photos of the filming, including some of our beloved late Princess Leia—besides all that, is because this morning’s Easter gospel passage from St. Matthew sounds to me like it comes directly out of a George Lucas script, with dramatic special effects created by Industrial Light and Magic: a great earthquake; the appearance of an angel, as bright as lightning; guards shaking and becoming like dead men; and the women looking on in stunned awe and wonder.

It’s a scene that would fit in any contemporary sci fi movie. And yet, as reported in the gospel, it is a story nearly 2,000 years old. So, either the author, Matthew the evangelist, had a spectacular imagination—even without the aid of movie special effects—or he was describing in the only way he could the phenomenal experience at the tomb on Easter morning. Personally, I tend to think it was the latter. It wasn’t just his especially vivid imagination at work here. Resurrection wasn’t something that someone just made up a long time ago and described in dramatic fashion. Rather, instead, it was a new, powerful, and truly earth-shaking kind of reality that many, many friends of Jesus, like the women there at the tomb, experienced as really real, even if the whole story was unbelievable and even preposterous to others.

Unfortunately, though, sometimes as time passes we can get caught up or tripped up in the fantastic language and imagery of spectacle, and we wonder if it could possibly be true—in the same way that we easily dismiss a science fiction movie as thrilling to watch, but very far from the reality we know. For example, I’ve never seen any dazzling, lightning bright angels, any more than I’ve actually seen Darth Vader. And I definitely haven’t seen my loved ones come back to life, much as I miss them and want to have them here with me again. So, then this Easter magic, is it really real, or is it a fanciful dream, or is it maybe just an impossible wish?

Obviously, the resurrection of Jesus is not something that we can prove in an empirical or scientific way. The first Easter was much too long ago for that. And besides, you can’t really prove matters of faith anyway—because they are just that, matters of faith. What’s more, all four gospels describe the resurrection somewhat differently, if you set them side by side—Matthew’s version is by far the most dramatic, with the earthquake and angel appearing like lightning—but they each seek to put into words that are ultimately too small and limited an experience, a reality, that probably was and is beyond words or adequate explanation.

You may have noticed that this time of year there are always TV specials that seek to prove or disprove that something in the Bible happened. I even recently read an article in the British newspaper the Guardian which dealt with whether Jesus was even a real person—apparently 40% of the adult British population question whether Jesus really lived. Despite this skepticism, the overwhelming evidence is that Jesus was real—which is not news to any of us here this morning. Though, sometimes the finer details his life can be elusive.

In any case, while all of these investigations can most definitely be interesting, I think they tend to miss the greater point in the biblical narrative. They get so bogged down in whether and how something was possible that they fail to recognize that the whole purpose of such stories is to reflect upon the belief that God was and is active in the world, and in particular that God was and is active in the lives of ordinary people, in the lives of people just like us.

What we know, beyond the earthquake, the lightning bright angel, and the divine special effects, is that belief in the resurrection, belief in the life-changing and even world-changing miracle of Easter has encouraged, sustained, and propelled people of faith for 2000 years—from the women at the tomb early on the first Easter morning, all the way to us today. Comfort and encouragement, empowerment and liberation, hope and new life are all the hallmarks of this fantastic day.
What the miracle of Easter tells us is that the God we believe in is more powerful than death. The miracle of Easter tells us that the God we believe in can and will and does overcome evil with new and abundant life. The miracle of Easter tells us that there is nothing more powerful than the love and life of God—not the cross, not the mightiest empire on earth, not the power of sin, not our own wayward desires and failings. Nothing. What’s more, this mighty, powerful resurrection is not something that God did once for Jesus a long time ago, while the rest of us wait and wait and wait. If it were just that, it wouldn’t have much meaning at all.

No, what happened on that first Easter morning was really just the beginning. It was the opening chapter, or maybe the first scene, in a powerful, dynamic, living story—a living story that God continues to write and direct, sometimes without so many special effects, but in real human lives, in lives just like ours. Jesus’ resurrection was just the beginning of a new age of life and love, of liberation and empowerment. But, like the women at the tomb, it is up to us to share the good news of this resurrection. It is up to us to witness to its power and earth-shaking truth. It is even up to us to make resurrection real.

We do that, we make resurrection real, by rising ourselves. By rising from the stone-cold tombs that we create and too often call home. We make resurrection real by living—fully, abundantly, and freely. We make resurrection real by giving ourselves over to God’s love: a love so great that it was willing to die for us, even as we, like Jesus, share God’s love in full measure. We make resurrection real by being, by truly being, the living and breathing Body of Christ in a world that desperately needs us, in a world that desperately needs the life-shaking, world-shaking, liberating, empowering hope of resurrection faith now more than ever. We make resurrection real by knowing and testifying to the fact that nothing can separate us from the love of God—no government, no cross, no illness, no poverty, no evil, no death. Nothing.

That’s what resurrection meant 2000 years ago, on that first Easter morning, and it’s what it means even still, even now, even today. The special effects—earthquakes and dazzling, lightning bright angels—are dramatic, a nice touch to make us sit up and take notice. But they are not the real thing. The real thing is life. New life. Abundant life. Liberated life. The real thing is your life. It’s my life. It’s Jesus’ life. Life lived in and with God.

Be that life today. Make Easter real today. Make resurrection real.

But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

Let’s join them as they run and shout, with our lives, Alleluia! Christ is risen. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Remembering St. Patrick

Focus on Faith
Published in the Wakefield Daily Item
March 15, 2017

If you had met my grandfather and were to ask him about his ethnic or cultural background, he would have told you that he was Irish, and that his ancestors came from County Cork. What always seemed funny to me, though, is that our last name sounds more English than Irish. After undertaking online genealogical research I discovered that, indeed, our ancestral background is more complicated than Grandpa was aware (or likely would have admitted).

His first ancestors came to the American colonies from England in the late 17th century, landing in Boston and then settling in Connecticut. The Irish ancestors came much later, in the 19th century. A subsequent DNA test confirmed these discoveries, suggesting that Grandpa was likely 65% Irish and 35% English. He died in 1986, so I am saved the difficult task of sharing these shocking discoveries with him. From his current vantage point it likely doesn’t matter nearly as much.

Later this week, on March 17, people of many heritages and backgrounds will be observing St. Patrick’s Day. For one day, we are all a little Irish—whatever facts our family trees or DNA tests may reveal. For some, St. Patrick’s Day is an opportunity to party—to wear green, drink a Guinness or Irish whisky, eat a dinner of corned beef and cabbage, and maybe attend a parade. Sometimes the celebrations of Irish pride can get a little raucous, though all in good fun.

Unfortunately, St. Patrick himself is often left behind in the burst of green exuberance. He was a fascinating figure, the impact of whose life we are still feeling today. Ironically, St. Patrick was not, himself, Irish. He was born on the northwest coast of Britain about the year 390. His grandfather had been a Christian priest and his father was a deacon and an official in the Roman imperial government of Britain. At about the age of 16, Patrick was captured by Irish slave-raiders and brought to Ireland, where he was forced into service as a shepherd. Later he wrote that he deepened in his relationship with God during his enslavement.

After six years of captivity, Patrick escaped. He took an arduous journey by foot to the Irish coast, where he found a ship that took him back to Britain. Once there, he devoted himself to the study of Christianity. Eventually he was ordained as a priest and bishop. A powerful vision led him to return to Ireland, around the year 431—this time as a missionary, rather than as a slave. His new life in Ireland was not easy. His teaching and presence were not always well received. He was a foreigner, without the protection of local kings and chieftains. He spent time in prison and at one point feared execution. In his autobiography he writes that he was criticized by his contemporaries for his lack of learning.

Even so, Patrick’s message of Christian hope led to the conversion of many. Legend suggests that he used local symbols to explain the Christian faith—like the three-leaved shamrock to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. He made his appeal to local kings and through them to their tribes, leading thousands to be baptized. Patrick ordained priests and had churches erected over sites held as sacred by the old pagan religion. Crosses were carved on old druidic pillars. He rededicated sacred wells and springs under the protection of Christian saints. Tradition holds that Patrick died on March 17, 461. Although never canonized by a pope, he was venerated as a saint by the Irish people and local Christian communities soon after his death.

What we know of Patrick’s actual life is far more inspiring than the exuberant parties on his feast day would lead us to believe. He is a saint for the Irish people, of course. But, in reality, he can be admired by people of diverse backgrounds—immigrants in desperate search of better lives in new lands, those whose strong faith sustains them through trials and tribulations, people seeking release from captivity and enslavement of many kinds, and anyone in search of meaning and hope. Patrick’s life and story can be guide and inspiration to us all as we journey through life and draw closer to God, whatever our ethnic or religious background.

So, Happy St. Patrick’s Day—to Grandpa Howie, to you, and all who are or who feel Irish this week. May Patrick’s life inspire you in your own search for meaning, hope, and new life. May he lead you to welcome the stranger with open hearts and open arms. May his life of faith spark your own faith. Most of all, may God bless you. Sláinte!

 © The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD

Sunday, January 22, 2017

On Politics, Prophecy, and Fishing for People: A Sermon Following an Inauguration

So, it may—or it may not—surprise you to know that sometimes, some weeks, I have a hard time figuring out what I should say in my sermons. Sometimes it’s because the readings appointed for the day are rather obscure or obtuse, other times because my life was just too full to focus that week, or sometimes it’s because of world events. This is one of those times. Like many, I am struggling to make sense of the news and changes of past week and what they will mean for us—as Americans, as Christians, and as citizens of the world. For much of the last week (and really since November 9), I tried to keep my head down— focusing on other things, like the church budget, making sure we have candidates in place for our own parish elections, and a rather exuberant and expensive burst online shopping. Retail therapy it’s called.

But, of course, at some point I have to start following the news again. It will probably not come as too much of a surprise to most of you to hear that when it comes to electoral politics, I am a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat. Although it doesn’t exactly show up on the DNA test, it is definitely one of the genes I inherited from my parents. When I was growing up in Minnesota we even had an autographed photograph of Hubert Humphrey our state’s great hero—inscribed to my father.

Of course, I know that here in our congregation are people of every political persuasion. Some, likely, are excited and hopeful about the new administration in Washington, some are uncertain, and others are filled with anxiety and probably fear and even dread. And yet somehow, in some mysterious God-filled way, we are one community, one family, and one Body in Christ. That fact is one of the greatest joys in my life—in all of our diversity of belief and background, each week we come together in love, to be nourished and strengthened by God’s word, by God’s sacraments, and by the people God has placed in our lives—even people with whom we may disagree. It is not an exaggeration to say that my heart grows in love each time I see you—Democrats, Republicans, Socialists, Independents, liberals and conservatives. I am a better, more generous, and more thoughtful person because I know you, because I love you, because you fill my heart—when we agree, when we disagree, and always. 

And so, my hope, at this critical time in our national life, is that we will find a way to be an example for others, a beacon of hope even, for how people can live together and love together through their disagreement. Not because we shy away from discussing important issues, but because we know that what unites us is real, true, and lasting love. Love that is a gift from God. Love that transforms us, from the inside out. And love that sometimes calls us to speak out and speak up, to confront what we see as a deviation from God’s dream and plan for God’s beloved people.

Some 2,700 years ago the Prophet Isaiah wrote: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest…. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.”

It was and still is a powerful message of hope, and it reminds us that people of faith have always looked to the power of God to transform lives and transform the world, in accordance with the principles of justice, peace, and truth. When Isaiah wrote, in the 8th century BC, foreign armies, the Assyrians—from modern day Iraq, Syria, and Turkey—were encroaching on the Kingdom of Judah, where Isaiah lived. He interpreted this as God’s judgment for their lack of faithfulness and commitment to the principles of justice and righteousness. He was particularly critical of princes and judges who neglect to defend and support the poor and oppressed.

In the chapter that follows today’s passage, he writes this: “Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statues, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you make the orphan your prey! What will you do on the day of punishment, in the in the calamity that will come from far away? To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth, so as not to crouch among the prisoners or fall among the slain? For all this his anger has not turned away; his hand is stretched out still…” It’s a heavy warning, a reminder of how we are called to live and how we are called not to live.  

But, even as he wrote that, Isaiah was confident that God’s chosen—the poor, the oppressed, and those who pursue justice and righteousness—would survive and thrive, restored to abundant life in Zion, the holy city. It may take time, but he believed that restoration would come. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined.” He believed it had to, because he believed in God, he believed in a God of justice and righteousness. This belief was his faith, his hope, and his life.  

700 years later, Matthew, the author of the gospel, drew inspiration from Isaiah’s words. In fact, he quoted them exactly, as we heard this morning. When Matthew wrote, it wasn’t the Assyrians who were the great threat, but in the Roman armies, which had flattened Jerusalem. Over 350,000 people were killed in the siege.

The first-century Jewish historian Josephus, who witnessed the siege, described the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in this way: “As the legions charged in, neither persuasion nor threat could check their impetuosity: passion alone was in command… everywhere was slaughter and flight. Most of the victims were peaceful citizens, weak and unarmed, butchered wherever they were caught. Round the Altar the heaps of corpses grew higher and higher, while down the Sanctuary steps poured a river of blood and the bodies of those killed at the top slithered to the bottom.”

It seems very long ago now, nearly 2000 years, but we shouldn’t forget that the gospels were written in the shadow of that horror, which upended and destroyed everything that sacred. People of faith, scattered across the middle east, wondered where they would find hope amid true carnage and oppression under the crushing power of the Roman Empire. Matthew’s answer was in Jesus Christ—a different kind of messiah, who came to power not by commanding armies or with the machinery of war, but instead by inspiring fishermen and carpenters, tax collectors and even prostitutes. It was, Matthew believed, through Jesus and his disciples—as they fished for people, as they broke down barriers, and as they cared for the poor, the sick and disabled—that Isaiah’s vision would come to life.

In other words, Matthew believed that Isaiah’s vision would come to life through a movement—a grass roots movement of ordinary and not especially perfect people, people a lot like us, who were transformed from the inside out by their encounter with the living God, whether that encounter was with Jesus in the flesh by the Galilean Sea as it was for Peter and Andrew, James and John, or for those who came later, sacramentally and spiritually through the Body of Christ, the community that Jesus established as his on-going presence and life in the world. Matthew, so long ago, even in the wake of Rome’s wreckage, believed that this Jesus movement had the power to transform the world.

And you know what, so do I. Some of that transformation may come through the political process, as we vote for candidates who match our values, and then, whether our side wins or loses, as we lobby those who are elected to represent us to stand up for the values of justice and peace. That is important work in a democracy like ours—our elected officials need to hear from us, they need to know that we care about the life-changing decisions that they are called to make. That’s why yesterday’s Women’s Marches, in Washington, here in Boston, and all over the world are so significant, inspiring ordinary people like us to work for what they believe in.  

But even more, the true transformation that we hope for comes in our daily lives and interactions, as we live like Christ lived, as we break down barriers, as we feed the hungry and clothe the naked, as we combat oppression and discrimination whenever and however we encounter it. And most especially and importantly, that transformation will come as we intentionally work to expand our hearts, making room for those whose world views may be different from ours. It’s not always easy, of course. Sometimes it’s really hard. But it is who we are called to be, and how we are called to live—as Christians, as followers of Christ, and as fishers of people.

Friday, Inauguration Day, a cable channel called “Decades” was replaying past presidential Inaugural addresses—from Eisenhower to Obama. Late at night I saw a few of them. They were fascinating. Surprisingly, I was really impressed with the first Nixon inauguration speech. It was really good, even inspirational. Given his later history and the fact that he beat my family’s hero, Hubert Humphrey, I wasn’t expecting that at all. My dad is not looking down on me very happily at the moment—look out for stay bolts of lightning today. Of course, the one that really stands out is Kennedy’s. Whether we were alive yet or not—I was still 12 years away—we all remember his iconic lines: “the Torch is passed to a new generation of Americans,” and “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” It inspired a generation into service.

Less well remembered were his closing sentences. He said: “Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.”

President Kennedy was absolutely correct. God’s work is our own. It is up to us, with God’s help and with God’s blessing, to transform the world, to transform hearts, to bring justice and end oppression, to break down barriers and to fish for people, so that Isaiah’s ancient dream finally and truly becomes reality, through us: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest…. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.” 

Together, as the Body of Christ, as the Jesus movement, as fishers of people, we can make it so.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD