Baptism of Jesus 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us pray,

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

1 Christmas 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas Eve 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Advent 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Advent 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Advent 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advent 1 2021

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

And so is Advent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25 Pentecost 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Saints 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

23 Pentecost 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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