Proper 19 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 18 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 17, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 16 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 12 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do we want God to do? 

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

What is our responsibility in this prayer? 

That with you as our ruler and guide 

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

What outcome do we expect? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us pray, 

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

Proper 11 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 10 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trinity Sunday 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pentecost 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 Easter 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here comes out happily ever after.

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

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

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

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

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