Maundy Thursday 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palm Sunday 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Lent 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Lent 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Alexander Kozlov on Pexels.com

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.