Fourth Sunday of Lent
March 15, 2015
Fr. John Kilgore
St. Paul’s Within the Walls, Rome, Italy
It is so good to be back! Many have welcomed me so very warmly! Thank you. This is my fourth time at St. Paul’s within-the-Walls, covering for Father Austin who is away on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. A great experience for him. I am so glad he was able to go, for the first time. But he needs to be careful. He really needs to be careful!
Not because of the political situation there. Not because of potential terrorists. But because…. I want to tell you a story. A true story that will explain why he needs to be careful…
But let me come back to that. Keep that in mind and don’t forget; I will tell you a true story. But first let’s look at what we are dealing with today. This scripture.
We have three fairly disparate readings here. The lectionary we use, which is what we call the schedule of readings for services, is very thoughtfully arranged by brilliant scholars and theologians. The Sunday readings are in a three year cycle, we are in Year B. The readings rotate regularly and on a well-considered schedule that takes account of the seasons of the church year, holy days, etc. If you were in church every Sunday for three years you would hear nearly ninety percent of the Bible read, or at least heard almost all of the major stories and vignettes. In this arrangement of readings we call the Lectionary, there is usually an Old Testament reading; a reading from one of the Epistles, or letter, written by Paul, or one of the early followers of Christ; and a reading from one of the four gospels. Usually there is a fairly strong theme in the lectionary readings. Today we have the Old Testament reading from Numbers, the Epistle (the Letter) from Paul to the Ephesians, and the Gospel from the third chapter of John.
The theme, truthfully, is a little bit difficult to tease out today. We have Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness, they are getting discontented. ‘Why have you brought us up of of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no food and no water and we detest this miserable food.’ You can just imagine Moses’ angst at this situation. Here he is trying to help them, save them, and follow God, and they are very ungrateful, sin against God, and get bitten by poisonous serpents sent by the Lord. And after that they call on Moses, again, to protect them, he makes the bronze serpent to indeed protect them, at God’s urging it is important to add, and they live. Now there is a loose connection, theme if you will when, in John’s gospel passage today, reference is made to that serpent passage when Jesus says to Nicodemus, ‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.…’ But then the gospel goes right on to talk about the famous passage most of us learned very young, John 3:16, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…’ and then the gospel continues with ‘God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but to save the world,’ and talks about our lives of light and darkness. Still a little hard to get a theme. And Ephesians doesn’t help much either. ‘Dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived…passions of our flesh…[and]…for by grace you have been saved through faith and this is not your own doing…’
When the thrust of the readings is not clear or apparent it is usually helpful to look at the context; the passages that come before and after our appointed lectionary readings. I looked at those and didn’t get much insight.
So what to do when the theme of a reading doesn’t come out, is difficult to see, or is rather murky? Well, I, in preparing to preach, say my prayers a bit more, read a few other sources, and keep my eyes open in the world around me for ways in which God is speaking. And this particular week keeping my eyes open has meant being very cognizant of where I am in the world. And where I have been recently. As a rather recently retired physician (cardiologist) and increasingly active Episcopal priest since ordination 11 years ago this month (foreshadowing of the story to come!), I have been traveling a great deal preaching, teaching, praying, or speaking to raise money for my favorite charity, the Order of St. John, which has an eye hospital in the Holy Land that we support. That hospital treats all that walk in the doors — Arabs and Jews, those of Christian, Muslim, or Jewish faith, and those without faith. And the hospital has established outreach clinics in Hebron, Gaza, and other parts of the West Bank. And so as a result of this I reflected that I have worshipped or preached in Los Angeles, California, Palm Beach, Florida; San Diego, California; Amelia Island, Florida; Charleston, South Carolina; St. Louis, Missouri; and now here in Rome, Italy. All within the last month. And here in Rome I have worshipped alone, with two, with four, twenty, and now with this large group of you. And it causes me to reflect on how diverse our worship can be. And how similar. And what a rich history of worship we have, especially here in the holy city of Rome.
I am really struck by the fact that very much of our Christian history took place right here in this very spot. Fr. Austin is in the Holy Land where Jesus was born, walked, talked, touched, taught, and healed. And it wasn’t too long after that that people began walking around the Middle East and telling the amazing story of Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection. And repeating his teachings. If you think about it we have the advantage of knowing the story, knowing how it turned out. In hindsight. It is all kind of tied up in a neat little package with a bow. But the apostles had to live it forward. They didn’t know what was to come. And the early Christians likewise. They had to figure out what it meant and give expression to it. Meet in homes and have what we today call house eucharists, but they were having a meal and retelling the stories as told to them and blessing bread and wine as Jesus had. Actually continuing the Jewish traditions of sharing meals and praising God, and adding a new twist.
The apostle Paul, and many many others, traveled this entire Mediterranean region, Damascus, Syria, Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonica, Carthage, Alexandria, and Rome, telling the story and spreading the word. Telling the reality of Jesus. Paul was imprisoned a mile of so from here. Just a few blocks away Christians were tortured at the Coliseum. And the catacombs were built just a bit further away as places of worship and to bury the dead. It wasn’t until the fourth century and the conversion of Constantine that Christianity became the official religion and the persecution of Christians ceased. And that churches as formal buildings began to be built. And here in Rome there is a church on almost ever block, the Vatican being the mother church and housing the remains of Peter beneath in the Scavi. ‘On this rock I build my church.’ We have come a long way from the time of Constantine. And in 1873 this parish, St.Paul’s Within-the-Walls, was consecrated with the laying of the cornerstone. And today a refugee center responds to our Lord’s command to help those in need, you reach out to those in need in so many ways, glorious music is offered, communion is given, and God is worshipped.
There are lots of ways to worship God. Not only in our own Anglican tradition which has much commonality, but also much diversity, but within the rest of the Christian church, and in fact in all the three great Abrahamic faiths of the world: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
Our worship of God takes many forms. Among many varied and diverse peoples. And in many places. Which brings me back to theme of our readings today. God so loving the world… God making himself known to us, in so many ways, in so many places. God inspiring our worship of Him. God touching our lives around the world and through time. The Israelites were protected by a brass serpent? Jesus, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, died on a cross and was resurrected for our sins? Really? The first shall be last and the last shall be first? Take care of the poor, not the rich and powerful? How contrary to our thoughts and ways! This God of ours works in strange and surprising ways.
And Fr. Austin is over there where it all began with Jesus. He needs to be careful!
The story I promised.
In 1994 I was a successful prosperous cardiologist in the United States. Chief of Staff at my hospital and head of a large group of doctors. Living well and quite happy. Through a series of life events, including the loss of my brother to AIDS in 1992, I made friends in the Episcopal Church and became involved in the Order of St. John, which I mentioned earlier, has an eye hospital in Jerusalem. My dear and recently deceased friend, Fr. John Andrew, rector of St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in New York, strongly encourage me to ‘go to the Holy Land dear boy, and see this hospital that you give time, energy, and money to…’ So I went with my camera and plans to take photographs of the good works and return to the States taking a slide show around the country raising money for the hospital; which I did. But in the six days I was in the Holy Land, something happened. I walked the streets and hills and wadis and saw the landscape where Moses came over the rise at Mt. Nebo and saw the Promised Land, but couldn’t enter; walked the streets where Jesus walked (and countless pilgrims since then); prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed and the disciples couldn’t stay awake, and in the Upper Room where Pentecost occurred; and had some quiet time to just sit in the gardens and soak it all in; and listen. For the first time in my life I think I was still long enough to hear the tapping on my shoulder, and that still quiet voice. When I returned home, I got off the plane and my friend Sally greeted me. She looked at my face and said, ‘What happened?’ I burst into tears and said, ‘The peace, the peace that passes all understanding. I finally know what it means.’ I went into discernment, was ordained, and here I am twenty-one years later, serving as a priest in the Church of God.
This God of ours works in strange ways. Strong and powerful ways. Moses. Nicodemus. Paul. Constantine. Jesus. I mentioned the early Christians around the Mediterranean, and the church across America and here that I have recently worshipped in on my travels, and the early house churches. We are all doing the same thing. And that is the message. God so loves the world that He acts in our lives, changes our lives. Inserts himself. And sent Jesus the Christ. We never know what is next. I didn’t.
Remember at the beginning I said that Fr. Austin should be careful. He should be. He is in a dangerous place. But not because of security. But because God is working in our very midst. And does amazing, surprising, life changing things. Every day. And not just there but also right here in the eternal city of Rome.
In 1995 The Right Reverend Jeffery Rowthorn, Bishop-in-charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe had just worshipped in this very sanctuary and he wrote, ‘[In the course of the liturgy at St. Paul’s I had] a clear glimpse of heaven. The mix of languages (English, Italian, and Spanish), the continents represented in the congregation (Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas), a bishop, a priest, and a deacon from Ecuador, a newly ordained woman priest from England, Catholics and non-Catholics singing the praises of God together in the choir, and all of us united in the One Faith. I cannot tell you how deeply moved I was to catch this glimpse of heaven…’
Glimpses of heaven are all around — in California, and Florida, and the Holy Land, and Rome, and here at St. Pauls. God works in amazing ways…and so loves the world.
‘God so loved the world…’ We had better be careful!