“John’s Good News?” | Sermon by Erin Flinn, YDS ’17 | December 13, 2015

“…and with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.”

Erin Flinn, YDS '17
Episcopal Church at Yale Seminarian Erin Flinn, YDS class of 2017

The Gospel this week requires a bit of wrestling with scripture. How are we to approach John’s strong text that begins with the words, “You brood of vipers!” and ends with Christ carrying a winnowing fork? Sure, I could stand here like a street corner evangelist, shaking the bible and telling you that God’s wrath is coming—so prepare, stay awake, be vigilant. Do good, or else. But for those who know me, you know that is the very last thing I would ever do. So, in truth, this passage in the Gospel left me wondering, in all his zealousness for justice, did John the Baptist miss the mark?

Sure, John seemed right on track when he told the crowd that he was not the Messiah and that one who is more powerful than him was coming, but then he keeps going, and he paints an image that is nothing short of a nightmare. He tells his audience that Jesus will one day come with a winnowing fork to sift through humanity, separating the wheat from the chaff. The good from the bad, and the chaff will then be burned with unquenchable fire. Not to mention he says that an ax is waiting at the foot of the tree to cut down any branches that do not bear good fruits. This is John’s good news? Really? What do we do with this text? Do we simply write it off as metaphor? Well, yes and no.

This story is full of metaphor that speaks of the day of judgement, but I am not here to tell you what that day will look like, mostly because I do not know, and that is not my message today anyway. Furthermore, even if we accept John’s words as a metaphor, that does not dismiss the fact that his words are harsh and violent. After three weeks of opening to this text, and hoping that John’s message would have miraculously changed, the conclusion I have come to is this:

John, being mere mortal like us, could not imagine that judgement could come any other way than through a violent separating of good and bad, just and unjust. He could not image salvation without damnation, or peace without violence. For you see, we humans have a tendency to be violent creatures.

Think about it. Even when we are doing good we say that ‘we are fighting for what is right.’ Or, ‘we are fighting for peace.’ Or, ‘we are fighting for justice.’ We wage wars to bring peace to our nations and the world. But, peace in our time, and in our way, means that there is a winner who lives happily ever after, and a loser who is punished if not eliminated entirely. We are so quick to raise up arms against our enemies and in the moments of uncertain fear, but at what cost? To what ends? More destruction? More pain? We know full well that violence begets violence, maybe not right away, but if you look at history there is a pattern.

We as humans are so used to violence and it is so much a part of existence that even when Jesus came 2000 years ago people did not think he was the Messiah. They expected a great king to come and turn over thrones, and cast out rulers. They expected a great general to lead them into battle. This was not the Messiah that they got. Instead the one who came was the Prince of Peace. I do not mean this to say that Jesus was weak or always pleasant. He was neither, but his message was one of love, hope, and charity.

If we only anticipate one who will come to judge, than we risk the potential of seeing punishment as God’s ultimate goal. This sort of anticipation provides us with justification to enact God’s judgement by taking matters into our own hands. It gives us the power to go after those who are not living up to our expectations of what it means to be Christian. Even worse, it give us the power to choose who is good and who is bad, right and wrong. This mentality justifies violence because we imagine that if the violence leads to peace it is somehow permissible. A few weeks ago a man walked into Planned Parenthood, opened fire, and killed three people. This man was clearly deranged, but his motivations were not isolated. They came from people who openly proclaim that the murder of these doctors was justified because of the procedures they perform. They believe that humans are allowed to enact the judgement that belongs to God alone.

Furthermore, if we believe that we have the power to identify who will be saved and who will be damned, we are at risk of ourselves on a pedestal as somehow better than our neighbor, and not equal to our neighbor. In this country there are people who are crying out for religious freedoms while at the same time demanding that our Muslim brothers and sisters carry an ID and wear identification, or not be permitted into this country at all. We have been there before folks. It did not end well.

It is not our job to separate the wheat from the chaff because we as humans will never know who is truly good and who is truly bad in the eyes of God. But I will tell you this, gender, race, sexuality, or religious affiliation can never be the dividing line. There is no religion in this world that truly promotes violence at its core. Violence is a human invention; it was never God’s desire for us.

God gave us two commandments. We are to love God, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. That’s it. Love God. Love our neighbors. Nowhere in there does it say that we should judge our neighbor. It does not say that we should grab our weapons and enact God’s judgement. There will be time for judgement and it will come through God’s hands alone, not ours.

John the Baptist could not imagine that peace would come through any other means than through violence. He believed that Christ would be the judge who punished those who did not live up to the laws. But this message was not what the one who came after him actually proclaimed. In the Gospel of John 12:47, Christ tells his people, “I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” Rather than living out our faith through violent judgement and hate speech. I ask you to choose love and mercy. Make this your New Year’s resolution on January 1st.

Last Tuesday, December 8th, Pope Francis and the Catholic Church ushered in an Extraordinary Jubilee Year. It is extraordinary because this jubilee year is being brought about because of a necessity and not because of an anniversary. For this Jubilee year, the Pope has challenged Catholics to find new ways of building community. He wants them to be open, and to accept the change and vulnerability that comes with living a life guided by mercy. Most of all, he has invited his church to truly see the face of God and mercy in the people who stand in front of them. This is an idea of radical love. We may not be Catholic, that is true, but I would challenge each and every one of you to live out this jubilee year. Choose mercy over fear, love over violence, and be open to the change that will come in your life when you partake in the radical love of Christ.

This Advent season, when we look to the already not yet, I ask you to imagine a love beyond all measure. We already live in a world that is hurting. We already experience daily violence on the news and in our own lives. Violence is not God’s message; it is not what we wait for with great anticipation. So, rather than quake in fear at the words of John the Baptist, I invite you to sit and rest in the words of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always… Let your gentleness be known to everyone… and let the PEACE, which surpasses ALL understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
This is the good news my friends. Christ will come again not in judgement, but to usher in a new peace which surpasses the imagination of John the Baptist. And we will rejoice! For when God comes again, he will restore his creation to good.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” Amen.

“Beyond Nice” | Sermon by the Rev. Paul Carling, September 27, 2015

James 5:13-20  |  Mark 9:38-50

The Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D., ECY Chaplain
The Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D., ECY Chaplain

A dear monk friend of mine from the Midwest, once told me the defining characteristic of Christians in the heartland. “Be nice to others,” he said, “and they will be nice to you.” If that’s all there is to being a Christian, talk about “salt losing its saltiness!”

This week belongs to Pope Francis. More than any predecessor, you simply never know what’s going to come out of his mouth. And you never know what kind of t-shirt he’ll be wearing when he says it – a “Stop Global Warning,” or a “I’m one of the 99%.” Here are a few of his gems:

  • It’s not necessary to believe in God to be a good person. Traditional religion is outdated – you CAN be spiritual and not religious.
  • I believe in God, not in a Catholic God; there is no Catholic God.
  • All religions are true. Proselytism is solemn nonsense.
  • The internet is truly a… gift from God.
  • One day we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is for all creatures.
  • Evolution and big bang theory are right – God’s not a magician with a magic wand.

Since his election, Francis has an opinion on everything, and they’re mostly surprises. We each have our favorites. Personally I’d like a few more related to women, and to human sexuality, but no one can deny he’s been a breath of fresh air.

Francis’ words today are as radical as Jesus’ were in his time, a time when life was all about sect and tribe, who you belonged to. So when his disciples say someone’s healing in Jesus’ name, but is “not one of us,” they expect Jesus to retaliate and condemn these amateurs. But Jesus understands the complexity of faith AND the political realities of his day. “Don’t stop him,” Jesus says. The world desperately needs good works; don’t stop him.

But Jesus goes on, “No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me.” This practical politician, knows how divided the world will soon become over his mission. He wants to gather as much company around his beloved friends as he can.

Within all the hoopla, somehow I find Pope Francis’ words on economics and politics most courageous. To those who say priests shouldn’t meddle in politics, Francis responds:

Politics is an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the common good… a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.” He sees politics as sacred, in that they are the major vehicle for promoting God’s dream of shalom in this weary and troubled world. “If politics must truly be at the service of the human person,” he concludes, “it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and to finance.” Cleverly, rather than condemn both politics and economics, he says a new politics is responsible for building a new economic order.

This was a bad week for those who believe in the impenetrable firewall between religion and politics. One prominent journalist quipped, “I guess that means that if he could vote, Pope Francis would choose Bernie Sanders.”

What struck me most about Francis’ words was the rare combination of faith, political and economic sophistication, the same that we heard in Jesus’ words today. Listen:

  • “We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise, in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.”
  • “While the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling. This imbalance results from ideologies of the absolute autonomy of markets and of financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to states which are themselves charged with the providing for the common good. Such an economy kills… our souls and lays waste to the lives of the poor… This inequality is the source of most violence in the world today.”
  • “Some people continue to defend trickle down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile the excluded are still waiting. We can no longer trust in these unseen forces and in the invisible hand of the market. We must attack the structural biases of inequality in society.”

The Pope’s words grate against the conventional wisdom about what is possible, against the paralysis and polarization that has become our national political scene, and they are easy to dismiss as unrealistic, unattainable, too contrary to our own varieties of self – interest.

But isn’t that exactly what Jesus suggests in his hyperbole about cutting off our hands and feet, and plucking out our eyes – that we need to cast away those parts of ourselves that separate us from God and from our neighbors.

Which is why I am so deeply grateful that we have ECY. As the letter of James suggests, we cannot do any part of this business of following Jesus, of being disciples, in the absence of a community like ECY, where we create a safe space – without shame or blame – to grapple with the meaning of the gospel and how to live it out in each of our very different lives. “I need a community,” Pope Francis says. And so do we.

By daring to embrace a community which cares about our faith – as diverse as it is; which cares about our world’s problems, though we have a hundred different perspectives on what ought to be done about them; which cares about all of God’s beloved children, even when we often feel clueless about how to help them. It is in community, that we fulfill Jesus’ essential mandatum – to learn how to love. First to love ourselves, in spite of everything we may have been told to the contrary, then slowly but surely to dare to love others, so that our hearts, nourished by the most extraordinary gift God has to offer, begins to overflow so abundantly that we can’t help but share that love with the rest of the world.

Go,” says Pope Francis, “Go forth and love.”