March 28, 2021
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Today, we began with the story of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem with shouts of acclamation and an adoring crowd. But then just a moments later, we heard the long, agonizing story of his betrayal and torture and death. How jolting it is to go from crying “Hosanna” to “Crucify him!” Some might describe what we’re experiencing as “liturgical whiplash.” How do we make sense of today’s liturgical drama? In the Liturgy of the Palms, we hear that many people had come to love Jesus. They spread their cloaks both on the donkey and on the streets to make way for him. They shout “Hosanna in the highest…Blessed is he who cometh in the name of the Lord”…or, in more modern language, “God save the King.” Jesus then rides in royal fashion through the midst of the adoring crowds. Fast forward a few short minutes in the liturgy, and we’re hearing about Judas Iscariot’s awful betrayal of his Lord, and the first Eucharist that ties the Jewish Passover sacrifice to the imminent sacrifice of Jesus, and the crowds crying “Crucify him! Crucify him!”, and then the death of Jesus on the cross at Calvary.
The liturgical whiplash we experience today points to a deep truth that all human beings can relate to: joyous professions of loyalty can turn in the blink of an eye to betrayal. We see this not only in the adoration and subsequent rejection of Christ, but also in he who Gregory the Great once called the “prince of the apostles”, St. Peter. When Jesus asked Peter, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”, he answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” But as we heard today, moments later, Peter denied Jesus three times.
Let’s face it: we human beings are fickle. We swear allegiance to something, and then within a matter of moments, we’ve moved on to something else, having forgotten our vows. If I were to ask you, “Who do you say the Son of Man is?”, especially in public, I’m fairly confident you’d say “He’s the Son of God,” or “he is second person of the Trinity”…or, perhaps, “he’s fully human and fully divine.” But then tomorrow, it’s quite possible that you’ll not recognize Christ in the poor person you encounter. Or you’ll be faced with another human being at work who drives you crazy, and in the midst of your emotional response to his or her dysfunction, you’ll forget that he or she is made in God’s image and is worthy of love and respect.
It is human nature to say that we’re followers of Christ one minute, and then make choices as if we hadn’t ever professed faith in him. Put another way, we often say that we’re Christians but then decide to do something that completely contradicts that profession of faith. Like Peter, we are prone to deny the Lord we love.
And like us, the original audience of this text knew that Peter and the other disciples were ultimately restored into close relationship with Jesus. St. Mark doesn’t provide closure by finishing the story about their restoration. He implicitly leaves this question with his readers: will they ultimately be faithful to Jesus?
I leave you with that same question as we begin the holiest of weeks: will you be faithful to Jesus?
 This concept was coined by The Reverend Kara Slade on a Facebook post in 2018 which I cannot now find.
 David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville (Ky.): Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 183.
Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 21, 2021
Hebrews 5:5-10; Jeremiah 31:31-34
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Before I left my job at the bank last August, when someone asked me what I did for a living, I said, “I’m a banker.” Obviously, depending on the conversation, I might have also mentioned that I’m a priest. But now, that’s the only answer I have. And I’ve been surprised how many times I’ve been asked, “Why do Episcopalians call their ministers priests and not pastors?” Surprisingly, they don’t teach you how to respond to this question in seminary. Over time, my somewhat overly simplistic response to this question has become, “Because priests make sacrifices and pastors don’t.”
In today’s lesson from the letter to the Hebrews, Jesus Christ is referred to as a high priest. In the early history of the Hebrew people, Moses ordains Aaron as the first high priest, the one charged with entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, to make atonement for his sins and the sins of the Israelites by offering sacrifices to God on an altar. There were bloodless sacrifices of grain and wine, and more importantly, animal sacrifices.
At first in Israel’s history, the high priest’s status was secondary to that of the king, and his authority was limited to the religious sphere and specifically to the liturgical and sacrificial work in the Temple. Later, the authority of the high priest extended to the political arena. The office of the high priest and that of the monarch effectively became one and the same.
The author of Hebrews does something remarkable, not only in this chapter, but throughout his letter. He links Jesus not to Aaron, the first high priest of the hereditary Levitical priesthood, but to Melchizedek, a mysterious figure from the book of Genesis who pre-dates Aaron by six generations. Melchizedek is only mentioned twice in the Old Testament, but in short, he is described as having been anointed by God as both a priest and a king, offering bread and wine to God.
In the late 1940’s, when scholars discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls in the desert caves of the West Bank, they came across a manuscript from the 1st century BC that shows that the figure of Melchizedek had developed considerably in Jewish thought by this point. He was depicted as a heavenly redeemer figure, a leader of the forces of light, who brings release to the captives and reigns during the Messianic age. The author of Hebrews knows that his audience is familiar with both the Old Testament and intertestamental traditions of Melchizedek when he declares that God appoints Jesus as high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.
The priests of Aaron became priests by their lineage, but for Melchizedek, there is no record of his lineage. He was appointed a priest by God to an order that had no beginning. Jesus is a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek; thus the order has no end. The word order doesn’t mean Franciscan or Benedictine, it means after the manner of Melchizedek's priesthood. Later in this letter, the author goes on to make a sharp distinction between the Levitical priests who continue to offer these animals in sacrifice. They had to offer. They had to kill. They had to sacrifice millions of sheep, millions of goats and millions of cattle with millions of gallons of blood running down through the temple. Why? It was because of the Golden Calf – before that event in the life of the Hebrews, there was a clean priesthood that Melchizedek represents, and as we hear in the book of Genesis, Melchizedek’s priesthood included offering bread and wine.
Since very early in the Church, a connection has been made with the bread and wine offered by Melchizedek as foreshadowing the bread and wine offered by Christian priests at the Eucharist. When Jesus was sacrificed on the cross, the priest and the offering were the same. But at the Eucharist, the priest and the offering are different, as it was with Melchizedek. The once-and-for-all sacrifice of the eternal great high priest on the cross is continued through Christian priesthood, a priesthood prefigured by Melchizedek’s offering of bread and wine on the altar to God, and perpetuated by hundreds of thousands of priests throughout history who have offered the same gifts on the altar in the name of Christ. This point was driven home to me personally when I was ordained priest and opened so many cards of congratulations that said, “You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.”
What sort of sacrifice do priests make today?
St. Paul encourages the Christians at Rome to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). Likewise, the author of Hebrews uses sacrificial language to call on Christians to offer God both praise and a life of love for others (Heb 13:15-16). The early church saw all prayer all prayer as a sacrifice of praise offered to God, with the Eucharist as the fullest expression of Christian sacrifice; a sacrifice that requires repentance of sins leading to praise and thanksgiving.
As I said earlier, we call our ministers priests because priests make sacrifices. The Church doesn’t teach that priests re-sacrifice Jesus on the cross at the Mass. The crucifixion happened one time in history and can never be repeated, but we know that Jesus was appointed high priest forever. At the Eucharist, the priest offers to God a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving on behalf of the people, a bloodless sacrifice of bread and wine as foreshadowed by Melchizedek. This sacrifice makes the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus on the cross present for us in our day and time. In the Eucharistic sacrifice, time stands still as earth and heaven are joined, we are united to Christ’s once offering of himself on the cross. And when we receive our Lord into our bodies, our sins are forgiven, our union with Christ and the Church is strengthened, and we experience a foretaste of the heavenly banquet which is our nourishment in eternal life.
As you receive communion today, I invite you to offer yourself – your soul and your body – as a living sacrifice to the one who offered himself in sacrifice on that cross so long ago. As you receive this pledge of your salvation, I invite you to hear anew the beautiful and tender words of hope we heard God speak to his people in the first lesson from Jeremiah: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people…they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
 Jewish Annotated Bible, p. 470.
 Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, p. 38.
 BCP 860.
 Jeremiah 31:33-34.
Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 14, 2021
Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad with her!
The Mass for the Fourth Sunday in Lent begins with these words that we heard the cantor sing during the Introit. Rejoice in Latin is Laetare, hence the name Laetare Sunday. While last Thursday was technically the middle point in Lent, the Church gives us a bit of joy on Laetare Sunday, at least in comparison to the other Sundays in Lent. The clergy wear rose colored vestments, and the musicians have a bit of pep in their singing and playing, giving us some encouragement in our penitential journey through Lent.
The lessons for Laetare Sunday under our current lectionary begin with one of the most bizarre passages in all of Scripture. This is the last of the stories in the book of Numbers in which the Hebrews, wandering about in the wilderness, complain against their leaders Moses and Aaron. Up to this point, when they’ve complained, God punished them for their sedition, Moses interceded on their behalf, the people repented, and the Lord showed Moses how to make things right. But this time, they complain about God as well as Moses, and not only is their complaining seditious, but it’s also ridiculous. They say, “For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” What food? Are they hallucinating? Perhaps they think they’re hallucinating when they see poisonous snakes crawling around. But no, these snakes are real. When they bite people, the people die, which is a wakeup call to those around them. The Hebrews repent of their sin, pleading with Moses to intercede for them to God. Moses does, and then God tells him to make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.
Such a strange story, but it strikes me that it would not have been unusual for the Israelites to see snakes in the wilderness of Egypt. They know what these snakes are capable of, even before they start biting people. Humans are generally scared of snakes, so much so that St. Francis Day has become interesting around here since the addition of two pet snakes to the extended parish family.
Italian artist Giovanni Fantoni created a sculpture which you can see on the front of your service leaflet. The sculpture commemorates the bronze serpent from the Israelites’ time in the wilderness in Egypt, but the sculpture is not in Egypt, rather it’s on Mount Nebo in Jordan. From there, you can see the Promised Land – specifically Jerusalem! – on a clear day. It was from Mount Nebo that Moses later was given a glimpse of the Promised Land, though he was never allowed to enter. After he saw the Promised Land, Moses died. But the sight had given him hope, even as he faced death.
Seeing the Promised Land has become a metaphor for anticipating deliverance and arriving at salvation. For the Hebrews in the wilderness, the serpents represented death as many people were bitten and died, and this horrific scene changed their hearts. The text says,
“The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”
God took the instrument of fear and death– the serpent – and turned it into a symbol of their repentance and their deliverance to new life. When you look at the sculpture of the bronze serpent on Mount Nebo, it’s clear that the artist isn’t just memorializing the bronze serpent from this story. Notice how the body of the snake, looped around its own head, also looks like a human head, and the pieces sticking out resemble outstretched arms. The artist connects the ancient Hebrew story with Jesus’ words from the gospel reading: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,” hinting at Jesus’s crucifixion on a cross. Just as snakes evoked fear in the hearts of the Hebrews, so did the cross evoke fear for those in Jesus’s time, for in first-century Palestine, anyone who dared challenge the Emperor would be executed on a wooden cross. In Christ, God took an instrument of fear and death – the cross – and turned it into a symbol of our repentance and our deliverance to new life.
The Lord promised Moses that everyone who looks upon the serpent will live; Jesus promises that those who believe in him will have eternal life. Looking isn’t enough. Believing is required. In John, “believe” is always an action verb. It’s something you do, and can’t be reduced to giving mental assent to the fact that Jesus is the Son of God. The nature of “belief” becomes clear later in this chapter when Jesus says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.” Throughout John’s gospel, the opposite of belief is not unbelief but disobedience. To believe, therefore, is to obey! And not just one time and be done with it, but obey from now on. John uses “eternal life” in the same way the other gospel writers use the phrase “kingdom of God”: the coming of the kingdom of God isn’t about humans being snatched up from earth to heaven, but instead about heaven coming down to earth. God’s promise of eternal life to all those who believe in Christ begins in this life, here on earth, and with it comes an expectation that we actively choose to believe in Christ. Believing in Christ means committing ourselves to a new life of obedience to God’s will rather than our own. It means facing our deepest and darkest fears as the Hebrew people had to do when confronted with the serpent, and as the first century Jews did when confronted with their Messiah on the cross. Believing in Jesus means that when we sin, we repent and return to the Lord. Believing in Jesus means taking up our cross daily and following him.
In so doing, God invites us to live out the eternal life given to us right here, and right now. We are invited again and again to cooperate with God’s grace given to us in the Sacraments and serve as Christ’s hands and feet in the world, in both the large and small things in our daily lives. We are invited to make sacrifices and make choices that honor God and others rather than ourselves. We are invited to live our lives in such a way that God’s kingdom comes from heaven to earth through us.
That said, John said that those who believe in Christ will not perish. This passage, while being primarily about eternal life on earth, also points us to eternal life in heaven. It isn’t an either/or but is a both/and. The hymn we will sing after communion, “Jerusalem the golden,” reminds us of what we have to look forward to on the other side of the veil. A land flowing with milk and honey where joys await us! What radiancy of glory, what bliss beyond compare! The halls of Zion will be jubilant with the songs of the angels and martyrs and those who feast…those who with their Leader have conquered in the fight, forever and forever clad in robes of white.
Friends, at this point in our Lenten journey in the wilderness, we find ourselves on Mount Nebo like Moses was with a glimpse of the Promised Land just visible on the horizon. When we fall into sin, we repent as the Hebrews did, and gaze upon that terrible instrument of death that God has transformed into a symbol of life and love. We gaze upon the One who is lifted up, and more than just look at him, we choose to believe in him. Unlike Moses, we get to enter into the Promised Land for all of eternity, partially now, and more fully at the Last Day. While we are still on this side of the veil, our viewpoint into heaven is clearest – like a clear, sunny day on Mount Nebo – when the Church celebrates the Holy Eucharist. At this altar, we are joined with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven as heaven comes to earth, and earth is lifted to heaven, and the Son of Man is lifted up at the elevations. On this altar, God gives us the Bread that came down from heaven, that Christ may live in us, and we in him.
Let us rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad with her! Let us rejoice that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. And let us rejoice that Easter joy is just around the corner. Amen.
 David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville (Ky.): Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 101.
 Verses 7 and 8.
 Much of this paragraph comes from Fr. Stephen Holmgren’s sermon: https://tinyurl.com/6rd3km3e.
 John 3:36.
 Bartlett 119.
 N. T. Wright, The Lord and His Prayer (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 13.
Third Sunday in Lent
March 7, 2021
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Hearing the Ten Commandments read elicits some strong memories and emotions in my heart. My family moved to Texas when I was 11, and a friend invited me to join him at a youth group event at a Baptist church. As I got more and more involved, I became aware that most of the other kids had memorized so much scripture at church camps over the years and I felt woefully behind the curve. One of the first things I memorized was the Ten Commandments (also called the Decalogue), and I remember thinking, “Good Lord, it’s so easy to follow these. I’ve never been tempted to murder someone, or worship another god, or steal. I mean, the whole “honor thy father and mother” might be difficult from time to time, but otherwise, I think I’ve got this.”
Fast forward a decade when I was preparing for the Sacrament of Confirmation in the Roman Catholic Church at the age of 24. It is customary to go to confession before being confirmed, and in preparation for my first confession, the priest advised me to use the Ten Commandments as a guide in examining my conscience. Suddenly, the Ten Commandments became much more than a list of rules to follow. Each one suddenly exploded with meaning: “You shall have no other gods before me” was like a seed, that when watered, grew into a list of questions. What other gods am I worshipping? Money? Power? Sex? Myself? Alcohol?
While I still think that using the Ten Commandments as a guide examining one’s conscience is helpful, the traditional interpretation of the decalogue as a list of rules might be a bit misguided. Rather than a series of rules, the Ten Commandments is a proclamation by God’s own mouth of who God is and how God should be “practiced” by this community of liberated slaves.
The commandments were given to the Hebrew people just as they had been liberated from slavery in Egypt and set out into the wilderness. The people were hungry and thirsty, and God has provided sweet water and manna from heaven to sustain them. They had been attacked and came out victorious, and they have finally reached Mount Sinai. There, in the chapter before this one, God makes a covenant with Israel: Israel will be God’s treasured possession, a priestly kingdom and a holy nation, if the people keep their end of the covenant. Unlike the previous covenants with Noah and Abraham, a mutual covenant is established: Israel must follow God’s commands if they are to remain God’s people.
The Decalogue is the listing of these commands. The commandments are arranged in two groups, the first of which is about our relationship with God. One commentator notes that the formulation of the first commandment is not “Though shalt not,” but rather “there will not be to you.” The verb used isn’t an imperative command, but rather an indicative, whereby God, in light of the Exodus, declares the banishment of all other Gods. In other words, this is less of a commandment than it is a declaration of theological emancipation in which God proclaims Israel’s freedom to love and serve their God without compromise. “You shall have no other gods before me” is not a command to follow, but a joyful declaration that God has triumphed over evil and set them free. The second group of commandments is about our relationship with our neighbors. Murder, adultery, stealing, lying, and coveting are forbidden as God wants the Hebrews to trust one another, whether that be with words, relationships, or possessions.
Despite the rather obvious groupings of the ten commandments in two, they are very much intertwined. Our relationship with God shapes the way we treat others. In other words, good theology leads to good ethics. For example, having “no other gods before me” means that by God’s help, we are to choose not to allow money, power, and sex to control us and thus exploit others. Not bearing false witness means that we should build up the community by speaking truthfully of our neighbors. “Not taking the Lord’s name in vain” invites an attitude of praise and thanksgiving toward God, rather than anger and cynicism.
When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus summarizes the law by uniting the love of God and the love of neighbor: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. And thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
The Decalogue provides healthy boundaries for our relationship with God, and our relationships with our neighbors. When we worship idols, or covet our neighbor’s fancy car, or cheat on our partner, or tell a lie, the foundation of our relationship with God and one another is shaken. As the Ten Commandments were given to the Hebrew people to joyfully proclaim that God has set them free, Lent gives us an opportunity to delve into the freedom God has for us. At our baptism, we were set free from the bonds of sin by Christ’s death and resurrection. Each time we encounter Christ in the Sacraments of the Church, we are given the grace we need to resist evil, and whenever we fall into sin, to repent and return to the Lord.
When I hear the Ten Commandments today, I am less confident than I was in my teens that “I’ve got this.” I still think that reflecting on them to examine one’s conscience is a good and holy thing. In fact, I encourage you to take your service leaflet home with you or open up your Bibles this week to Exodus chapter 20, and sit down in silence for a few minutes and do just that. But as you’re examining your conscience, rejoice in the freedom you were given at your baptism. For just as the Hebrews were set free from captivity in Egypt, so too have we been freed from our captivity to sin in Jesus Christ. Rejoice that God has freed you to be in relationship with him and with your fellow human beings within the healthy bounds of the Ten Commandments, and ask God for the grace to build strong spiritual habits during this Lenten sojourn in the wilderness. Amen.
 New Interpreter’s Bible 841.
 Much of this paragraph is from https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-exodus-201-17.
 David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 72.
 Mark 12:29-31 as printed in the 1979 BCP on page 319.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!