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Proper 20 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.

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14 Pentecost 2021

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“The unexamined life is not worth living” Socrates as quoted by Plato in the Apology.

Both our reading from the Gospel of Mark and our reading from James’ Letter call us to examine our lives.  What is our purpose? What are we trying to accomplish?  Are the things we are doing helping or hurting what we claim to be our purpose and goals? What are Jesus and James saying to their respective audiences and how does that apply to us?

Let’s begin with Jesus and the Pharisees.

Within the first century Jewish community in Palestine there were four major divisions.  Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, as well as the New Testament gives us some insights into these various groups.  Josephus names:  Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes. The fourth group, the Zealots appear to be a secular group of outliers who tried to forcibly free the Jews from Roman control.

The Pharisees stood out from the Sadducees and the Essenes in several ways. They recognized both fate and free will as acting upon one another. The Essenes are strong believers of fate or what Christians call pre-destination and the Sadducees believed only in cause and effect because of our actions – pure free will.  The Pharisees recognized both the Torah and the oral traditions, including the Prophets and Writings.  What we call the Old Testament as well as some Jewish commentaries.  The Sadducees only recognized the Torah and if the Dead Sea scrolls were the property of the Essenes, as many scholars believe, they had a larger collection of writings than the Pharisees.  The Sadducees desired to work with the Roman government and recognized the authority of Herod. They included the priests and they had control over the temple and the sacrificial system.  The Pharisees rejected both but continued to live in the cities they controlled and to participate in the life of the community.  Their focus was on learning all the law, Torah and oral law,  and strict observance of daily rituals. They believed holiness of the community would be the salvation of the people. The Essenes fled to the desert rejecting the authority of everyone except their own spiritual leaders and appear to have prepared for the apocalypse.  Josephus tells us that the Pharisees were the group most influential on the common people.  The Pharisees believed in Resurrection, the Sadducees and the Essenes did not.  After the destruction of the temple, they became the founders of Rabbinic Judaism.

I have often wondered if Jesus saw in the Pharisees the greatest hope (aside from his own purpose and plan) for the people and therefore engaged with them more often and pushed them harder to practice what they preached.  

The sticky issue that prompts Jesus’ conversation with them was around washing hands.  Exodus instructs the priest to wash their hands and feet prior to entering the tent of meeting or approaching the altar.  (Exodus 30: 18-20). This had nothing to do with germs. When I use hand sanitizer at the altar it is a germ issue. When I have an acolyte, I normally have them wash my hands with a small amount of water just before I begin the Eucharistic prayer, this is a ceremonial washing with roots in the commandment in Exodus. It is symbolic and helps us make connections to our Jewish roots, but it is not essential. Earlier in Exodus Moses states for God “you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19: 6).  Over time, seeing all people as priestly by call from God and to ensure the law was being strictly observed, several washing rituals developed.  One of these involved everyone washing their hands before they ate. Jesus’ disciples have been observed skipping that ritual and criticized for not following the traditions of the elders.

What Jesus frequently points out to the Pharisees is that they focus on the letter of the law, often looking for loopholes that would allow them to do what they want to do, rather than focusing on the intent of the law.  They were quick to criticize others, perhaps because of their belief that only when all of Israel obeyed God’s law would they see their salvation but failing to see that the law was a means and not the end.  God gave the law to guide people to be the creatures he intended them to be, full of love and compassion.  Instead, by Jesus’ time, the interpretation and enforcement of the law had become a stumbling block that divided people and put heavy burdens on people.  Imagine wandering the countryside preaching, healing, and feeding large crowds of people and having to worry about having the proper resources to perform all the washing rituals before you ate, or prayed, or did anything after you touched a sick person.

Jesus reminds the people that all the symbolic things we do mean nothing if they don’t change the heart.  If we have forgotten what the symbol means or if we become more concerned about the symbol than the purpose for the symbol, then we have missed the point.  Are there things we do in our liturgy that you do not understand why we do it?  Are there little rituals in your own life that have become habits without a purpose?  Perhaps it is time to examine and evaluate our actions.

James is speaking to a different audience, but his purpose is much the same.  James is speaking to a group of Christians, probably twenty to thirty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  In reading Paul’s letters, we can see that early on the churches experienced conflict over a variety of issues.  This seems to be part of human nature.   When I studied Organizational Behavior, one of the first things I was taught was the concept of FORM, STORM, NORM, PERFORM.  James’ group seems to be in the STORM mode.  They are wasting time complaining about one another, bickering, fighting amongst themselves, and failing to accomplish their purpose.  This is a very easy trap to fall into and none of us are immune.  When we are unhappy we like to share with others. The old adage, “Misery loves company” comes from the 16th century play Dr Faustus and the response was the answer to a question about why Satan seeks to enlarge his kingdom. Satan is miserable and seeks to make others miserable.   Similarly, in C.S. Lewis Screwtape Letters, Screwtape’s demonic uncle is amazed that God really loves humans and wants to be with them as individuals and does not seek to absorb and destroy them as Satan does.  Are we seeking out the company of others to get to know them or just to have a sympathetic ear to listen to our troubles?  

What are we doing that makes a positive contribution to our purpose?  Do we know our purpose?  James tells his congregation it was to “care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. “Who are the persons in our world that are in distress?  With COVID, hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, war, just to name the obvious, the list is long.  What ways are we becoming of the world, not just in the world?  

There are many lists of both sins and fruits of the Spirit given in the New Testament.  In Galatians, Paul lists these back-to-back.  Paul stresses that it is not subjection to the law that separates these but following the Spirit vs our own fleshly passions.  He states, “now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing and things like these… By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. (Gal 5: 19-21a) Knowing that we are all sinners and all fall short of keeping these lists in their proper place, Paul goes on to remind us to be gentle with one another, helping each other by “bearing one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2).

I would challenge you this week to examine your life.  What things bring meaning and joy?  What things draw you closer to Christ and your neighbor?  What things are just habits without much meaning or purpose? What things draw you away from God and God’s purpose for your life?  Where will you put your time, talents, and treasures to work to further God’s kingdom this week?

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10 Pentecost 2021

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When I lived in Texas, I became very familiar with hurricanes.  Initially it was the wind that impacted you.  Anything that was not well anchored could be picked up and moved to the most unusual places.  Boats in people’s front yards.  Garages sitting on top of houses.  The wind was unpredictable.  I saw a trailer house cut in half with the cup and toothbrush left sitting on the bathroom counter, visible as you drove by. The second force in a hurricane is the water.  There is the storm surge, water that is pushed up on the shore by the wind.  You can prepare for that.  But then there is the stall.  When the hurricane picks a place and just sits there pouring rain in one spot for days. 

The scriptures often use images of nature to describe the spiritual workings of the Trinity.  Moses saw God in a burning bush.  God used plagues from nature to convince Pharoah to let the Hebrew children go – frogs, flies, rivers of blood, and death.  The Israelites saw God manifested in smoke, fire, and quaking suggesting either a fierce thunderstorm or an active volcano at Sinai.  At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit arrives as a mighty wind and as tongues of fire. 

We are, in our lectionary readings, going to stall like a hurricane over this particular story in the gospel of John – Jesus’ feeding of the 5000, his walking on water, and his proclamation that he is “the bread of life.”  We are going to spend three weeks letting the words of this story soak into our souls.

In a quick re-cap of last week’s lessons.  Jesus feeds 5000 hungry people with one small boy’s lunch of five barley loaves and two fish, then he goes up on the mountain, alone, to pray.  The twelve disciples leave him there and go out in their boat on the Sea of Galilee.  A storm comes up in the middle of the night and Jesus takes the short cut walking across the top of the water frightening the disciples as he calmly walks past them as they struggle in their boat to get across.  He joins them in the boat, the sea calms, and they find themselves on the opposite shore save and sound.

While all of this was going on, many from the crowd of 5000 had camped out on the opposite shore, presumably in the hopes of spending more time with Jesus.  When they realize he and is disciples have gone, they get in their boats and cross the lake (the Sea of Galilee is really a big lake).  When they find him on the other side, they question him about how he got there.  Some must had seen the twelve leave without him, but they are less interested in the answer to that question than they are benefiting from Jesus’ presence again.    

Jesus understands the hearts of the people that are following him.  Their interest is not spiritual, they are not seeking God, they are seeking free food.  The American psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote a paper in 1943 describing what he saw as a hierarchy of human needs.  The lowest and broadest level, the base of his pyramid, was physical needs.  He states that until those needs are met, the survival instinct keeps one from seeking things like relationships, education, and self-awareness. The people that were most attracted to Jesus were those whom we might describe as living below the poverty level.  Food, water, shelter, and rest were daily struggles for them. 

Jesus tells them to set their sights higher.  In fact, Jesus tells them to set their sights beyond Maslow’s hierarchy and to seek that which is eternal. “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” (John 6:27)

They ask him “What must we do to perform the works of God?”  (John 6:28) We are accustomed to hearing the answer to that question as the summary of the Law, which assuming most in the crowd were Jewish, they already knew “Love the Lord your God with all you heart, with all your mind and with all your strength” (Deut. 6: 5) and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18).  Jesus goes deeper than even this. He says, “believe in him (Jesus) whom he (God) has sent.” (John 6:29)

The people standing there had no difficulty in believing in the historical person of Jesus, he was standing right before them.  What Jesus wants them to do is trust that what he says is the truth.  Trust in him to the point of being willing to place their lives in Jesus’ hands. In the previous chapter, the writer of the Gospel of John states that the Jewish leaders had tried “to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” (John 5:18) This is the truth that John is saying Jesus wanted the people to believe. This is the truth that John is declaring, from the beginning of this gospel “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) to the end of the gospel where John declares “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31). 

The people ask Jesus for a sign, for proof that he is speaking the truth and they give as an example Moses calling down mana from heaven when the Israelites were hungry in the wilderness.  I can only imagine Jesus’ frustration.  Just the day before he multiplied bread and fish to feed them and walked on water, but the people are spiritually blind unable to see what is right before them?

Jesus shows amazing patience with this group and reminds them that it was not Moses who gave them mana, it was God. He then speaks to them in a more spiritual sense stating, “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (John 6:33).  Jesus is speaking of himself.  He is standing right in front of them, and it is Jesus that gives life to the world.  They are still looking for flour, water, and oil baked to create something to fill their stomachs. 

We end today’s reading with Jesus’ statement, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

How much time do we spend focused on gaining material things? Things that satisfy us for only a moment and then in no time we are looking for the next meal, another new outfit, the next thing to entertain us, the next opportunity to make more money. 

How much time do we spend looking for God’s hand in our lives?  How much time do we spend building a relationship with Jesus, learning to trust that what he says is the truth? Acting like we believe what he says is the truth?

How often do we stare at a miracle and blindly ask God for a sign?

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9 Pentecost 2021

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For those of you that have been with us for the last few weeks, I have been preaching out of Mark chapter 6. You may also remember I mentioned last week that we skipped a section of Mark 6 to come back to at a later date, the story of the feeding of the 500 and Jesus walking on water.  Today is the day but  it may seem that the lectionary has thrown us a curve ball this morning because we are reading out of John chapter 6 not Mark 6. Our lectionary is divided up so that we read from one of the synoptic gospels each year, Matthew, Mark, Luke because they share so many of the same stories.  The year we read Mark, the shortest gospel, we also read from John.  The feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on water two of the few stories that show up in both Mark and John and they are placed back to back in both gospels which tells me that 1) they are very important stories and 2) the stories belong together.

Reading Mark is like chewing on a piece of caramel.  Mark only offers you small little bits, but he leaves you chewing on it for hours.  Where reading John is like eating an exotic flavor of ice cream.  It is served up by the bowlful and each bite is a bit of heaven. John is full of detailed descriptions and lengthy monologs, but he tells you right up front what he is trying to say. Mark subtly sandwiches stories together for emphasis and makes you tease the meaning out of the text.  Our lectionary editors chose to feed you with John this morning, but I also want us to remember how these stories fit into Mark and what Mark was trying to say as well. 

In the gospel of John, Jesus has just been criticized for healing someone on the Sabbath.  He turns around and tells his critics that they are looking for salvation in the wrong place.  Jesus speaks at length about the source of his authority and he tells them that while they are searching the scriptures, salvation is staring them in the face, yet they cannot see it.  At this point, Jesus takes the disciples with him in the boat, crosses the Sea of Galilee and goes up on a mountain to teach his disciples.

John is a details person.  He tells us that it was close to time for the Passover, which means that Jews from all over the Middle East had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.  Jesus looks up from his teaching and he sees a large crowd of people coming toward him. This is a teaching moment for Jesus.  He turns to Philip and asks him, “Where are we going to buy bread for these people to eat?” Philip looks at the crowd, probably said a few unprintable words, and responds to Jesus, “Six months wages would not even begin to feed this crowd.”  Now Andrew is a man of action.  He has already started scrambling to figure out how to accomplish what Jesus has purposed, but he comes to the conclusion they don’t have adequate resources.  He has found one small boy with five barley loaves and two fish.  One “Happy Meal” to feed thousands.

Jesus gets the crowds to sit down on the grass.  I’m always amazed that no one has considered that by itself to be a miracle. This is clearly a demonstration of Jesus’ authority.  Jesus then takes the loaves, gives thanks, and proceeds to pass out the bread and fish to “those who were seated.”  We do not get a liturgical description of the Last Supper in John.  Many scholars point to this story as John’s Eucharistic story.  Those who have submitted their wills to Jesus, and obeyed his command to sit down, have been fed. John leaves no room for reasonable explanations of people showing up with food and suddenly pulling it out to share.  Jesus is the only actor once the loaves and fish have been given to him. This was God, through Jesus, giving people without hope, people without sufficient resources, an abundance.

Once everyone has been “satisfied,” only then Jesus sends the disciples to gather up the crumbs so that nothing may be lost and gathers twelve baskets full.  Twelve is often seen to represent completeness and authority in the scriptures.  Through Jesus’ authority, the food fed all who were present and there were enough crumbs to fill twelve baskets. Jesus insists that all the “crumbs” be gathered up so that “nothing may be lost.”   Many tie this to the twelve tribes of Israel, and I certainly believe that they are included, in fact, they were the first to be fed.  They were the ones gathered at Jesus feet.  The Siro-Phoenician women who argued with Jesus reminded him that even the dogs, gentiles, are allowed to gather the crumbs that fall from the children’s plates.  After Jesus blesses the food, there is even enough crumbs to feed any non-Jews who are hungry. David said , “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Remember, Mark wants it understood that Jesus is God, the good shepherd.

Mark indicated the people, including the disciples still did not understand the significance of this act. This was a giant billboard proclaiming “this is the Messiah.”  John tells us the people recognized the sign, they just didn’t understand the role and the significance of the Messiah.  They were looking for another King David not God.  They wanted someone to come in and beat up their enemies, not teach them how to love their enemies and turn them into friends.  Jesus sensed that the people were intending to try and force him to accept the role of “king” and he slips away, back up the mountain, alone.

Mark interestingly describes a familiar liturgical scene.  Jesus, the celebrant at Eucharist, first dismisses the apostles, the Eucharistic Ministers, (think about our recession) and then he dismisses the crowd before going off alone to pray.

Now in both Gospels, we have Jesus alone on the mountain praying, and either the disciples get tired of waiting for Jesus to come down from his prayers and leave without him, or they decide to get in a couple hours of fishing while Jesus is otherwise occupied.  It is dark when Jesus returns to the shore and the boat has left without him, so he decides to walk home and takes the short cut straight across the water.  The wind has come up and the guys in the boat are not making much headway.  They are straining against the oars as Jesus calmly begins to walk right past them, and apparently at this time had no intention of saying anything to them. Suddenly they spot Jesus, but do not recognize him.  They think they are seeing a ghost and in their defense I suspect if any of us saw someone walking across the lake in the middle of the night we might have the same reaction.  They start screaming.  Jesus calls out to them and tells them “It is I, do not to be afraid” and he gets in the boat with them.  Mark tells us the wind immediately ceased.  John tells us the boat, which had been about 3 miles out in the lake suddenly arrived at the shore. Again, John wants us to see the miraculous.

This was another “sign” that Jesus was not just any other man. Jesus had authority over the wind and the water as well.  He is the light that shown in the darkness at creation and he was present with the Spirit, the wind of God, when the Spirit moved over the waters at creation.  So too here, Jesus shines in the night and moves over the water. This story is a perfect illustration of John’s opening claims about Jesus. 

Mark tells us the apostles were amazed but they still did not understand because their hearts were hard.  John says the crowd was amazed, realizing that the apostles had left without Jesus, and finding him on the opposite shore with them the next morning.  Jesus points out to the crowd that they are not seeking him because he walked on water, but only because they got fed the day before.

Mark has been trying to point out that Jesus is the fulfilment of the prophecies and that the kingdom of God is unfolding in the midst of the people.  John is trying to open our eyes to the divinity of Jesus and the incredible implications of the Incarnation.  Both remind us that we fail to see what is right before our eyes. 

Christ wants to reveal himself to you today.  Look for him in the bread of life, broken and given out to you today at the Eucharist.  See him in the water of baptism in the baptismal font. Invite him into your boat.  Find him in the flicker of the candles, the light that shines in the darkness and hear him call in midst of the storms of life.  “It is I, do not be afraid.”  

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8 Pentecost 2021

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Between Mark and our lectionary we have gotten the 6th chapter in what probably feels like a random selection.  Especially today when we have a bit from the middle and a bit from the end of the chapter, so let me give you a brief overview of this chapter.

We began three weeks ago with Jesus in Nazareth where he tried to teach and perform signs from the people, but they quickly rejected him, questioning his authority based on their prior knowledge of him, so he moves on to other towns in the region.  He then sends the 12 apostles out in 6 groups of two to cover more area and he gives them the power and authority to do everything he has been doing and we hear that things are going well.

Mark then interrupts with a newsflash, a “by the way” – John the Baptist has been killed. 

Today as we pick up the gospel story, the apostles have returned to check in with Jesus and Jesus does a little de-briefing.  He then recommends a short vacation with him so that they can relax and spend some time together.  Their workload has been overwhelming and they have not been taking breaks for meals. 

Jesus suggests they take a boat and go to a deserted spot on the other side of the lake.  But they are spotted and the crowd desperately desiring what Jesus has to offer runs on foot around the edge of the lake.  This sounds easier than it was.  There is no beach on the Galilee, its shoreline is lava rock.

When Jesus sees the crowd we are told he takes compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd.  Marks audience would be familiar with this phrase.  First, in Numbers 27:17 as God is telling Moses that he will not live to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land, Moses asks God to “appoint someone over the congregation who shall go out before them and bring them in, so the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep without a shepherd.” God appoints Joshua.

The Israelites were shepherds.  Abraham was a very successful shepherd.  When Jacob aka Israel came to Egypt with his family they were sent to the land of Goshen because they were shepherds and Egyptians thought shepherds were unclean. The Israelites understood the role of shepherd and sheep. 

David was a shepherd before he became a king. The beautiful Psalm 23 attributed to him declares “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  He makes me to lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.”

When Ezekiel speaks his oracles condemning his contemporary leaders in Israel he accuses them of being false shepherds.  They pretend to watch after and lead the sheep, but instead he says they shear them for clothing – they “fleece” them as we would understand that term and they devour them for dinner.  He says they “rule with force and harshness scattering the sheep.” (Ez 34:1-6) Ezekiel then offers a positive oracle for the people speaking for God he says, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down…I will seek the lost and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured and I will strengthen the weak.” (Ez 34: 15-16a)

What our lectionary now skips over, to save for another day is the feeding of the 5000.  Mark is using imagery from the Old Testament to boldly claim that Jesus is the new Joshua (which happens to be a different translation of the same name as Jesus) who will lead the new Israel into the New Promised Land.  This Joshua is not just a prophet, this Joshua is God fulfilling the prophecy made by Ezekiel that God would shepherd his sheep himself.  Jesus is God, the Good Shepherd, the one and the same declared by David.  Just in case Mark was too subtle, John has Jesus specifically say twice, “I am the good shepherd.” (John 10: 11, 14)  This is not a random good shepherd, this is the fulfillment of the biblical good shepherd, exemplified first by Moses and Joshua, then by David, the shepherd king, and ultimately by God though the person of Jesus.

The second point Mark is making is that we are called to be assistant “good shepherds.”  Jesus sends the 12 out to do exactly what he has been doing.  Then despite being tired and in need of a vacation, Jesus calls the 12 again to assist him in seating the crowd in groups on the grass.  “He causes me to lie down in green pastures.” And, Jesus has them help him feed the people.  After the crucifixion, John tells us that Jesus appeared to Peter and three times asked Peter if he loved him, and each time that Peter affirmed that he loved him, Jesus told him to “feed my sheep.”  Other biblical descriptions of good shepherds include knowing the sheep by name.  Seeking out the lost sheep. Lying down at the gate to protect the sheep from wolves.  And ultimately, Christ, the Good Shepherd, laid down his own life to save his sheep.

Our final piece of the lectionary today re-emphasizes the healing ministry of Jesus and reminds us that not only did the people seek Jesus, Jesus sought out those who were in need.  Our lectionary skips over Jesus walking on the water to bring us to another story of Jesus stepping out of the boat in Gennesaret, an area known for its warm mineral springs which attracted people who were seeking to be healed. The people rushed to Jesus hoping to even touch the fringe on his cloak that they might be healed.

Sadly, we no longer have large crowds of desperate people chasing us down in the street or banging on the church doors seeking to find Jesus.  Instead I think the 19th century author Henry David Thoreau was correct when he said “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” (in Walden). 

This desperation is not so new.  In the 6th century Blaise Pascal described what we now call that “God-sized hole in our hearts.” Saying, “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” Pensées VII(425)

The language in the quotes is dated, but the universality of the statements cross gender lines. 

Jesus went to the synagogues to find people, but more frequently he was found out on the streets mingling with the people and listening to the people’s stories.  Frequently he went places he knew people would be like the docks or the hot springs or the marketplace.  We need to do the same.  The church building is a convenient place to gather, but it is not the church.  The church exists wherever people gather seeking Jesus. 

As you leave today, imagine you are one of the 12 and you have been sent into the world to represent Christ, for that is exactly what it means to be a Christian.

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7 Pentecost 2021

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This morning, in our readings from Mark, our author appears to take a surprising, lengthy, graphic and rather un-Mark like detour in the middle of his stories about Jesus, or is he?  Mark has been talking about authority and has commented on those who did not accept Jesus’ authority.  Now he gives us glimpse into the world that Jesus lives in by looking at a scene between Herod Antipas and John the Baptist, a scene that perhaps tells us more about Jesus’ world than anything else he has told us.

On one side stands John the Baptist.  John was one of those persons, chosen by God before his birth for an unusual occupation for his time, that of prophet. Like Isaac, in the Old Testament, John’s birth is miraculous because his parents are elderly and had long since given up on having children when an angel appeared to his father and announced both the news that Elizabeth would bear a son and a description of the life John was to live.  Like Sampson, he was to be a Nazarite from birth and for his entire life and he was to be filled with the Holy Spirit from his birth. Unlike, post Pentecost, being filled with the Spirit was not gifted freely. Luke writes, “With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him [Jesus, the Messiah] 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). We are told John leaps for joy while still in his mother’s womb at the appearance of Mary, the mother of Jesus, being the first to recognize Jesus who is himself has barely been conceived.

After John’s birth, the next we hear of him is at the open of Mark.  Mark tells us, that in a fulfillment of prophecy from Exodus, Isaiah, and Malachi “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4)

John’s authority comes from God as the fulfillment of prophecy, in great signs and wonders, and John has been obedient to that call, so much so that he looks like the prophet Elijah standing in the middle of the Jordon river – a wild man dressed in rough camel’s hair and leather, eating honey and locusts – humbly proclaiming “The one who is more powerful that I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:7-8)

On the other side, is Herod Antipas.  We known very little of him from the scriptures, but history has left us a detailed account of his misguided life and his dysfunctional family.  His father was Herod the Great, King of Judea who was the Herod that helped restore the magnificence of the Jerusalem Temple and the Herod to whom the magi consulted concerning the birth of Jesus.  He had many wives and many children.  Two of his sons he had executed out of jealousy and legend states that he had one of his own sons killed in the slaughter of the innocents when he was seeking to destroy Jesus. Antipas’ mother was a Samaritan, another reason he was disliked and distrusted by the Jews.  Herod the Great changed his will shortly before his death and rather than name one heir, he divided his kingdom between three of his sons causing animosity between his sons.   Herod Antipas received the area of Galilee and Perea, an area on the other side of the Jordan River near the Dead Sea.  

Herod Antipas, though ethnarch – ruler over a particular ethnic group in a given area was never proclaimed king by Rome. Antipas was considered of mixed blood and a Hellenist by the people he ruled.  Antipas, like his father, was a great builder, but not a great keeper of tradition.  He built his capital of Tiberias over a cemetery which meant devout Jews believed the whole town to be defiled and ritually unclean.  Antipas first married Phasaelis, the daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabatea, probably for political reasons, but according to Josephus, he fell in love with Herodias, the wife of his half-brother, Herod II and granddaughter of Herod the Great. Antipas divorced his wife, and presumably Herodias did the same as it appears Herod II was still alive, and they married.  In the eyes of Jewish law, Antipas was now guilty of both adultery and incest.

Here is where Herod Antipas and John the Baptist came into conflict.  John’s call from God was to call the historical nation of Israel to repentance in preparation for the of coming of the Messiah.   Herod Antipas was one of the major political figures of these people at this time and he was opening defying Jewish law.  John the Baptist called him out on it and Herod Antipas had him incarcerated at Machaerus to shut him up and his is believed to have remained there for two years. Incarceration was not a sentence at this time; it was simple a way of holding a prisoner until their trial.  Herod Antipas did not seem to be in a hurry to have John tried and either acquitted or sentenced.

Our reading today in Mark is a flash back.  Herod Antipas is hearing stories of Jesus and rumors have started that he is either Elijah or John the Baptist returned from the dead. Reincarnation was a widely held belief by the Hellenist and Herod is more Greco-Roman than Jewish in his life-style and probably his beliefs.  Herod believes Jesus to be John the Baptist returned from the dead. Herod does not seem to have any trouble believing that John returned the same age that he left. Herod is probably very conflicted, both a bit afraid of him and enchanted by him, and this may account for his later attraction toward, yet refusal to acquit, Jesus.  Mark now tells us why Herod is so obsessed by John even after his death.

There is tension in Herod’s house over John during his imprisonment.  Herodias hates him, probably for denouncing the relationship between her and Herod Antipas because anything said about Herod, equally applies to her.  Herod, on the other hand, recognizes John as a “holy and righteous” man.  Herod is both attracted to and perplexed by John’s preaching and despite keeping him incarcerated, he protects him from further harm.  Herod is a weak ruler.  He does not trust his brothers.  He made an enemy out of his first father-in-law.  It was a Roman custom for community leaders to sponsor fun activities for members of the community as an act of goodwill and to build political alliances.  Herod Antipas uses the occasion of his birthday to through a lavish party and to invite important community members to help him celebrate.   We have an ancient misprint in Mark as he names Herod’s daughter as Herodias. It was corrected in some ancient manuscripts but has come down to us as is.  Herodias is his wife.  Mark is probably referring to his stepdaughter Salome II, who has been entertaining the guests by dancing for them.  Herod is probably drunk and is so pleased that he tells the girl, swearing an oath in front of all his guests, that she may asked for any gift, up to one half of his kingdom and he will give it to her. (This is a little bit of bragging about what one does not have since he is not officially a king though it seems he was called that by many and may have referred to himself in that way.)  The girl askes her mother Herodias what to ask for and Herodias sees this as her chance to get rid of John once and for all.  She tells Salome to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. 

Herod Antipas is now what we would call between a rock and a hard place.  He likes John, but he does not dare go back on an oath in front of people he is trying to impress.  He is using this party to influence powerful community leader trying to demonstrate his power and authority which is not much in reality. Rather than lose face he orders that the girl’s request be granted.  We are told a soldier beheaded John, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl, who gave it to her mother. 

Mark is a literary craftsman.  He is building tension and foreshadowing Jesus’ encounter with Herod Antipas during his arrest and trial. Mark makes one more statement about John that anticipates Jesus’ fate, “When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.”

This story does not end the way we want it to.  Sometimes in life, we do not understand why God allows things to happen the way they do. Often it is only looking back that we can make sense of things and sometimes not even then.  In this case, justice was not long in coming. Shortly after the death of Jesus, everything began to fall apart for Herod Antipas.  His former father-in-law declared war against him.  He had a falling out with his brother-in-law/nephew Agrippa and when Tiberias died and was replaced with Caligula, Agrippa charged him with treason and got him exiled to Spain. Herodias joined him in exile and they appear to have died there.   

The passing of time and the memory of history often sort things out for us.  John the Baptist is remembered and honored as a prophet and a saint.  John is remembered as a man having the authority and power of being in right relationship with God. Antipas, when not confused with one of the other Herods, is remembered as a weak and cruel man, hated by his own people, a killer of John the Baptist and an accomplice in the killing of Jesus.  Antipas is remembered as grasping at authority and power that was always just beyond his reach.

Authority and power can be tools for good when they are used to bring about God’s kingdom.  Jesus says that faith can move mountains.  Authority and power can become tools for evil when they are used for building up our own egos leaving waves of destruction that can be seen for generations. Be careful how you use them and careful to whom you give them.

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6 Pentecost 2021

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For the last several weeks, Mark has been demonstrating for us the authority and power Jesus possesses and Paul, in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians, has been defending his authority and power delegated to him through Jesus.  This can begin to sound like just so much office politics.  Why do we care?  What makes these stories sacred? How do we apply them to our lives today?

I found myself turning to my old Organizational Behavior textbook (Hellreigel, Slocum, Woodman 8th edition) remembering lengthy discourses in there on authority and power.  They describe authority as “power legitimated by (1) being formally granted… and (2) accepted…as being right and proper.” Power can come from a legitimate source, such as the authority granted by one’s position or from other sources such as the power to reward or punish, the power that comes with knowledge or skills in a certain area, or the power of personality, the ability to influence others because they like or trust or admire you.

When Mark opens his gospel he begins by establishing Jesus’ authority. He first quotes from Isaiah, a trusted and revered prophet who foretells the coming of John the Baptist as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’ (Mark 1:3) Mark is claiming that Jesus is the one that John testified concerning his coming. He uses an ancient authority and then a modern one. He then goes on to describe Jesus’ qualifications.  Jesus is the obedient Son of God. Immediately following his baptism, “a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” He describes Jesus’ strong moral character in the story of the temptations in the wilderness. He describes his knowledge as he teaches in the synagogue and “they were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority” (Mark 1: 22). And Mark demonstrates that Jesus’ power and authority extends not just in the earthly realm, but into the spiritual realm as well as he heals a man with an unclean spirit and the people “are amazed, and they kept asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” (Mark 1:27)

Skipping ahead to chapter 5, Jesus demonstrates his authority over the forces of nature. He commands the wind, “Peace, Be still!” and the wind obeys him. He heals the Gerasene of a legion of demons – probably a subtle reference to the Roman occupation of Israel.  Jesus has authority over the “powers and principalities”. Jesus’ power and authority extend to both the rich and the poor in the story we heard last week about the healing of Jarius’ daughter (Jarius being a leader of the synagogue.) Her healing is interrupted by the healing of a poor women who only touched Jesus’ garment in faith and the demonstration is completed with Jesus raising Jarius’ daughter from the dead. Jesus is the one with absolute authority and power.

Mark certainly presents a glowing resume of Jesus’ authority, power, knowledge and skills which makes one wonder about today’s reading.  Once again, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath, this time in Nazareth, his ‘home town’. Again they are amazed at the wisdom of his teachings and the demonstrations of his power, but this time they are offended, because they know his family.  They probably watched him grow up as a child and we are told that he had limited effect.  Authority and power are dependent upon the response of the other person.  Remember the 2nd part of authority is that it is accepted as being right and proper.  I wasn’t there, I don’t know these people, but one might suspect jealousy could have been a significant contributor to their attitude. It is one thing for someone we don’t know to gain wealth or power or prestige, it is a totally different thing for one of our own to attain these things above and beyond the expectation and abilities of their group. We are told that Jesus “was amazed at their unbelief.” (Mark 6:6).

In the second half of our gospel reading, Jesus does what all good leaders do, he delegates.  “He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.” (Mark 6:7).  This pattern that he established is the way the church works, or at least is supposed to work today.  First we go out two by two or in larger groups, bearing witness to Christ, but also to one another, supporting one another, and holding one another accountable.  We go out with the authority given to Jesus through the Father, and delegated to us through the church.

Jesus requires this first group he sends out to be totally dependent upon God to provide for their needs through the people to whom they are witnessing. They are only allowed a staff – no ice chest with lunch, no money, credit card, or cash app, no backpack with a change of clothes.  They were to enter the house that accepted them and stay for the duration of their visit.  No moving in with the person down the street that has better food, an entertainment room and pool in the backyard. And they are not to waste their time arguing with someone who was not willing to listen to them.  We are told they were successful. “They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” (Mark 6:13)

This takes us to Paul.  Paul’s authority stems from his experience of the risen Christ on the road to Damascus.  He finds himself in the position of defending his authority with his own congregation against the work of later evangelists who have come and criticized Paul and his teachings.  Why does Paul care?  He is concerned that this congregation that he planted and nurtured may turn away from the truth and accept teaching he feels are false because the Corinthias have transferred their loyalty to these persons he believes are “false apostles.”

Paul’s plea begins at the beginning of chapter 11 where he begins “I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness.” (2 Cor 11:1).  He describes himself like a father who plans to give his virgin daughter to her rightful husband only to find that she has taken a lover in his absence.  He asks if they believed in him less because he came to them in love, asking nothing of them, and declares that whether they think him a fool or not he will continue to behave in the same way.  He tells them they make think him a fool, but he facetiously comments on their wisdom at allowing these “false-apostles” to “make slaves of you, or prey upon you, or take advantage of you, or puts on airs, or give you a slap in the face.” (2 Cor 11:20).  Paul readily admits that he was “too weak” to take advantage of them in that way.  He boasts a bit of his Jewish education, which is probably something the “false-apostles” have used as a source of their authority.  He speaks vaguely about his encounter with the risen Christ, but in the 3rd persons, not willing to hold that over them.  He  then tells them his real source of authority is all the trials he has suffered because it is when he is weak, that Christ has used him and that Christ told him “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  This is the heart of his message. This is what Jesus was demonstrating when he sent the twelve out with nothing but the gospel and his authority. 

There are both words of comfort and caution in these two stories.  It should be comforting to know that God does not require us to be experts, to be charismatic and dynamic of our own effort.  We present ourselves willing, offer what we have and God will put it to good use.  He will even put to good use those things in our lives that we find to be weaknesses.  We need to remember that all authority comes from God. We are mid-management, so to speak, only having what authority has been delegated to us. We are not to see fame and fortune, but to seek God.  There are those who may present themselves as authorities because of their education, or their charismatic personalities, or their ability to perform signs and wonders.  We are responsible for discerning the real source of their authority before we jump on their wagon and trust them to lead us.  

Authority and power can be great gifts when they come from God.  They can be terrible weapons when they come from other sources.  We must be prudent about giving our trust to other humans.  We must be “gentle as doves, but wise a serpent.”

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5 Pentecost 2021

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I suspect today’s reading from 2nd Corinthians is not the topic of many sermons when there is also David’s love of Saul and Jonathan and Jesus’s healing of two diverse people in a span of 5 minutes, but I think it offers us the opportunity to discuss both church unity and the spiritual aspect of stewardship, two areas where both individually and corporally I suspect we all struggle.

To give some background, this is in a sense a “Tale of Two Cities” and it could probably be said, “It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times.” The two cities are Jerusalem and Corinth.  First Jerusalem. Founded on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit overcame about 120 disciples of Jesus and when Peter preached to the crowd in the street, later baptizing 3000 people, the Christian church in the city of Jerusalem was in a sense the original church.  Many of the disciples including Peter, James and John, Jesus’s inner circle remained there for a time, and later Jesus’ brother James became the head of that congregation.  This congregation, at least at this time, saw themselves as Jews. Jews who recognized Jesus as the fulfillment of the promised Messiah.

The first conflict this church dealt with was the unequal distribution of food to the Greek speaking widows in the daily distribution of food.  The solution was the formation of the ministry of deacon to oversee pastoral care, freeing up the apostles to focus on “the Word of God”. Stephen was one of the first chosen to be a deacon. 

We are told that “Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” But not everyone was please with what Stephen preached and he was brought before the Jewish authorities to explain himself. His recitation of the history of God’s work among them and their response, including the crucifixion of Jesus, so enraged the council that he was dragged out of the city and the crowd stoned him.  An approving witness to this event had been a young Pharisee named Saul who was actively persecuting Christians as heretics.

Fast forward a bit and Saul has an encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus which caused him to repent in the most literal sense.  He stops persecuting Christians and asks to join the Christian congregation in Jerusalem.  They are hesitant, but upon the recommendation of Barnabas they allow him to mingle with them.  Saul is as passionate now about talking about Jesus as he had been about persecuting Christians before his conversion and in a turn of the tables he finds himself being persecuted by the local pagan population to whom he is trying to witness.  The Jerusalem congregation sends Saul back to his home town of Tarsus, in the area we now call Turkey.  Once Saul is removed, we are told that “the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up.” (Acts 9: 31).  Saul was apparently one of those “get things done” people that ruffle more than a few feathers.

A church of Gentiles springs up in the town of Antioch, in Syria.  The Jerusalem congregation sends Barnabas to check on them and Barnabas in turn sends to Tarsus for Saul.  There is a lot we don’t know about Saul, but we do know he was smart, energetic, and well educated, speaking several languages.  I suspect Barnabas saw him as good man to have around when one is “planting” a church in a different cultural area.  Meanwhile, things are getting tough in Jerusalem.  James the apostle is executed by Herod and Peter is thrown in prison.

A conflict arose between Saul/who is now being called Paul, his Roman name and some Christians who clung to the practice of converting Gentiles to Jews, adding circumcision in addition to baptism into Christianity.  Paul and Barnabas travel to Jerusalem to seek the council of the leaders there concerning this issue. Peter and James, the brother of Jesus among others meet with them. This becomes the pattern of the church for the next 1000 years.  When conflict arises, the church meets in council to sort it out. The council agreed to accept Gentiles without requiring circumcision, but did put in place the requirements that they “abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.” (Acts 15:20).

Paul then leaves and goes back to Macedonia (Turkey) and Greece where he continues to preach the gospel and to build up churches.  All the time he is doing this, he is also telling the locals about the conditions in Jerusalem and is taking up a financial offering that he plans to turn over to the church in Jerusalem.

Apparently the churches in Macedonia have been very generous, despite their own difficult circumstances.  Our second city is Corinth. The church in Corinth (which you might remember he reprimanded pretty sternly in a previous letter for immorality on the part of some and self-righteousness on the part of others and general contentiousness among them) was probably a pretty large and affluent church for the time.  It was in a thriving metropolis. They had apparently pledged their support of the Jerusalem church to Paul, but were not forthcoming with fulfilling that promise. 

Now we are at today’s lesson.  Paul begins by flattering them. He then does a little pleading, but then he gets down to the crux of what stewardship is about. “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”  And he talks about God’s economy by reminding them of the story of the manna in the wilderness.  Every day people were allowed to pick up just enough manna for their family’s needs for that one day, except on Friday when they could pick up a double portion to hold them over through the Sabbath.  Somehow, no matter how small or weak, everyone was capable of picking up what they needed and if anyone got greedy and tried to pick up more, they found that the next day it was full of worms. They had wasted their time and energy by being greedy. Paul quotes the scriptures saying, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”  Jesus reminds us that we should pray for our daily bread. Paul also assures the Corinthians that he does not expect them to give for the purpose of making them poor and the other church rich.  He only asks that they give out of their abundance.

There are two things going on here that I want to point out.  Church unity, which is in a frightful state at the moment with a different denomination splitting every year, occurs when churches know what is going on with each other.  One of Paul’s great gifts was keeping various groups informed about the joys and sorrows of the other groups so that they might lift one another up in prayer and provide material support as needed and appropriate.  I would love to see us find ways to open lines of communication with other congregations, both in and outside of the Episcopal Church.  I am open to ideas if you have them.

Secondly, stewardship is not about making sure we have enough money to balance the budget.  Stewardship is about each individual living a life of gratitude for the blessings they have received, recognizing the difference between needs and wants, and then helping as they are able to improve the lives of those who are struggling.  The church budget should be designed to finance the tools necessary to carry out the ministry we to which we feel called.  Some things like taking care of our property so we have a pleasant place to offer worship services and Christian ed and community projects is appropriate if we then put it to good use. Once we know what we want to do and what it will take to do it successfully, then we figure out how to balance the budget, but this is totally separate from asking people to commit of their time, talents and treasure in proportion to and in thanksgiving for how God has blessed them.

Most of our COVID restrictions have been removed.  It is time for us to start planning for our future, this will involve both creating a budget and asking people to commit to making our mission successful, but don’t let the cart drag the horse down the street.  Let’s decide where God is calling us and then figure out how we will get there together.

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4 Pentecost 2021

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Fear is one of those English words that has a broad range of meanings, especially when it comes to translating the Hebrew and Greek scriptures into English.  But perhaps that is not entirely the fault of the English.  It appears the Hebrews and the Greeks used their words rather broadly as well.  It can mean everything from sheer terror that paralysis you mentally or physically and can cause you to shake and tremble to healthy respect for something more powerful than yourself.

The words “fear” and “afraid” show up a combine 599 times in the King James translation.  Add to those words like terrified, tremble, awe, and others it makes up a significant topic in both the Old and New Testaments.  Almost half of these references include the word “not.”  Fear is a healthy and God given emotion that protects us from danger, but just as important is to know when fear is unhealthy.

What is it that frightens you?  I suspect most of us have been in situations that at the very least made us uncomfortable and a little bit nervous. A pandemic, like COVID, caused a great many people to be afraid.  Afraid of getting sick, afraid of losing a loved one, afraid to touch anything, even the people we love, afraid to leave one’s home, and the list goes on.

The Bible clearly tells us we are to “fear the Lord”, but this is not the paralyzing fear, but a life giving healthy respect for the Lord.   Deuteronomy teaches us to “fear the Lord” so that we might keep God’s commandments and serve God, so that God might preserve our lives.  We teach our children that fire burns, one should fear it enough to use it wisely.  Free will, when abused becomes sin and will burn us, but when used with respect gives life.

Leviticus tells everyone to fear their mother and father. These uses of “fear” are confusing to today’s readers and so we usually translate them as “honor.”   In Ephesians, when Paul says wives should submit to their husbands he is using the language of his day to try to explain the sacramental nature of marriage. He begins with “submitting yourselves one to another in fear of God” and describes the marital relationship in the same terms that are used throughout scripture to describe the relationship between Israel and God and Christ and the Church. Fearing God, our parents, or spouse is about relationships built on both love and respect.  We should show God, our parents, and our spouse the same kind of respect that Jesus showed to God the Father.  And as parents and spouses, we should love our children and spouses with the same love that God the Father has for Jesus.  I am aware, because of the broken condition of humankind that sometimes it is with good reason some may experience the terrifying kind of fear with a parent, a spouse, or a child and if that is the case, one should remove themselves from that situation and take reasonable and responsible steps to protect themselves, their children, or parent as the case may be.  

When God shows up in person or when God sends a heavenly messenger it appears the natural reaction of humans is the trembling terrifying type of fear.  God tells us in God’s presence we do not need to be afraid.  In Genesis 15 God tells Abram to “fear not…I am your shield and your exceeding great reward” (Gen 15:1) In Luke the angel tells Mary, “fear not…you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30).  In Matthew, the angel tells the women at the empty tomb, “fear not…for I know you seek Jesus” (Matthew 28:5).  In Revelation, John says when saw the one who said “I am the Alpha and the Omega” he fell on his face as though dead, then a hand reached out and touched him and said, “Fear not”  

Most often in scripture, we are told not to fear because God is near and in control.  This was the situation in our gospel story today.  Jesus and the disciples had gotten into a boat and were making their way across the lake.  Jesus, taking advantage of the few minutes without a crowd pressing in upon him has gone up to the bow of the boat and has fallen asleep on a cushion.  Suddenly, a great thunderstorm formed over the lake and the disciples were frightened.  They were experienced fishermen and they had a healthy respect for the weather.  It was probably with just cause that they were frightened, but their mistake was to think that just because Jesus was not responding immediately that he was unaware or unconcerned about their situation.  “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  How often are we like that?  Jesus, I drowning, why haven’t you saved me already?

Paul tells us in Romans 5: 3-5 that we should rejoice in tribulations because tribulations teach us patience, patience tests our character, a proven character gives us hope, and hope will not bring us dishonor.  In today’s reading from his second letter to the Corinthians he mentions some of the tribulations he and his companions have gone through “beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger”  which has developed in them ”purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.”

God told Joseph not to fear when he was sold into slavery in Egypt and after many tribulations, Joseph became a very important administrator in Egypt, was reunited with his family and saved them from starvation.  God told Moses not to fear when he sent him into Egypt to bring the Hebrew children out slavery.  He heard their cries and was responding.  It took 10 plagues to get out of Egypt and 40 years to get out of the desert, but God gave Moses everything he needed to get the Hebrews out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.

Sometimes it is hard to see that God is in control.  When diseases spread uncontrolled it feels like things are out of control. When rivers rise, hurricanes land, tornados touch down, it feels like we have lost control of our planet.   When a madman can walk into a church or a school or a shopping mall and kill innocent people it feels like things are out of control. Faith is believing that despite appearances, God is in control, and then acting like we believe it. The Resurrection is the proof that God gives to us that even if we die physically, we haven’t lost.  Life continues and ultimately we will experience the kingdom of heaven.

A final word of caution.  Two of the erroneous teachings of many of our ancestors was 1)to accept that all suffering is good because it builds character and 2) the only purpose for this life is the get to the next.  God does not desire that anyone suffer.  Suffering is a consequence of living in a broken world. The kingdom of heaven begins now. We are charged with bringing into being God’s kingdom , not in the next life, but in this one.  We are called to fear God that we might keep God’s commandments which lead to “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5: 22-23). We are challenged to alleviate as much suffering as possible in others while not allowing the challenges we face to overwhelm us.  It is not easy, but together through Christian faith, perseverance and love we can make a difference together.

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3 Pentecost 2021

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There is no greater act of faith than to make your living off the land, farming, ranching, fishing, etc.

For most of humanity’s existence this is how we lived, first as hunter gatherers, then by planting and raising livestock or going out to sea to fish.  Only gradually, as we became more efficient at producing food did people have time to worry about luxuries and artisans and merchants and an upper and middle class began to arise.  Perhaps it is because we no longer are tied to the earth, we no longer remember that we are totally dependent upon forces beyond our control for our existence that people have stopped putting their faith in God and now worship science.  Perhaps now that  we are living in a time when the weather is changing, when we find we are no longer in control of disease and death, perhaps now people will turn back to God.

I am no basher of science.  I became an Episcopalian because we do not despise science, but even science has its limitation.  It is limited by the data gathered and the skill of the person making the hypothesis.  Both our understanding of God, our theology and our understanding of our universe, science must constantly be evaluated against our experiences and the experiences of others. That is why we gather as a church for worship, study, and pastoral care, to share those experiences. Those of you who are graduating this year from high school or college, remember that you are just barely out of the starting gate in your pursuit of wisdom and knowledge.  What has changed is the pursuit has now become your responsibility. We never stop learning.

Our scriptures are full of stories that cause one to ponder their meaning.  It is not a book of rules, though there are some in it. It is the story of the unfolding relationship between God and humanity and we must tease out of it the meaning for us today.

When Jesus told his parable of the seed that grows overnight, he was speaking to people who knew what it meant to live off the land.  Here in rural Virginia,  many of our families have continue to do so to a certain extent, but we live in a global market are typically producing a commodity that can be turned into money that buys us what we want from various merchants. 

Imagine for a minute that we lived in a community where we were totally dependent upon one another.  If the local milkman’s cow dies – you do without milk, butter, cheese, ice cream.  If the farmer’s crop fails you do without bread.  If your garden fails you do without vegetables. If the rancher or shepherd’s flock gets sick you do without meat, without wool to make clothing to stay warm.  This is life in many third world countries.  Jesus and his audience lived somewhere between these two worlds.

The farmer in Jesus’ parable prepare the land, plants the seed and then waits.  There is nothing he can do beyond giving the seeds an environment conducive to growth.  We know much more about the life cycle of a plant now than I suspect Jesus’ audience did, but they were not as ignorant as we often make them out to be.  In some ways they knew many things that generally we have forgotten.  With all we know I still find it amazing that a tiny seed can grow into a specific and highly specialized plant almost overnight.

Jesus uses this illustration to talk able the kingdom of heaven.  All we can do is prepare the ground and plant the seed.  How do we do this?  By loving our neighbor, telling them about Jesus and letting God do the rest.  That is an easy statement to say.  It is a much harder thing to do. 

First, loving our neighbor can get complicated.  Those of you who have raised kids know that wanting the best for them and giving them what they want are often in conflict.  The church has been known to do things “for someone’s own good” or “to save their soul” that we now look back and think, what were they thinking, how could they have behaved so cruelly.  On the other hand, we have more recently become so afraid of imposing our beliefs on someone else that we have failed to honor Jesus’ directive found in Matthew 28: 19-20 “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.”

Telling others about Jesus can be hard, but if Peter and Paul and the others had said, “I am so glad I know Jesus, but every time we tell someone about him people get upset.  Stephen was stoned.  We both went to prison.  Maybe it is best if we just remain silent.”  What would have happened? When some Pharisees told Jesus to silence his disciples he said, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (Luke 19:40)  God is not dependent upon us, but God has chosen to use us to further the kingdom of heaven.

 It takes great wisdom and discernment, especially in times of great conflict like we see today, to be able to “respect the dignity of all persons” and not condone or enable destructive behavior.  Like with the farmer in Jesus’ parable.  We must do the best we can to provide an environment conducive to spiritual growth, plant the seed, and then let God do the rest.  We are not responsible for the outcome, but we are responsible for planting the seed.

The third hard part is letting God do the rest.  We are a culture that wants immediate gratification with minimal effort.  We expect our computer brains to work faster and better than our own.  We frequent “fast food” places, we shop and bank on the internet, never leaving our chair. We have instant access to almost any song ever written and half the TV shows, movies, and concerts and complain we are bored.  We want what we want and we want it now and if we put any effort into something we want to see the results now.

God doesn’t work that way.  Many of the times I have seen God working in my life is when I look back 10, 20 years or more.  Frequently at that time, I did not see God working in my life.  I often felt like I was pushing a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down.  Doors I was trying to open remained locked.  But, had those doors opened, I might have missed something even greater that was down the waiting down the road if I were patient.

The seeds we plant in ministry can feel like pushing that boulder up a hill.  We feel like we take one step forward and two steps back, but like the farmer, we have to wait.  We have to give the seeds time to germinate.  We have to pray that the rain comes and the insects do not.  Occasionally we get to see the effort of our work.  When I was in my twenties, I taught 4th, 5th, and 6th graders in Sunday School.  One of the boys that had been in my class I continued conversations with for several years.  I feed him a couple of times after his parents kicked him out of the house at 17 and I told him good-bye as I saw him off to college in another state.  He eventually became a Dean of Student Affairs for a university, and one day he wrote me and thanked me for encouraging him when he was a teenager.  We are still Facebook friends.

More often, we never know the impact, good or bad, that we have on another person.  We are human and relationships are messy, but that should not stop us from trying.  For those of you who are just beginning your adult lives, begin planting seeds now and possibly, you will see some grow.  Remember those who planted seeds of hope in your own life and when possible, let them know, it is nice to see the fruits of our labors.

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2 Pentecost 2021

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Then God spoke all these words:  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 20:1 &2)

This is the first commandant given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai.  It is easy for us to look at the historical context and say we do not bow down to graven images.  We do not worship Baal, Asherah, or Astarte like the Canaanites, we don’t build temples to Zeus, Poseidon, or Apollo like the Greeks.  We don’t call our rulers god’s like the Romans, but are we guilty of putting our faith and trust in other people before God?  That and failing to recognize God in our midst are the primary themes of today’s lessons. 

In our Old Testament lesson, we are drawing near to the end of the time of the judges.  These were men and women who were tribal leaders that drew the people back to the God of their ancestors.  The last good judge mentioned is Samuel.  Samuel is the one who was raised in the service of the tabernacle as a small boy, sort of a live-in acolyte, and who heard God calling to him one night.  As a child he had the difficult task of prophesying the downfall of the house of Eli, the high priest whom he served.  Now in his old age,  the elders of Israel are bringing him similar news.  His two sons, Joel and Abijah are serving as judges, but they are selfish and corrupt.  The people are tired of waiting for God to raise up a just judge as God did with Samuel and others before him.  They want the stability of a monarchy. They see the surrounding nations who have kings, who are wealthy and successful in battle, and they want to be like them. They demand that Samuel appoint a king for them. 

Samuel goes to God with their request.  God tells Samuel that this is not a rejection of Samuel but a rejection of God, and he reminds Samuel that this has been a pattern of behavior he has seen many times before.  Remember the story of the Golden Calf that Aaron made while Moses was on Mount Sinai getting the commandments.  God tells Samuel to give them what they want, but to caution them about the consequences of their request.  They had been slaves in Egypt, but now they are free.  If they ordain a king to rule over them, they will become slaves to their own government.  Their sons will be conscripted into the kings armies.  Their daughters will be taken out of their homes to serve as servants in the king’s palace. The king will confiscate their best lands to give as favors to his friends.  They will be heavily taxed to care for the needs of king and country. And God says, when this happens, remember it was by your own choice and don’t come crying to me.

Hopefully you know the rest of the story, but keeping it short, Samuel anointed Saul, a warrior king who began battling with their neighbors in an effort to secure their place as a nation, but Saul turned out to be headstrong and perhaps a bit crazy. God removed his Spirit from him while he was still king and chose David to replace him.  David turns out to be a greater warrior than Saul, but David did much of what God warned the people about.  It was a time of great national growth for Israel, it was also a time of war, a time when the royal palace was built, and despite David’s devotion to God, his household was plagued by rape, murder, and political intrigue. God promised David that as long as his descendants obeyed God’s commands they would sit on the throne of Israel, but by the time of his grandchildren civil war had broken out and the twelve tribes were split into two nations, in the north, Israel, which would be totally lost through war and captivity, and in the south, Judah, which would spend fifty years in slavery to Babylon and later come under the rule of first Persians, then Greeks, then Romans.

Do we ever put our faith in political leaders, trusting them to fix things for us, instead of relying on God?

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus makes a startling critique of two other institutions that have great potential to be godly, but are sometimes worshiped ahead of God: the family and the church.

 “…then he [Jesus] went home”.  We don’t know where Mark considers “home” for Jesus.  He appears to be somewhere in Galilee  “and the crowds came together again, so that they could not even break bread”.  I have visions of the crowds that swarmed the Beatles and Elvis in the 60’s, tearing at their clothes, baring the way for them to get away.  

Jesus’ is becoming a scandal to his family as the neighbors gossip that Jesus has lost his mind.  Nice boys of Jesus’ upbringing would have stayed home and learned the family trade, got married, raised children and helped to support their aging parents. They do not go out and cause a scene for people to gossip about. Jesus was also not a “properly” trained rabi. Who did he think he was claiming to interpret the scriptures and perform signs in the name of God?  The scribes from the temple, religious authorities, hear about the commotion and they come all the way from Jerusalem to restrain this “devil” that is causing all this unrest.  He is said to be casting out demons, creating chaos, and is sure to bring the Roman authorities down upon all Jews, who so far have been able to live mostly unmolested by Rome.  

Jesus is not anti-family. He goes to a wedding with his mother early in his ministry and performs his first public miracle, changing water into wine.  While on the cross he sees to his mother’s safe keeping with John telling John she is to be as his mother, and Mary that John is to be as her son.  Jesus is not anti-religion.  He faithfully attends both the synagogue on the Sabbath and the temple on the holy days, participating in the study of scripture and the liturgies of his time and faith.  But in this circumstance, Jesus critiques both groups for failing to see that he was doing the work of God.

How can Satan cast out Satan?  Jesus is healing people of “demons,” whether this was actual demon possession or medical conditions that caused frightening behavior, I cannot say. The scribes looked at these miracles of Jesus and instead of seeing God’s presence among them they mistook it for the work of Satan. The other name they called him was Beelzebub “Lord of the Flies.” It was a mocking name given to the Canaanite Baal Zabul, ruler of the demons. Jesus calls this the unpardonable sin.  When they looked at the work of God they called it evil. They rebuked the Holy Spirit. Jesus questioned their rational. They were so blind, these teachers of religion, that they could not discern the difference between good and evil.  Why would Satan destroy his own?  If this was truly happening, it would be a thing to rejoice over, because Satan would be defeated.

How do we discern good from evil, even in the church. What do you do when two groups both claim that they are doing the right thing and following God and claim the other person is in the wrong?  We see this in society all the time today and often both groups appear to have part of the truth on their side.   Pray, ask for discernment, try to gather as many facts as possible, pray some more, re-evaluate, do your best and remember we are all human.  We can disagree on theology and ethics, still  be true to what we believe, and love each other.  It means we speak the truth as we perceive it, gently, allowing the other person the dignity of having a voice as well, and leave judgement to God.

Finally we have Jesus’ response to his family.  Tradition says that his brothers, James and Jude did not believe he was the Messiah until after the resurrection.  We know his mother knew who he was from his conception, but perhaps she didn’t understand how his life would be different from other sons.  James eventually becomes the leader of the church in Jerusalem and both James and Jude write epistles that make it into the New Testament.  But today, they see their older brother acting in a way that could bring suspension and shame upon the family and they seek to bring him back to a normal life.  When Jesus is told his mother and brothers are outside asking for him, he turns to the crowd at his feet and proclaims these are my mother and brothers and we are left thinking that Jesus did not respond to his mother and brothers.  He claims those who do the will of God are children are his family.

This is a difficult passage.  Someone asked me this week where in the Bible is the example of a healthy marriage.   Jesus and his disciples abandoned their families, at least to some extent, to do the will of God, but I think we all know the damage that happens to individuals whose homes are broken or in constant conflict.  Paul, suggested celibacy for those who were not already married and who could devote themselves to the work of God without falling to temptation. I don’t think he envisioned Jesus taking 2000 years to return and he is speaking to a small group of people who have devoted themselves to spreading the gospel. I don’t think he is worried about negative population growth, but he also devotes a good bit of the first letter to the Corinthians speaking in a positive way about marriage, of fidelity to one’s partner and of obligations of both partners in the marriage to one another. People are quick to discount Paul for his couple of passages telling women to obey their husbands, be quiet in church, and cover their heads.  We need to keep this in historical perspective.  Paul is telling a particular group of women not to be scandalous just because Christ has liberated them, but if you read him closely, he calls for marriage to be a mutual partnership of love and respect.  We just have to discern how we do that in today’s culture.

 Jesus calls us to recognize that families extend beyond biology.  Christian families include all those who seek to do God’s will and the bonds of agape love among our Christian brothers and sisters will call us to look to others with the same care and affection we have for our biological families. It is great when a family works together in ministry, but sometimes we have to do a bit of juggling to meet both our obligation to God and to our family.

The scriptures are not suggesting anarchy, and the demise of the church and family are good things.  What it is saying is that political parties, religious institutions, and the family are human things.  They are capable of error and we need to put our faith and trust in God first and then as Jesus says, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things [i.e. material necessities] will be given to you as well.” (Matt 6: 33).

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Trinity Sunday 2021

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What does God look like to you?

In our Old Testament reading this morning, Isaiah is in the temple of Jerusalem where he has a vision of the veil between heaven and earth opening up and immediately above the temple sits the throne of God.  This was a common belief at this time that heaven was located straight up beyond the stars and there was a mystical connection between the heavenly throne room and the Holy of Holies in the temple at Jerusalem.

Isaiah sees God as a holy king.  He is sitting up high above all the other creatures of heaven and the hem of his robe spilled down to earth and fills the temple below where Isaiah sits in prayer.   The tassels on the outer garment worn by Jewish men were reminders to obey the laws of God and they were also symbols of the authority of the one wearing the garment.  Perhaps in Isaiah’s vision the hem of God’s robe spills out of heaven and into the temple carrying with it the Torah and God’s authority. 

There are six winged creatures, called seraphim by Isaiah, which are using two sets of their wings to cover themselves, presumably from the overpowering glory of God and flying around with the remaining set singing “Holy, Holy, Holy…”  These are not pretty little angels.  The other places we see seraphim in the Bible the word is translated as fiery serpents. While in the desert, the Israelites experienced a plague of fiery serpents, seraphim, they believed to be sent by God because of their disobedience. They bit the people and many of them died.  Moses was commanded to make an image of this serpent and lift it up on a staff that all that looked upon it might be healed. It is this incident that Jesus used in today’s reading to illustrate his crucifixion to Nicodemus.  It is a difficult comparison to comprehend other than that those who look upon the crucified Christ and believe are saved from eternal death. Isaiah’s seraphim are winged versions of the creatures that bit the Israelites in the desert.  Think more along the lines of dragons.  Even these fierce and deadly creatures sing praises to God.

In God’s presence, Isaiah first fears his impending doom because recognizes his sinfulness and knows he is in the presence of the King, the one with the authority to judge and punish him.   He refers to his sin as having an unclean mouth.  Jesus reminds us that sin often comes out of the heart through the mouth.   Isaiah is cleansed of his sin by a burning coal from the altar, at which time; Isaiah is able to hear the voice of God calling to him. “Whom shall I send?”  Sin can often close our ears and our hearts so that we hear only our own voice.  When we repent of our sins, we are able to see and hear God’s presence in our midst.  Isaiah’s response to God is “Here I am Lord.” Isaiah’s vision of God calls us to awe, to penitence, and service, but God did not order Isaiah he invited him, and Isaiah said, Yes, Lord, Send me.  God invites each of us, but we must accept the invitation.

We have been given another image of God through Jesus Christ. The Evangelist John says that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17) As we study the scriptures and pray we begin to know Jesus.  We begin to see the God that loves us, wants only the best for us, and was willing to go as far as dying on a cross to show us how much he loved us.

At Pentecost we have a third glimpse at the God whom we worship as we see the Holy Spirit at work taking people beyond their mortal capabilities so that the Kingdom of God might grow.

Getting a grasp on God is a hard thing.  Nicodemus had trouble understanding.  Jesus was talking to him about the transformation the world was experiencing by his presence.  Nicodemus was taking everything Jesus said quite literally and trying to imagine how an old man can become an infant again.  Jesus was using earthly illustrations to try to explain heavenly things.  When we believe in Jesus, and a closer translation might be to place our trust in or have confidence in Jesus as our Savior, we are able to let go of the burdens of this life and it is like we have been born anew into the Kingdom of Heaven and we are filled with the Holy Spirit.  Jesus describes the Spirit as being like the wind.  This was a very ancient way of describing the Spirit.  Jesus tells us that the Spirit blows where it will. It cannot be seen, but the Spirit’s presence is felt.  It is like that in our lives, when we become filled with the Holy Spirit, we do not look different, but we can feel the presence of God acting on our behalf, guiding us and guarding us whenever we say, “Here I am Lord.”  God, in the person of Jesus, is different from the vision of God that Isaiah had and yet the same.   The same holds true for the Holy Spirit.

God warned Moses and the Israelites not to make for themselves graven images.  God cannot be confined to our imagination and we must be careful not to try to make God fit into our box, but there are times when we need to be able to say what we do and don’t believe about God.  The Apostles and Nicene Creeds are visions of God that help us articulate what we believe about God and about Jesus.  

There are no clear scriptural references to a Holy Trinity, though there are many allusions to the three persons of the Trinity that caused the early church fathers to believe that what they were describing was as close to their understanding of God as revealed in scriptures as we would ever get.  One of the foundational scriptures of the Jewish faith is the Shema.  “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our god; the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). The word we translate as Lord was the name given to Moses that is considered so holy it is never pronounced. All our words fall short because they either describe an action of God such as Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, or they describe our relationship with God and his authority: King of Kings, Lord of Lords.  I can never know anyone of you completely.  I know some of you better than others, but my knowledge of you is limited to my experience of your actions and my knowledge of the things you do.  So it is with us and God.

Sometimes it is necessary to be able to tell others as much as we can about who we believe God is. It was important to the early church fathers that there was no misunderstanding.  We are not polytheist. We believe in only one God.  Yet we experience this God as three distinct persons in relationship with each other: God the creator and Father; Jesus the Christ, the incarnation of the Word of God in man, resurrected to new life, and our redeemer; and the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the breath of God, the one who sustains us.  

It was also important to the early church fathers that we had a clear understanding of who Jesus was because of the impact to our salvation.  There could be no misunderstanding that Jesus was fully God.  If Jesus was less than fully God, he would not be able to offer us salvation.  It was equally important that it be understood that Jesus was fully man. If Jesus was just God pretending to be a man, which was often the story behind many of the Greek and Roman myths, how could we trust that we would also participate in the Resurrection and how could Jesus redeem us.   Jesus was both fully God and fully man.  How can that be?  It is part of the mystery of God.

 We all have our visions of God, based upon our personal experience and the theological instruction we have had.  It is important to try to know God.  Your closest friends are usually those you know the best, and they know the best and worst about you. So should our relationship with God be.  We get to know God by reading the scriptures, by looking for the ways the Holy Spirit is acting in our own lives, and by sharing our experiences of God with others.  Cling tightly to God, but hold your visions of God gently in your hand.  God is bigger than any of our visions.

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Pentecost 2021

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“When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place.”  That statement, so simple, holds a world of meaning.  Behind that statement is a 50-day roller-coaster ride that has changed their lives forever.  In front of it is another long ride that will change the world forever.

Pentecost is an important feast day for Jews. It is called Shavuot.  It began as a thanksgiving celebration at the beginning of harvest time and later also became a time of remembering the giving of the Law.  It is celebrated 50 days after Passover, a sabbath of sabbaths thus the name Pentecost.

Imagine for a minute that you are there.  The air is heavy with the smell of fresh bread, ripe fruit, rich spices, heavy incense, animals and people.  The streets are crowded.  People from all over the world have traveled to Jerusalem for this holiday.  You hear Greek, Latin, Aramaic, some African languages, some European languages, some Middle Eastern languages in a cacophony of sound as vendors push their wares and tourists barter and buy in the narrow streets full of open-air shops. Roman soldiers on horseback patrol the streets.  In a large upper room on one of these streets the disciples of Jesus wait. Perhaps they remember a dinner they had in a room just like this, perhaps this is the very same room where Jesus had shared a meal and washed their feet.  He had said so much that night that they tried to remember, but the evening had ended so dreadfully with Judas’ betrayal and Jesus’ arrest.  In a room like this, or perhaps this very room, Jesus had appeared “resurrected” he called it.  Alive after they had seen him die and be buried and they struggled to remember all the times he had told them that he would die but would come back and they waited trying to understand what it all meant.  

“And suddenly from heaven came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.”  I have lived through many hurricanes on the Texas gulf coast.  We either evacuate or hunker down in a safe building watching the poor news reporters try to stand up and talk in it before it gets too strong.  I have seen trees uprooted and ships set upon dry land.  Imagine for a minute that is happening inside the room where you are sheltering, already worried that you might not be safe outside because of your association with Jesus.

“Divided tongues of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” Now they each look like human birthday candles. I imagine them pointing and trying to explain to each other what they are seeing and asking if there is a flame resting on them that they perhaps cannot see.

“All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit” – This is what they had been waiting for.  This was the promise that Jesus made to them as he left on the day he returned to heaven. 

If things weren’t weird enough, the Tower of Babel is flipped upside down.  Instead of people who sought to be gods losing the ability to speak with one another, people who have been waiting for God now find that their different languages and cultures are no longer a barrier to communication.

This day marks a new beginning.  We remember this day as the day the Church was born.  We are told that Peter, who could seldom open his mouth without putting his foot into it became an eloquent preacher that day.  He preached from a passage in the book of Joel about a day when the spirit of God would be poured out on all people: young and old, men and women, slaves and freemen. Three thousand people came forward asking to be baptized and a community of believers was formed that functioned as a family, taking care of and looking out for one another, sharing from their blessings with those who were in need.

What would happen if instead of just remembering nostalgically about an odd historical incident we remembered sacramentally.  If we claimed the full meaning of anamnesis, the kind of remembering we claim to be doing in the Eucharist where we are not just going through the motions recalling an event from the past, but we are reliving that moment united to those who were there? 

In a few minutes we will recite the Nicene Creed and we will say “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.”   What would happen if the belief we claim was not just an intellectual acknowledgement of some theological definition of the Trinity, but was a believe based on faith, on trust, on willingness to accept the gift of the Spirit and everything that includes.

It is possible it might include some weird experiences.  We experience the sound of a mighty wind and tongues of fire. We might find ourselves communicating in foreign tongues.  We might be invaded by large numbers of people asking to be baptized and wanting to join our community.  We might find our hearts being made more generous so that we begin to look out for the needs of one another more than our own personal wants. We might see people being healed when we pray for them.  God might put us in the path of someone we normally would not hang out with, who might ask us about our faith, like Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch or Peter and Cornelius.  We might find ourselves establishing and nourishing new church plants like Paul.  We might find ourselves writing letters or even books describing our faith experiences for others to read. We might find ourselves traveling to distant lands sharing our faith along the way as Thomas did journeying to India. 

The gift of the Holy Spirit is the power to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world.  It is possible, actually probable that we will make people in power uncomfortable.  Jesus’ hands and feet were nailed to a cross.  Stephen, a deacon, was stoned to death because he dared to speak the truth.  James, the apostle was executed by Herod.  Peter and Paul were probably executed by the Romans.

Today people seek the thrill of danger by extreme sports – climbing mountains, driving race cars, riding bulls, or plummeting down snowy mountains on a couple of boards strapped to their feet.  What if we refused to be content with just sitting in a pew an hour a week and we embraced the danger and excitement of daring to ask God to fill us with the Holy Spirit and really mean it.  What if like Mary, we said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word” and then waited expectantly to be filled with God’s presence. Do we dare to be that bold? Or will we be like the Israelites who after hearing the voice of God told Moses,  “We don’t ever want to hear God’s voice again – you speak to him for us. “

Some of you may recognize this prayer.  If so, if you really mean it, join me, if it is new to you and you are ready to embrace a new adventure just say AMEN when I finish.

Let us pray.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.

O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.

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7 Easter 2021

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As many of you know, I enjoy dabbling in genealogy.  I especially love reading the old colonial wills because they gave you great insights into the life and relationships of the individual.  They all begin with “being of sound mind” much as ours do, but then many of them unashamedly admitted the “uncertainty of life” and give thanks to the Almighty God for all the blessings they had received in life and state “I bequeath my soul to God trusting in the merits of my Redeemer.”  They then proceed to provide for their spouse, children, grandchildren, etc., not suggesting that everything  be sold to “share and share alike” but taking each of those blessing and giving it individually according to need and desire of their loved ones down to the sheets on the bed and the pots and pans in the kitchen.

The Gospel of John, beginning in chapter 17 in many ways reads like Jesus’ last will and testament.  It is the last lengthy prayer we hear from Jesus before his arrest and he reviews his ministry and seeks to provide for those closest to him knowing that death is imminent.  Our reading began at verse 6, but I want to back up to the beginning of this chapter and look at Jesus’ opening remarks to his Father.

“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all that you have given him.” (John 17: 1b-2)  Jesus pleads with the Father for a meaningful death acknowledging that both the authority given to him as well as the individuals who accepted his authority were gifts from the Father.  We have no power, no authority here on earth that God does not allow.  That means that we cannot look at our neighbor and think that we are better because we are richer, smarter, or better looking than our neighbor.  We received from God what God chose to give for God’s purpose.  Also those employers and politicians that really get on our nerves if not always godly in their ruling, have been allowed their authority by God sometimes for purposes that we will never understand in this lifetime.

And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17-3).  Knowledge of God, both Father and Son (and not mentioned here, but Holy Spirit) brings eternal life.  How do we get to know God?  Primarily though prayer and studying the scripture, but according to Paul, also just observing the world around us and being open to seeing God in the beauty of a sunrise or the miracle of birth.

“So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed” (John 17:4) John begins his gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. (John 1:1).  Jesus is ready to go home, to return to his rightful place in the Trinity.

“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.  They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you and they have believed that you sent me.”  (John 17: 6-8) When God tried to speak to the Israelites on Mt. Sinai they were terrified and they said to Moses that they never wanted to hear the voice of God again for fear that they would perish. (Deut. 5) The experience of God they had consisted of fire and smoke, thick darkness another place describes thunder, lightning, and the earth shaking. They heard, but they failed to obey. This time God spoke to them through flesh and blood and Jesus says that they not only heard and acknowledged that he spoke the word of God, they believed and obeyed.

“I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and all yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them “(John 17:9-10).  Jesus is beginning to draw a clear distinction between those who have heard his words, and believed that he was sent from God and those who did not.  Those who believe belong to Him and because they belong to Him, they belong to the Father as well.  But those who do not believe belong to the world.

“And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.  Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11)  Jesus is acknowledging that he is about to leave this physical world and join his heavenly Father, but he is leaving behind all of his students.  They no longer think and live as the rest of the world, yet they must remain in the world.  Jesus is asking his Father to protect them and they are to live together on earth in the same relationship that the Trinity experiences, complete unity.  I was asked this week what I thought about the Wisdom of the Church.  In the first few centuries of the church, bishops would gather from all various areas and meet in Council to resolve matters of doctrine.  We call these Ecumenical Councils and there were seven of them before the Great Schism.  But in 1054 the heads of the Latin and Greek speaking churches excommunicated each other over a doctrinal understanding of the procession of the Holy Spirit.  In the 16th century, the Reformation caused further splitting of the Western church, and while that has been some mending of fences between the east and the west, there is far too much division and dissension within the body of Christ. Pray that we may co-exist within the bond of love and Christian fellowship despite our theological, liturgical, and ethical differences.

“While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. (John 17:12a) There is power in the name of Jesus Christ.  Do not be afraid to use it, but do so appropriately.  I always amazes me how often people invoke Jesus’ name when what they really mean is “I can’t believe you are that stupid.”  That is using God’s name in vain, but commanding evil to leave in the name of Jesus or calling on Jesus to protect us in danger is biblically sound.

 I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled.” (John 17:12b) What about poor Judas?  I don’t believe that God creates evil.  It is against God’s nature.  I do believe that God uses our fallen nature and our understanding of God to enlighten those who choose to respond to God.  I suspect Jesus knew that Judas was likely to betray him and choose him anyways.  Jesus in many ways seems to have set the stage, knowing what the scriptures said, and how they would be interpreted, but that does not negate the scriptures or what Jesus did, it only supports the idea that God works through human efforts to further God’s will.

“But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have joy made complete in themselves.  I have given them your word, and the world has hated them, because they do not belong to this world, just as I do not belong to the world.” (John 17:13-14)  We should stick out like a sour thumb.  Recent immigrants are often easy to spot because they may not speak the same language, sometimes they dress differently, they eat different foods, listen to different music.  Everything about them says, “I am not from here.”  We are to be aliens in this world, because we belong to the kingdom of heaven and we are to take joy in that fact despite the fact that the world around us find us odd, or different, or even to be a threat to their way of life.

“I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.  They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.  Sanctify them in the truth; your word is the truth.” (John 17:15-17)  C.S. Lewis wrote a cute but profound book title “Screwtape Letters.”  It is letters from an apprentice demon to Satan.  He has a hard time understanding that by killing Christians he is not helping Satan, but hurting him.  Lewis indicates the Christians simply go home to heaven.  But that is only partially true.  By taking the Christians out of this world, we remove the Gospel, the Good News and the truth.  Jesus pleads with the Father, do not take them out of this world, but protect them from falling into the hands of Satan. 

We have an inheritance from God our Father, through Christ our brother.  We have an inheritance of joy in this life and life everlasting the world to come.  We also have an obligation to protect that inheritance and to pass it down to our descendants.  What are you leaving to your descendants?  Did you include God in the treasures you are leaving to your loved ones?

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6 Easter 2021

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While still in the midst of Easter we are asked to look back at Jesus’ last night with his disciples, just hours before his arrest. We hear stories of people calling their loved ones in the middle of a disaster – the plane you are in is going to crash, your house has been washed away in a flood and you are floating away with it,  the building you are in is burning and there is no way out.  What would you say to your loved ones in a moment like that?  That is what we are listening to in today’s gospel.

Time is running out.  John tells us that Jesus’ closest companions have gathered for the Passover meal.  Judas has just left the room and Jesus knows what he has gone to do.  Jesus gathers the disciples around him and begins giving them his last instructions prior to his crucifixion.  Previously he had stated that the greatest commandments in scripture were to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Now he gives them another commandment, they are to love each other as he has loved them.  This was to be the defining mark of his disciples, this was how people would know that Jesus was their Lord.

The disciples were so sure that they could do as Jesus commanded yet, Jesus reminds Peter that he will deny him three times, and Philip has to ask him where he is going, because he cannot follow if he does not know where Jesus is going. They simply do not understand.  Over and over Jesus reiterates.  If you love me you will follow my commandments and my commandment is that you love one another not just as much as you love yourself, but as much as I love you.  

So how much did Jesus love them? Jesus tells them “no one had greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for ones friends.”  We tend to think of the cross in this statement, but I think there is much more to Jesus’ life than just the cross.   Jesus, laid down his life the moment the angel told Mary, “Hail O blessed one” and Mary responded “Let it be unto me according to your word.”  Through the Incarnation, God became man and walked among us befriending us.  Jesus set aside his position of glory to be in relationship with us.

Have you ever noticed the difference between the adult that allows children to play at their feet while they continue their adult conversations and the adult that gets down on the floor and plays with the children at their own games? Jesus got down on the floor with us and was willing to play our games.

Love requires relationships.  Jesus got to know people.  He went to the lake front where the men were working on their boats and called them to follow him.  He sat down to eat with Matthew and the other tax collectors.  He stayed in the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  He went into the synagogue to teach and he ate the home of Pharisees.  No one was too rich or too poor, no one was too powerful of too powerless for Jesus to give of himself.

Chick-fil-a put out a training video several years ago.  I think you can still find it on YouTube.  In this video, they filmed a normal day at one of their restaurants and then put captions under the picture of each person – both employees and customers that told something they were experiencing.  One man’s son had recently been deployed overseas.  A widow was remembering it would have been her 50th wedding anniversary that day.  A single mom was struggling to make ends meet.  A young woman had just been accepted into the college of her dreams.  And the list goes on.  I have probably seen it 10 or 15 times and still tear up when I watch it.  The point of the training was to remind their employees that we all carry dreams and disappointments, joys and sorrows which we may not always share but which might affect the way we react to other people.  If we remember that, and it is hard to be that aware all the time, but if we try, we just might be making a step toward loving our neighbor as Jesus loved us.

Love requires listening to people and that requires building a relationship. Trust doesn’t happen overnight and before people are willing to share what is important to them most people want to know they can trust the other person.  Sometimes we have to take the first step and be willing to open the door by trusting them first. 

Love requires that treat others with dignity. Jesus always asked people what they wanted and then found a way to meet their request if it was in their best interest.  Giving of our time and money for homeless shelters and food banks, to aid the victims of domestic violence and natural disasters are all good things and I would not discourage you from doing them, but it is not loving one another as Jesus loved us.  There is an invisible line between us and them when we provide aid out of a position of power and resources to people who have nothing, especially if all we are doing is giving money.   Sometimes our “helping” hurts by destroying dignity or creating dependance. We can only love as Jesus loved when we find ways to meet people as equals in a very unequal world.  I think this is what Jesus meant by the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  This is what Jesus demonstrated when he got down on his knees and washed the feet of his disciples.

Sometimes people make requests of us that must be answered with a NO.  When people asked for healing for themselves or a loved one, Jesus quickly granted their request, but when Peter wanted Jesus to sidestep his own death because Peter felt he needed Jesus’ presence, Jesus denounced the request for what it was, the work of the devil.   Sometimes the loving thing to do requires us to walk away or denounce the request for what it is, the work of the devil.  When by assisting we are enabling someone to injure themselves and or others by giving them the means to continue destructive behavior we must say NO.  Sometimes saying NO is loving others as Christ loved us.

We cannot talk about love without considering the cross.  I don’t believe we serve a blood thirsty God who requires a certain quantity of human flesh in order to offer forgiveness to humankind, but I do believe that through the cross God was reconciling humanity to himself.  The cross was an inevitability of the life that Jesus led.  Out of love for all people, Jesus openly defied the systems and authorities that had been established coming in direct conflict with both the secular and religious leaders of the time.  Jesus carefully controlled the timing and method of his execution so that it provided meaning and enlightenment to those whom he loved.  He related his death directly to the system that was already established, the sacrificial system, and said I love you enough to speak to you in your own language even when that language requires my death for you to get the message that God loves you and wants to be in relationship with you, that God is willing to forgive you and will rescue you if you will allow God to do so.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, love is about forgiveness.  When Jesus was crucified, all the disciples abandoned him. Yet, from the cross itself he called out “Father forgive them,” asking for mercy for Jew and Gentile alike for their part in his suffering. After the resurrection, Jesus sought out the disciples and greeted them with the word, “Peace.” He offered forgiveness even before they asked for forgiveness. Forgiveness allows us to break the chain of hurt and resentment that if passed from generation to generation becomes prejudice, fear, and violence.

Loving as Christ loved is not an easy thing to do. It is guaranteed to require self-sacrifice and cause you pain, but it is what identifies us as Christians.  Jesus said, “if you love me, keep my commandment – love one another as I have loved you.” Are there people we are serving without seeing them as people, without taking the time to get to know them? Are we making assumptions about other peoples needs without asking them what they would like for us to do for them? Are there broken relationships that need to be repaired? Is there someone you need to forgive or someone you need to ask to forgive you? What can we do to demonstrate the kind of love Jesus showed us to others?

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5th Sunday of Easter 2021

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“I am the vine, you are the branches.” (John 15:5a).   This is a beautiful passage that we love to use to decorate everything from tea cups to T-shirts, but have you every really taken the time to read the full passage and digest all that Jesus is saying?

He begins, “I am the true vine” (John 15:1a).  Psalm 80, probably written during the Babylonian captivity recalls the history of God’s relationship with Israel through the image of a vine. “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.  You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.  The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches  it sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the River.  Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it.” (Psalm 80: 8-13). The Psalmist evokes an image of a once cherished and well-tended grape vine that has been abandoned and the wild has overtaken it.  The prophet Ezekiel, writing about the same time uses the image of the vine to remind the people that they are in their current situation because rather than seek after God, who planted and tended them they sought protection from foreign kings. (Ezekiel 17).

Jesus’ opening statement is comforting to us, but would have been discomforting to many of the religious leaders of his time.  Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” Jesus, who has already gotten in trouble several times for stating that he and the Father are one, has now declared that he is the true Israel.  The relationship that Israel, as a nation, had with God the Father in the days of Moses, Jesus now claims has been given to him.  What is that relationship? The inheritor of the covenant made with Abraham, continued through Moses and David that through Israel God would bless the world.  Jesus is stating that God did not break the covenant with Abraham’s ancestors, rather he fulfilled that covenant through Jesus who, through his biological parents, is a descendant of Abraham.  I am sure this did not go over well with many people at that time and can be disconcerting to many people today.  I think it is important to clarify a few things about this statement.  Jesus is speaking to the twelve that are his inner circle.  They are all Jews. Jesus is speaking as an prophet from the position of an insider, offering critique and hope. Psalm 80 accuses God of abandoning His people. Jesus claims that  God does not break his covenants, but because the people had not been faithful, God sent Jesus the only one able to perfectly fulfill humanity’s end of the covenant to represent and to be the root and base of the vine that can once again produce fruit.  Only with a healthy root and stock can the rest of us be the branches which will bear fruit.  This is only bad news if you are spiritually dead and chose to stay that way.

Jesus then says, “He [God the Father] removes every branch in me that bears no fruit.” Jesus has absorbed the identity of all Israel into himself so that when God removes branches that bear no fruit, Jesus says, “every branch in me.”   In fact, Jesus will take into himself the identity of all humankind, not just Israel.

I am well aware that I am a novice in the area of care of plants, especially grapes.  I helped my grandmother pick grapes and make jelly, but that is the extent of my knowledge about them.  I have raised fig trees, though, which must be heavily pruned every year, so I understand the gist of what Jesus is saying.  As I understand it, most plants can benefit from dead wood being removed.  The dead wood can harbor insects and wood rot and takes away from the water and nutrients necessary for a healthy plant to grow.  A lot of dead wood can be made into useful things, but my understanding is that dead grape vine is not good for much of anything.  When a branch is separated from the rest of the plant, either by intentional pruning or like all the branches that fall off my trees with every rainstorm, if they are not already dead, they will die soon.  I pick them up and put them in a pile to be hauled off and burned as trash.  Jesus uses this illustration to demonstrate what happens to us when we turn away from Him.  If we die (cut ourselves off from Christ) while still on the vine, we will eventually be removed to protect those that are living and bearing fruit.  I suspect Jesus was referring to the religious leaders whom he saw as physically attached to the faith, but who refused to recognize Jesus for who he was and who were damaging those in their care rather than producing fruit to nurture those in their care.  Remember the hired hands and the thieves from last week.  Two important things to note here. 1) God the Father is the one who decides when and if the branch needs to be removed, that is not our job.  2) Jesus is using a description of what happens to useless items in his culture. It is a warning to us, not to become useless. This is not a literal description of hell nor does it give us permission to tell people they are trash.  Our baptismal vows remind us that we are to treat everyone with dignity.  We are branches and branches do not get to remove other branches or throw them away.

With figs, the fruit appears on new growth, so you cut the tree back to shape it and to provide room for the new growth in the spring.  I can’t speak for grapes, but perhaps my resident grape growers can fill me in if the same holds true for them.   Jesus says that “every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”  Pruning can be painful.  Pruning means some things which we want to hold on to are taken away from us so that we can be more productive as Christians. A healthy plant will more than make up for what is taken away in due season. 

Plants, like people, have a vascular system.  There are some obvious differences, but the general premise is the same.  Water and nutrients travel up through the roots and the vine, trunk, or stem to feed and nourish the branches, the leaves, and to produce fruit.  Jesus tells us that he is the root system and the vine or trunk through which we the branches receive our nutrition.  He says “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you…”  His words, his teachings are the nourishment we need to stay alive, to grow, and to bear fruit which by the way is how many plants reproduce.  Bearing fruit allows for more growth in general. 

Jesus continues “ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you”.  We must remember this statement cannot be separated from the “abide in me” statement.  If we are abiding in Jesus, what we desire will be pleasing to God and God will be pleased to grant it to us.  If we are not abiding in Jesus, if what we desire is contrary to the will of God, we may have a totally different outcome.

This is the perfect time of the year to get outside and work in our yards or gardens.  If you get the chance to do that, think about how you weed, trim, water and fertilize your plants and imagine what God might want to weed, trim, water and fertilize in your own life.  Remember to bring Jesus to help you in your garden.

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4th Sunday of Easter 2021

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The story of the Good Shepherd is one most of us have heard many times and it brings to mind the pastoral images of Jesus as sweet and kind, but I want us to look closer at this story and what it is saying about who Jesus is.  To do so, I want to back up and put the teaching in context.

It is the Sabbath and Jesus was teaching in the temple in Jerusalem. Some of those present have tried to discredit Jesus by bringing a woman to him that has been accused of adultery, and remind him that according to the Law of Moses, she should be stoned.  Jesus points out that all those around her are also sinners, which does not endear him to the temple leaders. He then pardons the woman, putting himself in the place of a judge.  Jesus calls himself the “light of the world” (John 8:12) and in an extended discussion about his identity with the temple elders, Jesus ends with the statement “Before Abraham was, I am.”   There is no misunderstanding; Jesus has just linked himself with the creator, the one who revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush. In the eyes of the temple leaders, Jesus has just committed blasphemy and they attempt to stone him.  Jesus flees the immediate area of the temple, and along the way, he heals a man who has been blind since birth. Strike 3, Jesus has acted as judge, proclaimed himself one with God, and now in their eyes has broken one of the Ten Commandments by healing someone on the Sabbath which broke their interpretation of Sabbath rules. Jesus will teach that showing a kindness to someone is never breaking the Sabbath.   Who is this man? In the eyes of the temple leaders he is incredibly wicked.  Jesus claims it is the other way around.

Jesus pulls images of shepherds from their own scriptures to further explain who he is.  In Ezekiel 34, the prophet, speaking for God, chastises the leaders of Israel saying, “Ho, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the crippled you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them” (Ezek 34:3, 4). The prophet continues to list the sins of the bad shepherds and the resultant scattering of the flock. He concludes, “For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out” (Ezek 34: 11).  The Psalms also describe God as the good shepherd, David says in Psalm 23 that we read earlier, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1).  When Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd,” he is again identifying himself with the God of the prophets. Jesus is claiming to be the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy.  

Jesus begins by describing the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep. The shepherd enters the sheepfold by the gate; a thief climbs over the fence.  The shepherd is recognized by the one guarding the gate and by the sheep.  Perhaps an image we can better relate to is a person or persons entering their own home by the front door.  If they have a dog, the dog recognizes them and lets them in.  Their children run to them and embrace them, because their children know them and they know the names of each of their children.  An intruder comes under the cover of darkness and sneaks in through a broken window to rob and kill. Jesus is the owner of the home who enters by the front door.

Next Jesus describes himself as the door of the sheepfold.  The door of our homes provides us protection and makes us feel safe.  When we settle in for an evening, most of us check to make sure the doors are secured and then we can sleep without worrying.  Jesus is our door.

Today’s Gospel picks up where Jesus proclaims, “I am the good shepherd.” He states that the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  He has been telling both the disciples and the temple leaders that he will be crucified before it is all over, but no one seems to believe him.  Shepherds who cared about the welfare of the sheep would sleep at the entrance of the sheepfold so if any wild animals or rustlers attempted to harm the sheep, they would have to come actually step on the shepherd first.  The shepherd would face lions, bears, and wolves to protect their sheep.  That is how the young David was able to kill Goliath, because he was accustomed to protecting his fold from wild animals much larger and stronger than himself. Jesus is stating that he will die before he allows any harm to come to his sheep.

Jesus states that he has other sheep that do not belong to this flock, but that he will unite the flocks so that there is one flock and one shepherd.  It is reasonable to assume that John was talking about bringing the Gentiles into the flock with the Jews, but there is still only one flock.  In this age of denominationalism it is easy to say, “We have all the answers and are the chosen ones, you are not.” Jesus calls us to find our common ground and to live peaceable side-by-side within the same fold.

Jesus then talks further about his death and resurrection, stating the Father loves him because he is willing to lay down his life for the sheep.  He does so willingly and is able to take his life up again.  He allows the crucifixion as a vehicle for demonstrating resurrection.  This is what he has been commanded by God to do.

We are called to be sheep. We are called to respond to the voice of Christ and follow him.  We are called to rest peacefully in the knowledge that Christ is our protector.  We are called to come together as one flock living peaceably with one another, both within our family and parish, and with those other flocks that Christ has called to be part of the larger flock.

We are also in some sense called to be shepherds.  By our baptism we are all called into the priesthood of believers.  Jesus told Peter, “If you love me, feed my sheep.”  In what ways are we feeding Jesus’ sheep? Or are we eating the fat, and clothing ourselves with the wool?  What are we doing to strengthen the weak?  How are we healing the sick and the crippled?  Are we bringing back those who have strayed and seeking out the lost?

Now, more than ever, people seem to be trying harder to belong to something while feeling more isolated.  They are seeking approval and acknowledgement of their self-worth.  Social media shows us the many ways people seek attention. Self-destructive behaviors such as alcohol and drugs are often sought as a means of escape from a world that seems too hard and cold and critical, but they are deep pits and ferocious beast that destroy. Some of the violence we see today are people seeking attention in destructive ways.

As you leave this building this morning, look out and see all the sheep wandering lost and aimless. See how many are falling into pits and being devoured by wild beast.  Let us help Jesus bring them back into the fold where they may graze on God’s bounty in safety.

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3 Easter 2021

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Based upon some questions that came up during our Wednesday book study concerning the Trinity and given that today’s gospel story is focused on Christ’s Resurrection and the commissioning of the disciples to tell the story of Jesus’ life to all nations, a commissioning we as the extension of Christ own body have received ourselves, I want to spend some time this morning talking about who Jesus is and what teachings about him the early church felt was important to both protect and to share.

Christianity is unique in that we claim belief in a Triune God.  It is a difficult concept, one that doesn’t easily lend itself to examples without committing heresy.  Heresy is not a lack of belief, but a belief contrary to the teachings of the church. To talk about who Jesus is, we must talk about who our Triune God is.

I want to follow some of C S Lewis’ logic in Mere Christianity and also look at the Nicene Creed, the expression of our faith that we recite every Sunday during the Eucharist.

Lewis’ first question is do you believe in the existence of some form of intelligence that has intentionally created the universe or do you believe that all that surrounds us, the ordering of the chaos, occurred by random accident without any purpose or intentionality.  Are you a theist or an atheist?

Christians are theist, we believe in a higher intelligence and we believe the creation of the universe was done with intentionality and purpose.

Next, is this intelligence separate from creation or is it just the sum total of the universe itself.  The term pantheism is generally used to describe the religious beliefs that the universe is an emanation from god. The universe is the physical expression of god and god does not exist separate from the universe.  Another older Greek definition of pantheism is the belief in “all gods” Pan meaning “all” and theos meaning “god”, like the “pantheon” of Greek and Roman gods.    Christians are not pantheist.  The opening chapter of the book of Genesis and the opening chapter of the gospel of John clearly establish that the creator and creation are separate.   The opening sentence of the Nicene Creed states that “We believe in one God” and describes God the Father as “maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.”

The next and admittedly very difficult question is: If God created the world, and called it good, what happened, because when we look around we see a lot that is not good?

One answer is called dualism.  Dualism states that there are two equally powerful and opposing powers in existence that are at war with each other.  There are various versions of how this works out, but the challenge of dualism is who decides which one is “good” and which one is “bad”? Lewis contends that the very fact that most of humanity considers certain behaviors as bad, means there is some greater law that guides us that defines what is good and what is not good.  That law Christians believe comes from the mind of God and we call it the law of love.  Christians are not true dualists, though we believe in evil forces that we are called to combat. 

How did evil come into God’s good world if God did not will it?  What we believe is that God created both heavenly creatures and human beings with free will because it is only when we have free will that we can love and be obedient out of that love.  Obedience that is compelled by external forces only creates puppets.  If we have free will, we have the ability to be obedient to God’s will or to do as we please.  Often, when we do as we please we find the consequences harmful to others and/or ourselves.  We call this sin, we have missed the mark, strayed off the path and we are called to repent, to change direction.  Often, we tell God to quit backseat driving and we wind up lost or we crash. This is how evil came into the world.  The Bible uses the story of Adam and Eve to explain it.  Humans desired to be like God to the point they became jealous of God, they quit trusting God, they quit doing as God commanded and they suffered the consequence. They allowed evil to enter their world.

There are other religions that would agree with us up to this point.  What separates Christianity from all other religions is not God – the creator, but a Triune God.  A God of one substance, but expressed in distinct three persons.  This is not, as the example is often given, like one person who is a parent to some, and child of another, a person with an occupation, etc.  That is the heresy called Modalism.  We are not talking about one God with 3 tasks, but 3 distinct persons that we experience as such yet that share one will, one mind and who are in relationship with one another.  There is Biblical evidence for this, but for the most part it is something that we must call a mystery, beyond complete understanding.

In the first chapter of Genesis, God speaks and God breaths and chaos becomes order and the world as we know it is formed.  The Jewish word Torah, that we translate as Law means more like the thoughts of God and Jewish tradition holds that it existed before creation.  The Gospel of John tells us that the Logos, a Greek word we translate as “word” but which could also be described as reason, persuasive argument, and which John seems to mean the thoughts of God, was eternally with God, was present “in the beginning” and participated in the creation process, this Logos we are told became flesh.

What was important for the early church fathers to make clear was the Jesus was both fully human and fully God.  There have been and still are people who hold that Jesus was either/or but not both.  Many people see Jesus as a good person, but not God.  That is difficult to reconcile with the fact he was accused of blasphemy by the Jewish leaders.  If he is not God, they were justified in their accusations. Some believe that Jesus was the first of God’s creation, not God, but more than human. If that is the case, Jesus would not be able to be in union with humanity, because he would be other than human.  Others, especially many of the Gnostics who are true dualist, claimed that Jesus only appeared to be God, but that he could not have been human because they believe the material world to be the creation of the evil demi-God.  So we begin the description in the Nicene Creed.

“the only Son of God” – Roman Emperors claimed this title

“eternally begotten of the Father, 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.”

But why and how could God become man?  The why – “for our salvation he came down from heaven:”

The how – “by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary” – we have not talked about the Holy Spirit, yet, but ruach – the word in Hebrew that means wind or breath also means spirit.  Christians believe that wind that moved across the waters at creation and the breath that God breathed into Adam in the 2nd chapter of Genesis was the Holy Spirit.  This same Spirit came upon Mary, with her willful knowledge and consent, forming the infant Jesus of her flesh and God’s Spirit.

How did Jesus save us? This again is a bit of a mystery we know what Jesus did, but not exactly how his actions reconciled us to God.  The Nicene Creed tells us “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate (Pilate’s name is here to indicate that this was a real historical event, not a myth); he suffered death and was buried.  On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scripture.”

That takes us to today’s gospel reading. Luke emphasizes that Jesus’ resurrection was an incarnate one.  Jesus was not some disembodied spirit or ghost.  He eats a piece of fish to prove it.    At the end of the Nicene Creed we state, “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”  Our hope is that we too will experience resurrection, just like Jesus.  We believe that life continues after death, changed, perfected, but we don’t cease to exist, we don’t dissipate into some energy force called God, we don’t continue to live in a cycle of rebirths as someone or something else until we reach perfection. We are resurrected as incarnate beings, still distinctly ourselves.

What does this mean? It means that who we are matters.  What we do in this life matters.  How we treat our bodies and the bodies of others and all of creation matters. Life matters.   Alleluia, Christ is risen and we will too.

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2 Easter 2021

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It is odd, and a little sad, that what history – the human memory of the past – remembers is when someone stumbled or fell, when they made a mistake, an incorrect statement, or even just hesitated.  And right now, it seems that we go out of our way to look for people’s errors to discredit anything good they had accomplished. When we see this between two individuals, we are likely to say that the fault finder is jealous, they are trying to elevate themselves at the expense of another.  When a large portion of a society does it, we find it harder to shake off.  This isn’t new.  It has been happening for centuries.

One of the main characters of today’s gospel has fallen victim to this kind of negative labeling.  He is often called Doubting Thomas, but I think it would be far more appropriate to call him Faithful Thomas or Believing Thomas.

From the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, all we know about Thomas is that he was one of the twelve chosen by Jesus to be his closest companions and his students. It is something that those of us who embrace Christianity and seek to live into that calling share with him.  In John 15:16 Jesus tells those that were with him immediately before his arrest, that “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” (John 15:16).  We believe the words Jesus spoke that night were not just for those who were physically present, but they hold true for those of us who have inherited the faith through them.

The Gospel of John give us a couple more insights into the personality of Thomas. 

The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus and the twelve had gone to Jerusalem for Hanukkah. (John 10:22) It was there that Jesus made the statement, “The Father and I are one.” (John 10: 30) and some of the local people had taken up stones with the intent of stoning Jesus for blasphemy. (John 10:31). Jesus and the twelve had left the area and crossed the Jordon River, effectively like crossing the Rapidan River here takes you into another county;  he moved into another province of the Roman Empire, probably the area that is now the country of Jordon.  While they were there, Jesus gets word that Lazarus is near death, and when he decides it is time to return to Judah, the disciples try to talk him out of it, but it is clear that he is determined.  Thomas speaks up and says to his companions, “Let us also go, that we might die with him.” (John 11: 16).  Thomas is not willing to abandon Jesus to his fate in Jerusalem and is the one rallying the troops so to speak to fall in and support Jesus with courage.

A couple of chapters later, Jesus is trying to explain to the twelve that he is leaving them, but he is talking about leaving to prepare a place for them and they don’t understand.  It is Thomas that has the courage to ask Jesus for clear directions, “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?” (John 14:5).

I see Thomas as forthright, courageous, a born leader, seeking clarification when he doesn’t understand, and one who likes to have all his facts clear and then he makes a very decisive decision.  If you look at Thomas in that light, removing the negative label from him  before you hear the story, does it change how you view the story and Thomas?

It is Sunday evening, the day of Jesus’ resurrection.  Peter and John have seen the empty tomb. Mary Magdalen has spoken to Jesus.  Some of Jesus’ disciples have sought shelter together behind locked doors because they are afraid.  Thomas is not with them.  We do not know why.  Jesus suddenly appears in the room with them. (I always have visions of the Star Trek transporter as this point.) It appears, that Jesus, in his resurrected body is not encumbered by time and space. 

It is an unbelievably poignant moment.  Jesus, whom they had abandoned, whom they had seen tortured, crucified and buried.  He is not a ghost. He is not an imposter – he shows them his scars.  He is not angry at their abandonment of them.  He greets them with “Peace.”  He commissions them to continue his work, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:21).  He breaths on them, giving them the Holy Spirit (John 20: 22) and he gives them the power to forgive sins, just as he had done.  When Thomas arrives, and we don’t know if it was that same night or later that week – “Oh, what you have missed.” Thomas is not willing to accept the testimony of the group.  He is reserving his hope, his expectations until he witnesses the risen Jesus for himself. “Unless I see that mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25) There are a lot of people that we share our experience of Jesus with that seem to say the same thing.  The hope in this story is that Jesus provided that opportunity.

A week later, they are in the same place, the doors locked just like last time, but this time Thomas is with them.  Again, Jesus appears, and apparently just for the benefit of Thomas.  Jesus offers Thomas his hands and his side, the proof that Thomas needed. Thomas’ response is “My Lord and my God!” Once Thomas has experienced the risen Christ for himself, he his wholly committed.  This is one of the highest Christological statements in all of the gospels by anyone other than Jesus himself.  This is a declaration that Jesus is not just a wise teacher or a good role model, this is a statement of total allegiance and an acknowledgement that Christ and God are one.

According to tradition, Thomas took the gospel message all the way to southern India where he was martyred. The Mar Thoma denomination that is now world-wide (I got to work with them when I lived in Dallas) claims that apostle Thomas as their founder. 

How would you like to be remembered by future generations?  I would encourage you to remember that “respecting the dignity of every human being” doesn’t end when that person dies. We are all sinners and we don’t have to approve of actions that are morally wrong, but if Jesus could forgive Peter and Thomas and the other disciples and go on to entrust his mission to them,  I think we need to be forgiving, not just of those who are living, but also, those who have gone before us.

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Easter 2021

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Have you ever lost something that was precious to you and just about the time you have given up hope of ever finding it, it suddenly shows up. The relief and excitement at recovering the lost article is enough to brighten any day.  This is such a common experience to people that Jesus used this illustration several times in his teachings: the woman who loses a coin, a shepherd who loses a sheep, and even a man who loses a son.  Loss is part of the shared human experience.

This year, most of us are feeling loss with an intensity we have seldom experienced before.  Most of my friends are either clergy or musicians.  We live in front of a live audience for a good part of our life.  That evaporated and is just now beginning to come back slowly and with many changes.  Many of you may have lost a feeling of freedom and security.  The ability to go where you want, when you want, hug who you want, sing when you want, share a meal with others when and where you want. I suspect, this year, more than most I am ready for Easter.  I am ready for Resurrection and I suspect you are too.

In our gospel reading today the people in the story believe they have lost someone very precious to them.  They have lost their friend and teacher who has been the center of their lives. Jesus has been their life. Despite his constant attempt to prepare them for what he knew would happen, they refused to accept the idea that he would not always be with them.  When he was arrested, tried, condemned as a traitor, and crucified, they fled in fear, confusion, and sorrow.  Joseph of Arimathea, understood death.  A discrete follower of Jesus before his death, he stepped up and claimed Jesus’ body after the crucifixion and placed it in the tomb he recently had built for himself.  The tomb was then sealed with a large stone disc which was rolled in front of the entrance.  All of this happened, very hurriedly, just before the Sabbath. 

Sunday morning before the sun came up, Mary Magdalene and some other women went to Jesus’ tomb, bringing some spices to anoint his body as was the custom.  When they got there, the stone had been rolled away from the tomb.  Imagine the surprise and the grief of these women.  First their beloved teacher is taken from them by death, and now even his body has been taken. Jesus had told them he would rise again on the third day, but in their grief they had forgotten it.  Even those who had witnessed Jesus raise Lazarus, were unprepared for the disappearance of Jesus’ body. Their process of grief has been interrupted by this unexpected occurrence.

They run to tell Peter, and the other disciples.  Peter, and another disciple, probably the young John, set out to see for themselves what has happened.  As  they approach the tomb the two men break into a run and the other disciple gets there first.   The women appear to be following behind them. As the first disciple approaches the tomb, he peers cautiously inside and sees the grave wrappings rolled up having been set on the ledge where Jesus’ body should have been.  He is frightened and bewildered and does not go in.  Impetuous Peter goes right in to check things out for himself and the other disciple follows behind him.  They can see that Jesus’ body is missing and that his burial cloths are still there, but at this point, they leave saddened, confused, perhaps angry, but it doesn’t yet click for them what has happened.

Mary Magdalene, remains by the tomb. The presence of Jesus seems to cling to this place, and even though she knows the tomb is empty, she longs to be near the memory of his presence.  The others have gone, but she can’t bear to leave.  She peers in the tomb, as though perhaps if she just looks one more time, he will be there.  Instead she sees two angels casually seated on the ledge that had once held Jesus’ body.  “Why are you weeping?” they asked?  Didn’t they know?  Didn’t they understand that the most important person in her life had just been taken from her?  She turns away and there is another man behind her.  He asks her the same thing “Why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” 

Mary cries out to the man she assumes is there tending the graves. “Have you moved him?  Please tell me where you have taken him.  I will take his body.”   Perhaps Joseph didn’t want Jesus in his tomb; perhaps the Romans had said he could not be laid there.  Where was her precious Jesus?  The man speaks her name “Mary.”  

It is incredible how much is conveyed in the human voice.  While Mary did not recognize the physical body of Jesus, she would always know his voice.  “Teacher!”  Mary rushed to put her arms around him, but he held her at a distance.  “I have not yet ascended to my Father.  But go and tell the others, I am ascending to my Father, your Father, my God, your God.”

 Mary rushed back to the others, being the first to share the good news, “Alleluia, our Lord is Risen!”  This was good news.  This was the best news she had ever experienced and she could not wait to tell those whom she loved.  If Mary had lived today, she probably would have tweeted everyone on her contact list and the news would have gone viral in a few minutes.  But then again, it would have been forgotten a few minutes later when some other world shattering news hit social media. 

God knew what he was doing when Jesus came two thousand years ago.  The Good News was spread person to person, with relationships built and strengthened as people shared their stories and experiences of Jesus.  Two men walking down the road toward Emmaus shared it with a stranger, who happened to be Jesus himself.  Peter shared it in Jerusalem on Pentecost, and three thousand people embraced the Good News and began sharing it with other people. 

The Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost experience changed Christianity for the about 120 followers of Christ.  I am sure for many of them, they longed for the days when they could sit at Jesus’ feet and just listen to him.  Now they were the teachers.  Christianity was moving and spreading in new ways, embracing new groups of people, and facing new challenges. 

If COVID 19 has taught us anything I hope it is that Christianity is not about our buildings.  Christianity is not about which songs you sing, what instruments you play or what clothes you wear. Like the early Christians who found life had changed after Jesus’ resurrection, yet Jesus and his teachings had not.  We too must revision the life of our congregations in this new world, but our purpose has not changed. Christianity is about sharing that Jesus whom we love was once dead, but is now alive and has promised that we too can overcome death and experience resurrection.  Our lives will not end when our days here on earth run out.  We will not cease to exist, but will be transformed. 

This is the Good News.  This is what we are called to proclaim to everyone we meet.  Halleluiah!  Christ is Risen!

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Good Friday 2021

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Several times in the gospels, Jesus challenges one or more people to “take up [your] cross, and follow me.”  This challenge is found in all three of the synoptic gospels, and occurs long before Jesus is crucified.  So what did the cross represent before Jesus’ crucifixion?  What was Jesus telling the people to do?

Crucifixion was typically reserved for non-citizens and traitors.   Both John the Baptist and Jesus preached “Repent because the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2; 4:17).  There is no dual citizenship.  One must choose obedience and allegiance to Jesus, or to the princes of this world.  For Christians, when a decision has to be made to either obey one or the other, obedience to Christ must be chosen.  This becomes nothing short of treason to the other.

Who are the princes of this world?  Obviously in Jesus’ time the Roman government was top of that list, but other things made the list as well and these were not intrinsically evil things. These were good things given to us by God, but not intended to be placed before God.

The first competitor for our allegiance is life itself. One of the first things Jesus tells the twelve he chose to be the leaders in training for his new kingdom was “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt 10: 28).  Jesus also told his disciples “those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matt 10: 39).  It was a hard lesson to learn. Peter later rebuked Jesus when he said he must be killed and Jesus called him “Satan” and a “stumbling block.” (Matt 16:21-23). Fear of death leads us to worship the false god of immortality.  Not the immortal soul or life in eternity, but the desire for immortal here in this life on this earth. From the Conquistadores search for the fountain of youth to today’s obsession with beauty and youth, we seek to be like God.  Taking up our cross is a way of reminding ourselves that we “are dust and to dust [we] shall return.”

Jesus’ next instruction to the twelve is not to allow family to become more important than commitment to him. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matt 10:37)  Peter, Andrew, James and John walked away from their boats and the family members that were on them to follow Jesus.  To what extent they stayed away we do not know, not completely, because Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, but I am sure there were many times their families and the other disciples’ families had “other plans” for them that they had to forgo. At one time Jesus’ family, including his mother Mary tried to talk him into returning to Nazareth and stop his crazy behavior.  Jesus responds asking the rhetorical question “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” (Matt 12: 48) He answers his own question saying “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt 12: 50).

Material possessions are another of the princes of this world that call us to worship at other altars.  In Mark, chapter 10 it was the man who came up to Jesus and said, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” to whom Jesus said take up your cross.  Some translations just say “come, follow me”, but the KJV and some Greek manuscripts indicate that he was told to first to give away all that he owned to the poor and then take up his cross and follow Jesus.  The world tells us we need to worry about how much stuff we have and do we have the right stuff.  The billions of dollars that are spent on advertising each year are testimony to the importance the world places on buying and selling stuff.  Jesus says the stuff is not important.  Following me is what counts.

With Jesus’ crucifixion, the cross takes on an additional meaning.  The cross becomes for us the symbol of our Passover from everlasting death.  Jesus is the director in this Passion Play. While the leaders of the synagogue, Herod, and Pontus Pilate may all believe they are in control of the events of Good Friday, Jesus reminds Pilate, that God is the one in charge and that they can only do what God allows.  The scene is set at the Passover which has deep symbolic meaning for the Jews, but the meaning would not have been unknown to the local Gentiles because Passover was a huge holiday.  All the merchants and innkeepers would have geared up for the hordes of people that would descend on Jerusalem for the Passover, just like coastal communites prepare for Spring Breakers.  

After declaring during the previous night’s meal that that wine is representative of his blood that will be spilled and that the bread is representative of his body that will be broken, Jesus allows history to progress normally with his betrayal by one of his own disciples, his arrest by both the Jews and the Gentiles, his trial and physical abuse that so resembles the agony of Psalm 22 and the suffering servant of Isaiah 50 to 53, and finally his crucifixion.  This was not a coincidence; it was carefully staged by Jesus to occur at this time in this manner.  It is clear that Jesus intended his sacrifice to call to mind that first sacrifice in Egypt on the night of their deliverance out of slavery and bondage and to be a reminder for all time that with his blood, we are delivered from the plague of sin and eternal death.

We cannot take up Jesus’ cross.  There is only one cross of Christ.  Richard Harris says in a poem he wrote about the religious struggles in Ireland, “There are too many saviors on my cross, lending their blood to flood out my ballot box with needs of their own. Who put you there? Who told you that was your place?”  We are not called to take up our cross to save the world.  Jesus has already done that.  We are called to take up our cross by swearing allegiance to Christ and to Christ alone.   We should stick out as aliens in a foreign land and no one should have to guess at our nationality. We are citizens of the kingdom of heaven whose allegiance is first and always to our king, Jesus.

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Maundy Thursday 2021

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Many of you may remember Art Linkletter and his radio and film clips called “Kids Say the Darndest Things.”  It was later picked up by Bill Cosby for a couple years in the late 1990’s.  They were funny, because the children unabashedly spoke the truth they had witnessed or experienced, often in ways adults found refreshing in a child, but would never dare to say themselves.  Someone once asked a young girl why we have to be quiet in church.  Her response was “because people are sleeping.” What the girl had witnessed in church gave her a wrong impression of what was supposed to happen in church. Our actions do speak louder than our words.

Jesus has been teaching his disciples through both words and actions from the time he called them until this night.  They still haven’t caught on to half of what he has been trying to tell them.  They still don’t understand that he is about to die.  They are still expecting some sort of military rebellion, perhaps not a full army behind a general on a white charger, but at least some kind of resistance activity.  They are still anticipating that Jesus will supplant Herod and actually sit on a throne ruling Israel, and they are still arguing about who will be second in command.  So, Jesus demonstrates two things and gives them one new commandment. 

First, he washes their feet.  In a country where most of the people walked, wore sandals, and the roads were traveled by livestock as well as humans, a good host or hostess provided a bowl of water and a towel for their guest to wash their feet as soon as they entered the dwelling place.  A wealthy host or hostess also provided a servant or slave, usually the lowest ranking one in the house, to do the actual foot washing.  Jesus assumes this position among his disciples and begins to wash their feet for them.  At first, Peter is appalled.  His mentor, his teacher, has stooped, literally to take on one of the lowest jobs in a household.  Peter may have understood what Jesus was doing better than even he himself realized, because the reason he was appalled probably was tied to Peter’s own ego and his relationship with Jesus.  How many of you have ever been embarrassed by something your parent, child, or friend did?  You were probably embarrassed because you didn’t want anyone to think you would do that, or hang out with someone who did.  When Jesus basically tells him, if you don’t let me wash your feet you are not my friend, Peter suddenly wants a whole bath thinking this is some kind of purification ritual.  Jesus says no, I am just washing your feet because they are dirty and it is the kind thing to do.

Jesus is demonstrating servant leadership.  He is a mentor; a teacher not a political or military figure and they are called to be mentors and teachers not soldiers or politicians.  We are called to be mentors and teachers as well.  I suspect the reason the current generation is not engaged in religious activities is because they watched what we did, rather than did what we said.

The second thing Jesus did was he took the story of the Passover and appropriated its symbolism to help us understand the cross and to alter the way we approach God.  Up to this time, animal sacrifices were used to symbolically demonstrate our desire for forgiveness and assure us of God’s mercy.  Jesus puts an end to animal sacrifices and moves the focus of our relationship with God to the dinner table.  We are no longer subjects expected to cower in fear before God, we are children who are to gather as a family to share in the bountiful mercy of God’s love.

Finally Jesus gives them a new commandment.   Jesus had summarized the law given though Moses to the people by quoting two scripture passages: “The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is the only Lord.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.  The second is this:  Love your neighbor as yourself.  There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)   But tonight he tells his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35). 

The reality is, we don’t always love ourselves or treat ourselves very kindly.  I am sure Jesus was aware of this.  If we only love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves, we may not love them very much or treat them very well.  But, if we use Jesus and the love he had for his disciples as the measuring stick for what love looks like, then we cannot fail.  What did that look like?  Jesus was about to show them.  Nothing that was said or done to Jesus by anyone lessened his love for them.    Jesus asked them to pray with him and for him in the garden during his greatest hour of need, and they fell asleep.  Only a very feeble attempt was made to stop Jesus from being arrested as one of the disciples whacked the ear of the servant of a soldier with a sword.  Jesus had compassion on the man and healed his ear even as he was being arrested.   The disciples slunk around in the shadows as Jesus was being tried and convicted.  Peter went so far as to deny he even knew Jesus on three different occasions that same night.  Jesus’ response is after the resurrection to ask him three times to confess that he loves him and to commission him to “feed me sheep.”  Only John and a few women stay with Jesus while he is dying.  After the Resurrection, Jesus first greeting is not, “Where were you jerks?” but, “Peace be with you.”   Jesus is brutally scourged and crucified, and Jesus’ response is “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

Jesus said if you do this, people will know you are my disciples.  One of the biggest complaints about Christians is that they are not very Christ like.  Some of this comes from people who expect Christians to allow themselves to be taken advantage of, but what Jesus demonstrates is not submission to evil.  He cast out demons, reprimanded religious officials, and even his own disciples.  What Jesus demonstrates on the cross is that forgiveness, not evil is the more powerful force.  We are called to forgive one another for our failings, even when the consequences cause us great pain, because in the long run forgiveness is our best weapon.

This week, be aware of what your actions say to those around you, demonstrate a Christ like love through servant leadership, and remember that forgiveness is the strongest weapon you have for combating evil.

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Palm Sunday 2021

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When we hear the word prophet or prophecy, we are inclined to think of someone who predicts the future, but in reality, this is a common misunderstanding and misuse of the concept of prophecy from the biblical point of view.  A biblical prophet was a spokesperson for God and a prophet did signs and wonders that revealed God’s will to the people.  According to Old Testament scriptures, Moses was the greatest prophet.  The last paragraph in the Book of Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah states:

Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequalled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel. Deut 34: 10-12

Moses, is quoted as saying, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.” (Deut. 18:15).  Early Christians believed the Messiah was prophet, priest, and king.  A prophet like Moses, a priest like Melchizedek, a king like David.  Stephen, the first Christian martyr, relates the history of Israel and reminds the crowd in the sermon that brought about his stoning, “This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, “God will raise up a prophet for you from your own people as he raised me up.”

We have little trouble identifying Christ as priest or king.  The earliest images of Christ is the Christus Rex where he wears both the chasuble and crown, but prophet we have a harder time grasping.   Prophets are wild men, like Elijah or John the Baptist who look like they might smell bad and whom you would not be inclined to invite home for dinner.   

In our first gospel reading we heard the story of Palm Sunday.  Like much of scripture we are accustomed to hearing the sanitized version of the story where sweet humble Jesus rides into town on a donkey and everyone comes to greet him singing Hosannah and waving palm branches, and this is not far from the truth, but we have missed the point. 

King David had promised his son Solomon the rite of succession, but as David lay on his deathbed, there was an attempted coup by Adonijah, Solomon’s half-brother who prior to David’s death tried to set himself up as king.  David gave orders that Solomon was to be put upon David’s mule and brought to a particular place just outside of Jerusalem, where he was anointed king by the priest Zadok and then rode in a joyful procession.   

The prophet Zechariah spoke to the people who had returned from exile in Babylon about the restoration of Israel and Judah.  He declared:

 Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
   Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
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. (Zech 9:9)

When a Roman general had been victorious in battle, they threw a giant parade called a triumph.  But not anyone could organize or claim right to a triumph.  It made a political and religious statement, and only the Senate could give permission.  By Jesus’ time, triumphs were typically reserved for the Emperor and his family. 

Jesus makes a very dangerous religious, political, and social statement when he makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem riding on the colt of a donkey.  He is making what is called a prophet sign act.  He is acting outside of the social norm in critique of the status quo and claiming to speak for God.   He is claiming that he is the rightful king and heir to the throne of David.  This is sure to upset Herod, whose family gained the throne through battle, not bloodline.  This is sure to upset the Romans, because Jesus is defying the right of the Roman emperor to rule in Jerusalem and is claiming victory over that city.  This is sure to upset the Temple priest and officials because if they do not believe him to be the Messiah this is an act of heresy.  As we participate in the Palm Sunday procession, even if we have to do it sitting in our chairs, we are aligning ourselves with the rebellion.  

This is what liturgy is. Liturgy calls us to anamnesis. That fancy Greek word we translate “remembrance,” but it mean more than just calling something to mind.  It means to remember in such a way that we are united with those participating in the original act.  We are traveling though time, so to speak, and embracing the sights, sounds, and emotions of some significant event in our history and making it a part of who we are.  

Jesus performs another prophetic sign act on Thursday night.  The Gospel of Mark, believed to be our oldest gospel, tells us that Jesus and his disciples had gone to the upper room on the first night of Passover.  The Passover as now celebrated, and very possibly celebrated in Jesus day, involved the drinking of 4 cups of wine and 3 pieces of unleavened bread were set aside in a special pouch.  The first cup is the cup of blessing, the middle piece of bread is broken symbolizing the parting of the sea of reeds.   Half of this piece of bread is hidden at this time.  Later in the celebration, after the meal has been eaten, this half piece of the middle piece of bread is “found” by a child, and it is broken in to small pieces and everyone shares this with the third cup of wine, the cup of redemption.  It is believed that it is at this time that Jesus says “Take, eat, this is my body” and “this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many” (Mark 14: 22, 24).

Jesus used symbols that were already heavily laden in meaning and added to them by associating them with his physical presence.  By the act of eating and drinking the bread and the wine, Jesus made those at the table with him one with him.  If they were one with him, then they too in a spiritual sense participated in his crucifixion and resurrection.  Paul says to the Galatians “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:19b-20) When we participate in the Eucharist, we are at that Last Supper with Jesus and the disciples and we do then participate in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

Jesus’ next prophet sign act was to associate himself with the Passover Lamb.  The story of the Exodus was the defining religious and cultural moment for most of Jesus’ disciples.  The story of how Moses ordered the children of Israel to sacrifice a spotless lamb, place the blood on the lintel and doorposts of their home, and then to remain inside, protected by the sign of the blood of the lamb while death passed by informed their understanding of redemption and their understanding of God.  Jesus placed himself in this story by allowing himself to become the final sacrificial lamb, protecting all who trust in him from eternal death.

As Christians, we believe that Jesus is the Incarnation of the second person of the Holy Trinity, who came and dwelt among us and offered to us a means of eternal life and salvation to all who put their trust in him.   We worship a powerful God.  Our liturgies are designed to help us remember and, in a sense, participate in these power sign acts that Jesus initiated.  If you think your priests are fussy or grumpy about the way we do liturgy it is because it means something more than just niceties. Do not relegate Jesus to a kind man in children’s stories. It is in his humility and gentleness that Jesus demonstrates just how powerful he really is.  Jesus can ride into town on a donkey and cause emperors to become nervous.  Jesus can allow himself to be crucified to demonstrate just how powerful love can be.  Jesus is our king to whom we owe absolute allegiance.  He is powerful enough to be victorious over powers and principalities, triumphant over all the forces of evil.   Jesus is the bread of life.  He is the one who gives us life and sustains our life.  Jesus is our redeemer.  He is the one who defeated death at its own game and rose victorious to lead us to victory.

This week we are asked to pause and to remember the price of this victory before we celebrate the joy of it.  May you have a meaningful Holy Week.

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5 Lent 2021

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Wednesday night, during our CS Lewis study, we talked about “tokens” or symbols and some ways we use them and how powerful they can be.  I was in Food Lion the other day and the man behind me noticed the cross around the neck of the woman behind him and immediately started asking her where she went to church.  That symbol was a sign of a common bond.

Jesus made great use of the images and symbols that were part of everyday life for the people he lived among, first century Jews living in Palestine during the Roman occupation. Remembrance of cultural events were part of the cycle of their lives – reading of the Psalms and participation in the annual festivals.   Some have criticized Jesus claiming he manipulated his life to appear to fulfill scripture, but I think this was his great strength.  Rather than hold great theological discourses that could not be understood, he chose to illustrate the mind of God, his own and God’s purpose with stories and even events of his own life recalling symbols they knew and understood.  There was also a historical, cultural precedence for this.  They were called “prophetic sign-acts” and there are about thirty of them in the Old Testament.  Some of the most memorable are the life of Hosea – who takes a prostitute for a wife and then names his children No Mercy and Not My People to show the people their unfaithfulness to God and Jeremiah walking around the streets of Jerusalem with a yoke around his neck to warn the people of their upcoming enslavement. Jesus’ whole life is a prophetic-sign act demonstrating the faithfulness and mercy of God.

In our Gospel reading today from John we are between Jesus’ triumphal entry on Palm Sunday and the feet washing at the last Supper.  We are told some Greeks come to Philip requesting an audience with Jesus. There were numerous Greek speaking Gentiles at this time who were attracted to and participated at the periphery of Jewish life.  They were allowed in the outer court of the Temple, the area where Jesus had cleared out the merchants, but no further. Isaiah declares in chapter 56 that “foreigners” will join themselves to the Lord (v6) and …”my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people” (v7).    The appearance  of the Greeks, though not mentioned again, seems to be a sign for Jesus that it is time to complete what he came to do because he does not tell Philip and Andrew either yes or no, but states ““The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” (John 12:23).

Jesus frequently used illustrations from agriculture to illustrate his points.  That was the life of the people – fish, sheep, grapes, figs, olives and grains. This time Jesus illustrates what he is about to do by talking about seeds.  A single seed out of the ground is inert and appears lifeless.  When you plant it, the seed itself is destroyed, but out of it come roots and shoots and life.  From that single seed will come a whole plant  – Jesus will later call himself “the vine” (John 15:1) and from that plant fruit will be produced which will bear many new seeds.  Jesus is telling his disciples that for new life to spring forth it is necessary to go through death.  He will soon die, but it is not the end it is the beginning.

Jesus tells his followers that they too are like seeds.  I think this can be applied in two senses.  While we are yet alive, we are called to put God’s will ahead of our own self-interest.  Having been granted free will, to surrender that will to another, is in a sense death of self, but as C S Lewis put it in Screwtape Letters, God wants “little replicas of Himself…not because he has absorbed them, but because their wills freely conform to His… He wants servants that can become sons” (Lewis, p.46-47). This death to self is a re-birth like the one Jesus described to Nicodemus, a spiritual rebirth. The other death is the one we will all eventually experience before we can experience Resurrection.

Jesus makes the most out of the historical rituals of his people to make his death and resurrection a neon flashing light that proclaim God’s forgiveness of their sins, the restoration of the covenant relationship, and the defeat of their number one enemy – death, by proclaiming a cure for its cause – sin.  I think COVID has given us a taste of what life was like for most people prior to the last hundred years or so. The difference being, we have hope that this plague will go away soon and have taken extreme measures to avoid it.  For most of history, death was the enemy lurking around every door, there was no cure, no escape. Any injury, accident or act of violence, childbirth, plague or common disease could quickly end a previously heathy life.

Jesus does not approach his death with the romantic notion of glory in battle.  He knows he will be tortured and executed in the most painful and humiliating way possible.  Public executions were the norm at this time.  It was seen as a way of controlling the population by fear. Jesus had probably witnessed a crucifixion growing up in a Roman controlled state. Jesus acknowledges the horror of what is about to happen, but Jesus knows that it is only though death that he can demonstrate resurrection. I think it was intentional  Jesus set up a situation where both Jews and Gentiles would conspire together to have him executed. All people, are equally guilty and all people are equally forgiven. The way the people of his time understood sin and the barrier between it and their relationship to God was deeply tied to ritual animal sacrifice. Jesus makes use of this understanding and times his arrest and execution to coincide with Passover. He uses the Passover ritual to redefine the covenant and ties it to his sacrificial death, he will wash the disciple’s feet and talk about servant leadership, but he has also linked his name with Melchizedek.  He is high priest and king predating the Mosaic covenant, who offered bread and wine as a sacrifice but because he is a high priest, he evokes images of one praying for the remission of sins for the people and performing the blood sacrifice that completed that ritual.  Jesus portrays himself as the righteous king of peace and the suffering servant. He is the good shepherd that looks after and cares for his flock and he is the lamb that will be given as both sacrifice and food for the people. He is the prophet enacting God’s will in story form for the people and he is the fulfillment of God’s prophecy.

The symbols Jesus used may seem strange to us today.  They may feel difficult to look at or imagine, but the message has not changed.  Jesus willing gave up his life so he could demonstrate to us that death is not our enemy, that our sinful natures can be reconciled, that an eternal relationship with God is not only possible, but greatly desired by God.  Jesus has offered himself as the path and has called us to walk with him.

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4 Lent 2021

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When I had a houseful of kids, if something went missing or got broken there were plenty of possible suspects and of course no one ever wanted to confess to being the guilty one.  Now that I live alone, there is no one but myself to blame and when something goes missing, I know who misplaced it.

Confronting our own guilt is never easy, but it is what we are called to do on a daily basis as Christians. The remarkable thing is that we are told over and over again that if we confess, we will be forgiven.

In our Old Testament Lesson we have a rather odd story.  The children of Israel are making their way from the Red Sea which they crossed to escape slavery in Egypt toward the Jordon River and they are taking the long circuitous route to avoid the tribe of the Edomites.  Along the way the people begin to get tired of traveling and begin to complain. They are remembering the good-old-days in Egypt when they were slaves, but had easy access to food and water.  They even called the mana sent down from heaven “miserable food.”  Poisonous snakes invaded their campsite and many people were bit and died.  The people saw this as a sign from God that they had sinned by complaining against God and Moses and they begged Moses to intervene on their behalf so the snakes would go away.  God tells Moses to make a bronze replica of a snake and put it on a pole.  Then when anyone was bit by a snake, if they would look at the snake on the pole they would live.  In effect, what they were doing was acknowledging their own guilt by looking at the snake on the pole, acknowledging the mercy of God by the simple act of looking at the cause of their illness, and receiving mercy from God who prevented them from dying.

This might have just remained one of those odd stories in the Bible except that Jesus made use of this symbol to explain what he, himself will do.

Jesus has been speaking to Nicodemus, a Pharisee who came to him in the middle of the night. This is right after Jesus had driven the merchants off of the temple property.  Nicodemus may have been one of the men who witnessed this event and asked Jesus for a sign.  He obviously is concerned about what his peers would think of him if they caught him speaking to Jesus as a believer – otherwise he would not have come at night.  It is obviously important to him to speak to Jesus, otherwise he would not have gone to all the trouble to seek him out after the others have all gone home to bed.  Nicodemus tells Jesus “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Nicodemus has been watching Jesus and has witnessed what John in the previous chapter calls “the signs that he was doing.”  I suspect this was healing the sick, the wisdom of his teachings, and perhaps Nicodemus was beginning to see in Jesus the fulfillment of the ancient scriptures as Jesus intended.   

Jesus tells Nicodemus that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above;” sometimes this is translated “born again.”  This should have been a compliment to Nicodemus.  He has just confessed that he has seen the kingdom of God unfolding in the presence of Jesus and Jesus has responded that Nicodemus has experienced this new birth which has granted him this vision, but instead, Nicodemus takes what Jesus is saying literally and questions how one can be born again, thinking only of biological re-birth.

Jesus goes on to try to explain to Nicodemus what it means to be ‘born of water and the Spirit”. Nicodemus is still stuck – he is not getting any of what Jesus is saying despite his earlier confession that he knew Jesus had been sent from God and the signs that he did were testimony to that fact.

Jesus is now rather astonished and appalled at the lack of spiritual knowledge in this person who claims to be a religious leader of the children of Israel.  “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”  I can empathize with both Nicodemus and Jesus at this point. Science and math can be hard, but at least you can point to something and say –I observed this and I can testify it is true and if you will observe it, you will see that it is true.  In spiritual matters, we can also point to something and say –I observed this and I can testify this is true, but telling someone else how to observe it for themselves can be difficult. Spiritual experiences are often difficult, if not impossible, to repeat even by those who first had the experience.  

Jesus continues to try to explain to Nicodemus what he is talking about and this is about the place we pick up todays gospel.   Jesus tell Nicodemus that if he is having trouble understanding something earthly, like birth and re-birth, how can he ever understand the heavenly things, but Jesus doesn’t stop trying to help him understand.

He tells him that “no one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”  Son of man is a term that goes back to Daniel where Daniel has a vision of one “like a son of man” (a human being) who is presented to “the Ancient one” and to him is given “dominion and glory and kingship…” Jesus is using passages of scripture that should be familiar to Nicodemus to tell him, I am the one  – I am the Son of Man that Daniel describes and I have come to earth as a man. 

Jesus pulls out another story from the scriptures that Nicodemus should know.  “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  Jesus is describing his crucifixion and comparing it to the bronze serpent that Moses put on a pole in the wilderness.  Jesus will take on the sins of the world at his crucifixion and all one needs to do is look to the cross and acknowledge that Jesus has taken on their sins and has forgiven them and they will be saved – not just for the moment, but for all eternity.

Verse 16 is the first Bible verse most people learn – “For God so loved the world that he give his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “  It is a beautiful summary of the mercy of God, but we seldom pay attention to the rest of the passage and it is a statement of fact intended to cause Nicodemus to wake up to what Jesus has been telling him. 

Jesus emphasizes that he did not come to condemn the world.  The ancient notion of the last days was all about judgement, but mostly about judgement against the other person.  The prophets often reminded folks that in the day of judgement everyone, including you, would be judged, so be careful what you wish for.   Jesus states that we pronounce judgement on ourselves.  “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3: 18) None of us are put in the role of judging another person’s relationship with God, but I can’t state I believe the scriptures to be the inspired word of God and turn around and say it doesn’t matter what we believe.

Jesus gave this warning to Nicodemus – that we could tell the difference between good and evil because “those who do what is true come to the light.”  Symbolically, Jesus is comparing himself to the light but he is also saying that what is true, what is good, can stand up to the light of day – is not afraid of being exposed.  Nicodemus came to Jesus at night because he was afraid for others to know what he was doing.  His motives are questionable.  He is drawn to Jesus and yet, he places the esteem of his peers higher than his desire to be with Jesus.

Looking on our own shortcomings is never easy, but the solution is easy, we only need to turn and look at Jesus, to acknowledge what Jesus did on the cross as the path to our salvation.  We don’t have to completely understand it, but we must be willing to be seen in the light of day embracing the cross.  Are you willing to look at Jesus on the cross and acknowledge that is where your salvation was obtained?  Are you willing to let others know, or do you carry your faith only in the dark recesses of your own heart?  Jesus tells us to put our lamps where the light can be seen.  We are the lamps, Jesus is the light, but it is up to us to determine where we allow His light to shine.  

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Lent 3 2021

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How do you picture Jesus?  Today’s reading is sometimes difficult for people because we tend to picture Jesus as what in literature one would call a flat or underdeveloped character.  We like the wise teacher who is kind to children, but we shy away from the strong, assertive, and sometimes rigid aspects of his personality.   Part of that, I think, is because we don’t really understand the adjectives that we use to describe Jesus as they are used in the Bible.  The one in particular word that comes to mind is humble.

Humble is not low self-esteem. It is not being shy or fearful. It is not necessarily being polite, though I think those two often are found riding side by side. 

The best description I ever heard of ‘humble’ I think will make a lot of sense, especially to all the horsemen and women, in our community.  A wild horse is fast, strong, and will kick, buck and bite to resist being controlled.  Humans by nature are the same way.  But when a skilled person trains the animal to follow their commands, the horse, under certain circumstances becomes gentle, affectionate, and the best horse and rider combinations move as one being, the horse using its power and agility to accomplish the will of its rider.  The horse has lost none of its power and could chose at any moment to disregard the wishes of its rider, but a well-trained horse under most circumstances will be compliant.

Moses was an example of a humble man.  He is the only man, other Jesus, that the Bible describes as humble.  He did not get there overnight and there were occasions when he overstepped his authority and because of that, he did not cross the Jordan with the people he had led for forty years.  God spent 80 years training and molding Moses into a person who could be that connected to God that he could represent God to the Pharoah of Egypt and the infant nation Israel.  Moses was physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually strong.

Jesus, by the very nature of being God incarnate, is totally in-sink with the will of God.  When Jesus attempted to teach in the synagogue in his home town the question arose, “Is this not the carpenter’s son?” (Mark 6:3). The statement indicated that Jesus was not raised as a scholar, but that his father, Joseph built things with his hands for a living and Jesus would have grown up helping him. Therefore, they questioned where he got his knowledge of scripture.  If you have ever worked with wood you know that it requires both strength and agility to build large items like boats, yokes for oxen, and other farm implements out of wood, especially before the advent of power tools.  The times when Jesus was gentle was because he was so strong, not a sign that he was weak.  Jesus could step outside of the customs of his own people and show compassion to women, to children, to the physically ill or disabled, and to the mentally ill or disabled because he did not need to prove himself to anyone.  He was not afraid of anyone, not even the devil himself. That does not mean he did not get sad, tired, hungry, or angry, but Jesus was in total control of his physical self and intimately aligned with God so that when he spoke or acted it was as though God the Father had done so.

So what happened in John chapter 2? Jesus and his disciples have gone from Capernaum, in Galilee to Jerusalem for the Passover. It is about a three day walk.  When Jesus gets to the outer courtyard of the temple, he sees the place is set up like a flea market.  The merchants, taking advantage of the fact that many people had traveled for several days to Jerusalem are set up ready to sell you all those things that you will need to properly celebrate the Passover, in particular, they had the animals you would need for your sacrifice so you didn’t have to bring them on the journey with you and worry that they might not be in perfect shape when you arrived.  They also had people who would exchange your Roman money (which had the blasphemous image of Caesar, who was worshiped as a god) for temple money appropriate for making your tithe to the temple, and of course there was a fee for those services.  Jesus becomes furious. He is angry because people are taking advantage of other people who are trying to worship God on the very grounds of the temple. 

Ritual purity is a hard thing for us to understand because we no longer observe those kinds of laws.  Ritual purity has nothing to do with sin.  You became ritually impure for common things:  having sex, even with your spouse; having a baby; a woman during her monthly period; touching a dead body which included caring for the sick and dying.  Jesus was criticized because his disciples did not wash their hands before they ate.  It had nothing to do with germs or dirt and everything to do with ritual purity.  The merchants in the courtyard were using the laws of ritual purity to make money off of travelers who came to worship in the only place at that time one was allowed to worship on these high holy days.  The temple grounds were considered so holy that latrines were set up off the property so as not to ritually contaminate anything on the temple grounds, yet they didn’t mind making a few bucks off their neighbor.  To Jesus, this was an abomination.

Jesus comes in and creates total chaos.  He makes a whip out of pieces of cords and chases the sheep and cows out into the streets. He upturns the tables of the money changers so Roman and temple coins are rolling around on the ground, and I am sure there were people frantically scrambling to pick them up and sort them out.  Probably still with whip in hand, he yells at those who are selling birds to get out of there.  Today, if this happened, someone would be videoing the commotion while their friend called 911.

We are told the scene caused Jesus’ disciples to remember a passage from Psalm 69:9 “It is zeal for your house that has consumed me: the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”  John quotes the first half of this verse.  I suspect the temple elders remembered this Psalm as well because they don’t call the temple guards to have him thrown out, instead they as ask him , “What sign can you show us for doing this?” (John 2:18) They are asking him to prove to them that he is the Messiah and that he is in fact doing this as a fulfillment of prophecy.  Jesus responds, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  Jesus is offering them resurrection as the proof of who he is.  He is calling his own body the temple – the place where God dwells among men. The gospel of John makes no apologies for stating that Jesus is god Incarnate – from his beginning passage “In the beginning was the Word…” (John 1:1) His statement at the end of chapter 20 “But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you many have life in his name.”(John 20:21). John points out the spiritual blindness of the temple leaders who take Jesus literally and tell him that it took 46 years to build the temple, how can you rebuild it in three.

I would challenge you this week as you read your Bibles to begin to picture Jesus and God the Father as acting as one, just like a well trained horse and its rider, each one acutely aware of the movements of the other, responding the words and actions of each other for a single purpose.  Then imagine what it would be like if you had that kind of relationship with God/Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

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Lent 2 2021

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Last week we looked at the story of Noah, the Ark, and the rainbow. It was a story of a new beginning for humanity in covenant with God.  This morning, we look at God’s next great act of mercy and covenant with humanity as we explore what it means to be righteous in God’s sight.

According to Biblical genealogies, it has been slightly less than 400 years between the time Noah stepped off the ark and the time of God’s first conversation with Abram later re-named Abraham.  These should not be taken as too exact, different calendars were in use and numbers were used more symbolically than literally.  We are told Abram was 75 years old when God told him to leave Haran  and said “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…”(Gen 12:2). Abram did as God asked.  He packed up his family and his possessions and began making his way to Canaan. God did not promise the land to Abram, but to his offspring. (Gen 12:7). In fact, it would be many generations before that part of the promise was fulfilled. The patriarch Jacob/Israel would be remembered by later generations as a “wandering Aramean” (Deut. 26:5) They sojourned for a time in Egypt, then were driven out and sojourned in the Negeb (Negev), a desert region south of present day Jerusalem.  He had many adventures over the next twenty five years, many of which are recorded in the book of Genesis but he and his wife Sarai remained without heirs.  Sarai tried to take matters into her own hand at one time and according to the law of their time, sent her maid, Hagar to Abram as a surrogate, so that she and Abram might have a child, but if you know that story – it was outside of God’s plan for them and it did not go so well, but God had mercy on the child Ishmael, blessed him and promised to make a great nation of him, just not the nation that God had set aside for his immediate purpose. 

Here we enter today’s Old Testament reading.  Abram is now 99 years old and his wife Sarai is way past the time of being able to have a biological child.  Yet God had not forgotten his promise to Abram.  At this time he appears to Abram, renews the previous covenant and gives both Abram and Sarai new names to mark the significance of this promise.  Abram (exalted father) become Abraham (father of a multitude) and Sarai (princess) became Sarah (noble woman).  God establishes another sign of the covenant at this time. “God said to Abraham, ‘Every male among you shall be circumcised… and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.’ (Gen 17: 10-11).  And we are told that Abraham obeyed God’s command to circumcise all the males of his household – both family and slaves.

In a prior verse two chapter’s back, we are told that before this conversation and after a great battle in which Abram is assisted by the King of Salem, named Melchizedek.  (Here again – names are important – this is the king of “Peace” also believed to be the city we know as Jerusalem and his name means “my king is righteousness” or “the king of righteousness.” Christian theologians believe Melchizedek prefigures Christ.) Abram has a dream in which Abram asks of God what God plans for him because God promised to make of his offspring a great nation and his only heir is a slave in his household.  God affirms his intent to make Abram’s offspring as numerous of the stars in the heavens and we are told Abram believed him.  Gen 15:6 states “And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  All this happened before the establishment of the rite of circumcision, before the birth of either Ishmael or Isaac (his son by Sarah). It is long before the giving of the Law to Moses. It is this verse that Paul picks up on in his letter to the Romans.

We are going to fast forward about 2000 years – past Moses and the giving of the law, past David and the establishment of the temple in Jerusalem, past the Assyrian conquest of the ten northern tribes of Israel and the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the exile, past the return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the temple. But there are some things that happened during these 2000 years of which we need to be aware.

When Moses was given the Law at Sinai, he was building a new nation that was intended to fulfill God’s promise to Abraham, through the descendants of his grandson Jacob aka Israel, for them to inhabit the land of Canaan and to become a blessing to the rest of the world because of their knowledge of and faith in the true God. Pagan worship had taken over the world at the time of Abraham, thus his separation from his native homelands. It had again taken over Abraham’s descendants while they sojourned in Egypt.  Part of the law was much like the laws of other lands, intended to maintain civil order, but part of their law was intended to remind them with every breath they took, every bite of food they ate, every article of clothing they put on, that they worshiped the true God, they were his and he was committed to them. Paganism is insidious and God was giving them the tools they needed to combat it, but time and again they would repent, attempt to live according to the law, and then fall back into their old habits. I think we can probably relate.  It is part of the human story.

One of the things that happened between the time of Moses and the time of Paul is that the Law itself became what was worshiped by many. We know from writings in the Dead Sea Scrolls that it was not just theological concerns that separated the various sects of Judaism in centuries leading up to the birth of Jesus.  Sadducees, Pharisees,  Essenes and Zealots also argued over the interpretation of the law over such matters as calendars and ritual purity.  Jesus frequently criticized the religious leaders of his time because they used the law to oppress the poor and the different and they twisted the law, finding loop holes that allowed them to do as they pleased.  The law was intended to unite the community in faith and to protect the vulnerable.

Paul is writing to Christians about 20-30 years after the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus the Christ.  Christians, who initially were a small group united by their experience of Jesus and their belief that he was God Incarnate and savior of the world, were now doing the exact same things that the Jews of Jesus’ time had done.  They are building up walls between themselves and other Christians based upon interpretations of the role of the law post Jesus.  Circumcision in particular, but some of the Roman Christians were pointing fingers at other Roman Christians because of cultural differences.

What Paul is pointing out is that it is not the law that saves us or makes us righteous – puts us in right relationship with God, it is our faith in God and salvation offered through Jesus Christ.

Lest we forget – this conversation did not end with Paul and the first few generations of Christians. It was not just an issue between Jewish and Gentile Christians. The Christian church had its first major split in 1054, what is called the Great Schism.  This was theological but also cultural and political between the Latin west and the Greek east. Then the Reformation of the 1500’s split the western Latin church into Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans and others.  There were political and cultural differences between the Italians, Germans, French, English, Scots, Swiss, (Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Huguenots, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Anabaptist) and others including internal to these groups issues concerning salvation – faith vs works, as well as liturgical practices, theological understandings, and political motivations.

Going back to Paul, who goes back to Abraham – righteousness, being in right relationship with God, and therefore salvation is based on faith.  James in his letters reminds us, that when we have that faith, when we are in right relationship with God, that works naturally follow.  To claim we have faith and to behave as those who do not have faith calls into question our honesty with ourselves.

This Lent, we are called to self-examination for the purpose of affirming our faith, strengthening us in that faith, and multiplying the fruits of the Holy Spirit by becoming attuned to when we are walking in that path and when we have strayed.  Jesus’ reminder is that we are choosing the more difficult path.  It is easy to do what the world expects us to do and to please the world, or to please ourselves, it is much harder to walk in his footsteps.  My prayer for you this week is that you will clearly discern Jesus’ footsteps on the path before you and that you will be strengthened in this journey by your relationships with one another and in company of the Holy Spirit.

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Lent 1 2021

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Symbols can be powerful things. They can tell you at a glance a lot about a person who uses them.  They can cause people to suddenly smile, or become angry.  But I don’t think any symbol has been adopted by more groups of people and used to mean such a wide variety of things as the rainbow. Outside it’s biblical meaning  – in Irish mythology it is the place Leprechauns stash their gold and a sign of the quest for riches, during the Peasants War in Germany it became a political sign of the reformation movement, in 1939 Judy garland sang “Over the Rainbow” and it became a symbol of wishes come true, in the 1940’s the Christian Cursillo renewal movement embraced the rainbow and the Spanish folk song De Colores as a celebration of new creation in Christ, in the 1960’s it was used in peace demonstrations, in the 1970’s it became the symbol of LGBTQ pride, in the 1980’s the “Rainbow Bridge” became the assurance to many that All Dogs Go to Heaven and recently in England, the NHS (National Health Service – free public medical care) has tried to use it which has brought both criticism and confusion to them, their supporters and the general public who has tried to figure out what social or political message is being sent. You may have seen Paul Hollywood’s regrettable rainbow bagels on the Great British Bake Off last season.

Noah and his ark have also had an unusual cultural history.  In the 1800’s and perhaps earlier than that it was one of the few toys children were allowed to play with on Sundays or the Sabbath, an early notion of Godly play. It later became a popular theme for nursery decorations and in Corpus Christi, TX there is a shelter for children entering the foster care program called Noah’s Ark .  Of course there are no Titanic like scenes depicted in these children’s versions, though I imagine a good number of little boys used their knowledge of the story and their imagination to create havoc in the waters.

What is odd about all these varieties of uses of the rainbow and Noah and the Ark is that most of them miss the point of the story which means that over time the symbol of the rainbow has become confused.

The Bible begins with creation, then the story of Adam and Eve and their failure to keep God’s commandments.  Their great sin was the desire to be like God to the point of disbelieving that God had their best interest in mind. They consciously defied God choosing to believe they knew better.  The consequence was they were removed from the garden, from the immediate presence of God, and had to start working in order to eat and have protection from the elements.  The other thing that happened was the relationship human to human was also corrupted.  This is demonstrated in the story of Cain and Abel where Cain kills his brother out of jealousy because Abel’s offering to God was accepted and Cain’s was not.   Chapter 6 of Genesis begins by telling us that human life on earth had become so corrupt that it breached the boundaries between the human and divine realms.  The story of the Nephilim mirror stories in Greek mythology of heavenly beings having sexual relationships with humans and this story may point to the embracing of pagan religions. It was romanticized in the 1998 movie City of Angels, but scriptures state it was a sign of the total depravity of humanity.  We are told in verse 6 that “the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”

Enter Noah – Noah seems to be the one person on earth at this time that was still in constant communication with God.  One man left in all of creation that continued to say his prayers and God let him in on God’s plans for salvation.  God determined to flood the earth, to cleans it with water and to start over with Noah and his family. (This becomes an foreshadowing of baptism.) We have a tendence to focus on Noah saving the animals and fail to see that God saved Noah when he brought judgement to the rest of the earth because of human corruption.  Even the Bible does not dwell on what happened outside of the ark.  It is too horrible to comprehend and while the judgement was executed, the mercy of God is demonstrated in sparing Noah, his family, and two of every animal is the focus of the story.

When the waters had subsided and the ground was dry enough to walk on – symbolized by the dove returning with an olive branch in her mouth (another powerful symbol) Noah, his family, and the animals left the ark.  The first thing Noah does is build an altar.  He doesn’t pitch his tent and get settled, he makes a thanksgiving offering to God by offering one of every ritually clean animal and bird (he had taken more than two of each of these) and sacrificing them to God. This would have been a timely and strenuous task for someone having just spent 40 days at sea, so to speak.  God in turn, in appreciation for Noah’s righteousness – his right relationship to God – makes a covenant with Noah.  God promises he will never again, as long as the earth endures, curse the ground because of humans.  God acknowledges the sinful nature of humans and agrees to remain in relationship but there were some conditions, some acknowledgements of the state of things that God clarifies.  Animals will now fear humans, but humans will now be allowed to eat meat.  God claims right to the blood – the life of all animals, including humans belongs to God.  It is forbidden for one human to take the life of another and God states that “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed: for in his own image God made humankind.” (Gen 9:6)

The story of Noah explains further the situation humanity had created for itself.  It explained the conflict between humans and the rest of nature.  It explained why humans were allowed to eat meat, but the blood was forbidden.  Even today there are pagan cultures that sacrifice animals and drink the blood believing they can absorb the life force of that animal.  God says this is strictly forbidden.  The life of all creatures belongs to God, only the carcass is ours for nourishment. 

The consequence of murder is the loss of one’s life at the hands of another. I think this may be more a statement of fact than a command.  Jesus says those who live by the sword will die by the sword.  In ancient times this led to revenge, and later passages of the Bible address this.  Moses’ “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” was an early attempt to curb feuds and make the punishment fit the crime.  Today we focus on the recognition that all life belongs to God and is therefore to be cherished.

And finally, the rainbow –

The rainbow is a symbol of the covenant God made with all creation.  It is a reminder to us of our sinful nature and God’s mercy.  God says, “I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”  The rainbow is our sign of God’s presence, God’s promise to love and care for all of God’s creation, and a reminder to us of the mercy God has show in the past and will continue to show in the future. We may each embrace one of the historical meanings behind the symbol of the rainbow. It is obviously a powerful and meaningful symbol, but when we see a rainbow – let’s us also remember the true meaning of its symbol – a reminder of our sins, but the promise of God’s mercy and redemption.    

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Last Epiphany (Transfiguration) 2021

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As I read today’s passage out of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, I had to read it twice, because the first time I totally misconstrued what he was saying, and it made me realize some of the difficulties individuals who have been participating in our C S Lewis study are having with the Screwtape Letters.

For those of you who have not been reading this with us, it is a satirical piece that is written from the perspective of an older demon trying to coach his nephew in the art of turning people away from Christ.  The language is upside down because of the perspective.  When I read Paul saying “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ,” I missed the “of this world” part of Paul’s statement which turns everything upside down.  What he is saying is that Satan has blinded the minds of the unbelievers.

Talking about Satan may seem like an unlikely place to begin a sermon on the Transfiguration, but I think considering the last two weeks we have read stories of Jesus casting out demons; if we remember it was after his profession of faith, but just before the Transfiguration that Jesus told Peter, “get behind me Satan,” and in consideration of our Lenten study, I think it is a good place to start.

The word Satan comes from Hebrew and it should draw to mind a court of law, not a man in red tights with horns, a tail, and a pitchfork.  The Satan is the adversary or the accuser.  He is the attorney for the prosecution whose intent is to prove us guilty, and is not above trickery, fast talking and manipulation to accomplish his purpose.  My apologies to any attorneys out there, but this is the image the Bible gives of Satan. 

It is Satan that suggests to God in the book of Job that his servant Job is not faithful because he loves and is loyal to God, but because God has never given him any reason not to be grateful to God.  It is Satan that meets Jesus in the Wilderness and suggests that he should take the easy way out. Why fast when you have the power to make bread? Why suffer when you can demonstrate who you are by your command of the heavenly realm? Why win hearts the hard way, but preaching, healing, feeding, casting out demons and raising the dead, when I (Satan) will give them to you if you worship me?

Mark 8: 31-33 states “Then he [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priest, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said this all quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me Satan!” for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Peter, in rebuking Jesus for saying he will suffer and die, is doing just like Satan did, suggesting Jesus take the easy way out, that he skip the hard part, the suffering and death.   The Corinthians, to whom Paul is speaking had at first accepted the Gospel that Paul had preached.  They understood why Jesus had to suffer and die and that he had been resurrected reconciling them to God, but some “super-apostles” had come behind Paul and told them that suffering was not necessary. They had told them that they could reach God through heavenly ecstatic experiences and skip all that suffering.  Paul tells them that Satan has blinded them to the truth.

 It is with Jesus’ words of preparation for the disciples, revealing that he is about to face suffering and death before his resurrection and his public rebuke of Peter for suggesting he need not go through that pain that we approach the Transfiguration.

Six days have past, and Jesus invites Peter, James and John to go for a walk with him.  I have often wondered if they worried that they were getting a pink slip. That Jesus had had enough and was sending them back to their fishing boats.  These are the three that seem to get in trouble. Jesus leads them far away from the others upon the top of a high mountain.  Mark does not mess around telling a story and he immediately gets to the good part, Jesus is “transfigured” before them.  Jesus starts to glow.  They have been hiking up a mountain and I suspect they are all dirty and smelly, but Jesus looks like an advertisement for Clorox.  His clothes are dazzling, whiter than humanly possible, like lightening when it lights up the sky and he strikes up a conversation with Moses (the giver of the Law) and Elijah (the greatest of the prophets), long dead heroes of the Jewish faith.  What Jesus has offered Peter, James and John – not his troublemakers, but his executive committee, is a model of Resurrection. He is giving them hope.  He is giving them a glimpse of the future.  Peter recognizes the holiness of this moment and suggests they erect of three tabernacles much like the tabernacle that sheltered the Ark of the Covenant during Moses’ time. But Peter still has not really grasped what he has witnessed.

A cloud overshadows them and a voice calls out “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Peter did not get fired, but in a sense, he did get taken to the principles office and was told, quit running your mouth and listen to your teacher.  We do that, don’t we.  We get so wrapped up in our own ideas that we miss the miracles happening before our very eyes. 

In the Screwtape letters, Lewis talks at length about how our own self-centeredness gets in the way of our relationship with God and with our neighbors.  He very astutely points out that sometimes our insistence in being righteous according to our own rules– a “lust for delicacy” he calls it, can be the very stumbling block we put between ourselves and God, as well as making our family and neighbors miserable in the process.

As we approach Lent, let us use this time to examine the ways that we look for the easy way out. It is one of the great temptations.  Jesus never said the Christian life was easy. In fact, he said it will kill you, but I will resurrect you. Let us look for the ways, like Peter, we run our mouths and act like we know better than everyone else and instead, look for the humanity and the godly in our neighbor, and perhaps we will see God.  And finally, let us not miss the transfigurations of life before us by getting so caught-up in the ordinary that we miss them, even when they are right before our eyes.  

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5 Epiphany 2021

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Freedom and obligation.  The late teens and early twenties are an exciting and scary time for most people.  Driver’s licenses, dating, jobs and/or college, marriage, apartments, voting, drinking, military service, bank accounts, taxes just to name a few.  There are a host of things that you were not allowed to or didn’t have to do just a few years earlier and as you get to do them you really begin to learn the word “consequences”.  My oldest granddaughter, whom I raised is 21 and right smack in the middle of all of this.  I have seen her make some mistakes and I have seen her grow in the process. We have all been there or will be.   Our spiritual lives mirror our physical lives in many ways.

 In our gospel story we see Jesus healing the sick and casting out demons.  There are many things that bind us.  It is interesting to me that the most used verb in the New Testament is λμω, I untie or I unbind. Our physical bodies can bind us, especially as we age or if we have an injury or illness. COVID has bound us in many ways.  Care of our own bodies is an obligation as adults that we all have. I am not judging anyone here.  Like Paul I must put myself in the rank of sinners when he says, “For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin.  I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.” (Romans 7:14-15) I want to be physically fit, but when ice cream or tortilla chips call, I fully understand the conflict that Paul is talking about. Sometimes our bodies betray us, and no matter how well we take care of them, something happens to put limitations on our mobility or our senses or even the length of our days.

Jesus also cast out demons.  I cannot either confirm or deny the presence of actual demons, demonic spirits that overtake an individual, but we all have various demons in our lives that keep us bond, that prevent us from being all that we could be.  Physical addictions and just plain bad habits, memories that continue to haunt us, anger that we can’t let go of, fears, real or imaginary, expectations of other people, living or dead. Some of these we can work through by ourselves, but most of us need help, we need someone to show us how to untie the knots, to give us the key to open the lock so we can escape and flourish.  Sometimes a good spiritual friend is enough, sometimes we need profession help, but there is no shame in seeking help.

But Jesus had obligations beyond healing the sick and casting out demons. He could easily have set up shop in Capernaum, become the local physician and made a comfortable living for himself. But he had another calling and he prioritized his obligations. 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. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “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.” (Mark 1L35-38) Work can be something that binds us if we are not careful.  There are never enough hours in the day to get everything done and the more tools and technology we get that are supposed to make life easier, it seems the more we are expected to do. St. Benedict of Nursia was a wise Christian who lived in Italy, about the time of the fall of the Roman Empire.  He left the city and tried to set up a hermitage outside of town, but people kept gathering around him.  Eventually he set up a monastery and developed a Rule of Life for those who lived there based on balance. His rule provided time for prayer, for study, for physical labor, and for rest, and he made his rule flexible enough to accommodate those who were physically or mentally or even spiritually ill or impaired so that they might be part of the community and find their way toward meeting their potential.

Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthian takes up this question of freedom and obligation. Paul had been a very devout Pharisaic Jew.  This particular sect of Judaism in the first century put an emphasis on the oral law, not just what was written in the Torah or the prophets.  He felt a personal obligation to enforce the law, not just upon himself, but upon the whole community.  Only by the whole community following the law was there hope for the nation. But then he met the risen Christ, and he realized that the Law was not salvation, but another form of binding, of enslavement.  Because of humanity’s fallen nature no one was ever capable of saving themselves through the Law, but God through Jesus offered a way to remove those chains.

Paul’s frustration with the Corinthians was at both ends of the spectrum.  Some of the Corinthians had said, that if Jesus saves us by us by believing in him and we are no longer prisoners under the law then we can do anything we please, and they did so.  Others, while verbally affirming that they had been free of the law, still went to great pains to keep it and to impose it on others, even Gentiles who had not grown up in their culture.  We heard him last week talk about the impression we make on others by our actions in regard to eating meat that had been sacrificed to pagan gods.  This week he continues be explaining that yes, we are free through Jesus, but it is not a reckless freedom, it is a grown-up freedom that comes by acknowledging our responsibility to the people around us, especially those who are still children or teenagers in the faith. 

I was blessed to have grown in the neighborhood where many of the Dallas Cowboys lived during the 1970’s, while Tom Landry was their coach.  I do not know if it was the nature of the times, or the coaching of Landry, I suspect some of both, but with only a few exceptions, they took very seriously the fact that they were looked upon as role models to the youth, certainly of north Texas, and I suspect to many across the nation.  Despite their “superstar” status, they were kind, polite, well-mannered and gave back to their community.  This is what Paul is talking about. Not taking advantage of our assets, be it fame or fortune or for us our faith.   As Christians, we believe that we are saved by faith, but that comes with the obligations of an adult faith.  We need to be conscious of our neighbor’s weaknesses, not to judge them, but to help keep the path before them clear so they do not stumble and fall.  Certainly we should never be what they trip over.  

Paul also mentions that “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” He is not talking about hypocrisy; he is talking about walking in other people’s shoes.   I have a friend XXX who has lived this out better than anyone I have ever known.  He felt a call at an early age to be a missionary among XXX.  This is extremely dangerous for both him, his family, and the people he witnesses to, but he has been very successful because he did not approach it from an arrogant “I am better then you are and let me tell you why” approach.  He began by living among them.  He learned their language.  He spent seven years in XXX, learning about the XXX culture.  He made friends, he ate and drank and laughed with them.  He read their books and began having intelligent conversations and debates with them about important matters.  He let them know that he believed they were worth knowing for themselves, and doors opened up for him to tell them about the things that have been important in his life, especially Jesus.  This is what Paul is talking about.  Being willing to meet people where they are and see God in them, even if you don’t like the way they look or dress or talk or their politics or their religious beliefs. This is the starting place.  This is love. We are coming upon Valentine’s day and we will put all our attention on romantic love, but the Greeks were right to clearly identify – at least 4, I have seen on some lists 7 different things that we English/Americans translate into love.  Agape – the love that sees people with the eyes of God and treats them as God would have them treated even if we do not feel like it.  That is the biblical love that Paul talks about and that we are called to possess.

I would encourage you this week to look for ways to unbind, yourself or others.  To live into an Agape, a Godly love, even when you do not feel like it.  And let us all as a community lift each other up and help us all reach the potential that God has put within us.

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4 Epiphany 2021

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“I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (Mark 1:24)

Today’s Gospel reading begs the question, “Who is Jesus?” and beyond that “Who is Jesus, to me?”

When I read current articles about or by the Church, I find all sorts of information about what we are doing or what needs to be done in the areas of disaster management, social justice, reconciliation, environmental education, and alleviation of poverty.  These are all good things, but I do not hear much about the thing that separates us from all the secular non-profit groups who are doing the same things, some of them much better than we are.  The one thing that supposedly makes us different is that we do these things as a natural extension of our belief that Jesus of Nazareth is our Lord, and we believe him to be God incarnate and the Savior of the world.  

I have been re-reading some of C S Lewis’s books and listening to some of his talks on Audible for the last couple of weeks in preparation for our upcoming Wednesday night study of him and his writings.  Two of his better-known quotes are – “Christianity, if false, is of no importance and, if true, is of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.” (God in the Dock) and “Either this man [Jesus] was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse…. Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God. (Mere Christianity) 

I must agree with C. S. Lewis.  If we look at the lives of the early Christians, their primary focus was on telling others the story about who they believed Jesus to be and what they believed he had done for them and everyone else.

This is exactly what Mark is doing in his Gospel.  There is an urgency in Mark’s gospel that we do not always catch reading it in bits and pieces in English.  It is an urgency he places in the life of Jesus and I think an urgency that he fells to get his message out.  Mark’s stories read almost like newspaper headlines, so details he includes he includes with a purpose.

Mark indicates that shortly after Jesus’ baptism John the Baptist is put in prison and at that time Jesus leaves the area, probably near Jericho where John had been baptizing, and travels to Galilee.  Mark does not give us any detail about what prompted Jesus to pick Capernaum, however, the gospel of John suggests that Andrew, Peter’s brother had been a disciple of John the Baptist and first met Jesus in that context.  Andrew and Peter both lived in Capernaum.  

Jesus is at the waterfront in Capernaum and calls out to Peter, Andrew, James, and John while they are in the middle of taking care of the family business.  He does not suggest that they get together after work and discuss a business proposition.  He says, “Follow me,” and they drop what they are doing and follow him.  Mark emphasizes the immediate response of all four fisherman. After calling the four, Jesus’ first stop is at a synagogue on the Sabbath.  He arrives at the synagogue and begins teaching.

I have often wondered if George Lucas had some of these images of Jesus in his mind when he wrote the scene in Star Wars where Obi Wan Kenobi speaks to the guards and seems to be doing a bit of mind control on them.  I do not believe Jesus does mind control on people, it would be contrary to the nature of God, but he obviously had an incredible charism exemplified in the way some people did what he asked, as odd as it may seem, without question.   We are also told that when he taught, it was “as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1:22) I cannot help but feel a little empathy for the scribes.  They probably did a very good job of teaching what they were taught and attributing statements to the earlier rabbis whose authority had been established.  It is what most of us who teach do.  But we are told Jesus spoke with an authority all his own and one that was obvious to those who heard him.

While he is teaching, a man appears who has an “unclean spirit.”  Something about the man, be it a mental health issue, a moral issue, or actual demon possession sets him outside the parameters of what was allowed in the community.  When he hears Jesus speaking, he shouts out. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (Mark 1:24)

It is unfortunate that the word believe holds such a broad spectrum of meaning, especially when it concerns Jesus. One can chose to believe or disbelieve that Jesus ever existed or if he did exist, that he said and did those things that are written about him.  There are a great many learned people who have written books claiming to believe in the historical Jesus but trying to explain away the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and Jesus’s various miracles. I do not think you can do both, unless you believe the apostles and early church fathers and mothers were all delusional or liars.

In our gospel passage today the man with the unclean spirit, not only believes Jesus to be a historical figure, but he confesses that Jesus is “the Holy One of God.”  He does not make this statement in great joy as Simeon did when he held the infant Jesus and proclaimed, “Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised; For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see: A Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.” This man’s cry is a cry of fear in recognizing the one whose power for good was greater than his power for evil. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Acknowledgement of who Jesus is without submission to Jesus’ will is not what God wants. Jesus commands the spirit to “Be silent, and come out of him!” We get a picture of this unclean spirit fighting to hold on to the man, but it is no match for the command of Jesus, the spirit releases the man and he is healed.  There are multiple references in the New Testament to Satan or demons giving intellectual assent to Jesus as the Son of God, but this is not what we mean when we say believe.

To believe as a Christian is to be like Peter, Andrew, James, and John.  They did not fully understand who Jesus was, certainly not until Peter makes his confession at Caesarea Philippi. I doubt they fully understood who he was until after the Resurrection and possibly his Ascension and the sending of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, but they followed.  They made Jesus their number one priority, they sat at his feet and listened to his teachings, they went out when he said go and shared the Good News.  They were human. They blundered and faltered, they doubted and denied him, but they always came back and every time their faith was stronger, their perseverance more focused. 

I am not going to pretend being a Christian is easy.  If it were, we would come up with something besides the ultimate instrument of torture to be our logo.   To throw out a couple more C S Lewis quotes, he states, ““I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” (God in the Dock) But he also says, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” (Is Theology Poetry)

We each need to ask those two questions – first, “Who is Jesus?” Do I believe he is who the New Testament says he claimed to be, who the apostles believed him to be or do I believe something else?
“Who is Jesus to me?” If I believe as stated in the in our Baptismal Covenant that he is “the Son of God” who “was crucified, died and was buried”, “rose again”, “ascended into heaven” and “will come again to judge the quick and the dead” (Book of Common Prayer) how will we respond? If this knowledge is the most important thing we know, who will we tell? 

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3 Epiphany 2021

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This morning, we continue the theme of “call” that we began last week.  It is an important theme for Epiphany which is the time we celebrate God’s word being extended to the Gentiles.  I think it is important to identify what it means to be called or chosen.  I often hear the concept of being called or chosen confused with the gift of salvation.  Salvation is offered to all through Jesus Christ.  It is a free gift that we just have to accept.  To be called or chosen by God is to be selected for a specific task that furthers God’s kingdom.  Abraham was called to be the father of a nation in a specific place whose call would be to bring monotheism to the world.  Moses was called and formed by God for the purpose of bringing those people out of slavery, of establishing a holy nation, one set apart from all others, in covenant with God, in the land promised to Abraham to continue the covenant and call first made with Abraham.  David was called to be the king, the leader, of these peoples who would establish them in Jerusalem and would be the ancestor of the ultimate leader, Jesus.  Call always involves a job or task that furthers God’s purposes but involves a human being in the fulfillment of that purpose.

We get just a snippet of Jonah’s call this morning and I would like to spend some time looking at it in more depth.

There is one historical reference to Jonah found in 2 Kings 14:25 which places Jonah as a prophet during the reign of Jeroboam II, the last king of Israel. This is immediately before the Assyrians destroy the northern kingdom of Israel.  The book of Jonah was probably written after the destruction of Israel and its original purpose is unclear, but clearly the author is wrestling with why God would allow the Assyrians to destroy Israel, a large piece of his chosen people, but the author also gives us a lot of insight into the nature of God’s call and humanity’s response.  

As the story opens, God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, a large city in Assyria and warn the people that he has heard of their wickedness. To put this in perspective, think of whatever county you consider to be the greatest threat to the United States – Germany and Japan in the 1940’s, Russia, Iraq, China.  It is as though God asked you to go to the largest city in one of these countries and tell them that God is not happy with them. How would you react? Jonah’s response is to hop on the first ship going the opposite direction. 

Once on the ship a great storm comes up that threatens to destroy the ship and everyone on it.  The sailors are pagans.  They begin both the practical tasks of lightening and securing the ship and they cry out to their various gods with no result. They drag Jonah out of bed and cast lots, they throw dice or use some random method such as drawing straws to determine who has angered the gods and Jonah is it.  They demand to know what he has done which gives him an opportunity to tell these pagans about the God of the Hebrews, the God who created both the sea and the dry land. Jonah acknowledges that he has disobeyed and attempted to flee from his God and he offers himself as a sacrifice to calm the sea.  The sailors initially resist and attempt to row toward land but the storm continues and they agree to throw Jonah overboard, begging Jonah’s god not to be angry at them.  As soon as Jonah hits the water, the storm ceases and the sailors acknowledge Jonah’s God with sacrifices and vows.  Jonah, even in his disobedience, was used by God as a witness to the sailors of the power and might of Jonah’s God.

God does not abandon Jonah to the sea.  A large fish swallows him and he spends three days and three nights in the belly of the fish. While in the belly of the fish, and Jonah prays a beautiful prayer acknowledging that as he is drowning he makes thanksgivings and acknowledges that deliverance belongs to the Lord.  We are told God spoke to the fish who “spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.”    I always have visions of Pinocchio at this point, but Jesus will later point to this passage as a reference to his death, burial and resurrection. 

One would think Jonah had learned his lesson and when God calls to him a second time with the same request, he begins the three day walk to Nineveh, but apparently as he is walking, he is allowing his anger to boil within him.  He is obedient and warns the Ninevites they have forty days before they will be destroyed, then he walks out of the city.  Jonah finds a place outside of Nineveh where he can watch what happens.  I suspect he is hoping to witness their destruction.   Surprisingly, the Ninevites respond immediately to his warning.  They declare a fast, and everyone goes into mourning, they put on sack cloth and they sit in ashes. Think Lent truly taken to heart.  The king declares a national day of repentance  not just for the people but also the animals in the hopes that God will change his mind.

It is important to note that all the prophets of Israel and Judah were called to warn the people to change their ways to avoid disaster, but they were not heeded.  Later, after both Israel and Judah were destroyed, their message became one of hope and a reminder of God’s mercy.

Jonah gets mad at God.  Jonah wants the Ninevites to be destroyed and God sent him to warn them and they listened.  Jonah complains to God saying, “I know that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” One would think this was a good thing, but Jonah is angry that God has shown mercy on Jonah’s enemies.  Do we ever do that?  Do we ever wish bad things to happen to the people we don’t like? Do we get angry when good things happen to someone we don’t think deserves it?

God decides to make this a “teaching moment” for Jonah.  Jonah pitches a tent outside of the city to pout.  This is a very hot part of the world, and as the sun warms the day, God allows a giant weed to grow beside Jonah’s tent and provide shade for him.  Jonah is very happy about this gift of a weed for shade, but then God sends a worm to eat the weed and he sends a hot wind to blow on Jonah so he is becoming very uncomfortable and once again begins to complain to God. He his very melodramatic and each time he gets angry at God he tells him “It is better for me to die than to live.”

God asks him if he is angry enough to want to die over the destruction of a weed that grew one night and died the next without Jonah having anything to do with its existence and Jonah tells him, yes, mad enough to die.  God then asks Jonah if God, the creator and nurturer of all creation, should not be concerned about all the inhabitants of Nineveh – thousands of adults, children, and animals.

We never hear Jonah’s response.  Perhaps he was wise enough to keep his mouth shut at that time.  I think there are many lessons to be learned from this story.  God pursued Jonah until he did as God asked.  He did not force him, but he clearly let Jonah know when he was not in compliance. Is God pursuing you with some task in mind?  In the story, the people of Nineveh – a violent wicked pagan people, heard the message and repented.  No one is beyond God’s merciful salvation.  We as humans are quick to write people off if we disapprove of their behavior, but God never gives up one anyone.  God didn’t give up on Nineveh and he didn’t give up on Jonah.  Have you given up on anyone? Have you let circumstances cause you to give up on yourself?

In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus warns the people that the only sign that will be given is the sign of Jonah.  I think there is much for us to ponder in this story and in Jesus’ words.

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1 Epiphany 2021

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I have always been cautious to avoid preaching my opinion and have tried to stay focused on the gospel.  When I strongly voice a particular interpretation of some passage, I try to tie it back to ancient, respected theologians or clearly state that this is just my personal understanding of a passage.  I do not want followers or disciples of me.  I want to help you become disciples of Jesus.  I am trying to give you tools to do that, but like Jacob, you must do the hard work of wrestling with God yourself, and you may come away from that process limping.  If you are not familiar with that story it is in Genesis 32: 22-32. 

Considering the events of the past week, and in truth this past year, I am going on the record as saying that I oppose violence under all circumstances. I do so after close examination of the life of Jesus and his earliest disciples.  Also, it is important to stand up for the truth and to protect others from harm, even if you disagree with them. How we do both, avoid violence and stand up for what is right is challenging and people have sacrificed their lives trying. Not wishing to put words in his mouth, I think this is the gist of what Bp Curry was saying in his recent address, though I would recommend you listen to his address yourself and draw your own conclusions.  If you don’t know how to find it let me know and I will help you access it. I am not criticizing the need for law enforcement or the military, though I would hope deadly force is a last resort. I am aware that sometimes circumstances leave people with little choice and sometimes we are faced with choosing the lesser of two evils, it is a consequence of living in a broken world. Even St. Augustine wrestled with the idea of just war, but Jesus stopped Peter from defending him with a sword on the night he was arrested.   Violence begets violence unless we stop the cycle. 

Today is the feast of the Baptism of Jesus.  Under normal circumstances I would be having us renew our baptismal vows in the context of the Eucharist.  I am going to have us do it anyway, because right now I think it is important for us to remind ourselves of the commitments we made at our baptism and affirmed at our confirmation.  If you have not received either of those rites, I invite you to examine what we are saying and if you can affirm the statements honestly, join us in repeating them.  If not, ponder what we are stating and let me know if I can answer any questions you might have concerning them.

Rather than re-tell the story of Jesus’ baptism that we just heard in the gospel I want to go to our baptismal covenant and examine what they say before we renew our vows.

 The first three statements of our Baptismal Covenant concern our belief in who God is.  Do you believe in God the Father?  Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God? Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?  We are affirming the mysteries of the Trinity.  Anglicans, which is what Episcopalians are – along with Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants all affirm a belief in a Trinitarian God despite the difficulties in explaining the concept. There are sects that consider themselves Christians who do not hold the theology of the Trinity and this has been true since the beginning.  The Apostles’ Creed read in Morning Prayer and the Nicene Creed read at the Eucharist come out of councils of the church within the first four centuries before divisions and schisms caused what we now call denominations.  These creeds addressed and clarified the official position of the church concerning conflicting opinions about the relationships within the Trinity and the identity of the three persons of the Trinity.  We are affirming the understanding of the early Christian church when we say these creeds and affirm these statements in the Baptismal covenant.  There is one Sunday a year set aside to cover this theology and this could easily be a whole theological study class.  If you have pressing concerns, please contact me and I will try to help.

The next question is “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?”  We are affirming that we will gather as a community on a regular basis for study of the scriptures, Eucharist, and prayer.  This time of sacrificial fasting from the Eucharist to protect our congregations from the spread of COVID is being done so that we will be able to eventually gather in person again, as many as possible, still alive and well. It is just as hard if not harder on your clergy than it is on most of you. It is intimately tied to who we are as priests. However, we are doing everything we can to continue the apostles’ teachings and fellowship and the prayers.  I also feel like I am “preaching to the choir” when I remind those that are here doing that which we are called to do, but I would hope you would reach out to those who for whatever reason are not with us. Stay connected and encourage them to participate as they are able. Let me know if there is anything I can do to help them get connected and participate.

The next question is “Will you persevere in resisting Evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Jesus took the Ten Commandments and reminded us that you do not have to physically kill someone to be guilty of murder, just hating them, wishing they did not exist is evil.  Even the Ten Commandments themselves recognized that desiring what belongs to someone else to the point that you imagine what it would be like if it was yours and not theirs is a sin. This does not just pertain to stuff.  It could also pertain to power and authority; it could pertain to friends and family.  It is a sin of the heart that puts your desires above compassion for your neighbor and frequently leads to murder, theft, adultery – those more obvious sins against our neighbor.

Paul recognized that doing the wrong thing even for a so-called “righteous reason” is evil and sinful.  He frequently reminds us – sometime subtly and at other times point blank, that all of us are guilty of sin.  Before his encounter with the risen Christ, Paul was actively persecuting persons he considered to be heretics out of his passionate love of God and his religion.  Jesus set him straight and not only his message, but his methods changed.  Paul did not turn around and persecute the synagogue leaders or the Roman officials, but he constantly told people about Jesus, God’s love and the path to salvation offered by Jesus Christ.   He did not allow personal inconvenience or even danger to stop him.  He did not even allow a disagreement with Peter concerning church protocol stop him from sharing the Gospel as he understood it, which meant to everyone, Gentiles and Jews, men and women, the rich and powerful and the poor and powerless.

The next question is “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”  Ghandi was once asked his opinion of Christianity.  He said “I like your Christ. I dislike Christians. They are so unlike him.”  To be a disciple means to learn from and emulate your teacher.  This is one of the reasons Christianity stresses there are no experts in Christianity except Jesus.  We are not called to become like anyone but Jesus.  We can read about and analyze the actions of those we consider saints, but only for the purpose of helping us understand how we might emulate Jesus in our given circumstance.  Back in the 70’s the initials WWJD become popular to decorate all sort of things.  The concept was much better than the execution, but we should be thinking that every word that comes out of our mouth and every action we take should mirror what Jesus would do in the same situation.  We are put in many situations that he did not encounter. The scriptures are not a step-by-step directive on life. They do give us some direct commands and some examples of how those commands have been well or poorly followed. We need to read, learn, and inwardly digest these stories striving to become of one mind with Jesus and self-aware enough to recognize when and how we have failed.  We will fail, and we are called to repent – to re-think our actions and to try again over and over.  

The next question is “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”  A common paraphrase of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is what I grew up calling the Golden Rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is pretty simple when we are talking to children about not hitting or sharing a toy.  It gets more complicated when we talk about people of different cultures learning to live together.  Statements that assume that everyone thinks like you can be painful to others who do not.  I have told people who made statements in a group like “I think we would all agree” to stop speaking for me.  Gifting people with things we think they need rather than asking them how we can help them has been a problem in foreign mission situations for hundreds of years. Enabling destructive behavior is also not loving.   There are some good programs and some horrible programs out there that have attempted to help us “Walk a mile” in the shoes of other people.  Eric Law’s materials are the best that I have seen and some of you have seen me use them, but nothing is perfect.  Being aware of other’s feelings, giving them a chance to safely voice their opinion, treating them with respect and dignity even if you disagree, and holding them accountable to treat you the same way, goes a long way toward keeping this vow.

Which leads us to the last one, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” We all have spheres of influence.  Some of us have small ones, impacting the people in our family, the people with whom we work, perhaps the people in our social circle such as at Garden club or at the gym.  Other people, like Bp Curry, have a much larger sphere of influence based upon their personalities and the authority people and institutions have given them.  We each must strive for justice and peace within our own sphere of influence.  We are not called to save the world, only Jesus had that calling.  We are called to find ways, given our current sphere of influence, to bring justice and peace to those around us.  I think we do this largely by respecting the dignity of every human being.  I am repeating myself, but I can’t stress enough that this does not mean that we have to agree with or condone ideas and actions that we do not find acceptable, but we need to learn to listen to others, seeking understanding and realizing that other people think and feel the way they do based upon their own experience which will be different from our own. We need to use language to support our own opinions explaining to people that this is my experience and why I am making my choice, rather than call them names or criticize their beliefs or behavior.  We need to be willing to treat other people with the same kind of respect we would want them to show toward us if the situation were reversed.  Loving your neighbor is not enjoying their company. That is an added blessing when it happens.  Loving your neighbor is desiring the best possible outcomes for them, even if it you must sacrifice something for that to happen.

At this time, I am going to ask you to renew your own Baptismal Covenant.  Think about what you are saying and pray for wisdom to follow through with your vows.

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2nd Sunday of Christmas 2021

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We cover a lot of historical time in our liturgy this week.  Thirty years give or take a year or two.  Christmas we heard Luke’s version of the Nativity and on Sunday we got John’s theological poetry concerning the incarnation, but by next Sunday we will be looking at Jesus’s baptism, so today we will quickly cover the naming of Jesus, the visit of the Maji, the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, and their return to Nazareth. Hold on to your hats because we are going to be traveling fast.

Each gospel writer highlighted specific details to make a specific point.  Luke, whom we read concerning the birth of Jesus, tells us the story of a Jewish family living in Roman occupied Israel doing very normal things, with some miraculous details that make us realize that God’s hand is heavily involved in this family’s situation.  After the visit of the shepherds and angels Luke tells us that “after eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child, and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” They have gone to the temple in Jerusalem, the only place where the traditional rites and rituals can be performed since the first temple was built by Solomon almost a thousand years earlier.  Joseph and Mary are devout Jews, following the law and tradition of their people.  When God made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants one of the stipulations was that “every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old…”(Gen 17:12) By naming him Jesus, it shows they have not forgotten Mary’s visit by the angel Gabriel before she ever conceived.  Jesus’ name is a Greek version of the Hebrew phrase ”God is salvation”, God being the name revealed to Moses that is never spoken.

At this same time, Mary goes through the purification rites women were required to go though one week after giving birth to a male child as found in Leviticus 12, and the proper sacrifices were made. Leviticus mentions a lamb for a burnt offering and two doves or pigeons as a sin offering.  Luke does not mention the lamb but he merges this rite with the command to “consecrate to me all the firstborn..” Ex 13:1. Exodus continues to explain that firstborn children are redeemed, not sacrificed. Numbers 18:16 specifies a cash offering, but Exodus ties this act back to the first Passover.  Every ritual action is a way of keeping the story alive.  I wish I could ask Luke if he omitted the lamb because he identified Jesus as the sacrificial lamb, telling this story after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, but he leaves that for us to ponder.

Finally, two elderly individuals, Simeon and Anna, both described as devout and righteous, recognize the Messiah in this infant.  These are rituals that happened regularly, nothing miraculous, except that these two knew immediately who Jesus was and praised God for it.  Then Luke tells us that when everything that needed to be done in Jerusalem was done, they went back to Nazareth.

We now switch to today’s reading from the gospel from Matthew.  Matthew’s concern is less about identifying Jesus as a Jew in Rome and more about identifying Jesus as the prophesied “prophet like me” ie Moses and of showing that he is the fulfillment of the ancient prophecies.  In the prior chapter Matthew has already pulled out a quote from Isaiah 7:14 concerning “the virgin” and her son “Emmanuel.”

When people asked John the Baptist if he was “the prophet”, or the Messiah, or Elijah they were identifying three different people expected to arrive and help save Israel.  The prophet is the one Moses spoke of in Deuteronomy 18: 15 when Moses says, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you should heed such a prophet.”

Isaiah 42:6 speaks of the servant as “a light to the nations” Luke puts these words in the mouth of Simeon, but Matthew tells us a story about Jesus’ impact, at his birth, where he demonstrates he is “a light to the nations.”  Israel was a major trade route. It sits on the Mediterranean Sea and before trucks and airplanes, ships were the major way of moving merchandise. Thus, we call it shipping to this day.  Large caravans of merchants would bring their wares from foreign lands to the Mediterranean to sell in other countries.  These large caravans would be like little traveling towns with various service occupations represented.  One coming from what we now call the Middle East would likely have with them Magi.  These were holy men of Zoroastrianism who would have been able to read the stars and other signs and advise the merchants on a variety of things to ensure they would have a safe and successful trip.  Remember, Israel was exiled in Babylon for many years, and the stories of the Jews would be known in what we now call Iran.  Some of these Magi, knowing the Jewish prophecies and seeing an unusually bright light in the sky over Jerusalem, directed their group to Jerusalem to find out if this was a sign that the Jewish prophecies had come true.   

Where would one go to find out important information about the Jewish nation?  To Herod’s palace of course.  I suspect innocently enough, they ask Herod “Where is the child born king of the Jews? (Matt 2:2) But Herod is frightened, and we are told all Jerusalem with him.  One thing we must keep in mind is that Herod was not the rightful heir to David’s throne. In the middle of all the conquering and dispersing of peoples between the exiles and the birth of Jesus, Herod’s family, Edomites, had converted to Judaism and had come to power by cooperating with the dominant powers in the area. A rightful heir from the line of David would be cause for him to worry that he would be deposed.  Herod apparently had not been keeping up with his study of the scriptures because he had to call together all the chief priests and scribes to find out what these Magi were talking about.  Matthew gives us an amalgam of two verses Micah 5:2 “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel.” and 2 Samuel 5:2 which speaks of David, “It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.”

Now Herod was a crafty ruler.  He pulls the Magi aside and asks for the detail of their observations – and then commissions them to go find the child and bring word back to him of Jesus’ location “so that I may go and pay him homage.” (Matt 2:8) The Magi leave and find the infant Jesus and present him with three gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  The numbers, names and ethnicity of the magi have come to use though song and legend, not through scripture.  We are not told where the Holy Family were living at the time, only that it had been about two years since the magi first spotted the star.  We assume they are in Bethlehem because that is where the scriptures said he was born and where we assume the magi go to find him. Don’t let the fluidity of time in scripture confuse you.  They were not worried about the details as much as they were interested in the symbolism and the universal truths the stories told.

An angel visits the magi in a dream and warns them not to return to Herod and they return home bypassing Jerusalem.  It is not long before Herod realizes they have alluded him and he begins working on his plan B. He will have all the male children under two years old living in Bethlehem killed, thus eliminating the potential heir.  An angel visits Joseph in a dream and warns him to flee to Egypt.  Matthew sees this as the fulfillment of another prophecy, Hosea 11:1 “out of Egypt I called my son” – The full verse states “When Israel was a child, I loved him and out of Egypt I called my son” which is a reference to the nation of Israel as a whole, but Jesus in Matthew’s eyes is now the embodiment of the nation of Israel.  Also, just like Moses, who was sheltered in Egypt as a child, protected from the slaughter of the infants by Pharaoh, now too Jesus, the “prophet like me” is sheltered in Egypt from another slaughter of infants by Herod.  Matthew then quotes Jeremiah 31:15 “Rachel weeping for her children” which lamented the death of the children during the fall of Northern Israel, but “wailing and loud lamentations” from Ramah, a town between Bethlehem and Nazareth was appropriate to Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem.  Finally we are told Herod dies and Jesus and his family return from Egypt and settle in Nazareth, which Matthew tells us fulfills another prophecy, “He will be called a Nazorean.”  This one is harder to discern to what Matthew is alluding.  The Harper Collins Study Bible suggest it could relate to the Hebrew word netzer meaning “branch” or the Nazirite, which refers to vows one took abstaining from wine and cutting of the hair like Sampson and John the Baptist. (Society of Biblical Literature, 2006). But as you can see, Matthew’s purpose in telling this story is to show to his audience that Jesus is the fulfillment of the scriptures and the one like Moses, the prophet, for whom they have been waiting.   

This literary and theological use of parallel understandings of passages may seem strange and not completely legitimate to the way we read and analyze stories today, but allegorical interpretation was not only common but encouraged by early Christian leaders.  There are four types of interpretation.  The literal for historical meaning, the anagogical which deals with the future, prophecy, eschatology or end times, etc., the typological which reads Christ into the Old Testament, such as seeing Jesus as the shepherd in Psalm 23, and the moral which is used to determine how we are to live in light of what the scriptures reveal.

Beginning Jan 6th, we will begin Bible study via ZOOM on Wednesday evenings at 6:30 pm.  We are going to begin with what I am calling Bible Basics, looking at the formation and structure of the Bible, tools to help make things clearer, what does it mean to be inspired, and how is it relevant today.  I hope you will join us.

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Christmas Day 2020

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The year 2020 has been a difficult one for most of us by comparison to what we think of as normal.  Depending upon your profession, you may have been overworked or struggled to find work.  Many people lost loved ones this year, and many others were separated from their loved ones by time and space if not by life and death.  The year Jesus was born was not an easier or harder year, just a different one.

God could have chosen noble parents for Jesus and he could have been born in the comfort of a palace or at least a landed estate.  There were plenty around, but none from the line of King David and God had made a promise that he intended to keep.  David’s ancestors were Jews, and the royal city of Jerusalem was under the protection of the Roman Empire. It was a peaceful time provided you did as Rome told you and did not voice any objections to their authority. But Rome had no tolerance for free speech, free assembly, or even passive aggressive acts of disobedience. No one was safe.  Julius Caesar had himself been stabbed to death by the Senate for acting like a monarch.

Luke very intentionally places the story of Jesus, this Jewish Messiah, in the middle of Roman history.   He tells us that Augustus was Caesar.  He reigned from 27 BC to 14 AD. He took control of Rome after the execution of Julius Caesar.  He became what terrified the Roman senate about Julius, an Emperor.  Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was a historical figure as well.  He became legate of Syria (which included Judea) after the banishment of Herod Archelaus in 6 AD.  One of his first duties was to hold a census for the purpose of taxation. (Quirinius, n.d.). 

Censuses were considered bad omens in the superstitious world of first century Judah.  Exodus 30:12 states, “When you take a census of the Israelites to register them, at registration all of them shall give a ransom for their lives to the Lord, so that no plague may come upon them for being registered.”(NRSV) The Talmud, an ancient authoritative commentary on the Jewish scriptures forbade a census of Israel as a result. (BRODY, 2012)  So, not only would this census be unwelcome because of its purpose and source, but there would be both a fear if one failed to comply of the wrath of Rome and a fear if one did comply of the wrath of God.

Luke tells us that everyone went to their own city to be taxed.  We tend to put the emphasis on Bethlehem being associated with King David, but it is likely that Luke also meant that Joseph was born and raised in Bethlehem.  He possibly had parents and siblings there and probably lots of cousins.  Mary, according to tradition was from Nazareth or near there.  Joseph may have been there visiting his intended and her family prior to their marriage or he might have been working in the area.  There was a large Roman town called Sepphoris less than four miles from Nazareth (that is now an archeological dig) that would have provided plenty of construction work.   

Luke takes Mary who is nine months pregnant and due any day on a journey of just less then 100 miles.  Our Christmas cards all show Joseph walking and Mary riding a donkey.  I hope she had a donkey, though nothing in scripture tells us they did, and it would have been considered quite a luxury for a carpenter.  They arrive in Bethlehem which is very crowded.  All the adult kids who were out in the world trying to make a living have come home for the census.  There are no Days Inns or La Quinta’s in first century Bethlehem.  Not even a good English pub with an upstairs bedroom.  Joseph and Mary probably found a place to stay with relations, but when she went into labor there was “no room” in the κατάλυμα (THAYER’S GREEK LEXICON, n.d.), the upper room area where guests would gather to eat and sleep when visiting the family (same kind of place Jesus had prepared for his Last Supper) and so she was moved downstairs where there would be more room and more privacy for a women only activity, giving birth.  This room, among other things, served as a place to protect, at night, what little livestock – a lamb, a goat, a few chickens that the family raised for food.  Into the floors would be hollowed out areas where the feed for the animals was placed. It probably had fleas and smelled like a barn. This is where Mary placed the new-born infant Jesus, because it was better than the cold hard floor.  It is hardly as romantic as a wooden manger in a horse stable or barn on a dairy farm in the countryside. 

There is a grotto, a small cave in the basement now of a large church, that by tradition is where Jesus was born.  I have been in it.  There is not much to see.  The opening is only about four feet high. You have to duck to go in and it is just a small room either dug out or probably naturally formed in the rock.  Israel is covered in these small rock indentations. People used them for shelter, for storage, for religious shrines and all sorts of things.

Bethlehem was probably a community built around sheep management.  It was the area where David, before becoming king, looked after his father’s sheep. And in Biblical times it appears to have been a fertile area of rolling hills.  And we are told by Luke, that there were shepherds out in the fields with their sheep when Jesus was born. 

These shepherds were the first ones mentioned as coming to see Jesus as an infant.  An angel appears to them out in the fields, and of course they are terrified.  The angel assures them that they have nothing to fear and that he is there to give them Good News.  The Savior, the anointed one, the Messiah has been born in “the city of David.”  Not only did God chose to arrive as a common man, he chose individuals from one of the lowest levels of society at that time, to tell first.  The sign they are to look for is the swaddling clothes and the feeding trough. Most infants at that time were probably wrapped in bands of cloth, but most were not placed in a feeding trough. 

When the angel had finished his message he was joined by a whole host of heavenly creatures who were singing praises to God.  It was as though at that moment, the curtain between the earthly realm and the heavenly realm were parted for just a few moments.

Once the shepherds regain their composure after their heavenly visitation, they lost no time in seeking out the child.   Can you imagine a bunch of shepherds sticking their heads into everyone’s entry door checking to see if there is a baby in the feed trough?  People must have thought them nuts, but they persisted until they found him, just as the angel had said.  And they told Mary, and Joseph who is now at Mary’s side, what they had seen and heard and everyone else that they saw.  Perhaps by this time, more family members or neighbors had joined them.  We don’t put them in the nativity scenes because they are only named as “all who heard”, but I doubt it was a quiet night for Mary and Joseph.

So chaos and disorder are the nature of things sometimes, but right in the middle of it all, is Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, the Son of the Father, Emmanuel – God with us.

References

BRODY, S. (2012, March 22). Ask the Rabbi: May Israel conduct a census? Retrieved from The Jerusalem Post: https://www.jpost.com/jewish-world/jewish-features/ask-the-rabbi-may-israel-conduct-a-census

Quirinius. (n.d.). Retrieved Dec 22, 2020, from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quirinius#:~:text=Publius%20Sulpicius%20Quirinius%20(c.,the%20purpose%20of%20a%20census.

THAYER’S GREEK LEXICON. (n.d.). Lexicon :: Strong’s G2646 – katalyma. Retrieved from Blue Letter Bible : https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G2646&t=KJV

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4 Advent 2020

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We have heard the story of the Annunciation so many times, and seen it in art work, and sung about it in hymns to the point that all we hear is the Hallmark version of a sweet Christmas story.  The truth of the story is much more suspenseful, and frightening, and full of courage and hope than we normally acknowledge.

We live in a culture where people pick and choose if, when and whom they will marry for purely personal reasons.  Frank Sinatra’s song “Love and Marriage” no longer holds much weight for younger generations, and governmental regulations regarding pensions, community property, and insurance coverage make it a very difficult for widows to remarry.  But in first century Jewish Palestine, it was a life or death matter.  A family’s honor was closely linked to the purity of its women.  Land was the most important asset to a family.  Most people lived off their land: what they grew and the flocks they raised provided them food and clothing.  Marriage and inheritance laws closely guarded property rights. One did not want the property that they had worked and protected all their lives going to another man’s child.

Mary and Joseph were betrothed, and very possibly had been since they were small children.  Their lives were all laid out for them.  Joseph’s father had probably been in the construction industry.  We think of Joseph as a carpenter, but very few people had wooden furniture and no one had kitchen and bathroom cabinets.  He built things with his hands, as his father probably did as well, possibly farm tools or fishing boats. He may have also worked in stone in building construction.   Joseph would marry Mary as his parents had planned. He would work beside his father until his father’s death, at which time he would take over the business and his sons would work beside him.    Mary had been learning to cook, to clean, and to sew almost since she had been old enough to walk.  She would marry Joseph, have his children, keep house, look after their parents as long as they were alive, and be cared for by her children in her old age.    Then they both receive a visit from an angel. 

We don’t know how old Mary is.  She could be as young as 12, but peasant girls often married in their late teens or early twenties.  However old she is, she is all grown-up in her society, busy helping keep house and care for younger siblings and cousins.  You won’t find her in front of the television, texting on her cell phone, or listening to Apple Music or YouTube.  She has no sports team, dance or music lessons to occupy her time.  She is grown-up in her understanding of the need to work to survive, and in the religious practices of her people, but she is still childlike and innocent in many ways.  She is probably busy with her cooking or her sewing when suddenly an angel appears before her and announces “Greetings, blessed one! The Lord is with you.” We are told that she was perplexed by this greeting.  I often wonder if the angel appeared like an attractive stranger that happened to wander in off the street, like Cary Grant in “The Bishop’s Wife” or if he was some strange other worldly creature that materialized before her like you see in most works of art.  “Greetings, blessed one! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.” A strange man, even a good looking one, appearing in a woman’s work area at that time in history would be cause for alarm, but this one seeks to comfort her and brings good news.  “You have found favor with God.”

How often do we long to find favor with someone, anyone.  In school we wanted our parents to be proud of our report cards.  We want the blue ribbon when we enter a contest.  The trophy when we play sports.  The applause of the crowd when we perform.  Imagine someone walks in unexpectedly and unannounced and says, “God is proud of you.”  It must have been a “WOW!” moment and then – the stranger continues. “You are going to have a child, and his name will be Jesus.  He is going to sit on the throne of your ancestor King David and he will rule forever.”  Now she is really perplexed and probably quite frightened.  All she can think in that it is not possible.  “How?” she asks, “I have never known a man.”  She may be engaged, but she is not married yet.  Another reason to say, “How?” is not mentioned in this passage but is the fact that there is a king already sitting on David’s throne in Jerusalem.  His name is Herod the Great, and he is a puppet king, subject to Rome.  He is not of David’s line and he is not liked by many of the Jews. The angel continues telling her that by the power of the Holy Spirit she will conceive and as proof, he tells her that her elderly cousin Elizabeth is now six months pregnant. Elizabeth was long past the time of having children and she had believed that to have been impossible as well. Nothing is impossible for God.

And so Mary trusts the angel and submits to the will of God.  Did she think, “Joseph is going to kill me when he finds out”?  Possibly literally.  This was an option open to betrayed fiancés.  Did she wonder how her family and friends would react?  Did she worry that they might not believe her story? Did she visualize herself pregnant, abandoned, and starving to death?  Did she trust that if God got her into this situation, he would certainly get her out?  Apparently so.

Mary then hurries off to see her cousin Elizabeth with her secret. 

A woman cannot hid her pregnancy forever and in small towns gossip spreads like wildfire.  Sometime before Jesus’ birth, Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant.  We don’t know much about Joseph.  We know that he was a carpenter from Nazareth, of the tribe of Benjamin.  He was alive when Jesus was twelve, but appears to have died before Jesus began his ministry.  We don’t know if he was a young man in his late teens or early twenties, or if he was an older widow to whom the young girl Mary had been betrothed.  We are told he was a just man.  He did not want to have Mary executed or even publicly humiliated, and so he planned to “put her away quietly.”  I can remember when I was a teenager, girls who got pregnant in high school went to visit a distant relative, which meant they went to a home for un-wed mothers and then put their child up for adoption.  Perhaps it was something of this nature that he had in mind.

But Joseph had a troubled sleep the night he made that decision.  As he tossed and turned an angel came to him in his sleep and explained to him all the things that had been explained to Mary about the parentage of her child.  I wonder if Joseph contemplated the way people would point at his child in the street and laugh, calling him names that reflected poorly upon his mother.  I wonder if Joseph worried about how is parents would react when he told them he was going through with his marriage to Mary.  Whatever his concerns, Joseph acted in obedience to God’s will.

Mary and Joseph listened as God spoke to them through the angels, and although God’s plan was guaranteed to alter their plans, they submitted to God’s will and trusted God to handle the future details.

No one will receive as life altering a message from God as the one that Mary and Joseph heard, but God seeks to speak to us daily if we are willing to listen and obey.  There are times when the Holy Spirit is gently, or sometimes not so gently trying to speak to us: those nudges of our conscious when we are about to do something we shouldn’t or say something we shouldn’t, the passages of scripture that jump out and seem to speak directly to some situation we have been wrestling with, the times a sermon or retreat talk or some other conversation seems to have been written just for us.  These may be times the Holy Spirit is seeking to tell us, “Greetings, favored one.  The Lord is with you and has a job for you to do.” Will you follow Mary and Joseph’s example, step out in faith, and say, “Here I am Lord, let it be to me according to your will.”

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3 Advent 2020

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Today, on this third Sunday of Advent, I would like to turn our attention to our Old Testament reading from Isaiah.  First, I would like to put it in the context in which it was originally written, but then I would like to look at how Jesus used this passage according to Luke.  We did not read that passage this morning, but I think it is critical to a Christian understanding of this passage.

While Sabbath is not specifically mentioned, it is alluded to in this Isaiah passage. To begin, let’s look at the concept of Sabbath found in the Scriptures.   We are first introduced to this concept in Genesis chapter two where we are told “God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from al the work that he had done in creation.” (Gen 2: 3) Initially, God set one day in seven aside for a special kind of rest, but by the time we get to Moses you will see that there is much more to this notion of Sabbath.  In the ten commandments we are told “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…”  (Exodus 20: 8-10) Sabbath is not just about you resting, it is about you not putting material desires ahead of the needs of your family, employees, livestock, or even the person that follows different customs than you which resides among you. Sabbath is beginning to take on a meaning strongly associated with love your neighbor.  One of the ways we love our neighbor is to respect their need for rest, family time, and time to worship.  In the book of Leviticus, after the Israelites crossed the Jordan and entered the promised land Sabbath is further expanded.  Additionally, every seventh year was a Sabbath year, where the land could rest, an early God ordained conservation program.  Finally, after seven weeks (sets of seven) years, i.e. every 50 years, there was to be a Jubilee year when debts were forgiven, indentured servants were released and people who had lost their ancestral homes because of financial reasons, got their land back.  (Lev 25).  This was all part of a complicated system designed to have the community treat each other and the rest of God’s creation, fairly and compassionately and help alleviate generational poverty.

Fast forward to Isaiah 61.  This passage was probably written shortly after Cyrus the Persian gave the Jews permission to return to Jerusalem.  It is the first light after a very long period of destruction and despair.  In 721 BC, the Assyrians had wiped out the ten northern kingdoms of Israel, if they were not killed, they were deported to parts unknown.  About a hundred and fifty years later, the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and any Levites living in that area were attacked twice by Babylon. The first time those living outside of Jerusalem were deported and shortly afterward, there was a three year siege on the walled city of Jerusalem.  When it fell, many who had not starved to death were deported to Babylon; the city and the temple were completely wiped out, and a small handful of the old, sick, and poor made their way back to Egypt. Jeremiah the prophet went with them. Now a handful have begun to make their way back to Jerusalem from Babylon, to the land they believed God had given to them though his covenant with Abraham and Jacob.  The prophet is saying that God has anointed him to bring Good News to the oppressed and the broken hearted.  Who are the oppressed and broken hearted?  The Jews that had been carried away from their homeland into a foreign land.  What is described in Isaiah 61 as the year of the Lord’s favor looks a whole lot like the description of the Jubilee year in Leviticus.  But what about that “vengeance” passage? How can “the day of vengeance of our God” be good news?  They are not expecting God’s vengeance to be upon them, but upon those who have sacked their cities, driven them from their homeland, and treated them like slaves.  God is seen as the just and righteous judge who will make a fair judgement in their favor and against their enemies.  

We are going to fast forward again this time to the first century, in a town called Nazareth, in Galilee, a region north of Jerusalem that would have been part of the area overtaken by the Assyrians.  The whole area both Jerusalem and Galilee are now under Roman occupation.  Jesus has just been baptized by John, spent forty days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan, and the first place he goes is back to Galilee where he grew up.  He makes it to Nazareth, his hometown, and he goes to the synagogue on the sabbath.  It is not surprising that someone offers to let him be the reader that day and they hand him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.  Jesus turns to the passage we read this morning and reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me 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.”  So far so good.  They even look favorably upon him when he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  They are not catching what he is saying. Not yet. 

What is Jesus saying?  He is identifying himself as the “anointed one”.  In Hebrew the word is Messiah, in Greek it is Christ.  He is proclaiming that it is not the prophet, but himself that the scripture points to as the bearer of good news. His job is to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and to proclaim the Day of the Lord.  His childhood friends and neighbors eventually reject him we they realize he is including Gentiles in his Good News and some of them they may fall under God’s judgement.

So how does this apply to us today?  Jesus clearly identified himself and his ministry with that described in Isaiah 61.  As Christians, we claim to be part of the Body of Christ.  If that is true, then Isaiah 61 holds true for us as well. COVID has put us in a place of exile.  We are no longer able to worship in the manner that is both familiar and comforting to us.  I also think we need to look at who we are as a church and begin to re-evaluate what that means.  How do we live into our identity as the Body of Christ in a place of exile, while maintaining hope that so much of what is currently being denied to us may soon be returned, because if we lose hope, if we say this is too hard and I’m done, there will be nothing to go back to.  I don’t have all the answers, but I am certainly ready and willing to go on that journey with you and would ask that you join me as we persevere together in seeking God’s will at this time.

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2 Advent 2020

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At Halloween it is fun to watch the little kids all dressed up.  Many of them chose some iconic character from movies or cartoons.  It changes every year as new characters are created and others are forgotten, but some seem to be timeless.  You do not have to ask who they are if they are dressed up like Superman, or Batman, Snow White, or Ariel (the Little Mermaid). When I was a kid, we might dress up like a historical person. Anyone with a coon skin cap in Texas had to be Davy Crockett.

There were iconic figures in ancient times as well.  One of these people was the prophet Elijah.  Elijah was definitely a character that stuck out. In 2 Kings 1: 8 some messengers of the king Ahaziah of Israel encounter a strange character on the road who prophesies the king’s death because he put his faith in the pagan gods instead of the God of Abraham.  The king askes them to describe the man they met, and they say, “a hairy man, with a leather belt about his waist” (2 Kings 1:8a).  The king knew immediately who it was, “It is Elijah the Tishbite,” he said. Elijah had quite a reputation. He multiplied oil and flour for a poor woman so she and her son would not die of hunger.  Later when that same boy fell ill and died, Elijah raised him from the dead. On more than one occasion, He called down fire from heaven to aid him in his cause. He wiped out great number of pagan priests and soldiers sent to stop his prophetic proclaimations .  Finally, scripture says he did not die, but was carried to God in a fiery chariot carried up in a tornado. 

Keep this image in you mind because we will come back to it shortly.

Mark begins his Gospel “In the beginning” just like Genesis and the Gospel of John, but he does not begin with the good news of creation. He begins with the Good News of Jesus Christ and he refers back to passages in Malachi and Isaiah.  He attributes them both to Isaiah which indicates he has memorized these passages and is not looking at an actual written document.  His audience knows their scripture as well.  Perhaps not chapter and verse, those delineations are a late additions after it became common for people to have printed manuscripts, but they knew the stories of their people by heart.

John is calling the people to participate in a ritual washing or bath and calling them to repent or literally change their mind and go a different direction. We tend to think of repentance as saying “I’m sorry,” which may need to happen, but true repentance means that we are not just sorry we got caught, or sorry we hurt someone’s feelings and now they are mad at us.  It means we have changed our priorities and we intend to live life differently going forward.  Repentance is more than a New Year’s resolution that we might keep until it becomes inconvenient.  Those are often directed at bettering ourselves for ourselves anyway.  It is embracing the life which puts God first, everyone else second, and our personal desires toward the bottom of the pile. Just a word of caution. Self-denial has often been taken to mistaken extremes.  We are precious to God and taking care of our mental and physical health so that we might be able to worship God and to help our neighbor is a good thing.

Mark describes John the baptizer for us in more detail than he describes anyone else.  Mark is wanting to make sure that when we look at John, we see Elijah. Remember how Ahaziah described Elijah.  Mark says, “Now John was clothed with camel’s har, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” (Mark 1: 6) Why would Mark do that?

The Jews, the people from Judah that were left after Assyria destroyed the northern kingdom, anxiously waited for what they called “The Day of the Lord.”  They believed that on this day God would set everything right.  The prophet Malachi (which is the last book in the Christian ordering of the Old Testament scriptures, but not the last book as it is currently ordered in the Jewish Tanakh) ends with this statement, “Lo, I will send you the prophet, Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.”  Even today, at the Passover an extra place is set at diner for Elijah and someone goes to the door during the meal to see if he has arrived.  Mark is telling his audience that John was Elijah.  Matthew goes so far as to have Jesus say, “…John came, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.  Let anyone with ears listen!” (Matthew 11:14).

John proclaims, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.”  (Mark 1:7) A proper host at this time would provide for his guest to have his sandals removed and his feet washed.  People walked everywhere on hot dusty roads in leather sandals and it was comforting to be able to get out of your dirty sandals and wash your feet, but the act itself was always done by the most menial of servants.  Most people considered themselves too good to take off someone else’s sandals.  John says here that he, John, is not worthy to even do that for Jesus because Jesus is so special.  Jesus, you will recall will do just that for his disciples on the day we call Maundy Thursday to demonstrate to them that they were being called into servant leadership.

Finally, John says “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  John’s baptism was a symbolic ritual act of submission and intention to lead a new life, but on our own, we cannot accomplish that.  We are destined to fall back into our old habits, unless we allow the Holy Spirit to fill us and guide our will so that our will aligns with the will of God.  It is Jesus’ own spirit that fills us, which is why Paul describes the totality of believers as “the Body of Christ.”  In both Greek and Hebrew, the word for Spirit can also be translated as wind or breath.  At creation, as God spoke, his breath moved over the waters of chaos bringing order and all live to all the living things upon the earth. God breathed into his human creatures to bring them to life.  Jesus breathed on his disciples after his resurrection to fill them with his Spirit, and on Pentecost it was like a hurricane blew through the room, filling everyone who would accept the Holy Spirit into their very being.

 John tells us to prepare and to repent because the king is coming.  I was so touched by the preparations that were made on my behalf when I arrived.  The hospitality I have received is overwhelming and I am just a county parson.  How much more should we examine our own lives if the guest we are expecting is Jesus. Are there places in our hearts where we need to scrub away some dirt, mend broken relationships, straighten, and polish, and clean out the closets of our minds and our hearts.  This Advent, let us find the places where our spiritual paint has cracked, the weeds need to be pulled, and doors unjammed to make room for the Spirit of Christ this Christmas and to prepare our lives for the time we meet him face to face. 

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1 Advent 2020

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There is a popular old film, often shown at this time of the year called “Meet Me in St. Louis.”  It tells of the ups and downs of a middle-class family.  Toward the end of the movie, the father decides, just before Christmas, that it is in the best interest of the family to move to another town.  For his girls, it seems like the end of the world.  There is a particularly touching moment in the film when Judy Garland’s character sings, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to Margaret O’Brien, playing her little sister in the story.  It is a song calling one into the joy and hope that Christmas brings, and is particularly meaningful at this moment in the story, because she sings it at a time when their hopes have all been shattered. Under normal circumstances, this time of year can be difficult for those for whom Christmas may not feel like a time of joy: individuals who are alone, individuals who are facing financial hardships and are unable to participate in gift giving, individuals whose health may prevent them from participating in the holiday activities.  This year, with the restrictions and fears of COVID, with the increased work load for those on the front line battling this disease, for those with decreased work loads but increased financial anxiety and boredom, for those juggling working from home and home schooling children it may seem that all our hopes have been shattered.  But in these times, reminders of the hope that lies within us can give us strength and courage to persevere.

Our readings this morning may not seem like a favorite Christmas movie.  They are dark and complex, full of confusing symbolism for us, but to the people who originally heard them, they were messages of hope. Isaiah is pleading with God to remember all the times God rescued Israel in the past. God has not forgotten, but in his prayer, Isaiah is remembering and hoping.  Jesus draws from Israel’s tradition, from the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly Isaiah, Joel, Ezekiel, and Daniel.  These are stories that have brought comfort to God’s people for generations in in many difficult times.

Israel has gone through several periods in her history where hope became a very fragile thing.  The Assyrians captured the ten northern tribes of Israel and dispersed them among the nations, never to be returned.  Then Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem, destroying the temple of Solomon and with it the Judean form of worship, and carried the tribes of Judah and Benjamin into captivity in Babylon and Egypt.  They eventually returned and rebuilt the temple, only to have it desecrated by the Seleucids.    Isaiah, Joel, Ezekiel, and Daniel used imagery of cosmic chaos to prophecy about these events.   Isaiah says, “for the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising and the moon will not shed its light.” (Isaiah 13:10) This is not a prediction of some kind of eclipse that will occur before the events Isaiah is predicting (though it is possible a natural phenomenon informed his use of symbolic imagery).  Isaiah is metaphorically using the illustration of cosmic darkness to describe the evil and destruction that is occurring and God’s response to it.  Isaiah continues, “I will punish the world for its evil and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant, and lay low the insolence of tyrants.” (Isaiah 13:11)

Jesus uses the same language, language that sounds strange to us, but that is familiar to his disciples to assure them that God will bring justice against those who oppress Israel, in this case, most immediately Rome. Jesus is describing the time of his crucifixion and resurrection. Mark’s readers can add to that the destruction of the temple in 70 AD and Jewish war with Rome which was bubbling under the surface at this time.  Jesus tells them, “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” (Mark 13:24-25) He is calling to mind the imagery from the earlier prophets to link current events with the history of God’s faithfulness to Israel. 

The book of Daniel was probably written about the time the Seleucids invaded Israel.  It reflects on the period of the Babylonian captivity and by remembering God’s faithfulness to those who remained faithful to God; hope was renewed in a very difficult time.  Daniel has a vision that he describes saying, “I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven…  His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14).  Jesus tells his disciples, “then they shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great glory.” (Mark 13:26).  Daniel uses “like a son of man” to indicate their salvation will come through a human being.  Jesus takes on this title for himself, both connecting himself to the savior in Daniel’s vision and contrasting his reign with that of the Roman emperors who identified themselves as “Son of God.”  After something terrible happens, Jesus will appear victorious.

 The use of metaphor and apocalyptic language allows Mark to apply multiple meanings to Jesus’ words.  For the disciples, Jesus’ crucifixion will feel like the world is coming to an end, but Jesus’ resurrection will prove that he is triumphant.  For Mark’s audience, the destruction of the temple in the Jewish-Roman war will feel like the world is coming to an end, but Jesus promised that if he left, he would return.  Last week, when we listened to the beginning of this passage Jesus appeared to be speaking  of the  immediate future,  and in today’s reading he even mentions  that  “this generation will not pass away before these things happen” (Mark 13:30), but as he continues he appears to move more and more toward a time in the undetermined future.  His message moves from immediate caution against deceptions, overlaid with hope for a brighter future, to caution against complacency brought on by waiting.

When God’s people were waiting for the first coming of the Messiah, they had no timetable to rely upon.  They had the law and the prophets which pointed toward the Messiah and gave them hints about how to recognize the Messiah, but they did not have Advent Calendars which allowed them to precisely determine the date of the Messiah’s arrival.  Some like the shepherds, the Magi, and Simeon remained watchful and recognized the Messiah, even from his birth.  Others like Herod and many of the temple priests and Pharisees claimed to be watching, but spiritually fell asleep. 

Staying awake does not mean proclaiming yourself to be a prophet and charting the future.  That is not even what prophets did, they told unvarnished truth about the present in the hope of calling people to repentance and changing the future. Those who attempt to predict and describe Christ’s second coming are entering an exercise in futility.   When Jesus says that when we see these things it is like seeing green shoots on the fig tree does not mean we know when the figs will be ripe, but it is a sign of hope that the fig tree will bear fruit in due season.   It is a sign of the hope of spring on the edge of winter.  Jesus’ resurrection was and is our hope of spring on the edge of winter.

There is an old English proverb, “Good things come to those who wait.”  We are waiting now.  Waiting for COVID to go away.  Waiting for normal, which in reality, has changed so much things will never be exactly the way they were before, but we anticipate they will be better than they are now. 

This Advent we are called to wait, but not to wait passively like those who lie down on the couch, fall asleep, and miss what they are waiting for.  We wait like one expecting an important guest.  We clean our house and cook nourishing food.  We examine our souls, dusting and scrubbing where necessary. We feed our souls with the bread of life and living waters, and we wait in eager anticipation for the arrival of our Lord.

It is my hope, that we will use these difficult times, not to fall away, to fall asleep, but to become more creative in our response to God.  My hope is that we will find ways to support one another, to worship together, to get back into the scriptures for Bible study, to engage both young and old in the life of the church.  My hope is that we will come out on the other side of this pandemic stronger and wiser and more alive than when it started.