3 Lent 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Lent 2022

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

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

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

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

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

In this Psalm David states,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lent 1 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Epiphany 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 Epiphany 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For example:

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

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

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

6 Epiphany 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Epiphany 2022

What does it mean to be called by God?  During the last couple of weeks we have read several “call stories” and there are many others in the scriptures as well.  I would like to look at a few of them in depth and see what they have to say to us.

Our Old Testament reading this morning was about the call of the prophet Isaiah. 

We know very little about the early life of Isaiah. There has been much speculation. Was he from a priestly family, from the aristocracy?  We have no proof of either, but we do know that Isaiah was well educated. He was very much aware of the political situation of his time.  He was aware of the life style of the rich and famous as well as the poor and downtrodden.  He had access to kings which was common for prophets, but just how he came to be recognized by them as a prophet we do not know.

Isaiah tells us that he had his vision, his sense of call in the year King Uzziah died.  This would have been in the year 742 BCE.  Just three years before this Tiglath-Pileser III took the throne in Assyria. The kingdom he took over was in a period of decline, but Tiglath-Pileser III turned that around and made Assyria one of the most powerful and aggressive nations at that time. 

Israel (the ten northern tribes) and Judah had split after the reign of Solomon roughly 800 years earlier and each had been ruled by a succession of kings some not so bad, many not so good, and a few down right wicked. 

On this day, Isaiah is in the Temple praying and he has a vision of the heavenly throne room.  Jewish belief at this time was that God’s literal throne room was located directly above the Holy of Holies in the Temple.  Initially it was believed that the Ark of the Covenant was God’s Footstool (1 Cor: 28:2) which meant wherever Israel wandered God went with them.  Once the Temple was built,  God’s footstool quit moving and God took up permanent residence above Jerusalem with his feet resting in the Temple (Psalm 132:7; Eze 43:7) Isaiah sees God on his throne above the temple and he sees his robe flowing down and filling the very space where he is praying.

Isaiah sees Seraphim, heavenly beings that were probably rather terrifying to look at, attending God. The word Seraph in Hebrew denotes both burning and serpent.  In Isaiah’s vision they have 3 set of wings: one used for modesty, one for covering their face, perhaps because one could not look upon the glory of God and live, and the third set to fly.  They sing about the three-fold holiness of God. The building is shaking, and incense is billowing all around him.  Isaiah is in a state of panic. He realizes that he is a sinner and he lives in a nation full of sinners and he has just looked upon the glory of God. He thinks he is about to die.  One of the seraphim takes a live coal off the altar where burned offerings are offered and places it against Isaiah’s lips, cleansing him of his sins so that he might converse with God. Once Isaiah has been cleansed his immediate response to God is “Here I am, send me.”  

The task that God sets before him seems impossible.  God tells him to tell his people to “keep listening but do not comprehend, keep looking but do not understand.”  In other words, Isaiah is being told to go warn his people about the consequences of their behavior, but don’t expect them to respond.  Poor Isaiah asks God, “How long?”

While we still cling to our earthly passions and selfish desires we are unable to hear God or respond to God, but once we have allowed God to cleanse us of our sins our hearts desire is only to please God.  The tasks that God may set before us might seem unsurmountable.  When Isaiah asked God how long? God’s response is “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.”

Despite the certainty of failure by human standards, (Israel did fall and was completely destroyed or deported), Isaiah spread his message of warning, mixed with a message of hope, and wrote it down believing that someone sometime would benefit from the words God had given him.

Jeremiah, who followed about 100 years after Isaiah, was tasked with a similar message to the southern kingdom of Judah.  Jeremiah was only a young boy when God called him. We do know about Jeremiah’s background.  He was from a priestly family and lived in a small town outside of Jerusalem.  The political scene had changed since Isaiah’s time.  Assyria was no longer a powerful nation, but Babylon and Egypt were.  When God called Jeremiah he told him that he had been chosen before his birth by God for this important task.  Jeremiah tries to protest, and who can blame him.  He declares he is but a boy and God tells him not to fear that God will be with him.  Moses had complained before the burning bush that he was slow of speech, but in all three cases Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, God put God’s words in their mouths so that they might speak for God.

Jump ahead to today’s Gospel we have another story of a call.  Once again this group of men were going about the normal everyday life.  They were fishermen and at least today, not very successful ones.  Peter had finished fishing for the day and was cleaning his nets.  Jesus gets into his boat, probably because the crowd was encroaching upon him, and he needed a safe place from which to address them.  When he gets through preaching, he tells Peter to put out to deep water and drop his nets.  Peter tells him the fish are not biting right now, but does as he is told.  He brings up so many fish that he has to signal to James and John in the next boat to help him. Once they get the fish in the boat, they are so heavy the boats begin to sink.  Peter is suddenly aware that he is in the presence of someone extraordinary and says “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Just like with Isaiah, the presence of God, either the Father or the Son, awakens us to the realization that we are broken people.  One of the interesting things about this story is that that after having the best fishing day of their life, Jesus tells them “Don’t be afraid.  From now on you will be catching people.”  And the minute they touched the shore, they walked away from that fabulous catch and followed Jesus.

Being in the presence of God puts things in their right perspective for us.  God is not concerned with our lack of skill sets  or our past sins.  God is only concerned that we are willing to say “Here I am Lord” and God will use us to further the kingdom of heaven.  It is not a promise of riches and easy living.  In fact it is guaranteed to be difficult.  Moses got frustrated with the people and God on many occasions.  Isaiah spent his whole life preaching to kings who completely ignored him, and he watched all the dreadful things he told them would happen, did happen.  Jeremiah lived through the three-year siege of Jerusalem, wrote a book of laments as well as his book of prophesy, and ending up walking to Egypt with the few survivors the Babylonians did not want.  Peter, James and John lived through the crucifixion of Jesus – but also saw the Resurrection, and two of them were executed and one exiled because of their message to the world.

Being a Christian is hard.  Being called by God is hard, but it is also the most rewarding, joyful thing you will ever experience in this life with the promise of even more joy in the life to come.

4 Epiphany 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Epiphany 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Epiphany 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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