6 Pentecost 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Pentecost 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Pentecost 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Pentecost 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Pentecost 2021

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Then God spoke all these words:  I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:1 &2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trinity Sunday 2021

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What does God look like to you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pentecost 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us pray.

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

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

7 Easter 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 Easter 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5th Sunday of Easter 2021

Photo by Luiz M. Santos on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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