Bishop Ordinary: Rt Rev Brian R Marsh

Sermon

Passion Sunday, 2013
Good Shepherd, Charlestown; Trinity Church, Lebanon

 

Let us pray: We beseech thee, Almighty God, look upon the hearty desires of thy humble servants, and stretch forth the right hand of thy Majesty, to be our defence against all our enemies; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Every few years it happens. Today is one of those days; The Feast Day of St. Patrick, the “Apostle to Ireland,” is celebrated on a Sunday. We are reminded on his feast day that Patrick, born in England was captured by Irish pirates, lived on that island for several years, escaped and returned to England. But during his captivity he became a very devout Christian. He returned to Ireland where he strengthened the Christian faith. He is also known as having driven the snakes from Ireland. We are often told that there are no snakes in Ireland. And we would be right. Mostly.

 

    During the past few years, Ireland's economy has experienced boom times, as well as bust. During the boom years, it became fashionable for those who had struck it rich to buy snakes as household pets. Imagine the conversation starters. “Would you like to meet Patrick?” “Who's Patrick?” “Patrick is our new pet. Here he is. Shall we have dinner now?”

 

  Well, after the boom years, people could no longer afford to keep their expensive reptiles. Some were released into the wild. Imagine the strange encounters that occurred.

 

   We might wonder what St. Patrick might think about all this. But I doubt that St. Patrick was terribly concerned about reptiles. The snakes that Patrick drove from Ireland were a far more dangerous kind. When he arrived in Ireland, a pagan cult was very popular. As their symbol, they used intertwined snakes. These pagans were, of course, opposed to Christianity. But Patrick preached the true faith, the faith of Jesus Christ. The truth of Christ's message overcame the teachings of the pagan cult and the snakes disappeared from Ireland. It is a message that the teachings of Christ, expressed clearly and with conviction, will overcome all the false teachings the world has to offer.

 

  It is also Passion Sunday, the beginning of Passiontide, the holiest time in our church year. In just two weeks, we will arrive at Easter Day, the feast day of the church. It is the single most important day in our lives as Christians.

 

       But we are not there yet. In order to get there, we must take a journey with Christ. It is a dangerous journey, a journey that challenges us every step of the way. But part of that journey has to do with the identity of Jesus. Who is he? What is his identity? These are the questions the Pharisees asked him. But not really, because they knew who he was – at least they thought so.

 

  Ever know anyone who pretended to be someone they were not? Of course we have. People pretend all the time. Sometimes the pretense is pretty innocent. Actors play a part in a play to entertain us. We know they are not really the character who puts on the make-up, costume and strange accent. We know he has a separate identity, however convincing his stage role may be. But sometimes we can be fooled by assuming something about another person.

 

        There was a wonderful story told in my seminary about a young man who arrived for his first year at General Seminary. He had come from a rather privileged background and was used to having others do the work for him. He arrived in front of a dormitory, his steamer trunks were placed beside the front door and the young man entered the dormitory building. Told he would be living on the top floor, he climbed four flights of stairs and looked over his new digs. He thought they were small and cramped, but he could endure it for a few weeks each year.

 

  He descended to the ground floor and regarded the steamer trunks. Four flights was a long way to carry such heavy objects. He wondered what to do. He saw a man digging among the plants near the dormitory and called out to him: “You, sir. Would you carry my luggage to my dormitory room?” The man rose from his labors, brushed himself off and carried the luggage up four flights of stairs to the young man's room. It took several trips. But the man complied without a word. When he finished, the man went back to his gardening.

 

   Seminary days begin with chapel worship. Because this was the first day of the Fall semester, Evensong was the first service of the new semester. Chapel at that time was rigidly organized. First year students sat in the first row, second year students in the second rows and so on. The last row was reserved for faculty. There were also elaborately carved chairs for the Dean and the Sub Dean. Imagine our young seminary student as he watched the elaborate procession of faculty members as they assembled for Evensong. There at the back of the procession was the gardener dressed in very elaborate robes. This gardener then walked to the Dean's elaborate chair and sat down. I have often wondered when that young man “got it.” Was this an elaborate hoax put on for his benefit? When did he realize that the gardener was in fact the Dean, a Dean who just liked to dig around in the earth during odd hours. The story, as you can imagine, has become legendary.

 

    In today's reading, Jesus tells the Pharisees who He is. “Before Abraham was, I am.” Jesus is not denying his identity, but revealing it. The Pharisees knew Jesus in one way only. Just as our seminarian knew the gardener in only one way, assuming he was the school's landscape architect, the Pharisees saw Jesus only as the carpenter, the man from Nazareth. They could not see beyond this. God stood before them. God revealed himself to them. God told them the truth of His existence. And we know what happened.

 

     It is sometimes difficult for us to accept God's word, even when God stands before us and tells us the truth of His life and ours. God shatters all our deeply held illusions, just as He did on that day to the Pharisees. I wonder sometimes when those who took up stones that day fully realized who Jesus is. Could it have been in this life? Or later? Everything we firmly believe if it is not of God, whether is is a pagan belief or the imagined identity of someone we meet, will be shattered beyond repair by the truth that God brings to us.

 

 During the next two weeks, we will find that truth revealed in  all its sorrow and joy. This is not a miracle of human creation or some imagined story, some fiction. It is, rather, the truth of God's love, revealed in the passion of the cross for the redemption of the world.

 

   God stands in front of us and says: “Before Abraham was, I am.” What do we do?

 

 Let us pray: Almighty and everlasting God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility; Mercifully grant, that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.