Proper 19, Year B
The Rev. Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
September 12, 2021
I’ve been reminded this week of the long history of our parish, and specifically, this building. We are under construction! From the flood in the parish hall and the upcoming construction to make things as they were, to the 41 bags of pigeon carcasses and droppings that have been removed from the tower, it has been a busy two weeks. The tower has been sealed up to prevent future avian infestations, all the organ pipes in the tower and many of them behind the reredos have been removed for refurbishment, over 100 years’ worth of redundant or failed organ equipment has been deposed of in the blue dumpster in the parking lot, the small organ has been hoisted into its permanent location in the northwest gallery, and the sanctuary lamp has been reinstalled in its place.
There is plenty of lore to go around at St. Mary’s, including the story of the origins of the sanctuary lamp the very same sanctuary lamp. It is said that this piece was part of Catherine of Aragon’s dowry given in exchange for her nuptials with a certain Henry VIII, and that it was brought to this land by Christopher Columbus on the Mayflower.
One of the stories more likely to be true that has become part of our history was told to me shortly after I arrived by Deacon Gerry, and you may have heard me tell this story before. Shortly after his ordination to the diaconate, he preached his first sermon from this very pulpit. After the service, he stood in the back to greet people, and an older woman walked up to him and said, quite firmly, “You can go straight to hell.” She continued, “Who are you to ask me to change? Who do you think you are? I don’t need to change, I’m fine just the way I am. Maybe you’re the one who needs to change.”
This woman may have been rude and unseemly, but I empathize with her. Many come to church to feel good, not to be told that they need to change. We humans surround ourselves with people who are positive and affirm the beliefs and attitudes that they affirm. I’ve often heard people say, “I stopped going to such-and-such church because I wasn’t getting anything out of the preacher’s sermons.” Or, when someone moves to a new city and starts looking for a church, they may say, “I am looking for a place that feeds my soul and makes me feel good.” In other words, “What’s in it for me?”
We often approach Jesus in this way too. There are cultural ideas about Jesus that we learn from movies and art and even verbally from our parents. If you were taught you that Jesus is always meek and mild and kind, it might be unsettling to hear him say what he said to his friend Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
When Jesus asked him, “Who do you say that I am,” Peter responded, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus was apparently fine with this response. But he proceeded to describe a very different Messiah than Peter had in mind. Peter, along with the bulk of first-century Jews, assumed the Messiah would be a monarch – a king who would come with great power and ultimately overthrow the Emperor, free the Israelites from Roman oppression and domination, and “make Israel great again” in the sight of the other nations. Jesus turns Peter’s preconceived ideas of what the Messiah will be upside down, and says that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering...and be killed.
This was so upsetting to Peter that he began to rebuke his Lord. For what Jesus said was scandalous. The gospel of Jesus Christ is in and of itself scandalous because it offers the startling and inexplicable claim that this person Jesus of Nazareth is both a real human being and God incarnate. But the specific scandal we heard about today is the claim that the Messiah must suffer humiliation, torture, and death rather than overthrow the government and wear royal robes. Jesus says, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering…and be killed.” This is scandalous because it means that God experiences suffering and pain and even death, just like we do. This doesn’t fit with many of our notions about the Divine. The scandal doesn’t stop there. Jesus not only up-ends Peter and the other disciples’ notions about God and the Messiah, he tells them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Taking up our cross means being willing to suffer the consequences for following Jesus faithfully, whatever those consequences might be. It means putting Jesus’ priorities and purposes ahead of our own comfort and security. It means daily struggling to reorient our entire value system to put the values and priorities of Jesus’s kingdom ahead of the values of this world. It means being willing to lose our lives by living for others -- using our time, resources, gifts, and energy so that others might experience God’s love made known in Jesus Christ.
This radical re-ordering of values and priorities doesn’t just happen the moment we’re baptized. It takes a conscious effort – an intentional putting on of our baptism – day in and day out, until the day we breathe our last breath. The woman who commented about Deacon Gerry’s sermon honestly didn’t grasp that in order to follow Jesus Christ, she would have to change.
It is only in losing our life that we save it. Following Christ means that we choose – day after day – to follow Jesus all the way to the cross with its suffering and shame. But just as Jesus’s story didn’t end with the Good Friday, neither does ours. Jesus rose victoriously over sin and death when he rose from the grave, and we too rise up from our baptism with the grace we need to resist temptation and to reorient our value system from the values of this world to the values of God’s kingdom.
Well, I’m not sure what I’m more likely to hear after the service. “Nice sermon, Father” or “You can go straight to hell.” Either way, the call to you and me this morning, to quote our closing hymn, is this: “Take up your cross, then, in his strength, and calmly every danger brave: it guides you to abundant life and leads to victory o’er the grave.” Amen.
 Verse 33.
 Verse 31.
 Much of this paragraph comes from David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B ed., vol. 4 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 68-69.
 The Hymnal 1982, hymn 675.
Proper 18, Year B
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
James 2:1-14, 17
September 5, 2021
A few years ago, a young man came to our church for the first time. He was homeless for a number of reasons, and he found St. Mary’s to be a welcoming place, kept coming week after week. One time, he told me about an experience he had when visiting another church here in town. He told me that they required the homeless to sit in a designated area of the church. Yeah. They segregated the homeless people in church.
In the epistle lesson from the book of James, we see a hypothetical scene unfold in which a rich person and a poor person show up in the assembly of early Jewish Christians. The rich man comes into the assembly wearing two markers of status in that culture: The gold rings on his fingers are not only indicative of wealth, but that he’s in the upper echelons of Roman nobility. In contrast to this rich, important figure, the poor person wore filthy rags. One can imagine him smelling as if he hadn’t bathed in weeks, and living in a perpetual state of humiliation because he has no money, or social standing, or place to call home. The greeter in this early Christian assembly responded to the rich man by rolling out the red carpet and seating him in a prominent and important place, while the poor person was told to stand off to the side or to sit on the floor by the greeter’s feet.
The greeter made a distinction between the rich man and the poor man, a distinction that society continues to make in our day. The values represented by the rich man in this story – political and social status and wealth and outward beauty – these are the values of this world. The kingdom of heaven has an entirely different value system. The kingdom of heaven is the reality of existence brought about by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in which the poor have been chosen to be rich in faith – in which the last shall be first and the first shall be last. The most important in the kingdom of heaven are the worthless rags of earth. We experience this kingdom partially now, but the powers of this world are not yet vanquished. The distinctions made in this story between rich and poor represent the spiritual forces of evil we fight as we battle on for the advancement of God’s kingdo here on earth. As we use our weapons of kindness and tenderness and love to fight this battle, we fight the urge within ourselves to make distinctions. To show partiality. To play favorites. Our ultimate goal in this battle is to fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
When people ask me, “What is the congregation like at St. Mary’s,” I usually find myself talking about how diverse we are – from a socioeconomic perspective, sexual orientation, age, etc. It’s one of the things I love most about this place – that the distinctions that human beings usually use to build barriers are the very least less important in this community. But before we pat ourselves on the back too quickly, let us ask ourselves this question: what values of the world do we hold too dear? With whom do we play favorites? Where do we even give the appearance of making distinctions?
James’s challenge sounds so simple and cliché: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The word “love” here is agape in Greek, which means “divine love.” This kind of love is far above and beyond all other forms of love and is distinctive to Christianity. This divine love trumps conditional love and partiality. But in much of our lives, partiality appears to win the day over agape love. St. James reminds us today that we are called to resist the urge to play favorites and make distinctions: we are called to unconditionally love others just as Christ loved us.
Many in our congregation bear a certain level of privilege. I don’t just mean those who have plenty of money, but many in our congregation have family members who love them, a steady and meaningful job, a shelter to go home to, plenty of food, and so on. St. James’ point isn’t to make anyone feel guilty for the privilege that we have, for whatever reason. For as the writer of our lesson from Proverbs said, “The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.” We are being reminded this morning that when we were baptized, we were buried with Christ in his death, and we began to share with Christ in his resurrection. In baptism, we signed on to the values of the kingdom of heaven, and committed to fulfill the royal law, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” – to unconditionally love everyone. And every time you walk through the doors of St. Mary’s, you’re at least given the opportunity to dip your fingers in the holy water stoop, make the sign of the cross, and put on your baptism once again. And in so doing, recommit yourself to joining in the spiritual battle with all of your fellow misfits here at St. Mary’s using the weapons of kindness, tenderness, truth, and love to build a parish – even a world – where there is no favoritism, distinction, or partiality.
Let us ask the Lord to open our eyes to the opportunities we have this week to love others unconditionally – without partiality, without distinction, without favoritism. And let us ask the Lord to show us how we can continue to break down man-made barriers and welcome all in Christ’s name here at St. Mary’s Church. Amen.
 Vs. 5.
 Vs. 8
 David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 40.
Proper 17, Year B
August 29, 2021
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
St. Mary’s is known, amongst other things, for its beautiful liturgies. If you’ve spent much time here, perhaps most poignantly back in the sacristy, you know that we are fussy about the tiniest liturgical nuance, including when we stand/sit/kneel, whether the server hands the priest things with the right hand or left hand, how to pronounce Latin words like aspergillum (the brush used to sprinkle Holy Water), to name a few. We know what the historic Anglo-Catholic ceremonial guides have to say about all of this and more, and we pride ourselves on following them to the best of our ability.
It’s easy to see ourselves as the Pharisees in today’s gospel lesson. They had gathered around Jesus who seems to be OK with not following the proper Jewish protocol for handwashing. Yes, there was a hygienic benefit to handwashing then just as there is now, but there was a profoundly religious reason for this protocol: in ancient Israel, as we know from the book of Exodus, priests were required to wash their hands ritually before serving in the Temple, and by Jesus’s day, this practice had become commonplace across Judaism (not just the priests). The Pharisees and scribes are scandalized as Jesus, despite his Jewish upbringing, seems perfectly fine with his disciples not keeping the ritual purity rules that had become the norm.
Jesus responds by quoting the prophet Isaiah, describing the way that God looks into the human heart. “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me…You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition”, Jesus quotes from Isaiah. In other words, the Pharisees and scribes are focused on the wrong thing. In focusing on human tradition and looking only at the outward appearance of things, they had failed to honor God, because it is what is in the human heart that matters to God.
Jesus didn’t throw out “human tradition” in its entirety, nor did he throw out specific commandments or ritual practices. I don’t think that Jesus would say that attention to ritual detail during our liturgy is unimportant or should be minimized. Rather, insisting on the ritual while overlooking the deeper truth behind it is like honoring God with our lips while our heart is far from him.
It’s easy to stop here and say that we understand what Jesus was saying, but then we miss out on his much harder message about hypocrisy. Hypocrisy refers to the disconnect between moral values and standards that we espouse and those that we actually practice in our behavior. Living hypocritically means that we try to fool others by taking on a role and pretending to be something that we are not. It is a denial of our authentic self in favor of the fabricated persona that we wish to be.
When Jesus accuses the Pharisees and scribes of being hypocrites, he’s not attacking them for pretending to be good when they were really evil. In fact, they were mostly good leaders. He’s saying that their self-righteous convictions about their own goodness had built an arrogant wall around them, isolating them from their fellow believers and making them deaf to any further word from God. Jesus wasn’t upset that the Pharisees observed ritual handwashing, and likewise, he’s not upset that we continue that same practice when the priest ritually washes his hands before celebrating the Eucharist. Believing that your righteousness in God’s eyes comes to you because you’ve followed the external ritual to the tee, and then judging others by how externally pious they are or aren’t – that’s what Jesus means by hypocrisy.
Jesus continues and tells the crowd that “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” This isn’t a list of sins that Jesus wants us to avoid, though that may not be a bad thing to do, it's simply a description of the human condition. We aren’t great people, no matter how hard we try. It is only when we acknowledge the sinfulness within our own hearts and receive God’s mercy and forgiveness that we can live an authentic spiritual life, free of hypocrisy. Just as Jesus saw through the external piety of the Pharisees and scribes, God can see right through our fabricated personas and fake piety and sees the evil in our hearts. And he loves us anyway.
Using the words of the older confession, let us “acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness”. Let us stand before God acknowledging who we really are without pretense and receive his unconditional grace and mercy. And let us continue to approach the liturgy of the church with great reverence, not to appear pious before God and others, but rather as an outward and visible reflection of the inward and spiritual grace we have received in our hearts. Amen.
 David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 20.
 Mark 7:15, 21-23.
 Same Old Song podcast, Mockingbird Ministries.
 1979 BCP p. 331.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!