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Proper 21 2022

Have you ever felt invisible?  You are standing at a checkout counter and every clerk that walks by seems to look the other way just as they get near you.  You are in class with your hand raised and the teacher never calls on you.  You are with a group of people and every time you start to say something, someone else jumps in just before you and you find yourself uttering senseless one-word statements that nobody seems to hear. 

Lazarus was all but invisible when he was alive.  He begged for a living, unable to work.  His body was covered with sores and his stomach constantly ached with hunger.  He sat at the gate of a rich man, watching the people come and go in all their finery, and wished for even the scraps that dropped from the table, but the dogs got those, and then they came and licked him with the smell of food still on their breath. 

We don’t know if Lazarus was real or just a character that Jesus made up.  The only other Lazarus mentioned in the New Testament is the brother of Mary and Martha. We know because of where they lived they were very poor, and we know that Lazarus died before Jesus, because Jesus called him out of the grave as an example of the resurrection to come.  But either way, there were many like Lazarus in Jerusalem. 

There were also many wealthy people in Jerusalem at the same time.  The person Jesus describes dresses in purple and fine linen.  Both of which were expensive and ostentatious.  It said look at me.  I have it all.  He threw many banquets and ate lavishly.   Romans and those who when under Roman rule did as the Romans, were fond  of trying to outdo one another in their parties, coming up with the most exotic cuisine and entertainment.  Their banquets would last well into the night and the wine flowed freely. 

Jesus tells us both of these men died.  Lazarus was greeted by the angles and taken to be with his ancestor Abraham.  Now the Pharisees would have been quite surprised by this.  Lazarus lacked the ability to make the proper sacrifices and attend the appropriate rituals to receive forgiveness for his sins according to the law, and it was obvious to them from his tormented state while he was alive that he must have been a great sinner. 

The rich man, probably much to his chagrin, finds himself greeted by Hades. 

There are two words we often translate into English as “hell.”  And neither of them are what we usually imagine, thanks largely to Dante and/or Milton. 

Hades comes from Greek mythology and was the overlord of Orcus, the place of the dead.  In the first century, Orcus was thought to be a wretched place in the bowels of the earth where the disembodied spirits of the wicked went when they died. Luke appears to mean that while Lazarus was greeted by Father Abraham, our rich man found himself in a Greek hell with a Greek version of Satan.  He has hit the absolute bottom according to his own standards. 

Gehenna or the Valley of Ben Hinnom is often used by Jesus to illustrate where you do not want to end up for eternity.   It was the valley where Israelites erected ovens to sacrifice infants as a burnt offering. For those who worshiped Baal, it was a common practice to sacrifice the first born, and then others may also be sacrificed to ensure their parents prosperity.  King Ahab sacrificed one of his children in an effort to turn the tide of a battle. 

Our rich man, even finding himself in Hades has not lost his sense of station.  He still sees himself as above Lazarus. He looks up and sees Abraham and Lazarus and he calls to Abraham, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” (Luke 16:24).  Abraham reminds him of two things: 1) while they were alive, Lazarus suffered and the rich man had many things (Abraham doesn’t mention that the rich man could have changed that situation while he was alive).  2) There is a great chasm between us and there is no way to cross it. (There was a great chasm between them while they were alive, but the way was still open to bridge that chasm.) 

Our rich man reconciles himself to his situation, but decides he does not wish this fate for his five brothers.  He still hasn’t figured out that Lazarus is no longer beneath him in status and he requests Abraham to send Lazarus to his home to warn his family. 

Abraham reminds him that they have been warned, over and over and over again.   That is what Moses and the prophets were saying in the scriptures. 

Now Jesus becomes a prophet. “Neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (Luke 16:31) We say we believe Jesus to be prophet, priest and king, but the reality is we seldom think of him as prophet, and yet he often filled that role.  

A prophet was not a fortuneteller in the sense of having some magical glimpse into an already established future.  A prophet spoke more about the present and then explained what the future would look like if the people remained on their current trajectory.  They always spoke with the purpose of altering the future, and with the hope that the future could be altered, if only the people would listen to them and change their ways. 

Jesus was very harsh with the Pharisees, but not for the purpose of judging them, but for the purpose of changing their hearts.   John tells us that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17).

Paul is the perfect example of this.  Paul was a Pharisee who was persecuting Christians, but when Jesus touched his heart, he did a 180 degree about face.  It’s not easy, even Paul admits he was in constant battle with himself.  “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand… with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.” (Romans 7:21, 25b)

The Good News is that as Paul tells us, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Roman 8:1)

We need to be aware of the Lazarus’ in our own lives and do what we can to ease their suffering in this life, and when we fail or forget, as we will, acknowledge it and try to do better the next time, then thank Jesus for both our blessings and his forgiveness. 

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Proper 20 2022

Today’s parable is one of the most difficult stories in scripture to understand, but if we put it in context, it may be a bit easier to understand Jesus’ point. He has been talking about priorities.  Jesus has pointed out that to follow him, we must make that our top priority.  Nothing should be more important: not our families, not money, not even our own personal safety.  Then he proceeds to tell us that God’s top priority is locating those who have gotten lost, and bringing them back home.  He has pointed out to a particular group of scribes and Pharisees who have been following him around and complaining bitterly about who he hangs out with, and when he chooses to heal people, that they are so self-centered they do not recognize the blessings they have and they want to take away the blessings Jesus is bestowing upon others.  They were in a position to be an instrumental part of the kingdom of heaven, but they have thrown it away for an illusion based upon deceit and greed. 

As I read through this parable I could not help but see similarities in the situation with the rich man and his manager and the world I lived in before going to seminary. As some of you know, for twenty years I had a job similar to the manager in today’s parable.  I first worked as a collector, then trained collectors, and finally supervised collectors for fortune 500 companies.  There were two ways to be successful in that industry. You could work really hard at building relationships, solving problems, and going the extra mile for your manager, your customers, and your fellow employees or you could cheat:  cheat the company, cheat the customers, cheat your fellow employees.   Sales people cheated by overselling to unsuspecting customers and promising discounts and promotions they could not deliver.  Credit managers cheated by approving credit for people who they knew would never be able to maintain their payments.  Collectors cheated by violating privacy laws and falsifying conversations. Customer service reps would cheat by transferring calls and refusing to deal with time consuming customers.  As a supervisor part of my job was to sort out the mess and make reasonable settlements while retaining the customer if they could be an asset later.  

Jesus lived in a world where cheating was considered the only way to get ahead.  Tax collectors were hated because they collected more than the amount required by the Roman government and then pocketed the rest.  There was no other way to make money in that job.  The temple had devised a system of money exchange to keep idolatrous images of Caesar out of the temple and also sold animals for sacrifices that on the surface seemed pious, but in reality allowed people to get rich off of poor people’s desire to please God.  That is why Jesus threw his famous temper tantrum in the outer court of the temple.   When Jesus says there was a rich man, he is assuming his audience knows the man is dishonest. 

In April of 1999 I took a job with a little company called XXXXX that had just purchased XXXX, the 2nd largest XXXX company at that time.   The pay was poor, but we were to receive significant bonuses in the form of stock options.  For a year or so things looked pretty good.  I received several significant bonuses, plus some pretty lavish incentives which included gifts and trips.  In 2002, the CEO of our company came under investigation for misstatement of financial records.   Our stock plummeted, our options were worthless, and by 2005 our CEO was in prison and our company was being sold.  In 1999 it looked like a fairytale world, 6 years later reality was a hard pill to swallow. 

Jesus said the rich man was going to let the manager go because he had mismanaged his accounts, but when the manager found out, he went out and made settlements with the rich man’s debtors, settlements that he probably did not have the authority to make, but it made him look like a good guy to the debtors, and the rich man praised him for his shrewdness.   The rich man recognized in the manager, someone who might be useful to him.  Sadly, the shrewdness of dishonest employees provided opportunities that allowed our chief executive officers to misrepresent the value of the company.  I think Jesus was being factious when he told the people to make friends by means of dishonest wealth so that when the money is gone they can welcome them into their eternal homes.    The reality is that when the money is gone, often the friends are gone as well.  And there is nothing eternal about ill-gotten gains, as my CEO found out.  The façade that people like the rich man and his manager, and like the officers of the company I worked for put up looks like heaven, but the reality is it is not eternal and they often hurt many people in the process. 

For me, on top of the career disaster, the home front was going through its own downward spiral at the turn of the century, but there was a happily ever after.  My friends thought I was crazy, but when the bottom fell out, I threw it all in God’s lap.  I began tithing for the first time in my life, even though my income was less than half what it had been before.  I began seriously looking at my priorities and what direction the rest of my life would take. Perhaps it was easier because at this point I knew disaster was a high probability no matter what I did.   God allowed me to reach a point that I could not be successful through my own efforts and at that time I let go and put my life in God’s hands.  He even opened doors that allowed me to attend seminary and become ordained. 

Jesus tells us to “seek first the kingdom of heaven” then everything else will fall into place.   

There is an interesting visual one can do to demonstrate,  it is a little messy for the sanctuary, but the idea is that if you take two jars of exactly the same size and fill them with exactly the same things, the order you put them in makes a difference on whether or not they fit.   If you put in the large stones, then the pebbles, then the sand, there is room for the water, but if you put the water and the sand in the jar, then the pebbles, when you try to put the large stones in you quickly run out of space.  I started dumping all the sand and water out of my jar, and began putting in the big rocks first. 

Logic says that I should have hit bottom, I should have failed, but the reality is that life actually got much better.    That is not to say that there have not been challenges, tight times, and “Lord are you sure you know what you are doing?” moments.   I still struggle with need vs want.   But I never lacked for the necessities. 

The Pharisees had lost sight of what was most important.  Jesus expected them to be helping locate lost sheep, lost coins, and lost children, then rejoicing with God when they were restored.  Instead they were scattering the flock by focusing on external rules and regulations that were a burden to people.  They often manipulated the rules to their benefit and then they were patting each other on the back for their shrewdness. They lost sight of what they had been called to do for God and were focused on what they wanted to do for themselves. They were building for themselves eternal homes that they may not want. Managing the resources God has given us is a daily exercise, not just something we do once a year.  It encompasses all that we are as well as all that we have.   It is a way of acknowledging that God has blessed us, and I don’t know about you, but I have t

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Proper 19 2022

There is a video on Facebook of a sheep that has found a badger hole or fox den, or some other hole that is just big enough for her to walk into and be totally swallowed up. Israel’s terrain is naturally full of holes and crevices.   She is either unwilling or perhaps just hasn’t figured out how to back-up to get out of the hole and so the shepherd reaches in and grabs her by the hind feet and pulls her out of the hole almost as though he is helping her be born again. The silly sheep looks like she is just about to nose-dive back into the hole she has just been rescued from until the shepherd gently turns her head and redirects her vision, at which point in time she frolics back to the herd. 

I suspect many of us can relate to the sheep and today’s passage is comforting to us to know that Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd who is willing to go after his sheep at any cost. The challenge in today’s lesson is to recognize that Jesus was not primarily talking for the benefit of the lost. Jesus was speaking to a great degree to those who already considered themselves part of the flock.  While we may have been lost at one time, we are here because we have heard the voice of the shepherd and followed.  The sheep who are falling into pits and are being chased by wild animals are for the most part still outside the walls of the church building. These are the 1 sheep that Jesus is ready to leave the 99 sheep to go and find. 

As usual, Jesus makes his point by telling stories.  Who has never lost something very important or very dear to you? I suspect most of us have. If it is something important, life stops until you find it.  You can’t focus on your work, you can’t enjoy any entertainment, and you can’t even sleep for worrying about what you have lost.   Sometimes, it is an item necessary to do the things you need to do, like keys.    Sometimes it is something that you don’t want to tell someone you lost like a piece of jewelry, or an important document.  Sometimes it is a person. If you have every lost a child in a store, you know how terrifying that can be.  Sometimes it has nothing to do with what you have done, sometimes it is their choice, like a divorce or a child that leaves home and doesn’t call.  Sometimes it is just part of life, like the death of a loved one.  

Jesus has been speaking about some heavy stuff:  hating your family, selling all your possessions, taking up your cross.  Crowds have gathered around him, and those sitting right up front are the tax collectors prostitutes, and terrorists.  In Jesus day they called terrorists zealots because they were fighting on the side of the local people and against the Roman Empire. These folks not only have the front row seats, they have been sharing food with Jesus, which was a scandalous boundary violation. Standing around the edges are the scribes and Pharisees, the church lawyers and their legal secretaries.  Jesus can hear them gossiping to each other about who Jesus is hanging out with, so Jesus tells three stories to teach them a lesson. 

Suppose a shepherd lost one of his sheep.  It didn’t matter that he had 99 other sheep, each sheep was important and it was his responsibility to keep them safe, so he goes out looking for the sheep and doesn’t give up until he find it.  When he comes back with the lost sheep he is so excited that he tells all his friends.  Today he would post it on some form of social media and anxiously wait for the “likes.” 

Jesus looks right at the scribes and Pharisees and says, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner repenting than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance.”  I suspect this was said quite tongue in cheek, because as Paul has told us, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23) The Pharisees and scribes were not righteous, they were self-righteous.   Jesus notes that they didn’t get the pun. 

What if a woman had 10 drachmes, 10 silver coins each worth one day’s wages and she suddenly realized she had lost one of them.  It doesn’t matter that it is time to go to bed, she lights a lamp and starts frantically searching the house.  It doesn’t matter that she has 9 more, that is a lot of money to lose and so she does not rest until it is recovered.  The next day when she is sharing with her friends, she shares her joy at finding what she thought had been lost. This time Jesus looks at the tax collectors and prostitutes on the front row and says, “There is joy in the presence of God’s angels when one sinner repents.” 

This is a tough crowd.  The Pharisees and scribes are not getting the value of a sheep to a shepherd or a coin to a poor woman, so this time he picks something to which they can relate. 

There was a man that had two sons.  The older son always did the right thing.  He said the right things, he was faithful and loyal, but his heart was cold.  The other son was wild and impetuous, frequently getting in trouble, always getting on his brother’s nerves, and with a sassy and disrespectful mouth.   One day the younger son told his father to “drop dead.”  He demanded his share of the family estate and left.  The father did not hear from the son, but every day he prayed for his safety and watched for his return.  The older son grew bitter.  He now had to do his brothers chores as well as his own.  He now had full responsibility for taking care of his father who spent his days praying and watching the horizon for his lost child.  Then one day, the younger son returned.  He had hit bottom, used up all his inheritance, and realized that his father’s servants lived better than he was living in his much longed for independent state.  His father didn’t care why he had come home or what he had been doing while he was away, he was just happy to have his child back that had been lost to him, and so he through a big party. 

His brother was not so overjoyed.   The son who had never been disrespectful to his father, could not bear this final insult and accused his father.  “How dare you throw a party for my brother?  He is dead to us and he should stay that way.  He has brought dishonor on the family and does not deserve this party.  I have always done what I was told, but you never threw a party for me.”

Now Jesus looks directly at the scribes and Pharisees.  “Son, you have always been at my sided and everything I have is yours, but it is right that we should celebrate.  Your brother was lost and is now found.  He was dead and is now alive.” 

It is appropriate to note that this story follows immediately after the previous two weeks lessons where Jesus talks about commitment and the cost of discipleship.  Jesus never says it doesn’t matter what we do, in fact, he says following him is the most important thing we will ever do.  What he does say is that if you wander off, there is always a light on in the window and the door is unlocked. 

Some of us are the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost child.  We have wandered away from truly following Christ.  The message is it is never too late to return.  There is nothing that you can do that God is not willing to forgive.  The only time Jesus said someone was beyond redemption was when they looked into the face of Jesus and saw Satan rather than God.  You don’t have to find your way back to God by yourself.  The sheep and the coin did not even find their own way home.  We are expected to seek God in community. If you have wandered off or know others who have, realize that all of God’s attention is focused on finding you.  You may feel lost or abandoned, but God will never stop looking for ways to get you back. 

Some of us may find we are hanging out on the back row with the elder son and the scribes and Pharisees.  We are determined not to have fun.  Discipleship and worship is serious business.  Jesus never said it wasn’t serious.  In fact he said it was deadly serious, but part of discipleship is learning to rejoice when others are reconciled with God.  We are given the chance to actually help God look for those who have strayed and to gently redirect them back to the herd.  Where are you in these stories today?  How is God calling you to respond? 

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Proper 18 2022

Today’s reading is one where we really have to understand the social structure in which Jesus is speaking. When you hear the word people, what do you think of?  Is it a singular or plural noun?  Do you visualize a group of random individuals or do you think of a single entity made up of many interconnected, interdependent persons?  Odds are, you probably thought of people as a plural noun describing a random group.  Our culture encourages individualism, independence, and diversity, but in Jesus’ world it was not survival of the fittest, it was survival of the connected. 

When I lived in Dallas, there was a local news program that had a segment called “Family First.”  Their premise was strengthen the family and you will strengthen the community; strengthen the community and you reduce poverty, addiction, homelessness and crime.  There is a lot of wisdom in their social philosophy, but it is certainly more complicated than their sound bites made it appear.  

Today “Family First” is attached to all sorts of religious and secular programs.  I am not against families.  I believe strong families can help promote a strong society, but it is one of those phrases like many of Ben Franklin’s statements, such as “God helps those that help themselves”, that people think are Biblical, but in fact is contradicted by scripture.

Families were the tightest connection most people had.  When we talk about “family first”, we usually mean come home from work in time to see your children before they go to bed and hopefully eat dinner with them at the kitchen table.  Turn the television to a channel appropriate to everyone in the room.  Help your child with their homework so they can get in a good college and become independent.  In Jesus’ day, children worked beside their parents and older siblings learning the family trade. It was considered normal for multiple generations to live in the same house and a blessing if your parents lived long enough to help you with the children.  Protecting the family honor was very important.  This meant that a family member who went astray and brought shame on the family was shunned or worse.  They were considered dead to the family.  A good example of this is in the Fiddler on the Roof when the one daughter marries outside her religion.  She brought shame on the family and her father refused to acknowledge her presence, even when she was standing right in front of him. 

Jesus’ words in the gospel sound very harsh to us.  We are accustomed to hearing Jesus speak about loving everyone, so why would he tell someone to hate their families?  What he is talking about is loyalty, commitment, and priorities.  When you have to make a choice, and it will happen, between following Jesus and doing what your family wants, Jesus says you must decide whom you will serve.  

 When Jesus says believe in me, he is not calling for an intellectual acceptance of Trinitarian theology.  What we believe does matter.  It affects how we act. But Jesus’ call to belief came with the command “Follow me,” He says “follow me” 16 times in the gospels. Nearly all of his references to “belief” are associated with a response or lack of response to an action.  What would you think if I was teaching Math and told you the name of the book, handed you a workbook with some exercises, and said, “Just believe this book is true and you will understand Math.  I have already given you an A in the class.  It is up to you to decide whether or not you want to complete any of the exercises, but it is not required. ” A small handful of people would do the exercises because they truly wanted to learn math, but for the majority of students I would be doing them a great disservice. I would be setting up the false expectation that belief in the concept of math was all that was required to balance a checkbook or solve complex engineering problems. Too often that is the way we approach our spiritual lives.  Jesus did not expect belief to be separate from the hard work of discipleship. 

When a man came up to Jesus and asked him how to inherit the kingdom of heaven Jesus acknowledges that the man already knows the Ten Commandments.  Keeping the Ten Commandments was important, and the man states he had done so since his youth, so Jesus tells him to give away everything he owns and come follow him.  Jesus asks the man to put following Jesus at the top of his to do list, and forget about everything else.  We know the ending of this story, the man walks away, unable to let go of his possessions.  

In another story, a scribe comes up to Jesus and says he wants to follow him; Jesus reminds us that he is homeless.  Jesus has no ties to keep him from his mission, but the consequence is that he never knows where he will be sleeping that night.  In that same story, one who was already following Jesus asks for a short sabbatical.  “Let me go and bury my father.”  Now we do not know if the father was already dead, but Jesus tells him, “Let the dead bury the dead.” Jesus is not opposed to funerals, but he is saying, “Let those who are spiritually dead carry out the social rituals expected by society.” We are seeking to please the wrong person.  Jesus is asking for total loyalty, total commitment. Jesus never said or did something to be politically correct. He was committed to bringing about the kingdom of heaven and reconciling God and humanity at any cost. 

We are fortunate.  Most of us live in a world where the worst that will happen to us is a little teasing by family or friends who are not believers, but in Jesus’ world that was not the case.  Jesus was telling his disciples that if they want to follow him, they must be willing to bring dishonor on their families.  They must be willing to have family members consider them as good as dead, or even worse, they must realize a family member may turn them over to the authorities to save the honor of the family.   One cannot serve two masters.  At some point in time, you will have to make a choice between doing what you believe Jesus would want you to do and doing what your family wants you to do.  You will have to make a choice between doing what you believe Jesus is calling you to do and doing what your family and friends believe is the most fun, financially prudent, or socially more acceptable.  Jesus says there is only one choice if you want to follow him, and that it will probably cost you. 

We wonder why today’s generation does not find church meaningful.  I think it is because a long time ago, we ceased talking about true discipleship.  Deitrick Bonhoffer, a Lutheran minister that was executed in Nazi Germany spoke of “cheap grace.” 

“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross.”(Bonhoeffer 1937 transl. from German 1949, 36)

We believe God transforms us at the time of our baptism and we are marked as “Christ own forever.” We baptize infants on the promise of their sponsors that they will be raised in the Christian faith and we believe they become part of the body of Christ at their baptism. In the early church, a period, sometimes up to three years, was spent preparing people for baptism.  The Catechumens, those not yet baptized, were only allowed in the service through the reading of the scripture, at which time they were taken out for instruction.  This served two purposes.  Christianity was a persecuted religion and becoming a Christian could be a life-or-death decision. One did not choose to be a Christian lightly. Also,  it protected the worshipers from people who were seeking evidence to arrest individual Christians. Once it became socially acceptable to become a Christian, services became more open. Perhaps because we believe that God acts in the rite of baptism and that we are truly marked as Christ’s own forever, perhaps because we no longer worry our physical lives are at risk by our profession of faith, we have become lazy and fail to follow this up with true discipleship.  Many act like their baptism is a “Get out of hell FREE” ticket rather than initiation into the body of Christ.  I have found this true across denominations and whether you were baptized as an infant or an adult. 

Jesus knew there was a cost for following him.   He didn’t put any fine print in the contract, he put it out there in big bold print with boxes for initials and pastors have the job of pointing them out before anyone signs. 

“Hate your family” and “take up your cross” means count the cost before the purchase and know the price is high, it is your life. If Jesus put his family first, he would never have left his family to take up the life of an itinerate preacher and healer nor put his mother though the pain of seeing him crucified.  These are hard words.  This is a hard lesson and there is nothing I can say to make it easy other than to echo that it is worth the cost.  If Jesus had been unwilling to be crucified, we would never have witnessed his resurrection. When we build a house, buy a car; go on vacation we know it will cost money.  Money is a representation of our time and our energy.  Once it is spent on something we cannot get it back without returning the item, if we are allowed to do so. 

Jesus paid the price of our salvation, in full, and we can never repay him, but we can follow him to show our appreciation.  

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Proper 17, 2022

Last week I used the image of a jigsaw puzzle to talk about how the story of Jesus healing the woman with a bad back touched on several aspects of the larger picture Luke was trying to describe and interlocked with both previous stories and next stories in Luke.  I mentioned it contained images of Jesus’ healing ministry, his critique of first century scriptural interpretation, especially concerning the Sabbath, and images of the coming Kingdom of God. 

This week continues in a similar manner.  In our Lectionary, we skip over some sections of scripture between last week’s lesson and this week’s lesson. I hate missing pieces in my puzzles so I would like to just mention a few highlights from these passages so we can keep the flow of the story in mind. 

Jesus is traveling from town to town moving ever closer to Jerusalem and continuing his critique of the people’s understanding of the kingdom and how different their actions are from what God expects. The people think that just because they have shared meals with Jesus and listened to him teach that makes them insiders.  Jesus talks about narrow roads and closing doors. Jesus tells them there will be people from the four corners of the world that will be included, and some of the ones they least expect to enter the kingdom of heaven will be the first ones to be included. Some who expect to be first may be last or might not even make it in the door before it closes. 

These are very dangerous words to be speaking in the presence of local authorities.   Some of the Pharisee’s warn Jesus that he is in danger of being killed by Herod if he continues toward Jerusalem, especially if he continues teaching in this vein.  We are quick to stereotype all Pharisee’s as enemies of Jesus, but that is not entirely the case.  Some, like these appear to have Jesus’ safety in mind, some were curious and perhaps had not entirely decided what they thought about Jesus as we will see he is invited into the home of one of the Pharisee’s for a sabbath meal in today’s lesson. 

Jesus is aware of how dangerous his message is and what the outcome will be,  yet tells he tells this group of Pharisees that he must continue his journey to Jerusalem. Jesus is grieving over Jerusalem even as he journeys toward his death there. 

We speak of Jesus as prophet, priest, and king.  He is functioning as prophet as he tells his stories.  Prophets were seldom popular; they spoke the truth about the present and predicted the outcome for the future if nothing changed. In fact, Jesus reminds the people that it is in Jerusalem that prophets get killed.  His words about narrow roads, closing doors, and people being excluded sound harsh. We may be tempted to say “Not my Jesus”,  but Jesus’ intent is to cause the people to repent and correct the direction of their lives while there is still time.  Here is where we get the passage about Jesus wishing he could take the inhabitants of Jerusalem and protect them under his wings like a hen protects her chicks. Jesus is speaking for the Trinity, who loves the people and is broken hearted that they don’t understand what God through the centuries has been trying to teach them. 

As Jesus continues toward Jerusalem, he is invited to the home of one of the chief Pharisees and it appears there are many other synagogue leaders there at the table with them.  We almost get a repeat of last week’s lesson.  Jesus sees a man, possible one of the servants, who has dropsy. Today we would call it edema and he probably had no business being on his feet.  Jesus asks, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” This time no one responds.  Perhaps word has gotten out about the last time this subject came up. Jesus heals the man and then volunteers the same answer he gave last time – if it was one of their valuable farm animals, they would care for it on the sabbath. 

All this time, Jesus has been watching the crowd at this dinner.  He has seen how people have jockeyed for the best places, have wanted to sit close to certain people.  Jesus does a little preaching on Proverbs 25: 6-7 which says, “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”  Jesus takes this proverb and makes it real for them.  He moves it to a wedding feast – something they all would know about – which wasn’t too far from the situation they were currently in.  

Jesus begins, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor…” (Luke 14:8). This should not have been too scandalous for them unless they recognized that Jesus was talking about them.  This followed the line of Proverbs which they knew well.  But then Jesus takes it one step further and this was sure to give pause to the host in particular, but possibly the guests as well.  “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14: 14-13) The poor and lame at this feast are working as servants to the rich and powerful and they have not been invited to sit down and share the meal.  These are the people that Jesus indicated might get into the kingdom of heaven first.  This behavior of seeking earthly riches and earthly honor is the ditch on the side of the road that Jesus said was narrow. 

The guests at this dinner would probably have been horrified at the thought of the bloated servant sitting next to them.  I am reminded in Downton Abbey when the chauffeur is first invited to sit at the table with the family because of his relationship with one of the daughters.  Violet, played by Maggie Smith, reacts pretty close to what I imagine the dinner guests at this dinner were feeling at the thought of inviting people, like the man Jesus just healed, to sit next to them for a meal.  

The first shall be last and the last shall be first. It is a hard concept to grasp because most humans are naturally competitive.  Athletics, whether individual or team, is all about proving that you are better than anyone else.  Award ceremonies for music, theater, or any other craft or skill are all about acknowledging that some people are better at something than anyone else. Scholarships are awarded to those who are the best in their field of study.  The list goes on and on.  We are programmed to want to win.  

Building relationships that increase our chances of winning are also pretty natural to most humans.  Networking is the name of the game.  It is not what you know as much as who you know.  Befriending the friendless will not get one ahead in this life, but that is exactly what Jesus is suggesting.

What is just as troubling is that being compassionate to those who have less can become just as competitive as being rich, beautiful, or powerful.  The harder we try to “get into the kingdom of heaven” the more we can fall into the trap of seeking to be first, in a different way. The Pharisees fell into this trap. The harder they tried to make sure God’s laws were followed the less they followed the intent of the law. The Pharisees were probably the most law-abiding folks around, but not the most compassionate. I am well aware of how tricky it can be to find the right balance so that one is righteous , in right relationship with God and not self-righteous, believing oneself to be in right relationship with God when you are not. 

I have no easy answers for you.  Prayer, reading the scriptures, self-examination and confession, getting out into the community and building relationships with a wide variety of people are all tools to help us navigate this narrow path.  The Good News is that if the last are first, we don’t have to win any race. We just do the best we can, one day at a time, and give thanks for the mercy of God who forgives all our sins. 

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Proper 16 2022

Reading scripture, especially the way we read it on Sunday mornings can feel a lot like working a jigsaw puzzle.  When you just dump it out on the table half of the pieces are face down and you can’t see anything until you turn it over.  You can immediately begin to discern certain prominent colors.  This green piece is foliage. Is the blue sky or water? Is the brown the horse or the tree trunk? Many of the pieces are mostly one color, but have a little bit of another. It is only when you begin putting the pieces together, when you find where the shapes and the colors match, that you begin to see the big picture.  The more of the puzzle you get worked, often the easier it gets.  

Our gospel lesson today is like one of those small puzzle pieces.  It is a healing story, one of many in the gospels.  It is a story about the Sabbath which connects to other stories in the Old Testament.  It is a critique of biblical interpretation by some of Jesus’ contemporaries which connects this story to the previous story in Luke and it is a story about the coming of the Kingdom of God in the midst of the people.  I would like to spend a little time connecting this piece to other pieces of this puzzle to see if we can get a better view of the overall picture. 

“Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath.” (Luke 13:10).  According to Rabbi Shlomo Yaffee “after the restoration of the Second Temple (352 BCE), the Great Assembly, led by Ezra, instituted the Kaddish, Kedushah, Barechu, and the rest of the standardized communal service (requiring the participation of a minyan or quorum of ten) as well as the obligation for individuals to participate in these services.  There arose both in Israel and the Diaspora places set aside to pray communally.  Thus was born the “Place of Gathering” – Beit Kenesset in Hebrew, and synagogos in Greek”  (Yaffe, n.d.)

The idea of the Sabbath goes back at least to Moses and the Ten Commandments. “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male of female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.  For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” (Exodus 20: 8-11) 

We know very little about ancient origins of various stories, songs and poems prior to their current placements in the canon of scripture.  Those who put together the Torah in its current form placed a poem or song about creation as the introduction to the Torah.  This poem provides the background for the understanding of the connection between sabbath and creation.  “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.” (Gen 2:3)

Some additional passages in the Torah give further instruction regarding the Sabbath, but many of the rules in place during the first century were the result of years of interpretation.  How far could one walk and it not be considered work.  How much could one lift and it not be considered work. 

Jesus is in one of these gathering places, synagogues, teaching on the sabbath.  He was doing exactly what was expected of him at this point.  A woman with a bad back walks past and Jesus notices that she is having to walk bent over and he calls her over. He lays his hand on her, and tells her she is healed.  We don’t know Jesus’ motivation.  It could have been compassion for the woman; it could have been to demonstrate the healing power of God; it could have been to intentionally provoke the Pharisees and open the door for conversation about the purpose of the sabbath. 

Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites, play actors, because they pretend to be holy and God fearing, yet they have twisted the Law of Moses to suit their own needs while ignoring the intent of the law.  Sabbath was intended to provide everyone – human, farm animals, and even the land necessary rest.  No one and nothing is to be worked to death.  Sabbath was intended to remind people that God is to be worshiped not material gain.  Humanitarian acts such as feeding the hungry, healing the sick, freeing the oppressed, rescuing those in danger were not to be suppressed by the laws of the Sabbath.  These are things which further the kingdom of heaven and are not intended to make one rich.

Just prior to this passage Luke tells us the parable of the barren fig tree. Throughout Luke Jesus has been critiquing first century interpretation of the scriptures.  He has witnessed a barrenness that has come over the religious practices of his people and he is seeking to restore life via the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God to  the people 

Luke will follow up our story of the healing of the woman on the sabbath with a parable about a mustard seed that grows into a tree and a small amount of yeast that leavened three measures of flour.   Small acts, such as the healing of a crippled woman,  can have enormous impacts. It not only restores that woman to wholeness, it gives hope to others, and should cause Jesus’ critics to think about the ways their own lives are crippled by their own actions. 

Sabbath has become a forgotten practice in modern society.  I am not suggesting we go back to the Blue Laws of my childhood.  They were as problematic as the Pharisees’ interpretation of the sabbath laws in the first century.  I would encourage you to look at your own personal calendar.  Where are you making time for quality rest and connection with God in your own life?  Are you conscious of the labor of those who provide goods and services to you and do they have the opportunity for quality rest? How are you responding to those, like the crippled woman, who interrupt your life, perhaps at inconvenient moments? 

Our spiritual lives are not made up of disconnected pieces.  All that we are and that we do are connected, the colors of our lives overlap the various shapes of the other pieces.  As you go through this week look for those connections, those small hints of how everything goes together and remember that you too are a small piece in God’s big picture. 

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Proper 12 2022

Prayer is one of the most fundamental aspects of our spiritual life and it is the one aspect with which more people, especially those who have grown up in a more liturgical rather than evangelical denomination, find that they struggle. 

Prayer is a foundational practice of the Jewish faith from which we have deep spiritual roots. Taking prayer to mean conversation with God, the earliest mention begins with Adam in the Garden when God brings the animals to him to name, and later when he tells Adam and Eve what they can and cannot do.  The earliest mention of the word prayer in scripture occurs in Genesis 20 when God comes to Abimelech, the Egyptian leader who had taken Sarah, Abraham’s wife into his harem and warns him he is about to commit adultery and die.  God tells Abimelech to return Sarah to Abraham and Abraham will pray for him and he will live, because Abraham is a prophet. 

 We know Abraham had an intimate relationship with God.  I can’t tell you if Abraham ever heard an audible voice but he was in conversation with his creator on a regular basis.  He tried to pattern his life according to what he believed God was telling him to do, long before there were any scriptures to access as reference. Sometimes he was right on target, sometimes he was not, but the conversation continued and God continued to be with him and to guide him keeping promises God made to Abraham and his family. 

Moses appears to have heard an audible voice from God.  We know at least that he recognized the presence of God in an unusual bush that was on fire, but was not consumed.  And he found God “present” on the top of Mt. Sinai. We know that God is ever present, everywhere but, there are times and places God’s presence seems to be palpable.  When we are more aware of God’s presence. Moses conversed with God regularly as God led him to Egypt and back out of Egypt through the wilderness with the children of Israel.  Moses’ conversations with God led to both civil and religious practices adopted by the people he led with the understanding that as a community they worshiped this God and no other. 

Psalm 119:164 says “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous ordinances.”  David often turned his prayers into songs, songs we still have in the Psalms. 

We are told that even after Daniel had been condemned to the lion’s den, “he continued…to get down on his knees three times a day to pray to his God and praise him, just as he had done previously.” (Dan 6:10) 

Jesus’ disciples were raised in this tradition and yet, when they saw him praying, one of them said “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.” (Luke 11:1). 

A the monastic practice of praying the hours, and later the Anglican practice of Morning & Evening Prayer along with Noon Prayers and Compline have their roots in the passages of scripture that describe the prayer practices of our spiritual ancestors. 

I am not going to dissect the Lord’s Prayer for you this morning.  I expect many other preachers have done this for you in the past, and I spent six weeks with our Pilgrim group this past year studying the Lord’s Prayer.  We say it every Sunday and most of you know it by heart. 

I don’t think Jesus was telling us to pray this specific prayer.  He was telling them to have a conversation with God as though they were speaking to their own father and offering some insight as to what are appropriate requests.

He follows this up with the story of a persistent neighbor who wakes you up in the middle of the night to ask a favor.  Jesus says you will help him just to make him go away.  If you will help your neighbor just to get a little peace and quiet, how much more can you expect God who loves you to respond to your request.  There is a bit of fine print, however, in this passage that we often ignore.  Verse 13 says “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” (Luke 11:13) 

Janice Joplin wasn’t on the right track when she sang “Oh Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz” Sometimes, God’s answer is No when we are praying with the wrong motives or for the wrong thing. The one thing are told God will never say no to is a request for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. 

Personal, private prayer should be as natural and as honest as a conversation with your closest confidant.  Matthew gives us a very personal look at Jesus praying before his arrest saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let the cup pass from me: yet not what I want but what you want.” (Matthew 26:39). It is ok to tell God, “I am scared.” “I am angry.” “I am sad.” “I am lonely.” “I am frustrated.” “I am confused.”  All these feelings that bubble to the surface God is able to handle and wants to hear.  Then perhaps through reading scripture, or sitting quietly, or singing hymns you will find peace and perhaps some insight. 

Prayers that seek injury to others are curses.  They can be found in the Bible and there are times they are the only prayers we are able to articulate, for example when the Israelites had just been defeated in a long and drawn-out war and then removed from their homeland, but consider that “venting” to God and follow it up, as they did, with more appropriate prayers. The prophets warn us to be careful what we ask for when we were call on God to judge our neighbors.  The Lord’s prayer reminds us that we call on God to forgive us because we are continually forgiving those who have wronged us.  Jesus us tells us not to judge others because by the standards we set for others, we will be judged. 

Praying publicly without a prayerbook handy can be learned with just a little practice.  All of the many Collects in the BCP follow a certain pattern that you can adapt as well as use outright. You may find it helpful to take a couple of minutes to arrange your thoughts because I find they are easier to build backwards beginning with the outcome we are expecting.

We begin by addressing God with praise and stating why we have the confidence that God will respond to our prayer.  Using this morning’s collect. 

O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy.  

This is something we believe based upon the stories passed down to us through history, through the lives of the saints, through the faith of family or friends, and through our own experience. 

What do we want God to do? 

Increase and multiply upon us your mercy.  – pretty straightforward request. 

What is our responsibility in this prayer? 

That with you as our ruler and guide 

If God multiplies God’s mercy upon us, we must be willing to allow God to be our ruler and guide. 

What outcome do we expect? 

We may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not things eternal

This is an old collect and the language is a bit archaic.  We don’t have to pray in Elizabethan English.  We could also say, we want to go through our earthly life in such a way that we don’t lose eternal life with God. 

We close with some form of affirmation of the Trinity – having addressed the Father in this prayer,  we acknowledge the Son and Holy Spirit. 

Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reins with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. 

This collect is a pretty straightforward petition.  Some add a statement of Thanksgiving.  Some a confession of some transgression and a petition to help us amend our ways and set right what has been wrong. Often they contain short passages of scripture appropriate to the petition. 

I would encourage you to practice praying, both privately and publically.  There is no right or wrong way as long as your heart is in the right place and you are seeking to strengthen your relationship with God and God’s creation. 

There are many useful “tools” to help you pray.  Prayer books, roseries, journals, methods like Lectio Divina or Ignatian Prayer.  Use the ones that are helpful.  Skip the ones that are a distraction.  We all have our own personalities and preferences.  Just make sure you are using the tool as a spring board and not as a crutch. 

I would like to close with one of my favorite collects. 

Let us pray, 

O heavenly Father, in whom we live and move and have our being; We humbly pray you will guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember we are ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

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Proper 11 2021

As many of you probably know by now, Fiddler on the Roof is one of my favorite shows. Besides just being entertaining, it gives us a glimpse into the common life of a pre-modern Jewish family.  I suspect much of the social etiquette described in that show was in place in Jesus time.  Everyone had their place.  Young, old, male, female, rich, poor.  It is probably why Joel, Peter, and Paul make such a big deal out of saying in the fullness of the kingdom, those labels did not matter.  Understanding other people’s perspectives helps us put other stories in perspective and imagine what was going on in the minds of people in other situations.

This morning we heard the brief story concerning friends of Jesus and their different response to him.  One sister, Martha, is doing exactly what most people would have expected of her. The rules of hospitality were very important in the Middle East during the first century.  For one thing, it could be a matter of life or death as there were not a lot of public resources for food, water, and shelter and especially in a harsh desert climate, these were very important.

It is believed that Mary, Martha and Lazarus (Jesus’ friends in Bethany) were at best working class and perhaps not even that.  Bethany was not an affluent town.  Lazarus is looking after two spinster sisters which means they probably had no dowery to enable them to marry.  They do not appear to have any servants.

Jesus shows up, possibly unannounced, with twelve hungry dirty men who have been traveling in the area.  Martha is frantically trying to put together a meal for thirteen extra people and see to their comforts, such as providing them water to wash their feet.  Mary has forgotten all her manners and is sitting with the men at Jesus’ feet listening to him tell stories while Martha is doing all the work by herself.  In her exasperation, Martha goes to Jesus and accuses him of not caring about the fact that she is overworked and Mary is sitting there not lifting a finger to help. She asks Jesus to make Mary get up and help her. Jesus’ reply probably does not comfort Martha.  He tells her that she has her priorities confused and that Mary has made the better choice. We in the church have spent the last 2000 years trying to justify Martha’s position rather than seek Mary’s. 

It is a delicate balancing act and I don’t think it is a matter of either/or but a matter of prioritizing our time and making sure we don’t let the things of lesser importance take priority over the things of greater importance.

I would like to look to Jesus, himself, to see how he ordered his priorities to give us some idea of how we should order ours.

Jesus did not neglect public worship.  Luke tells us that according to Jewish law, Jesus was brought to the Temple when he was eight days old to be circumcised and named and that his parents offered the appropriate sacrifices at the time. (Luke 2:21-24).  Every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover.  When Jesus was twelve, he was accidently left behind because he was actively engaged in discussion about the scriptures with his elders in the temple and missed the caravan back to Nazareth and did not appear to notice for three days that he had been left behind.   (Luke 2:41-52) As an adult, he continued to attend the important festivals at the Temple. (Passover – John 2:13, an unnamed festival – John 5: 1; Sukkoth – John 7:1-14; Hanukkah- John 10.22). The gospel of John carefully points out the various festivals that Jesus attended in Jerusalem.  When he was away from Jerusalem and the temple, Jesus appears to have faithfully attended the synagogue on the sabbath and took a teaching role. (Mark 1:21)

Jesus did not neglect private prayer.  Mark tells us “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” (Mark 1: 35)  This was a common occurrence for Jesus.  He took himself off to a quiet place on a regular basis and spent time in prayer with God, whom he called Father.  Public worship and private prayer are not an either/or.  They are two separate but necessary aspects of building our relationship with God.  One united as the body of Christ and the other developing a personal relationship with God.

Jesus primary ministry was sharing the Good News about the coming of God’s Kingdom.  When Peter found Jesus praying by himself, he told him “Everyone is searching for you.”  [Jesus] answered him “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” It was St. Francis, not Jesus that suggested we share the gospel through our actions, only using words when necessary. Jesus was a man of many words. Jesus was a teacher. Jesus’ acts of healing and feeding were the natural extension of who he was and the compassion he felt for the people, but the message is what drove his agenda.

Even Jesus did not work alone most of the time.  Jesus called first twelve companions and began to teach them both publicly with the crowds and privately. At times he took the group off on retreat such as when he went to Caesarea Philippi when he asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” (Luke 9: 18).  Sometimes, he took only Peter, James and John such as at the Transfiguration. (Luke 9:28-36) On another occasion, Jesus appointed seventy and sent them out two by two into the neighboring towns and villages and he gave them the authority to heal the sick and preach the gospel. (Luke 10: 1-12)

Public worship takes a lot of preparation. Prior to my ordination I sang in the choir, I taught children’s Sunday School, and I served on the Altar Guild, and served as Lay Reader and Eucharistic Minister ( at various times, not all at once). I know how much effort goes into preparation for a Sunday morning service. Every week we have housekeeping staff who come in and vacuum and dust.  The altar guild polishes our vessels, prepares the bread and wine, sets the table, maintains the linens and the candles just to name a few things.  Our musicians select music, and practice throughout the week to lead us in our singing and give us music to help us focus on God.  Our vestry and administrative staff make sure our building is cared for, bills paid, and bulletins are printed as well as many other things. Giving of our time, talent, and treasure to ensure others have access to meaningful public worship is important and I am acutely aware of the sacrifices made to this purpose.  Jesus is not saying we should neglect them.  What Jesus was doing was giving Mary permission to step out of the role that society had put her in so that she could experience a part of the worship experience that she had previously been denied.  We just need to balance service in the church with finding ways to nurture our relationship with God and not get too caught up in being Martha that we forget the importance of being Mary Also, not trying to tell others how God is calling them to serve. I think we have been very welcoming of including others in our ministries.  This story is just a reminder to continue doing so.

Education is a lifelong experience, especially religious education. We send our children to pre-school to get a good foundation in reading and math. Then twelve years of school to learn the basics of how to function in society. Then college and perhaps graduate school in the hopes that they succeed financially and fill fulfilled in their vocation.  How much time do we spend on theirs or our own education when it comes to understanding the scriptures, understanding how we have come to believe and behave as a faith community, understanding how to best nurture and care for our own and our neighbors spiritual health and well-being?  Jesus was a teacher.  One of his great frustrations was that people did not take the time to understand what he was trying to tell them. How much effort do we put into understanding Jesus and then helping others understand?One of the reasons I am such a proponent of small group work is that it allows us to study the scripture, bouncing questions off one another, learning from one another and in the process strengthening relationships.   

Finally, none of us are in this alone.  Paul talks about Christians forming the “body of Christ”.  He talks about how we all have roles to fulfill.  Anytime one part of the body is injured or in pain, the whole body feels it.  Anytime one part of the body is not fulfilling its role it affects the whole body.  When Jesus sent out the seventy, he did so two by two.  This both protects the individuals and holds them accountable. For every job in the church, we should have at least two people who know how to do it.  In many situations, we should have two people there at all times.  Ideally, we have one or more persons who is already trained and experienced and someone who is learning and preparing to step into the role. I know this is hard in a small congregation.  Many people already wear multiple hats.  What I would challenge you to do this week is think about your interests, your knowledge and skills.  Are you offering them to God?  Is there something you would like to see us do, that we don’t have anyone doing at this time?  Do you have any knowledge or skills that could be shared to help us realize this dream?  Do you want to know how to do something that others among us seem to know how to do?  How can we partner with each other to make us stronger and more effective as a group than we are as individuals?

The story of Mary and Martha is tricky.  We don’t want to be justifying Martha’s position at the expense of Mary’s, busyness even at good things at the expense of relationship with God is self-defeating, but we don’t want to use Mary as an excuse not to do things that will further God’s kingdom and claim we are focused on our personal spiritual growth. How well are you balancing your priorities?

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Proper 10 2022

While I was on the 7 hour flight from Ireland back to Virginia, I had plenty of time to watch movies, including some Irish made movies.  One of the movies I watched was called Belfast.  It was the story of one family’s struggle to stay neutral and compassionate to their neighbors, both Protestant and Catholic during the religious conflict during the 1960’s.  As I was reading in preparation for todays Parable of the Good Samaritan,  I kept recalling scenes from the movie Belfast and I realized how relevant and contemporary this ancient story told by Jesus still is.

Understanding the setting of this story is significant to understanding the story.  First, the territory between Jerusalem and Jericho were deep into Jewish territory.  Politics of the time within the Jewish community were volatile.  Those who were attached to the temple, such as the priests and Levites were anxious not to offend the Romans.  They enjoyed a large amount of freedom of religion as long as things remained peaceful.  Another group, the Zealots, were revolutionaries, insurrectionist, terrorist.  They believed in taking Israel away from Rome by brut force and were not above intimidation and acts of violence against their own people to encourage less enthusiastic Jews to join in supporting their actions.  There were also the Pharisees, who were focused on individual adherence to the traditions of their ancestors and the laws described in the Torah as a means of restoring God’s kingdom.  The Essenes washed their hands of the whole lot and fled into the desert near Jericho declaring only they had the truth and everyone else was destined for destruction.

Just north of this region, between Judah and Galilee lay Samaria.  Samaria had originally been part of the northern tribes of Israel which were conquered by the Assyrians.  Most of the descendants of Abraham, except perhaps those deemed not worth the effort, were killed or carried off into exile and replaced with foreigners.  There is a story in the book of Kings that says these foreigners were being killed by wild beasts.  In an effort to appease the God of that land, the king of Assyria sent back a priest from those who had been deported to teach these foreigners how to worship the God of Abraham.  What this priest taught them looked like the faith as it had been known during the time of Moses –Mt Sinai was where God resided and the 5 books of the Torah were the whole of the holy scriptures.  He left out the temple worship known under the Davidic kingdoms and the later wisdom writings and the writings of the prophets, probably because that was what the northern tribes believed, but it put the Samaritans outside the cultural norm of the rest of the area.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and he is stopped by a lawyer who is trying to figure out who Jesus is and begins questioning him.  “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus turns the question back on him “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”  and the lawyer responds appropriately, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus affirms his answer.

The lawyer asks another question to clarify and I think we are wrong to jump to the conclusion that he was trying to get out of being a good neighbour.  Much of scripture, including the New Testament talks about how to behave within a community, the Jewish community, the Christian community.  He could have seriously believed that the scriptures were talking about behavior within his faith community and seeking Jesus’ understanding of what constituted that community.

Rather than give a direct answer, Jesus tells a story.  Jesus tells us that a man was on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho and he was set upon by men who beat him and left him for dead.  My friend and mentor, the Rev. Dr. William Brosend, states in his book The Parables, that we can assume that all the characters in this story are Jewish, save the last.  The traveler, the attackers, the passersby, and the inn keeper.  Jesus’ audience is hearing a story from inside their community.  The word used to describe the attackers is the same word used to describe the men crucified on either side of Jesus.  Romans did not crucify common criminals, they crucified enemies of the state.  Here is where the scenes from the movie Belfast began to inform my image of this scene. This is a story of conflict within a community as it first unfolds.  Dr Brosend indicates that the beating was probably intended to send a message to the community.  It was a message not lost on those that were traveling on the same road.

Jesus tells us a temple priest is the first to pass by.  Jesus’ audience would have thought of the priest as one of the good guys.  It is only through 2000 years of preaching we have forgotten that.  We are not told the priest’s motivation for crossing to the other side of the street only that he avoided the situation.  Same with the Levite. Whatever their reasons, and they may have had some good ones, they were focused on their own agenda rather than taking in what was happening around them and responding to the situation. We never do that, do we? Sociologist have done field studies on people’s reactions to similar situations on our city streets with depressing results.

Jesus’ audience would probably have expected the next person he named to be a Pharisee.  Again, we have put negative connotations on the word Pharisee for so long we forget that for the majority of Jesus’ audience, the Pharisee’s were good guys.  Perhaps that is why Jesus was so tough on them, they had the greatest potential, but didn’t use it wisely.  But Jesus makes a shocking statement.  The next person to pass by is a Samaritan. Wrong race, wrong religion, wrong place.  Why is he even on this road?

The Samaritan stops.  That is the first and most important thing he does.  He gets out of his own head and heart and stops to see what is going on in front of him.  When he does so, he realizes, first that the man is still alive and second he feels deep compassion for this man lying there.

We quickly jump to put ourselves in the place of the “Good” Samaritan, but what if we are the person left battered and broken by life.  Does it matter more who comes to our aid or that someone is willing to do so.  I have seen people reject help because they were rejecting the person offering help.  Perhaps we should be more attuned to what is in people’s hearts and accept offers of friendship from those who have a gentle and caring heart even if they don’t fit into our favorite categories.

The Samaritan is the perfect example of a good steward.  He gives first of his time.  He sees a need that is greater than his own and he freely offers his assistance. He didn’t check his watch or his calendar to see if it was convenient.   Second he gives of his talent.  He uses the resources he has to take care of the most immediate need, dressing the man’s wounds and transporting him to a place where he can receive further care.  Third, he gives of his treasure.  He does not drop the man off at the inn and tell the owner he is your problem now.  He pays for the services of the innkeeper and promises to do more if necessary to see that the man is taken care of properly.

When Jesus’ asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man…?” The answer is pretty obvious to everyone present. The man responds, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus tells him, “Go and do likewise.”

The Parable of the Good Samaritan calls us to a time of self-reflection.  Where do you fit into this story?  Are you the lawyer, seeking clarification concerning the path you are on? Are you open to new insights?  Are you the first traveler, beat up by life’s circumstances and praying for a neighbor to have compassion on you? Are you willing to accept the help that is offered or do you push them away due to pride or prejudice? Are you among the insurrectionists, hurting other people to prove you are in the right? What impact does your behavior have on other people?  Are you the priest or the Levite – by stepping the messy parts of life, leaving that part for someone else to deal with? Are you so caught up in your own agenda that you miss opportunities to reflect Christ to your neighbor? Are you the Samaritan, do you see the world as your neighborhood looking beyond our categories to see individuals? Do you take time to stop and see what is happening around you,  using the gifts God has given you to help others out of compassion?  Are you the innkeeper, a shelter from the storms of life and a place of healing and nurturing for others? Are the doors of your heart open to the pain of others?  I suspect we are all each of these from time to time. When Jesus say go and do likewise he is responding to the comment that the neighbor is the one who shows mercy.  How can we be good neighbors in our own context?

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Trinity Sunday 2022

Today is Trinity Sunday.  I am not going to try and offer you a comprehensible definition of the Trinity.  The Trinity is a mystery that must be accepted by faith if one accepts it.  What I do want to do is look at the development of our statements of faith, our creeds, and explain how and why those statements, in particular those statements about the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit became a core assumption of the faith of the Church.

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen

We know an amazing amount about the ancient religions coming out of Mesopotamia and Egypt, the two areas that most influenced our early spiritual ancestors. Most of these stories involve one or more divine couples who give birth to other gods, create the earth, sometimes from fragments of vanquished gods, and who control the cycles of nature.  It was common to worship and make sacrifices to multiple gods to appease them and get them to do what you wanted. 

Abram, later renamed Abraham, left that world and set off on a journey in an effort to please one God with whom he had a personal relationship.  Abraham was not monotheist in that he believe no other gods existed, but he was what we call henotheist, there was only one God worthy of his worship. This belief in “one God” is shared by all the religions that claim Abraham as their spiritual ancestor.

During the time of Moses and the ten commandments, the children of Israel, the people Moses brought out of Egypt are given the commandment “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, you shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:2) and when the teachings of Moses was summarized in a final sermon in Deuteronomy the Shema or the creed of the Jewish faith was given as “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord” (Deut. 6:4) following that is the commandment “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deut. 6:5).

The prophet Isaiah makes a truly monotheistic statement “Turn to me and be saved all the ends of the earth! For I am God and there is no other.” (Isaiah 45: 22)

That God is the creator of heaven and earth is attested to in scripture beginning in Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.”  However, one of the Gnostic beliefs that was floating around by at least the second century was that the demiurge (lesser god) that created the earth was in fact evil, that all flesh was evil and that the Supreme God was a purely spiritual being.  The result of this belief was two extreme responses – rigid and severe asceticism because the body was evil and hedonism because the flesh didn’t matter.  This statement says Christians do not hold that belief.

Almighty (Shaddai in Hebrew, Pantokratōr in Greek)  appears as a title for God throughout the Old and New Testament.

The title Father is what Jesus called God and indicates a parent child relationship.  This was a departure.  I am not aware of anyone addressing God as Father before Jesus.  God’s name that was given to Moses was considered too sacred to speak and God was normally referred to as Adoni, Lord, a title indicating both allegiance and subservience to God. Paul speaks of Christians being adopted “…so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Gal 4; 5-6).  He also uses the term adoption in Romans and Ephesians. Through Jesus we enter a parent child relationship with God, the creator.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father. 

Adoptionism was an early belief that held that Jesus was a normal human that at some point in his life became a god (not the God), in particular at his death or at his baptism because he was such a good person. God adopted him as his Son.  It is a belief that continually resurfaces, possibly because there are various passages in the New Testament (in particular in Mark, the writings of Paul, and Hebrews)  that, taken by themselves, can be interpreted in that way, but clearly Matthew and Luke do not hold that view and John’s opening paragraph annihilates that idea.

God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God begotten not made, of one being with the Father. Through him all things were made.

A variety of ideas about who Jesus was floated around in the early church. 

Arianism denied the divinity of Christ.  Jesus was believed to be more than human, but nevertheless, a creature created by God and not God. Jesus was less than God.  The Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and those embracing a theology called Modernism are modern day Arians.  Episcopalians and others who embrace the Nicene Creed are not Arians. We believe Jesus’  statements in the Gospel of John – “if you have seen me you have seen the Father” (John 14: 9) and “the Father and I are one.” (John 17:11).

For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

The Virgin birth is a doctrine held in the Nicene Creed.  The story comes out of the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 1: 18-23).  Matthew quotes a passage from Isaiah 7:14 from the Septuagint.  “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” Much controversy has come up in recent years because the original Hebrew word denotes a young woman and not necessarily a virgin.  Most scholars agree that the original meaning of the text was contemporary to its writing indicating that within just a few years – before a child that was possibly already conceived had been weened certain events would happen.  When Jewish scholars, before Jesus was ever born, translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek, they selected a Greek word which means virgin. They may have had Messianic understandings about this passage already.  Certainly Jesus gave Old Testament scriptures new meaning by indicating that they were talking about him, so it is reasonable the writer of Matthew should see God’s hand in the translation to the Greek and believe the virgin birth was real and prophesied by Isaiah.  The Septuagint was in wide usage during the first century.

Another belief called Docetism, stated that Jesus was divine, but that he was not human.  They thought he just looked human, but that he didn’t really suffer and die on the cross, it just appeared that he did.  Docetism denies the Incarnation.  Episcopalians and others who affirm the Nicene Creed believe in the Incarnation. Jesus is fully human and fully divine.  How that can happen was argued and fancy Greek philosophical terminology was applied, but the reality is our mortal brains does not have the understanding or the language to completely grasp this concept.  We get close, and then by faith we accept even that which we do not fully comprehend.

Those who affirm the Apostles and Nicene Creeds, which we as Episcopalians do when we participate in Morning or Evening Prayer, the Eucharist, a Baptism or Confirmation affirm a belief that Jesus was fully God and fully human.  We don’t have to understand how that could happen.  It is not something we can prove, though we can show how the early church supported the statement, but it is a statement of faith.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.  On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures;

One of the most historically accepted facts is that Jesus really existed and was really crucified under orders of Pontius Pilate.  What happened next can be neither proved nor disproved, but the New Testament relates that he was buried and in three days rose again. .  Paul states, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in tern had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared too Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Cor 15: 3-8).  The Old Testament, the scriptures of the early church, mentions three days in the story of Jonah (Jonah 1:17) and the whale, that Jesus says is the only sign that will be given and also in Hosea 6:12 three days is mentioned with respect to resurrection. 

He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.

This is a statement about Christ’s Ascension and his future and eternal reign.  This statement ties Jesus to the Jewish understanding of Messiah as king, but like in Isaiah’s vision, not just of Israel, but of all the universe.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.  With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.  He has spoken through the Prophets.

It could take hours to get into all the nuances of the Holy Spirit.  In the Old Testament God’s Spirit is experienced in the Ruach, the wind or breath of God that hovered over the waters of creation.  God’s spirit fell upon specific individuals and left some like Saul who was gifted with the Spirit at his coronation, but God removed the spirit from him due to his disobedience. Last week we heard about the Spirit at Pentecost again exhibiting itself as a mighty wind and enabling the communication of the Good News despite the variety of languages spoken and understood by those present.

The Trinity is the sum of all that we do and do not believe about God as God has been revealed to us through the Old Testament stories of God’s interaction with the people, through our understanding of the person of Jesus and his relationship to God, his purpose on earth, and his eternal purpose, and the Holy Spirit as reveal in scriptures and experienced by Christians throughout history up to the present and beyond.  Augustine tried to define it succinctly describing the Trinity as the lover, the beloved, and the love between them.  I could throw a lot of Greek Aristotelian terms at you, but I’m not sure I could explain the nuances of the words in a way that makes any sense.  The Trinity is a mystery that requires a leap of faith, the mathematics don’t add up, but then God is beyond definition.

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Pentecost 2022

I am fascinated by words and their impact on society.  So much so, that I have actually listened to two of Dr. John McWhorter’s lecture series on the history of language available through the Great Courses.  Dr. McWhorter does not explain the development of language the same way as the book of Genesis does, but his purposes are different.  The story in Genesis is probably a fable – a made up story that conveys one or more great truths where Dr. McWhorter is looking for factual data that might point to interesting insights about language and human behavior.  Both ways of telling the story are important.

Babylon was an ancient Akkadian city on the Euphrates River south of present-day Bagdad in Iraq.  It rose to great power under Hammurabi but it’s initial significance was short lived and for about a thousand years it was just a small country.  Then, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, in 612 BCE it defeated the Assyrians and once again became the most powerful country in the region.  (Babylonia, n.d.) Babylon destroyed Jerusalem in 597 BCE and forced its residents to relocate to Babylon in what became known as the Babylonian exile. This empire too was short lived being defeated by the Persians in 539 BCE.  I don’t know when in this history this story first appeared, but the story teller certainly remembered the sudden rise and fall of either ancient Babylon and/or Neo-Babylon and is giving a critique of the Babylonian Empire as well as giving us a story, much like Aesop’s tales, of why things are the way they are.  I can hear a child, hearing the story of creation and Adam and Eve then asking, “if we are all one family, why don’t we all speak the same language?”

From a linguistic perspective from Akkadian, we get the word babilu meaning “gate of god” . Translated to Hebrew Babel becomes the name of a tower and similarly balal , to confuse. The Hebrews loved plays on words. Translated to Greek Babel becomes Babylon (Tower of Babel, n.d.) the name of a city and an Empire and into English babble, meaning to speak nonsense. 

The moral of our tale: Those who seek their own glory will end up speaking nonsense.

So what does the Tower of Babel have to do with Pentecost? In Acts, God takes this story and reverses it, stands it on its head, redeems it.

Just before Jesus ascends into heaven he leaves his disciples with the orders to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit (Acts 1: 4) and we are told they did exactly as they were told; they were obedient.  Luke names the 11 remaining disciples, then says, “all these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.” (Acts 1:14).  It appears that others joined them while they were waiting because verse 15 tells us that there were about 120 believers present when Peter suggests that they replace Judas Iscariot and they select Matthias by lots. Ten days pass while they wait in prayer, never leaving Jerusalem.

Fifty days after Passover is a Jewish holiday called Shavuot or Pentecost. It was a harvest festival and a time to bring the first fruits to the temple.  It is also associated with the giving of the Torah.  Like Passover – the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Pentecost is a time the city of Jerusalem would be full of Jewish pilgrims from all over the world who have come to celebrate the holy day at the Temple. This is the day God choses to send the gift of the Holy Spirit.

It begins with “the sound like the rush of a volent wind” (Acts 2: 2). Ruach in Hebrew could mean breath, or wind, or spirit.  This was the breath of God, the Spirit of God making itself known in no uncertain terms.  I don’t know how many of you have ever weathered out a hurricane, but the noise can be deafening and the force of the wind little can resist.  “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” This is an interesting image.  If you think of humans as being “adam” earth, you have all the primal elements, earth, wind and fire co-existing without anyone extinguishing the other.

At this time the believers begin to speak “in other languages, as the Spirit gave them the ability.” (Acts 2:4)  In this instance, the speaking in tongues means that people who speak one language were understood by people who spoke a different language.  I have always believed that there was some kind of double miracle here, both a miracle of the tongue and a miracle of the ear.  Those who were open to hearing the gospel understood what was being said.  Those who were not open to hearing the gospel heard only the babbling of drunkards.  In this instance, for those whose hearts and minds were open to God’s message, the story of the Tower of Babel was reversed, but it took obedience to Jesus’ commands to wait for the Holy Spirit on the part of the disciples and openness to the message on the part of the hearers. 

Peter stands up and addresses the crowd, “Men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.”  (Acts 2: 15) What a way to start the day!

Peter continues by telling them they are witnessing the fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32, quoting that passage to them about the pouring out of the Spirit upon all flesh – male and female, young and old, rich and poor, free or slave. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Acts 2:21) . Peter continues talking about Jesus’s death and resurrection, about David and the promised Messiah, making his point that Jesus and the promised Messiah are one and the same.

We are told that the crowd was, “cut to the heart” by the things Peter told them and wanted to know how they should respond. Peter tells them “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven: and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)

Three thousand people came forward that day and gave their lives to Christ and were baptized.  This was not just a momentary emotional outpouring.  We are told that from that point forward, “they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:47).  This was the beginning of what we know today as the church.   This is what we vow to continue in our Baptismal Covenant.

We have a choice each morning when we wake up.  Are we going to seek to build a tower to our own glory and find ourselves babbling at others? Or, are we going to wait for the Holy Spirit and respond by being in communion with other Christians ,not letting language or culture get in our way, studying God’s word, sharing both the fellowship of the Lord’s Table and our kitchen tables ( once upon a time this was the same thing), and living in community communicating with God and our neighbor?

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7 Easter 2022

There is so much fear, grief, anger and frustration going on right now and I confess that I don’t have the answers to make it stop.  The last school shooting hit close to home for me.  I was born one town over and the Episcopal priest in Uvalde is a dear friend of mine.  Others of you have been touched more by different events, sometimes very personal events, and other times just the incessant nature of disturbing world news. 

This will be my last sermon on the Revelation of John. Some of you may be grateful they are over but hopefully some of you have found hope in John’s message and perhaps some clarification.  I do think his message is especially relevant now, though I caution you about connecting the events in this vision too closely with any specific events happening now.  Jesus said in Matthew 24:36 and reiterated in 25:13 that no one, not even the angels or himself knew when he would return and put an end to all the evil in this world, but he cautioned us to remain alert and be prepared.  

Before we begin chapter 15 I want you to think back about the story of the first Passover.  I mentioned a few weeks ago how important that story was to understanding Revelation.  It is especially important for this next section. 

Joseph had been second in command in Egypt, but over the years the relationship between the children of Israel and the Egyptians deteriorated and by the time Moses was born, Pharaoh was ordering the death of all male infants and requiring forced labor for everyone else.  The people cried to God who raised up Moses and then sent him to deliver them across the Red Sea into the wilderness and eventually Joshua took them across the Jordon to the promised land.  Ten plagues, each one a little worse than the previous preceded their release. I think we assume that because God is all knowing that he could bypass involving human choice in the process of history, but that is never how God works.  Pharoah could have let the people go at Moses’ first request and saved his people a lot of misery, but that is not how it played out.

John is telling his audience that the time is coming when God will hear their cries of anguish and will pour out his wrath on the evil doers who are oppressing them just like he did when he rescued their ancestors from Egypt.  Chapter 15 recounts the songs of praise to God that are being sung as seven angels prepare seven plagues to unleash on the earth.  In chapter 16, the bowls containing the plagues are poured out one by one: 1) painful boils that only affect those who had worshiped the beast, 2) the sea turns to blood, 3) rivers and springs turn to blood with an angel explaining that they had spilled the blood of the saints therefore they would have blood to drink 4) extreme heat from the sun 5) darkness and we are told the people still did not repent 6) the river Euphrates dries up removing a natural barrier and allowing the kings to go to war.  Psalm 78:34 says , “When he slew them, they would seek him…” in other words, when God withdrew his hand of protection and let the people suffer the consequences of their behavior, his people would wake-up, repent, turn to God and change their ways and thus the consequences.  John tells us this time, even that did not work.

Before the last plague is released an “unclean spirit” comes out of the mouth of the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet. John describes them as like 3 frogs. Frogs was one of the plagues of Egypt, but these froglike evil spirits hop all over the world performing signs and gathering the kings of the world at Mount Megiddo or Harmageddon for a great battle against Jesus and his followers.  It as become known in English as Armageddon.  Megiddo was a town in Israel that was captured several times by the Egyptians.  A couple of Israel’s kings died there. It has been abandoned since about 450 BC. It is a bit like some of the Civil War battlefields scattered around Virginia.  Even in its present silence, it screams of death.

When the last plague is poured out, the angel says, “It is done!” echoing the words of Christ on the cross. Violent earthquakes and giant hail tear up the earth with “Babylon” i.e. Rome being the primary recipient of God’s wrath.

In chapter 17 we are introduced to the “whore of Babylon”.  This is a polemic against the religious authorities in Jerusalem who collaborated with Rome and who used Rome to have Jesus crucified. If this seems like odd language for the Bible, read the prophet Hosea, who marries a prostitute as what we call a prophetic sign act to show the people how they are treating God.  John says that Babylon will despise the whore , “make her desolate and naked.”  This is exactly what happened. Israel’s love affair with Rome came to a violent end.   There were two Jewish revolts against Rome. The First Jewish Roman War from 66-73 saw the destruction of the temple which has never been rebuilt and two additional rebellions in 115-117 and 132-136 further destroyed the city and dispersed the people.  Under the Emperor Hadrian Judaism was banned.

In chapter 18 we see the fall of Babylon (Rome) itself.  This did not actually occur until 476 CE many years after this was written, but John anticipated God’s judgement on Rome and its ultimate fall.

Now we get another rider on a white horse.  This one’s name is Faithful and True, The Word of God and King of Kings and Lord of Lords. This rider is Jesus. Here is our knight in shining armor riding out to defeat all the forces of evil.  He throws the beast and the false prophet into the lake of fire and he kills the rest of their army with a sword coming from his mouth – the truth.

An angel locks Satan up for 1000 years after which time he must be let out again.  During Satan’s imprisonment the martyrs, those who had died because of their faith in Christ are raised and rule with Christ for a thousand years.

This is the part that so many people today take literally. It also gets attached to Jesus’s  statement about one being taken and another left behind in Matt 24:40 which is probably talking about the uncertainty of life, thus the need to stay prepared for our own death. It doesn’t fit our earthly timeline. If this were the case, the “rapture” should have taken place about the time of the destruction of Rome, and the martyrs ruled with Christ for 1000 years. It is tempting to see Christendom as this 1000 year reign, though we know that the Church ruled in a very un-Christlike way much of the time. 

John says that Satan will once again “deceive the nations” and gather for battle against Jerusalem, “the beloved city” only this time fire from heaven destroys those who seek to destroy the faithful and Satan in cast into the Lake of Fire with his cronies, the beast and the false prophet. This is the final battle,  it is held on a cosmic level and I suspect it is more symbolic than actual. 

There is a final judgement of the dead  and then Death and Hades are also thrown into the Lake of Fire.

This is John’s vision of the triumph of good over evil by the Word of God, Christ the Lamb.

Here comes out happily ever after.

John sees a new heaven and new earth – this is not we die and go to heaven, but in the fullness of time, God restores all of creation to order, both the physical and spiritual realms, the way God intended it to be in the beginning.  We are told the sea is no more.  To John ‘s audience, the sea was dangerous; it was the source of chaos and terrible monsters.  That is no more.

No more is there a separation between the heavenly realm and the earthly realm.  We are told that “the home of God is among mortals (Rev 21: 3)  

Now one of the angels that had poured out a bowl of plagues offers to show John a different image. “Come I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” (Rev 21:10) and he takes him to a mountain were he can look down and see the city of Jerusalem.  No longer occupied by Romans, no longer ravaged by war,  The city now has “a radiance like a rare jewel” (Rev 21: 11).  The names of the twelve tribes of Israel are inscribed on the twelve gates and the name of the twelve disciples are inscribed on the twelve foundations of the city.  There was no temple in the city because God and Jesus are the temple.  The temple was always the place where God met humans, through the mediation of the high priest, but there is no need for a temple anymore because God is dwelling with all persons.   There is no sun or moon or stars because God is the light which shines through Jesus and illuminates everything.  John is drawing from many different books of the Old Testament bringing together all the positive phrases of what life is like when God’s will is done by everyone all the time.

John closes with an affirmation from Jesus that the words in this book are “trustworthy and true” (Rev 22: 6)  with blessings for those who avail themselves of Christ’s gift of the waters of life and curses on anyone who attempts to corrupt by addition or subtraction from the words of this book.  John is speaking of his writing, not the Bible as we know it.  That did not exist as a unified whole until a couple hundred years later. And finally with the affirmation that Jesus is returning soon.

This past Thursday was Ascension Day.  The reading from Acts on that day reiterates that we are not to concern ourselves with when God will restore the kingdom, but to wait for the Holy Spirit and then be witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1::7-8) concerning the statement we make at the Eucharist – “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” So what do we do with John’s Revelation.  We don’t try to calculate when Jesus will return or who the anti-Christ is.  We pray for those who are undergoing persecution now.  We remain faithful even when things seem to be falling apart.  We find hope in the knowledge that God is ultimately in control and justice will prevail in the end.  We stay alert, guarding our souls against false prophets and apathy and we keep doing the next right thing, giving glory to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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6 Easter 2022

This is our fifth sermon on John’s Revelation and we have made it half way thorough the book, however, the second half moves quicker and I plan to finish next week, before Pentecost.  If you missed any of the previous sermons and want to hear them, they are available on my sermon blog.  We ended last week with what seemed like it should have been the end of the Revelation, but John now makes a second pass, so to speak, revealing additional information.

In the second part of John’s Revelation he begins by re-working a number of old pagan myths and putting a Christian twist to them. I don’t have time to tell each of the myths this morning, but for those who are interested, the story of Tiamat the great seven headed sea monster of Babylonian myths, the story of the winged goddess Isis from Egypt, and the story of the birth of Apollo from Greek mythology were stories John’s audience would have known and images John utilizes.

John sees portents, great signs that foretell something important in the sky.  The first is a woman described in mythological proportions who represents both the nation of Israel and the young church.  She is pregnant and in labor as the story opens.  There is a great seven headed dragon that John will tell us is Satan that is waiting to devour her child the minute she gives birth, but the child is magically snatched up to heaven where the dragon cannot reach him.  The child is clearly Christ because we are told that he is “a son, a male-child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.”  This is a paraphrase of Psalm 2: 8-9 about the Messiah.  He is snatched up to heaven through his death, resurrection and ascension.  The woman on the other hand must flee into the wilderness where she is to be protected for 1260 days or 3.5 years.  This is all highly symbolic, drawing on images familiar to John audience is for the purpose of revealing a current truth.

Next comes a great battle in heaven between Michael, the angel named in the book of Daniel and Satan.  Satan is thrown out of heaven and he and his rebellious angels are cast down to earth.  Jesus says he saw Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightening. (Luke 10: 18).  Keep in mind that time is not relevant in heaven. Don’t expect things to happen chronologically. The dragon takes out his anger on the children of the woman described earlier, in other words, Satan is taking out his anger on those who continue in the true faith here on earth.  This is the great battle of good and evil on a cosmic level.  

Chapter 13 draws heavily on Daniel 7.  Daniel has a vision of 4 beasts a winged lion that morphs into a human, a tusked bear that devours everything, a 4 headed 4 winged leopard, and a ten horned beast with iron teeth and human eyes.  John merges these 4 beasts into 2 having one come from the sea like Leviathan and one from the earth like Behemoth, the monsters of the Old Testament.   These are not a whale and an elephant, they are frightening mythological creatures not large endangered species.  The dragon and the two beasts form a hierarchy of evil, the lesser directing people to worship the greater.

So, how does this apply to 1st century Asia Minor?  Local civil and religious authorities (the beast from the earth that looks like a lamb with two horns) were falling all over themselves trying to impress Rome, getting permission to build bigger and more impressive temples to the Roman Gods and encouraging the people to worship  the Roman gods, (the beast from the sea – the pseudo-dragon that also had seven heads and wore ten diadems.)  Rome claimed to have authority over all the earth, but John is saying that in reality the authority belongs to the dragon or Satan.  When Satan tempted Jesus he offered him all the kingdoms of the world if he would bow down and worship him. John is saying those who worship at the Roman temples are in fact worshiping Satan who is a parody of the true ruler of the world, the crucified and resurrected Jesus.

Until recently, tattoos were associated with slavery.  Slaves in the ancient world were tattooed or pierced branding them as belonging to a particular person, during WWII the Nazi’s tattooed the people they put in concentration camps, tattoos were also used by some military groups, pirates, and street gangs for the same general purpose – you now belonged to the gang and it was hard to deny it.   The mark of the beast, 666 was symbolically saying that those who worshiped at the feet of Rome were marked as slaves to Rome whereas Christians are sealed at baptism with the sign of the cross and marked as Christ’s own forever.  There is a particular type of numerology called Gematria which assigns numbers to letters.  You can add up the number value of a word to get its number; “beast” is 666, so is Nero Caesar, (Witherington 2003) which may have been who John was speaking of when he said, “the number of the beast is the number of a person.” (Rev 13:18).  Nero had redirected blame for the disastrous burning of Rome off himself and on to Christians exacting cruel and public torture and executions upon them.

Then in Chapter 14, John describes the opposing army, the holy army.  This one is 144000 again 12 X 12 x 1000 celibate men who have received the mark of the lamb and the lamb’s father.  Ancient pagan fertility rituals which were supposed to ensure good crops generally involved some kind of temple prostitution. One of the reasons sexual purity is so important in the bible is that it was a sign of being in a right relationship with God.  In the context of marriage it was being obedient to God’s command to be fruitful and multiply. Outside of marriage it was considered a form of idolatry and disobedience, a broken relationship with God. Both marriage and sexual misconduct are frequently used to describe the holy or broken relationship of God and a group of people.   This army of God had been obedient to God and kept themselves holy, just as God is holy. A commandment from Deuteronomy.  He states they sing a song that can only be learned from them, possibly a reference to false prophets and alternative Christian theologies such as Gnosticism which was prevalent at that time.  I frequently hear people stating that they have discovered that were many forms of Christianity in the first and second century as though they have just discovered a lost piece of art by one of the masters, but during the first and second century the faith was spread mostly by word of mouth.  People were wresting with questions that are not always explicit, even in the scriptures as we have them today, and coming up with their own answers, often outside the accepted norm of the church, and they wrote them down and shared them with others. The ancient Christian Fathers wrote volumes against heresies. Not unbelief, but distorted and harmful belief.  Embracing these unauthorized texts as authoritative is like trying to cheat on a test from someone who has the wrong answers. 

John is still following Daniel.  After Daniel describes his vision of the beasts, he describes the “Ancient One” on his throne and says, “I saw one like a Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven.” (Dan 7:13) God and the Messiah, or in Christian terms – the Father and the Son.

Next, three angels come bearing warnings.  The first says, “Fear God and give him glory” (Rev 14:6) and warns that the time of judgement has come and reminds the world that it is God the creator that deserves worship.  The second angel says, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” (Rev 14: 8)  Babylon will be a code word for Rome throughout the rest of the book.  The angel is predicting the demise of Rome and accusing it of leading the world astray.  The third angel curses those who “worship the beast” (Rev 14:9) the idols of Rome, which included Caesar and describes the eternal torment they will endure.

John then gets very practical and states explicitly, “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus.”  An angel responds affirming that those who “die in the Lord…will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.”

Finally chapter 14 ends with “the one like the Son of Man,” Christ, initiating the harvest.  Jesus often used the image of a harvest because it was something the people understood.  They knew when the time was right you went out and collected the fruit of the harvest and you then cleaned up the field so it could be planted the next year.  This is a symbolic image of the end of the current age and the final judgement when the sheep are separated from the goats, the wheat from the tares, or any of the many other biblical images that says the faithful are blessed and those who worshiped – not God – in this case Roman idols, reap the fruits of their evil deeds.

John’s audience were living in times of terrible hardship and persecution for being Christians in the middle of a world of opulence and excess for those who cooperated with Rome.  Judgement for them meant justice.

We don’t like to think about a final judgement.  Perhaps we worry we won’t measure up.  Perhaps we worry someone we love won’t measure up.  I believe in a merciful God.  I don’t know how God will work everything out in the end. I believe God’s mercy is greater than God’s wrath, but I trust God will ultimately defeat evil and bring about a new creation that we will hear more about later in John’s Revelation.  

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5 Easter 2022

This is the fourth sermon in our series on the Revelation of John.  We ended last week at the end of chapter 8 with four of seven trumpets having been blown bringing about the destruction of 1/3 of the earth and sky after the last of seven seals were broken.

Chapter nine begins with the blowing of the fifth trumpet.  John sees a “star that had fallen from heaven to earth”. (Rev 9:1)  In Luke 10:17-19 Jesus tells the seventy that he sends out to minister in the surrounding towns that, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightening.  See I have given you authority to tread upon snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.”  John is describing this very image of Satan falling and unleashing locust (one of the plagues on Egypt) like scorpions who look like “horses equipped for battle” – the Roman cavalry.

With the next blow of the trumpet four angels of death “who are bound at the great river Euphrates “  are released. (Rev 9:14) The Euphrates was the natural border of northern Israel and a barrier to their enemies from the north. This barrier is now to be breached and the angels are released who kill 1/3 of the population of earth through troops of cavalry that number two hundred million and the horses are described as serpents – again a reference to Luke 10 which speaks to the faithful being protected against serpents. These serpents are an unimaginably large military force (Rome being the one present in John’s time) which God allows to do its worst in the hope that people will repent and turn back to God.  Unfortunately, it does not work.

Verse 20 says, “The rest of humankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk.  And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their fornication or their thefts.” (Rev 9: 20-21)

There is a repeating pattern throughout scripture.  God created humans with free will so that they would love God by their own choice.  Instead we abused that free will, we turned to “not God” – pagan idols, political systems, money and sex and worshiped that instead. The result was pain and suffering for the innocent as well as the guilty.  Disaster (Noah’s flood, slavery in Egypt, defeat in battle – Jerusalem) often brought the people back to God for a short period of time and then we were off seeking “not God” again.  This time, even disaster does not turn the people back to God.

Just as we reach this great climax in our story, we get a break for station identification.   In chapter 10, John sees a heavenly being coming down from heaven, not plummeting like Satan did like a meteor hitting the earth, but gently descending in a cloud.  We realize from the words used to describe him, especially his voice like a lion roaring, that this is Christ.  He commands John to eat his small scroll – John must take into himself Christ’s words which like most prophesy is both sweet, filled with hope and bitter, filled with warnings of judgement.  John is then commanded to prophesy about “many peoples and nations and languages and kings.” 

Don’t expect Revelation to be chronologically linear. It is as if all these things are happening pretty much at once and John keeps circling back giving additional details and observing different aspects of the vision.

Chapter 11 zooms in for a close up. John is given a measuring rod and told to “Come and measure the temple of God.” (Rev 11:1) The temple is the place where God resides. N T Wright, in Revelation for Everyone notes that John’s community would probably have seen that as the Christian community at that time.  He is measuring the inner courts, the place where God and humans are in close communion, but he is to skip the outer court where the “nations” were allowed.  John is told that this area will be “trampled” for forty-two months, 3 ½ years (half of the number 7 so not complete)  and that two witnesses will be given authority to prophesy for the same time period.  They are described much like Elijah and Moses as to their powers. And we are told when their time is completed, the beast will come up from the bottomless pit and kill them.  Their bodies will lie in the street of a city prophetically called Sodom and Egypt – two wicked cities in the Old Testament, but John is talking about the city of Rome.  He will make this clearer later on.  The people will celebrate because the prophets are dead and they will disrespect their corpses, but in 3 ½ days they will be resurrected and ascend into heaven.  Being a witness to Christ may cause you to experience suffering, abuse, perhaps even death, but we are still called to be faithful and to witness to “the nations”.  But even if the nations do their worst to us that is not the end.  This is the promise of resurrection to the faithful.

We are told at that moment there will be a great earthquake, ten thousand will die, but the remainder give glory to God.  It has been a long hard journey, but God is victorious in the end.

The seventh and final trumpet blows and the angel announces , “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.”  (Rev 11: 15) We end chapter 11 with the twenty four elders praising God.  The nations (the enemy) has done their worst, but God has judged the nations and had rewarded the faithful.  God is seen to be in the temple in heaven, the ark of the covenant is visible (it disappeared during the Babylonian exile) and God’s presence is visible in thunder and lightning.

The end.  Well, no, John shares more aspects of his vision in later chapters, but we will stop here for today.  

Short summary so far.  John is speaking to a community who are suffering persecution because of their faith.  Some are holding fast while others are beginning to drift away.  John’s vision emphasizes God’s right to worship because he is the creator of all things and Jesus’ role in our salvation through his self-sacrifice.  He is both the Lion of Judah – a symbol of strength and the Lamb of God – as symbol of God’s redemption and mercy through sacrificial love.  It may appear to people that the  empires have the upper hand(Rome for John’s audience), but they are deceptive and are agents of Satan that God has allowed a free hand for the purpose of bringing about their own self destruction and drawing others back to God.  God will protect and reward those who remain faithful and God will win in the end.  It is already written in time.

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4 Easter 2022

For those of you who might have missed the last couple of weeks, I have been preaching from the Revelation of John.  This will be the third sermon in this series.  We will be reading from the Revelation as our second reading throughout the Easter season, but we only get snippets of the book and I frequently get questions on this topic.

Last week we left John, in a vision, standing in the throne room of God.  God is on the throne holding a scroll that has been sealed with seven seals and while everyone was searching for someone worthy to open the seals it is announced that the Lion of Judah has conquered and is therefore worthy, but when he appears he shows up as a lamb that has been slain.  This Lion of Judah, the Messiah, is also the crucified and resurrected Jesus.

In Chapter 6, the Lamb begins opening the seals.  The first four release what have become known as the four horsemen of the apocalypse.  The first one is riding a white horse.  He has a bow and a crown and came out “conquering and to conquer.” (Rev 6:2)  Many people claim this is Jesus, but that is not who John sees.  Remember Jesus opened the scroll.  This horseman is the Roman Empire.  Rome claimed the great Pax Romano – the peace of Rome.  Supposedly they conquered to bring peace and order, but John sees something very different. 

The second rider was on a bright red horse – symbolizing blood. It takes peace from the earth and causes everyone to kill one another.  The consequence of the empire is not the peace they claim, but non-stop war.

The third rider was on a black horse holding a pair of scales – inflation.  Wheat, the most needed commodity for everyone become very expensive so that the poor starve to death.  Oil and wine, luxuries of the wealthy are still available for those who had the money to buy them to begin with.

The fourth rider was on a pale green horse whose rider was named Death and he is followed by Hades, the Greek god of the underworld.  This is a bitter critique of empire.  It comes in riding on a white horse claiming to be the conquering hero, but the consequence is war, financial insecurity for the poor, followed by famine, disease, and death. 

The fifth seal reveal the souls of “those who had been slaughtered for the word of God” (Rev 6: 9).  They are sitting under the altar.  They have been given white robes and they cry out “how long?”  (Rev 6:10) It has been 30-60 years since Jesus’ Resurrection and promise of a new kingdom and these are those who died in the struggle.  They are told it will be a little longer and that others will be martyred as well.

The sixth seal reveals those in power beginning to experience the consequences of their actions.  The universe is actually falling apart. Earthquakes, the sun becomes black, the moon becomes blood red, the stars fall from the sky. The sky itself is rolled up like a scroll, mountains and islands disappear, and the wind knocks the fruit off the trees.  The powerful are no longer in charge and they are frightened of judgement day. Everyone runs to the caves to seek protection and shelter.

Chapter Seven is a pause in the opening of the seals as John looks around at the scene before him.  God calls a halt to the destruction so that those who have remained faithful can be identified and sealed as servants of God.  Four angels stand at the four corners of the earth to still the wind.  This should bring back visions of the first Passover when the children of Israel were sealed against the angel of death by the blood of the lamb that they sacrificed and put on the doorpost and lintel of their homes. Also in Ezekiel 9, Ezekiel has a vision where a man is told to mark all those who “sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in [Jerusalem.]” (Ezek 9:4) so they should be spared in the time of judgement – the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon.   It should also remind us of how we seal people with a cross in chrism (oil) on their foreheads at baptism.

Now we have another number come up. The number twelve.  It too deals with completion, especially concerning God’s purpose.  There were twelve patriarchs who founded the twelve tribes of Israel.  There are twelve months in a year.  There are twelve signs of the zodiac, which as Christians we don’t put much stock in, but in the first century were everywhere.  There were twelve apostles and when Judas betrayed Jesus and killed himself, he was replaced to retain the number twelve.

John sees 144 thousand from each of the twelve tribes of Israel who have been sealed.  12 X 12 X 1000 X 12 again from the Old Covenant.  Not to be taken literally – it means those of the Old Covenant are fully included.  After that he sees “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.”  Under the new covenant it is not just Israel, but everyone from everywhere that is included.  All these people are robed in white – they have been cleansed of their sins, they are holding palm branches and crying in a loud voice “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.”  This should bring visions of Jesus’ triumphal entry.  And they and all the living creatures “fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God.”  Paul says in Philippians 2:10, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”   John is witnessing in his vision the fulfillment of this prophecy which is thought to be an early hymn of the Christian church.

One of the elders turns to John and asks him who these people are.  It seems that the elder is checking to see if John knows because John tells him, you are the one who knows, and the elder precedes to explain that they are those who remained faithful “out of the great ordeal” (Rev 7: 14) and that they have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”  Again this is symbolic – it is a profession of the purifying nature of Jesus’ sacrifice and confirmation that it is available for us.

The rest of this chapter is often read at funerals – they will worship God, they will not hunger or thirst or suffer from the heat of the sun,  the Lamb will be their shepherd – vision of Psalm 23 here, and “God will wipe away every tear” (Rev 7: 17) – this is a vision of the Beatitudes fulfilled for those who were faithful, even unto death.

Chapter 8 is the opening of the final seal.  We first get a great silence.  Remember Elijah found God in the silence.  We have seven angels with seven trumpets – more sevens.  And we see a liturgical scene of worship  – an altar, incense, saints in robes praying.   Then an angel takes the incense censor with fire from the altar and throws it upon the earth.  Remember when Isaiah has his vision of the throne room of God, he remembers that he is a man of unclean lips and an angel takes a coal from the altar and puts it to his lips to purify him.  The last seal begins the process of the purification of the earth by God.

Now we have the seven angels blowing their trumpets one by one and unleashing various plagues.  Remember that God sent plagues on Egypt prior to freeing the Israelites. The story of the first Passover should be ever present with us in the reading of Revelation.  During the blowing of the first four trumpets 1/3 of the earth, the seas, the rivers, and light is destroyed.

Chapter 8 ends here and so shall we. What is the take away from this part of John’s vision? John is critiquing the Roman empire, he is offering hope to those who are being persecuted, who have watched their loved ones martyred and who may find themselves martyred in the near future.  He is using symbolism from the Old Testament, especially the first Passover which was very significant for these people, especially if they are Christians who were raised in the Jewish faith, to remind them of God’s faithfulness.

For us it is a reminder not to put our faith in the powers and principalities of this earth.  Their promises are illusions, but to trust God who has a plan and will ultimately set everything right.

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3 Easter 2022

Today I want to begin by talking about the letter seven in Biblical texts.  In Hebrew the root of many words, especially verbs are made up of three consonants and not until the 6th century AD were vowel points added to aid in the reading of text.  The word “seven” in Hebrew has the exact same three consonant root as the word “complete.”  Seven becomes a symbol of completeness.  God creates the world and then rests on the Sabbath, the seventh day, because he has completed his task.  As mentioned last week, John is believed to have been a Palestinian Jew who would have known of this correlation between seven and completeness, so it is not surprising that seven shows up multiple times in the Revelation.

Last week we began our series on the Revelation of John by looking at the types of literature this piece represents: a circular letter, prophecy, and apocalyptic as well as looking at the message John presents to seven specific churches in Asia Minor, from Jesus.

Last week we saw that seven churches were specifically named.  It is highly possible that they were chosen to represent all of Christianity.  Their situations were diverse, but taken as a whole their situations were pretty generic which is why they are still relevant: loss of that first love of Christ, financial poverty but spiritual wealth, becoming a stumbling block to others by one’s lifestyle, tolerating unrepentant sin and becoming caught up in sinful behavior, becoming distracted, a call to evangelism, and lying to oneself about one’s spiritual health.

As we begin working through Revelation, look for other places where the number seven arises and I will try to point out what is being completed.

Beginning in chapter four, John starts his description of the vision.  “After this I looked, and lo, in heaven an open door!” (Rev 4:1)  Think the wardrobe in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.  This is a door here on earth through which John is invited to enter into the realm of heaven – not far, far away but a spiritual dimension concurrent with John’s present reality.

What John describes is God’s throne room.  He is not the first person to see heaven as a throne room.  Isaiah gives a detailed description of his spiritual visit to God’s throne room. (Isaiah 6) and Ezekiel a more graphic and bit bizarre description (Ezekiel 1).   What John is trying to describe is the indescribable but he uses precious and semiprecious gems describing the one sitting on the throne as being like jasper and carnelian.  These stones are multi-colored, often reddish in general color. Ezekiel described God as appearing like bronze and fire. John describes a rainbow like an emerald, which to us seems very odd because emeralds are mostly one color, but he is talking about the radiance of the precious stone. The rainbow was a symbol of God’s covenant or mercy made with Noah.  Ezekiel also described a radiance like a rainbow over God’s throne  Again, remember, they are trying to describe in earthly terms the other worldly they have experienced for which there is no adequate description.   Around the throne are twenty-four thrones occupied by twenty-four elders clad in white garments with golden crowns upon their heads.  There were twelve patriarchs of the old covenant and twelve apostles of the new covenant.  These leaders are now joined together around God’s throne. From the throne come flashes of lightening and peals of thunder, ancient descriptions of the manifestation of God’s presence.  There are seven torches which we are told represent the seven spirits of God, possibly an illusion to Isaiah 11 which in the Septuagint lists seven characteristics of the spirit of God which are said to rest on the branch that shall grow out from the stump of Jesse. This branch Christians recognize as Jesus.  The seven characteristics are wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, piety and the fear of the Lord.  

Before the throne is a sea of glass, like crystal.  In this opening scene, the sea is perfectly calm.  In ancient Hebrew writings, the sea was the source of chaos.   In Genesis 1:2 God’s Spirit moved over the surface of the waters and God is described as creating the world, not ex nihilo, out of nothing, but with every word God speaks order is created out of chaos. This sea will show up again later.

John describes four living creatures that constantly give praise to God.   These four creatures resemble a lion – king of the jungle, and ox – the king of domesticated animals, one with a face like a man, and the fourth – like an eagle – king of the air.  They are covered with eyes – they see everything.  They also resemble the seraphim described by Isaiah in his description of God’s throne room with their six wings and their chant of “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God… “ (Isaiah 6:3, Rev 4:8).  Ezekiel will describe four living creatures with each creature having a four faced head represented by the same man, lion, ox and eagle. These four creatures will show up in later artwork as symbols of the four gospel writers.  These images would not be lost on John’s early audience.  He is clearly describing the throne room of God that resembles descriptions by the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel.

The elders respond to the voice of the creatures by acknowledging the worthiness of the person on the throne because that person is the creator everything.  They “cast their crowns” before the throne symbolically acknowledging God’s sovereignty.

This may all seem really strange to us, but to John’s early audience it was as familiar to them as the Star Wars opening is to most of us.

At the beginning of chapter 5, John sees a scroll in the hand of the person sitting on the throne.  It is sealed with seven seals.  This scroll contains God’s plan for the future.  The seals indicate it is completely unknown and unalterable.  An angel cries out, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” (Rev 5:2) There appeared to be no one worthy to break the seals and open the scroll and John begins to weep. But, an elder tells him “Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and the seven seals.”  These symbols were well known to John’s audience – symbols of the Messiah, symbols which would speak of the strength of the Messiah as a Lion, the sign of the tribe of Judah or descendant of King David.  But just as the elder announces the coming of the Lion what John sees is a “Lamb standing as though it had been slain.”  This is an odd looking lamb with seven horns, all powerful, and seven eyes, all seeing and we are told they also represent the seven spirits of God which are in all the earth – so all those qualities described in Isaiah that were to be given to the branch of the root of Jesse, the Messiah are visible on this slain lamb.  None of this is to be taken literally, it is highly symbolic language that references Old Testament scriptures. References that people who knew their Old Testament, like persecuted Christians, especially ones of a Jewish background would immediately recognize, but would not be easily understood by the pagan Romans.  

So all this odd language boils down to John has passed into the spiritual realm.  He is gazing at God on God’s throne which is incredible, but defies true description.  God is being worshiped by heavenly creatures as well as the totality of those under the old and new covenants because God is the creator of everything, physical and spiritual. God has the future detailed on a sealed scroll and only one person is worthy of revealing that plan.  This person is the strong Messiah figure of the Old Testament, a descendant of King David, but more importantly he is also the Lamb of God who was sacrificed for the sins of the World.  That person is Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ or Messiah.

Next week we will see what happens when those seals are opened.

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2 Easter 2022

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Between now and Pentecost, our second reading each Sunday will be from the Revelation of John.  I have received a few questions concerning this book, so I though it might be a good opportunity to offer a sermon series on this topic.

To begin with, I am going to ask you to forget the common understanding of this writing as found in such things as the Left Behind series.  Premillennial Dispensationalism is a modern theological interpretation of the end times (aka eschatology)  that was put forth by John Nelson Darby, an 19th century Anglo-Irish preacher and Bible translator and furthered by Cyrus Ingerson Scofield with his reference Bible that came out in 1909.

The Revelation functions as three different literary genre’s simultaneously.  First, it is a letter, what we call a circulatory letter.  It was intended to be read aloud, probably as part of the worship service, initially for the benefit of seven churches in seven specific cities in Asia Minor: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea much like Paul’s Epistles.  One of the churches named is actually one that Paul wrote to himself.  Second, it is prophecy in the Old Testament understanding like the book of  Isaiah and Jeremiah. Prophets pointed out what was happening in the present and then warned of the consequences of what they saw, but also gave the people hope in the midst of disaster. Thirdly, it is apocalyptic. It deals with things at a cosmic level and talks about the ultimate reality in a very coded language like the book of Daniel.  How do we know this? The opening statement is that this is “the apocalypsis of Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:1  The word in Greek means to lay bare, to make a full disclosure, revealed truth, revelation.  It is only in English that the word has come to mean disaster, calamity, or total destruction.  In Rev 1:30 John, the author says, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and keep what is written in it, for the time is near.”  And finally, John devotes all of chapters 2 and 3 to specific issues at each of the seven churches for which this Apocalypse is written.  

It is hard to know for sure when Revelation was written.  There is evidence to suggest that it was prior to the destruction of the temple and perhaps during Nero’s persecution of Christians in 64 AD.  There is other evidence to suggest that is was written after Nero’s death and possibly during the persecutions by Domitian in the late 80’s early 90’s.  We know it was written for Christians living in Asia Minor, what we now call Turkey, during a time of persecution.

John, the author of the Revelation, is believed to be a Palestinian Jew based upon his Greek grammar who has had an on-going prophetic relationship, perhaps as an itinerant preacher in the area, with the seven churches he names.  Tradition attributes all of the John writings to the apostle, but scholars suggest that is unlikely.  This John is on the island of Patmos “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” and he considers himself “your brother who share with you in Jesus, the persecution and the kingdom” (Rev 1:9). It is probable that he has been exiled there for being a Christian.

He opens his letter with the somewhat traditional greetings (it is the only New Testament work that makes the opening greeting from Jesus, himself) and then two prophetic oracles. “Look! He is coming in the clouds… (Rev 1: 7) which alludes to the book of Daniel and announces the second coming of Christ and “I am the Alpha and Omega…” (Rev 1:8)   which declares the sovereignty of God.  Then he begins to tell us about his vision.

John states, “I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind ma a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, To Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.” (Rev 1: 10-11)

This morning I would like to look at the message to each of these seven churches and see if there is anything in the messages to them that would have meaning for us.

Ephesus was a large and important city both to Rome and to the early Christians.  They are commended for their “works, your toil and your patient endurance” (Rev 2: 2) They have exposed false prophets. They are “enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my (Jesus) name” (Rev 2: 3) But they have “abandoned the love they had at first.” (Rev 2: 4) They are warned that if they continue Jesus will “remove your lampstand from its place.”  Their light will go out.  Have we lost the passion we knew when we first recognized Jesus as the Christ?  Are we in danger of our light going out?

Smyrna was an important religious center for Rome.  This church is told “I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich.” (Rev 2:9) Jesus knows their spiritual wealth despite their material poverty.  To them he says “do not fear what you are about to suffer.”  Jesus knows that some of them will be put in prison and some of them will die for their faith, but he reminds them “whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.” (Rev 2:11)  We are fortunate.  Most of us have never and will probably never face that kind of persecution.  For that we should be grateful and acknowledge our blessing.

Pergamum was another large city where there was a temple to Zeus.  Jesus tells them he knows where they are living (right next to a pagan temple) and yet they remained faithful.  Tradition says that James was beheaded by Herod in Jerusalem, but John, speaking for Jesus talks of a “faithful one, who was killed among you” during the days of Herod Antipas.  Was he referring to James or another? Not sure but they have seen serious persecution. Jesus, though John also warns the people of this church that some are putting a stumbling block before others by eating food sacrificed to idols and being sexually immoral.  They are warned that Jesus will come and judge them by the words of his mouth, but that those who persevere in doing what is right will get manna (bread of heaven) and a white stone with a new name.  This is a promise of care and protection if you follow in the right path.

Thyatira was a town between Pergamum and Ephesus.  Jesus says, “I know you works – your love, faith, service and patience endurance.  I know your last works are greater than the first.” (Rev 2:19) they are not like Ephesus which has grown weary and lost that first love.  But – “your tolerate that woman Jezebel” (Rev 2:20) Jezebel was a wicked queen of ancient Israel who was guilty of deception and murder for monetary gain.  John, speaking for Jesus claims there is a woman in this church that is claiming to be a prophetess, but is luring people into sin – idolatry and sexual misconduct.  Further, she has been called to repentance, but refuses to do so.  Do we have sins that we refuse to confront? What impact might they be having on the people around us?  Jesus says to those who ignore this woman and refuse to be corrupted, Jesus promised “the morning star.” In other words, he gives himself.

Sardis was an ancient city.  Jesus, through John says, “you have a name of being alive, but you are dead.” (Rev 3: 1)  Jesus tells them to wake up or they will be asleep and lying in dirty clothes (unprepared) when he returns.  Have we fallen asleep?  Have we become lax in our care of our spirits and would Jesus find them dirty when he returns.

Philadelphia –  the name of the city means brotherly love.  Jesus says, “I know your works.  Look, I have set before you an open door which no one is able to shut. I know you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and not denied my name.”  Here is a small, powerless group of people that Jesus has just told that they will be given enormous power for the purpose of building God’s kingdom.  Their promise if they continue is that their name will be written on a pillar of the temple in the new Jerusalem.  Everyone throughout eternity will know who they are.  Do we ever feel powerless?  If so, remember who has our back and is supporting us.

Finally, Laodicea – Jesus says, “I know your works; you are neither cold or hot…I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Rev 3:15) Jesus says they describe themselves as rich, prosperous, in need of nothing, but Jesus sees them as “wretched pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” (Rev: 3 17). Jesus tells them to buy from him gold refined by fire and white robes to hide their nakedness, and salve for their eyes. Jesus is offering them healing if they will only seek him.  It is here in this passage that we get, “ I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”  Have we become blind to our own condition.  Have we forgotten how to show hospitality to Christ and to accept the healing he offers us.

These are important reminders.  These were written to real Christian churches where Paul the apostle walked and the early church thrived.  Christianity however faded there and now there are very few Christians left in the area. What lessons can we learn from John’s Revelation to these seven churches?

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Easter 2022

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For most of Jerusalem, Sunday arrived like every other Sunday.  The sun came up, the merchants went to their stores and began bringing out their baked goods and fresh fruit, fish and fowl, woven goods and exotic spices.  The sounds and smells of the shops mingled with the clattering of the hooves of Roman horses and the clank of Roman swords as soldiers patrolled the streets of the holy city.   In an upper room, a group of Galileans awoke from their troubled sleep, uncertain of what the day would bring. 

The women got up first.  They had work to do and they wanted to get it done early.  Their friend and teacher Jesus had been executed just before the Sabbath and had been hurriedly placed in the tomb without the proper anointing.  The rules of the Sabbath prevented them from taking care of it during the day on Saturday, and it was too dangerous to go to the tombs at night.  But now, just as the pink glow of the sun broke over the horizon, they had a job to do.

As they walked they talked among themselves.  Hopefully the Roman soldiers who were guarding Jesus’ tomb would allow them to go in to take care of him.  Perhaps they could even convince a couple of them to roll back the large stone disc that sealed the tomb and kept animals from disturbing the dead. 

As the women got near the tomb they suddenly realized that the soldiers had fled and the tomb stood wide open.  Where was Jesus?  Why did someone open the tomb?  What had they done with his body?  His death had been hard enough, but now were they even going to be denied giving him a proper burial?

According to Mark, at this time, the women entered the tomb.  It is not a very big place.  It is a hole, perhaps four feet high, dug out of the side of the hill. There is a narrow walk way where 2-3 people can stand and on either side ledges have been created by not digging out the rock all the way to the ground.  Here, on one of these two ledges Jesus had been lain, but as they enter the tomb they see a young man dressed in white sitting on the ledge on the right.  

It seems the normal response upon seeing a heavenly being is alarm and the first words out of their mouth is always “Do not be afraid.”  The messenger tells them to go find Peter and the others and tell them that Jesus is going to Galilee and will meet them there.  Mark tells us that the women were so frightened that they fled and told no one what they had seen.

But apparently they did eventually tell Peter and John.  In the Gospel of John we are told that they tell Peter and John someone has taken Jesus’ body and they do not know where he has been moved.   Peter and John run to the tomb with the women following behind.  John, being the younger gets there first and just peaks into the tomb where he sees the burial clothes lying on the ledge.  Peter is bolder and steps into the tomb and sees not only that the linen cloths that covered his body are lying on the ledge, but the wrapping that had been around Jesus’ head is rolled up and laid to one side. 

When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, he instructed his family and friends to unbind him and set him free.  Perhaps the angels unwound the wrapping from Jesus’ head, or perhaps Jesus just walked out of them like he walked through the close door where the apostles were gathered a few days later.

It didn’t hit Peter and John right away what had happened.  We are told they turned around and went back home, leaving Mary Magdalene there crying in the garden.   Mary goes in for another peek.  Perhaps she just couldn’t believe that he was gone.  Perhaps if she looked just one more time he would be there.  This time there were two angels sitting inside the tomb.  They ask her why she is crying. Who is she looking for? She begs them, “Please, They have taken away my Lord and I don’t know where they have laid him.”   She hears someone walk up behind her.  She turns and a man asks her the same question.  Why are you crying?  Who are you looking for?  Thinking the man to be the gardener she pleads with him, “Please tell me where you have taken him, I will take him away.”  They are poor.  Jesus was poor, but he had been laid in a tomb prepared for a wealthy man.  Perhaps she thought it had been a mistake and they had moved him.  She would see that he was properly cared for. Then the man speaks her name, “Mary.”

It is amazing how distinctive a voice can be.  Mary did not recognize Jesus as he stood in front of her.  I don’t know what was different about him, but his voice had not changed.  Immediately she calls out “Teacher” and starts to hug him.  He tells her not to hold on to him as he has not yet ascended to his Father, but to go and tell the disciples that he is ascending to his Father,  her Father, his God, her God.

This time Mary goes to the disciples and has Good News.  I have seen the Lord.  He is alive!

It is interesting that Jesus appears first to Mary rather than to Peter and John.  Women were not allowed to testify in court in first century Roman provinces.  They were considered foolish and prone to fantasy.   If the Evangelists intended to make up stories to support their case that Jesus had risen from the dead, the last thing they would do would be to have Jesus appear to a woman first.  The improbability of it is a testimony to its accuracy.

The only proof I can offer to you that the Resurrection is real is the testimony of the lives it changed.  In the first days after Jesus’ crucifixion, the disciples behaved like fugitives, laying low.  Fifty days later, Peter is preaching in Jerusalem to an audience of several thousand people.   The apostle Paul was going door to door, much like the Nazis did in Germany persecuting the Jews, Paul was arresting anyone found to be Christian and hauling them before the magistrates. After a blinding experience on the road to Damascus he saw the light and became the loudest voice for Jesus from Jerusalem to Rome.  James, the brother of Jesus had believed he had gone mad and tried to drag him back to Nazareth while Jesus was on the road preaching, soon after the Resurrection became the leader of the church in Jerusalem.   

Others throughout history have had life changing experiences some before and some after becoming Christians.  The Roman Emperor Constantine opened the door for the open acceptance of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire after believing that Christ had come to him in a dream.   Martin Luther experience Christ in a thunderstorm.  John Wesley had his heart strangely warmed.  Many of you have experienced healings, gifts of joy in the midst of tribulation, and other manifestation of the love of God through Christ.  If you have experienced the Good News of the Resurrection share your experiences with others. 

If you, like Mary believe you are sitting in the garden and God is painfully absent from your life, take time to listen.  Listen, listen for the voice of your Lord as he calls your name, speaking words of comfort and then let the world know that Jesus is alive.

Alleluia! He is risen!

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Good Friday 2022

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I don’t need to try to explain to you what hard times, fear and death are like. We are in the middle of them at the moment.  It is tangible, you can almost smell it.  We have been fortunate.  For most of us here, the danger and the death is out there.  Close, lurking, but not in our own homes.  On this Friday, almost 2000 years ago, there were a great many people experiencing the same fears.  The enemy was different, but the fear was the same. Perhaps today we are in a better place to appreciate the actions of Jesus’ disciples than we have been in the past.

When we left our story last night, Jesus was having dinner with his closest companions.  It is Passover, an important religious feast that they have gathered to celebrate together.  One of them has walked out.  It may have seemed odd, but to all but one, probably not threatening.  Only Jesus knew why he left. Jesus has washed their feet, proclaiming them servants of the Lord and commissioning them to be slaves to the servants of the Lord.  He has taken the Passover Seder, which they celebrate in the same way every year, and he has altered the meaning of some of the familiar actions, calling the wine his blood, the pierced and stripped unleavened bread his body, and proclaiming a new commandment and a new covenant.

While the disciples are still trying to process all that Jesus has been saying he decides to go to the Garden of Gethsemane and pray. They are tired.  Their stomachs are full.  They have drunk several cups of wine.  It is time to settle down on the couch and watch a ball game or a movie or just take a nap.  We have all been there.  The party is coming to a close and as much as we enjoyed it, we just need a little me time, and Jesus is asking us to watch and to pray with him.

They go, but while the spirit is willing, the flesh is week and they keep falling asleep. Jesus keeps waking them up.  He needs their companionship tonight more than ever, but they are out of reach, mentally if not physically.  We understand what it means to need someone and know they are close but just out of reach.  You can see their faces on your phone or computer.  You can hear their voices, but it is not enough.

Suddenly everything changes.  Judas arrives with Roman soldiers and the temple authorities. The adrenaline kicks in.  They are no longer sleepy.  They are confused, they are frightened.  Peter grabs his sword and slashes out at the closest thing to him.  The ear of a slave.  Hardly a life saving action.  Jesus bends down, picks up the ear, and restores it to the man.  The disciples watch as Jesus is taken into custody and marched off.  They should be doing something to help him, but some are frozen where they stand, some have already run in fear, hiding in the shadows. 

Peter and John summon up enough courage to follow a safe distance behind.  John has connections and gets them inside the gate where they separate and try to look nonchalant. The evening is cold and Peter trys to join a group around a fire to keep warm, but they keep asking him if he was a friend of Jesus.  Frightened, Peter keeps insisting he doesn’t even know him.  The sun is just beginning to peak out at the horizon and the rooster crows twice to welcome the morning and Peter sobs.  Jesus knew Peter better than he knew himself.  Under all that bravado, he is just as scared and frightened as the others and three times he denied his Lord, just as Jesus had said he would.

While a great number of people seem to want to be rid of Jesus, no one wants the responsibility for doing it.  Jesus is moved from place to place – before the Sanhedrin, before the Roman prefect, before Herod, back to Pontius Pilate.  At each stop he is beaten, spit on, ridiculed and accused of crimes he did not commit.  No one can find him guilty, yet the torment continues.  Finally, wanting to be done with this mess and wishing the crowds to dissipate before a riot breaks out, (Pilate fears the people he governs more than this man before him), Pilate consents to have this man Jesus crucified.

It is now about the time the lambs are being slaughtered in the temple for the Passover.  Jesus is being slaughtered just outside the city gates.  Not a quick and relatively painless death, but the slowest and cruelest death Rome can devise, saved for rogue slaves and traitors.  

Nailed to the cross Jesus begins to repeat Psalm 22 which we read last night. “My God, My God why have you forsaken me.” Perhaps there are days when you understand that lament, but Jesus did not just think of himself, even at this dark hour.  John and his mother Mary have found their way to the foot of the cross.  Jesus gives them to one another and asks them to love and look after each other, just as they had loved him.  To one of the thieves hanging beside him, he offers hope and reconciliation.  To all the people who put his there: his friends who denied and abandoned him, the Jewish and Roman authorities who refused to see who he was and were afraid of him, the people in the crowd who got caught up in peer pressure and loved their own reputation more than him – to all of these, Jesus forgave them.

Today, liturgically, we leave Jesus hanging on the cross until shortly before sundown, but as awful and as painful as it is, for the moment we need to embrace death, acknowledge the fear, fear of getting caught up in the destruction, fear of what an unknown future will look like, mourn the loss of one we love, of the life we love.

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Maundy Thursday 2022

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I’ve never lived in a war zone.  I have lived through category 5 hurricanes.

We watched with anxious anticipation as we gathered our most precious belongings, our medications, our computers and phones, our pets.  My congregations united to ensure that no one got left behind when we had to evacuate. Those who live alone, those who are sick, or those without transportation gathered in the homes of others so that at a moment’s notice we could pack the car and know that there is no turning back and may be nothing to return to tomorrow. I can only imagine based on my limited experience what it must be like to leave nearly everything behind and I weep for the thousands of refugees that are torn from their homes in fear.   I was fortunate.  I got to return and though we had to deal with damage to our church property, my home escaped with minimal damage.

This is a close approximation of what the first Passover must have felt like for Moses and the Hebrews living in Egypt just prior to the Exodus.  There were probably some who declared they planned to take their chances and stick it out.  There were probably some who were terrified beyond being able to function.  There were others who did what Moses told them to do and trusted that God would take care of them no matter what happened.

God, acting through Moses had already sent 9 plagues to Egypt.  The Egyptians were not particularly happy with these upstart slaves who claimed responsibility for a series of natural disasters that had wreaked havoc in Egypt.  Now Moses has predicted that just as the Pharaoh had ordered the death of the Hebrew sons, Pharaoh was about to get a taste of his own medicine as the first born in every Egyptian household, man and beast were about to die.  Staying was not an option for the Hebrews, but timing was critical.  They had to wait for God’s time and listen to Moses’ commands or they would get caught up in the death and destruction. 

God through Moses emphasized that this was not just a rescue effort, but a new beginning.  The Hebrews were told that from now on, they were to count this month as the beginning of their new year.  They were given very specific instructions concerning the final meal that they would eat in Egypt.  It was to be something that they never forgot.  Not just in their life time, but for all the generations to come.  Each family was to pick out a spotless lamb on the 10th day of the month.  They were to invite enough people to their homes for this meal that there were no left overs.  .  On the 14th day of the month, everyone in the community was to gather at twilight.  Sundown, not sunup, is still the beginning of the new day in the Jewish culture.  The lambs were slaughtered and the blood of the lamb was placed on the lintel and doorpost to mark the home as a refuge, a safe haven where death is not welcome.  No one celebrates Passover by themselves; it is a community event. No one is to be left homeless on this night.  The lambs were roasted whole. The people eat that night with their shoes on and their walking sticks in their hands.  They are commanded to eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. The unleavened bread and bitter herbs were symbols of both slavery and freedom, a reminder to us today of our slavery to sin and our redemption.  The unleavened bread was the bread of the poor.  It also indicted haste; it did not have to rise, and it was without yeast, as symbol of the power of sin in the Old Testament. At the Passover, even to this day, bitter herbs are dipped in salt water and charoset, a sweet apple dish is eaten. Sauces for dipping were a luxury of the rich, the free.  The bitter herb represents the bitterness of slavery, the salt water the tears of the oppressed. The sweet apples reflect both the mortar of the bricks they made in slavery and the sweetness of their redemption. 

Tonight, Maundy Thursday, we remember and in a sense participate in the last supper that Jesus ate with his disciples prior to his crucifixion.  It is important to remember that the gospel accounts of this night are intended to convey theological insights, much more than historical insights.  The gospel of Mark, believed to be our oldest gospel, and Matthew and Luke which appear to draw heavily on Mark depict Jesus’ last supper as occurring on the first night of Passover at the Seder meal.  Their intent is to explain the meaning of the rite of Holy Eucharist as an expansion of the ideas already set forth in the Passover Seder and just as the Passover Seder is an annual reminder of God’s redemption of the Israelites out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt, the Eucharist is our weekly reminder of God’s redemption of all believers out of the bondage of slavery to sin and eternal death.  As Jesus breaks the unleavened bread and shares it with his disciples, he associates himself physically with the symbol of God’s provision.  Just as he breaks the bread, he too will be broken in order that everyone at the table may be fed.  Just as God provided life giving manna in the wilderness, so too will everyone who partakes of the bread of the Eucharist be fed with eternal food.  The cup of wine, which was probably the third cup of the Seder called the cup of Redemption, Jesus claims to be the sign of a new covenant sealed with his own blood, a covenant of Redemption which we sign when we share in the cup.  A covenant is similar to an oath of allegiance to a king. The king agrees to protect and provide for his subjects and the subjects promise to be loyal to the king.  Jesus, the king, enters into an eternal covenant with those at the table with him that night and at all the Eucharist that are celebrated in remembrance of that night.

John’s purpose in his gospel is different from Matthew, Mark and Luke and so he tells the story from a slightly different perspective.  Throughout John’s Gospel, his primary purpose is to reveal the character of God through Jesus, the Incarnation of God.   John set’s Jesus’ last meal as the night before Passover begins because he wants to make clear that Jesus is associating his own death with the redeeming blood of the Passover lambs.  John suggests that Jesus is crucified the same day the lambs are sacrificed.  So, Jesus’ last meal in John’s gospel does not contain the elements of the Seder, but focuses on standard hospitality.  In a hot dusty country where almost everyone walks everywhere in sandals, the polite thing for any polite host will offer to have the feet of his dinner guest washed before dinner.  Typically the lowest servant in the home got this job.  When you have a room full of equals, nobody’s feet gets washed unless you wash them yourself.   Jesus demonstrates who God is by taking on the job of the servant and washing the feet of his disciples.  God leads, not from a position of power and authority, but from a position of service.  Peter is embarrassed for Jesus and by Jesus when Jesus offers to wash his feet, but Jesus tells Peter that unless he allows him to get this close and personal and to wash the dirt off of his feet, he cannot be one of the disciples.  Peter suddenly wants Jesus to give him a full bath.  Jesus reminds him he has already bathed, an allusion to baptism and the repentance we receive at that time.  We do not need to keep going back and repenting of the sins which we have already confessed and been forgiven. We just need to ask Jesus to wash off any new dirt that collects on our feet. 

Jesus then tells them that he has done this as an example to them.  If Jesus’ job is to wash feet, then we too are called to get down on our knees and wash each other’s feet.  I wish we were doing this literally tonight, it is an incredible symbol when the group participates together. We are called to support each other in our walk in Christ, helping each other by forgiving one another’s sins even if it means humbling ourselves and getting up close and personal.  Even it means we let others see our imperfections or we are called into an intimate relationship we have been able to avoid just sitting in a pew.

We may have survived the pandemic, and seem far away from war or natural disasters but there is one enemy we cannot avoid.  It is called death.  We never know when it will strike.  We are called to be ready, symbolically to eat our meals with our shoes on and our staff in our hand.  We are called to live in community and look out for those who are most vulnerable.  We are called to stand inside the doorway, behind the lintel and door post marked with the blood of the lamb, Christ’s blood, and then when death does pass our way, we are prepared to journey to the Promised Land.  

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Palm Sunday 2022

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From triumph to disaster in a span of 6 days.  What happened and why?

We began with a simple enough phrase “ After telling a parable to the crowd at Jericho, Jesus went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem” (Luke 19:28)   The parable referred to is Luke’s version of the Parable of the Ten Talents.  We hear Matthew’s version in Proper 28A associated with Stewardship, but we never read Luke’s version which as an interesting twist to it.  I Luke’s version, like Matthew’s the Master leaves and puts three of his servants in charge of his money.  When he returns, he finds two invested wisely and received profits which they turn over to the master, in both the third who received the least to begin with claim out of fear of the Master’s wrath, they put it in a safe place rather than risk investing and are chastised for not using what they were given wisely.  Luke adds two twist to this story.  First, the master as left for the purpose of being crowned king, so upon returning he is not just master of the house, but head of the whole kingdom.  The slave who claimed to have put his coin in a save place and is returning exactly what he was given is found to have lied.  He had in fact increased his gains by as much as the one with the most to begin with, but was holding those gains back for himself.  In both readings of the parable the third slave is judged harshly for his behavior – Matthew has him cast into the outer darkness and Luke has him executed. 

What was Jesus saying and why does this impact the Holy Week Stories?

The master of the house is obviously God who when he returns does so as the Incarnate Christ Jesus who has been made ruler of heaven and earth. At least four times in the Old Testament it is prophesied that God will establish a king who has dominion over all nations (Psalm 2: 6-9, Isaiah 9:6-7, Daniel 2:44, Daniel 7: 13-14).  It is not clear who the good stewards are – obviously those who use the gifts God has given them to further God’s purpose, but the lazy or deceitful steward is a condemnation of the Temple in Jerusalem and those in power there.  Neither point will be missed.

As Jesus approaches Jerusalem he tells his disciples to go ahead and procure a donkey colt and if questioned are  to say, “The Lord needs it.”  Other people frequently referred to Jesus as Lord, though he seldom used that term for himself.  It is a misleading term because it can apply to anyone above you on the social ladder all the way up to God. The people hearing “The Lord needs it” may well have thought it was being confiscated by a Roman official. Jesus may have been using the term in its highest meaning, the word substituted for the name of God given to Moses that is never spoken.   What is not misleading is Jesus’ purpose in obtaining the colt of a donkey.  Zechariah 9:9 declares, “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  And in verse 14:3-4 states “Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle.  On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the East”  It is no wonder that when the people saw Jesus riding down the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem they began crying Hosannah – “Save us”

The people are recognizing that Jesus is fulfilling scripture.  When Luke tells us they say, “Blessed is the king that comes in the name of the Lord” they are singing Psalm 118 and substituting the word “king who comes” for “one who comes.”  When they declare “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven” they are echoing the words the angels sang at Jesus’ birth according to Luke. (Luke 2: 14).  The waving of palm branches were a sign of triumph and the placing of their cloaks on the ground a sign of honor. 

On top of fulfilling prophecy and declaring himself king, that fact that he rides into town on the colt of a donkey is a bit of mockery of the Roman Triumph which was a lavish religious and political ceremony marking a victory by a Roman general, by Jesus’ time the only person allowed to lead a Triumph was Caesar himself. In that action, Jesus made himself not only a blasphemer in the eyes of the Temple leaders, but an insurrectionist in the eyes of Rome.

There is not time to relate everything that happened that week.  I hope you will participate in our Holy Week activites and hear more of the story, but just hitting the highlights …

We are told Jesus weeps over the city of Jerusalem, just as a parent would weep over a self-destructive child.  He knew what would happen in the near future.  He knew the consequences of their behavior would be devastating and even his death and resurrection would not stop the escalating violence.

Luke places the cleansing of the temple at this point in the story.  Again, Jesus is fulfilling scripture. He quotes Isaiah saying “my house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7) and Jeremiah 7:11 says “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord.”

Luke has Jesus answering many questions and making several prophesies.  In Luke 21:5-6 he foretells the destruction of the Temple, in verses 20-24 he foretells the destruction of Jerusalem.  He also quotes Daniel talking about “The son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” (Luke 20:27 & Dan 7:13)

Luke places Jesus last supper with his disciples at the Passover seder. Jesus uses the signs and symbols of the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt by God through Moses and gives them new meaning.  He will be the Passover lamb, the innocent sacrifice whose blood will save all mankind from death and slavery to sin.  He will institute the sacrament that we know as Holy Eucharist as the ongoing remembrance of his passion and resurrection.

Three old testament passages inform us about the meaning of Jesus betrayal and death.  First Number chapter 9 describes the ongoing keeping of the Passover in the year to come.  It was so important that even ritual uncleanness (such as recently burying someone)  would not prevent someone from participating in the ritual and failure to participate was to cut one off from their people, this was a defining act.  Included in this passage is that no bones shall be broken.

Isaiah 53 describes the suffering servant including the passage “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases: yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.  But he was wounded for our transgressions…  

Psalm 22, which we will hear read on Maundy Thursday seems to describe crucifixion, though there is nothing to suggest it was done it the time it was written. Jesus will quote this psalm from the cross which begins, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus made use of our expectations as found in the scriptures to prove to us that sin and death were not the end.  He endured the worst we could do to him to show how much he, God Incarnate, loved us and was willing to sacrifice for us so we could believe.  There have been many people who have tried to explain this mystery.  For me, Paul said it best, “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Cor 5: 19)

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5 Lent 2022

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The Gospel of John speaks of “the disciple whom Jesus loved” and we all assume it is John the apostle.  Popular literary works and the musical Jesus Christ Superstar would have us believe that Mary of Magdala was Jesus’ most devoted disciple, and she certainly was faithful in her devotion, but for me, I have always thought the stories of Mary of Bethany were the greatest witness of love and devotion between Jesus and another human being.

Let’s begin with the town of Bethany.  Bethany was a small village just on the other side of the Mount of Olives about two miles from Jerusalem.  Jesus appears to know two families in Bethany Lazarus and his two sisters Mary & Martha and Simon the Leper and he chooses to stay in Bethany, rather than Jerusalem when he is in town. This is purely supposition on my part, but because of the stories told about these two families, I have often wondered if Simon and Lazarus were the same person.  It is not unusual for people in the Bible to be called by two different names.

There are three stories weaving in and out of these two families and another Simon that are incredibly similar and different authors put them to different uses, but the love of the woman and the reaction to her by Jesus are consistent.

Early in Luke we have the story of Jesus visiting the house of Simon the Pharisee.  Jesus is at table with Simon which was probably a low table where he leaned on cushions with his feet extended behind him.  An unknown woman “from the city” who “was a sinner”, probably a prostitute arrives with an alabaster jar of ointment.  “She stood behind him at his feet weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair.  Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.” (Luke 7:38) Luke uses this story to introduce the parable about two debtors – the one who owed the most was the most grateful.  He tells the woman “Your sins are forgiven.” (Luke 7: 48)

In Chapter 10 Luke tells us the story of Jesus visiting Mary, Martha and Lazarus in their home.  This story is sandwiched between the sending our of the seventy disciples followed by the Parable of the Good Samaritan introduced by the Summary of the Law on one side and the teaching of the Lord’s prayer and a parable about perseverance in Prayer on the other.  The point of the story seems to be balancing good works with prayer and devotion.  In this story we see Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to him teach.  This was inappropriate for women in this culture and her sister Martha fusses at Jesus for not sending her away to go help with dinner preparation.  Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen wisely, it is Martha that is “worried and distracted by many things.”  Jesus reminds her, “there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken from her.” (Luke 10 41-42)

All three of the synoptic gospels have Jesus giving the summary of the law, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12: 29-31; similar to Matt 22: 37-39 and Luke 10:27)  We are quick to pick up “love your neighbor as yourself, but Jesus tells us that is the second of the great commandments.  The first is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.  Mary understood this.

Luke has Jesus tell the parable of a rich man and a poor beggar covered in sores who both die.  The beggar is named Lazarus. I have often wondered if Jesus had his friend Lazarus in mind when he tells this parable.  Lazarus who had nothing and was despised in life dies and “was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.”  The rich man who finds himself in torment begs Lazarus for help but it is too late.

John tells us that while Jesus was away in Galilee, his friend Lazarus became fatally ill. John remembers Mary as the one who anoints Jesus and wipes his feet with her hair, but that story is to come later.  Mary and her sister Martha send for Jesus, but Jesus delays his return and Lazarus dies. While it must have seemed cruel to Mary and Martha, Jesus had a purpose for delaying his return. When Jesus finally arrives Martha runs out to meet him and confronts him about his tardiness. She gets the honor of being the one to whom Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”  Mary has stayed behind and apparently Jesus asks for her.  Martha returns and tells Mary that Jesus is looking for her. She goes to him, falls at his feet weeping and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Mary does not get a theological explanation of resurrection.  Instead, Jesus weeps with her.  This is one of only two times we are told that Jesus wept. The crowd interprets it as Jesus’ love of Lazarus.  I think he wept in sorrow at the pain that Mary is experiencing.

Jesus will “resurrect” Lazarus and in the process cross the line with the authorities one too many times.  We are told that “many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.  But some of them went to the Pharisees.” (John 11: 45-46) This caused great fear among many of the religious leaders who were concerned that it would bring unwanted attention from Rome upon them and destroy what the freedoms they enjoyed.  Caiaphas, the high priest declared, “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (John 11; 50)

Matthew and Mark describe Jesus as going to Bethany immediately after his triumphant entry into Jerusalem.  Matthew has him stay in the house of the leper named Simon and visited by an unknown woman who anoints Jesus’ head, the true sign of Messiahship because the word means anointed one.  John tells us he was staying with his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus just prior to his triumphal entry and describes the scene we read today. Martha is serving dinner, true to form.  Lazarus is at the table with him and probably the twelve.  Mary comes in with a pound of pure nard.

Nard is an essential oil that comes from a plant grown in the Himalayas.  It was an expensive import and was used for everything from flavoring wine to perfuming the dead.  Jesus’ closest companions have still not realized that Jesus is not going to overthrow the Roman Empire and wrestle the throne of David away from Herod.  Mary seems to understand exactly what is about to happen, though God could be working prophetically through her without her complete comprehension.    

Mary choses to be generous with the one she loves dearly.  She lavishes a year’s wage on a spa moment to show her love and devotion to Jesus. She is also acting as a prophet predicting his death and perhaps foreshadowing Jesus washing the feet of his own disciples. She perfumes his feet and then wipes them with her hair.  I have found no reasonable explanation for using her hair instead of a towel, so again this is speculation but I might have done that if I wanted to retain the scent of that precious moment as long as possible.  Perhaps it was one more way Mary could cling to the one she loved by having his scent clinging to her.

Money has a way of revealing people’s hearts and we get a look into the heart of Judas in this story.  Jesus called the sinful to him, and Judas was apparently a thief to whom Jesus entrusted the purse of the group. He was also a hypocrite. The word comes from play acting and Judas could act the part of someone who cared about the poor, but he really cared about Judas.  He criticized Mary for her extravagance and suggested that they should have sold the perfume to have money for the poor. Money for his pocket in fact.  Jesus tells Judas to “Leave her alone.” Mary had bought it so that she would have it when the day came that Jesus would have to be buried.  Did Mary get to go to see his empty tomb?  I don’t know. Mary of Magdala is named and Mary mother of James or Joses, one gospel says, “the other Mary” another says “other women.”

Luke tells us that Jesus went to Bethany when it was time for his Ascension.  I like to think Mary of Bethany was able to be there.

There is a final statement in today’s less that needs to be addressed.  Jesus says, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” (John 12:8).  Jesus is not telling us helping the poor is beyond us or that we don’t need to concern ourselves about them.  He is quoting from Deuteronomy “Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.  Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open you hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” (Deut. 15:10-11) This statement is made in the middle of Laws concerning the Sabbatical Year.  There are a great number of admonitions in both the Old and New Testaments concerning care of the poor.  This opportunity will be ongoing and should be addressed, but Jesus, God’s incarnate presence among us, was but a moment in time, a time to be cherished.

Loving our neighbor is good and something that we should be ever mindful of, but it should flow from our love and devotion to Christ otherwise it can become something we do for our own benefit.

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4 Lent 2022

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Parables are wonderful because no matter where we are spiritually, there is usually a character in the story with whom we can connect, but to be true to the story we need to put it in context.

Imagine for a moment Jesus has been teaching for several months near the Sea of Galilee and large crowds are starting to follow him.  They are a very motley group of people.  First there are the twelve which consist of at least four fishermen, a tax collector, an insurrectionist, and we don’t really know the background of some of them.  Luke tells us “tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him”  I suspect the sinners included some prostitutes, some beggars, some everyday folks who didn’t go to church so to speak, and possiblye a few non-Jews.  There were also Pharisees and scribes, those persons who regularly attended religious services and who were very conscious of the traditions of their ancestors.  The Pharisees and scribes begin to criticize Jesus because he is eating with people they considered “unclean.”  They have bad table manners which for the Pharisees and scribes is not just socially unacceptable, but  religiously a problem as well because performing certain rituals at the table was a way one honored God. Failure to do so they thought dishonored God.

Jesus tells a series of parables which all inform and illuminate each other.  The first three are about something that is lost, then found. The fourth one is about stewardship and honesty, and the last one is the story of the rich man and Lazarus.  Today’s lesson is the middle parable, the last one about lost items.  Let’s very briefly look at the first two before we go into the third one in more depth.

In the first parable a man has a hundred sheep and one goes astray.  Sheep were a valuable commodity, they provided both food and clothing.  Jesus asks the crowd, if you had one sheep that got lost, even if you had 100 total, wouldn’t you go look for it?  Of course. And Jesus speaks of the joy of finding the lost sheep.  What if instead of being a shepherd with 100 sheep, you were a woman who had a dowry of ten silver coins.  These ten coins are what ensures that you will survive if something happens to your husband.  If you lost one of the coins, even though you had 9 others, would you not go look for it?  Of course.  And Jesus speaks of the joy of finding the lost coin.

In both instances the community is encouraged to participate in the joy of the individual who had lost something and had it restored to them.

What is more valuable than sheep to a shepherd or a dowry to a woman?  How about sons to a man?

A certain man had two sons.  One son, the older was a rule follower and the younger son was always pushing the boundaries.   This is not an unusual situation.  I see it in myself and my younger sister.  I can see it in my two older children.  I suspect most of you can see yourself in one of these two roles.  The crowd sitting around Jesus could probably see themselves in one of these two roles.  The “tax collectors and sinners” had learned to survive by pushing boundaries.  The Pharisees and scribes had spent their life trying to stay inside the box and carefully maintained the walls of the box by rules and rituals.

Jesus tells us that the younger son grew impatient and wanted his inheritance before his father had died.  This meant that he reduced not only the family’s immediate worth, but he also reduced the potential income of the family because the father would have had to sell off land, livestock, etc. to give the younger son his share of the inheritance. The son was clearly acting selfishly and disregarding the future welfare of the rest of his family.  The son then wasted his inheritance on pleasure: perhaps women, alcohol, gambling, pagan festivals. Luke calls it “dissolute living.”  Those hearing this story may have remembered the story of Esau and Jacob and how Esau despised his birthright and sold it for a bowl of lentils. He was afterward cut off from the piece of the family that inherited God’s covenant with Abraham.  Tradition would support cutting off this son who had despised his inheritance.

The father meanwhile appears have one eye on the horizon hoping that his son, whom he loved enough to let him have his inheritance early and let him have the freedom to use it as he saw fit will return home.  The older son has been dutiful and continued to work the family farm in his brother’s absence, but appears to have written off his brother as a lost cause.

Once the younger son has spent all his money he finds that he has hit bottom.  He is tending pigs apparently for a Gentile farmer because Jews considered pigs unclean, and he is even wishing he could eat with the pigs he is so hungry.  He remembers that even his father’s servants live a better life than he is living at the moment, and is willing to humble himself to the point of admitting to his father that he made bad decisions and to ask that he be taken back, not as a son, but as a servant.  He has been practicing his speech all the way home but before he gives it, his father sees him and rushes out to embrace him and welcome him home.  Jesus talks about the joy of the father in proportion to the value of what was lost – remember the sheep and the coin if the finding of those things brought great joy how much more when a son who is lost.  The son is of much more value than sheep or coins therefore the joy at having him restored is so much greater.

To the tax collector and sinners this is a call to repentance and the offer to be welcomed back home as children of God, their father. For those today who have squandered the gifts God has given them, who have lapsed into destructive behaviors it is a call to come home.  It is a call to once again resume the role of child of God.  To the Pharisees and scribes, it is a call to rejoice with God in the restoration of the family.  To those of us today within the church it is a reminder that we should rejoice when someone returns to Christ no matter how far away they have strayed.

Jesus is now speaking to the Pharisees and the scribes when he describes the reaction of the older son.  The father loves the older son no more and no less than the younger. The father invites the older son to join in the celebration and share in the joy of the restoration of the younger son, but he responds by criticizing his father.  He accuses his father of treating him like a slave, when in reality, he has imposed that position upon himself.  He accuses his father of being miserly to him, when in reality, he never asked for anything.  He failed to avail himself of the father’s love and generosity and then blamed his father for his misery.

For those who have never strayed very far, who have been faithful and obedient most of their lives, or those who did stray but have already found their way back and take seriously the call to be a child of God,  we are called not to look upon service to God as a burden.  It is not to be something we do because we feel we are obligated or because we are expecting to be rewarded, but it is to be done in love and gratitude for the blessings we receive just by being part of God’s family and knowing that all we have belongs to God but also that all that God has is there for us.  Luke says the father told the older son, “you are always with me and all that is mine is yours.”

Where do you find yourself in this story today? Do you need to repent and return home? Do you need to allow God to love you and recognize with gratitude the blessings available to you? As a congregation, how can we make the path more welcoming for those who want to come home and how can we participate in rejoicing at their return?

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3 Lent 2022

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The story of Moses and the nation of Israel under his oversite is an essential part of our spiritual history, our spiritual ancestry.  I can only hit the highlights in an effort to illuminate our New Testament readings, but I hope it will make you curious enough to read more on your own.

When we look back on the life of Moses, we can see how God used people and events in Moses’ early life to prepare him for a specific task that would occupy the last third of his life.  Moses was born in Egypt to Hebrew slaves at a time that the Pharoah attempted to limit the male population of the Hebrews out of fear of an uprising.  He did this by ordering the death of all male children born to the Hebrews.  Moses’ parents did not comply to this order and when he became too old to hide any longer, Moses’ older sister set him in a basket at the edge of the river where the women of the court of Pharoah would go to bath and she kept an eye on him so that when he was discovered and rescued by one of the women she conveniently showed up and offered to find a slave woman who could nurse him and oversee his care.  She runs home and gets her own mother, Moses’ mother.  So Moses has a link to the Hebrew people through his biological mother and a foot in the door of the royal Egyptian household though his adopted mother.

After becoming an adult, Moses, who seems to be aware of his dual connections, kills an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew.  Moses thinks he has gotten away with it but soon finds out he did not and he flees into the land of Midian in the southern part of the Sinai peninsula and takes up a new life as a shepherd.  Roughly forty years goes by when Moses while out tending the sheep sees a bush that is burning, but is not consumed by the flame.  This is our Old Testament reading for today.  We know nothing about Moses’ religious upbringing but at this moment he has an encounter with God that will once again change the course of his life.  God tells him that he wants him to return to Egypt, confront Pharoah, and demand the release of the Hebrew slaves because God has heard their laments.

Can you imagine what must have been going through Moses’s mind at that time? A voice in a burning bush tells him to take off his shoes and then tells him to go back to Egypt where he is wanted for murder and confront Pharoah and demand the release of his slaves.  I suspect even if I didn’t stammer, I would be inclined to at this point.  He gives God all sort of reasons why he can’t do it and God has a solution for each excuse.  Do we ever do that?  We tell God, “I’m too busy.” And suddenly our calendar gets cleared.  “I don’t know how.” And training becomes available.

So Moses sets out for Egypt with the assurance of God’s presence and support, a magical staff, the personal name of God, and the promise that his older brother will join him to do most of the talking.

Most of you know this part of the story.  Ten times Moses went to Pharoah and ten times Pharoah refused and ten times the people of Egypt were visited by a plague: frogs, insects, contaminated water, something like chicken pox, etc.  The last time became a very special event that is remembered even to this day. It is called Passover.  The Hebrews or Israelites were instructed to sacrifice a lamb, to put the blood of the lamb on the lintel and door posts of their home and to prepare for a journey. They were to eat the lamb with unleavened bread, standing up with their shoes on.  The final plague was to be the death of the firstborn in every family, human and animal and only by following the instructions God gave them through Moses could they be spared.  But if they were obedient, they would see their salvation that night.

While the Egyptians mourned the deaths of their firstborn, Moses led the people out of Egypt and toward Mt. Sinai in Midian where he had just come from. The goal was to return to Canaan the land that had been promised to Abraham, but Moses led them the long way to avoid conflict with the sea people along the coast. Leading them along the way was a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.   Shortly after they had gone, Pharoah had a change of heart and sent his chariots to pursue them and bring them back.  Just as they got to the Red (Reed) Sea,  the Egyptians came into sight and the people panicked and blamed Moses for leading them out of Egypt.  God seems a bit annoyed that they are already ready to quit, but instructs Moses to part the waters.  The Israelites get across and just as the Egyptians begin to cross the water returns and the Egyptians drown.

The Israelites make it three days past the Red Sea and now they start complaining about the water.  God provides fresh water for them.  Then they complain that they are hungry.  God provides manna, a bread like substance that rained down on them from heaven every morning and God provided meat in the form of birds for them every night.   They finally made it Mt. Sinai.  The people heard God speaking to Moses in the form of thunder and they watched Moses go up the mountain to meet God.  While Moses was on the mountain discussing the laws necessary for the Israelites to live as a holy community, the people got impatient and convince Aaron, Moses’ brother to take all their jewelry and make them a golden calf to worship. Moses got so mad he broke the tablets with the Ten Commandments and had to go ask God to make another set.   Later in their journey, they refuse to enter the land that God promised them because they were afraid of the people living there already, so they wind up wandering around in the wilderness for forty years until a whole generation had died off.  During their wanderings they always seemed to be getting in trouble.  Paul mentions a couple of incidents from Numbers: 1) the people are once again complaining against God because they are unhappy with the food.  They find themselves in an infestation of snakes and many are bitten and died.  Moses makes a bronze snake on a pole and tells the people to look upon the bronze snake if they are bit and they will be healed.  Jesus will compare this to his being lifted up on a cross for our salvation.  2) Another time,  they start having relations with pagan women from Moab who encourage them to make sacrifices to their god Baal of Peor.  A plague broke out among them at this time and twenty-four thousand people died.   

As Paul talks to the Corinthians, he will use these stories to remind the believers in his congregation not to get haughty about being baptized and think that is your ticket to heaven therefore you can do as you please.  He points out that their ancestors in the faith, the ancient Israelites were baptized in a way when they crossed the Red Sea.  They carried God (Paul will actually say Christ, indicating that prior to all the discussions about the 2nd person of the Trinity, Paul understood that Christ was one with God and pre-existed the incarnation) with them in the cloud and the pillar of fire,  the had manna from heaven and drank holy water provide by God  – much as we have Eucharist, and Christ describes himself as bread and living water, but when they rebelled, there were consequences for their behavior.

The Jews of Jesus time understood this, but perhaps took it too far.  There was a belief that if anything bad happened to you, it was because you had done something to deserve it, so when Pilate killed people who were protesting ill treatment by the Romans – for example taking money out of the Temple treasury to pay for water systems or when people were in the wrong place at the wrong time like the people crushed when the tower of Siloam fell, they immediately looked for something those people had done to deserve that punishment.  Jesus tells them not so fast.  You are no better than they were.

We then end with a parable about a fig tree that fails to bear fruit, but the gardener begs to be allowed to fertilize it and tend it one more year before it is destroyed. 

We need to learn from the mistakes of people who came before us.  That is how humanity evolves and we get closer to the kingdom of heaven.  We must be careful though not to assume we have come farther than we have.  Paul reminds us we are all sinners in need of the mercy of God.  Jesus reminds us God’s mercy is available but not without a cost.  The gardener didn’t abandon the fig tree, he tended it in the hopes that it would yet bear fruit.  We are the gardeners of our own lives and to a certain extent the lives of those around us.  Let us use the gifts God has given us to the best of our ability and be merciful to those who are struggling to bear fruit remembering it is only by God’s mercy that we have the blessings we have.

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2 Lent 2022

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Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)

I have added this additional reading this morning because as I looked at both our readings for today and the stories in the news, what I heard was a need for and a call for hope.

In our Old Testament reading Abram, the father of three current religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is struggling with his faith and hope in God’s promise to create from him a great nation that will be a blessing to all the peoples of the world because his present reality is that of a childless man who is getting on in years and who lives in an uncertain world.  God reminds Abram, that he is the very God who brought him out of his old world into this new land. God shows Abram the stars in the sky and assures him that his descendants will number with the stars.  He makes a covenant with Abram, consecrated by an animal sacrifice, and in a dream he assures Abram of his fidelity to their covenant.

Our reading ends here, but the story continues.  In fact it is still continuing.  Abram or Abraham as he is better known continued to face hardships; he continued to wrestle with childlessness; he had trouble holding on to the land God had promised him; he struggled with his faith and hope in God’s promise as we see him try to take things into his own hand on occasion. It is easy for us to take Abraham’s struggles lightly. We know the rest of the story, but all Abraham had was his current reality. God stretched Abraham’s faith, allowing him to wait until it was no longer humanly possible for him and his wife to have a child before God miraculously gifted them with Isaac, then God stretched Abraham’s faith as Abraham wrestled with what was then a common practice of human sacrifice, allowing Abraham to come within moments of giving up Isaac, but providing a suitable substitute in a ram caught in a bush. Despite these challenges, Abraham held fast to his faith and hope that God would fulfill their covenant and God never abandoned his promise to Abraham. 

Our Psalm this morning was probably written by David a descendant of Abraham through his son Isaac, his grandson Jacob, also known as Israel, though his son Judah… I won’t give you the whole genealogy, but for those who often wonder why the Bible included all these names it was a way of remembering the stories about God’s faithfulness to those who honored God and in some cases a warning about what happens to those who reject God.

In this Psalm David states,

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear? *
the Lord is the strength of my life;
of whom then shall I be afraid?

David too demonstrated faith and hope in God’s promises despite difficulties and hardships.  Most people remember the story of David, the shepherd boy, demonstrating great faith and courage when he killed the giant Goliath and many people know that David became king of Israel and really messed up with Bathsheba, but do you know the story between these two tales?  David was anointed king by Samuel while he was still a shepherd boy and Saul was still sitting on the throne of Israel. For the next fifteen years he first worked for Saul, then was banished as an outlaw before he finally became king when both Saul and his son Jonathan were killed in the same battle.  During that time, Saul tried many times to kill David. Whom shall I fear?  David had lots to fear, yet he persevered in faith and hope of God’s promise and God further promised “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.” (2 Samuel 7:17).  Today he is remembered as the greatest king to have ever sat on the throne of Israel and it is this promise of David’s throne that informs the understanding of the Messiah.

In our gospel story, Jesus, a descendant of David, is teaching near the sea of Galilee and is approached by some Pharisees, religious leaders of his day, and warned that Herod wants to kill him. Herod was a usurper to the throne of David.  His family were not descendants of David, but fairly recent converts to the Jewish faith that the Roman’s found useful in controlling the Jewish people. Jesus tells the Pharisees to send a message back to “that fox.”  First Jesus explains that he is casting out demons and performing cures.  Jesus is establishing his rightful place as “king.” When John the Baptist sent his own disciples to ask Jesus if he was the one they had been waiting for, Jesus told them to tell John what he had been doing, ie. Healing the sick, casting out demons, etc.  This is exactly what Isaiah had prophesied, and Jesus had claimed when he opened the scroll in the synagogue and read “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” (Luke 4:20). Second, he states that he must go to Jerusalem because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem. It is unclear exactly what Jesus is referring to here with regard to the prophets. Many prophets were persecuted by Israel’s authorities and some were killed. Jesus is identifying himself as a prophet, a role I think we greatly underestimate. Yes, Jesus will die, but it is not Herod who is in control of this situation, it is Jesus. Jesus himself has very carefully choreographed the circumstances of his own death.  Jesus’ death itself is the greatest “prophet sign-act.” It is a visual representation of a spiritual truth, namely our forgiveness and salvation through his death and resurrection and he ties it to the Passover and establishes the Eucharist to make sure we understand exactly what his point is.

Jesus states they will not see him again until the day they say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” This points directly to his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and illustrates that he is the fulfillment of God’s promise to David, 1000 years after the promise was made. Jesus laments that the people of Jerusalem, those who have the greatest claim to God’s promise, fail to see it.  His love for them, despite their shortcomings, is evidenced in his desire to protect them just like a mother hen protects her young chicks under her wings.

Finally we have Paul.  Another descendant of Abraham, through Benjamin, Judah’s brother, who despite his false start as a rabid persecutor of the early church became the greatest evangelist of all time.  Paul is reminding the members of the church in Philippi that the Christian walk is difficult.  He laments that many have yet to understand that they are seeking the wrong things, things that may be great by earthly standards, but are destructive to the soul. He encourages them to hold to the faith and hope that he knows that  is within them and continue doing the things they know to be right in the eyes of God.

We too live in difficult times. Times pandemic, of war, of political and racial discord. Times of random violence.  Times of financial uncertainty. Times when the future of church as we know it seems to be slipping through our fingers.  Times when fear and distrust seem to overwhelm love and compassion, but we are called to hold to the faith and hope that God is ultimately in control. It is by looking back through God’s history with his people in the scriptures that we see God working even in difficult and challenging times.  Sometimes it is by looking back at our own history that we can see how God has been working in our lives, stretching us and forming us. As Paul said, “knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

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Lent 1 2022

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Tithing, Temptation, and Calling on the Name of the Lord.  I usually don’t try to force together three obviously unrelated passages, but all scripture must be read in context of the whole and these just may have more to do with each other than a quick first read might indicate.

So, let’s begin with the Gospel and Temptation.  Jesus has just been baptized.  The Holy Spirit descended up on and filled him. The Holy Father has affectively patted Jesus on the shoulder and said, “You’ve done well, my son, I’m proud of you.” 

Luke stops here to give you a long foot note that traces Jesus’ genealogy, not just back to King David, but back to Adam.  Luke is telling us that Jesus is not just the Jewish Messiah; he is humanity’s second chance.  This is what we were and are supposed to be like.

After his baptism, the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness.  Jesus, through the influence of the Holy Spirit felt compelled to begin his ministry by separating himself from society and by fasting for 40 days and nights.  This is one of those numbers of significance that seems to indicate a long time, a time of purification, a time of completion.  It rained on Noah for 40 days and nights.  The Israelites were in the wilderness 40 years.  Forty days without water and we would be dead.  Forty days without food, and most of us would be in pretty bad shape.  Unlike today, fasting was a common form of piety in Jesus’ day, but most of us do not know how to engage in a long fast without injuring ourselves.  There are many meaningful ways in which we can fast today that does not put one’s health at risk and is not a meaningless exercise in false piety.  Fasting from broccoli doesn’t count.  Fasting from chocolate might, depending upon how much control chocolate has on your life.  Fasting from television, fasting from Facebook, or any number of other things could also be meaningful if you use the time you had been spending on those activities for prayer or bible study.  Fasting from television only to spend that time on Facebook instead serves no purpose.

It is while Jesus is doing what he is supposed to be doing that Satan comes to tempt him.  Have you ever noticed that it is only after you committed to an outreach project, a Bible study, or a leadership position such as vestry that everything begins to fall apart and you are tempted to say this is too hard, I can’t do it.

Satan picked temptations specific to the ministry to which Jesus had been called.  He starts with an easy one.  Jesus will refer to himself as the bread of life.  He will multiply bread to feed the hungry, but right now, Jesus is hungry.  Satan tempts him to use the gifts God has given him for ministry for his own personal gain.  Satan does the same thing to each of us. Now Jesus’ use of his gifts is a little clearer cut than ours may be.  Most people are not called into full time ministry, but whether our gifts are music, art, business skills, carpentry or something else we should give a portion in thanksgiving for what God has given us.  Here’s where our Old Testament lesson comes in.   The Israelites were commanded to bring their first fruits, not their leftovers as an offering for God in remembrance of the salvation granted to their ancestors fulfilled in their own generation.   We are called to remember all God has done for the generations before us which have allowed us the life we now live.  I often hear complaints that the current generation feels entitled, but perhaps we have not taught them well. Perhaps they have no memory of the struggles of their ancestors which has made their life as comfortable as it is.  Jesus responded to Satan, “Man does not live by bread alone.”  Jesus calls us to remember that physical comfort is not all there is to life.

Next Satan takes Jesus up to a high place and showing him the towns and villages below offers him the opportunity to be Roman Emperor or greater.  He offers to give him “all the kingdoms of the world.” Political power is a great temptation.  One need only look at the daily news to see this.  People are being killed or displaced by wars, violence, and political maneuvering at an alarming rate.  Lord Acton, a 19th century author and politician observed, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” [i] I’m not sure I completely agree with him.  I think truly great men or women are the ones who accomplished great things with a minimum of collateral damage, but it is very difficult and time after time we see that powerful people often commit great sins in the process. Moses calls the people to remember Abraham and his faith as an example of how we are to live.  There are many scriptural references to people who wrestled with power, some better than others.  In the book of Daniel we are given examples of everyday people quietly, but confidently standing up to oppressive leaders. Remember Daniel in the lion’s den and Meshack, Shadrack, and Abednego and the fiery furnace. They did so by refusing to abandon their faith and the traditions of their ancestors when tempted with power, luxury and riches if they would worship Nebuchadnezzar. They held fast even in the face of death. When are you tempted to abandon your faith? Jesus’ response and one we can say to ourselves and to others is, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.

Finally, Satan tempts Jesus to prove that God really loves him.  He attempts to place that kernel of doubt in Jesus’ mind that perhaps God didn’t mean what he told Jesus at his baptism. Does God the Father really love you?  He also tempts Jesus to reveal himself as the Messiah without going through the crucifixion.  He takes him to the pinnacle of the temple and tells him to throw himself down and let the angels catch him.  On the cross, one of the taunts made to Jesus was, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matt. 27:40).  How tempting it must have been for Jesus to end his suffering prematurely, but that would have defeated God’s purpose.  We are often tempted with self-doubt concerning God’s love and mercy and a desire to side-step the difficulties of this life by calling on God to fix everything.  There are two caricatures of the Christian life that are both false and dangerous.  The first one is the prosperity Gospel that says if you do exactly what God commands of you, often including a generous donation to a specific ministry, God will bless you with health, wealth and happiness all the time.  Jesus healed a lot of people, and we are called to pray for healing, but we are mortal, and we will all die sometime, someway.  There is much we can do to improve our health, but sometimes people who do not take care of themselves live to be one hundred and people who do all the right things get sick and die young. There is a certain amount of risk in being born.  God has promised to take care of our daily needs, but he also uses us to help take care of the needs of those less fortunate.   Neither wealth nor poverty is an indicator of God’s opinion about someone.  Happiness is something we have some control over.  How we respond to any situation, good or bad can affect our outlook on life, but there are things that are not within our control that also impact our daily life. I recently read Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Tragedy is not limited to the wicked, but how we respond to that tragedy has an impact on ourselves and those around us.  The other caricature of the Christian life is that Christians are always serious, don’t ever have any fun, and look down at others over the top of our Bible.  Medieval Christians often sought suffering for the sake of suffering, and today too often people are told to submit to abuse because it is the Christian thing to do.  Suffering is never a good thing.  God can use our suffering to help us grow, but seeking or allowing unnecessary suffering is not what Christians are called to do.  The true disciples of Christ find joy in a number of activities, including studying the Bible, but not to the exclusion of all else and not for the purpose of looking down at others.   Jesus’s response to Satan was “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” You may recall Job sitting on the ash pile and God basically saying, “I am God and you are not.”  Seek to follow God, but do not seek to manipulate God, that is what the pagans do.

Paul tells us to call upon God.  We need only to confess that Jesus is Lord and “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.”  Moses reminds us religious education is our weapon against temptation and oppression. Temptations are out there.  They are as many and varied as creation, but look to Jesus to help you through them.


[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dalberg-Acton,_1st_Baron_Acton

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Last Epiphany 2022

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Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.

When I lived in Tennessee, one of my favorite pastimes was hiking in the mountains.  Where the highway went through the town at the bottom of the mountain, it wasn’t too exciting. But, standing at the top of our hill, it seemed you could see forever.  It was an exhilarating experience. There were green pastures that stretched out for miles in the valleys below, but you didn’t notice them so much standing at the bottom of the mountain in the middle of the road. If you took a foot path down the mountain, there was a hidden cove, alive with soft ferns, a bubbling stream, and gentle light that danced as the tops of the trees blew in the wind.  Before hiking up the mountain, I saw the trailer houses with the broken down cars parked on the side.  I saw the pot holes in the pavement. I saw the fence that needed to be painted. Afterward, I still saw those things, but I also saw the beauty and potential in the area and in the people. Life can be like that sometimes.  When we spend too much time in the valley on the highway, we lose sight of the magnificence of God’s creation around us.  On the mountain, we can regain that vision, but we must return to the valley and look for the hidden treasures around us.

Jesus and his disciples had been working in the valley for a long time.  Jesus has done a lot of good work, but the Scribes and Pharisees constantly seem to be trying to undermine his work and twist his words.  He had tried to explain to the disciples what lay ahead of them, but they just didn’t seem to get it.  He had fed a multitude with 5 loaves and 2 fish and they were still fretting over having forgotten to bring bread when he cautioned about the leaven of the Pharisees.  He thought Peter understood when he declared “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!”  but right after having that epiphany he refused to accept that a cross came with that statement and Jesus was saying to him “Get behind me Satan.”  The road that lay ahead was going to be difficult.  Jesus knew that others must continue on without him in the near future.  He needed some leaders with a larger vision to get through the difficult and uncertain times that lay ahead. 

Jesus selected Peter, James and John and took them on a hike up a nearby mountain.  Now hiking uphill literally or figuratively is difficult work.  Where I lived in Texas it was pretty flat, it took me a little while to realize how much effort it can take to walk uphill, but now I don’t think much about it walking around my neighborhood. Sometimes we have to do the difficult work of hiking uphill to overcome some difficulty in our personal lives or our lives together in community, but eventually we look back and wonder why it ever seemed challenging.

I imagine, when they first set out, Jesus’ three companions were pretty excited about being chosen for the trip.  They were curious about where they were going and what Jesus had planned.  But as the journey continued, I can hear them saying, “My feet hurt.” “I’m hot.” “Can’t we just stop here?”  Perhaps one of them started complaining, “We’re never going to make it.”   But they did make it and just for a few moments, they got a glimpse of heaven as Jesus was transfigured before their very eyes and Moses and Elijah appeared talking with him.  Sore feet were suddenly forgotten.  Peter was ready to get back to work and volunteered to build three tents for Jesus and his companions.  The presence of God was so tangible at that moment it was like a bright cloud that overshadowed them and the disciples fell to their knees as they heard the voice of God proclaim, “This is my Son, my beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Then, as suddenly as the vision had appeared, it was gone.  But the experience stayed with them.  As Jesus gently assists them back to their feet, he tells them to speak of it to no one until the proper time.  But they never forgot.  Their vision was forever altered.  But they didn’t stay upon the mountain either.  They came back down and immediately got back to work healing the sick and feeding the hungry.

We have been working in the valley for a long time.  COVID has caused all sorts of challenges we never expected or asked for. Even in the middle of these challenging times, a lot of good work has been done,  but there is still a lot of work left to be done in our parish, in our community, and in our diocese.   Perhaps you are beginning to lose sight of the lush green pastures and see only the fence that needs painting or the broken down car.  Jesus is ready and willing to lead us up the mountain for that glimpse of heaven and that encounter with God.  It is going to require hard work.  It takes a bit of faith just to begin the journey.  It will require a staff of prayer to steady us on the rocky path and upon which we must lean when we feel we are too tired to go on. It will require a compass of knowledge gained by studying the scriptures and other writings by those that have taken the trail before us to help us find the way.  And it will take a backpack full of love and compassion to feed and strengthen each other during the journey for it is not a journey we take alone.  It is a journey for companions who will work together long after the mountaintop experience. At the top of the mountain, there is a little glimpse of heaven, just enough to fill us with hope and give us strength to complete our task.  We mustn’t forget that Jesus is our ultimate guide leading the way up the mountain.  And Jesus will be with us all the way back down the mountain.  For the fields awaiting harvest are not on the mountain top, they are in the valley below.  They are where we are standing right now, even if it may seem we have lost sight of them.

So how do we begin this journey up the mountain? Many of the supplies we need for the trip are already before us.  Our Bible, Prayer Book, Eucharist, weekly group Bible studies are a place to start.  The diocese also offers a number of retreats and study opportunities. There a numerous spiritual disciplines that can lead us to a closer relationship with God and develop us into faithful disciples. We all have different personalities and different forms of prayer, worship, and study work better for some people than for others.  Many have already begun the journey, some have been up and down the mountain a couple of times and are willing to share their experiences. But if you feel like you are standing in the middle of the highway, unsure which path to take, come talk me or one of congregational leaders. If you feel like you are sitting on rock a little way up the trail, rubbing your sore feet, find one or more companions to study and pray with you.  The journey is easier when we walk together. It can be a difficult climb, but we will never reach the summit without doing the spiritual work necessary to get to the top. The purpose of allowing ourselves to be overshadowed with God’s Spirit, is that we might be vessels that will spill over onto others watering their souls with the living waters of Christ.   We are in the midst of difficult times, and there are probably more to come.  Let us journey together up the mountain, recapture the vision of the lush green fields around us, allow God to overshadow us and journey together back down to get to work in God’s fields. 

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7 Epiphany 2022

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When we talk about stewardship in the church you can see people’s eyes sort of glaze over.  They pat their wallet to make sure it is safe and secure, and they begin to look at their watches to see how quickly they can escape.

Today’s gospel is a continuation of Luke’s Sermon on the Plain and it is a discussion of stewardship far beyond anything one will encounter in an October Pledge campaign, but it can also be life changing in a most miraculous way.

“Love your enemies.”  Not love your neighbor. Not love one another as I have loved you.  Both of which are incredibly difficult, but love the person that abuses you: the person who violates commandments 4 to 10 with you as the victim.  Love the person who dishonors your family.  Love the person who abuses you physically, the person that kills your hopes and dreams, the person who kills someone or something that you love.  Love the person who steals from you, who cheats you. Love the person who tells lies about you not just at court, but the one who gossips about you behind your back.  Love the person who seduces and steals your lover, who destroys your family.  Love the person who belittles your talents, your accomplishments, and your good fortune out of jealously.  If loving our neighbor that we like is hard, how in the world to we do this.

First, love is not a feeling.  Love is an act of the will.  Love is wishing the best for a person whether they deserve it or not.  Love is willing to make sacrifices to better the life of someone else.  Love is not setting yourself up for abuse, but love is not retaliating when abuse happens.  Love is realizing that nothing that we have is ours, it all belongs to God.  This is where that Stewardship word comes in. God has made us stewards of our own lives and the lives of those around us When someone injures us  or someone near us they are injuring God. We are called to be caretakers not judges.  We have to trust God to deal with that person.

In Romans 12: 18-20 Paul elaborates, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for is it written “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Deut. 32:35) “No, if they are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink…do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

How to we love our enemies? By offering them the same care and respect we offer to those who are easy to love. Sometimes, we will even alter the behavior of someone else by treating them with respect and dignity they may be unaccustomed to receiving.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is it to you?” No brownie points for hanging out with the people you like and doing nice things for them.  Jesus says anyone can do that.  Jesus calls us to a higher ethic.  We are called to be generous without expecting anything in return.   Jesus points out that God is kind even to the ungrateful and the wicked.

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

This is not the “Prosperity Gospel” though this is where that theology comes from.  Jesus is not talking about some magic formula that you can track good deed done, benefit received.   Jesus is talking about conforming our wills to the nature and will of God and then trusting God to be managing the forest, even if all we can see is the one little tree we are clinging to tightly.  This takes discipline.

One of the things I have learned from studying music is a little bit about brain science.  When you are learning music, you start out slow and simple.  If you find there are passages you have trouble playing you play them even slower over and over again because your brain is remembering both what you get right and the mistakes you make.  The more times you get it right, the greater the odds are that you will play it correctly as you increase your speed and when you are in stressful circumstances like a performance.  The better you get at the simple pieces, the easier it is to play the harder pieces. Before you know it, pieces that seemed impossible for you to play are possible.

The same holds true for other areas of our lives.  Socrates said, “an unexamined life is not worth living.” Self-examination, while it can be painful, is like taking a pencil to your piece of music and circling all the places you hit a wrong note, played the wrong dynamic, or got the rhythm incorrect.  It is important because it allows us to focus on the places where we need more practice.   Self-examination is not intended to be a time to beat yourself up and say bad things about yourself to yourself.  If that is all you do, then I would suggest your are better off skipping it.  Self-examination is designed to help you correct the things that are not going well for you because of your own behavior. 

For example:

I dislike dealing with auto-reply messages when I have a customer service issue.  In the past, by the time I would get to the live person I was so angry that I was likely to speak harshly to that person and even after the call I would let the conversation run through my head for hours afterwards, increasing my stress and making it hard to concentrate on anything else.   My granddaughter called me on it one day and I had to examine my behavior in that situation.  The next time I got the computer who couldn’t understand what I wanted, and I could feel myself getting angry, I made a mental note of it, and promised myself that no matter how frustrated I was I would not speak harshly to the real person when I got them on the phone.  I tackled one piece of the problem that I could control.   The first few times it took a lot of effort and control, but the more I practiced controlling my response the less frustrated I actually got.  I still don’t like auto-reply messages, but with practice I no longer let it ruin my day or the day of the customer service rep.

Spiritual disciplines – prayer, Bible study, fasting, confession, service to others, just to name a few are like playing scales. They are not intended for public performances though you may enjoy them more if you do them with a group.  They are intended to build muscle memory in your spirit so when you are called upon to be at your best, it comes easily and naturally.  They actually change you into a better version of yourself.  My Cub Scouts hear their motto “Do your best” every week.  It is a reminder to them that it is not perfection, but being the best version of themselves that is important. When any of us practice doing our best, we find our best becomes better over time.

Lent will be upon us in a week and a half.  I would encourage you to take time during Lent for some gentle but honest self-examination and then consider putting together a Rule of Life – a spiritual exercise program to help you make the most of your strengths and to work on your trouble spots.  If you want help, I will be glad to speak with you on how to do that.

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6 Epiphany 2022

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When we think of the Beatitudes, our minds generally go to Matthew’s description of Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount not to Luke’s description of the Sermon on the Plain.  I have no idea if these were two distinct sermons that Jesus preached and someone took notes or if more likely they are illustrations of the kinds of things Jesus often said when he was preaching and both Matthew and Luke gathered them up in a single sermon as a literary device, each choosing and organizing the sayings to fit the story they were trying to tell and describe Jesus as they understood him. 

We know the authors of Matthew and Luke were writing to different audiences and with different purposes.  The author of Matthew is a Jew, writing primarily to Jews, for the purpose of identifying Jesus as the one like Moses, the promised heir of David.  He is also writing as a critique of the teaching of the Pharisees.  Matthew says “blessed are the poor in spirit.” He is focused on the spiritual aspects of the lives of his audience.

The Gospel of Luke is attributed to a gentile physician that traveled with the apostle Paul.  He is writing a history of sorts, not for academic purposes, but for the purpose of enlightening a gentile audience to the person of Jesus, and in the book of Acts, the immediate results of Jesus’ life upon this group that call themselves followers of The Way and will later be known as Christians. Luke is talking about a lifestyle based upon the experience of people who knew and followed Jesus and whose lives were forever changed because of him.  

Luke begins, “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Jesus had a special place in his heart for the materially poor and they for him.  Jesus recognized that money is easily turned into a god.  In the story of the rich young man which shows up in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew 19:16–30, Mark 10:17–31, Luke 18:18–30) the young man knew and followed the teaching of Moses, and Jesus is said to have “loved him” and invited him to follow him, but with one caveat, he must be willing to sell all his riches and give the money to the poor.  The young man couldn’t bring himself to do it, and walked away.  Those who have nothing, may be looked down upon by society, but they find it easier to give everything over to God.  They are accustomed to doing without and lack the fear of deprivation that afflicts many people who are accustomed to a different life style.  Luke’s woe to those who are rich “for you have received your consolidation” addresses both the question of how one obtained their riches and what sort of priority those riches have in their lives.  Jesus says, “you cannot serve two masters”  – God and money (Matt 6:24, Luke 16:13).  One will always take priority over the other.

Matthew says, “Blessed are those who hunger after righteousness” but Luke just says, “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” In the feeding of the five thousand, and the four thousand, Jesus was addressing real physical hunger.  He comments several times that what we should seek is the “bread of life” or the “living waters,”  but our physical needs are also a concern of God.  Food shortage was a serious concern in Jesus’ day.  Most of us have never known real hunger, and here in the United States, we have seldom seen the grocery stores completely depleted.  Lately they might not have what we want but there is something there.  Food shortages in our world are normally due to lack of income to purchase food or lack of means to prepare food.  Our feeding ministries are important to assist those who have fallen on hard times for any number of reasons.

Matthew says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for you will be comforted” but Luke says “Blessed are those who weep now, for you will laugh.”  I love this image.  This is truly the world turned upside down image that Jesus so often describes.  Not that someone will put their arm around your shoulder while you weep, but that the cause of your weeping will be replaced with joy that brings laughter.  The woe here should remind us not to laugh at others.  I don’t think God has any objection to laughter or that Christians should go around with a dower look on their faces, but we should never laugh at the expense of others.  I have always hated “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and other shows that encourage us to laugh at others misfortune and pain.

Both Matthew and Luke both say “Blessed are you when people hate you… on account of the Son of Man.”  Jesus never told his followers that walking in his footsteps would be easy.  He reminded people that he was basically homeless.  “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Matt 8: 20, Luke 9:58)  Other than his forty days in the wilderness after his baptism, we have no way of knowing how often he slept under the stars, or started his day without breakfast.  It appears that for the most part he stayed with Peter in Capernaum, Lazarus and his sisters in Bethany, and in the home of others all along his journeys, but this is also what he called his disciples to do.  Stay in homes where they were welcomed,  eat what is put before you.  When we look out for the needs of one another, no one needs to suffer from want, but that does require that we be aware of the needs of each other and willing to share whatever we have.  It means that when we are offered hospitality, we should be grateful and not fussy or complain.

The woe that comes with this one is a particularly challenging one.  “Woe to you when all speak well of you.” (Luke 6:26).  I don’t think this is intended to encourage us to be difficult and disagreeable, but we need to make sure we are not putting the praise of humans above our service and duty to God.  There is a fine line between  what Paul calls being all things to all people so that by all means possible I might save some.” (1 Cor 9:19-23) and compromising your beliefs to avoid conflict or gain praise. 

The tricky part to this is deciding what is essential that one must never compromise on and what is just our preference that can easily be accommodated to make others feel welcome, safe, or prevent them from stumbling.  I can’t make those choices for you.  We can look at the lives of early Christians and see what they were willing to die for and where they considered it a matter of choice in a given circumstance.  Refusing to worship idols or deny Jesus or refusing to stop telling other people about Jesus seems to be the place where many people drew the line.  During WWII we saw people refuse to cooperate with the Nazi government in the oppression and killing of their neighbors. It is a question to ponder.  What things for you are inviolable?

There is certainly a place in our lives for the Beatitudes as Matthew describes them, focusing on the state of our soul and our spiritual lives, but I think we also must make room for the Beatitudes of Luke that remind us of the importance of our physical lives and our interactions with those around us right here right now.

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4 Epiphany 2022

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This morning we hear Paul’s beautiful chapter on love from 1 Corinthians 13.  It is lovely just by itself and I often hear it read at weddings or see it put on posters but there is a lot about the context of this passage that really helps us understand why Paul wrote this and what exactly he was trying to say.

Corinth was a thriving metropolis in what we now call Greece.  It was a port town with a diverse population.  Paul visited this area early in in travels and established a Christian community there.  It is likely that they met regularly in small groups, house churches, and then gathered regularly in the larger group for a meal and worship. 

Paul is in Ephesus, and he corresponds regularly with this congregation through letters and visitations to him by members of the congregation.  Paul is responding in this letter to a number of reports and complaints he has received concerning this congregation. 

He begins the letter by telling the congregation he is grateful for them, he says, “I give thanks to my God always for you” (1 Cor 1: 4)  and he reminds them that they have everything they need to flourish and be successful.  He tells them they are “not lacking in any spiritual gift” (1 Cor 1:7), but he is also deeply concerned for their spiritual health. 

Cliques have risen up in the congregation.  Some people are boasting about who baptized them, others seem to be bragging about certain spiritual gifts, in particular the gift of tongues. Paul appeals to them early in this letter saying, “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” (1 Cor 1:10)

Besides the divisiveness in the congregation, in Paul’s absence many have reverted to old habits and practices contrary to Christ’s teachings and Paul makes it clear that while these things are to be expected of the people outside of the church and they are not to separate themselves from the world they are seeking to evangelize, they must not engage in these behaviors themselves and must hold one another within the church accountable for their behavior.  He is hoping his fatherly admonitions will be enough to set things right.  He asks them, “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Cor 4: 21)

In the next few chapters, Paul addresses sexual immorality, church members suing one another in court, practicing the Christian life in whatever circumstances they find themselves – married, unmarried, circumcised, uncircumcised, slave or free and not fretting over what they do not have,  being aware of their actions on the weak in faith, for them it concerned eating food sacrificed to idols and celebrating certain festival days.

Paul reminds them that they have been freed from the law through Christ, but that does not give them the right to flaunt the law, to live scandalous lives or to be insensitive to others.

He states, “So, whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.  Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. (I Cor 10:31-11:1)

Paul is not talking about being wishy-washy or hypocritical.  He is saying to try to avoid offending anyone inside or outside of the church or as we would say in our baptismal covenant, “respect the dignity of every human being”.  (BCP 305)

You do not need to abandon your personal beliefs and convictions, but you should learn to disagree graciously and sometimes agree to disagree without insults and name calling, without snubbing or gossiping about others.  It sometimes means doing or not doing things that may seem inconvenient to you, but might cause your neighbor spiritual harm or unnecessary anxiety. For example, if one is aware someone they are with should avoid alcohol, then we should not put them in a place where they might be tempted or feel left out by our choice to drink in their presence. Wearing of masks is another, you may prefer not to wear a mask and choose not to in most situations, but there are places where it is the polite thing to do because of the anxiety of others. This is not easy.  It is hard to give up personal freedoms to make others feel included or less threatened.  It is hard to carefully coach our words when we feel passionate about something, but short of denying Christ or lying about our beliefs, we should try to live in harmony with one another being aware of the feelings of others and trying not to injure one another physically, mentally, or emotionally.

This is the background for this passage on love.  Paul is not just waxing poetic. This is a desperate plea from a father to his children to get along, to behave, and to love one another.

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give away all my possessions, and if I had over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Cor 13: 1-3)

The gift of speech, natural or supernatural, knowledge, wisdom, foresight, faith, generosity, voluntary poverty, ascetic practices, even martyrdom serve us no purpose if we do them for the wrong reasons.  There is an interesting series on Netflix called the Good Place.  It’s theology is not Christian, and I don’t agree with them on many things, but it makes some profound observations that I think are true.  In it two of the characters, one a social activist and the other a professor of moral philosophy, are among those who don’t go to the Good Place at the beginning of the show and the reason is their motives for what they did were selfish.  Fortunately, as Christians we don’t depend upon works righteousness for our salvation, but we should be cognizant of our own motives and seek to do things from the position of love for others than from our own selfish desires.

Paul explains what it means to really love. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoings, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Cor 13: 4-7)

Again, this is hard.  Paul says learning to love in this manner is part of our growth process. “When I was a child I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became and adult, I put an end to childish ways.” (1 Cor 13: 11) Paul even admits that he is not perfect, he doesn’t have everything figured out yet, nor does he have complete control of his behavior. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly… Now I know only in part” (1 Cor 13: 12) and he will later tell the Romans, “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15)

The blessing in all of this is that we are the recipients of Christ’s mercy and through Christ we have the strength and power to love one another, to show mercy to one another.  In fact, in the Lord’s prayer we say, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” (BCP 364)

Paul concludes stating, “Love never ends….faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor 13: 8, 13) Let us go forth in love.

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3 Epiphany 2022

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Who is Jesus of Nazareth? This is a question that comes up over and over as we study scriptures.  Those who have been participating in our Wednesday evening study of the gospel of Mark will hear Jesus ask the question “Who do you say I am?” in this week’s readings.  Those who have been participating in our Pilgrim study wrestled this past week with who is Jesus in relationship to the statement God is one found in the Shema, the Jewish statement of faith and found in the summary of the law given by Jesus in Mark where he quotes passages from Deuteronomy and Leviticus back to back. 

Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’” (NRSV Mark: 12: 29-31)

Jesus affirms the oneness of God.  He will speak of God in the third person, praying to God and calling God his father.  At the same time, in John 10: 30 he states, “The Father and I are one.” And on numerous other occasions he will use “I am” statements that drew the attention of the crowd to the sacred name of God that was given to Moses.

C.S. Lewis reminds us that Jesus cannot be just a wise man given the things he said about himself.  If you consider the number of times he claims to be one with God he either is who he says he is, he is delusional in need of a psychiatrist, or he is what the Sanhedrin claimed, a wicked blasphemer . You must choose between these statements or disregard half of what Jesus said.

Luke tells us very early in his gospel, that Jesus saw himself as the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel. 

Jesus has just been baptized, been tempted in the wilderness and has returned to Galilee, the region where he grew up.  Luke tells us “he began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.” (Luke 4:15)  In the first century, the synagogue was a place the men gathered to study the sacred writings.  At this time, the term “rabbi”  just meant teacher.  There were some very famous rabbis who ran schools at this time, but it does not become a licensed vocation until later.  

Jesus was in his hometown of Nazareth, and he is asked to read the scriptures and lead the discussion. In today’s gospel reading, he is given the scroll of Isaiah and opens it to chapter 61. 

The scroll of Isaiah begins with the writings of the prophet Isaiah himself who preached in Judah shortly before the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE into the beginning of the next century .  His oracles began by condemning the conduct of both Judah and Israel, but also promising the hope of a savior. The scroll of Isaiah contains later writings which include songs and oracles that prophesied the Babylonian captivity, the promise of restoration, the description of the suffering servant, and a description of the day when God vindicates the righteous and restores a faithful in “the new heavens and the new earth” (Isaiah 66:22).  Isaiah is not a history of the people, but a collection of poems, songs, oracles, and meditations that cover a particular period in the history of a particular people.

The section that Jesus chose to read implies that the person speaking is either the prophet or the suffering servant described earlier in the scroll.  “The spirit of the LORD GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me.” Anointing was done to prophets, priests, and kings.  In choosing this passage and then responding, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus is suggesting that he is either a prophet, priest, or king and early Christians will conclude that he is all three.

The speaker in Isaiah claims that he is anointed for a specific purpose “to bring good news to the poor. “He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Jesus is declaring himself to be the long anticipated Messiah.

Toward the end of his ministry, Peter will proclaim in Caesarea Philippi, that Jesus is the Messiah.  If he was trying to get people to understand this early in his ministry why would Jesus then tell the disciples not to tell anyone?

I think he may have had two reasons.  The first, the word Messiah automatically conjured up a vision for people of a man like King David.  There was an expectation that he would lead a great army in battle against the Roman Empire and Herod and take his rightful place on the throne of a restored Israel.  Jesus had more in mind the person Moses described as one like himself who would lead the people in a new exodus.  Jesus uses the term exodus when discussing his upcoming crucifixion with Moses and Elijah at the transfiguration.  This exodus would not be across the Jordon River but across the River Styx, the river of death.  The second reason Jesus may have not wanted them to tell everyone he was the Messiah was because he was carefully crafting his passion to occur at a specific time and in a specific way to have a specific outcome and to maximize the spiritual symbolism attached to it.  He did not want to have crowds of people trying to force him to be king, they had done that once already,  nor did he want to bring himself to the attention of Rome or Herod before the time was right.

I mentioned last week that the earliest creed of the church was “Jesus is Lord.” This is always the starting point.  If you don’t agree, you won’t care about the rest.  But among those who did make this profession,  discussion arose concerning just who Jesus was because of the impact that certain definitions of Jesus had on humans.  It was in response to these discussions that we ended up with the Apostles creed that we will say in a moment and the more fully articulated Nicene Creed we say at the Eucharist.

It was important to establish that Jesus is fully God.  If Jesus is not God, Jesus does not have the power to save us, he does not have the authority to judge us. Jesus was not, like the stories of many of the pagan demi gods, half human-half God, he was the Incarnation of the one God  by the Holy Spirit in human flesh through his mother Mary .

Jesus is fully man.  Not just vaguely man, not a god walking around in a human suit, but a specific man that was born and died at a specific time in history.  Only because he was fully human could he serve as a model of the perfect man and understand the challenges we face as human beings.  He did not skip the struggles of childhood, but grew up just like the rest of us, and died in the most horrifying way imaginable, yet he was able to forgive those who betrayed, tortured, and killed him.

Only by dying and conquering death could Jesus illustrate for us with his own life what Resurrection was. Only by facing his betrayers and offering them his Peace could he show us what true forgiveness is.  Jesus became the first born of a new creation and then beckoned us to follow him.  He is, indeed, prophet, priest, and king as he claimed by choosing Isaiah 61 and tying that prophecy to himself.

Over time and more in an effort to say what the unity of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit is not than to fully articulate who God is the church began using the terminology of the Trinity. The concept is found throughout the New Testament and Christians will argue it is there in the Old Testament and well, but the word Trinity is not used until later.

The question you must answer is the one Jesus asked the disciples. “Who do you say that I am?”

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2 Epiphany 2022

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Just a few weeks ago, Bp Jennifer was at Emmanuel and laid hands on N. and N.. As she laid hands on each of them she said “Strengthen, O Lord, your servant N. with your Holy Spirit; empower her for your service; and sustain her all the days of her life. Amen.” (BCP p.419)

Last week we heard Luke’s version of the Baptism of Jesus and we heard John the Baptist calling the people to a conversion of life and baptism.  We renewed our own baptismal vows.  We vowed to turn from and resist evil and to live the life of a disciple of Christ.

Wednesday night, those of you who attended our mid-week Bible study heard Jesus teaching the crowd and further explaining to his disciples that it is not the rituals we go through but the condition of our heart us that is most important and defines us. Our actions are the result of what we feed our hearts, souls, spirits, that part of us that influences our actions and responses to the world around us.

Today we hear the beginning of a conversation between Paul and the church in Corinth concerning spiritual gifts.  These are not four different topics or conversations.  These are points on a line that connect us with God.

First, in today’s reading Paul says that “no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says, “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. 

“Jesus is Lord” is the oldest creed of the Christian Church and I was curious who had called Jesus Lord in the gospels.  Unfortunately, this is one of those words with multiple meanings.  In the Old Testament the word adoni or Lord is used to translate YHWH the name God gave to Moses which translates roughly “I am” or “I cause to be” when Moses asked who he should tell Pharoah had sent him.  YHWH is considered too holy to be spoken. But adoni is also the polite greeting for anyone who is of a higher social status than oneself.  This practice continues in the New Testament with the Greek kurios.  Many people called Jesus “Lord” when asking him for a favor, telling him ‘thank you’, or asking a question.  Jesus even responds in both Matthew and Luke at one time asking people why they call him Lord if they do not follow God’s commands. (Matt 7:21-22, Luke 6:46).  In contrast, after Thomas saw the scars in the hands of the risen Christ, he fell down on his knees and declared “My Lord, and my God.” (John 20:28) Thomas was using Lord as spoken in the creed, “Jesus is Lord.”

Paul is addressing a congregation that is being torn apart by internal descension while at the same time is probably threatened by external forces that deny Jesus’ lordship. Some members of this congregation had established a check list of proofs to demonstrate if someone had the gift of the Holy Spirit or not.  Paul’s point is that those voices who curse Jesus cannot be following the Holy Spirit no matter what they do and those who profess with their lips that Jesus is Lord – not using the title to be polite, but who say it intending to hold allegiance to Jesus just as one would hold allegiance to a particular philosophic idea, or political party, or nation, etc.  can only do so because they have been filled with the Holy Spirit even if they don’t exhibit the remarkable gifts, such as speaking in tongues, that some people were considering “signs” that the person was filled with the Spirit.

At Baptism the priest places the sign of the cross in chrism (oil blessed by the bishop for that purpose) on the forehead of the one who has just been baptized and says,  “ N., you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever. Amen.”  All baptized Christians are gifted with the Holy Spirit, but we still have free will to follow the Spirit or to bind the Spirit within us.  At Confirmation we make that public profession faith, we are claiming “Jesus is Lord” and the bishop calls upon the Spirit that is already within you to strengthen you for God’s work.

Part of our Baptismal Covenant says Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers ? and we respond, “I will with God’s help.” (BCP p. 305)

We continue in the apostles teaching and fellowship when we gather together to read and discuss God’s word.  We do this on Sunday mornings to a certain extent, but that is pretty much a one way conversation. I do most of the talking. We do this to a greater extent when we participate in our various small groups, share our thoughts,  our doubts, our hopes, our questions, and our epiphanies . 

We participate in the breaking of the bread in two different ways.  First  when we gather in community at Eucharist or when someone takes communion to those unable to attend.  This has been more difficult during COVID.  Secondly, which again as been even more difficult during COVID, when we gather together and share food.  Several of you have been participating in the Orange County Community Luncheon or helping with the LOVE Food Pantry.  Both of these are ways we share food with the larger community.

The prayers we should be doing “without ceasing.” Luke and Paul make statements to this effect in four different books of the New Testament (Acts 12: 5, Rom. 1:9, 1 Thes. 2:13, 5:17, 2 Tim. 1:3) .  We pray Sunday mornings as a group. Thomas Cranmer intended for the community to come together for Morning and Evening Prayer every day. While that is more difficult now, we can still say the same prayers together spiritually, if apart physically when we pray the daily office. And we can pray individually in many ways.  I would encourage you to keep our diocese and parishes and diocesan/parish leaders in your regular intercessions.

Finally, we are all gifted with gifts of the Spirit, but we don’t all have the same gifts and that is a good thing.  Paul talks about the body of Christ.  Immediately following the passage we read today he states.

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” (1 Cor 12: 12-13)

He goes on to talk about the hand or the ear or the eye being different, yet equally important.  We as a congregation are a microcosm of the larger body of Christ.  We all have a role to play.  We all have different skills, gifts, and experiences that make us better at some things than at others, but we all have something to give to the whole.  It is my hope this coming year that we can help one another discover our gifts and provide opportunities for people to use them.  There is a term that comes out of the business world, synergy, which means that the sum of our output when we work together is greater than the sum of our individual accomplishments when we work in isolation.  When we come together as the body of Christ nothing is impossible.

What are your passions?  What skills have you acquired through work, hobbies, etc.?  How can you partner with others in the congregation to use your talents to the glory of God?

Your vestries will be meeting in February to discuss our mission, vision, priorities and to set some goals for us as a parish in the coming days and years.  They are your representatives, but your voice is important.  Please share your hopes and dreams with each other so together we can best utilize the gifts God has given us.

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Baptism of Jesus 2022

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Last year several of us read the Gospel of Mark straight through, start to finish, as though it was a piece of literature.  I think it was an eye opening experience for those who participated as they watched Mark sandwich particular stories together in a way that brought a deeper meaning to the individual stories than we normally experience reading them in the Lectionary setting.  I am not going to suggest the same for Luke.  It is a much longer story, but I do want to call to your attention some of the literary distinctions between Luke and the other gospels.  Each of the four Gospels tell the same story, but they highlight different events in different ways to make their specific point to their particular audience.

You may have noticed during the Christmas season that Mark and John have no nativity scene.  Mark begins his gospel with the Old Testament prophesy of the Messiah then jumps to Jesus’ baptism.  John begins before creation stressing the divinity of Jesus.  Matthew focuses on the kingship of Jesus and Jesus as the “one like Moses” that Moses prophesied.  Luke focused on the extraordinary in the midst of very ordinary people.  We had the miraculous conception of John the Baptist. We had the Hannah like Magnificat of Mary that focuses on God’s justice for the poor and oppresses.  We had a lengthy discussion of the birth of John the Baptist.  We had shepherds who where the first to hear the good news of the birth of the Messiah.   We did not read it at this time, but we had the presentation of Jesus at the temple when he is 8 days old and his visitation to the temple when he is a precocious twelve year old.  All of this extraordinary but steeped in the everyday life of Jewish peasants in first century Rome.

Luke’s approach to Jesus’ baptism is different from that of Matthew, Mark and John as well.  One might expect with the lengthy introduction of John the Baptist that Luke’s story of John baptizing Jesus might be this beautiful and deeply detailed story of the encounter between John and Jesus, but instead we get John calling religious leaders names and demanding tough ethical standards for those willing to hear them, a bit of fire and brimstone preaching and then we are told John was arrested.

Jesus baptism is mentioned with all the artistry of a newspaper filler story on the back page. 

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (Luke 3: 21-22)

But Luke’s focus from the beginning has not been as much to prove to us who Jesus is, but to show us how to live in light of the presence of Jesus.  “When all the people had been baptized, and when Jesus had also been baptized…”

Jesus did not need to be baptized because he had nothing to repent of, he had no sins to be forgiven, and he had no need to change his direction, but Jesus chose to go through the same things we all need to go through as part of being human.  We are all born.  Jesus was born; he went through infancy, childhood and even adolescence which Luke is careful to point out.  All of humanity has a need to repent and be baptized as a sign of obedience and loyalty to God over and above our natural loyalty to our own wants and desires.  Jesus, with all the people was baptized, in solidarity with humanity, even though he didn’t need it.  In Matthew, Jesus will even make his final command to his disciples:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Matthew 28:19-20)

Luke makes another interesting point.  It is not at the moment of his baptism that Jesus hears the voice of God, but shortly afterward when he is praying.  Jesus is for us an example of a constant life of prayer, and it is while in the middle of this relationship building activity God opens the heavens, sends down a dove, and declares: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.

I have been reading Thom Rainer’s book Anatomy of a Revived Church: Seven Findings of How Congregations Avoided Death  (His first book was titled Autopsy of a Deceased Church).  In this book Rainer comments that a common thread he found among churches that turned a corner and became revitalized was a meaningful life of corporate prayer, not just saying the liturgy together, but spending time praying for one another, for the mission and ministry of the parish, and for the community that surround them.  Jesus sets this example frequently going off for private prayer, other times taking his closest companions, Peter, James and John, and sometimes praying with the larger group.  He taught them how to pray using the Lord’s Prayer as an example, not intending it to be a rote mantra. 

In a few minutes we are going to renew our Baptismal Covenant.  One of the questions you will be asked is, “Will you continue in the apostles’ teachings and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?”  You will respond “I will with God’s help.”

This coming year,  I promise to present to you a variety of tools to help you strengthen your spiritual life as a disciple of Jesus Christ.  My prayer is that you will use them, ( and you may find some more helpful than others), but become familiar with a variety of tools that will help you to fulfill your role in the Great Commission as we seek as a community to go, make disciples, baptize, and teach obedience to the commands of Jesus.  These are active verbs that will require motion, not just sitting and pondering.  This will mean we will become disciples in the fulfilling of this commandment.

Let us pray,

Lord Jesus you have given us the Great Commission and promised to be with us always, give us the courage, the energy, and the motivation to take your command to heart and to go into the world, making disciples, baptizing, and teaching obedience to your commands believing that you are the Resurrection and the Life, through you and the Holy Spirit in the glory of God the Father. Amen.

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1 Christmas 2021

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I can remember my mother listening to Paul Harvey on the radio.  It was one of the few programs she listened to that seemed to catch my attention.  I think it is because I have always liked “who done it’s” and I enjoyed trying to figure out who Paul Harvey was talking about.   He would tell you an interesting story, but he always left out some key information until the very end of the story, then after the commercial break, he would fill in the missing information, often the last thing he told you was the name of the person he was talking about and then he always closed with “Now you know the rest of the story.”

Today we heard the rest of the story.  On Christmas Eve we heard the story from the Gospel of Luke about the birth of a child in a manger in Bethlehem. We know this was a very special child because an angel from God brought the Good News of his birth to shepherds who were out in the nearby fields guarding their sheep and the angel declared to them that this child was a savior, an anointed one, the Lord.  The whole sky was filled with the voices of angels praising God and singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:14)

John tells us who this child really is.  This child is the Word of God incarnate in the flesh of a human.  Have you ever thought about what words actually are?  Words are symbols through sound or markings that reveal our thoughts and emotions.  Sometimes someone will say something and we say that was “thoughtless” or they “spoke without thinking.”  What we really mean is they did not think about the consequences of their words before they spoke them.  They did not censor themselves and revealed what they were thinking when they would have been better off remaining silent. God’s Word reveal’s God’s thoughts so to see and hear Jesus is to see and hear God’s thoughts and feelings. This is why it is so important for us to study the scriptures.  It is God’s Word revealed through the history of Israel, God’s chosen people, and finally through the Word, Incarnate through Jesus Christ and continuing through the teachings of the Apostles.

John tells us that this Word of God was with God “in the beginning” and all things came into being through him.  These words draw us back to the first chapter of Genesis when we are told, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” (Gen 1:1) and day by day as God’s speaks, God’ Word brings order out of chaos: light is separated from darkness, the seas are separated from the dry land, plants and animals are created, and finally human beings are created as God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (Gen 1:26).

John tells us further, “what has come into being in him was life” (John 1:3b-4a).  Part of our story of origin, or the story that helps us define who we are, is the story of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit and being cast out of the Garden of Eden.  God had given them permission to eat fruit from all but the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, with the admonition that if they disobeyed and ate of this tree they would die, and yet they ate of the tree anyway.  Death came to human beings.  Mortality, a brevity of our days, but more so a spiritual death.  The relationship human beings had with God was broken.

“what has come into being in him was life” Jesus often referred to himself as the source of life, “I am the bread of life.” (John 6:48) the “living water” (John 4:10, 11; 7:38).  Through Jesus humanity got the eternal do-over. Through Jesus, the curse of Adam was reversed and we no longer die in the final sense of that word.  Jesus told Martha, just before he raised Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26) We hear many people today speak of the resurrection as though it was only some theological explanation of an afterlife.  The Apostle Paul was convinced of the reality of the resurrection of Christ.  In 1 Cor 15, beginning verse 20 he says, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.  For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all died in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” (1 Cor 15:20-22)

John also refers to the Word as being the “light of all people”, the “light that shines in the darkness” the “true light which enlightened everyone.”  Have you ever tried to walk where it was dark?  I can recall some unhappy incidents where I left my flashlight behind and missed steps, tripped over a root, put my foot in a hole, or on something less pleasant.   Jesus is the light that shines in the spiritual darkness and guides us so we don’t stumble in the darkness.  How do we stumble? We fall into those baser actions which are often the result of putting ourselves before others. Matthew lists “evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and slander.”  In Colossians Paul names such things as “fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, greed” and “idolatry… anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language” (Col 3: 5, 8). 

Jesus calls us to imitate him and be lights as well.  In the Sermon on the Mount he says, “You are the light of the world…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt 5: 14, 16). When we walk in the light of Christ, we can avoid the obstacles of the night. We grow and bloom and produce spiritual fruit like “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience…forgive[ness]… [and] love ”  (Col 3:12-14). We actually begin to reflect the light of Christ onto others and help them to step out of the darkness into the light.  

There is a star shining over a manger in Bethlehem, but it is overpowered by the light that shines from the manger.  There are voices filling the heavens with praise and rejoicing, but they are mute in comparison to the Word of God that rests quietly on a bed of straw.  There is a young mother who has just given birth to a new life, but the child she bore has just given birth to a new nation, the Kingdom of God and the Word of God calls you to step into the light and live.

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Christmas Eve 2021

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I don’t know about you, but for some reason it has been hard for me to get into the “Christmas Spirit” this year.  Everything has been a bit topsy-turvy with people’s plans interrupted suddenly, with long held traditions being impractical this year, and it has caused me to spend some time in reflection about what we mean by “the Christmas Spirit” and what scriptures say about this moment in time that we commemorate each year.

Is it about winter?  About snow, mittens and scarfs,  about snow people and ice skates, hot chocolate or cider steaming in a cup? The movies would certainly suggest that but,  December 25th did not become the official day of Christmas until 336 AD.  Luke tells us there were shepherds abiding in the fields which means Jesus was probably born in the spring.  Pagans celebrated the winter solstice, the longest night of the year with bonfires and feasts.  So while a white Christmas might be beautiful, it has nothing to do with the story of Jesus’ birth.

Is it about holly and ivy wreaths or evergreen trees decorated with ornaments and twinkling lights?   The use of evergreens again goes back to pagan rituals around the winter solstice.  Perhaps what caused Christians to embrace the symbols of the evergreens was the message of hope delivered through these symbols.  In parts of the world where it stays below freezing most of winter, the evergreens were reminders that it would not last forever, spring would return and with it more comfortable weather and more plentiful food.  Bethlehem where Jesus was born has a very temperate climate.  Temperatures seldom get below the high 40’s or above the low 80’s.  Figs, olives, and palms are the most common trees in the area.  The Christmas tree as we know it arrived in the United States in the mid 1800’s from German immigrants who had transformed earlier pagan symbols of hope into Christ symbols to celebrate the birth of Christ.  Beautiful, but not really about the birth of Jesus.

Is it about family gatherings?  Interestingly the story of Jesus’ birth adds a strange twist to the notion of family gatherings.  Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary left Nazareth where Mary’s family lived and traveled to Bethlehem “because he was descended from the house and family of David.”  Luke is making a point that Joseph was a member of the tribe of Judah, a rightful heir to the throne of David, and that they were fulfilling the prophecy which states that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.  Location and lineage were significant parts of the story.  Joseph most likely traveled to Bethlehem because that was his legal address.  His family lived there.  He had been in Nazareth with Mary’s family fulfilling the pre-nuptial traditions which he cuts short to take care of the Roman census issue.  When they arrive in Bethlehem, about a 3 day walk from Nazareth, a long journey for someone nine months pregnant, the upper room, the guest room, is crowded.  Mary goes into labor and because there is no room for a woman to give birth in the middle of aunts, uncles and cousins they seek the privacy of the lower area where the family animals are kept and fed. Through translation and cultural accommodation we often envision Jesus being born in someone’s barn because all the hotels were full. That is putting a European lens on the story. Mediterranean culture is all about family and Christmas is about family for those who are able to be with their families.  Christmas can be about being with families we choose when we cannot be with our biological families, but Christmas is about incarnation, about being present for the people around you, loving them and letting them love you. Sometimes all this love can be overwhelming.  Christmas is also about finding a quiet place for Jesus in your heart where you can embrace and care for that relationship.

Is Christmas about giving presents? The presents are actually about the Epiphany story and in some cultures that is still the day presents are exchanged.  Matthew tells us that a group of foreigners, magi, following a star sought out a child born King of the Jews. The Jews had been held in captivity in Babylon about five hundred years earlier.  The stories of their prophets about a messiah apparently lived on in that area after the people were released and returned to Jerusalem.  We know too, that not everyone returned.  These magi were probably traveling from the area we call Iraq in a caravan with merchants. Jerusalem was on a major trade route. Magi would consult the stars and advise merchants like reading their horoscope. Good day to travel, avoid this place, stop today, bad omens, etc. They were fascinated by this particular star and connected it to the Jewish stories. After consulting with Herod in Jerusalem, they traveled to Bethlehem. Once they found the child, who was probably a toddler at this time, they brought out of the merchandise that they were carrying, gifts they thought suitable for a king: gold, frankincense and myrrh.  From this story has come the tradition of giving gifts at Christmas, but the only person that received the gifts in the story was Jesus.  They did not give him the gifts because they liked him or because he was poor, but because they were following the protocols for visiting a king. I think sometimes we forget the “king” part of the story at Christmas.  We focus on the cute baby surrounded by cute animals and exotic shepherds and wise men.  Giving gifts is a part of the longer story of Christmas, but we must remember to whom we should be giving the gifts and why. Jesus, because he is our king, our Lord.  Then giving to others out of charity or affection is put in perspective.

Finally, I think we must remember that the greatest gift was given by God to all of humanity. The gift of presence.  Through Jesus, God showed up at our Christmas party and offered to stay and help clean up the dirty dishes afterwards. In Jesus, God is present with us, yes for the celebrations, but also for the “this is a mess”, “I’m tired”, and “I am not in the mood days.”  That is the true gift of Christmas. 

This Christmas may feel a bit strange, perhaps you are having trouble getting into the Christmas spirit, but that is ok.  Jesus is still here and that is the true “spirit of Christmas” and the only one that really matters.

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4 Advent 2021

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“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

We jump around a bit in Luke during Advent.  Last week John the Baptist was an adult standing in the Jordan river calling the people to repentance, today he is an embryo. We are back in chapter 1 and Elizabeth his mother is somewhere between 5 and 9 months pregnant with him.   Her cousin Mary, who is also pregnant with Jesus comes to pay a visit.  At the sound of Mary’s voice, John “leaps for joy” in Elizabeth’s womb. John recognized the presence of Jesus, and who he was before either of them was born.  Those of you who are mothers will remember what it is like to have your child start kicking or punching within you. Elizabeth interprets John’s sudden movement as acknowledgement of the uniqueness of Mary’s child.   Elizabeth is suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit and begins to prophesy.

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

She is acknowledging that Mary has been blessed above all woman for being offered the task of bearing the Messiah.  Elizabeth considers herself blessed also first, because she is honored that Mary would come visit her and share her incredible secret.  It appears, in Luke’s telling, that Mary makes this trip the minute she is told by the angel that she will bear the Son of God.  That angel had told her also of Elizabeth’s pregnancy and special child and she makes haste to share her secret with Elizabeth, possibly without telling either her parents or Joseph what has happened.  The other blessing Elizabeth believes she has received is the faith that God would keep his promise of rescuing God’s people.  Elizabeth sees the beginning of that process standing before her.

When Elizabeth acknowledges that she is aware of the Messiah within Mary, Mary burst into a song that echoes the song of Hannah when God blessed her with the child Samuel.  Mary’s song acknowledges the great gift she has received, but her song is not just about her.  Her song is about what Jesus will do for the people. Her song is both one of mercy and judgement.  “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” (Luke 1:50) “He has… lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things” (Luke 1: 52-53). He has kept the promises he made to their ancestor Abraham, and has expanded this promise.  But on the other hand, “he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones…and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1: 51-53)  Mary saw this child of hers as the one who would turn everything upside down, righting the wrongs, and executing the consequences of bad behavior.  God in the Old Testament was often seen as the righteous judge.  A judge that one could appeal to when one had been wronged not just someone who was going to punish you. 

As Episcopalians, we believe that the Real Presence of Christ is present in the bread and wine of Eucharist.  I am aware that we are only taking Eucharist in one kind, the bread, because of COVID.  I know some people are only participating in Spiritual Communion, but the result is the same however we partake.  We are taking Christ into us physically, in much the same way that Mary had Jesus physically within her.   If Mary burst forth in song because of Jesus’ indwelling, Elizabeth burst into prophecy just being in the near presence of the beginnings of the child that would be Jesus, and John, not yet born “leaped for joy” how should we expect to behave and to respond to one another when we each have taking Christ into ourselves at the Eucharist?

I recently listened to a podcast between Jordon Peterson a professor of psychology and Bp Barron, a Roman Catholic bishop from California.  This question came up about the Christian belief concerning the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  And as happens in theological conversations,  it headed down a bit of a rabbit hole that I found fascinating and profoundly relevant.  If you look in the scriptures, it is before the altar that humans often sin.  Cain kills Abel because he is jealous that God accepted Abel’s offering and not his.  Peterson suggested that Cain was punishing God, killing that which God loved.  I began to reflect back on the scriptures and one of the first places the children of Israel sinned was by building and worshiping the golden calf.  They lost patience with God who took too long in sending Moses back to them and they punished God by giving their devotion to something else.  In the New Testament, in Acts, we read that the first place Christian charity breaks down is at the table.  People became greedy, they ate more than their share before everyone arrived, they drank to the point of drunkenness, and they discriminated against the Greek speakers.  First deacons had to be established to keep order and then the meal itself was reduced to a symbolic meal.  Over and over again, God has offered himself to his most beloved creatures and we have profaned it in our response.  Another point that came up in this podcast that I was listening to concerned God’s response to our bad behavior. Bishop Barron commented that God came taking on our flesh in all its brokenness to walk among us.  We responded by killing God, crucifying Jesus on the cross. And God’s response was heard as Jesus said “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing ” while hanging on the cross and then after the resurrection, he said “Peace” to those that had betrayed him.  Bp Barron commented that when Paul says he believes that nothing can separate us from the love of God he is speaking logically, seeing that we as humanity did our worst, tortured and crucified Jesus, God incarnate, an innocent victim of our hate, and God continued to love us.

In a few minutes we will come together at the altar to receive the physical presence of Christ into ourselves in much the same way that Mary received the seed of God into her womb.  We have a choice in how we respond to this gift. We can rejoice filled with the Holy Spirit like Mary, Elizabeth and John acknowledging that our salvation is at hand and God is present bringing about the kingdom of heaven through us and in the midst of us.  Or, we can respond like so many others in the past.  In jealousy and anger at the blessings of others,  with impatience and disloyalty, with greed and selfishness killing the Christ within us and refusing to see the Christ in each other.  The choice is ours.

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3 Advent 2021

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“Sing aloud…rejoice and exult” (Zephaniah 3: 14-15). “Surely it is God who saves us.” (Isaiah 12:2). “Rejoice in the Lord always.” (Philippians 4:4) “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3:7)  What?

This morning’s readings sound a bit like one of those SAT questions, “Which of the following does not belong?”  How can John the Baptist’s proclamation be the good news that Luke claims it is?

First, we must understand the role of the prophets and the setting of these statements.

Prophets served two purposes. In times of perceived peace and prosperity, prophets spoke to a community calling them to introspection and truthfulness about their own spiritual health? The times might look peaceful, but it was a peace purchased by compromising their values. It was a peace that involved looking the other way at the evils of the people they called on to protect them, like Egypt and Assyria. It meant pointing out the ways they were taking advantage of others through dishonest business dealings. Through stinginess. It meant pointing out hypocrisy in their worship practices and the ways they dishonored God. It meant predicting the future based on theses observations and warning the people that if they did not change their ways, bad things like war and exile would be the result of their behaviors. For the record, they did not listen and they did experience near annihilation.

In times of disaster, prophets were called upon to remind the people of God’s love and faithfulness.  Prophets were to speak a word of hope and remind the people that they could recover if they would return to following God’s commandments.  If they put away false gods and returned to pure worship.  If they trusted in God instead of foreign rulers to protect them.  If they treated one another with respect and dignity, practicing equity, generosity, and looking out for one another then things would be put right again and they would experience true peace and prosperity.

John the Baptist is a bit unique in that he combines these messages in the same oracle. First century Israel was on the one hand experiencing the Pax Romano. The Jews were in their homeland, but they were under domination of Rome who both took away their freedom and protected them from outside enemies.  The temple in Jerusalem was at its most magnificent since the time if was destroyed by Babylon. The Jewish religion was tolerated by Rome as long as the people paid their taxes and didn’t cause trouble.  But there was great political division among the Jews. The Sadducees put their trust in the temple and the liturgy.  The Pharisees put their trust in the observation of even the most minuscule of the laws, but were guilty of criticizing those who did not have the time or money to follow all their rules and for finding loop holes that allowed them to appear to follow the letter of the law without having to keep the intent of the law. The Essenes turned their back on the community. They declared it all corrupt and lived by their own interpretation of the law in the desert. The Herodians embraced the Greco/Roman lifestyle and trusted Herod’s relationship with Rome to protect them.  There was also a large population of people who struggled just to survive.

As John begins announcing “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  He is announcing both judgement against those who have abused their positions of power and hope for those who are struggling to survive.  The kingdom of God that will begin to break into this world will reverse the power structure and begin the process of righting wrongs and healing the broken.

The hard part about this passage is we must do the introspective work to determine first if we will be among those who call out “What then should we do?” and with sincerity seek to change the direction of our lives, amend those behaviors that are contrary to God’s will, and embrace the kingdom of heaven or  if we are one of those how are merely spectators seeking to find fault with John’s message.

Where do we start if we want to get on the Lord’s path?

Two of my small groups have been studying the Lord’s prayer for the last few weeks. It truly says it all if we mean what we say, and we will say it together as part of our eucharistic prayers.

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name.”  Do you have a parent child relationship with God? Do you seek God in times of both trouble and joy?

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  Do you consciously seek to do God’s will? Last week I asked what would change if we knew God was going to visit our church.  What would change if God was not just here, but was directing our decisions?  This is what we claim we want when we say this prayer. What would earth look like if God’s will was done as in heaven?

Give us this day our daily bread.”  Do you trust God to provide for you, for this parish in the future?  Do you trust enough to live in the present and thank God that we have everything that we need today?  Are you willing to eat the spiritual bread in Christ provided to you today?  Not just the wafer at communion, but the change of heart that comes when we allow Christ into our very being.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Living in community is hard.  We are all going to either intentionally or unintentionally hurt one another, Jesus reminds us we will do it over and over – if we must forgive seventy times seven, that means we can expect to be injured seventy time seven. Are we willing to move beyond our self-indignation and seek to live in peace and unity?

Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” In the first century and in other places even today, being a Christian often means risking your very life. For us today, I think it often involves risking relationships, risking our pride and feeling of self-worth. Many Christians prayed to have the strength to endure torture and the fear of death. One of the temptations they feared was the temptation to self-preservation at the cost of loyalty to Christ. It was an honest fear, the twelve disciples failed. Jesus prayed that this cup might pass from him, though he did not falter when it did not.  Perhaps we should pray to for the strength to overcome the fear of loneliness or embarrassment when we are called to do something different from our peers. I suspect the evil we should be asking to be delivered from is not evil done to us, but the evil we are capable of doing to others.

“For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.”  Finally we are called to recognize that God is everything worth having. Only in God are our communities holy places. Only when God is our source of power do we act in a holy way, therefore, only to God do we give glory.

Rejoice in the Lord always.” Paul is correct. John’s prophetic voice is a word of hope. It is good news. It is not too late to change our path. God has not abandoned us, but dwells here with us. We do not need to think about what would happen if God showed up. We need to give thanks that God, though Jesus, already has and live accordingly. The third Sunday of Advent is a day of joy.

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2 Advent 2021

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I have a little book called “The Bishop is Coming!” (Paul V. Marshall).  It contains among other things check lists of all those things you need to know to have the bishop’s visit go smoothly, for everyone to look and feel like they know what they are doing, and to make the visit special and meaningful for everyone involved. We announce the visitation in advance to encourage people to attend and we make a special effort to have things looking their best.

Now imagine it is not a bishop that is coming to visit, but God. How would we behave if we expected God to show up in person for our church service?

The prophet Malachi is telling his audience that is exactly what is about to happen. They have anxiously been awaiting the Messiah and Malachi tells them that they will have plenty of time to prepare for God’s visit because God is going to send someone to publicly announce that he is coming so everyone in the temple (or in our case church) will know that he is about to show up. But Malachi questions whether they really want what they are asking for. He asks, “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

Isaiah had prophesied that before God, “every knee will bow” (Isaiah 45:23) and later Paul will tell us that before Jesus “every knee will bow” (Rom 14:11 , Phil 2:10) and Matthew comments that the Roman soldiers, mockingly “bowed the knee” before him (Matt 27:29) just prior to his crucifixion. Our natural reaction to the presence of God, and for Christians to Christ, God incarnate, should be that of a knight before his Lord, on bended knee out of respect and in a symbol of loyalty and trust. Some people genuflect before the altar or the reserved sacrament which harkens back to this reminder.

Malachi continues by describing the Messiah as being like a refiners fire or a fuller’s soap.  Back in the 1960’s AJAX laundry detergent had commercials with a knight in shining armor riding though an oil field and zapping the clothing of the workers, removing all the greasy stains that were so hard to remove. Fuller’s soap was the AJAX detergent of the ancient world. The refiners fire was the process of heating raw ore to extract the pure gold, silver or other precious metals. Malachi is telling the people that when the Messiah comes their spirits will get a good cleaning. Have you ever tried to interrupt a child’s play to give them a much-needed bath? When my granddaughter was about 4, she got a fake tattoo at a birthday party. For days she made me wash around her prize. Malachi is reminding the people that they will get a bath whether they want it or not. What favorite sins would we rather not have washed away?

The last paragraph of the prophesy of Malachi states, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the lord. ” (Mal 4:5)

Skipping to our New Testament we introduce John the Baptizer. Luke begins his gospel story with the angel visiting a priest named Zechariah. Much like Abraham and Sarah, Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were childless and beyond the age of hoping for a child any longer.  Zechariah is going about doing his normal priestly duties when an angel appears to him and announces that his wife Elizabeth will have a son. They are to name him John and he is to be a Nazirite from birth, that is a person consecrated to God’s service and part of this vow included abstaining from drinking alcohol and cutting their hair. He was to be filled with the Holy Spirit before his birth. (Keep in mind this is before Pentecost, so the Spirit is only rarely gifted at this time.) The angel then quotes the prophesy from Malachi, “With the power and spirit of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17).

Like Sarah before him Zechariah questions the truthfulness of the angel’s statement. But Gabriel is a little less patient with Zechariah than the three visitors were with Sarah. Zechariah is struck deaf and mute for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.  It is not until the child is named and Zechariah, much to the consternation of his family, is obedient and writes out the name of the child on a tablet, JOHN more exactly יוֹחָנָן. At that moment his tongue is released, and he burst forth in the song we read as our Canticle today. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them…” and speaking to the child proclaims, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” (Luke 1:68, 76-77)

Fast forward thirty years. Luke begins by setting his story in the middle of history. This is no fairy tale. We are in the 15th year of the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius which put this in the year 29 AD. Tiberius reigned from 17 to 37 AD. Luke names Pontius Pilate as governor of Judea who ruled from about 26 to about 37 AD. He names Herod (Antipas) as the tetrarch of Galilee (and Perea), rulings from 4 – 39AD. He mentions Herod’s brother Philip. He names Annas, the first high priest of Judah under Rome beginning in 6 AD and the high priest Caiaphas, whom we know little of except that he oversaw the trial of Jesus and died in 36 AD in Crete.  

Luke tells us that at this time John “went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  Now this is a significant area. The headwaters of the Jordan is on Mt Hebron at the border between Syria and Lebanon.  It flows south, filling the Sea of Galilee which is beautiful and clear, it continues south past Samaria and Jericho just east of Jerusalem and then dumps into the Dead Sea which describes it perfectly. Salty, smelly and good only for mining minerals.

John is doing just what the prophet Malachi said. He is functioning as a prophet calling the people to repentance. Luke also draws from Isaiah when he identifies John as “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord!”

Our lesson ends there. It is one of those “to be continued” texts. But I want to draw your attention back the question that Malachi asks, and that John is announcing. 

If you were told that God was going to show up in our church would you do anything different than you do now?

Jesus say, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”

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Advent 1 2021

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What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from. (T.S. Eliot Little Gidding sec. V)

And so is Advent.

Advent is a new beginning, a new liturgical year, a new gospel to explore, the anticipation of the birth of a child, the anticipation of the birth of a new age, a new kingdom with images of spring buds.

It also closes out our calendar year. It competes the circle of our story cycle beginning in Luke where we ended in Mark two weeks ago. It anticipates the end of the current age in chaos and destruction, but it also looks toward the new heaven and new earth born out of this struggle.

And so we begin our reading of Luke with the end in mind in the middle of Holy Week.

Jesus is in Jerusalem. We are past his triumphal entry on Palm Sunday and the cleansing of the temple.  Jesus is now teaching in the temple and he had just foretold its destruction.

At this point, Jesus’ timeline begins to warp. He is talking about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD one minute, then about his second coming which we are still awaiting at the next. It is easy to get bogged down in trying to sort these two out and to try to pin Jesus’ second coming down to our own timeline, but this is missing the point. In Matthew’s version of this story Jesus ends it saying, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heave, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Matthew 24:36)

Jesus’ primary message in today’s reading is one of hope.

We are living in difficult times. More difficult than most of us can remember. Those of you in your eighties may remember World War II, but only a few people still remember the Great Depression. I can remember the Vietnam War, the Cold War and the race riots of the 1960’s, but I can’t say they caused me personal fear or deprivation. Crawling under my desk during air raid drills was a diversion from the rigors of study more than anything else. The economic downturns of the 1980’s was inconvenient, but not devastating for my family.

Today’s children live in a world of contradiction. Better health care than ever before and the threat of COVID 19, face masks, social distancing, and bouncing back and forth between in person or remote schooling. According to NAMI, 21% of adults in the US suffer from some form of mental illness. HRSA reported about the “Loneliness epidemic.” We have access to a greater variety of goods and services than ever before and you don’t even have to leave the comfort of your home to shop, you just don’t know if they will ever arrive, and inflation is the highest it has been in 30 years according to the NYT. The average home has more conveniences that ever before, yet homelessness in the United States has been rising for the last 5 years and there is a huge shortage of entry level housing. Add to that rising political and social unrest, a soaring rise in violent crimes and unemployment and I think we need a little hope at the moment. As the character Mame would say “We need a little Christmas.”

Jesus describes chaos and disruption on a cosmic level. The sun, the moon, the stars, the earth and the seas will be shaken.  “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the earth.” (Luke” 2`:26).  Then Jesus says, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:28) Things may be falling apart, but we are called to hope and to walk without fear.

Jesus reminds us of the cycle of the seasons.  Fig trees, like many of our deciduous trees here lose their leaves in the winter and are nothing but bare sticks sticking up out of the ground. In the winter you can’t tell a dead tree from a live tree, but in the spring, a living tree will put forth buds that will turn into leaves and flowers and eventually fruit in summer or fall. Human lives are like the fig tree in the cycles of the seasons. We have periods of growth, and periods where everything seems to go dormant, periods where things are fruitful, and periods where our leaves fall off.

Unlike the seasons, God’s Word is changeless. It is outside the boundaries of time and space. It survives all the chaos and confusion of our world.

The stability of God and God’s love for us is hope in the middle of chaos. The knowledge that God is ultimately in control and that Jesus has already defeated sin and death is hope for us when we feel out of control. The promise that Jesus will return and call us back to him is hope in the most desperate of times.

But Jesus gave a warning alongside the message of hope. We are called to stay alert. We are not to allow life’s hardships to draw us into inappropriate behaviors and we are called to pray for strength to withstand the trials and tribulations we encounter. The Gospel of Matthew follows this warning with the parable of the Ten Virgins. Five stayed alert and kept their lamps in good order, and five were lazy and tried to borrow oil from the other five when it came time to follow the bridegroom into the wedding feast. In their laxness they had let their lights go out. As they ran to buy more oil, the gates closed, and they were not allowed in.

I know it is popular right now to believe that everyone gets into the kingdom of heaven, no matter what, but that is not what the scriptures say. None of us can earn our way into heaven, but we are called to be prepared and to be faithful. The scriptures call Christians to live in this world as though they were citizens of another. We are called to be citizens of God’s kingdom and we are to honor Jesus as King of that kingdom looking to him for guidance and obeying his commands.

How did the earliest Christians respond to this call to stay alert? They were obedient. Jesus told them to wait for the Holy Spirit which they did and received at Pentecost. They were told to be witnesses, to tell the stories about Jesus “to the ends of the earth.”  Which they did. They were told to make disciples of the nations and to baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Which they did. They baptized those who ‘welcomed’ their message. They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers, as we promise to do in our baptismal covenant. They showed goodwill to one another, shared with one another, and they used the power that God gave them to heal and support one another. Advent is about beginnings and endings. Advent is a time to put closure to those things we need to leave behind in 2021 and to begin those practices we want to carry into 2022. Advent is a time for introspection and expectation. Traditionally, we have discouraged “Christmas” decorations at this time, but through the years I have begun looking at Advent in the same was a mother expects her newborn. She does not wait until after the baby’s arrival to decorate the nursery or have a baby shower. I would only encourage you to not let the preparation be more important and celebratory than the event itself. May you have a meaningful Advent.

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25 Pentecost 2021

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There are things in life that we take for granted as a given, until they are no more.  I can still vividly recall the final scene in the first Planet of the Apes movie when Charleston Heston is riding down the beach and finds the half-buried Statue of Liberty and realizes that he is home, but home has changed forever.  Later, I and probably many of you watched on television as the twin towers of the World Trade center were destroyed by hijacked airplanes full of travelers who never anticipated that day would change life forever for so many people. This was not a movie, this was reality.

Jesus is standing in front of the Temple with his disciples and they are looking in awe at its magnificence.  The original temple had been built almost a thousand years ago by Solomon.  They would have heard stories of its destruction, but it had been rebuilt under Ezra and Nehemiah  some five hundred years ago and then brought back to its former glory under Herod the Great.  It was the ultimate symbol of their identity and it seemed eternal as they marveled at its grandeur.

Jesus is well aware of the fleetingness of the works of humans.  Knowing his own death is now only days away, he tries to prepare his disciples for changes that would be coming that they cannot fathom at this time.  Just forty years from now, the temple would be gone, forever.  It would be destroyed by the Romans in the first Jewish-Roman war in 70 AD. Prior to this war, Nero would blame Christians for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD and use it as an excuse for severe persecutions.  Everything was changing and Jesus wanted his disciples to be aware.  He did not want them to be lead astray.  He talks about wars, earthquakes, and famines and describes them as the birth pangs of the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus assures the disciples that “the Son of Man” will come in clouds “with power and glory” (Mark 13: 26) but he does not set up a time table for when that will happen.  Instead, he tells them to “keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come.” (Mark 13:33)

We have over the centuries watched kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall. Every generation has had its people who just know Jesus will come back in their lifetime. Yet we have failed to stay alert and we have failed to learn history’s lesson for us. We have grown comfortable in our routines and we think we have life figured out.

Writing in the 5th century BC the Greek philosopher Heraclitus stated, “The only constant in life is change.” Yet, change is the one thing congregations struggle with the most.  The phrase clergy have heard the most is, “that is not the way we have always done it.”

I have no doubt that God will work his purpose in spite of our refusals to let go of our habits, our security blankets that keep us frozen in a time that is passing us by. God’s purpose will move forward with or without us, but how much better for us if we stay alert, if we grow and transform in accordance with God’s purpose as the world around us becomes more difficult to navigate.

I don’t have to tell you that our communities have changed drastically in the last fifty years and that change has impacted our congregations across denominations, across geographic regions, across economic groups. COVID has escalated that change.  We see congregations shrink, age and some of them close their doors.  But we don’t have to stand by and let that happen.   What we must now do is re-imagine what it means to be a parish in the 21st Century.  Over and over, I am hearing the call to return to the apostolic church.  Bp Curry mentioned it in his sermon to the House of Bishops the other day.   But what does that look like and how do we get there.

Tod Bolsinger, in his book Canoeing the Mountains, describes the church today as being in much the same position as Lewis and Clark were when they came upon the Rocky Mountains.  They were boatmen who were prepared to paddle across North America and anticipated the second half of the journey to be mostly riding the river down to the ocean.  Instead, they hit the Rocky Mountains which they were told they would need to cross, but which had had little meaning for them when they started their trip.  Their experience of mountains was like the Blue Ridge we have here. They had to leave their canoes behind and become mountain climbers with no maps to guide them and a totally different skill set than what they now needed.

That is where we are now as a church.  We have hit the Rocky Mountains and we must figure out how to get over them to reach our goal, our destination. All the things we thought we knew about being the church must be re-evaluated.  We must keep what is essential.  We don’t want to leave behind those things which will keep us fed and warm and safe.  We don’t want to leave anyone behind.  We need to determine the best way to help everyone cross the mountains together.

Looking forward is essential when everything changes.  Looking back to what used to be can be helpful to remind us of how far we have already gone, of reminding ourselves of the challenges we have already overcome, but it will not help us overcome the challenges ahead of us.  For that we must look at the mountains in front of us and figure out the best way to cross them which means, not in the canoe we planned to use.

Trust is essential when everything changes.  When churches were large and everyone was expected to go to some church on Sunday morning,  it was easy to move from church to church without any significant commitment.  We could be assured that church as we knew it would always be there with or without us  and would still be there whenever we decided to show up.  But as we approach this more difficult season in the life of the church, we are like a team of mountain climbers.  Every person needs to contribute with the skills that they have and we must learn to rely on each other.  Things have become much more complicated and the pastor cannot do it all and do a good job. 

As we begin to close out 2021 and look to 2022, we as a parish, need leaders, lay volunteers as well as paid staff who are willing to put forth the time and effort necessary to analyze the present, visualize the future, and problem solve to help us get from point A to point B.  If we sit down at the base of the mountain and long for yesterday, we will run out of resources where we sit.  We need leaders willing to tackle the mountain ahead of us and I would love to hear from some of you that you are up to the adventure.

The apostolic church was forward looking.  It was based on community, trust, and involvement of everyone to the best of their ability.  It meant looking out for one another and engaging the broader community.  It meant traveling light, Jesus told those he sent out to leave their stuff at home.  It meant helping one another, showing hospitality, and going the extra mile.  It meant being willing to take up a cross – for them it could be a life-or-death decision. For us it means giving of our time and treasures, being willing to give up some of our comforts to gain the kingdom of heaven.

I am not going to pretend that the road ahead is easy, but what an opportunity for adventure.  Are you ready?

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All Saints 2021

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“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.”

Paul is writing to the church in Ephesus, but oh that we evoked a similar response from any who should chose to remember us.

We are doing two things today in our liturgy.  We are honoring and giving thanks for those who have come before us in the faith.  Others, who by the example and often times sacrifices of their lives have made it possible for us to stand here today and hear the Good New concerning Jesus Christ.  The other thing we will be doing is renewing our commitment to Christ and his ministry, particularly through this congregation and our mutual ministry.

I recently listened to one of the Great Courses called Jesus and the Gospels.  The lecturer was Luke Timothy Johnson, a New Testament scholar and early church historian at Emory University. In this course, which I would commend to you, Johnson compares and contrasts the image we get of Jesus in the four canonical gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke-Acts, and John with other apocryphal gospels, especially those written in the first and second century, in other words, ancient writings about Jesus that did not make it into the Bible as we know it today. You may have heard of some of them, like the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Mary that have had some recent popularity.  He made several observations, but a few in particular stuck out for me. Beyond just being the four oldest known gospels written, these four, over and above all the others emphasized the humanity of Christ and the community of his disciples grounded in their Jewish roots. Why do we care about these things, and why in particular today when we are focused on the saints and our own personal commitment to Christ?

The story of Jesus’ saving of humanity is deeply rooted in a promise and a commitment that God made with Abraham, with Jacob aka Israel, and with David.  We cannot understand what Jesus was doing on the cross and at his Resurrection if we do not know what God was doing with and through Israel since he called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans and promised him a land, a family, and that his family would bless the entire world.  How do we know this?  Generation after generation told their children the story of what God had done in the past, what God was doing in the present, and what they believed God would do in the future.  These are our earliest saints, not just persons canonized by the church, but the people who preserved the story of God’s mercy and God’s judgement for each consecutive generation.

I am sure there were times when it was difficult to tell the stories because it was difficult or painful to see where God was working in the present.  When the children of Israel first crossed the Jordan River, Joshua gave them a choice. They had just spent 40 years wandering the wilderness because they had refused to obey God. They could now choose to follow the God of their forefathers or they could choose to serve other gods, the gods of Egypt that their parents had served or the Baals of Canaan where they had just arrived, but one could not serve both.  They chose, at that time, to serve the God who had spoken to Moses in a burning bush and had guided Abraham and the patriarchs before him.  Community and a devotion to God sustained them.  What, I would ask, sustains us?

After the fall of Jerusalem and during the Babylonian exile it was hard to share the stories of God’s mercy and judgement.   In Psalm 137 the psalmist says

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, *when we remembered you, O Zion.

As for our harps, we hung them up *on the trees in the midst of that land.

For those who led us away captive asked us for a song, and our oppressors called for mirth: * “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”

How shall we sing the Lord’s song * upon an alien soil?

Yet they did not lose faith, they did not forget or fail to sing the songs of Zion.  How do we know? We have them today, the Psalms.

Are we failing to sing the songs of our faith?  Are we allowing them to become lost and forgotten?  One of my favorite memories of my grandmother is listening to her sing old hymns while she washed the dishes.  Most of us now load the dishwasher while the TV is playing.  What are our children losing was we let go of the daily proclamation of the gospel through word and song?

For the earliest Christians, it must have been difficult to sing and tell the stories of both the Old Testament and God’s keeping of his promise in the coming of Jesus when the name of Jesus could cost you your life, and yet, we have an amazing abundance of literature concerning Jesus that was written before Constantine legalized Christianity.

I mentioned the four canonical gospels put more emphasis on the humanity of Christ than the apocryphal gospels that were written during this time frame.  Why is that important? The tendency today for those who wrestle with the Christian doctrines is to want to make Jesus a wise and nice person, period. What we find in these ancient apocryphal texts is a denial of Christ’s humanity in favor of a more spiritualized Jesus.  His divinity was not an issue. His humanity was, because the physical world was seen as corrupt therefore Jesus could not have been really human since he was divine. What this resulted in was groups and individuals who isolated themselves from the rest of humanity seeking an interior and personal Jesus that did not require them to live out their faith in community. The 4 canonical gospels do just the opposite.  They call us to live out the good news in the messiness of community.  This is especially so in Luke’s version of the beatitudes that we read today.  Luke does not spiritualize poverty, hunger, pain, or hate.  He has Jesus embrace and transform these very human experiences.

Today what we seem to have is the opposite theological conclusion of the apocryphal texts with a similar result.  Many have humanized Jesus to the point that he has become our favorite analyst, talk show host, or BFF. He has been removed from the Trinity making God, the Father, distant and ethereal.  In doing so, we have eliminated the need for Christian community as we have privatized our relationship with a very human Jesus separate from his heavenly and divine Father. The results have not been a growth of Christian community and a spread of the gospel as we are commanded by Christ, but isolation, loneliness, and emptiness.

We need both – we need the human and divine Jesus, we need a personal relationship with Jesus lived out in a community that worships the Trinity because it is only in community with other humans and in relationship with God that we are fully human, the creatures God created us to be.

How will our children know these truths? Only if we continue to share the story of the Good News of what God has been doing down through the centuries and especially through Jesus in our communities. Only if we remember we are part of a long line of the saints of God and we tell their stories and our own as part of God’s continuing saga.  Only if we continue to meet in community as part of God’s people will we still have a story to tell.

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23 Pentecost 2021

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Have you ever thought about how confusing we must sound to the rest of the world when we say “God is love”, “Love God.” Love your neighbor.” Without any further explanation?

I googled songs with the word love in the title and here a just a few of the top hits: “Stupid Love” (Lady Gaga); “All You Need is Love” – (Beatles); “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (Elvis); “I Love Me” (Demi Lovato); “Love Lies” (Khalid); “Kill this Love” (Blackpink); “Addicted to Love” (Robert Palmer) “Love Child” (Diana Ross & the Supremes); “Love Shack” (B-52’s) and there were a lot of other strange references to “LOVE.” So what do we as Christians mean when we talk about love.

Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commandments.”   This morning we hear that the two greatest commandments involve loving God and loving our neighbor.  A very circular formula, but what does it all mean? Clearly modern culture sees love as something very different from what Jesus is speaking about and often does not see it as positive.

We heard this morning in our Gospel reading, Jesus’ response to the question“ Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Jesus is quoting from the Torah (the first five books of our Old Testament) when he makes this statement.

His first statement is from Deut. 6:4.  “Hear, O Israel” – Hear in Hebrew implies not only taking the sound into your ear, but obedience to what you have heard. “ The Lord is our God. The Lord alone.” This Is the NRSV translation from the Hebrew in Deut. “The Lord, our God, the Lord is one” is the NRSV translation from the Greek in Mark.   The Hebrew encompasses both of these meanings. There is only one God and we are called into relationship with God.

Monotheism is a given for a great many people today who accept that there is a god, but that was not the case in Moses’ time.  Every town, every tribe had a pantheon of gods they worshiped.  Moses is clarifying for the people that for them there is only one God, this is the God of Abraham, the God the gave his name to Moses in a burning bush, the God that delivered them from Egypt and kept them safe in the wilderness, the God that was bringing them to a new land across the Jordon.    This was their God and this God is a unity into God’s self.  Christians still adhere to this belief, but we describe this unity as revealed in Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The Nicene Creed begins “ We believe in one God” and then describes this triune God.

Deut 6:5 continues : You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”  The Hebrew word for love tends to be almost as variable as the English, so what is Moses saying?

Moses continues first with the reminder that one should “Recite them [God’s commandments] to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.”  Loving God must in some way mean keeping the relationship between you and God as the most important thing in your life.  It is important enough that you should teach them to your children always, at home or away from home.  It is not confined to when at church.  It should be your last thought at night, when you lie down, and your first thought in the morning, when you rise. The Jews devised traditions to help them remember. 

Moses then gives warnings to fear God, to serve God, to make oaths only in the name of this God (Jesus will later say, don’t make any oaths at all) and most importantly “do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are around you.”  It one point in time I would have said actual idolatry is not an issue for us here in the United States.  The idols of which we must be aware of are things like power, money, and physical desires, this hasn’t changed, but more and more the practices of eastern religions and indigenous religions, including worship of other gods, is creeping back into practice.  I am including indigenous Europeans in this.  Druids have made a great comeback in Great Britain. In Scandinavia, the national governments now recognize multiple pagan cults as religious groups. In Germany, neo-pagans are reviving a pantheon of pre-Christian Germanic gods. I have run into some individuals who consider themselves Christian, yet participate in pagan rituals. We cannot assume we live in a monotheistic culture, but part of loving God means turning away from all other gods and being faithful by constantly nurturing our relationship with the one and only God.

The second thing Jesus said was “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus is quoting this time from Leviticus 19:18.  “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  This passage was originally interpreted with neighbor being your kinfolk, your tribe, perhaps even your nation, but there were commandments even in the Torah about how to treat foreigners.  Exodus 22:21 states “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

Jesus goes even further:  He tells the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).  He describes a man who has been attacked by robbers and left for dead.  He describes two “holy men,” a priest and a Levite,  who cross to the other side of the road when they see the man lying there.  They may have thought they had good reason to avoid him.  If he was dead and they touched him, they would not be able to perform their duties in the temple until they had completed the appropriate cleansing rituals, but Jesus puts the welfare of a person ahead of the rites of the temple.  He describes a third person, a Samaritan, who would have been an outsider, an alien – different race, different denomination, not liked and not trusted because of who he was.  This man stopped, performed first aid, put him on his donkey – which meant he now had to walk,  took him to an inn, paid for his immediate care and offered to cover any additional expenses.  This person did not worry about who he was helping, only that the man needed help.  This person did not worry about the cost to himself, but only that the man was cared for.  When Jesus asked the crowd who was the “neighbor” the response was “The one who showed mercy.”  He said, “Go and do likewise.”  Loving our neighbor means first recognizing that our neighbor extends beyond our immediate family or community or denomination.  Our neighbor includes anyone who needs our assistance that we are able to help.  None of us can save the whole world, but we can all to a little bit.

There is a story (first printed in 1969 by Loren Eiseley) of a young boy who was walking down the beaching picking up starfish that had washed ashore and was throwing them back into the water.  An old man observed him and asked him why he was doing this.  It was impossible for him to save every starfish that washed up on the beach, but the young boy, reached down and picked up another one, and tossing it in the water commented that he was aware of that, but that “at least I made a difference for that one.” Note: Don’t try this at home.  It can injure the starfish.

I think LOVE as described in the Bible is about making a difference through building relationships and doing what we can to make a positive difference in the lives of others.  It is not a “feeling.”  It is a commitment.  It is an act of the will whether we feel like doing it or not.  I think we will find however, that the feelings of joy and peace will follow our acts of LOVE.

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22 Pentecost 2021

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As some of you know, I began physical therapy on my shoulder last week.  I had high hopes of some new and exciting “cure” and instead was issued a series of old and boring exercises to do twice a day. I should not have been surprised, my music teachers still make me practice scales.  It reminded me of the old Karate Kid movie from the 1980’s.  I’m reaching back a bit, but hopefully many of you still remember it.

In one of the early scenes Mr. Miyagi agrees to take on Daniel as karate student, but instead of giving him lessons on punching and kicking, he leaves Daniel a list of chores and goes fishing. Daniel is obedient, but angry, feeling like he is wasting his time, until Mr. Miyagi demonstrates for him that his apparently meaningless chores have built strength and muscle memory in his arms that prepares him to defend himself from attack.

Spiritual growth follows a similar path.  We must become disciplined in practicing those things that are foundational.  Those things found in our Baptismal Covenant. We must “continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers… We must resist evil, and whenever [we] fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord…. We must proclaim by word and example the Good New of God in Christ… We must seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as [ourself].. and we must strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”  These are our spiritual exercises.  These are the scales and chords which allow us to create the music of the soul.  These are the daily exercises which allow us to navigate this crazy world defensively in a state of peace and serenity.

One of our exercises is reading the entire Bible including difficult books like the letter to the Hebrews and seeing how it fits in with the other writings in scripture. Our lectionary and daily office help us with that discipline.

We have been reading from Hebrews for several weeks.  In the previous six chapters of Hebrews the framework was built to underscore the importance of the  statement made in today’s reading about the permanent priesthood of Jesus compared to the transitory priesthood of all those who come before him. This is the apex of this letter.

In Chapter 3 the author emphasizes that it is even more important to follow Jesus’ commandments than it was to follow Moses’ commandments because the stakes are higher. When Moses, under the aid and direction of God, delivered the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt, his goal was to take them across the Jordon River to a land promised to them by God where they would no longer be slaves, but would enjoy a Sabbath’s rest, much as God did after the creation of the world. 

Much of Moses’ instructions to the Hebrews may have seemed like meaningless chores to the people but God through Moses was attempting to train them to defend themselves both physically and spiritually from the dangers and temptations of both the wilderness and the Promised Land. 

Self-discipline was required to get through the wilderness then and it is required to get through the wilderness now. Bible Study, prayer, attending worship services, acts of charity, and other things we are called to do as Christians do two things: 1) they build our spiritual muscles in the same way a workout in the gym builds our physical muscles; 2) they open our eyes to see ourselves as we really are, desperately in need of God.

In our gospel story, Jesus heals a blind man.  This was a physical healing, but it was included to make us aware that there are other types of blindness.  Those who refused to recognize Jesus were spiritually blind, in need of healing, but refusing to ask for help.

A couple of weeks ago you heard,  

“Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

The word of God primarily refers here to scripture, the way in which God communicates to us through the written word, but the “Word” of God has a much larger and fuller meaning that can’t be ignored here either.  The word of God was the creative force of God that called the world into being at the beginning of time. The word of God was the Torah both written and oral that informed the Hebrew people how to live in every aspect of their lives.  The word of God was the oracles of the prophets believed to set in motion prophecies they proclaimed, both destruction of the wicked and restoration for the repentant. The word of God is incarnate in the person of Jesus the Christ.  

And before him/it no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

Whether we are speaking of the written word of God that convicts our heart when we read and study the scriptures or the Incarnate Word of God in Jesus Christ that convicts our heart when we pray and meditate on his teaching, the Word of God reveals our inner most self.

In the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve became aware of their disobedience, their first response was a desire to cloth themselves, they felt naked and vulnerable when confronted with their sin.  Before the word of God, our hearts are naked.  We may carefully hide our thoughts and desires from our neighbors, but before God, nothing is hidden.

In Psalm 139 David proclaims,

O Lord, you have searched me and known me. 
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
   you discern my thoughts from far away. 
You search out my path and my lying down,
   and are acquainted with all my ways. 
Even before a word is on my tongue,
   O Lord, you know it completely…

This is a beautiful Psalm and I would encourage you to read all of it.  But David knew that even as king, he was naked before God who formed in him his mother’s womb and was with him when he took his last breath.

And Job who dared to confront God ended by saying

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,

but now my eye sees you;

therefore I despise myself,

and repent in dust and ashes.’ (Job 42: 5-6)

God’s greatness exceeds our ability to articulate, but the author of Hebrews does not leave us in the dust and ashes.  He reminds us,

Since… we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. (Heb 4:14-15).

The job of the high priest was to make intercessions for the people to God, but through Jesus, the incarnate word of God, we have direct access to God. Job faced the God who created the heavens and earth, but we a blessed to have a savior who knows what it is to be human.  Jesus experienced the same trials and tribulations, the same temptations we experience but without giving in to those temptations or falling away from God.  Jesus understands all that we are going through, yet has the strength to help us overcome our brokenness.

Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:16).

We no longer need to feel naked before God.  We need only to call upon Christ to access the mercy and grace of God. 

Toward the end of the Karate Kid, there was a fight in the parking lot.  A terribly misguided teacher was abusing a student for coming in second place.  Mr. Miyagi calmly walks up and says, “Let him go!” It recalled for me Moses telling Pharoah, “Let my people go!”  The other teacher attempted to take out his anger and frustration on Mr. Miyagi but only ended up bloodying his own hands by hitting a car window, not once, but twice.  Mr. Miyagi then judged him by his own words, “no mercy.”  Jesus tells us “Do not judge, so that you might not be judged.” But even though he was in a position to execute that judgement, Mr. Miyagi let the man off with nothing more than a humiliating tweak of the nose. 

Our God is both powerful and merciful.  We are called to live disciplined lives following the commandments of Jesus.  This is not because God wants us to work hard and have boring lives, this is because God wants us to be spiritually strong. When Daniel questioned Mr. Miyagi why he let the bully go his response was that living without mercy in one’s heart was the greater punishment.  Jesus’ summed up the law and the prophets by saying  

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

The author of Hebrews told us it was even more important to follow the commandments of Jesus than it was for the Hebrews to follow the commands of Moses.  Jesus’ commands may sound simple in comparison to the laws of Moses, but in reality, they require discipline, discernment, humility, and perseverance. 

Be disciplined in your spiritual workouts and fill your hearts with love but when you fall, as we all do, know that you serve a merciful God and have Jesus to serve as our great High Priest.

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21 Pentecost 2021

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“…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant…” – Jesus (Mark 10:43)

Wikipedia will tell you that Robert K. Greenleaf is the founder of the servant leadership philosophy, probably because he wrote the pamphlet “The Servant as Leader” in 1970 which caused an awakening in the business world.  In that pamphlet, Greenleaf attributes his epiphany to a story by the German poet Hermann Hesse, but I don’t think either Wikipedia or Greenleaf have looked back far enough.  In 2003, Ken Blanchard, the American business management guru wrote The Servant Leader, with Phil Hodges. Blanchard, who is very open about his Christian affiliation begins by quoting Jesus, which is where I believe we must start.

In Jesus’ world most of life was top-down management.  The government was top down from Caesar, religion was top down from the high priest, family was top down from the patriarch, the oldest male member of the family, finance was built on patronage, politics by primogeniture. 

One of Jesus’ goals during his walk with us on earth was to put in motion the upending of that system because it was a system which more times than not lead to tyranny by those at the top toward those at the bottom.

The notion of servant leadership actually pre-dates Jesus, but Jesus is the fulfillment of that prophesy.  Isaiah, very contrary to most notions of the Messiah, speaks for God when he states in chapter 42, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, My chosen, in whom my soul delights.  I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; … (Isaiah 42 1:-3) and he goes on for several more verses.

Luke describes how Jesus claimed that role when he read in the synagogue from Isaiah 61, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me he has sent me to bring good news poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free”… (Luke 14: 18, quoting Isaiah 61:1)

I found a list of Ten Principles of Servant Leadership : Listening, Empathy, Healing, Awareness, Persuasion, Conceptualization, Foresight, Stewardship, Commitment to the Growth of People, and Building Community. (Chris Huff published the list on his website, but they are derived from Greenleaf’s writings). I think we can find all of these characteristics in Jesus and many in the apostles, but I would like to look at some specific examples in scripture and see how they might apply to us.

I would name the first as “willingness to respond.”  Mary responded to the angel who called her to be the mother of Jesus.  Jesus responded and was willing to take on human flesh.  The apostles responded when Jesus said follow me.  Scripture notes a few that responded reluctantly like Moses who complained he did not speak well and Jeremiah who complained he was young, but both eventually took up the task to which they were called.  Scripture also records a few who walked away like the rich young man we read about last week.  God offers us many opportunities to be servant leaders, but first we must be willing to commit to that life.

Along the same lines as “willingness to respond” is “humility”.  When we are called to some perform a task, we will not respond positively if we think that task is beneath us. I have made it a practice not to ask anyone to do something I am unwilling to do.  We may not have the skills, and we may need to ask for help, but we shouldn’t just push it off on someone else. You never know the impact it may have on someone else.  Brother Lawrence was a poor monk who had the worst job in the monastery. His job was to wash the dishes, but he did it with such love and devotion to Christ that people have talked about it for over a thousand years.   Jesus washed his disciples feet on his last night with them, a job considered only for the lowest of servants, because he wanted them to go a do likewise.

Jesus walked among the people and met them where they were.  He often delegated tasks, but he did it as a teaching tool.  Show them how, supervise them doing it, send them out to do it themselves such as when he sent the 70 out to heal and cast out demons in the neighboring villages.

When Jesus met the woman at the well and the woman caught in adultery, Jesus did not approach them with the authority due his role as a male in his society or as a defender of the law as a religious leader.  He gently persuaded them that he had something better to offer them than what they had experienced in the past and with the woman caught in adultery, he gently persuaded the others that they were not in a position to accuse others.

One can be a servant without being a leader or a leader without being a servant.  Christians are called to servant leadership. We are leaders because we claim to know where we are going, to have a goal in mind.  In the list above with might call this conceptualization and foresight. We might not have all the details worked out, but we have a vision, a trajectory, a path and we believe enough in that vision to ask others to follow us.  We are servants because we are also realistic about sacrifices may be required along the way. We willingly accept that there will be times we have to put the needs of others ahead of our own to accomplish our ultimate goal.

When Jesus said “Follow me” a great number of people did just that.  He never pretended the way would be easy.  In fact, he knew it would lead to a cross for himself, and sacrificial living for those who followed him, but he instilled such a trust in people that they followed him anyway and have been doing so for two thousand years.

Moving back to the list,  I don’t think Jesus demonstrated what today passes as good listening practices, in that he did not restate what others said or ask clarifying questions very often.  Instead he listened even deeper.  He listened to the very hearts and souls of individuals and ascertained not only their words, but their motives.  He then responded, sometimes before they even spoke.  Most of us are not that skilled, but true listening will help make us aware of other’s feelings, strengths, and weaknesses.  It will allow us to show proper empathy.

Even in the best of circumstances, we all misjudge situations, speak without all the facts, react without taking time to think about the consequences.  Being willing to ask for forgiveness and being willing to reconcile with those who have injured us shows the heart of a servant leader.  When Peter betrayed Jesus and the other disciples abandoned him, Jesus could easily have written them off as not worth his trouble, but Jesus came to them after his resurrection and offered them his “peace.”  He initiated a conversation with Peter, saying, “Peter, do you love me” giving Peter the opportunity to be healed emotionally and drawn back into community with Jesus and the others.

We are each called to be servant leaders.  We can choose to be servants, always doing the will of someone else.  We can choose to be tyrannical leaders, using our power and authority to force others to do what we desire, or we can choose to be servant leaders, leading others by example out of kindness and patience. I would encourage you to become familiar with Jesus’ leadership style as you develop your own.

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20 Pentecost 2021

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My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

These poignant words from the Psalmist, later spoke by Jesus on the cross and even what John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul” are affirmation of relationship.  

We don’t miss people of whom we have no knowledge, and the more someone’s life is intertwined in ours, the more we miss them when they are not within eyesight, or earshot, or the grasp of an embrace.

Job declares, “Oh, that I knew where I might find him” (Job 23:3).  Life has become pretty miserable for Job.  He lost family, possessions, and even his health.  He lives in a society that believes in cause and effect to the point that they believe it something bad happens to you, you did something to deserve it.  Job is convinced that if he could only have a conversation with God, he would be able to plead his case and prove that he is innocent.  Job’s cry, longing for a God whose presence he does not currently feel, is also an acknowledgement of a past relationship.  Job believes that God is a righteous judge and is convinced that God will redeem him in the end. 

The story of Job leaves us with as many questions as it does answers but Job never stops believing in God and God never abandons Job.  Their relationship is what one might call complicated, but I think sometimes we forget that the name given to God’s chosen people was Israel.   After Jacob wrestles with an unknown person in the desert, he is re-named Israel, “God perseveres.” We are told that it is because he, Jacob, wrestled with both men and God and he persevered, but the name he is given is Israel, “God perseveres.”

There are many moments, as a parent, that you wish you could hold on tightly to your child and keep them from harm, but if you did they would never grow: when as a toddler they take their first steps, when they learn to ride a bike or drive a car, when they begin to form adult relationships, and the list goes on, but you have not abandoned them, you have just given them some space to become who they were created to be.  So too with us,  sometimes God gives us space to grow and to fall down, to crash and burn, to have our hearts broken, and to get up and learn from out mistakes and try again.

Our Psalmist, too, is in a crisis.  Very probably he is deathly ill and feels like people are hovering over him like vultures over road kill, rather than offering comfort, they are fighting over who will get his stuff when he dies.  Despite his feelings of abandonment, he takes comfort in remembering the relationship God has had both with him as an individual and with Israel, his forebearers. 

For us, as Christians, we see this poem as prophesying the crucifixion of Jesus.  Jesus even begins reciting it as he hangs on the cross.  What we don’t hear in this reading is the ending.  “To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust and I shall live for him.  Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to be people yet unborn, saying that he has done it. “ (Psalm 22: 29-30)  What begins in a cry of abandonment and dying, ends in hope and faith and life.

While our Old Testament lessons begin with cries of abandonment, our Gospel reading is a call to abandonment. It is a call to abandon all that stands in the way of our following Christ.

Back in the first chapter of Mark, Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James and John while they were at work.  They were fishing or mending their nets, very necessary things for people who make their living from the sea.  They were probably following the path of their parents and grandparents, and possibly many generations of their ancestors.  Jesus called them to “come fish for people”  and they dropped what they were doing and followed him.  Now another young man has stopped Jesus and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Up to this point he has done all that the law required.  He has learned and followed the ten commandments and we are told that Jesus looked upon him and loved him.  Jesus saw potential in this young man, but he also saw something that was holding him back.  The young man “had many possessions” which took first place in his heart.  Jesus tells him to sell them, and to follow him.  Jesus offered the man a choice, follow me or continue on the path that you have been traveling.  The young man wanted both, but when forced to choose, he abandoned Jesus rather than abandon his stuff.

Jesus recognized how hard it is for those who have material wealth to let go to make room for spiritual wealth.  He said it is “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10: 25) Much discussion through the ages has been had of this statement.  Some have said that camel is a misinterpretation and that is should have been a thick rope, others have imagined a narrow passage in the Jerusalem wall which was so small a camel must unload its burdens and get down on its knees to pass through (this is a beautiful image, but there is no evidence to support its existance).  But however you interpret it, Jesus is talking about how earthly possessions begin to own us rather than we own them.  They can easily become our gods.  We put our faith and trust in financial security, social status, comfortable homes, etc. rather than trust God enough to put God first.

Peter observed that he and the other twelve disciples had walked away.  They did not necessarily sell everything they owned.  We know that Jesus stayed at Peter’s house at least once, and possibly often.  We know the four fishermen go out in their boats and continue to fish while they are following Jesus, because Jesus walks on the water past them in their boat on one occasion and calms a storm while he is in the boat with them on another, but they put Jesus first and everything else second.

Jesus tells them that they will not do without in this lifetime.  God will provide for them all those things they gave up, but Jesus also tells them they will be persecuted.  This will not be simply trading in old stuff for new stuff.  This will be a journey that will have its share of hardships.  But for those who persevere, they will inherit eternal life.

We are all in different places in our walk and we will be in a variety of places throughout our lifetimes.  If you are feeling abandoned and wondering where God is in all this madness, you are not alone, and God has not abandoned you.  I pray that you can find comfort in the scriptures as you remember all the times others felt abandoned only to know that God was right there all the time, just giving them space to grow.

If you feel that God is calling you, but you are wrestling with the cost of that call, remember that God promises to care for you, but does not promise that the way will be easy.  In fact, he promises a cross, but also resurrection.

For many others, you may feel like the twelve with Christ in your midst, but with so many questions still.  Remember that the joy of any relationship is getting to know the other person and still finding you can be surprised, even after many years.  

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19 Pentecost 2021

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Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Some subjects have been controversial, and yet unavoidable since the beginning of time. 

What I would like to do this morning is put this text in context and also compare it with some other biblical passages concerning marriage and finally speak about what it means for marriage to be a sacramental act.

Jesus and his disciples have been slowly making their way toward Jerusalem, where Jesus knows he will be crucified.  I keep repeating this statement every week, but I think it must have been constantly on Jesus’ mind by this time as he tries to explain it to the disciples who are apparently oblivious.  We must not be too hard on them.  We live after the fact.  They are like people who on a beautiful sunny day are told where they are standing will soon be devastated by a terrible storm.  Until you live through it, it is hard to comprehend.

The significance of what Jesus is telling them is that all their expectations are incorrect.  They expected him to be a glorious warrior who would overthrow Rome and re-instate Jewish control of the region.  They wanted to be his top advisors who sat in seats of honor and would be respected by everyone in the community.  He knows that his moment of victory will begin in what looks like defeat, public humiliation and crucifixion between two criminals.  His ultimate victory will not be in defeating the Roman army, but in reversing what we call “The Fall”.  Sin, death, and all the evil that accompany those two actions will begin to be reversed when he is resurrected.

The Pharisee’s are trying to force Jesus to align himself with one political party or another.  How one interpreted the laws concerning divorce was a litmus test question which identified you with one or other of the various parties or sub-parties of the time. 

Jesus sidesteps all their political games.  First he asks them to answer their own question. They say, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”  Jesus acknowledges that this is correct, but comments that it was an accommodation made because of the human’s “hardness of heart.”  One should never enter marriage with the idea that divorce is always a way out if you change your mind.  Sometimes it is the best of the possible bad solutions, but it is never the ideal.

Jesus demonstrates this by going back to what God intended in the marriage relationship at the time of humanity’s innocence and before humanity’s rebellion and rejection of God’s will.

Augustine described the Trinity as the Lover, the Beloved, and the Love between them – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Genesis says we are created in the image of God.  Part of that image is the need for relationships. I know people who prefer the company of their animals over the company of humans, but Genesis says that God determined that the animals were not sufficient to meet man’s need for relationship and so he created woman from one of his ribs to be his helper.  While this story is mythological rather than scientific, the theological point is that couples somehow complete by complementing one another and that this relationship is natural.  It should be  holy and is God ordained. It is intended for mutual support.

After the Fall, everything, including that relationship gets distorted. The distortion is the consequence of sin, not what God initially intended.  Jesus is restoring, much slower than most of us would like, the world to the way it was in the Garden of Eden before the fall, including the marital relationship and we are called to be part of that restoration.

When Jesus gets back home, his disciples question him further.  They had expected something along the lines of “only if she has been unfaithful” to “as long as you give her a letter of divorce it is ok.”  Instead Jesus tells them “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”  In Mark it is pretty cut and dry.

Matthew softens it a bit by making the exception for unchastity on the part of the spouse – but the disciples in Matthew comment that if that is the case, one is better off never marrying and Jesus begins talking about celibacy. Earlier in Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus comments that to lust after someone is the same as having committed adultery, and adds that to marry someone who is divorced is to commit adultery.

So how do we put this in perspective and offer a pastoral word for those who have already been divorced, or who are currently in destructive relationships?  

First we must remember who Jesus was speaking with.  Those who initially asked the question considered themselves righteous because they followed a complicated system of laws and rituals.  Jesus says you missed the point.  He points to the Garden of Eden and to children and says you must come to God in simplicity and in the relationship of a child to a parent.  God desires what is best for us and that is holy relationships.

Second, I think we must look at the story in John of the woman caught in adultery.  Those who wanted to stone her were within their rights according to the laws of Moses, but Jesus turned the tables on them.  I don’t know what he wrote in the dirt.  Perhaps it was the Ten Commandments.  Perhaps he wrote names and places that reminded her accusers of their own guilt, but he did not attack the woman, physically or verbally.  He did not tell her she was going to hell.  He did not ask her to justify her behavior.  He skillfully caused her accusers to withdraw and then asked her who was left to accuser her.  When she said “No one, sir.” His response was “Neither do I condemn you.  Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

We cannot always undo the consequences of poor decisions we have made in the past, but we have the assurance of God’s mercy, through Christ, and we have a new day every morning  to try to live more fully in to the kingdom of God.

Christian marriage is a sacramental act.  In it we embrace the icon of relationship – God’s love for his chosen people and Christ’s love of the church.  We declare to our intended spouse to keep that a pure and holy relationship.  We as a congregation promise to uphold the couple in that relationship.  It is not something to be entered into lightly.  That is why the Episcopal church requires you have an ongoing relationship with a parish, that you prepare by going through pre-marital counseling with your priest, if this is not your first marriage, you declare to the bishop that you are not abandoning your previous family to take on another and that you have seriously considered what when wrong the first time, to avoid repeating your mistakes.

All our lives are held in tension between acknowledging on one hand that we are broken and sinful, unable to do what we should on our own strength, often failing and having to ask for a do-over and on the other hand embracing the strength to live into the kingdom of God though the mercy of Christ, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the supporting arms of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Those of you who are married, I pray that God may strengthen your relationship and draw you closer to one another through your mutual love of Christ.  Those of you who have chosen to remain single to dedicate your time and energy to serving others, know that God honors that, as he did with Jesus, and Paul, and a great many of the saints.  Those who hope to marry sometime in the future.  I would encourage you to be intentional in your choice of a spouse, keeping God and the church as a pillar to help stabilize your relationship and keep it holy.

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18 Pentecost 2021

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This morning’s gospel reading may seem to you to be a bizarre and disconnected collection of sayings by Jesus and you wouldn’t be totally wrong.  I suspect Jesus did not say them randomly back-to-back as they are listed here, but Mark has chosen them to make a point and I hope we can tease this out of these verses this morning.

Earlier in this same chapter we have Peter, James and John witness the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain top.  Peter has suggested they set up camp and stay awhile, and God the Father tells Peter, James, and John “This is my Son, the beloved, listen to him!” (Mark 9:7) Listening was not their best skill. As they come down from the mountain, the other nine disciples have been trying to heal a boy “with a demon”.  The demon in this case sounds a lot like epilepsy, but whatever the cause, the disciples are unsuccessful in curing the boy.  Jesus steps in, and as the father of the boy describes what has been going on he begs, “if you are able to do anything, please have pity on us and help us.” (Mark 9:22) Jesus, sounding a bit offended, repeats the man’s statement, “If you are able!” and reminds him that “all things can be done for the one who believes.” (Mark 9:23) The man confesses his belief while at the same time asking Jesus to help his unbelief.  Jesus promptly heals the boy to the amazement of all, especially the 9 who had been trying unsuccessfully to heal the boy in Jesus’ absence. “Why could we not cast it out?” they ask. (Mark 9: 28) Jesus tells them “This kind can come out only through prayer.” (Mark 9: 29)

Right after this story, Mark states that Jesus, who we know is making his way toward Jerusalem where he will be betrayed, denied, tortured and crucified is trying to explain to his disciples what is about to happen to him, but they just don’t get it . Then he catches them arguing about which one of them is the greatest. Jesus gives them a lesson in humility and servant leadership using a child as his illustration.

Mark (believed to be a disciple of Peter) is never particularly flattering of the disciples and chapter 9 is no exception.  Next Mark has John saying to Jesus, “ Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he was not following us.” 

The disciples have caught an outsider accomplishing what they had just been unsuccessful at doing, and they are offended because this outsider is doing good in Jesus’ name. John is now telling Jesus expecting to be complimented and instead Jesus chastises him.  “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” (Mark 9: 39).  The person John has witnessed using Jesus’ name may have seen Jesus’ name as nothing more than a powerful incantation, but Jesus is about to have a great many people speak ill of him.  Someone who has been calling on Jesus’ name and seen the power it carries is not likely to be accusing him of blasphemy. In fact, Jesus tells them,  people who are kind to you because you belong to me will be rewarded.

We are called to be kind to one another, to ease the burdens of one another, simply because we are God’s children, members of a heavenly family. We are not to do it to be rewarded, but the consequence of acting with compassion brings its own rewards.

Mark now turns this situation around and Jesus uses rather shocking language to get his point across.  “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me,” in other words, if your actions cause someone who is faithfully following Christ to be diverted off of that path. Jesus says rather graphically, you would be better off dead. “It would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”  (Mark 9: 42). He gives you a good visual to make his point. This goes all the way back to the story of Cane and Abel in Genesis chapter 4 when the Cane, having just committed fratricide asks God, “am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4: 9).  God’s response is basically, ‘YES’. 

How do we lead others off the path?  By involving them in our own sins, encouraging them in destructive behavior, and by causing people to doubt.

Jesus again illustrates rather graphically how important it is, not only that we do not lead others astray, but that we stay on the straight and narrow path ourselves.  I don’t think that he was advocating self-mutilation, but was stating that physical disability is nothing compared to spiritual corruption.  In Jesus’ life-time and before, physical disabilities separated one from their community and made them “other”.  There were limitations on their ability to participate in religious rituals as well as the difficulties of caring for themselves. Many of the people who followed Jesus suffered from physical disability as witnessed by the many healing stories about Jesus.

Jesus gives an equally graphic description of the fate of those who do not heed his warning.  He warns them that they will go to Gehenna.  We translate that into English as hell, which brings about visions of Dante’s Inferno, but Gehenna was a real place with a wretched history.

Shortly before the Babylonian siege, destruction, and deportation of Jerusalem and its inhabitants the prophet Jeremiah makes this statement at the command of God at the entry of Topheth – the place of fire, aka “the valley of the son of Hinnom” or lamentations aka Gehenna. 

“O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem.  This says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel:  I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of every who hears of it will tingle.  Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have know, and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind; therefore the days are surely coming, says the Lord when this place shall no more be call Topheth or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter… (Jer. 19: 3-6) and Jeremiah continues his dire and graphic warnings for several more verses.

Jesus is describing a place cursed by God because of  the idolatry and murder committed there.  The fire that burns there is the memory of the fires of sacrifice which later became trash fires at dumping ground for sewage, diseased animals, and disreputable human beings denied a proper burial, a place where worms, probably magots, are always present.  The place is still much the same to this day.

Human sacrifices stopped in Topheth/Gehenna long before Jesus, but idolatry and murder, and in some since sacrificing our children to the false idols of money, fame, and power still occur. 

Jesus next statement is a reminder that we are all sinners and we all need to rid ourselves of those things that separate us from being who God created us to be. Jesus says, “For everyone will be salted with fire.”  Mark has taken the references to fire in the previous statement and linked it to this different use of fire in this statement.  This is the refiner’s fire.  When precious metals are extracted from ore, they are put to the flame, the pure metal metaling off and the baser elements being eliminated. This is the fire that God uses. 

Paul tells us “that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” (Romans 5: 3-4) James, the brother of Jesus tells us “whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance, and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.” (James 1: 2-4)

Finally, Mark takes this “salting with fire” and transitions into the image of us as salt, that which preserves food and gives it flavor, served as a medicine, and was even used as money in ancient times.   Jesus says, “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace in the world.” ( Mark 9: 50) When salt is pure, it serves its purpose well, but when salt is diluted or contaminated with other substances it losses its saltiness.  When we dilute the holiness of our lives, filling it with meaningless and unnecessary things, we are at risk of losing our effectiveness in being salt to the world.

I think Mark is reminding us of our interconnectedness with the rest of the world.  We do not have the market on Jesus cornered, others, perhaps who seem different from us, may still do good deeds in Jesus’ name and we are to encourage not condemn them.  We are to encourage others on the path, being careful not to fall away ourselves, or to lead others away.  We are to remember that God will use our trials and tribulations to strengthen our character and in doing so, we become salt for the world, but in all things, we must remain humble remembering we are called to servant leadership not power and glory on the worlds terms.  

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17 Pentecost 2012

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When my boys were young, we had boxes of superheroes and super villains, all sorted by story line: He-man, GI Joe, Star Wars, and Dick Tracy.  Even though there were a dozen characters in each box, there were sure to be arguments, especially if there were more than two children playing.  With 2, one could have all the good guys and one all the bad guys, but with three, someone got neither the most powerful superhero nor the most powerful super villain.  Nothing has changed in the last two thousand years.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is addressing power struggles.  To begin with, he is trying to explain to his closest companions that he is about the turn the current world power struggle up-side down.  The world, at least the part of it known to the disciples, is under the influence of the Roman Empire.  This is not all bad.  Under the Romans, roads and great water systems were built.   If you were a Roman citizen, obeyed Roman law, and did not get too heavily involved in Roman politics, you lived a comfortable and safe life. But the price was very heavy against those who disturbed the peace.

For the Jews living in Palestine, this could be good or bad news.  The current ruler, Herod Antipas, was quite happy living as a puppet to the Roman Emperor.  For many of the religious leaders, Rome was not such a bad despot.  Rome was tolerant of the Jews rather odd religious practices provided they behaved like good Roman citizens: paid their taxes, didn’t cause any trouble, etc.  But other Jews believed that only when Israel was an independent nation with full political as well as religious control of Palestine would they be living the promise of God to Abraham, Jacob, and David. Their vision of the Messiah is one that will make that happen.

Jesus has tried many times to explain to the disciples that before he rules, he will die on a Roman cross, but they just don’t get it.  When Jesus goes before Pilate, Jesus tells him you think you are in control, but you are not, God is.  (John 19:11)  Crucifixion was a way of demonstrating complete control over an individual.  You couldn’t even kill yourself when the pain became more than you could bear because your hands and feet were nailed to a cross.  Your family and friends could come and stare at you but could not give you any comfort because you were beyond their ability to help you.  Yet Jesus claimed by the power of God, he was going to take this demonstration of Roman power and prove it to be powerless.  By allowing himself to be crucified, Jesus was able to demonstrate that he was more powerful than death, and the Roman Empire.

Somehow the lesson does not sink in because the minute Jesus’ back is turned, the disciples go back to playing superheroes. “I’ve got super powerful web shooters and I can climb tall buildings.”  “Well, I’ve got this really neat power saber and I can cut off your powerful web shooters.”  “Jesus is going to pick me to be Secretary of State.”  “Well he’s going to pick me to be Vice President.”  It’s almost like an episode of Big Bang Theory, intelligent grown men acting like little boys.  When Jesus asks them what they have been talking about, they are silent.  They probably realize how ridicules they sound, but they have no clue what they are asking for.  In Matthew’s version of this story, the mother of James and John is even involved, asking that her boys might sit at Jesus’ right and left when he comes into his glory, visualizing a three seated throne room.  Jesus visualizes three crosses on a hill and tells her she does not know what she is asking. (Matt. 20:20-23)

Jesus then presents to the disciples two illustrations of what it means to be first in his kingdom.  “If you would be first, you must be last, you must be diakonos.” (Mark 9:35) This term diakonos indicted one who executed the commands of another, in particular, a king.  Jesus is that king, and his command is that we love God and our neighbor, not just in theory, but by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison, and caring for the sick.  Diakonos was also used of those who waited on tables.  Servants whose job it was to wait tables did not eat until everyone else had had their fill. It is the term from which we get the order of deacon. The first deacons made sure everyone at the table got fed.  In either case, you were serving another and putting aside your own needs until the needs of others had been met.

Then Jesus picks up a little child and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9: 37) This was before Disney, McDonalds, and Mattel altered the power structure and put children at the top of the power pyramid, at least in terms of advertising and marketing dollars.  In Jesus’ day a child had no status.  They had no rights and were not capable of caring for themselves. They were dependent upon others for their existence.

I was at a baptism once and heard the bishop make an odd statement but one that seemed so appropriate to this text.  He commented that one of the blessings of children is that they are so inconvenient.  Now blessings and inconvenient are not words that are typically used together.  But his point was that children draw us out of our selfishness by virtue of their neediness.   Infants and toddlers require adult assistance for their most basic of needs.  All children need adults to teach them, to take them places, to pay for things.  I raised two generations of children, that was 40 consecutive years, and I can tell you for a fact, you cannot be completely selfish and live with a child.  They will force you to put someone else’s needs ahead of your own and in that sense, they are good for the soul.

As a parish, it is important that we have children in our midst.  Without children there is no future, and where there is no future there is no hope.  But just having them in the building is not enough; we must not be content to treat the children as though they were not quite human.  Jesus reminds us that children give us the opportunity to function as God intended, as servants one to another.  When the Israelites first entered the promised land, Moses tells the people, “You must love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, all your soul and all your might… and you shall teach these commandments diligently to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, when you are walking down the road, when you lie down at night and when you get up in the morning. “(Deut. 6:5-7)

My prayer for this parish is that we can live together as servants, one to another, putting the needs of the those who are least able to help themselves at the top of our to do list, and trusting God to see that our own needs will be met. I also want us to have a vision and a plan for something that does not exist today but is so important.  We need a plan to engage the children and youth in our families and in our neighborhood.  This includes a plan that attends to their safety and honors what they bring.  It means preparing before they come.  If this is a vision you also have, please come talk to me so we can make it happen.

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16 Pentecost 2021

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“No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” (John Donne, Devotion XVII)

We have lost the sense of community that once existed.  About the same time that John Donne was writing these words in England, René Descartes’ was writing in France, “I must finally conclude that the proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind.”[i] Which has conveniently been shorted to, “I think, therefore I am.” This was not a new idea, Aristotle put forth a similar idea in his Nicomachean Ethics. But somehow, during the Enlightenment, we reasoned ourselves out of community and into “every man for himself.” Now we have begun to think and to speak about “self actualization,” “my career path”, even “my personal relationship with Christ.” The prophets spoke of “the children of Israel” and Jesus spoke of “the kingdom of heaven.”  Our vision of Jesus affects our relationship with others and our relationship with others, affects our vision of Jesus.

In today’s gospel, Jesus takes the disciples on the equivalent of a vestry retreat.  They are going to the beautiful headwaters of the Jordan in Caesarea Philipi, away from the crowds that have been following them, for a chance to evaluate their ministry so far.  The first question Jesus puts to the disciples is “Who do people say that I am?”  Everyone had a place in society.  Remember the opening song in Fiddler on the Roof, it lists all the various people in their community and the expectations of them, based on their position.  Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” and he gets answers like Elijah, John the Baptist, or one of the prophets.  Now this is major progress. If you recall the people of Nazareth reminded him he was the son of a carpenter, Mary’s son, of person of little use.  Many people now view Jesus as a prophet, someone gifted with a special relationship with God and appointed as God’s spokesperson.

What about those who have been traveling with Jesus?  How do those who have shared meals with him, those to whom he gave the power and authority to do all the wonderful things he has been doing, understand Jesus?  Peter speaks up, “You are the Messiah.” Bingo, right?  Not in Mark’s telling of the story.  Jesus immediately tells them not to tell anyone.  Messiah is a loaded word. Messiah means the anointed one.  Peter is saying that Jesus is the rightful heir to the throne of Israel, a throne which is currently occupied by the hated half-blood Hasmonian, Herod Antipas, puppet of the Roman Caesar.  The people had been looking for a hero, a person who would defeat the Romans, restore the line of David to the throne, and re-establish Israel as a world power.  Jesus knows what images this word carries with it and he tries to educate his disciples on the reality of the title.  Jesus is their prophet, priest and king, but not in the way Peter and others have imagined.

There has been much discussion and disagreement over the years about what Jesus meant when he says, “the Son of Man must suffer many things.” There is general agreement among Christians that in Jesus’ willingness to be obedient even unto death, which was fulfilled by his crucifixion on a Roman cross with the co-operation of his own people, and his subsequent resurrection three days later, Christ defeated death and opened the door for our future resurrection despite our sins.  The hows and whys God chose this particular method to redeem man is part of the mirror we see through darkly.  We struggle to understand why the Almighty and Everlasting God would be willing to take on mortal flesh and blood, and through the person of Jesus, allow himself to be tortured for our benefit. None of these theologies are perfect because in our limited way we must use the images available to us, the relationship between two human beings: the image of an unworthy slave being ransomed or purchased with Christ’s blood, the image of Christ’s blood as having some mystical power over evil and death, the image of Christ standing in or being a substitute for us in a legal sense to uphold justice, the image of God willingly participating in the fullness of the human experience, even at its most wretched state, to redeem even the most wretched.  Jesus often alludes to the necessity to fulfill the scriptures, without giving any explanation as to why the scriptures indicate that the Messiah must suffer and die.  I struggle with the idea that a merciful God would require the blood of a human to satisfy some debt of justice, or that there is a greater magic that even God must obey. I think perhaps, in some way, God understood that the only way we could understand how much God loved us was to come down and show us, and to show us that not even death was as great and powerful as God’s love.  We human beings required Christ’s death before we could comprehend God’s love and God was willing to pay the price.

There is also a practical aspect to Jesus’ statement regarding his death. Perhaps, knowing the radicalness of his message, and the condition of the human heart, the inevitable outcome would be that he would be arrested and charged with treason and/or blasphemy, convicted, and killed.   Many had already tried to have him arrested.  Jesus’ parable about the tenants in the vineyard who kill the owner’s son allude to this knowledge.   

The Good News is that God is not going to require us to take a theology exam. Faith does not require perfect understanding, but a willingness to follow.

Peter was having trouble hearing any Good News in what Jesus was telling them.  He pulls Jesus aside and “rebukes” him for his statements.  Now this is the same word that is used to describe what Jesus did to the “evil spirits” that were tormenting the demon possessed.  Peter appears to think Jesus has lost his mind and Peter is trying to bring him to his senses.  For just a moment, Peter has decided to relieve Jesus of command and assume that position himself, daring to give orders to Jesus.  How often do we tell God, “now God, this is what I want you to do.”

Jesus doesn’t hesitate to turn the tables, rebuking Peter, and making sure everyone is listening when he does it. “Get behind me Satan. For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things!” Isn’t that where we are most of the time? When we set our sights on human desires and passions, we become an adversary (that is what the word Satan means) to Jesus and his plan to bring about the kingdom of God.

We have domesticated the concept of the cross until it has little or no meaning for us anymore.  We make delicate little cross and hang around our neck and stick in our ears.  We make big gaudy crosses and call them bling, glue them to purses and flip flops, tack them up on the wall, and tattoo them in the strangest of places.  It is art.  The people to whom Jesus said, “take up your cross and follow me” knew the cross to be one of the most horrifying means of torture and execution saved for enemies of the state and disobedient slaves. There was nothing pretty about it.   

Jesus was not talking about putting up with a disagreeable neighbor, a bad back, or any other perceived inconvenience when he said “take up your cross”.  Jesus intended that we should continue doing the same things that he had been doing: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, socializing with all persons including the outcasts of society, casting out demons, speaking out when we see injustice and hypocrisy, loving others enough to die for them if necessary.  He also knew that this was a dangerous way to live.  Many people who have embraced this lifestyle have died prematurely as a result.

Jesus also knew, that to do anything else was to be among the walking dead. I think it is interesting that two of the first words most people learn are “No!” and “Mine!”  They are words that separate us from the collective and help us recognize ourselves as being separate and different from our environment.  They are also words of isolation, which keep us out of the kingdom of God.

Mark writes his Gospel, 30 to 40 years after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension.  Jesus’ passion has done nothing to expel the Romans from Israel, in fact, they are on the verge of a great war with Rome that will leave Jerusalem in ruins, yet Mark declares that his story is Good News.  He is telling them Christ knows and understands your suffering, and the final victory has already been won despite what it might look like today.

Today we struggle with the rising cost of fuel, food, and medical care.  Addictions and mental health issues plague millions. Political unrest both at home and abroad leave us confused, frightened, or disgusted. Christ calls us to continue in the path that he illustrated so long ago, a path that requires us to be in community with our neighbors.  He knows the way will be difficult.  He also knows the joy will outweigh the cost and that the war has already been won, we are just going through the pains of reconstruction.


 

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15 Pentecost 2021

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This morning we heard two healing stories about Jesus.  Both of them a little controversial and open to multiple interpretations.  I would like to back up a little bit and start with a short geography lesson and a recap of what we have heard in the last few weeks to get a better feel for what Jesus is doing. This, I hope, might help us as we interpret these stories.

Back in chapter 2, Jesus starts at Capernaum on the northeast side of the Sea of Galilee where he calls Peter, Andrew, James and John, fishermen who live in this area and there he teaches and heals a man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue, then heals Peter’s mother-in-law.  Next, he proceeds to visit nearby towns and heals a leper who despite being asked not to say anything, spreads the news far and wide and Jesus can no longer go into the towns, but has to camp out in the countryside because of the crowds that are following him.  Jesus returns to Capernaum, possibly staying with Peter where he heals a paralytic and begins to draw the attention of the Pharisees.  Jesus continues teaching and healing people around Capernaum and people have begun coming to hear him from Judea, Jerusalem, from as far south as Idumea, down around Masada and the southern part of the dead sea.  They are also coming from the towns of Tyre and Sidon in Phoenicia on the Mediterranean, northwest of Galilee in today’s Lebanon.  The crowds have gotten so large that he has to preach from a boat so they don’t crush him.

At this time he calls the twelve and takes them up a mountain, probably close by.  Then we are told he “went home” which is probably Capernaum which had become his home base for his ministry.  Again, the crowds are pressing in on him.  This is where his family comes and entreats him to stop this madness.

Jesus and his disciples then get in a boat and cross into the area of the Decapolis.  This is when he stills the sea and heals the man with a legion of demons.  Up until now, Jesus has stayed close the Galilean side of the Sea of Galilee and as far as we know, it is Jews, both those from Judea and ones from the Diaspora, persons who became scattered after the various conquest of Israel/Judea have been traveling to see him.  The Decapolis is clearly Gentile territory as they raise pigs, though the demoniac was probably a Jew, we are not told otherwise. 

Jesus goes back across the Galilee and there he heals the daughter of a synagogue leader and a woman with a hemorrhage.   Jesus makes a trip home to Nazareth where he is rejected, still within the region of Galilee, but a good distance from the Sea of Galilee.   Jesus continues to move about from village to village in the same general area, and now he is sending his 12 disciples out in pairs to begin practicing what they have been witnessing. It is during this time that John the Baptist is executed. Jesus is still hanging out close the Sea of Galilee, where he feeds 5,000, walks on water, and continues to teach and heal people.   Now we are to last weeks lesson where he his confronted again by the Pharisees.

Up until now, Jesus has stayed within the area of the Galilee, with the one exception of the short boat trip to the Decapolis. As far as we know, the people with whom he has interacted have mostly been Jews. His primary mission up to now has been to bring the bring the good news to the children of Israel and to bring healing to that specific community. Beginning in the middle of chapter 7, with today’s reading, Jesus appears to be broadening his territory.  There is evidence to suggest that he has had to do so just to get a little rest.  We are told he entered a house in the region of Tyre and didn’t’ want anyone to know he was there.  We were previously told that people had traveled from Tyre to see him in Galilee and perhaps he is staying with one of his followers.

However, Jesus’ arrival did not go unnoticed. A Gentile, a Syrophenician woman, in other words a local, heard that he was there, crashes his vacation and bows down at his feet begging him to cast a demon out of her daughter. Jesus’ response is not what we expect. He tells her “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Ouch, not what we would expect from Jesus.   “Dogs” was a common term used to describe outsiders. Dogs were not generally household pets at this time.  Packs of wild dogs were noisy, destructive and menacing. The Jews used this term to describe non-Jews, the Romans used the term “barbarian” of non-Greco-Romans meaning they sounded like barking dogs, i.e. they did not speak Latin or Greek.  Today, we would consider such language a racial slur and it would be highly inappropriate, but we must be careful about judging people in other times and other cultures.  We may rightly find the behavior unacceptable, but much we do and say today they would have found equally unacceptable.  I suspect Jesus was telling the woman that his first priority was to the children of Israel and not to the Gentiles at this time.  He was using the language common at the time. But, being Jesus, I also think he knew what the outcome of this conversation would be and may have been putting up a wall so this woman could demonstrate her faith. She responds to him “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She does not try to argue that she is just as good or better than the people Jesus has been serving, but she latches on to his metaphor and uses it to justify her case.  Jesus then heals the girl stating, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”  Humility, persistence, and the faith of the mother brought salvation to the child.

Jesus goes back to Galilee, not by a direct route, but by a wide clockwise circle around the Sea of Galilee visiting the area of Sidon, where we know some of his followers were from, circling around through the area of the Decapolis. Imagine going from Culpeper to Gordonsville by way of Washington DC and Richmond on foot.  We get no explanation for the route and only get one story from this long journey.  Once again it is not the person in need that is initiating the action, it is the friends of a deaf man with a speech impediment who approach Jesus.   Last time, the sick person was not present, and Jesus just declared that she had been healed.  This time the man is present. Jesus first takes him away privately; it is important to note that he is not putting on a show for the crowds.  Jesus sticks his fingers in the man’s ears and spits on his finger and touches the man’s tongue.  Mark records Jesus’ exact word, “Ephphatha” – “be opened”. Some people have been offended that Jesus uses what seems like “magic” in this healing. Why Jesus chose this method at this time we have no explanation, but Harper Collins study Bible indicates that it would have been what the people were expecting, it was the common way healing was done at the time.  What I think is more important is that Jesus was willing to touch the man who would have been considered “unclean” because of his disability.  The man was completely healed, immediately.

Was Jesus purposefully broadening his sphere of influence, teaching and healing along the way or were the crowds pushing him farther and farther out and his compassion was such a natural extension of himself that even as he sought refuge from the crowds, he ministered to the people he met?  Perhaps a bit of both.  God has used forced migration of people to spread the good news on more than one occasion. First, Joseph’s exile into Egypt, then the Israelite/Judaean exiles into the Assyrian and Babylonian empires, later the persecution of Christians by Rome and many more throughout history. I don’t think God causes these hardships; human beings, by our choices, bring about the suffering that often causes people to flee their homes and look for safety elsewhere, but God never wastes anything, and resurrection and hope can be found even in the middle of these tragedies.  Our challenge is to find ways to reduce the suffering and increase the hope.

 Jesus’ methods are not always clearly explained in scripture. God always meets us where we are.  The Bible is a history of God engaging with people in their own context and taking them to the next level. There is a lot we miss if we are not aware of the cultural context, and even then, we need to focus on the purpose of the story and not get sidetracked on peculiarities that we may not understand. The primary purpose of the scriptures is to revel God to us and help us understand that God loves us. We are fallen creatures who need guidance and rescuing which God through Jesus has been and continues to do.  We just need to recognize and embrace the gift.