Ask Me for Anything

Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter 
Year A (Acts 7:55-60; John 14:1-14)
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

“If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”  Do you believe this?  That’s a question we wrestled with in Bible study earlier this week.  How many of us have experienced suffering or have witnessed the suffering of a loved one and prayed and prayed to God for the suffering to stop – for a cure to be found, a treatment to work, a heart to start beating again? How many have prayed for the financial resources to endure the economic hardships plaguing our nation, for an end to violence in our schools and on our streets?  And how many of us have felt our prayers falling on the deaf ears of a God who promises to answer our prayers?  At one time or another, I would venture to guess, that every one of us has had that experience.
Some suggest that if we just have patience, God will eventually answer our prayers,  that the answer to our prayers is merely a matter of timing – our timing versus God’s timing – the answer to our prayers is just around the next corner.  But once that heart has stopped beating or the money has run out and the house is in foreclosure, doesn’t it seem that God has somehow failed us? and that no amount of time can heal the wounds of a God who allows us to sit and wait, to struggle and suffer?   Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”  What a tall order that is in a world such as ours.  And what a tall order for the early followers of Jesus.
The story of Stephen demonstrates the challenge.  Stephen is one of the “seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” chosen to oversee the daily distribution of food to the widows among the community of the faithful.[1]  He is described in the Acts of the Apostles as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” “full of grace and power,” and able to do “great wonders and signs among the people.”[2] He spoke with “wisdom and the Spirit” and “his face was like the face of an angel.”[3] As he is described in Scripture, there can be no doubt that Stephen was a believer.  Perhaps because of his deep faith, or at least due to his unwavering commitment to publically sharing the gospel, Stephen garnered the attention of some members of the synagogue in which he preached.  These men, Acts tells us, began to stir “up the people as well as the elders and the scribes,” setting up “false witnesses who said, ‘This man [Stephen] never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.’”[4] 
Given the opportunity to respond to these charges, Stephen remains steadfast to his faith and shares his witness through the stories of Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David and Solomon.  Of each of these forebears in faith, Stephen speaks of the ways in which the people around them persecuted them, rejecting their message, and in so doing, rejecting the will of God.[5]   Of Moses, Stephen says:
“He is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living oracles to give to us. Our ancestors were unwilling to obey him; instead, they pushed him aside, and in their hearts they turned back to Egypt.”[6]
Each of these ancestors in the faith, persecuted in their own time, have come to be understood by the community of faithful believers as the heroes of the faith, the persons who moved the faithful forward from one generation to the next.  And in this line of heroes stands Stephen, one called to proclaim the good news of Christ, himself persecuted – indeed, stoned to death by members of his own community.  And I cannot help but wonder, do Jesus’ words find Stephen in this moment? “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” For the super-human strength of character which Stephen shows in this final moment is paralleled only to that of Jesus in his final moment. Stephen cries “out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’” just as Jesus cried out in his final moment, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” [7]
“If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”  Taken out of context this verse seems to give us carte blanche to quite literally ask God for anything.  Several years ago, my sister overheard her oldest daughter (my godchild) praying in her bedroom, “Dear God, please teach me how to whistle.” This heartfelt prayer of a 4 year old seems answered. Olivia can whistle with the best of them.  For many, this understanding of prayer is carried with us well into adulthood, leading to heartache when the prayers go unanswered.  And so we must put the verse back into its context – as part of Jesus’ instructions on how to follow Jesus. 
Jesus tells the disciples, “you know the way to the place where I am going.”[8]  Thomas replies, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way.”[9]  Thomas is looking for the road map, the GPS coordinates that will get him to the place where Jesus will be.  But Jesus replies with words familiar to all of us, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”[10]  I am the destination.  I am the journey.  I am the map.  The question is not, “Which way to the place where Jesus is going?” but rather “How do we get where Jesus is going?” And the answer is by following “the way, and the truth, and the life” – the way that Jesus’ lived, the truth to which Jesus points, and the life that Jesus calls each of us to live – it is by following Jesus, that we can rest assured that we are already in Jesus just as Jesus is in the Father.  And when we live in Jesus, we live in God; and when we live in God, our will is aligned with God’s will; and when our will is aligned with the will of God, our prayers are aligned with God and are answered.  It is in this context that Jesus says,
“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”[11]
The verses must be read together.  The promise is not that every prayer under the sun will be answered.  Instead it is a promise that rests in the understanding that prayers which are prayed in the name of Jesus are prayers that glorify God.  And, that prayers which glorify God are those which ask for God’s guidance in doing the works that Jesus does – in following the way, the truth, and the life.  And the promise is that in these prayers we will not be disappointed. 
Like the early followers of Jesus – like Stephen - you and I will endure the suffering of the world – sickness, death, financial difficulties, and so on.  But, if we follow the way of Jesus – as Stephen so boldly did – our hearts will not be troubled and we will find ourselves praying not for ourselves but for those who persecute us and for the institutions that push individuals aside.  Let us kneel down with Stephen and cry out with loud voices, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” – do not hold the sins against the people, the systems, the institutions that push us aside.[12]  Lord, give us the strength and courage to believe in you.

[1] Acts 6:1-6.
[2] Acts 6:5, 8.
[3] Acts 6:10, 15.
[4] Acts 6:9-14.
[5] Acts 7:2-51.
[6] Acts 7:38-39.
[7] Acts 7:60; Luke 23:34.
[8] John 14:4.
[9] John 14:5.
[10] John 14:6.
[11] John 14:12-14.
[12] Acts 7:60.


What a Difference a Day Can Make

Sermon Preached (May 8, 2011)
3rd Sunday of Easter - Year A (Luke 24:13-35)

On Monday this week, I was (finally) sitting down to read the Sunday Chicago Tribune and ran across a brief column which referenced the exciting April news cycle culminating in coverage of the tornadoes in theMidwest, the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan, Donald Trump’s quest for President Obama’s birth certificate, and, of course, the royal wedding of William and Kate.  The column went on to bemoan the fact that, by contrast, May was destined to be one of the dullest news cycles on record.  You have to remember, I was reading this Sunday, May 1st column on Monday morning – just 12 hours after news of the death of Osama bin Laden had hit the wire.  I laughed to myself as I put the paper down thinking, “what a difference a day can make.”
What a difference a day can make. President Obama’s approval rating jumped 9 percentage points upon news of bin Laden’s death.  Celebrations erupted in all the predictable places – Washington D.C., Ground Zero, Pennsylvania, and on college and university campuses whose students were in their early teens when the attacks of September 11, 2001 occurred. What a difference a day can make.
“That very day” - the day on which Mary and the other women had gone to the tomb and discovered Jesus’ body was missing and ran to tell the other disciples – “That very day, the first day of the week, two of the disciples were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.”  What a difference a day – or two – or three – can make.  Certain that Jesus, this flesh and blood man they had come to know and respect – perhaps even to love – certain that he would be the one who would not only challenge the domination of Rome, but would, in fact, overthrow the government system altogether and usher in a new system based on a new kind of law, certain of all these things, two disciples walk along the road to Emmaus with their hopes dashed, their dreams broken, and their future as uncertain as it ever was. Because this would-be Messiah, Jesus, was arrested, crucified, lay dead in a tomb, and was now missing – rumors of his resurrection have reached the disciples, but they have had no proof, no tangible evidence of this news.  And so they walk along sullenly.
Until they are joined by a stranger – a stranger, who seems to know nothing of the events of the preceding week and yet, learning of them, is able to give an accounting of all that has happened beginning with Moses and all the prophets and all the scriptures.  “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!”  But even through the stories of this stranger, the disciples remain unmoved, unconvinced.  But as they near Emmaus, they invite the stranger to stay with them – even in their grief, they have not forgotten the basic tenets of hospitality.
But when they sat down to dinner, a remarkable turn took place, the stranger, their guest, became the host and “[w]hen he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.”[1] It was only a moment – long enough to see in his simple gesture of breaking bread, the same gesture used at the Last Supper; a gesture which perhaps reminded them of the words he spoke that night, “This is my body, which is given for you.”[2] Walking beside them on the road to Emmaus – the body of Christ, given for them.  Sitting down together for a simple meal – the body of Christ, given for them.  Fears about the future relieved, hopes and dreams restored by the body – the presence of Jesus - given for them – given for you – for us; so that we know in the breaking of the bread that “The Lord has risen indeed.”[3]  In that instance everything that they believed and hoped about the pre-Easter Jesus was true again.  And everything they and we would come to know about the post-Easter Jesus began to be revealed.  What a difference a day can make. 
There is much that we cannot know as one day turns into the next.  We often assume, as the Chicago Tribune columnist assumed, that after a month or even a day filled with exciting news – good news or bad – that what follows will surely be a letdown.  Isn’t that the premise behind post-vacation blues?  We become lulled into a conviction that we have already seen and heard it all, that nothing can surprise us now.  The weeks after Easter are perhaps analogous to this experience – after all the hype of Holy Week, after the exuberance of our Easter celebration – an ordinary Sunday can feel rather – well, ordinary.  And yet, God promises that in just these ordinary moments - a quiet glance, a single word or a simple gesture - like the breaking of bread, can remind us that God is yet with us – yesterday, today and tomorrow.  What a difference a day can make.

[1] Luke 24:30.
[2] Luke 22:19.
[3] Luke 24:34.


All the Lions of St. Mark's

Sermon Preached on the Feast of St. Mark
St. Mark's Episcopal Church - Evanston, IL
May 1, 2011 (transferred from April 25)
For the Scripture Readings, click here.

Have you seen the St. Mark’s lion? It appears on this drawing which typically hangs in the volunteer office. 
Volunteer Office
Bethlehem Chapel
My Office
I found it on this artwork which hangs in Bethlehem Chapel.  And I even found it waiting to greet me in my office when I arrived in March. No doubt you all know of countless other places at St. Mark’s in which the great lion lurks.

The association of each gospel writer with a symbol began as early as the 2nd century with St. Irenaeus of Lyons who referenced the first chapter of Ezekiel in which the prophet describes a vision of a great cloud with four living creatures in the midst of it – one with “the face of a human being” one with “the face of a lion” , one with “the face of an ox” and one with “the face of an eagle” – and from this vision, he “heard the voice of someone speaking.”[1] Irenaeus attributed each of the creature-symbols to the gospel writers: Matthew was the lion, John the human, Luke the ox, and Mark the eagle. It might surprise you that Matthew was first described as the lion. In fact, in subsequent centuries, St. Augustine of Hippo, Pseudo-Athanasius, and St. Jerome each utilize the same passage from Ezekiel or a similar vision in Revelation 4 – to assign the symbols to the gospel.  And each one attributed the great lion to a different gospel[2]. However, it was the designation of St. Jerome in the late 4th or early 5th century which ultimately stuck: "the Man is Matthew, the Lion, Mark, the [Ox][3], Luke… and the Eagle, John."[4] And so we have our great lion.

Regardless of which symbol is ultimately assigned to which gospel writer, the connection with the vision of Ezekiel and perhaps even more powerfully with the vision in the Book of the Revelation where the four living creatures are said to “give glory and honor and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne” – this connection makes clear that the gospel writers were understood to be bearers of the Good News of Jesus Christ[4]. And, by the 3rd century it had become common to refer to the Gospel writers as evangelists.

The word evangelist literally means “messenger who brings good news”[5]. The word contains the same Greek root as the English word “angel”, a word which means “messenger,” or “announcer.” The word “evangelist” itself appears in the New Testament only three times. It appears first in Acts 21:8 where we hear of “Philip the evangelist” one of the seven men (along with Stephen, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus) appointed in Acts 6 to oversee the daily distribution of food to the widows[6]. The word “evangelist” appears again in Ephesians 4:11 – part of today’s epistle reading which lists a number of gifts given by God - apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers – all of which are commissioned “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ”[7]. And finally, it appears in 2 Timothy 4:5 where Timothy is exhorted to “endure suffering” and “do the work of an evangelist” described, at least in part, by prior verses in which Timothy is urged to “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching”[8].

So, as it is used in Scripture, it seems that being an evangelist can take on a number of forms from caring for the less fortunate to equipping others for their ministries, to proclaiming the message of God’s love. Throughout the season of Lent, St. Markan’s were encouraged to participate in activities which would nurture our relationship with God and nurture our relationships with one another by being generous with our time and our talents. We witnessed a barren tree in the sanctuary grow leaves of new life and promise as we completed a variety of activities : praying, helping others, caring for the environment, raising funds for people around the world, showing someone you care. Take a moment and reflect on some of the activities you did: giving clothes to charity, picking up litter, saying “I’m sorry,” praying for those experiencing grief, writing thank you notes, inviting a friend to church, reading to your grandchildren. Each of these activities were a leaf of new life, of renewed relationship with God, our neighbors, and our community made possible because of God’s gifts to each of us. This morning we will offer all of these completed activities – all of these moments of sharing, moments of tranquility, moments of self-sacrifice, moments of blessing – we offer them all to God, in thanksgiving for the many blessings God is constantly bestowing upon us.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus says to the apostles, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” This is the gospel of Mark’s version of the Great Commission. Each of the gospel’s has a version - - - Luke’s version is to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name to all nations[9]. John’s gospel offers the shortest version – “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you”[10]. And Matthew’s gospel has the one that is probably most familiar to us: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you"[11]. But regardless of the words used, the principle is the same, Jesus calls each of us to go out and proclaim the good news. Just as Jesus says to the apostles, “Go . . . and proclaim the good news,” so he sends us to go and proclaim the good news - to be evangelists – messengers who bring good news.

The 40 days of Lent gave us a disciplined way to practice that calling, to practice being evangelists through our words and actions. But now that we know the truth of the Resurrection, now that we are living as an Easter people, now that we have witnessed the empty tomb, now that we have seen the risen Christ, how much MORE we have to share, how much MORE we must go on sharing, how MUCH MORE we are blessed to share that good news.

Have you seen the St. Mark’s lion? It appears on this drawing [volunteer office picture], it appears on this artwork [Bethlehem Chapel artwork], and even in my office [stuffed animal]. And as I look around this room this morning, I see that you are that lion – and you are that lion – and you are that lion. Each and every one of us is a St. Mark’s lion – an evangelist working together, “building up the body of Christ.”

[1] Ezekiel 1:4-28, esp. 1:10.
[2] St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Haereses, 3.11.8 in Ante-Nicene Fathers quoted in Symbols of the Four Evangelists compiled by Felix Just available online, accessed on April 30, 2011.
[3] Original says “calf,” not “ox”.
[4] Preface to the Commentary on Matthew, summary and excerpts from N/PNF 2, 6.1036-37 quoted in Symbols of the Four Evangelists.
[5] “Evangelist,” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. F. L. Cross and Ea. A. Livingston, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 581.
[6] Acts 6:1-6.
[7] Ephesians 4:11-12.
[8] 2 Timothy 4:2.
[9] Luke 24:44-47.
[10] John 20:21.
[11] Matthew 28:16-20.