The Reverend George C. Wong Sermon
The Fifth Sunday in Lent, 21 March 2021, Hebrews 5:5-10“Mind the gap.” Most will recognize the distinctly British phrase. The recorded message reminds subway riders to watch out for the open space between the platform and the train.
Reading this week’s Epistle and with the horrific events of this week on my mind, I had a picture of a different kind of gap, not between a platform and a train, but a gap that imperils and threatens not merely our physical bodies, but our very life here and beyond.
I am talking about the yawning gap between the world we inhabit and the world that God envisioned at creation.
The news of the hate-filled murders in Atlanta and countless other racially motivated attacks around the country streamed onto my computer screen. Even when I tried to shut out such news out of fatigue and despair, such news seemed to find its way to me. The impact of the news testifying to this gulf can be discouraging and disheartening.
Christians have long noted the existence of such a chasm. St. Augustine described the City of Man and the City of God. The earthly city was characterized by strife and evil, and the City of God was characterized by peace and the eternal truths of God. Ultimately, the City of God will triumph, but the contest is fierce and all consuming, essentially he wrote that the battle lines are drawn between good and evil.
Like Augustine, I see that the gap between so much around me and the City of God. At times, it seems like the City of Man is winning. Our text from the book of Hebrews describes Jesus as a member of the royal priesthood of the order of Melchizedek. In this role, Jesus mediates between God and man, and intercedes on our behalf.
As the mediator between heaven and earth, Jesus bridges the gap between our world and the world that should be, one definitely more heavenly in nature and character.
It is comforting that Jesus is our high priest and mediator, and came to give his all for us. But the fact that Jesus acts in this role begs questions about the nature of God, given that Jesus was not spared suffering and death even though he prayed fervently and was without sin.
Why did God allow Jesus to suffer and die?
Is God a cruel, masochist that demands the suffering of others including his own Son?
These questions seem to make sense but it helps to view the suffering of Jesus from another point of view, which helps us see God not as cruel but as one who would do anything for us, anything include suffer for and alongside us.
As the one who came to mediate between our reality and the heavenly reality, Jesus did not opt to stand apart and help us from a safe distance.
Instead of minding the gap, Jesus jumped fully into the gap, into harm’s way, with us.
God surely could have stood apart and away from distance. God had and has that power and ability. God chose to be in solidarity with each of us. God chose to be in harm’s way for us.
And, it was a costly decision, which meant the painful death of Jesus, a fate that even he initially wanted to avoid.
It was also a decision by God that revealed to us the true character of God. God who is all powerful is also self-giving, full of compassion is also willing to adopt a posture of humility, lowliness and endure suffering for our sake.
Jesus is not the distant mediator, a remote figure, but an in the trenches mediator, who got down in the muck with us. In this ongoing mediation, we have a part to play—an essential part which will determine if such a mediation will work. Many a mediation has fallen apart when there is no sincere effort to bridge a gap by all parties involved.
God has shown faithfulness to us by going into the gap for us in the person of Jesus. But, Jesus needs our help and cooperation. God will not force us to cooperate.
We must make the decision to participate in our own healing and reconciliation with God.
When we do that, we will experience the peace which passes all understanding and we will experience life in the community of the beloved.
God loves us each and all.
God has and will continue to do everything possible to create the conditions for our healing and wholeness. But we need to meet God with our own desire for healing and wholeness. God will not wave the magic wand over us ever.
Our participation is a big reason that it is so important in Lent to take on a posture of humility, remorse for what we have done and what we have failed to do, forgiveness for others and to amend of our lives. We signal our decision to turn to God by being active participants in worship, prayer, study of scripture, mediation, reflection and holy conversation about things which separate us, like racial hatred.
In these ways, we become better able to be inspired by the Spirit to close that chasm between this world and the hope and of world that is yet to fully emerge, infused with the Peace that passes all understanding.
As that particularly British subway recording says with unintended meaning beyond the underground: “ mind the gap.”
Watch out for the pitfalls of the City of Man and all its distractions and allures. They are glittery and compelling and catch our attention and eyes. But, it is important to remember that if we fall into the pit, that Jesus has been there in the depths praying out to God. He knows us. Jesus gets us. Jesus sees us as we are.
Augustine wrote speaking of the fork in the road that we all eventually face: “if he had remained firm with the help of God, he would receive his merited reward.”
Called to persevere and to fight the good fight, if we make the decision to turn towards Jesus who gave his all for us, he will bridge that gap for us and we will be given a taste of the eternal life here and then taste it fully in the City of God, the home God longs for us to live and thrive in.
The Fifth Sunday in Lent, 21 March 2021, Hebrews 5:5-10
The Reverend George C. Wong's Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, 7 February 2021, Gospel of John 2:13-22.
Masterclass is a company which sells subscriptions for online lectures and tutorials taught by celebrities and experts on subjects like cooking, art, composing, acting and designing, writing and others. The classes are highly polished productions, and are mostly meant for the viewer to have fun and to be affirmed. But Master classes have been around a long time especially in the classical piano world.
I recently watched one such Master class, where the instructor was Daniel Barenboim, the world famous pianist and conductor, who is also known as one of the finest interpreters of Beethoven. He listened intently to Lang Lang, who has since become one of the world’s elite classical pianists, but was then a promising young conservatory student. With Barenboim sitting nearby, Lang Lang played the 1st movement of the Appassionata sonata, a very difficult sonata to play well.
Lang Lang played with great skill to the delight of the gathered. But their approval was a foregone conclusion. His eyes rose up to meet Barenboim’s, clearly seeking the approval of the master. Barenboim did not immediately respond and everyone held their breath.
Then he said: “really Lang Lang that was wonderful and had so much color.” Then he proceeded to offer critiques, and went measure by measure about ways in which Lang had missed the mark. To most people, Lang Lang played perfectly, like a virtuoso. To Barenboim’s ear, the playing was correct note-wise, but did not convey the intent of the composer and thus was incomplete as an interpretation.
Barenboim’s intent was to offer Lang Lang some clear assessments about his playing which was very good, but could not be considered sublime. This was because Lang Lang was not conveying meaning the composer had intended. He could only do so by hearing honest feedback about his where he missed the mark—shortcomings which most would overlook gladly. Lang Lang was already an up and coming star in the world of classical piano, yet, he sat at the feet of his teacher and took it all in—a sign of his humility and also to his great benefit—often only those willing to be torn down can build back up.
In today’s gospel, Jesus is running his own kind of Masterclass with his own brand of honesty, prophetic words. Jesus storms into the temple grounds and begins overturning the money changers tables. Incensed, he chases everyone out with an improvised whip of cords. Jesus was furious that the temple, his Father’s house, had been defiled and that the ground had degenerated into a seedy marketplace.
In principal, there was nothing wrong with money changing. Worshippers could not use Roman coins to buy sacrificial animals in the temple. Caesar’s face appeared on every coin, so to use coins to transact on the temple grounds would have been considered idolatrous. So the money changers served a needed function.
But the practice of money changing had taken a wrong turn under the watch of the temple leadership. The moneychangers had been taking advantage of their sanctioned monopolistic position to exploit the poor, those who had often traveled some distance to be observant worshipers and who were just trying to be faithful believers.
The holiest place on earth, the dwelling place of God, had been defiled.
The Father’s house was intended to be a place of prayer, a special form of prayer, sacrifice, that is taking the form of offering up one’s very best to God in a posture of thanks, humility and gratitude. Jesus knew his actions of cleansing the temple grounds would infuriate the temple establishment.
He knew that he would likely be a man marked for death from then on.
But of course Jesus knew that. It did not stop him because what he knew is that he himself would become the offering in the end. That is the reason Jesus makes reference to the temple being raised in three days. Jesus was not talking about the physical edifice of the temple building, he was talking about his body as the temple. Jesus would be crushed, his body lifeless, made a sacrifice but he would rise up in three days.
Jesus became the new temple, and we are invited to become the Body of Christ.
In today’s gospel, Jesus did not destroy the temple; he came to protest its current state, he came to speak the truth in order to save the temple. Jesus came to deepen our understanding of what it means to be in line with God, the creator. It was also a message worth dying for in order that we might have a chance to correct our course and turn back to God.
We have found that time and time again, the church, the body of Christ has had to find renewed direction and chart a course back to union with God.
By the time of the Reformation, the institutional church had become obsessed with its own power, wealth and influence. In effect, the temple was destroying itself, rife with corruption, hypocrisy and rot. Martin Luther came onto the scene with the 95 Theses. He meant to reform the Catholic church but along with other reformers ended up turning Christendom upside down.
And today, we are at a point where the mainline churches have been struggling and in decline for the last fifty years or so. We might ask ourselves—is something not right in the temple? What are we to do?
I don’t have a simple answer to the complex challenges of being church in a post-modern times, where truth is often the very first thing sacrificed when each person’s opinion hold sway and when everybody has access to a platform to speak their truth. All this certainty on the part of so many who know so much has not done away with the reality that there is much uncertainty about the fate of the world: how we will secure social justice for all, how we will care for the environment, and how to live in what is basically a small interconnected planet, where both good and bad can spread almost overnight and so on. Many things are uncertain as we go forward in faith. But it is 100% certain that Jesus shows us in today’s gospel that it is not enough to be correct or to do things by the letter of the law, or the way things have been done, just because.
What God most deeply desires of us is that we offer ourselves back to God and to the world with kindness, authenticity, humility and gratitude. We must put on the Spirit of God in Christ. How are we doing? Our natural preference and tendency is to think that we are doing well and that we are faithful. This type of thinking is typified by the thought that: “It will all be better when this or that happens. We don’t need to take any action.” But we all know that is not always the case. Sometimes we need some honest words even confrontational words spoken in righteous anger.
Jesus used a wide range of pedagogical approaches ranging from the indirect as in his use of parables, to the very direct. Whatever the particular method, Jesus was always 100% honest and authentic. Jesus did not so much hew to the slick online Master class approach, but often said what needed to be said for the sake of teaching for the sake of the salvation (the healing) of those he taught.
Think of his compassionate and probing conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well: “If you knew who asked you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
-Or, think of Jesus working inviting the crowd to reflect on their own souls, when he said to the people poised to stone the woman: “let anyone without sin cast the first stone”
-Or in the mode of chastisement when he said to Peter: “get behind me Satan”
In today’s gospel, Jesus goes all in in terms of being direct even disruptive by his expression of righteous anger.
Sometimes, an urgently needed wake-up call does not come in the prettiest or most polished way. I think we all know the feeling of having to hear something in the most honest, blunt and forceful way in order to hear a particular message.
The life changing and life giving prophetic word can have the force of being smacked with the ends of a whipcord. Sometimes, in order to grow, we need to have people turn over the tables we have set with a word or two of truth. I wonder:
What would Jesus have to say to us today as a community?
Where is it that we as a community need to hear the truth?
What is Jesus urging us to reconsider our thoughts, our ways and our habits and where are we called to change for the sake of the temple, the Body of Christ?
Rev. Deacon Ken Boccino Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent the February 28, 2021
Good Morning! We are now turning the corner into month of March with a sense of what I believe is great anticipation to see all the remaining snow piles go away with a fervent wish for the coming of Springtime. Creation begins its annual “rebirth” - trees and flowers bloom, grass turns a bold green and grows so fast you can almost watch it, people (like hibernating animals) emerge from their homes, and spring sports begin. A response that I often hear in conversation when waiting in anticipation for something is...”have faith, my friend”. We often here this term, “have faith”, and in context – what does that really mean? I think our Scripture readings today do a “bang up” and particularly clear job in giving some us an idea of what “faith” means to us as Christians in our daily lives as well as on our ultimate journey to be with God to experience “salvation and everlasting life” that Jesus promised in his teaching. What does the term “faith” mean to you – and this is NOT a Catechism question for my other former Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. But I really DO like this question. Please don't be surprised if I used this one again in the future as a way to kickoff a bible study and small group question. But truly – what does faith mean to you? For me, I generally like NOT to overcomplicate things when seeking further understanding so to any theological scholars out there – my definition may seem a bit lame. For me, faith is the ability to accept something without seeing or touching it, knowing a “The Gift of Faith” 2/28/2021 – 2 nd Sunday in Lent Episcopal Church of the Saviour, Denville, NJ Rev. Deacon Ken Boccino Page 2 of 6 lot about it or having any proof that it really exists. I believe (something that I believe goes hand in hand with faith) that I'll have a great lawn this year, I believe that I will get my taxes done on time and I also believe that God created us and Jesus is our Savior who died for our since for salvation and eternal life. For these we do not necessarily have empirical proof that it will happen or it exists, but our FAITH gives us sense of comfort and can strengthen a sense of certainty, given a determined effort on our part. I'll come back to this a little later... The term “faith” appears 8 times in today's appointed Scripture (at least from the New Revised Standard Version) and the Old Testament, the Epistle and Gospel weaves a beautiful testimony of “faith” for 3 of the most prominent figures in The Bible: Abraham, Sarah and Jesus. In Genesis, The Lord Yahweh appears to Abram and the Lord establishes a Covenant between them. This covenant establishes Abram (now Abraham) as the Father of the Jewish nation through God's promise to become the ancestor of “a multitude of nations...”. At the Lord's command, Abraham picks himself from from Ur – a city in then Mesopotamia and moves Canaan – a trip of what is believe to be over 7,500 miles. This was a land that neither he nor (Sarai) Sarah knew nothing about and based the foundation of taking on this journey solely on God's command and their steadfast faith that they would arrive safely and Yahweh would live up to the his end of the bargain. They didn't have a GPS, AAA Trip-Tiks or much less a papyrus map to show them they way, but they did have their faith in the Almighty. “The Gift of Faith” 2/28/2021 – 2 nd Sunday in Lent Episcopal Church of the Saviour, Denville, NJ Rev. Deacon Ken Boccino Page 3 of 6 I'd like to talk first about the Gospel before Paul's Epistle since that this excerpt provides an excellent segue between the Old Testament Scripture and the Gospel. In Mark's reading today, Jesus is preparing his Disciples of what was foretold and is to come. He will be betrayed by his “own people”, sentenced to death, crucified and be raised from the dead. Thinking that this is totally preposterous, Peter takes Jesus aside and suggest that he not speak this way and is rebuked by Jesus saying - “hey Peter, your mind is in the wrong place - don't you believe me – where is your faith that I'm really speaking the truth”? While Jesus is trying to get Paul back on track and prepare for this final journey with his “face set for Jerusalem” (as its written in Luke) to fulfill Scripture and God's will. Surely this must have been a tremendous act of faith – Jesus trusting in God with what was about to happen and knowing that this would be pivotal for humankind and a game changer for our future relationship with God in an entirely new type of covenant. This new covenant was nothing about the obedience and the law, but was based on love, repentance and forgiveness. I believe that Paul here is the glue that ties these to accounts together and it is done quite cohesively (something that I don't always see in Paul). It's in Paul's writings where 7 of the 8 times that faith is used in our readings today, so I guess it's easy to tell what he's getting at. Paul makes a strong connection between what drove Abraham and Sarah on a 7,500 mile – 40 day journey journey to a land they knew nothing about. I sense it would be like someone telling us to pick up our family from Northern New Jersey and resettling in Bemidji, Minnesota or Saskatoon, Saskatchewan – although I'm sure that they are really nice places. Paul writes....”the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law, but through the righteousness of faith...” It was “The Gift of Faith” 2/28/2021 – 2 nd Sunday in Lent Episcopal Church of the Saviour, Denville, NJ Rev. Deacon Ken Boccino Page 4 of 6 their believe in the Lord God and their hope that drove their faith to fulfill God's command. Paul then binds a connection to Christians, stating “it was reckoned with him” - signifying God and Abraham – but also applicable to us in our relationship with Jesus Christ as it “will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” - Abraham's God is our God. And the very same God who fulfilled the promises to Abraham will fulfill the promises made to us in Christ's crucifixion and resurrection. And now as promised (or threatened as some may believe), I'd like to return to my earlier thought. What DOES faith mean to you? We have 2 biblical stories of faith in action and there are so many more recounts on act of 'unconditional faith' in the Bible which we resonate with – or not so much. My friends, faith is the fiber which connects us to God. Much like Abraham and Sarah – through our belief and hope our faith let's us “know” (and not guess) that we are God's children. Through our faith we also know that we are loved and being cared for. I stated earlier that for me, faith is know that something or someone exists without being able to see or hear or touch or have solid data as to their existence. I also believe that there is more to that – faith is a gift. Faith is a gift given to us by the Grace of God which allows us to be in relationship with God and with God's creation. Faith gives us the wisdom on how to be in that very relationship with God and how we interact with each other as human beings and more so as Loving Christians. With it being a gift and something is not instinctive or rooted in our DNA, it is something that is to be fostered and developed. Our relationship with God and Jesus Christ our Savior is one that we should continue to nurture and deepen through our life experiences, personal relationships and Christian practices. I like to “The Gift of Faith” 2/28/2021 – 2 nd Sunday in Lent Episcopal Church of the Saviour, Denville, NJ Rev. Deacon Ken Boccino Page 5 of 6 equate it to a solid, meaningful friendship. Long-time friendships are a wonderful thing to have and in many cases are “low maintenance”. You know everything there is to know about each other, you know what you both like to do and what sustains your friendships. In contrast, do you have one of those friendships – regardless of its longevity, one that continues to grow – where you constantly learn a little more about each other over time and seek out different experiences and conversations? I'm blessed to have a few of those friendships and they are based on the continued growth and “freshness” of that relationship. I like to hope that is the same approach I take with my relationship with God – finding different ways to connect and deepen that relationship. There is really no “set time” in our Liturgical Calendar to set aside for this practice as it should be ongoing, Lent is an opportune time explore your relationship with our Creator and his son, Our Savior. It is a time of reflection and opportunity to explore and deepen your relationship with God. There are a “multitude” (from today's Scripture) of ways to do that – offerings through COTS (Bible Study, Racial Reconciliation, Centering Prayer), through the Diocese and so many other sources. If you would like to explore these further, please reach out to George or me. Lent is a season of Penitence, but it can also be a season of renewal – exploring your deepening relationship with God not only for the long-term promise of everlasting life, but in our everyday lives. Jesus did it – by calling the 12 disciples and equipping them to travel with him through Canaan and the surrounding areas teaching and healing (know his ultimate fate) but also in his final days as he “set his face to Jerusalem” “The Gift of Faith” 2/28/2021 – 2 nd Sunday in Lent Episcopal Church of the Saviour, Denville, NJ Rev. Deacon Ken Boccino Page 6 of 6 knowing what was to happen, preparing and caring for those around him. By who we are and what we do for God, others and ourselves in the name of Jesus show our Creator in Heaven that we are truly grateful and appreciated of our gift of faith. AMEN