Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year B
May 16, 2021
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
What does reading a mystery novel and going on a retreat at a monastery have in common?
Both are forms of escape from the world. When you read a mystery novel, you get lost in the story, fantasize about the lives of the characters, and so on. When you go on retreat at a monastery, you’re at least supposed to disconnect from electronic devices and the world at large and spend time in prayer and meditation. In both cases, you get to escape from the world around you.
We all need escape from time to time. We live in a world of constant pressures including complicated relationships, budgets, commutes, and other time constraints. It’s also full of temptation to sin, and oppressive societal pressures like sexism and racism and terrorism and the like.
Since the beginning, Christians felt the need to escape from the world. We want to follow Christ with all that we are, and being in the world in the midst of temptations and those who challenge our faith can be exhausting. We’ve glimpsed a vision of what is good and holy, and have experienced genuine Christian community where we forgive one another and learn to love each other despite our faults. We even experience a foretaste of heaven each time we celebrate the Eucharist together.
Some Christians throughout history have responded to this by living communally with likeminded Christians in monasteries or convents. On a smaller scale, many more occasionally visit monasteries or convents for a brief retreat from the world around us. In both cases, there’s an attempt in some way to “create a space, unencumbered by the world, that allows for a fuller realization of a faithful, holy Christian life.”
I remember back in my evangelical days when I was taught that allegiance to Christ meant avoiding certain movies, or abstaining from alcohol, or observing the rule that persons of the opposite gender couldn’t come in my dorm room as it might lead to an inappropriate sexual encounter. We were taught to avoid chunks of the world in order to be able to avoid becoming entangled in the world in such a way that living a faithful and holy Christian life isn’t possible.
The early Christians who heard Jesus’s prayer from St. John’s gospel lived in a conflict-ridden world in which being a Christian resulted in persecution. I can only imagine that they fanaticized about escaping to a world in which the Roman Emperor became a Christian, got baptized, and stopped persecuting them. A world where practicing one’s Christian faith was seen as admirable. A world where it was easy to gather with other Christians to tell the stories of Jesus and regularly receive him in the bread and the wine. A world where simply being a Christian isn’t dangerous.
This is the context of Jesus’s prayer. Note that it doesn’t include a request that they be allowed the luxury of escaping from this world. He instead asks the Father to protect them in his name. Jesus acknowledges that he and his disciples “do not belong to this world.” (v. 14) But he specifically prays, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.” Christ didn’t call them into community to escape from the world, but instead to stay in the world under God’s protective care. We too are called to stay in this world, in the midst of the terrors of mass shootings, and nuclear weapons, persistent racism, gender inequality, and even a global pandemic. But to stay in the world under God’s protective care. We are called to live life amid all of the evil in the world without ourselves getting entangled in it.
The fuller realization of a faithful and holy Christian life cannot be found in escape from the world, but instead in dedicating oneself to God entirely while still being an active part of the world. In verse 17, Jesus prays “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” The word “sanctify” means “total dedication to God.” This realization of holiness isn’t found in escape, but is found in the truth of God’s word – Jesus – as he is revealed in our world day in and day out.
Remaining in the world is not without its risks. Being a Christian without being wholly dedicated to Jesus leaves us open to succumbing to the evil around us and getting off track. What does being totally dedicated to God look like in everyday life?
The key is prioritizing one’s life by putting God before everything else, and more specifically by setting aside intentional time to pray and read the Bible.
Our evangelical brethren call this setting apart of time to spend with God “a quiet time.” It was a time when one is supposed to read the Bible and pray. My problem was this: I often found myself wondering what part of the Bible to read, or what to pray. I would pray for my family, and those who were sick, and various church leaders, but after that, what was there to do?
It was the discovery of what our prayer book calls the Daily Office that answered this question for me. In The Episcopal Church, the Daily Office consists of Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline with Morning and Evening Prayer being the primary and most important of the offices. These prayer services mark the hours of each day and sanctify the day with prayer. The Daily Office isn’t a magical thing to be done when you feel the need to escape, but it is a tried and true method to be sanctified in the truth. It’s all about prayer and the Bible, all tidied up and ready for you and I to use in our everyday lives. On the one hand, when I discovered Morning and Evening Prayer, I was grateful that the Church provided a systematic way to pray that has stood the test of time, and grateful that I no longer had to wonder how to proceed in private prayer; on the other hand, I no longer had an easy excuse when I didn’t know what to pray.
The Daily Office may not resonate with you. There are plenty of organized ways to pray and study the Bible out there, both new and old. The important thing is actually making time to pray and read the Bible! If that’s not something you’re doing now – or have ever done in your life – don’t be scared! Take the plunge and give it a try! Spend five minutes in the morning in quiet prayer, beginning by praising God and thanking him for his grace, followed by a few minutes listening to God, and then ending with intercessory prayer for those you love.
Jesus prays, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” This is the opposite of getting out of the world! That said, we can’t escape the temptation to escape from the world. But Jesus is redirecting our desires today. We should look to “create a space, unencumbered by the world, that would allow for a fuller realization of a faithful, holy Christian life,” not by escaping from the world, but by dedicate ourselves to Jesus Christ while living our lives in the world under God’s protective care. We are called to live life amid all of the evil in the world without ourselves getting entangled with the world. In order to do this, we need to intentionally spend time with God in prayer by sanctifying ourselves in the word which is truth. One way to do this is by praying the official prayers of the Church in the Daily Office, but there are many other ways. We are called not to disengage from the world, but intentionally press into God while still in the world, and in so doing, we receive the grace and fortitude to live as a Christian in the midst of our broken world that we might have a more abundant life, right here, and right now. 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), 545.
 Verse 11.
 Feasting 547.
 Michael D. Coogan, Marc Zvi Brettler, Carol A. Newsom, and Pheme Perkins, The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version : With the Apocrypha : An Ecumenical Study Bible. 4th ed. (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford UP, 2010), 1910.
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The Rev’d Charles Everson
May 13, 2021
As the psalmist said, “God is gone up with a merry noise, and the Lord with the sound of the trumpet.” According to the Scripture, on the very first Ascension Day, the Lord commissioned His Apostles to preach the Gospel to all nations; then, having blessed them, "he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9).
After all the disciples had been through with Jesus – the agony of his death, and the joy of his resurrection – it’s hard to imagine the sadness and despair they must have felt when he disappeared from their sight. The disciples saw him after the resurrection – they felt the marks of the nails in his hands and his side, and even ate with him – but now he’s gone.
Not only is God gone up, humanity is too! For we believe that God humbled himself to share in our humanity in the incarnation of Jesus Christ at Christmas. Through the mystery of the Ascension of Jesus into heaven, we who are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under the Lord’s table, are taken up with him. In the words of St. John Chrysostom, “Our very nature, against which Cherubim guarded the gates of Paradise, is enthroned today high above all Cherubim.”
Despite their sadness, the disciples were hopefully prepared as they heard their Lord tell say to them,
“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
Unlike the disciples, we know how this plays out. Ten days after Jesus’s ascension, the Holy Spirit comes with power with a sound like the rush of a violent wind. Jesus keeps his promise and does not leave us orphaned. Though his body left this earth, by the mighty power of the Holy Spirit, he continues to work in the world today primarily in the Sacraments of the Church. By the power of the Spirit, when someone is baptized, they are cleansed from sin and welcomed into the household of God. By the power of the Spirit, the same Jesus who ascended body and soul into heaven on that first Ascension Day is the same Jesus who is here among us in the consecrated bread and wine.
Let us give thanks that “God is gone up with a merry noise, and the Lord with the sound of the trumpet!” Let us give thanks to God for not leaving us orphaned. Let us give thanks that “when two or three are gathered together in [his] name, [he] will be in the midst of [us].” And let us give thanks that we are not alone – that God is manifesting his presence to us by the Holy Spirit in the face of the poor, and in the most holy Sacrament of the Altar.
 Hom. in Ascens., 2; PG, 50, 414.
 John 14.
Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B
May 2, 2021
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Acts 8:26-40; 1 John 4:7-21
In the reading from Acts, we continue to get a peek into the life of the early Church just after the resurrection of Jesus. Most scholars believe that the book of Acts was part of a two-part work comprised of Luke and Acts together, authored by St. Luke the Evangelist. St. Luke was a Gentile, meaning he wasn’t Jewish, and Luke-Acts is the only book in the New Testament written for a Gentile audience. Acts is a book written by an outsider for outsiders.
The story begins with an angel telling Philip to go out into the wilderness. There, he encountered an Ethiopian eunuch who had come to the Temple to worship and was returning home. The differences between the eunuch and Philip are striking. First, the fact that he’s Ethiopian in 1st century Palestine means that he had much darker skin than the Hebrews. He’s of a different race. Second, he’s a foreigner from somewhere south of Egypt, which is largely an unknown place to the Hebrews.  He’s of a different ethnic background and nationality. And third, he’s a eunuch. In ancient times, a eunuch was a castrated male servant who was trusted to perform social functions for royalty. Essentially, they were neutered male human beings. As long as the deed was done before puberty, they were deemed safe to serve among women of the royal household. Despite this, eunuchs were stereotyped as sexually immoral people. His sexual state seems to be rather important to Luke as each of the five times he refers to the Ethiopian in this passage, he’s identified as “the eunuch.” The bottom line is that this Ethiopian guy was different in so many ways from both Philip and the earliest Jewish Christians. He was an outsider.
He was reading the book of Isaiah when Philip ran into him. After reading the passage from Isaiah which we now refer to as “the Suffering Servant” passage, the eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Christians today often say that Isaiah meant to refer to Jesus, but that’s not actually true. Isaiah, after all, died about 700 years before Jesus was born. We never hear Philip’s answer to the eunuch’s question. Instead, Luke tells us that Philip begin to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to the Ethiopian the good news about Jesus.
While they were riding along in the wilderness in the Ethiopian’s chariot, they came to some water. The Eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized!” After hearing about the Good New of Jesus Christ from Philip and randomly seeing some water, this guy asks a theological question about why he can’t simply be baptized. The only response to his question was the baptism itself. In other words, nothing is to prevent him from being baptized. Baptism is the great Sacrament of inclusion. It is open to all, without rules or conditions. It’s open to black and white, young and old, rich and poor, gay and straight, cis-gender and trans-gender, Jew and Gentile.
In this story, Philip listens to the voice of God via the angel, and when stumbling upon some guy who anyone in their right mind would consider a weirdo, he shares his faith with him. And this is the way the Christian faith has been passed on ever since. Person to person. Insider to outsider. And when the outsider decides to respond by asking to be baptized, the Church does so.
In today’s church, there are those who believe there should be a lengthy catechetical process prior to baptism. Some believe that priests shouldn’t baptize people who aren’t thoroughly trained and prepared for what they’re getting themselves into. I fear that they’re missing the point entirely. “Look,” the Ethiopian said, “here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The answer is absolutely nothing. Immediate baptism: if it’s good enough for Philip, it’s good enough for me. If you have not been baptized and would like to be, come talk to me, and we get it scheduled soon.
Baptism is the great Sacrament of Inclusion. It’s open to all without condition. Baptism is the great leveler of humanity. We all process back from the baptismal font the same as the person standing next to us. Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch are both baptized Christians, and yet are very different people. Baptism doesn’t erase the differences or remove their human individuality, but it serves as the beginning of the Christian life and the entrance into the household of God in such a way that they are equals.
One of the things I love most about St. Mary’s is our diversity. I miss the Reception after Mass where it was common to see a young person who’s been here two months sitting next to an older person who has been here for decades, or the rich person chatting with the poor person, or the black person having coffee with the white person. These conversations can be gristly and rough around the edges at times as the two people are coming from completely different contexts and perspectives. But through our common faith in Christ, these sorts of relationships are not only possible, but are life-giving and beautiful, and have so much to offer our fractured and polarized world. When you encounter someone who is radically different than you, and open yourself up to talk about something as intimate as your faith, both of your lives are enriched, and your hearts are changed.
Sometimes, we are afraid of people who are different than we are. That’s an instinctual human response. Fear is a powerful force, and it can lead to ignoring God’s voice when we are called like Philip was to go on a journey to which we don’t know the final destination. How can we overcome fear and say yes to God?
Not romantic love, not the love you feel for your parents or siblings, not sentimental love. The love we heard about our second lesson in John’s first epistle. The Greek word used throughout this passage is agape, love that gives without expecting a return, sacrificially. God is love, agape. Jesus died for us as an act of agape, and we ought to agape one another. In other words, friends, you and I are called to express outwardly what we have received personally from God – a sacrificial love that gives without expecting a return. Love in this sense isn’t an ideal to aspire to or an emotion we feel, it’s a tangible choice.
As we hear and respond to God’s call to share our faith with others, we will encounter fear. Let us respond to this fear with agape love, a sacrificial love that gives without expecting a return. Let us reach out to the outsider that is different than we are and share our deep and abiding faith in Jesus Christ. And then, when the outsider responds in faith, let’s bring them into the household of God in the waters of baptism.
 David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville (Ky.): Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 457.
 Ibid 469.
April 24, 2021
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Since Easter Day, we’ve been exploring Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances. On this Fourth Sunday of Easter, the focus shifts to reflecting on who Jesus is and what that means for his followers. Throughout the centuries, the Church has used a variety of images to express Christ’s identity to the faithful, and the image of the Jesus as the Good Shepherd has been an enduring one. While some of you may have grown up in a part of the world where shepherds and sheep are commonplace, my suburban Johnson County upbringing wasn’t one of those places. Frankly, one of the first things I thought of upon reading this passage is a recent use of the word sheep in modern, civic discourse I occasionally come across online in the dreaded comments section, particularly the comments posted in response to news articles. The term is actually sheeple, and according to Urban Dictionary, sheeple is a combination of the words sheep and people meaning that the person or persons are acting as a group, or only to behave based on what’s trending. This modern metaphor implies that sheep are dumb.
Apparently, according to those who know more about these things than I do, sheep are not dumb. It was cattle ranchers who started that rumor as sheep do not behave like cows. Cows are herded from behind with shouts and prods from the cowboys. But that doesn’t work with sheep. If you stand behind sheep making noises, they will just run around behind you. They actually prefer to be led. Cows can be pushed; sheep must be led. Sheep won’t go anywhere that their trusted shepherd does not go first, to show them everything is alright. They seem to think that shepherds are part of their family, and the sheep and shepherds develop a language of their own that outsiders are not privy to.
Of course, when Jesus spoke of shepherds and sheep, he was speaking to people who had everyday experiences with them. They knew about a shepherd’s unique relationship with his flock when Jesus said, “I know my own and my own know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father.” Yes, Jesus knows humanity intimately because he became human and dwelled among us. But, in the words of the opening prayer today, he also calls us each by name. Thank God, for just like sheep, we are prone to go astray. We may get distracted and stop listening to the shepherd’s voice, or wander off because we are tempted to go graze in what looks like a greener pasture than where the shepherd is leading us. As the prophet Isaiah foretold, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way.” The Good Shepherd, unlike the hired hand, sees the wolf coming long before he arrives, and protects his flock, even those who have gone astray.
What comfort this gives us! But just as the sheep and shepherds develop a language of their own over time, so too do Jesus and his followers get to know one another more intimately over time. This doesn’t happen overnight, or without deliberate effort. As Christians worship and pray together, as we immerse ourselves in the Scriptures, the liturgy of the church, and receive grace and nourishment from the Sacraments habitually, by God’s grace, God slowly conforms our will to his will and our desires to his desires. We learn to recognize the voice of the shepherd little by little over time. I received Jesus’s call to holiness of life very differently when I first started being intentional about private prayer and communal worship than I do today. Of course, this doesn’t mean that I don’t go astray. The wolves come after me today just as they did when I was a much younger Christian, but the practice of intentional daily prayer, and frequent reception of the Sacraments over many years has helped me to recognize the deceptive mirage of the “greener grass elsewhere” more quickly than before.
Jesus’s followers had grown up telling and re-telling the story of Moses and the flight out of Egypt. Each year they heard the call to “take a lamb for each family” and prepare the Passover meal. But in this metaphor, the shepherd intentionally becomes the sacrificial lamb. Not so with the hired hand who runs away because a hired hand doesn’t care for the sheep. The Good Shepherd willingly lays down his life for his sheep of his own accord in order to take it up again. Jesus’s death, as the ultimate expression of the love relationship that exists between the Father and the Son, extends that love to each of us who choose to follow him, and Jesus’s resurrection from the dead seals for us his promise to defend and protect us from every enemy, even death itself.
Friends, we are not “sheeple”, blindly following our shepherd, even if that means following him right on over a cliff. We follow where he leads, with a deep and abiding faith that he will lead through death to resurrection. Let us build strong spiritual habits by immersing ourselves in Scripture, both private and communal prayer, and so listen to the voice of Jesus, our Good Shepherd; and when we hear it, may we know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads. Amen.
 Most of this paragraph is from David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville (Ky.): Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 450.
 John 11:14-15.
 John 1:14.
 Isaiah 53:6.
 Exodus 12:3b
 NISB 1929.
April 4, 2021
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The scene that St. John sets before us in the gospel lesson we just heard has all the features of a good movie: vivid detail, gripping suspense, and powerful human emotion. More importantly, it tells a down-to-earth story about something with which all of us struggle: the odd claim to have a relationship with Jesus Christ, even though he has never stood before us physically in the flesh. But even more bizarre is the Christian claim to believe that he rose from the dead, for we know that dead people don’t rise from their graves and walk around.
Like most Christians, we Episcopalians believe that our relationship with Christ begins with baptism. In the baptismal rite, the priest asks the Candidate or the parents and godparents, “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?” It’s very easy for most to respond, “I do.” It’s also easy to say, “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,” as we will in a moment when we recite the Nicene Creed. Speaking these words is quite simple, but is often done without much emotion or thought, and doesn’t indicate that we’ve necessarily had some sort of personal encounter with Christ.
In today’s Gospel, we see a very different kind of encounter with Jesus. This encounter isn’t only tangible and physical, it’s emotional and deeply personal. For Mary Magdalene, her encounter with the risen Christ involved her eyes and her ears and a person standing before her. It is very real.
After the events that lead to Jesus’s arrest, torture, and death, she comes to his tomb only to find that someone has presumably stolen his dead body. She is so caught up in her raw emotion that she doesn’t even recognize Jesus when he’s standing right in front of her. When she responds to him, assuming he is the gardener, Jesus doesn’t offer some sort of generic response. He says, “Mary.” He uses a word that applies to her and her alone, a word that captures the particularity of her individual life – her name. His response was deeply personal.
You and I don’t have the benefit of seeing the resurrected Jesus in the flesh as she did. How can our faith in Jesus be as real as Mary Magdalene’s faith?
While we don’t see him in the flesh, in the waters of baptism, God used ordinary water to grant us grace, despite the fact that we didn’t earn it or deserve it. According to our catechism, at baptism, God adopted us as his children and made us members of Christ’s body, the Church. At baptism, we were united with Christ in his death and resurrection, born into God’s family, forgiven of our sins, and given new life in the Holy Spirit.
Children. Life. Members. Family. Born. Forgiven. These words reflect a deeply personal relationship between us as individuals and God, a God who calls us each by name, just as he did Mary Magdalene. At baptism, the candidates are baptized not anonymously, but by name. God’s interest in us is deeply personal – his interest in us is just as real as it was when he said to her, “Mary.”
I’m not sure about you, but if God were distant and far away, like a clockmaker who sets his clock in motion and leaves it alone to operate without any further interaction, I wouldn’t have the slightest bit of interest. But a God who sees and knows the most intimate parts of my life – my body, my past, my dreams and disappointments, my future – a God who loves and cares deeply about all these intimate aspects of my life? That’s the sort of God we see revealed in Jesus Christ.
Like with Mary Magdalene, Jesus comes to us not as a zombie, or a ghost, but as a person. He doesn’t come to us as a disembodied spirit, but as a whole, integrated person – body, mind and spirit. He didn’t just come to save our souls, he came to redeem our minds and our bodies as well. He cares about how we spend our money, and what we do with our time, and how we treat the bodies God gave us, and how we treat the poor person we encounter, just as much as he cares about our thoughts and prayers. Jesus doesn’t just come to us in our hearts, he comes to us physically: in the waters of baptism, in the bread and wine at Holy Communion, in the physical intimacy between spouses, and so on.
We don’t get to see Jesus in the flesh like Mary did. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…it’s not an easy thing to wrap our heads around as dead people don’t generally rise up from their graves and walk around. I’m not sure about you, but to me, a God who is interested in both the spiritual and the physical realms...a God who loves humanity enough to become one of us in order to redeem the worst parts of who we are…a God who loves me enough to care about the intimate parts of my life…a God who loved the world so much that he not only gave his Son for our sake, but promised us that he would be with us always…a God who lavishly pours out his love for us physically again and again in our world today…that’s the kind of God that sounds interesting to me.
This Easter Day, as we encounter the risen Christ at this altar, let us pray for the grace to recognize him in the breaking of the bread. Let us renew our faith in the One who loves us so deeply that he gave up everything for us. And let us rejoice that he has called each of us by name into a deep and personal relationship with him. 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), 376.
 Feasting 378.
 Catechism of the 1979 BCP..
April 2, 2021
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
When I give tours of the church, I usually start in the back, and move my way toward the high altar. This entire space is built in such a way that the focus of the eye is always drawn to the altar. I begin with describing the women saints that adorn the front of the altar, then point to where Fr. Jardine is buried underneath the horn of the north steps. Before I can get to the rest of it, I’m often interrupted by some version of this question: “What is that box for?” The box in question is directly above the altar in the center, and in it, we keep the reserve sacrament, the leftover communion bread that was consecrated at a previous Mass. Today is the one day in the calendar when the Sacrament is not reserved. Normally, we would pay Jesus homage by bowing or genuflecting toward this holy place, perhaps catching a glimpse of the sanctuary lamp that burns as a reminder of his presence. But not today. The lamp has been extinguished, the doors thrown open, the tabernacle emptied, the sanctuary stripped. As Mary Magdalene said when faced with the empty tomb, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” The empty tabernacle declares to all what happened on this day: our Lord has died to save us from our sins.
The tabernacle, in the Western tradition, is, among other things, analogous to the Holy of Holies in Judaism. The Holy of Holies was the holiest of all places on earth for the Hebrew people. It was in the innermost part of the Temple in Jerusalem, and it was only in the Holy of Holies that God’s presence appeared. Once every year, the high priest, and no one else, lifted a corner of a curtain that shielded the Holy of Holies to go inside and make a blood offering for himself and for the sins of the people. The curtain kept God hidden; only the high priest could pass through the curtain once a year and be in the intimate presence of God.
What curtains do we have in our lives that keep God hidden? What curtains keep us separated from God?
It’s quite easy for us to see ourselves as defective and thus unworthy to be in God’s presence. Even those human beings who were blessed with good looks go through times of feeling physically unattractive – even ugly – and project these views on God, leaving us with the feeling that God feels just as disgusted with our bodies as we are. We see ourselves as “less than” in all sorts of ways, perhaps especially when we’re self-evaluating our prayer lives. In this way, our defectiveness becomes a curtain, keeping God hidden and far away. In the same way, we often erect a curtain between us and God when we throw in the towel because we’re sick and tired of repeating the same sins over and over again. Each of us has specific tendencies to sin – for some, it’s greed, for others it’s gluttony, for others it’s fornication. By God’s help, we will try to stop, but it’s likely that we’re going to continue to have the same tendency to sin tomorrow, 10 years from now, perhaps until the day we die. It’s easy to put up a nice, thick curtain between you and God and stop trying to resist that particular temptation altogether.
On this day so long ago, the curtain separating us from God was forever torn in two. The author of Hebrews says, “Since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”
Any good Jew would have been scandalized to hear that they might be able to intimately know God in the same way the high priest did – to enter into his presence. Just as the tearing of the curtain in the temple made the Holy of Holies visible, so that all could freely enter, so Jesus, whose flesh is torn open upon the cross, unveils the God of heaven so that all may enter in to relationship with Him. On that cross, God himself bowed his head and submitted to death, suffering for us. Veiled in flesh, God himself is torn open on the cross to remove anything that might inhibit us from coming into God’s presence. While all human beings are made in God’s image, the pure water that washed us at our baptism restored us all the more to the way we were supposed to be before Adam and Eve ate from that tree so long ago, and continues to give us the grace to see ourselves not as defective, but as beautiful and wonderfully made. The grace given to us at baptism continues to give us the strength we need to strive for holiness day in and day out and strive to resist committing those stubborn sins we continue to struggle with day after day.
Friends, let us give thanks to almighty God that Jesus set his passion, cross and death between his judgment and our souls. Let us give thanks that in Jesus, all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. Let us give thanks for the empty tabernacle, for on this day, our Lord has died to save us from our sins.
 John 20:13.
 https://www.thecatholicthing.org/2011/04/22/the-empty-tabernacle/. Accessed March 23, 2021.
 David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville (Ky.): Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, 299.
 Hebrews 19b-22
 1979 BCP p. 489.
 Colossians 1:19-20.
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!