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Sunday, March 11, 2018


March 11, 2018
St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE

John 3:16. There are children’s songs about it. It’s rare to watch a football game on TV and not see someone holding up a sign in the stands that says, “John 3:16.”

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

The great theologian of the Reformation, Martin Luther, said that one sentence was the entire gospel in miniature. It has freed millions of generations of people to know essence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and its essential doctrines of Incarnation, Salvation, Resurrection and Eternal Life.

That one sentence has also injured millions of generations of people because of the qualifying statement . . . . .

“ . . . .SO THAT he who believes in him . . . .”

Which raises the question: Is heaven only for Christians?

I don’t know about you but I know my answer to that question.

Personally, I wish John 3:16 would never be spoken without John 3:17. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Of course, the Gospel writer contradicts himself in the very next sentence but I hang onto the belief that the whole purpose of God sending Jesus into the world was not to condemn the world but to save the world. The rest is just details and, I think, over selling the point.

I don’t find it helpful to scare people into believing something – especially about God and Jesus or, in fact, the Holy Spirit. Indeed, I would challenge that practice by saying that people acting out of fear is not really belief.   

It is, well, fear.

Some things simply have to be experienced to be fully believed. I can be warned that I will be burned if I touch a hot stove but I would argue that there is something in each of us that compels us to touch the stove for ourselves in order to believe it.

Some call that “original sin”. 

I call it “human curiosity”.

Ever watch a child touch something hot after being warned? Most don’t flat out touch the hot object. They tentatively put the tip of the finger on to the surface and, once they feel the heat, pull away just as quickly as they can. And now, they believe.

Often, faith development works the same way – for children and adults. We have to test it. Put our finger on it. Poke our nose into the closed tent. Smell the sulfur. See the red hot flame. Walk beyond the sign that says, “Danger: Do Not Enter”.

We often need the tangible in order to believe the unimaginable.

When I was Chaplain at the University of Lowell in Lowell, MA, there was a Greek Orthodox priest with whom I worked. After the baptism of a baby, he would carry the child in his arms around the church, introducing the child to her or his new “family”. 

He would stand in front of an icon or a stained glass window and say, “Ah, and here is your Uncle Paul. He was a proud, stubborn one. This is when God knocked him off his high horse. You’ll hear that story later.”

“Oh, and this is your Uncle Peter and there are your Uncles James and John - the Sons of Thunder. They are in the boat with Jesus – see him there? – and Jesus is calming the storm. I’ll be telling you that story when you get a bit older.”

“And there is Mother Mary, the Mother of God and the Mother of us all. See? She is holding baby Jesus in her arms just as Jesus will hold each one of us in his arms when we get to heaven. See how lucky we are to have all these people in our new family?”

The BEST part, however, was that every single adult - male and female - followed him around the church, hanging on every single word. We all love stories. We all love to see interpretations of stories. For some Christians, stained glass windows are the only Bible stories they ever read.
We often need the tangible in order to believe the unimaginable.

I am forever grateful to my grandmother for providing tangible examples of Gospel stories in much the same way. I loved the way she used everything in life to tell the stories of God.

One of my favorite stories happens to be about this day we are observing in church – the fourth Sunday in Lent. It’s known as Refreshment Sunday. It was the one Sunday in Lent when those who were observing a strict Lenten fast could enjoy something sweet and special.

My grandmother always made a traditional Simnel Cake on this day. I have made one for you, today. It’s waiting for you in the Parish Hall for Coffee Hour.

But, my grandmother didn’t just make a Simnel Cake. She used it as an opportunity to do a little teaching about Jesus.  She called them Bolos do riso “Laughter Cakes”.

We made the cakes on the Saturday before Lent IV. My grandmother and I would put the raisins to soak in the brandy - homemade by my grandfather - before going to bed Friday night. I was the oldest granddaughter, and we lived right upstairs, so I was allowed and nobody else was. Ha!

We would gather in her kitchen sometime on Saturday afternoon, after all the other Saturday chores had been done, including polishing our shoes and laundering our white gloves.

We would line up all the ingredients on the kitchen table - the older kids measuring the liquid ingredients, the younger ones allowed to measure the dry ingredients. One of us was assigned to greasing the pans, another to chopping the walnuts (which we first had to crack - usually with a hammer - and get the meaty walnut out before chopping).

And I, only I, was allowed to sift the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves into the batter. I was also allowed to make the marzipan balls that went on the top of the cake. Eleven for the disciples. "None for Judas," my Grandmother would say, wagging her finger. And, a big one for Jesus in the middle (You can see that I used blue and pink Peeps Bunnies on mine.)

And my grandmother, only my grandmother, was allowed to pour in the hot applesauce. We all stood back when she did that, in a respectful silence which was tinged with a bit of awe saved only for sorcerers and magicians.

And, indeed, she did cook up laughter there in her kitchen. In the midst of the doldrums of Lent, she was making Bolos do riso - "Laughter Cakes".

Oh, but here's the special ingredient - the secret of "Laughter Cakes". 

After every ingredient had been added and stirred, and before she poured the batter into the muffin tins or cake pans, she would gather us round the Very Large Mixing Bowl. And then, she would tell us not to worry. That Lent was a very sad time, but that soon, it would be Easter. Jesus would play a wonderful trick on Satan, and death would not kill him.

And, because death could no longer kill Jesus, death could no longer kill us. Because of Jesus, we would know eternal life in heaven where we would all someday be, once again.

She would tell us this and then say, "So, laugh, children. Laugh into the bowl. Laugh into the cake. Laugh at the Devil. He can't win. He can't ever win! Only Jesus can win. Only Jesus! Laugh! Laugh! Laugh!"

And, we would. Laugh. Loud. Right into the bowl. I swear people ten blocks away could hear us laugh. It was the best part of making - and eating - that cake.

And yes, she would put the brandy my grandfather made in the cake AND the frosting. Hmm . . . maybe that's also why she called them "Bolos do riso".  Nah, laughter was the special ingredient that "made" that cake - special for Refreshment Sunday.

I believe in the Incarnation. I believe that God so loved the world that God sent part of God’s self into the world to become human like us.

I believe that Richard Rohr is right: Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity; Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.

I also believe in the gift of Free Will, which allows us to touch a hot stove to learn about hot stoves for ourselves, and that getting burned, is sometimes the only path to belief.

I believe in the gift of Grace sometimes can only be found at the bottom of the place where Free Will sometimes takes us. I believe Grace gathers and pools there, allowing us to float and find our way back up to the surface.

I believe, that once you experience being forgiven when you’ve done something wrong, or being loved when you feel you are unworthy, you then become the best proclamation of the Gospel truth of God’s unconditional love for us all.

Not fear. Love. Grace. Joy. These are the best vehicles of evangelism.

And, I believe, laughter – especially in the face of evil – is the best statement of faith. Indeed, laughter, for me, IS “the Gospel in miniature”. . .  .

SO THAT . .  whatever evil you are confronting will know and believe that you are not afraid. Evil will understand and believe that you believe that God is greater than any Evil.

Even the kind of evil, disguised as fear, that keeps us, one from another, in the name of Jesus.



lsiepw-W said...

Church is boring.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I was about to say the same to you, George. Although, I think it's more accurate to say you are so predictable.

Good thing neither church nor you exist to provide entertainment to anyone, eh?