A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter

The fourth Sunday of the Easter season has a nickname. It’s sometimes called Good Shepherd Sunday because the Gospel is always taken from John chapter 10, the passage where Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, and the other readings also talk about sheep and shepherds.

Good Shepherd Sunday was a very big deal at Good Shepherd Church, where I used to be the priest, and and I came to realize—if I didn’t already know it—just how powerfully people relate to this image of Jesus.

Our hearts just resonate with the image of a God who walks with us, and cares for us. Who will keep us safe and make sure our needs are met.

That’s why the 23rd psalm is probably the most popular and best known of all the psalms.

“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”

It’s a popular choice for funerals. And that’s what really hit me as I reflected on these readings last week, while I was already immersed in preparing for Horace’s funeral: Our readings today look a lot like a list of readings for a funeral.

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Funeral sermon for Horace Preston Schmidt, Jr.

Today is the day when we lay dear Horace to rest.

We mourn—but also we celebrate, as we give thanks for the life he lived.

We grieve—but also we remember that the faith Horace professed affirms that the death of our mortal body is not the end of life, but a passage to new life, life forever in God. Life is not ended but changed.

I appreciate Linda’s tribute to Horace, her recollections. I’m still a bit of a newcomer, although I first met Horace a number of years ago. He was a friend to many but for me, at least, he wasn’t that easy to get to know. He was in some ways a quiet man, and I was still getting to know him.

But what came through to me very clearly as he neared the end of his life was love. Horace was a man who loved, and who was loved.

He loved his family. I’m not going to try to name every family member as a newcomer for fear that I’ll leave out somebody somewhere down the line, but you know who you are, and you know that he loved you.

He did love Betsy with all his heart. He did so love his grandchildren. Sons and their wives, sisters. He was a family person.

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A sermon for Easter Sunday

You might have noticed that I didn’t read from the usual Gospel book this morning. The book I’m holding is called the St. John Bible, and it is a modern Bible that comes in seven volumes. This is the Gospels. It’s entirely done in hand-written calligraphy. This of course is a printed copy. But it’s done in handwritten calligraphy and illuminated with beautiful paintings.

The scene that was chosen to illustrate this entire section of the Gospel of John is a painting of this encounter between Mary Magdalene and the risen Lord. I think the choice of that scene suggests how important that moment of encounter was. How important Mary Magdalene’s experience on the first Easter morning was.

When she went to her friends and said,  “I have seen the Lord,” it was the first proclamation of the Resurrection. It was a moment of joy after so much sorrow. And it was a clear message of hope and encouragement for all of us, even today.

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A sermon for Maundy Thursday

Tonight we remember the night before Jesus died. The Last Supper, that final meal the disciples and their teacher shared with one another. After all the time they’d been together, all the places they’d been, all of the adventures they’d had together, things were coming to a close. I’m not sure they realized this but Jesus certainly did, and it was the last time they would be together in this way.

Everything would change after Friday, after Easter Sunday, after the Resurrection. While they’re still, Jesus delivers a long discourse. He’s basically trying to tell them everything he thinks they need to know, and it’s his last chance to do this. They haven’t been so good at understanding so far, so there’s a real sense of urgency to making sure that they understand his message.

Of course, this is the night when Jesus took bread and wine, blessed, it, broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Do this in memory of me.” That was the first Eucharist, and we followers of Jesus, have been doing it ever since. And we’ve been trying to understand it ever since, because it is a mystery. I visited a museum in Santa Fe, a folk art museum, where they had a little piece that really caught my eye. It was a tableau by a Portuguese artist called The Last Supper. Little hand-painted ceramic figures, all seated around the table. Jesus has the cup raised, he’s looking up to heaven, and the 12 apostles are around him, and their expressions are all over the place.

Some of them are looking very devout. Some of them are totally distracted—they’re having a little side conversation of their own. And some of them look totally befuddled. Like, what?

We still see all of those reactions in church at one time or another, and I think if we’re honest, probably each one of us has had all of those reactions at one time or another.

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A sermon for Palm Sunday

That is a hard story to listen to, and not just because it’s long.

It’s about the tremendous self-giving love of Jesus Christ, of course. And the courage of some of those who followed him. But what comes through in this story again and again is human brokenness. Jealousy and cowardice. Betrayal. The corruption of power.

It shows how easily a mob can be swayed, and it shows just how dangerous that can be.

And in a way it seems appropriate that we had different people read the story in parts this morning, not just to break things up a little, but as a reminder that we need to pay attention to the role each of us plays in the Christian story as it continues. Because our faith is an ongoing story, and our participation isn’t just welcome—it’s required. And there’s no reason to think that’s ever going to be easy.

I keep a folder of articles and clippings that catch my attention, including a short item from a Florida newspaper about a church that commissioned new processional crosses.[i]

Now this church already had some ceremonial crosses and they were beautiful, but the problem was that they were heavy and the church members were finding them too hard to carry. So they commissioned a set of new crosses made by a woodworker who was the husband of a church member. And everyone was pleased with how well they turned out.

The headline on the story was, “Lighter crosses are easier for Lake church members to bear.”[ii]

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A sermon for the third Sunday of Lent

We call Lent a season of repentance, and that might sound a little grim, but I think you could also call it a season of celebration of second chances, because it’s never too late to begin again, to ask ourselves what it is God really wants from us, and to recommit to the lifelong task of becoming the people that we were created to be.

There was a woman I knew, the mother of a college friend, and she was probably in her 50s when I first met her. She was smart and she was feisty, but I had no idea what her life had been really like. I saw her as a suburban wife, mother, and grandmother. But I had no idea.

I had no idea that she had risked her life during World War II to save Jewish children from the Nazis in Amsterdam, which is where she was from. I had no idea that she’d spent months in a Nazi prison. I had no idea that the woman I knew as a suburban wife and mother had shot a policeman dead on the spot in order to save a Jewish family that she was harboring at that time. I’ll tell you her story in more detail in a minute, but first I want to take a look at today’s Gospel.

It begins with this difficult passage about Pilate mingling the blood of Galileans with their sacrifice, and people being killed in a building collapse. And frankly we have no idea really what the bigger picture of those events was. There’s no other record of those things happening, but we see that Jesus is talking with his disciples about current events, basically.

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A sermon for the second Sunday of Lent

We skipped ahead nine chapters in Luke between last week and this week. Last week’s Gospel was near the very beginning of Jesus public ministry, when he went out into the desert to be tempted. This week, we’re very close to the end. He’s on his way to Jerusalem and he knows what’s going to happen there. So a lot has happened from one to the next, but one thing they do have in common is the way they show us something about the humanity of Jesus.

Today’s Gospel begins with what sounds like a concerned warning from the Pharisees: Look out, Herod is after you. Go hide somewhere.

But really, this isn’t kindness. It’s a kind of a trap. If Jesus turns away from the work that he’s doing—his preaching, and his teaching, and his healing, and hides to protect himself—he’ll be proving that he’s not a true prophet. And he knows that he has to continue. He has to do what he’s doing. He has to go on to Jerusalem, and he’ll meet his destiny there.

But those words Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wingsI! He’s full of concern for the city. He’ll actually weep for Jerusalem later in the Gospel. When he finally arrives, he’ll look down on the city and weep. And you can hear the heartbreak in this brief lament: Jerusalem, Jerusalem. It’s just a snippet of lament here, but lament really is a form of prayer.

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A sermon for Ash Wednesday

The first time I distributed ashes on Ash Wednesday, one of the first people in my line was someone who had lost a child. A teenager who died in a sudden, tragic accident. And I put my hands on her, I marked the cross, I said the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return”—it’s a reminder of our mortality—and I was so humbled. I was almost shocked to be standing there in front of this person who had come face to face with death in a way that I hadn’t, and I thought, who am I to be reminding this person of our mortality.

And I’ve had that experience quite a few times since then, the experience of marking a cross in ash on someone who was facing death in one way or another—and of course we all are, that’s the truth we live with.

And I’ve been thinking of some of those people this week. I thought of one woman who was an Elvis Presley fan, and for her 75th person she hired an Elvis impersonator and she gave a party for the whole parish in the parish hall, with lots of food, dancing, she wore blue suede shoes and danced the night away. She had been dealing with cancer for quite a long time, and she died about a year and a half after that.

And I thought of another person who also was living with a diagnosis like that, and she was a much quieter person, but someone who really opened her heart to welcome everyone in the parish into the journey that she was on, to walk with her the way she was walking. Now I know it might not seem obvious but that was a tremendous gift to everyone in the parish. In a paradoxical way, it was life-giving.

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A sermon for the last Sunday after Epiphany

Our Gospel this morning is a sort of bonus edition. We get two stories, instead of just one. First Jesus goes up a mountain to pray, and while he’s there his appearance changes and his clothes start to shine. And then he comes down and heals a boy that his disciples weren’t able to help on their own.

We hear this Gospel in church every year on the last Sunday before Lent begins. And if I’m preaching, I usually concentrate on that first story about what happens at the top of the mountain, what we call the Transfiguration, because it’s so important.

Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him up the mountain, and Luke tells us that he went to pray. And while they’re there, they see the way his appearance changes, and watch him talking with Moses and Elijah. And they’re talking about his “departure,” which is a reference to his coming crucifixion and death.

And Peter wants to build three dwellings on that spot, to memorialize it, maybe to prolong the experience—but just then a cloud comes over them and they’re frightened out of their wits. And out of the cloud they hear a voice that says, “This is my Son, my chosen”—which calls to mind the voice that called Jesus “the Beloved” just after his Baptism.

And all of this works as a sort of bridge between the seasons of Epiphany and Lent by including some of the themes of each: The identity of Christ is revealed and confirmed. There’s a hint of the suffering that’s about to come. And it marks a turning point in the Gospel, because very soon after this Luke says that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

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A sermon for the commemoration of Blessed Absalom Jones

Do you ever wonder in these times when our churches are so challenged if we really need a church? What does the church do for us that we couldn’t do for ourselves? What did you miss most when the church was closed for a while during the early part of the covid epidemic in 2020?

And of course you can be church without being together in a building. But that’s a different sermon for another day.

But what is it about church that makes it so essential? Well, of course there’s that feeling of community when we come together. It’s good to be with people who know us and really care about us. St. Paul tells us that this community is the Body of Christ here on earth, and we do believe that Christ himself is with us in a special way when we gather here to celebrate Holy Communion.

But you could also think of the church as a kind of school for saints, because this is where we learn to be followers of Christ. And that learning takes place at least in part through the example of other Christians. We need people who can inspire us to be our best selves, who can show us through their own lives what it looks like to be disciples.

And so on our church calendar we have special days when we remember outstanding Christians who have gone before us, not just to honor their lives but so we can by inspired by them, and try to follow their example.

So today, February 13, is the day when we celebrate Blessed Absalom Jones, who was a Philadelphian, a member of the Diocese of Pennsylvania like ourselves, and the first person of African descent to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. And our bishop has asked us to remember him in our worship today.

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