Signs of Spring
SERMON: 6 Easter B 5 6 18
Acts10:44-48; Ps98; 1Jn5:1-6; Jn 15:9-17
There are a lot of signs of spring about us these days. Molly and I came back from Alaska to find the last of the April showers vigorously pouring on the throughway as we drove from Newark Airport to New Paltz Monday, the last day of the month. Then BOOM! Tuesday, May first. Sunshine! Trees budding! Birds chirping! Allergies! Right up to the last day if not the last minute, April showers brought May flowers.
There is another sure sign of spring: boats bobbing in the Hudson because people are fishing. It is as reliable as the sunrise. And it's happening already. I have an offer to go fly fishing with a friend this spring and I am of course looking forward to it. But I have to admit, as you may recall, that I consider any excuse to be around the river, around water generally, worthwhile.
But dedicated fishermen are a special breed. When the fish are running they can hardly bother being distracted by anything else. Once there was a fisherman who was also very devout. He was explaining to his young son about telling the truth and not lying. "Lying is a sin," he told the little boy. "Even when you are talking about fishing it's a sin to lie." He told the boy about how exaggerating the size of the fish caught, or the number, was lying. How it was lying to say you were sick when you were actually going fishing. "What do you think happens to a fisherman who lied about being sick to avoid church and go fishing when he dies?" the father asked the son. "They lie still?" the boy suggested. Yes they do. They lie still just like the people who never tell a lie and just like everyone else. They lie still.
This isn't just true for liars. It is true for all of us, all the sinners. Our imperfections do not define our afterlife. Geologists have established that there is no subterranean land of horrors known as hell. Hell, we have come to believe, is mostly the life led by those whose acts burden them with guilt and regret.
This week I attended a priests' retreat at Mohonk Mountain House and among many topics discussed was forgiveness. Our presenter spoke about how confused people get about forgiveness because it gets tangled up with the idea of repentance. What we were considering at the time is how forgiveness is not contingent on repentance. Forgiveness of another can be more important to us than it is to the one we forgive. This is because without forgiveness we carry the weight of the offense, however slight or great, ourselves. Once we forgive we no longer need be burdened with it.
This business of the joke about lying fishermen, forgiveness and repentance can help us focus on today's readings and the guidance they give us. They can do this because what I've been speaking of so far and what we find in our readings is truth. Remember my favorite line from one of my favorite movies, "A Few Good Men?" Jack Nicholson plays an immoral Marine colonel who bellows at his questioner who has asked for the truth, "You can't handle the truth!" Anyone who has seen that movie would remember that it is the Jack Nicholson character who can't handle the truth, the truth of his own dishonesty, his own ability to even acknowledge the truth, much less live by it.
The truths we are invited to consider and perhaps take on as our own truth are many this week. For starters, in our collect we prayed as though it was fact and one we believed, that God "prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding." We believe God's generosity, goodness, love and mercy flow in our direction continually because we love God, because we attempt to adhere to God's commandments. Yet we also believe God's generosity, goodness, love and mercy flow toward all; we are not special; God loves every single person, the sinner and the relatively sinless, alike.
The next sentence in the collect implies a second truth: we need God to fill our hearts with the love of God so that we can obtain God's promises. We infer that without a love of God we cannot enjoy God's peace, God's salvation, God's eternal company. A further truth in the collect then appears: the reality that God's promises exceed all we can desire.
For a collect that is barely four lines long that's a lot of truth. Before we examine the three readings and the psalm let's consider what we are called to do with these truths. If we are seeking to be faithful followers of God and Jesus, we should behave in ways that manifest these truths in our lives. Otherwise we are like the fisherman who claims to be sick yet goes fishing.
We need to respond appropriately to God's generosity, goodness, love and mercy. And we do that by exhibiting those characteristics ourselves in loving one another and loving our neighbor.
The desire to obtain God's promises-- God's peace, God's salvation, God's eternal company--should be a matter of fact for us. This should matter to us. But how do we demonstrate that these promises are important? By following God's desire, once again, that we love God and love our neighbor.
There is an awkward truth in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles today. The truth we can firmly attest to is that Pentecost isn't for two more weeks. But here we are with the Holy Spirit falling upon those who heard the Word. The Word with a capital W is Jesus, of course, and as Peter described Jesus, he was speaking the Word. The truth that Peter was speaking was that Jesus offered himself to all, not just to those who believed. In those days it was astonishing that the gift of belief and the visitation of the Holy Spirit were available both to Jews and Greeks, the circumcised and the uncircumcised. How do we handle this truth? As Peter did, offering baptism to all who desired it in the name of Jesus.
The truth of our psalm is in the first word and throughout: we are to sing to and of the Lord. We are to do so in thought, word and deed. Read psalm 98 and you will have no doubt.
In our epistle we find the foundational truth of being born again: everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God. That is the truth of the Christian faith and it calls us to love one another as God loves us. Loving God, the epistle states clearly, is obeying God's commandments.
The Gospel truth this Sunday is buried in the last phrase. We don't have to dwell on all the rest; we've heard it today, we've heard it before; we've already covered a lot of it by exploring the previous readings. So let's cut to the chase. Please get out your bulletins and join me in again reading the final sentence of the Gospel assigned for this Sunday: "I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another."
Jesus has been conducting his earthly ministry all this time with one plan in mind: that we might love one another. He's not asking us to be sinless. He knows we're not capable. He's not asking us to be great worship leaders, or perfect parents or exemplary employees, friends and neighbors.
Jesus wants one thing: for us to love one another. It so happens, since we've been paying attention all along, that we appreciate that that is precisely how it is we are to love God: by loving one another. How else would we set out to love God?
For the longest time people thought sacrifice was the way to go. Even though the Bible says clearly that that does not please the Almighty. Isaiah perhaps says it best: "What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams..." Elsewhere Isaiah states, "Is not this the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free...?
This is how we are to love one another, by helping and caring and setting aside our self interest and becoming interested in God's other children rather than ourselves.
These ideas bring us comfort, just as our acts in their fulfillment bring comfort to those we encounter at St. Paul's and elsewhere in our lives. The gifts we have been offered we have accepted. The gifts we have received have transformed our lives. We offer them gladly to others. We are rich beyond measure when we realize and fully live into these truths. Amen
A sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church Poughkeepsie NY May 6, 2018 by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector