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The Reverend Raisin Horn, Rector

26 Pentecost, Yr. B               November 18, 2018             Mark 13:1-8

Tell us who you are

If you’ve been around The Episcopal Church these days, you hear about Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, elected at the General Convention in 2015.  I was honored to be there, on the floor of the House of Deputies to see the moment. We know that he is more and more in the news.  This was true even before he preached at the royal wedding last spring, and appeared on so many television talk shows.

When Bishop Curry was consecrated and officially seated at Washington National Cathedral, here are the words that were said to him as he entered the building:  “Tell us who you are.”

Of course, some people found this to be strange, especially after all the publicity Curry receives. How could they ask him this question?

It’s not simply that he is the first black Presiding Bishop that makes news.  It’s his unrestrained, joyful, boisterous preaching style, his boldness in proclaiming his love for Jesus. It’s about hope for the church and for the world, so visible whenever you see him.

And he says funny things.  One of my favorite examples is from last month’s clergy day with him in Des Moines.  He asked us some questions, and suddenly the room fell silent.  Then he said, “You all got quiet, just like Episcopalians!” That helped.  We laughed.  Then we got to talking.

When Bishop Curry was asked, “Tell us who you are,” he gave his name:  Michael. Then he said this, “I am a child of God.” No title, no special degrees, no list of accomplishments –  just “child of God” before anything else.

If we were asked as a faith community, “Tell us who you are,” how would we answer?  Here at Christ Church, with our many preferences in styles or expression of prayer, formal or less formal, traditional or more modern music or none at all, our individual beliefs, and two Sunday morning times to worship, we don’t always see one another enough to know how different our answers might be.

When I imagine how I’d want us to respond, the answer is one we can give as onecongregation – we are a people who pray, and we are a people of hope.  This is good news, for Jesus calls us to be people of hope.

In these weeks in the church calendar, our readings point to the end times.  Jesus predicts the destruction of the magnificently built temple. There is plenty of unwelcome news: earthquakes, famine, and wars, not what we normally call the good news of the gospel.

In the last months, one vivid example of this destruction is found in the repeated devastation of the wildfires in California, taking away homes and businesses, claiming lives, awakening a crisis of enormous proportions for so many.

Amid those images we await the coming of Jesus, who will bring about a very different kind of kingdom, with room for all, what we call a new creation.  Especially in the coming Advent season, we wait with expectant hope.

In Psalm 16, we prayed: “My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices; my body also shall rest in hope.” In the lesson from Hebrews, we heard “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering.”

One of my favorite models of a hopeful leader is South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose book Made for goodness always has a place in my reading pile.

Tutu’s face radiates such joy that it’s hard to reconcile it with the horrors of torture and killing he witnessed in South Africa during his work investigating apartheid-era crimes.

Tutu’s book suggests that humankind is made for goodness and peace, not war and chaos.  Tutu  remains a model of forgiveness and reconciliation.  He states at the beginning of his book:

“I speak to audiences across the world, and I often get the same questions: ‘Why are you so joyful?…What makes you so certain that the world is going to get better?’”[1]

Made for goodnessreveal both how he sees the world, and how he sees God.  He distinguishes between being just optimistic and being hopeful— more a staying grounded in the expectation and joy of the coming of Christ.  Tutu invites us on a pilgrimage with him, to learn as he says, “to see yourself through God’s eyes and come to know that your whole life is holy ground.”[2]

It’s hard to remain hopeful with relentless tragedy in the news, and our own struggles and disappointments.  Our human instinct is to try anything we can think of to push away suffering and heartbreak.

We do not get through difficult times on our own.  We need to know that God is fully present with us.  Tutu writes,

“God is with us in the muck of our lives.  Fear, suffering, and grief may obscure our vision of God.  Sometimes we shut our eyes so tight against the pain that we can see not a shaft of light…But God is there.  God stands with us in everything that we experience and endure.”[3]

In Mark’s gospel passage appointed for today, Jesus predicts destruction of the temple publicly, but in private his disciples question him.

Jesus reminds them that their task is to spread the gospel of patience, hope, and peace.  “This is but the beginning,” Jesus tells them. Evil and death do not have the last word. The hope of everlasting life of which today’s marvelous Collect speaks is stronger.

One of the authors who writes for The Episcopal Café website talks about everlasting life like this. He says:

“I am a life-long fan of Bugs Bunny cartoons…Bugs would always give his signature sign-off: ‘That’s all folks’ for the earth and for our life on it.  But Jesus is promising a new and far greater adventure: the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory…

And if we have paid any attention to the first twelve chapters of Mark, we know with certainty, that this life is not all there is. We are not facing our end.  We are facing our beginning.  Over and over Jesus has promised eternal life to those who believe in him.”[4]

So as Advent approaches, look for contrasts – signs of endings all around us and as Mark’s gospel passage says, the beginning of the birthpangs; the darkness of the world and then Christ’s armor of light to combat that darkness.

Pay attention also to those things that prevent us from hearing God or noticing God’s presence in those around us.  The noise of everyday life makes it challenging to spend even a few minutes in quiet.  If we are always on the move to the next thing, how is there space to listen for the God who made us, or to engage in a spiritual practice?

Encouraging hopefulness in one another is good spiritual practice.  Today’s lesson from Hebrews asks that we “consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.”

When we help serve the hungry as we do through our Thanksgiving and Christmas food boxes with Northend Outreach Ministry; when we assist with those needing shelter, visit the sick, or listen to someone in distress, we offer this hope.  All these needs are very present in our city, and in every city.

Wherever you are on the journey of faith, let this be a place where you find good company, a place where we together hold before us the question, “Tell us who you are.”

May we prayerfully respond with the hope that is ours to claim, and ours to share.

May God’s presence, comfort, and peace rest with us so that we are equipped to spread that peace to those around us.

Let us pray:

Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that all peoples may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of Peace, as children of one Father; to whom be dominion and glory, now and for ever.  Amen.

(For Peace, BCP p. 815)

[1]Desmond M. Tutu and Mpho A. Tutu, Made for goodness: and why this makes all the difference(New York: HarperCollins, 2010), ix.

[2]Ibid., xi.

[3]Ibid., 101.

[4]Fr. David Sellery, The Episcopal Café, 11.9.2015.

 

21 Pentecost, Yr. B October 14, 2018 Mark 10:17-31

Material Possessions

The first time I pulled into the driveway of New Melleray Abbey in Dubuque for an overnight retreat, I knew I walked on holy ground. The front doors closed heavily behind me, and a soft-spoken monk greeted me in the guest wing.

The door to my room was open. The room was spare, with a single bed, a cross, a desk, chair, lamp, and a window. After unpacking, I sat on the bed and entered into silence. With no distractions, it was easy to think and pray, to imagine and breathe.

When the bell rang for the evening service, I closed my door behind me, then realized that guest room doors are not locked at the abbey. As a guest in that holy space, there is no provision to lock up your possessions, and those possessions do not seem important at all.

The rich man in Mark’s gospel for today asks Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, as was his custom, draws attention away from himself and toward God, saying, “No one is good but God alone.” Jesus isn’t pleased to be addressed as “good.”

The rich man doesn’t impress him. Jesus lists six of the commandments. The young man, sure that he’s fulfilled those, is eager to show he’s done all that’s asked of him.

Then we hear the line that, for me, stands out every time I hear this passage: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”

Jesus looks deeply and compassionately into the heart of this man, knowing how hard it will be for him to hear the next words: “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Jesus knows this request will be too much, but he loves the man as he loves all God’s children, and wants him to inherit eternal life.

In those times, wealth was seen as a sign of God’s blessing and favor. Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Bestowing wealth on people was one of the ways God freed them from the daily grind in order to serve the Lord. So this man approaches Jesus with no shame about his great possessions…But Jesus is not impressed.”1

It’s difficult for us to talk about money. That’s true in households, among couples about to marry, among couples who have been married for half their lives, and certainly in parishes. This gospel comes around at the time of year when we need to begin planning for the stewardship needs of the parish, and for our common life together.

The gospel message is clear: Jesus asks something hard of us. It’s an extreme demand. We largely are a materially blessed community and nation, though the poor always are with us. The rich man who followed the commandments and thought that would be enough to inherit eternal life went away grieving, unable to let go of his wealth and the social standing that accompanied it.

We don’t actually know what happened to the rich ruler after he went away grieving, unable to respond in the way Jesus asks. It’s as though he walks offstage, and we are left to wonder what he did next.

Perhaps it’s my stubborn optimism, but I like to imagine that the young man goes away, prays about this, even rails against God in anger, but then has a change of heart. Maybe he begins to think about ways he can part with some of his wealth. That would at least be a good start.

I like to give him the benefit of the doubt, because he represents many of us. We’ve accumulated possessions that are of great significance to us. Some may be possessions passed down through generations, along with family history and the stories that go along with them.

For example, I am not ready to give to the poor the 107 pieces of my mother-in-law’s wedding china, which came to our home because none of the other five children wanted to wash it all by hand.

Some of you who have inherited parents’ and grandparents’ treasures understandably may not feel able to detach from those things which still connect you to the persons you no longer see. These possessions are in a special category, attached to the history and love we feel toward the persons whose things these once were. And yet, with any overwhelming number of possessions, we find that our hands are full. How, then, can we have open hands to receive the gifts given by God?

The problem with our possessions is not so much wealth and riches in themselves, but our attitude and even reverence toward them. The accumulation of possessions and wealth can tempt us to rely on them and on ourselves, on our power to acquire, rather than to rely on God.

In our overly material culture, it would be a rare person who does not suddenly find him or herself surveying all her rooms full of objects and saying, “How did I end up with all this stuff?” Some family friends have now rented a second large storage unit for their furnishings, because their double garage, porch, and basement already are piled to the ceiling with things they no longer use.

In the Chicago area, where I grew up, there’s a chain of stores that sells luxury items for the home. The store is called Material Possessions. I passed one of these twice a day during my last year in seminary, and the very elegant sign, larger than life, made me laugh out loud.

Why did I laugh? I suspect this was a nervous laugh, recognizing my own attachment to the few things in our seminary apartment. Today’s Epistle from Hebrews certainly might provoke a nervous response, for its truth is out there for us to hear: “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” (Heb. 4:12)

How difficult, how piercing and sharp it is to hear that Jesus expects us to give away our wealth so that we are free to inherit the kingdom of God. This demand comes from the Jesus who loves us, but who does place demands upon us.

But it’s just at those times that Jesus meets us at the places where we come face-to-face with weakness and temptations. And, as he did with the rich young man in Mark’s gospel, Jesus looks at us and loves us.

I think back to that guest room in the monastery, how it gave the blessing of freedom and room to receive the spiritual gifts offered daily, ones we are blinded to because our possessions block our view.

I think of the monastery windows, letting in the light of God and pointing those inside toward the natural, green world outside created by a God who longs for our compassionate treatment of that natural world, and toward those whose lives would have a better chance to thrive if we shared our abundance with them.

Keeping God’s commandments is hard work, but if we’re not giving all of ourselves and our hearts to Jesus, we need to work harder to gain the promises of life in God’s kingdom.

Barbara Brown Taylor says, “We can keep the commandments until we are blue in the face; we can sign our paychecks over to Mother Teresa and rattle tin cups for our supper without earning a place at God’s banquet table. The kingdom of God is not for sale…The kingdom of God is God’s consummate gift.”

The catch is, you have got to be free to receive the gift. You cannot make room for it if all your rooms are full.”2

Compassionate Jesus, be at our side as we struggle to free ourselves from all that keeps us from you; open our hearts and minds, so that following you, our hands are open to receive the heavenly treasure we inherit as your children.

Amen.

1 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge: Cowley Publications; 1993), 122.

2 Taylor, ibid., 124.

 

17 Pentecost, Yr. B September 16, 2018 James 3: 1-12 Mark 8: 27-38

The tongue of a teacher

Some days, a conversation you never expected to have changes the whole day and lasts even beyond that.

Last week, I was out for a walk in my neighborhood. With no sidewalks, our walkers, bikers, and cars share the street. Two boys sped past on bikes, then each went his separate way.

I rounded a corner and found the older boy stopped next to his bike. He stood, just looking at me. I’d never seen him before. “Hi,” I said. He didn’t say anything, so I went on. Then, in a few seconds, he called out, “Hi. I’m waiting for my friend.”

Well, what does a strange lady with white hair say to that? I said, “Having a friend is good.” Then I said, “Thanks for saying hi.” And I left. But then he followed me, and called out again.

I didn’t say hi at first because I didn’t know if you were gonna be nice, or if you were gonna be mean.” Then he removed his bike helmet. I could see that he was younger than I’d guessed, and his blue eyes reminded me of myself at his age.

I wondered: do I stay and see if he wants to say more, or do I go? While I paused, he kept talking. “You know, like when the teachers are mean at school.”

Huh,” I said. “Is yours nice or mean?” “Oh, she’s nice,” he told me. But last year we got a mean one. He yelled. He made us feel really bad. I didn’t want to go to back to school – like ever.”

Then the boy’s friend reappeared and they both hopped on their bikes and left. I thought about that conversation all week. Then I read the Isaiah passage and the Epistle lesson from James for today.

As we just heard, James writes, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” This reading goes on to talk about the human tongue – how it is like fire when used badly, when our human speech causes another person pain or grief.

Teachers, James says, are held to higher standards. And with their tongues, teachers hold the ability to make every difference in how students feel about themselves, their work, their future, and the world around them.

James writes, “The tongue is a fire…it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature…No one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.”

Teachers, and those who are leaders of any kind, have the power and responsibility to take great care with how they speak.

It doesn’t take long to think of celebrities or politicians in the news these days, those charged with the responsibility to lead well and, we hope, to lead with dignity. I think of television ads in which those running for elected offices spend all their time tearing one another down. The entire tone is ugly, and the tongue becomes their weapon.

It makes no difference if we listen to the tongues of those we might call conservatives or liberals, or those somewhere in between. There is almost no one, however we wish to label them, who goes blameless when it comes to taking part in a war of words.

Words inflict wounds that have the power to hurt us many years later, sometimes for a lifetime. The Epistle writer James compares the tongue to a small rudder able to control a large ship at sea. When used carelessly or used well, it has power.

If you and I really follow Jesus, we need to be held to a higher standard, just as teachers are. We have a different way of seeing the world, from the moment we are marked as Christ’s own forever at baptism, and we can teach that to others.

In the gospel reading today, Peter cannot accept that Jesus will suffer and die for the sins of the world. Jesus uses his tongue to call Peter “Satan” because Peter’s words bring Jesus the temptation to run away from the suffering he must go through, high on the cross.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus asks his disciples “Who do people say that I am?” and accepts the title of “Messiah,” which means “anointed one.” He is the one the Jewish people have been waiting for. He, too, has the tongue of a teacher.

Jesus tells the crowd that gathers with his disciples that anyone who wishes to follow him must take up their cross, too, and turn away from the ways of sin for the sake of the gospel.

You and I, as people of God, have work to do in the world outside. Our work is to bring hope and light to a tired and discouraged world, no matter the troubles we witness. With our tongues we are meant to bless and encourage, not to curse and criticize. How much easier that is to say than to actually do!

Many Christians mark the sign of the cross upon their bodies at the words “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” at the beginning of the liturgy, at the absolution when sins are forgiven, and sometimes before or after receiving communion.

Imagine that when you mark that sign of the cross onto yourself that you are taking on the compassion of Jesus, especially when you come into conversation with others. Imagine yourself bringing the light and love that all God’s people need and hope for.

I can’t say whether any of you will have an unexpected conversation with a young boy riding his bicycle, one that takes you by surprise.

But at some point, you will unexpectedly find yourself with a person who needs your listening ear, your understanding, and a kind word.

That’s the moment you get to decide. You get to decide whether to use your tongue as a fire, to choose whether you will curse or bless. We all await the Messiah, the anointed one. When he comes in the glory of the Father with the holy angels, may he find us to be like those described by the prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah writes of those who know how to sustain the weary with a word. Our work this week is to cheer those who are weary, carrying within us the grace and peace of Jesus lifted high upon the cross, so that he might draw the whole world to himself.

Amen.

10 Pentecost, Yr. B July 29, 2018

2 Kings 4:42-44 Psalm 145 John 6: 1-21

Enough and more leftover

I remember the day like it was yesterday. I was in seminary near Chicago, asked to serve as mentor to a new student. Leaving home for three years to learn the art of priesthood was no easy thing, especially finding an additional place to live while we had our home in Iowa.

Even with scholarship money, tuition and rent in an expensive city made for a very bare refrigerator. I learned to take half or more of my food home wherever I ate, saving it so there was something for the next day.

On the evening I remember, the new student and I enjoyed an inexpensive dinner out, and I packed up half of mine. Often there were street people downtown asking for help, so I kept a dollar in my pocket.

Sure enough, we passed a thin, frail man on the street who said, “I’m hungry, Miss,” and I handed him my dollar. I could have given more, but to be honest, I was saving it for myself. Then my friend, the one who was supposed to be learning from me, stopped in front of the man and simply gave him her food.

He ate hungrily, gratefully, and treated her half a sandwich as gold, as though he had just received all the riches he could want.

I realized in that moment that someone had wanted bread, and I had given a crumpled dollar that would not even have bought him a cup of soup.

I was responding out of fear that I would go without. Meanwhile, my friend, handing over her dinner, trusted that she would have enough. Where I saw scarcity, she saw abundance.

The gift of having enough, of trusting in God’s abundance, is what we hear about in today’s Old Testament reading as the prophet Elisha gives food to a hungry crowd. This leads into John’s gospel.

All four gospel writers tell the story of the feeding of the five thousand. In today’s lesson from John, details differ from Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Notice that in John’s telling of this story, Jesus distributed all the bread himself. In the other three gospel accounts, Jesus gave bread and fish to the disciples, so they could hand them to the crowd.

In Mark’s gospel, the disciples just don’t understand about the bread, and why suddenly they have enough. Their hearts are hardened. Mark writes that those who ate were five thousand men. In Matthew, the crowd also includes women and children – thank you, Matthew.

In the gospel of Luke, the additional miracle story of Jesus walking on water is not included at all.

So we have some differences in the gospels. This does not mean that one version is correct, and the others aren’t. It shows us, instead, that no two people necessarily will see and hear the same thing at the same time, even if they both were there.

Despite any difference in detail, this story of feeding five thousand people is about abundance, about having enough – not only enough to eat in the moment, but some leftover. The image I like to use for this Bible story is an open hand.

When we worry that we will not have enough, it is as though we keep our fists closed tightly. When we open our hand, when we share some of what we have, the unclenching of our fists opens us to a freer, more compassionate way to be in the world.

Some critics of the Bible try to explain away this miracle of feeding five thousand hungry people by using logic. I have heard it proposed that in the gospel story, the boy’s willingness to give up his barley loaves (the bread of the poor) and fish so that others might eat then inspired others to bring forth food they had stashed away, but now decided to share. The boy became a model for generosity.

One problem with this interpretation is that it denies the miraculous workings of Jesus among the people. It casts doubt that the human Jesus really could feed a crowd that big, and it questions the divinity and generosity of God.

But there’s more to the gospel story we heard today. Jesus not only multiplied loaves and fishes; in feeding the people, he gave them a physical sign of hope for their future. He calmed their fear and doubt and assured them that they would be all right.

Jesus brought them bread that would become the bread we share every time we gather for holy communion – a glimpse of coming before God with all that we are and with as little or as much as we have – God does not judge that. God opens his arms to us. God says, “Come.”

As the saying goes, we don’t live by bread alone. We cannot go it alone in this life with its trials and curve balls and surprises we never asked for. We need the promise of God’s dwelling with us.

Today’s epistle reading includes one of the most beautiful passages assuring that the God who created us still lives within us. In his Letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul writes,

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:16-19)

May we gain more compassion to open our hands and hearts to share God’s abundance with one another, and with those who hunger for bread.

May our knowledge of God’s power within us grow, so that we are filled with the wisdom and grace that come from Christ Jesus, to whom we give glory, honor, and praise.

Amen.

 

7 Pentecost, Yr. B July 8, 2018

Ezekiel 2: 1-5 Mark 6: 1-13

Hometown boy

Today’s gospel passage begins in Nazareth, hometown of Jesus. Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus has been with his disciples, who came from Galilee. Now, they’ve walked back home with him. And Jesus is different than when he left.

Those who remember him as Mary and Joseph’s son recognize him, saying, “Isn’t that just the carpenter, Joseph’s son?” But they do not instantly recognize nor understand his deep connection to God, his human appearance yet divine nature as God’s Son.

Jesus is different too because now, he’s a prophet. He has followers. The people of Nazareth wonder why crowds follow him – after all, he can’t be anyone that important. He’s one of us! He’s only the hometown boy come back for a visit – right? Surely, this prophet can’t be taken seriously.

In today’s lesson from the Book of Ezekiel, The Lord calls to Ezekiel while he’s exiled in Babylon, addressing him as “Mortal.” God sends this mortal to the people of Israel, a rebellious people.

Ezekiel is to become a prophet among them, to speak the Lord’s word without fear or hesitation – all the while not knowing what the outcome will be.

I don’t suppose anyone here knows what it’s like to be stubborn and rebellious? The reality is that many of us know that stubborn human nature all too well, easily turning away from God to satisfy our own appetites for power or control. Repenting from sin – don’t we save that for Lent? So God sends prophets like Ezekiel to bring us back, to turn us to God.

Like the people of Nazareth, the people who receive the prophet Ezekiel are wary and suspicious. Why should they listen to him?

Both in their hometowns and abroad, Jesus and his followers find resistance. The people want to know where Jesus’ power and wisdom come from, while Jesus stands amazed at their unbelief.

Later, Jesus and his disciples depart from Nazareth and go on to the villages, teaching. There, Jesus will pair up the twelve, and send them off with authority to do the work he has given them to do, two by two.

Two by two” happens early in the Bible. In the Book of Genesis, God tells Noah to build an ark to save every animal of every kind. Noah takes two giraffes, two elephants, two beautiful birds – two of everything.

Two by two, the disciples are told to shake the dust off their feet as they leave any place that does not welcome them. They, too, like the prophet Ezekiel, have no idea how they will be received or what the outcome of their work will be.

I’ve been thinking about the phrase “two by two” since taking part in Clinton’s A Night of Hope in June. Bethel AME church was filled with people whose hometown has not always been welcoming to all. The church was filled with guests, too, from faith organizations and congregations representing four counties in eastern and east central Iowa.

Together, this crowd came to support one local congregation. This isn’t my hometown, but when I accepted the call to come to Clinton, I knew this church and her people soon would take up residence in my heart and become home.

A few weeks ago, three of us whose spiritual home is Christ Church served at a Listening Day at Bethel, inviting others for a one-on-one conversation. This was a powerful and hopeful day. Being trusted to hear deep hurts, concerns, and desires from a person you never met before was humbling. New relationships formed, ones I trust will continue. And, I began to see that two-by-two is really a one-on-one.

What I thought about after the one-on-one listening day is that each meaningful conversation needs two people. We don’t often spend a whole hour or more with a person we don’t know. What if we don’t like each other? What if we don’t think we have anything in common?

Was it like that with Jesus’ disciples, I wonder? When Jesus sent them out, they knew each other, but that doesn’t mean they liked one another or were happy about it.

Think of Paul and Barnabas, for example. They were friends at first, Barnabas bringing Paul to the apostles; then they had a falling out. Still, together they were sent to carry famine relief to the Church in Jerusalem. Two by two.

Jesus expected much. He expected them to proclaim the gospel message of love and healing. He taught them a better way to see a divided and fearful world. He taught them peace and hope.

If two are sent out in the name of Jesus, they should care about who the other in the pair is, and what is important to that person. We work best together when we know what keeps the other one awake at night, or what is happening in our lives that can be made better.

Even when we know one another well, we may be surprised. We think we know all about someone, but we don’t always remember that every person has the ability to change. Every person can begin again each day to be the person God sees in them.

My job as a prophet in this hometown is to spread the gospel of hope. Hope can be hard to come by when people are discouraged by losses of jobs, homes, health, or loved ones. Still, God has the final word over the brokenness in the world.

St. Augustine of Hippo wrote that “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”

You and I can learn to be hometown prophets, to help others see the world as we might see it with Jesus at our side. Two by two, one-on-one, we can gain the courage to ask what we need from each other.

The person I listened to in June heard me say this: “Tell me what you need from me, what you need from those who judge you by the color of your skin before you’ve even said one word?”

He said to me, “I need you all to see me. I need you to see me, to tell me with your words or with your eyes:

I see you. I honor you. I respect you.

So I told him, “Diondre, I see you. I honor you. I respect you.” Then we parted, and went our separate ways, but only for a time. Because I believe that hope will bring us together again.

Amen.

 

2 Pentecost, Yr. B June 3, 2018 Samuel 3:1-20 Mark 2: 23-3:6

Ordinary Time

Suddenly, seemingly in the blink of an eye, the month of June has arrived. For many teachers and students, looking ahead includes a long stretch of vacation. Some spend it visiting family, sometimes in another part of the country. Businesses may have summer hours or close for time away.

There’s a sense of life taking on a more relaxed pace as swimming pools open and baseball games light up grassy fields all around us. In earlier days, neighbors took time to sit on their porches, visit, and tell stories – ordinary stories.

In the Church we begin the long green season, the many weeks of Pentecost. The liturgical color turns to green – color of new growth, color of gardens, leaves and trees.

We now are in what we call Ordinary Time, a term that originated in the Catholic Church. Ordinary time has two parts. It begins after the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord in January, till Ash Wednesday; and from the Monday after Pentecost until the First Sunday of Advent. So it goes on now for months.

In Ordinary Time we live out our faith while we may do the most commonplace, everyday things we wouldn’t think to include in a letter to a friend.

Ordinary Time might be thought of as one big Sabbath time for many, when the cares of work and the pressures of the year are less, while summer days give us more light. We have more time – now what do we do with it?

But Ordinary Time is anything but ordinary. It also brings us opportunity. We can look at this stretch of weeks ahead and ask: what is one thing I would like to do or to change, to make better by the end of summer? Effort on just one thing or one relationship can transform what was ordinary into something quite different.

We may need help knowing what God might be calling us to do; perhaps we have no idea what change we want to make or what good we can do in the next months. Finding the quiet to hear God’s word for us is a first step.

In the Old Testament reading, the boy Samuel is with his friend Eli, in the temple, when he hears the voice of the Lord: “Samuel! Samuel!” and he thinks it is Eli’s voice. Eli tells Samuel he did not call and bids him lie down. This happens three times.

Finally Samuel learns it is God who calls him to make him a prophet, urging the boy to be ready. Samuel is given a particular job, to warn Eli and those in his house of consequences to come because of their blasphemy. Samuel does not want to tell Eli this news, and waits all night long before he goes to him. And Eli does not let Samuel hide what the Lord has told him.

The line that stays with me in this passage is “as Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.”

So it is with God’s people today, with you and me. Through prayer and study we learn to trust that God will be with us. If we set our hearts and minds on the change we want to make happen, or to the hard but necessary words we wish to speak to someone, I pray God will not let our words fall to the ground.

In the gospel reading, Jesus teaches about Sabbath. He proclaims through his word and action that the needs of men and women, and doing good works to helping others, are more important than rigidly following the law of Sabbath keeping.

Jesus says to his disciples, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” The man with the withered hand does not want to wait one more day once Jesus appears. Sabbath time is not to be a hardship, but instead a blessing for human life.

What can you think of now, or name in your life, that you wish to use the Sabbath time of summer to heal? What longing can you fill, with the grace of God upholding you?

So we begin Ordinary Time. But I doubt that any of us awakened today just wanting to be ordinary. We want to be special, to stand out for the gifts and talents we possess, to live up to higher standards set for us growing up, or the tough expectations we still place on ourselves.

But I think that wanting to taste the goodness of the ordinary life all around us, to give ourselves permission to be our ordinary selves this day is a good thing.

God created us for goodness. God gave us this one ordinary life, a life we should use to be the best that we can be. Then God will take us, use us, transform us into something beyond the ordinary, something beyond our dreams.

The writer William Martin says it this way:

Make the Ordinary Come Alive

Do not ask your children to strive for extraordinary lives.

Such striving may seem admirable, but it is a way of foolishness.

Help them instead to find the wonder and the marvel of an ordinary life.

Show them the joy of tasting tomatoes, apples, and pears.

Show them how to cry when pets and people die.

Show them the infinite pleasure in the touch of a hand.

And make the ordinary come alive for them.

The extraordinary will take care of itself.

Amen.

6 Easter, Yr. B May 6, 2018 John 15: 9-17

No longer servants, but friends

In our first reading today from the Book of Acts, Peter is in for a surprise. To set the scene: Peter has been sharing the good news of Jesus with some Gentiles. Suddenly, the Holy Spirit comes upon them while he is still speaking.

You and I might wonder what the Holy Spirit’s coming upon them would look and sound like. Two of the signs of the spirit are described as speaking in tongues and joyfully praising God. I think the spirit’s arrival would be noisy, full of life, and attract much attention.

But before this happened, Peter was slow to understand that the gift of the spirit is meant not only for Jews, but that the same spirit comes upon all God’s people.

Peter asks if anyone can withhold water for baptizing those who have received the spirit, and leads the outsiders to baptism in the name of Jesus. He remains with them for several days. Now they are forever changed by being marked as Christ’s own forever.

Both the epistle reading and John’s gospel teach about abiding in God’s love and keeping God’s commandments. In the gospel, Jesus speaks of great love for his disciples and calls them into that same love for each other.

We’ve been reminded again and again that Moses handed down the commandments and, as God’s faithful people, we are to keep them to the end. Could it be we’re told more than once because we still need plenty of help and God’s grace to grow into the compassionate, loving and generous people he created us to be?

Recent events at a downtown Clinton church lead me to believe that we still have a long way to go toward acceptance and generosity. Bethel AME Church, the former home of St. John’s Episcopal Church which was the church home for some of you here, last week endured the pain of a hate crime. Their property was vandalized with hateful, racist language and death threats.

This incident is absolutely unacceptable and contrary to the gospel of Jesus to love our neighbors as ourselves. As neighbors in the faith community, we pray for their healing. I will be sending their pastor a letter of support from our congregation this week.

Remember that of all the commandments, the two most important are to love the Lord with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind, and then to love our neighbor as ourselves. As our prayer book says, “on these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (BCP p. 324)

In the gospel today, Jesus commands his disciples to keep his commandments and abide in his love, so that they may be led into joy. But, just as there was an element of surprise for Peter in the first reading, so there is a surprising word in this gospel lesson. That word is “friend.”

In John’s gospel, the disciples knew Jesus as their Lord; as bread of life; Son of God; good shepherd; light of the world; the way, the truth, and the life. Now Jesus calls them friends, because he has revealed to them all that God has told him.

He chooses them and shapes them into a community of welcome and acceptance, not one of judgment and exclusion. He chooses them to live out a gospel of love and to spread the news that love has the last word.

Can you imagine the disciples thinking of themselves as friends of Jesus, wondering how they are to act and what they are to say as they take on this new identity? Yes, they were fishermen and ate breakfast with Jesus at the sea, and they accompanied him everywhere he walked. Still, it’s startling that the one who is master, teacher and Lord is now called friend.

For Jesus, the word “friend” captures the sense of deep joy and love that “servant” does not quite express. Love as commanded by Christ is given power by the Holy Spirit, to be passed from those first disciples to us – for we now are the ones who do God’s work and make more disciples.

One writer says that Christ’s calling his followers friends is an “astounding statement” that brings us a new understanding of loving relationship, an understanding that seeks greater mutuality through God’s love. Through this mutual love, “the life of a faithful community leads it deeper and deeper into the meaning of joy, friendship, and being chosen by Christ.”1

Spiritual friendship runs deep. It is not casual or brief. It begins with God and his disciples and is anchored in abiding love.

One of the great figures of English church life, Aelred of Rievaulx, founded a Cistercian abbey in the year 1143, housing over 600 monks living out their love of God in community. There he wrote a book called Spiritual Friendship. Aelred taught that friendship is a gift from God, with the example of Jesus and his friend John, the one called Beloved Disciple.

Aelred’s message of exploring the way to God through mutual love and friendship is timeless, one for the age in which it was written and one for us today. His writings examined the close relationship between divine and human love. We are friends because God first called his disciples friends; we give and receive love because God loved us first.

Aelred defines human friendship as sacramental, beginning in creation, as God sought to place his own love … in all his creatures, linking friends to Christ in this life and culminating in friendship with God in beatitude.”2

Jesus said to his friends, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” So may we as friends in Christ uphold and strengthen one another in love, charity, and understanding until, at our journey’s end, our joy is complete.

Amen.

1 Thomas H. Troeger in Feasting on the word, Yr. B, v. 2; David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press; 2008), 501.

2 Spiritual friendship: Aelred of Rivaulx, Marsha L. Dutton, ed. (Litpress.org: eBook)

 

5 Easter, Yr. B April 29, 2018 John 15: 1-8

I am the vine, you are the branches

Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” The gospel lesson today reminds us that we are the branches that come from the true vine, Jesus – much as we trim old growth to make way for the new in our own gardens. Jesus will not be with his disciples much longer. He will joyfully ascend into heaven. We who follow him are left to serve as Christ’s body in the world.

What does it mean that we are the branches of the vine? It tells us we now are the hands and feet of Jesus. Much will be expected of us. We will need to care for one another. Psalm 22 appointed for this day gives us a song of praise to God who cares for the downtrodden. Now this care is our work. Who are we to say no, to say that the work is too hard?

In recent weeks, a Wall Street Journal article suggested why Christianity was so successful after the resurrection of Jesus. In part the reason is that Christians looked at life in all its complexity from another angle. They took care of people, even those who were not Christians.

Earlier this month in Davenport, over four hundred people attended a talk called “Becoming Wise,” featuring National Public Radio host Krista Tippett. I was fortunate to be present for this dialogue on ways that our spiritual lives dwell both in mystery and perplexity.

In assuring us how we can serve as Christ to those around us, to be branches of the true vine, Tippett emphasized the gift of listening. She cautioned that many have lost the ability to listen deeply to each other. Realistically our minds may be multi-tasking, as our culture has encouraged us to do.

We are listening, but also forming a response before the other person has finished speaking. We are listening for a text alert on our phones, thinking ahead to where we need to be next, or how we’re going to fit all the demands on our lives into the next few hours of any given day.

Tippett described listening as being truly and fully present to the other, not simply being quiet. Quietness is not enough. A true listener is fully present. A generous listener works to find and to hear the basic humanity in the other person. This she calls “listening into speech.”

This deliberate and focused listening involves hearing the doubts and fears of another person without trying minimizing or solve their life’s mess the way you might do so. It’s approaching someone knowing that he or she is beloved of God. It’s not just hoping, but expecting to encounter Christ in the other. It’s expecting to find the best in the other. It’s being engaged in wonder and curiosity about the one you are with.

It also is centered in the words of Jesus: Peace be with you. And finally, it is remembering our identity as Christ’s own forever, as he says to us, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”

This evening stood out for me because the speaker did not hesitate to remind us that, as humans who often get life wrong and wish for a do-over, the reality is that our failures and imperfections are our very best teachers. The hard part of hearing this is that we never choose mistakes and failure. Yet if we use our mistakes to make better decisions, we are gaining much.

The whole communion of saints who came before us knew failure and disappointment as well as we do, wrestling with that failure through their days. Learning from failure is valuable because it redirects and points us in the way we need to go next.

Jesus is the true vine, we are the branches. Branches reach out and reach up. What is within our own reach that we long to touch?

In order to serve others by being fully present, we first need to be more compassionate and forgiving toward ourselves. We need to find more quiet, so that we can listen for wisdom. With wisdom comes both a sense of joy and a sense of humor about the absurdities of life as we know it.

It is important that we find ways to take in what is good in the world. We are placed in this corner of earth and this human life as God’s arms and feet. We do not get to choose where we are placed. We do get to choose what we’re going to do about it. What good can we do in this place and time we are given?

 

It is our work as the branches of Christ, the true vine, to find and share the beauty, courage, and goodness in the world about us – especially when others do not see it, or cannot see beyond their own considerable cares and sorrows.

As Krista Tippett told her audience, when the worst happens in life, people take care of each other. She spoke of Dorothy Day, American journalist, social activist, and key figure in the Catholic worker movement who put the needs of others before her own. At the age of eight, she witnessed a great earthquake in California.

As often happens when disaster strikes, people who never went out of their way before to help others showed up and took care of their neighbors, friends, and strangers. The spirit of generosity was unlike anything this 8-year-old girl had seen.

So she asked, “Why can’t we live this way all the time?”

I leave you with her question. You and I are now the branches, the body of Christ in the world. We will encounter those who need our care. We can choose to be present. We can choose generosity. At times we may need to pray not to be blocked by our own struggles, so that our experience of God’s wisdom is revealed.

So, this day and in the days to come, may we sit with these questions: How can we be generous listeners? How can we better listen for God’s wisdom for our lives, and then prayerfully choose how to live?

Amen.

 

Your Right Hand, O Lord, Glorious in Power

Clinton Ministerial Association Service for Christian Unity          January 21, 2018   First United Presbyterian Church

Exodus 15:1-21 Romans 8:12-27 Mark 5:21-43

Brothers and Sisters in Christ, it is good to gather today in this house of prayer, where we boldly express our faith with a freedom that people in some countries do not have. We celebrate that freedom and lift up all that binds us together as followers of Christ, far greater than our individual differences. United, we are stronger than we know.

It’s a privilege to speak to you at this gathering of our several faith traditions as I recall, years ago, my first year of serving as a campus minister in another city. I approached this ecumenical leadership event with excitement: the ministers’ group was staffing a table at the university student orientation. I arrived to find a rabbi sharing the table, so extended my hand in greeting. Imagine how surprised I was when he drew away and said, “Oh, I can’t! As an orthodox Jew, if I shake a woman’s hand, I’d have to marry her!”

Soon after, our group of ministers planned a service of healing to comfort the community following a series of tragic events on college campuses. Another pastor immediately said he wouldn’t be joining us. “I can’t,” he said. For he would be in trouble with his board if he participated in worship with those whose beliefs didn’t match his denomination’s. “But I wish I could be there,” he said.

I tell you these stories because I have come to believe that many of us in this room have been raised hearing or saying the words, “I can’t.”

When I was a sixth grader I wanted more than anything to serve as a school crossing guard. But what I heard at home was: “Oh, no, you can’t. You could get hurt!”

What about you? Do you remember times when an attitude of “you can’t” stopped you from doing or serving in the way you felt called? If you do, then you have plenty of company.

Recently, friends on social media sites circulated a meme. (If you aren’t familiar with memes, they’re an image or photo with a caption meant to be funny or light-hearted.) This meme caught my attention. The photo was of Jesus in full-length white robes, carrying a dozen bags of luggage under his arms. And the caption read, “I’VE GOT YOUR BAGGAGE – NOW FOLLOW ME.”

I think the image of carrying our baggage really fits today. Our learned habits of negativity and fear, all the ways we hear “I can’t” when we wish to act, serves as some of the baggage that prevents us from following Jesus.

In the gospels these weeks, we’ve heard Jesus say, “Follow me.” Well, where is he going? And what baggage do we first need to put down in order to follow?

I believe Jesus is walking with haste straight into places of chaos, pain, and despair. He’s going to places where people are struggling, sick, hungry, lonely, cast to the margins and treated as though they are nothing – as though they are throw-away people.

But God doesn’t make throw-away people! He creates us in his own image and intends that our lives be used for the good of those around us. Jesus intends for us not only to believe this, but also to remember his saving power that we heard about in the Exodus reading and in Mark’s gospel.

In the Book of Exodus we hear the Song of Moses, one of the Old Testament’s most powerful songs of praise as God triumphs over Pharaoh’s army and saves the weary Israelites from their bondage.

God’s right hand, glorious in power, stretches out to defeat the oppressor and guide his people to safety through the Red Sea on dry land. God raises them up, as he raises up Jairus’ young daughter in the gospel passage.

Within the gospel story we find two healing stories – one cleverly drawn within the other. As Jesus is on his way, responding to the cries from Jairus to come heal Jairus’ daughter, another woman interrupts him. He’s in a hurry, but this is no obstacle for her.

This woman has been sick with hemorrhages for twelve years – a significant number, as the sick daughter is also twelve years old – and reaches out in desperation with such great faith in Jesus’ healing power, she doesn’t even wait for him to finish the work he set out to do.

So the woman is healed by the hand of the Lord glorious in power, and given new life. When Jesus reaches the house of Jairus, the daughter seems to have died, but Jesus raises her to new life. Here we have two stories: two women in desperate need, one of them in such a rush to follow Jesus that nothing gets in her way.

Friends, if only you and I would be in so great a hurry to follow Jesus, imagine what we can accomplish together in God’s name.

Here in the Clinton community and all around us as we look to neighbors near and far, it is easy to find people who are hurting, stricken by any number of life circumstances they never chose, looking for someone – anyone – to offer help and comfort.

We remember from our salvation history that God with his right hand in power brought his people new life, new hope. I believe it is our work together, as people of faith, to show the world around us a different vision, a more hopeful way ahead.

We are called by God to be people of hope, of light, of healing. We are people who struggle to see the world around us through the eyes of Jesus. We are people who, together, can act for a more equitable and peaceful society in the places where we live and work, where we witness the suffering of others.

Let’s be people of faith who bring the hope that is our calling, no matter how our individual worship practices make us unique. Those differences only enrich our knowledge of a loving God.

With God’s unshakable love holding us tightly, let’s cast aside those “can’t do” words we have heard for too long, and instead say, “How can we make this work?”

For there are few things as contagious as a negative attitude, and few things as delightful as an attitude of “Yes. We will. We can. Yes.”

And in all of it, we act as people who can say yes, only with the abundance and joy that are the gifts of God’s grace ,given freely to each one of us.

Now go, let Jesus carry your bags – I mean it, all of them – go, and follow him.

Amen.

 

2 Epiphany, Yr. B January 14, 2018 John 1:43-51

Come and see

Few things are quite as powerful as invitation. In John’s gospel for today Jesus goes to Galilee, finds Philip, and says “Follow me.” Then Philip does the same with his friend Nathanael, who doubts that Jesus – coming from the relatively unknown town of Nazareth in first century Palestine – could be good. Somehow Philip already knows that one way to make an invitation even better is to share it. So Philip tells him, “Come and see.”

As Nathanael follows his friend Philip, he changes from being a skeptic and non-believer to having a faith he never expected. Nathanael has been called and follows that call.

The Old Testament lesson from the First Book of Samuel also tells us about being called. The boy Samuel, who is to become a prophet, hears his name (“Samuel! Samuel!”) and thinks it is his friend Eli’s voice. But the Lord calls Samuel – four times – never losing patience with the boy who hears his name and says “Here I am” each time to the wrong voice.

But why is the Lord calling Samuel in the first place? God wants Samuel to warn Eli of punishment upon his house because those in the house had blasphemed God. Samuel doesn’t want to share the warning, yet tells Eli what the Lord has said. In doing so Samuel proves he is the kind of prophet who is trustworthy enough to carry God’s message.

God calls each of us. God knows us by name. If we don’t pay attention the first time, he’ll keep trying until we do, as he did with Samuel. Sometimes, though, we need help recognizing God’s call to us. That is one of the benefits of a faith community. We need those who are around us right now, right here in this place.

No two persons experience God in the same way. Even though some of us spend much of a lifetime studying holy scriptures, that doesn’t mean we have a personal experience of God more authentic or better than others. There is no “better than the next person” with God. He loves unconditionally and calls us unconditionally to come and see.

Come and see – what does that mean for you? For me it means come, see how God’s power is acting in my life; come and see how God calls each of us to remember we are of infinite worth in his eyes. God wants you now, just the way you are. God wants you before you get a better job, commit to more exercise, clean up your language, or are kinder to neighbors and strangers.

God is ready to show you that you are not alone. He puts people in your path. The Lord put Eli in the boy Samuel’s path to help him hear God’s voice. You didn’t always choose the people around you. But see, they are with you anyway.

The complaints we often and so easily have about each other are simply hurdles. Now we’re to figure out how to jump over them.

Yet we don’t figure out or fix relationships entirely on our own. We depend upon God’s grace, not something we can see with our eyes or catch in our hands like a leaf falling from a fig tree.

One message God has for Nathanael in the gospel story is that Nathanael will go on to have greater vision. “You will see greater things than these,” God says. Nathanael will see the Son of Man acting as mediator between heaven and earth, restoring right and joyful relationships between people on earth and God in heaven.

Our God-given relationships at home, at work, or here at church are important. Part of being in a community of faith means that people we come to know, appreciate, trust, and love come and go. Each new person, each visitor who is curious about us or about God, has the ability to change and influence us from the first time they walk through the door.

Let’s treat each other as the good gifts that we are, even with the inevitable squabbles that normally come up in any group of people who spend time together.

Just as when someone comes in we are changed, when someone leaves we are changed also. As most of you know, Friday was our secretary B’s last work day in the church office after seven years. She has served as receiver of friendships, requests, complaints, and has been a listener to the stories of many peoples’ lives.

Technology changed, priests changed, and maybe change felt like the only thing that would keep happening. For change is the way of the world, moving swiftly as we try to keep up – with God’s grace.

We still will see her in the pews from time to time, as her new schedule of free time allows. Yet things will be different both for us and for her. We welcome a new person now as K takes over as Office Manager. And even this change comes with a familiar face.

Many of you know K from her work in the office from 2008 – 2011. Much changes in seven years, but one thing that remained for her is sincere appreciation for having worked with the good people at Christ Church. Please, join us today during a special coffee hour as we say thank you and help launch B into her much-deserved life of retirement.

Remember that Philip told Nathanael to come and see. You too, come and see. What is God showing you that you have not yet seen? What plans does God have for you? Has he called your name, maybe more than once, and still you do not hear? Let him begin to show you.

Do not worry or fear; the Lord will keep after you because you are beloved, worthy of that love, and of greater importance than you know to those around you. Have faith that the God who made you knows you by name, will lift you up, and bring you to that place where you are meant to be.

Amen.

2 Advent, Yr. B December 10, 2017 Isaiah 40: 1-11 Mark 1: 1-8

Comfort, O comfort my people

This morning we’ll hear about Mark’s gospel and a little about his life; we’ll take a look at that strange Biblical figure John the Baptist, and end with thoughts on comfort and joy.

The gospel of Mark gives us the first written record of the life and ministry of Jesus: who he was, what he did, what he said. Mark’s full name was John Mark, and he was a Jewish Christian. He wrote to the Greek-speaking people of his time, so what we read in our variety of Bibles today are the different translations of his Greek words.

Mark was considered an eyewitness to the final days of Jesus’ life. But his gospel he doesn’t start there, nor with Jesus’ birth. He wrote only about the last three years of Jesus’ life. In the lesson we just heard, he introduces Jesus’ preparation for ministry and states from the beginning that the gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God.

A gospel is not a biography; Mark doesn’t tell us about Jesus as a child, what he looked like, whether he was kind and obedient, or if he had friends. Mark’s gospel also tells us that being a disciple of Jesus is not all glory and triumph, as we might have hoped. For Mark, Jesus was the suffering servant who gave up his life for others.1

Mark’s task in the reading we heard today is to introduce the character John the Baptist – and what a character he is! I wonder: would you listen to a prophet who came dressed in camel’s hair, looking like someone to stay away from as he ate wild locusts and honey – food of the poorest of people?

John appeared to the people in the wilderness, loudly telling them: “Repent! Prepare the way of the Lord!” I haven’t spent time alone in the desert wilderness; maybe you have, or you may know of others.

Yet I think most of us know the emptiness of being alone: the lump-in-your-throat fear that no one is nearby to hear, to care, or to help. It’s not a good feeling, and surely wouldn’t be what we think of as good news of the gospel.

So maybe, out in the wilderness, even this peculiar, crazy-looking prophet who ate locusts was a welcome sight. At least he was someone who might try to help those who were oppressed for a long time. He appeared among them with a message, telling them to confess sins and reorder their lives in preparation for the Lord’s coming.

John the Baptist proclaimed baptism with water as the path for forgiveness of sins. John is even called “John the baptizer” in this gospel reading. The people around him were looking for guidance, for help, for comfort.

Today’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah reads, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God,” a message of hope for God’s people as their time of exile in the wilderness nears its end.

Yes, Jesus is coming right through that desert land, to bring peace and forgiveness. And, as a shepherd cares for his sheep, he will come to comfort and care for his people. Isaiah says, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms.”

The words of Psalm 85 ask the Lord’s gracious favor for the gifts of forgiveness and peace – greater than any peace we know, peace that makes a pathway for the Lord’s feet.

So what do we make of these readings, and where can they lead us? Look again at the Collect for the day. The weekly Collects serve to tie together ideas and themes from the day’s lessons. They are short, but rich in content. Today we pray we receive grace to heed the prophets’ warnings to forsake our sins, “that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.”

Greet with joy: because joy is where we’re headed this Advent. Joy is the light at the end of the road, where we’ve traveled with burdens, disappointments, and unfulfilled desires. Yet we travel with hope, for we are called to be people of hope who lead others into the joy of Jesus, born of Mary.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, I stopped in a store with a large Christmas present display at the entrance, so shoppers couldn’t miss it. The sign above the display read, “GIFTS TO GUARANTEE JOY!”

Well, forget that kind of joy! It’s all gone by the day after Christmas. The joy we wait for when the Christ child comes is far deeper and long-lasting. It is joy we cannot contain if we try. It is God-given, so we cannot reach its depth on our own. We need God, and we need each other.

In this second week of Advent, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry shares his thoughts of the Church in all its fullness becoming the Beloved Community. He writes,

God sent John the Baptist to proclaim the good news that we could repent, be forgiven, and return to God’s dream of restoration and salvation. John didn’t just cry out in the wilderness; he prepared people to enter the waters of baptism, to share their deepest truths, and to rise up ready for healed and reconciled relationship with God and with their neighbors.”2

Bishop Curry goes on, “Healing, reconciliation, and justice are big ideas, but they all begin with exploring our stories, shared history and deepest longings. If you listened closely to your church and your neighbors and civic partners, what might you hear?”3

As we gather here, already halfway through Advent, may we be like those first disciples, the first beloved community. May we follow Jesus even when we don’t know where he will lead, listening to neighbors and friends, standing ready to help.

We’re doing good work at Christ Church with the Northend Outreach Ministries’ distribution of Christmas food boxes for area families, coming up soon. Next Sunday we’ll bless handmade pillowcases that will cover new pillows for children to help brighten their holiday.

In this quickly approaching Christmas season, keep close the assurance of God’s presence, love, and hope, spoken by the prophet Isaiah:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.

Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together,

for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Amen.

1 Gospel of Mark: exploring the life of Jesus (Littleton, CO: Serendipity House, 1973), 8.

2 The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, Welcome Letter, Preparing to Become the Beloved Community (New York: The Episcopal Church, Advent 2017)

3 Ibid.

 

24 Pentecost, Yr. A November 19 2017

Psalm 90 Matthew 25:14-30

Children of light

Today’s readings continue pointing us to the end times, just when winter approaches and darkness falls earlier upon these days. The cold and dark along with the lesson from the prophet Zephaniah can be enough to send us into hibernation, for there’s a sense of darkness, gloom, and foreboding in the Old Testament reading.

Zephaniah speaks of punishing people who are complacent, who ignore the needs of the poor. He forecasts misfortune for the wealthy, for their silver and gold will not help them. He warns of a day of wrath, distress, and anguish; ruin and devastation, darkness and gloom.

What a relief, and how encouraging to hear the epistle reading today from St. Paul’s letter to the people of Thessalonica! Though Paul warns of the day of the Lord coming suddenly, he tells the people, “But you, beloved, are not in darkness…for you are all children of light and children of the day.”

Paul calls them to higher things, to put on the breastplate of faith and love. He tells them to encourage and build up one another. These are welcome words, and it is here we find good news proclaimed.

Encouraging and building up one another matters for us, too, as a worship community. In the words of our liturgy we are reminded that God has intended us for salvation, not for wrath. We also know that the life of following Jesus is not an easy life.

In St. Matthew’s gospel reading, Jesus tells the parable of the talents. Three servants each made different uses of the money given to them when the master is away. When the master returns, he expects the servants to have made wise use of the money, or talents, as they were named.

Keep in mind that in those days, a talent was the equivalent of 15 years of wages for the laborers, so this is quite a large sum of money the master has given. In the master’s eyes, if the talents have not grown, they will be taken away.

We know that the word talent also means a person’s natural ability. You might have a talent for woodworking or building, solving scientific and mathematical problems, cooking, painting, teaching or writing. The person next to you has a completely unique set of gifts. This is a good thing, for God has given us a variety of talents to use wisely, to make use of them for a greater purpose.

In the parable today, which servant do you think you would be? I can relate to each of the three. The first two traded what they had, investing them so they would multiply. These servants are considered trustworthy by the master.

I also understand the actions of the third servant. He was cautious and afraid of the master’s anger, so hid the talent in the ground. He wanted to keep the money safe, and acted out of fear. That fear held him back. He did not trust, nor show faith. This is the real difference between the slaves who invested the money and grew it, and the one who cautiously hid it: trust versus fear.

The question for us is: which way do we wish to live? Do we want to live in fear or live with trust? And what do we trust in? Ourselves, our material things or jobs or reputations? All of these things will pass away, as portions of Psalm 90 remind us:

You sweep us away like a dream; we fade away suddenly like the grass…

When you are angry, all our days are gone; we bring our years to an end like a sigh…

So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.”

The parable of the talents can be applied to things other than money. We can ask ourselves: what are we good at? How can we put our talents and gifts to better use?

If you think you’re not really good at anything, try asking a friend or someone in your family. Ask a child. They know more than we sometimes think they do.

Today’s parable can be applied to our faith: are we growing our faith? How do we pass on the faith we have to those who come after us? Do our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren watch what we do, hear the words we speak, and make up their own minds whether we are living our days in faith or in fear?

This week I challenge you to ask yourselves what you are good at doing. What can you share with others; what positive thing can you make grow?

For my part, I decided the challenge will be surprising others through what we call paying it forward. No matter how small a way this happens, it can change an entire day or week for people if they are at a coffee shop, for example, and suddenly learn that someone has just paid their bill.

I did this last week with an unsuspecting couple behind me in line for lunch. Whether or not they ever know who paid for their cup of coffee, surprise and delight are the goals.

Many times the unexpected generosity shown to someone will prompt that person to do the same for someone else, be it a friend or stranger. Kindness is like that. It multiplies.

Not all these things require money. This also can work by giving another driver the parking space you were about to take, the one closer to where you both need to be, and taking one farther away yourself.

If you and I were one of servants in the gospel story, we can only guess how we would act. But instead, we’re here today and we have received other talents from God, our loving master. Will you find a way to spread your talent this week, so that it grows into delight for someone else?

In a world marked with chaos and bad news all around us, we who have been marked as Christ’s own forever through the power of Holy Baptism, and through our commitment to follow Jesus, can show the world a better way.

God created us for goodness and hope, and for sharing those gifts through better relationship with those around us.

Let’s get out there and do it. For we are children of light, and children of the day.

Amen.

 

16 Pentecost, Yr. A September 24, 2017

Jonah 3: 10-4:11 Matthew 20: 1-16

Great expectations

The lessons today tell us about expectations – our own and those of others. In the Old Testament reading from the Book of Jonah, we hear the prophet Jonah essentially throwing a temper tantrum – twice.

Ninevah was the capital city of the ancient nation of Assyria, where Jonah had denounced the people there. He had refused to go to Ninevah, fleeing to Tarshish instead. Because of the peoples’ evil ways and brutality toward others, God had been ready to destroy them. But they repented and God changed his mind, having mercy upon the city of 120,000 people (and their many animals).

So Ninevah is spared, and Jonah becomes angry that God spares these sinners – so angry, he tells God he would rather die. Jonah is so dramatic!

Like some of us, Jonah becomes displeased when those he considers enemies receive forgiveness. He is disgruntled by that ever-present steadfast love that God shows.

Then, God plays with Jonah a little. This book of the Bible has a few humorous moments. God gives Jonah shade from the intense sun by “appointing” a bush (appointing!) – and not long after that, God appoints a worm to attack the bush so that the bush dries up.

Predictably in this story, a distressed Jonah tells God a second time that he wishes to die than to live under these conditions. And God, a second time, asks, “Jonah! Is it right for you to be so very angry?”

Things didn’t turn out the way Jonah expected. Things surely don’t always turn out the way you and I expect, either. The same is true in the gospel lesson today.

Jesus tells a parable about God’s great generosity. The parable surprises us because it challenges the assumptions we make that God gives rewards we can earn simply by working hard enough.

The parable disrupts our ideas and earthly values of how we receive rewards for our efforts. It’s a reminder that God’s grace is given even to those who seem to be the least deserving. God does something different from what we (and the workers in the vineyard) expect.

God shows generosity and mercy to all who have labored in the field. Of course those who had worked all day long were unhappy: “that’s not fair!” I can hear them crying out, and I imagine feeling the same. But God’s generosity is not about fairness.

In the vineyard, only the first group of laborers had an agreement about the usual daily wage. Those who came after were given no specified amount, but rather heard the landowner say, “I will pay you whatever is right.”

With God, our ideas about what is fair or right, or who should and should not receive mercy sometimes are reversed. Those who are accustomed to being first need to think differently, for “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

God’s generosity is about abundance, about there being enough for everyone. One writer says that “God’s grace comes from a well that never runs dry.1 Drink deeply, and maybe you’ll offer an invitation to someone else who is thirsty.”

So we’ve heard about dashed expectations in both the lesson from Jonah and the gospel from Matthew. What about our own expectations – of our world, of God, and one another?

Those of us gathered a few days ago in the chapel to share the Wednesday Eucharist had a good conversation about the physical world not being what we expect right now.

We don’t expect that a major earthquake in Mexico would be followed by another one this week. Our expectations of devastating, powerful hurricanes are not that one named Harvey would be followed by Irma, Jose, and now Maria – as strong as the first, feared to bring even worse destruction than those before it.

Puerto Rico won’t recover as quickly as those in the states might. The hurricane will set the people back for many months while they struggle without power, without water – basic necessities of life.

These are not ordinary times. A friend said this week that she thought the earth is speaking to us – crying out, I would say, begging us who are supposed to be its caretakers to do something extraordinary. When one unexpected natural disaster is followed by another, this calls for more than ordinary prayer and action.

It seems that we have not always looked upon the earth as it was created: as sacred ground. We are called to see the holiness of life in the most familiar places and people, but often we forget. In part, we forget because we spend time judging and blaming others, instead.

When things go haywire and our expectations of how life is supposed to go don’t turn out to be true, it’s only human to place blame – so that we can try to make sense out of the course of events we see and experience.

One of the most troublesome kind of expectations are unspoken expectations. In our own minds, we think we know how others should act or what they should say and do, but perhaps they have no idea of what’s expected of them.

Most people don’t read minds. Being clear and honest about what we need from those we live or work with, for example, will go much further than blaming them when they fail to do what we had wanted. God, on the other hand, knows our needs before we ask. Still, it is pleasing to God when we pray for those needs, when we ask for the grace we wish to receive.

No, we cannot ever really know the mind of another, just as we cannot know the mind of God. So it matters that we give up the idea that God’s rewards and grace will go only to those that make sense to us. God shows mercy to all whom he calls to labor in his fields – whether they arrive early or late.

You and I, too, are laborers in God’s field. No matter when we show up to do God’s work, his grace, mercy, and abundance will be ours.

At the altar table when we receive bread and wine, it does not make a difference to God who comes first and who comes last. We all will be fed with the holy food and drink that are a foretaste of the heavenly banquet to come.

And that is a great expectation, one we can count on through the abundance and grace of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God.

 

1Scott Gunn, Forward Movement weekly message (forwardmovement.org), 9/20/17.

12 Pentecost, Year A August 27, 2017 Romans 12:1-8 Matthew 16:13-20

Built on a rock

Peter’s historic confession that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, Son of the living God, is known to be one of the great affirmations of faith in the gospels. As people gather around Jesus and try to identify him as one great prophet or another (John the Baptist, Elijah, or Jeremiah), Peter gets the answer right. He confesses that Jesus is the one sent from God, and for his display of faith he is rewarded with a powerful blessing.

Jesus blesses Peter and gives him the keys to the kingdom of heaven, declaring he will build the whole church upon a rock. Simon Peter now is given a new name: no longer Simon Peter, just Peter. It’s a play on words because in Greek, Peter is “Petros” and the Greek word “petra” means rock.

Did you know that the rock, so central to today’s gospel, has been the subject of debate between Roman Catholics and Protestants?

The Roman Catholic church emphasizes that papal authority (what we know as the succession of Catholic popes) passed on throughout generations began with Peter receiving the keys of the kingdom from Jesus. So the understanding is that Peter himself is made the rock, the foundation of the church.

The Protestant churches debated this idea by saying that it is Peter’s faith in Christ, not the person of Peter, that is the rock on which the church is built.

Despite the differences in interpretation, there was agreement that Peter is the central figure in the formation of a new church. Jesus formed the church knowing that after he was gone, the church would continue through the generations as the body of Christ. We at Christ Church are one small branch of the faithful body of Christ in the world.

It’s surprising that Jesus gives Peter a special blessing and authority because Peter – well, let’s say his personality was a bit “rocky” all along. He often missed the point of what Jesus taught. Some writers opine that Peter was the disciple who talks before he thinks.

A few verses after the ones we hear today in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus calls Peter “Satan” for tempting Jesus to set his mind on earthly things instead of heavenly things. Even further in the gospel, Peter denies Jesus three times (Mt. 26). And this is the disciple that gets the keys to the kingdom?

Yes – Peter receives all this because of his personal testimony, his faith when he declares that Jesus is the Messiah the people have been waiting for. Peter’s faith comes from God, who finally gives rocky Peter the gift of understanding.

Peter clearly has acted as a leader through Jesus’ story. And despite his shortcomings, Peter gets a second chance, along with his new name.

This message is worth hearing, because in learning of Peter’s being chosen and blessed by God, we remember that God gives each of us second chances.

Every day, we can start over. We can take whatever mess we may have made of our lives and begin again. Jesus does not give up on us. Do not ever think of yourself as too small or too unworthy to be made new in this life through God’s grace.

So the foundation of the church is formed. The church always is being interpreted from one generation to another. Our ancestors walked before us in the faith like Peter did, forming a foundation for us. We now walk into the future because of the blood and sweat of those gone before us. How we build the church next is in our hands.

The church is given the task of taking the living Jesus out into the world and out to our surrounding communities. What will we want our children and grandchildren, the succeeding generations, to say about the foundation we built here?

Each individual church gathering is one small piece of what we might imagine as a very large puzzle. Our piece may be smaller or it may be larger. Yet even the smaller pieces have every ability to be powerful in spirit, in prayer, in how we interact and show Christ’s love to those in need of our love and compassion.

One of a preacher’s tasks is to connect the gospel to the world as we are experiencing it, so that we are reminded the Bible is not static. It is the living word, not just written for those who walked the earth at the same time Jesus did.

A major event we experienced this past week was the solar eclipse, when the moon passed over the earth, blocking the sun in a path that crossed most of the continental United States. I was here at church when the eclipse passed through eastern Iowa. Though it grew darker and darker outside, a small intense sliver of light suddenly shone through the chapel windows. It was spooky, and it also was intensely spiritual.

Perhaps you saw the eclipse through special glasses or saw photos on the news. People travelled for miles to share looking up to the sky with friends or family. Several Episcopal churches around the country more directly in the path of the eclipse used their churches as gathering places for eclipse viewing parties, thus earning them the name “Eclipse-co-palians.”

A friend said it was the most extraordinary thing he had ever seen, other than the birth of his children. A writer said that “nature seemed confused, and people were gobsmacked…It was one of those moments when we all realize that we are part of something much larger than ourselves.”1

In many ways the best part of the solar eclipse was that it brought people together. Young and old, male and female, liberal and conservative, black and white – those differences faded away. For at least one day, we could forget the pain and heaviness of the world. People became one in their excitement over God’s creation of the moon and sun.

The faith of Peter and the foundation of our church upon a rock now depends on us. We have the choice of coming together as one, emphasizing what unites us rather than focusing on disagreements. It’s too easy to spread negativity that has the power to hurt our souls.

In the epistle lesson from Romans, Paul urges the people to use their individual gifts to build up the body of Christ – the church – to unify rather than divide. We can act as light to one another.

We might use the image of the sunlight that returned when the darkness of the eclipse passed by to remember that light – that which is good, that which is of Christ.

The light will always be victorious. Christ, the true light, is stronger than any evil, sin, or darkness. His light will take us by surprise and bring us joy when we least expect it. So look up to the sky, wonder at God’s creation, and be ready for the gifts of God which are greater than we can ask or imagine. Thanks be to God.

1 Scott Gunn, Forward Today: glory and majesty (Web reflection, 8/24/17).

 

The Transfiguration August 6, 2017 Luke 9:28-36

Dazzling white

If it’s a sunny morning at Christ Church, you know from experience that it’s so bright in the hallway facing Second Street, you need to shield your eyes to see who has come through the front doors. The sun is so intense that we keep the red guest book closed during the week to prevent signatures of recent visitors from fading completely in the intense light.

The blazing light of the transfiguration is not that kind of light. Yes, it is intense like that. But instead of a blinding light making it impossible to see, the light surrounding Jesus that made his clothing dazzling white was an illuminating light; it revealed him clearly and absolutely. The question asked throughout the gospels – who IS this Jesus? – is answered through God’s voice from the cloud.

The scene we heard described in the gospel on this Feast of the Transfiguration is unlike anything else in scripture. Radiant light did not come upon other Biblical figures in such a dramatic way, even though in this morning’s lesson from Exodus, Moses’ face shines because he had been talking with God.

Moses and Elijah are important here because they represent all the law and the prophets. Moses gave the law, while Elijah was among the greatest of prophets. Both point us forward to the Second Coming – when Jesus will come again in all his glory.

The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke each describe the transfiguration, so we have three distinct accounts. But it is only Luke who provides the detail that Jesus went up the mountain with Peter, John and James in order to pray. Jesus had been on his way to Jerusalem and withdrew to that mountain for silence. He entered into deep prayer. Depending on which Bible translation you read, some accounts say that Peter, John and James then fell asleep.

In the gospel lesson we heard today, Luke says in v. 32 that Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep, but since they had stayed awake, they saw Jesus’ glory.

In another translation (the New International Version), Luke says Peter and his friends were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory.

The first version suggests that Peter, James and John saw everything that happened. But it’s more commonly believed that the disciples dozed for a moment, then woke up fully (almost as if they had been dreaming) in time to see Jesus’s face changed, transfigured – shining with light. No matter what language we use to describe the brightness of the light, the power of the transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ seems beyond human words.

Variations do make a difference in how we hear a story. Translating the gospels from the original Greek, and the Old Testament from Hebrew, was done as carefully as possible, yet what we hear in English isn’t always what the writer intended.

For example, the Hebrew word “chesed” translates in English to “steadfast love” or “loving-kindness” in describing God’s love for humankind. Still, Hebrew scholars say that the translation isn’t strong enough to convey the intensity of God’s love for us. If your first language is something other than English you know well that it takes some work to get to the true meaning of words and ideas.

So the disciples now were fully awake to see the face of Jesus transformed. As for Peter – he’s just had a mountaintop experience, and he’d like to stay there. Who wouldn’t? Peter tells Jesus that they should make three dwellings (one for Jesus, for Moses, and for Elijah), and remain where they are. But that isn’t to be. Then, the cloud appears.

Much as angels are known to be messengers from God, clouds are known in the scriptures for concealing the presence of God. The cloud causes the disciples terrible fright. Moses and Elijah vanish, leaving Jesus alone as a voice from the cloud announces who Jesus truly is.

This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” And with this the disciples go on in silence, telling no one what they had seen and heard. It is a moment filled with awe and wonder.

What does this moment mean for us? In the brilliant light of the transfiguration, we see Jesus for who he is. Although Jesus shines with light, he is the same Jesus as he was from the beginning. He has not changed; those who saw him did.

This week, one writer reminds us that “In a shining moment, Peter, James and John see Jesus for who he is, the eternal Christ, the fulfillment of the law. Jesus doesn’t change. He was the eternal Christ before the transfiguration. Jesus is the same, but the disciples become different through their experience.”1

Yes, Jesus is unchangeable. We are the ones who change. We are the ones who suddenly, spectacularly, see differently. The disciples saw Jesus more clearly. Might we pray for the vision to see ourselves and each another more clearly?

Can we see family, friends and neighbors who may drive us to utter distraction as people also made in the image of God, deserving of dignity and respect?

In today’s Collect one phrase especially stands out for me. We ask God that we be “delivered from the disquietude of this world.” That is a powerful word – disquietude – describing our brokenness as a people on earth. One way to change that disquietude into peace is made clear, through the voice of God from the cloud:

This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to Him!” God’s command to listen to Jesus is a simple one. It is a hard one. But it is the one that will bring us closer to the kingdom of heaven.

Listen to him when he reminds us to be people of compassion – not only for the wider world with its depth of misfortune, but to support those closer to us who are in distress, pain, or any kind of trouble. There is plenty of it to go around.

We may not always know when a friend is dealing with deep sorrow and discouragement. Jesus would tell us to pay more attention. Jesus would tell us to show up and be present.

How will you try to see yourself or the people around you differently this week? How will Jesus shine more light into your life so that you know the sure presence of God, both in times of trouble and in times of joy?

Now as we make ourselves ready to receive the gifts of bread and wine at the altar, we turn once more to the Collect that asks this day,

Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty; who with you, O Father, and you, O Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

1Scott Gunn, Forward Movement weekly interweb message, 8/2/17.

 

5 Pentecost, Year A July 9, 2017 Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30

And I will give you rest

I wonder if any of you wish, as I sometimes do, that I had lived in the time when Jesus walked among his disciples, breaking bread and eating fish on the beach, teaching among the crowds. What was he really like? How did his crying out to God, his prayers, or his laughter sound? The four gospel writers present Jesus to us each from his unique point of view. Still, I wish I could have seen and heard him for myself.

Then again, since Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine, there were times he was just as impatient and short-tempered as all humans get with those around them. Perhaps it would be hard for us to see this side of Jesus.

When he asks “To what shall I compare this generation?” I get the sense that we’re in for a talking-to. Jesus describes this generation as lacking wisdom, capricious children who never are quite satisfied. In this passage they are unhappy both with John the Baptist and with Jesus.

What’s the problem for them? John the Baptist is too stern, judgmental, and brooding. Compared to John, Jesus is the life of the party, eating and drinking with all – even those he’s not supposed to hang around with. Jesus shows the crowd again and again what one writer has called a “frightening inclusiveness,”1 his remarkable acceptance and openness to others.

These capricious children are the children of the land who continue to act in selfish, immature ways. Yet this passage assures us that God’s wisdom always will be greater than all the foolishness we humans can and do create.

In the gospel lesson we hear three distinct sections. First, John and Jesus are shown to be as different from each other as night and day. You might say John is too severe and unfriendly, while Jesus comes across as a man of unflagging trust and humility.

In the second section, the gospel speaks of how we come to know Jesus and to know God. The divine is revealed to us as God’s gift, not by knowledge we gain on our own. We hear of the ones called spiritual “infants,” but this has nothing to do with age. Rather, the word “infant” describes those least sophisticated in their faith. These are the ones Jesus says come to faith most quickly, their simplicity sparing them of so much questioning and doubting.

The third section is another invitation to discipleship, not addressed to the disciples but to the crowds: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest,” a beautiful verse reminding us that Jesus stays closest to those in sorrow or any kind of trouble, and delivers them from their distress.

Taking rest is important enough that we hear it from the beginning of God’s holy word in Genesis, the first Book of the Bible. Remember that God says at the start of the second chapter, “And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.” (Gen. 2:2)

Rest is given to all, but given more readily to the ones afflicted with heavy loads and unjust burdens. Jesus isn’t only talking about ordinary work we all share, but the need for rest from labor than is unduly hard and unfair. Again and again he invites us. As I imagine Jesus, he stands looking straight at us with open arms as he says, “Come to me, and I will give you rest.”

Part of the rest God promises includes relief that goes beyond physical labor. He wants us to enjoy rest from the crippling worry that comes to most of us in our lifetime, so much that it prevents us from thinking and sleeping and working. Rest from fear and anxiety seems harder to find now, in this age when distrust and open hostility are displayed and now commonplace in news reports everywhere we look.

The Great Commandment asks us to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. As we heard at the beginning of this morning’s service, the Collect of the Day reminds us that God taught us to keep the commandments by loving our neighbors.

So how are we doing? We can try with all that is within us to love, but we cannot do any of it without God’s help, and without God’s grace.

This week, a colleague and noted author who serves as Cathedral Dean in Florida was thinking as I was about Independence Day, the birthday of our country which should give us reason for joyful celebration – wondering what it will take to turn us around from the outrageous ways we hear our nation’s leaders on both sides of the political fence speaking to and about each other.

Name-calling, bullying, deep distrust are at a frightening high. Temptation to be mean-spirited becomes contagious. We feel it even among our own communities.

It is the work of the Church to turn ourselves and others to a way of being in relationship with those we profoundly disagree, to one that is more grace-filled, seen more with the eyes of Jesus. It will require a willingness to work for reconciliation. And only by the grace of God will we get there.

My colleague writes, “Never has our country been so divided…Over half of all Democrats and Republicans today now see members of the opposing party as not only ill-informed but actually frightening.

sin and darkness would have us focus on how much we hate each other, get consumed with our differences. Yes, for then we spend all our time fighting and we neglect to do God’s work. We are like children in a kindergarten class fighting over our toys. Meanwhile the world is suffering.”

The author writes that in order to be better, we need grace. I believe she is right. Grace is a mystery of God – we cannot hold it in our hands, yet we know it when it comes to us. We know its power because it is mightier than any sword and stronger than any hate. My colleague ends by writing,

Grace has the courage to listen to the one who offends us.

Grace has the courage to invite the different one to the dinner table. Grace has the humility to admit…we may not have all the answers ourselves.

Grace is gracious and kind.

Grace listens.

We are a people of grace.

Go out there and listen to the stranger.”2

Yes, she says, go out and listen to the stranger. Be a people of peace, openness and acceptance, like the Jesus we encounter at the start of the gospel today. The Jesus who walked among the children of his generation is the same Jesus waiting for us, arms opened wide. He is hungry to receive us as we are, just as we hunger and long for his amazing, life-giving grace.

Amen.

1Feasting on the word, Yr. A, v.3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press; 2011), 215.

2The Very Rev. K. Moorhead, St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, Jacksonville, FL; FB post 7/4/2017.

 

2 Pentecost, Yr. A June 13, 2017 Exodus 19:2-8a Matt. 9:35-10:8-23

A treasured possession

What would it be like to hear Jesus say, “You are my treasured possession”? Would you believe him? These words are from today’s Old Testament reading as Jesus restores the nation of Israel, who has been like sheep without a shepherd to lead them. Jesus then pours compassion upon his people and sends his disciples out in his name.

Our summer readings now focus on the disciples and on discipleship – what following Jesus really means. Just because it’s summer doesn’t mean we get three months off from doing the work Jesus sends us out to do. The disciples didn’t get time off, either.

Jesus’ great compassion for his people stands out clearly in the readings today. Compassion motivates Jesus’ teaching, preaching, and healings. Compassion leads him to name and send out twelve apostles, granting them authority to proclaim good news, cast out unclean spirits, cleanse lepers, and cure sickness. The apostles become Jesus’ laborers in the field. The Lord of the harvest equips them for all they are sent out to do.

Really? With that impossible-sounding job description for a disciple, I imagine the twelve felt overwhelming doubt. Wouldn’t we have that same doubt? Who except Jesus could fulfill all these expectations?

The portion of the gospel we hear today is the only place in Matthew’s gospel that the word “apostles” is used instead of the word “disciples.” “Apostle” means one who is sent. Today we hear the very moment that Jesus sends the twelve out.

For he sends them out in mission, because he has compassion upon the needs of the people. The word “compassion” means more than feeling sympathy for the suffering of others. Compassion is the actual response to seeing those needs. It means taking action.

Jesus promises that the apostles will be given what they need, saying: “Do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”

But following Jesus comes at a cost, and he doesn’t hesitate to tell it to them straight, warning of coming persecutions. He says, “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents.” This means they will be treated as Jesus was treated, not what we’d call good news of the gospel.

This is one of the times it seems God has a sense of humor, that a reading about children rising against parents comes up today – of all days – on Father’s Day. And next week it doesn’t get any better.

Followers of Jesus often get into trouble with their families, who expect love and time and attention, and rightly so. There’s tension for us in the church too, lay leaders and clergy both, between commitment to church and prayer life, and family commitments and expectations. This tension always has been part of religious history. But it doesn’t sound appealing that becoming disciples can cause serious divisions at home and with those we love. So it’s easy to back away, or think that because we’re ordinary people, we’re not the special ones, the ones God wants. But the real truth of the gospel is that Jesus desires us as we are, with our brokenness and imperfections – not ever because we are, or are not, important.

Two points worth comment today is that, first, the gospel sounds as though Jesus ignores ministry to the Gentiles. He tells the disciples, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Church historians suggest that what’s happening at this time is that Jesus sent his followers out at two different times. As one writer explains, he sent them “first to the Jews when he was in Galilee, and the second to all nations after his resurrection…Historians have suggested that perhaps the two missions reflect two separate efforts in the early church to bring the gospel first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles, for which Peter is called ‘the apostle to the Jews’ and Paul ‘the apostle to the Gentiles.’

Both are valid and important, for all are God’s children… the first mission demonstrates God’s covenant faithfulness to his chosen people while the second is a sign of God’s inclusive love to all nations.”1

A second question arising in this gospel is why Jesus tells the apostles to travel lightly. He warns of dangers ahead, yet bids them “take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff.”

Jesus, calling them God’s laborers in the field, believes that “God will provide for them through the generosity of the people who accept their good news about the kingdom of heaven.”2 God will protect them, Jesus says; if that is not so in one town, they are to move on to another.

Could you and I do that – leave everything we usually depend on behind? It’s normal to be skeptical. Everything in our culture warns us to be wary rather than rely on the goodness and kindness of strangers. Jesus’ message is counter-cultural and always has been. God’s people are, always, treasured possessions. You are God’s treasured possession. Believe it.

The generosity hoped for in the gospel calls us to the holy work of being kind, generous, and responding to others with compassion.

I’ll end with a prayer from priest and writer Brendan Manning’s book, Dear Abba, given to each person who attended Friday evening’s Revival here at Christ Church. Manning writes of compassion, saying:


Dear Abba, I’m afraid far too many of my moments of compassion are nothing more than the warm fuzzies, experiences I can manage and keep at a safe arm’s length. These illusions of compassion can fool my friends and neighbors, but not You. When I consider this day, I don’t know if my heart was torn up about anything, my gut wrenched by another’s pain, or the deepest parts of me hurled to the surface for all to see. I know it’s a dangerous request to make, but teach me compassion so that others might take notice and be drawn to Your beautiful heart.”3

Amen.

1 John Y. H. Yieh, Conversations with scripture: the gospel of Matthew (New York: Morehouse Publishing; 2012), 56.

2 Ibid., 57.

3 Brendan Manning, Dear Abba: morning and evening prayer (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.; 2013), 17.

 

Easter Day April 16, 2017 John 20:1-18

I have seen the Lord

It’s hard to keep big news to yourself. What is the first thing you want to do when you see or hear something surprising or extraordinary? If you’re like many of us, you’re excited and want to tell someone right away.

When our first granddaughter was born, the phone call announcing her birth and her name became our own flurry of calls to those we wanted to share in our joy. We couldn’t wait.

Twice now, I’ve had the honor of serving as a deputy from Iowa to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church at the time of the election of a new Presiding Bishop. Waiting with thousands of other Episcopalians and guests for the name of the elected bishop to be spoken aloud, we could hear a pin drop – the anticipation was that intense.

Both times, when the new Presiding Bishops’ names were announced, a cry of overwhelming excitement went up from the crowd, followed by sustained applause. The House went wild. And the first thing so many did was make calls and send texts, because we couldn’t keep the news to ourselves a minute longer.

I wonder if that’s what it was like for Mary Magdalene that first Easter morning. She went to the tomb alone. She saw the stone removed, Jesus’s body gone. She urgently needed to tell someone. So she ran.

She ran to Simon Peter and to the unnamed one called “the other disciple” whom Jesus loved, believed to have been John the Evangelist. She told them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb.”

Then the disciples Peter and John ran, too. There’s a great deal of running in this gospel! John was faster, so he arrived first to find the abandoned linen grave clothes. Peter went boldly straight into the tomb, and then they knew Jesus’ body was not simply gone, but risen. They began to understand that Jesus had fulfilled the scriptures, rising from the dead on that third day.

I wish I could transport all of you to Paris just for the morning, so you could see the oil-on-canvas painting by Swiss artist Eugene Burnand. His painting is entitled “The disciples Peter and John running to the sepulchre on the morning of the resurrection” and hangs in a museum near the River Seine. The colors and movement capture the frenzy and surprise of that first Easter. It is the perfect work of art for this gospel and for this day.

The painter was a deeply religious man who brilliantly interpreted the two disciples, Peter and John in their robes, running with hair flying behind them and eyes wide with fear and mystery all at once.

They ran because Mary Magdalene first ran to them. The gospel writers each painted different pictures of that Easter morning. In John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene appears, but no other women are present as they are in the other accounts. We hear of no earthquake or terrified guards, as in Matthew’s version.

In the gospel of John we are given something unique. It comes within the conversation between the risen Christ and Mary Magdalene, who weeps because she does not know where they have taken her Lord.

And then Jesus suddenly stands before her, where no one had been standing before. Is he the gardener, as she supposes? But when Jesus speaks her name, saying, “MARY!” she knows this voice and knows this is no gardener, but her beloved Lord and teacher.

Jesus tells her he soon will ascend to God the Father. We hear the announcement of his ascension to heaven only in John’s gospel. Mary Magdalene is the first witness to this sign of Jesus’ fully divine being.

Because he soon will ascend into heaven, Jesus promises to send his Holy Spirit – the Advocate, the Paraclete, the Comforter. Throughout John’s writing he emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit. We are rich in spirit and in mystery in this gospel.

Through his words to Mary, “Go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father,” Jesus has just made Mary a disciple. He has told her to “Go” and to “Say,” sending her out to tell others the good news of his resurrection. Go. Tell.

The word “Go!” is the very word our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry loves to use everywhere he preaches, at churches and convention centers all over the world. “Go,” he challenges us, in humble service to love and care for our neighbors as ourselves.

Go, and make good on the promises we make when we become baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So it is fitting that on celebrations of the Eucharist on Easter Day, we pray together The Baptismal Covenant. We renew the vows we make at our baptism, as we are buried with Christ into his death and raised with him to newness of life.

Near the end of these vows, we say we will pattern our lives in the way of Jesus, knowing we depend upon God’s grace, and all we do is done only with God’s help.

This morning as we renew our vows together, listen especially to what we promise:

to resist evil,

to return to the Lord,

to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God,

to seek and serve Christ in all persons,

and to strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human being.

Does one of these most stand out for you?

If it does, I challenge you to run with it. Run with the urgency of this gospel, to love God and neighbor through the power of the risen Christ.

All this running brings to mind what peace activist and author William Sloane Coffin once wrote, saying:

God’s love is a long distance runner. Love has a longer wind than any other contestant in the race.”

Like Mary Magdalene, like Simon Peter and John, may we run to tell someone the glad news that Christ has left his grave clothes behind, and opened the gate of new life to us, his beloved children.

Friends in Christ, know that you are deeply loved and valued by the God who made you, the One who has risen and will ascend to heaven, sending down his life-giving, life-changing Spirit. So go now, and tell someone that Christ is alive, and our work of sharing God’s immeasurable love has begun. Alleluia. Christ is risen!

 

5 Lent, Year A April 2, 2017 Ezekiel 37:1-14 John 11:1-45

The raising of Lazarus

A friend once said that today’s readings might sound strange if you didn’t know the stories passed down through generations in the Church. A valley full of dry bones? A gospel with a dead man wrapped in strips of cloth, suddenly come to life from a tomb? She said it sounds more like preparing for Halloween than Holy Week and Easter. (M.D. Younger, Lutheran Theological Seminary)

The Halloween reference seems not entirely out of place here, because things are going to get a lot scarier as Jesus soon walks the road to his betrayal, crucifixion, and death on a cross.

In today’s gospel describing the raising of Lazarus, we hear the seventh and last of Jesus’ signs that show his divine nature. Within these 45 verses, there’s a moment especially beautiful and moving.

Martha and Mary say to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus sees their brother Lazarus, Jesus weeps with sorrow – for Lazarus was his friend.

So in the midst of this long account, Jesus shows us again that he, like us, is fully human. He is acquainted with grief. He knows our times of sorrow and stands with us in those times. Then, in the dramatic scene when Jesus calls Lazarus out from the tomb and restores him to life, Jesus shows that he is fully divine.

To some, this passage may bring confusion. It may sound as though Lazarus was raised from the dead, or resurrected, as Jesus will be on Easter Day. But Lazarus instead is unbound from death’s grip. Only Jesus is resurrected. Only Jesus tells us, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

When we pray the burial liturgy in our Book of Common Prayer, the prayers of the people mention Lazarus. The line begins, “You wept at the grave of Lazarus, your friend; comfort us in our sorrow.” (BCP, p. 497)

It brings us comfort knowing that Jesus, too, was stricken by grief, and felt the profound loss we all experience in life – times that sorrow brings us to our knees when there simply is nowhere else to go.

As in last Sunday’s gospel when Jesus restored sight to the blind man, this last sign of raising Lazarus brings us closer to the end of Jesus’ public ministry. Next week, Palm Sunday, Jesus rides triumphantly on a donkey into a crowd that spreads cloaks and palm branches on the road as they shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

The raising of Lazarus foreshadows Jesus’ death and resurrection on the third day. Unbinding Lazarus and setting him free is the final sign of God’s presence revealed in Jesus, the great revelation of Jesus’ whole purpose on earth, to bring everlasting life.

What are we to make of the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones? “The Lord set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.” This vision comes with the promise that Israel will be brought to life again through the breath of the Holy Spirit. As if they are slow to understand, the people of Israel are assured three times that through Ezekiel’s vision and the power of the Spirit, they will know the Lord.

The wind, or breath, is the symbol for the Spirit that enters those dry bones and breathes new life where there was none. It is through the power of that Spirit that babies and adults are baptized, that we are confirmed, and that we are forgiven for sin when we say the confession. Remember the words of the prayer book, when the priest says, “and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life.”

This power is not to be taken lightly. On this Sunday, when we hold our Annual Meeting immediately after the service, the lessons call us to remember how powerful it is to confront that life-giving Holy Spirit, a mystery we will not fully understand until the day we see God face-to-face.

I believe it is the power of that same Spirit that brings us together to new ministry in this place. Many priests I know from around the corners of the Episcopal Church use the Annual Meeting Sunday to give a “state of the parish” address rather than preach on the readings. As you can tell, I have not done that. The lessons are too important to let them go unconsidered.

But the lessons do speak to us at Christ Church as we wrap up the first four weeks of ministry and worship together. We may hear about dry bones and wonder what such a reading means for us as God’s faithful congregation in Clinton, Iowa.

Perhaps you have been “bone tired” at times during the interim period between rectors – especially if you chaired the Search Committee or were Senior Warden! Maybe you didn’t come to church for a while. Or maybe you became energized by the opportunities for lay leadership during the past year. With any change, there is loss, there is wondering, and it can be hard not knowing what lies ahead.

In the congregational survey that most of you completed, your results showed that compared to other churches, you expressed three unusually strong goals.

Those goals included deepening a sense of connection to God and one another through strong worship; working together for social and institutional change to better reflect the kingdom of God; and expanding outreach ministries to those living on the margins of this community.

Though on the grids of energy and satisfaction, the parish scored low, your spiritual vitality score was over 90% — you can believe I took notice of that! This is a highly positive sign and bodes well for the future. I walked into Christ Church for the first time and experienced overwhelmingly a deep sense of prayer, as though those prayers over the years have soaked into all the rooms in this house of God.

I experienced in the people I first met here a hunger for more learning, more ways to be together, and a lively prayerful presence shows this as a place whose people love God and want to love their neighbor more.

The outstanding program of the Northend Outreach Ministries brings people together to serve others. What else can we do together to refresh and build upon this ministry which already runs well?

I hope that we will share ideas and possibilities, and that every person is heard and every thought fairly considered. We can find new ways to serve those outside our church doors. Those churches that look outside themselves are the ones that best succeed and grow.

It has been four weeks since I joined you, and I still have much to learn and experience. The month of March has felt like juggling a great many balls in the air. It takes time for anyone new to know the ways a community lives its common life together. For that, I will need your help.

Tell me your stories, those of disappointments and of success. Be patient and gentle with one another as we all try to remember that humans are imperfect, and people take time if we are doing God’s work right.

In the weeks ahead, wonder with me, and ask yourself these questions:

What is binding you now? Like the story of Lazarus, from what can you ask Jesus to be unbound? Do you need to forgive someone, or be forgiven yourself? What will help set you free into newness of life, where the Spirit breathes upon you like a ferocious wind unlike you’ve ever heard before?

How can we all, as the worshiping community that is Christ Church, help you be all that God calls you to, and all that you wish to be?

Now let us go out and do the work which God has given us to do, knowing that we do it all only through the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the power of the wild, life-giving Spirit.

Amen.

 

3 Lent, Year A March 19, 2017 Exodus 17:1-7 John 4:5-42

Living water

Have you noticed that the gospel reading has gotten longer and longer these Sundays in Lent? The lectionary for today does not permit shortcuts, omitting verses when a reading is long. I wonder if that’s because Jesus is telling us there are no shortcuts to a life of faith – especially in Lent.

Today’s Old Testament lesson and the gospel reading give us parallel stories about the gift of water.

Imagine yourself in first century Samaria. You would have seen something extraordinary: Jesus, sitting at Jacob’s well. He’s thirsty – really thirsty, because unlike you and me he walks everywhere he goes. He gets dusty, hot, and weary along the way. He meets a Samaritan woman and speaks to her, saying “Give me a drink.”

This is extraordinary because Jesus broke two rules. A man did not start up a conversation with an unfamiliar woman, and a Jew did not keep company with a Samaritan.

The source of trouble between Jews and Samaritans involved a disagreement about where to worship – I know many of you not only can imagine that, but have lived through a serious and difficult dispute about worship. These disputes divide and can hurt people, and are hard to resolve even when everyone tries to be careful. But people take time, and it takes time to adjust to anything new in worship.

It may help to remember that even in the first century, people of faith disagreed over worship. And somehow, God saw them through it. Healing took place. Healing still can take place, even years later, with God’s grace and through the regular sharing of bread and wine at the altar.

In the gospel reading today, we learn that Samaritans worshipped at a shrine on Mt. Gerazim instead of the preferred Jewish site, the Jerusalem temple. From there, their division grew deeper.

Jesus arrives in Samaria by a road Jews did not normally take. Jesus crosses boundaries. He carries no bucket, even though he’s come to a well. He asks the unnamed woman for water and she asks him why he, a Jew, would ask her for water.

As Jesus so often did, he answers a question by turning it around. He tells her that if she knew who he was, she would have asked him for a drink, for he is living water.

Not only that, but this man she’d never seen before already knows about her five husbands, as if he can see right through her! Clearly, this was no ordinary conversation and Jesus was no ordinary Jew. She, too, questions him about the dispute over where to worship God.

When she realizes who he is – the Messiah, the one they’ve waited for – she runs off to the village to ask her people if this truly can be him. She runs with such haste that she leaves her jar of water behind.

And yes, this truly is the Messiah. In the gospel of John, Jesus keeps telling us who he is: “I am the bread of life,” “I am the good shepherd,” “I am the vine,” “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” and now Jesus says he is living water.

In today’s reading from Exodus we hear how the quarrelsome people of Israel are at their wits’ end from being without water. Moses cries out to the Lord on their behalf, and God commands Moses to strike the rock so that water flows out to the thirsty ones.

The question, “Is the Lord among us or not?” gets a clear answer with the sudden appearance of flowing water, restoring their trust in God.

In both lessons, God provides the gift of water, necessary for life. We learn that even quarrelsome people are given gracious gifts from God. For who among us could claim to be free from quarrels and impatience?

The images of water remind us of our baptism and the promises we make through our Baptismal Covenant. The Samaritan woman offers water, but the water Jesus gives is the water of everlasting life so life-giving that we cannot yet even imagine it.

How do we, here in Clinton, listen to this story knowing we are a city on a river that helps define who we are and where we are?

This week, the story of the Samaritan woman made me wonder. I wondered why Jesus took a different road when he went to the well. He crossed boundaries into a land where a Jew would normally not go. He knew all about the woman at the well and her past life. He knew he would offer her the grace of living water.

Jesus met the Samaritan woman where she was. I think we learn in this gospel today that Jesus also meets us where we are, whether we are ready and open to receive him or not.

We, too, are thirsty. We thirst for the word of God, for Jesus to show his presence in our lives. Sometimes the path is hard. Life deals us hardship, sorrow, loss, and we may find it hard to pray. At these times especially it is important to have our faith community surround us, praying for us until we can pray again ourselves.

Jesus appears to us through other people in our faith life. Jesus lavishes the gift of our faith community, of other people, around us – as he does with living water.

That’s why it makes a difference that you are here today. Your presence matters in this place. We don’t always know how what we do or what we say will affect another person, or change that person’s day for the better.

Perhaps someone here in this church received a kind or encouraging word or a prayer from you today. Because of your kindness and compassion another beloved child of God receives grace upon grace.

We are the body of Christ together. God shows up through us.

Where are the hard places in your life, right here and right now, where you most need Jesus to show up? Where do you need to ask Jesus to meet you?

 

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