6 Easter, Yr. B May 9, 2021 Acts 10:44-48 John 15: 9-17
On spiritual friendship
Two of today’s readings show us disciples who get a surprise.
In the reading from the Book of Acts, Peter shares the good news of Jesus with some Gentiles. Suddenly, the Holy Spirit appears, surprising them while Peter is still speaking. Before this happened, Peter was slow to understand that the gift of the spirit is meant not only for the Jewish people, but for all God’s people. He leads those who were outsiders to baptism in the name of Jesus, and remains with them for several days. They are forever changed by his visit.
In the gospel, Jesus asks the disciples to love one another as he has loved them. If you’ve been in church these past weeks, you might think we’ve got last week’s lessons in front of us. But no – again, Jesus speaks of great love for his disciples and calls them into that same love for each other.
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)
Jesus tells his disciples to keep his commandments and abide in his love, so that they will be led into joy. And, just as there was a surprise for Peter in the first reading, there is a surprising word in the gospel. 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, and the true vine. Now Jesus chooses them as his friends.
He shapes these friends into a community of welcome and acceptance, chooses them to live out a gospel of love, because love has the last word.
Think about the kinds of friends you have. What do we mean when we say that someone is our friend? Do we mean 2000 people on social media? The best friend we had as a child, or someone who has borne our joys and sorrows for all our adult years? Those who have no sisters or brothers, often form deep, abiding friendships out of a longing to break out of the loneliness felt in the household.
The friendship Jesus knew with his disciples had that same deep connection, anchored in God’s abiding love. This was a spiritual friendship. Spiritual friendship runs deep. It is not casual or brief.
One of the great saints of English church life, the monk Aelred, 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. Jesus loved his friend Lazarus, and wept at his grave.
St. Aelred considered friendship to be sacramental, beginning with and grounded in God, who is the source of all love.
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 strive for that deep, abiding love for each another. May we uphold and strengthen one another in love, charity, and understanding until, at our life’s end, our joy is complete.
2 Easter B April 11, 2021 John 20:19-31
Thomas: Did he or didn’t he?
Today – the Sunday after Easter – has been called “Low Sunday” because so many people go to church on Easter Day, then skip the next week – or many weeks. It’s too bad when that happens, because on this Sunday every year, we hear the story of Thomas. You heard that the passage begins, “When it was evening on that day,” meaning Easter Day. A week later in the story, then, when Thomas appears, is the Second Sunday of Easter.
Thomas isn’t a major character in the Bible; he is mentioned only 8 times in the New Testament, and 4 of those are when the gospel writers name all the disciples. Thomas was called “the twin” but it’s not clear that he was anyone’s brother.
Thomas gets the word “doubting” attached to his name when he refuses to believe that the disciples saw the risen Christ. That seems unfair, given that the other disciples had their own doubts at other times.
In today’s story there’s an assumption most of us make. We know that Thomas was not with the other disciples when they saw Jesus. But when Jesus appears through the closed doors, and invites Thomas to touch his side where the nail marks were, we do not know whether Thomas took Jesus up on it. We may suppose that he did, but the text does not say so. I don’t think that John’s gospel simply leaves that detail out, because it’s John, and he’s long-winded – unlike Mark, who makes a story as short as he can.
What we do know is that as soon as Thomas is in the presence of Jesus, that very presence itself is powerful enough for him to cry out, “My Lord and my God!”
In the passage we hear today, Jesus comes to do three things.
First, he brings a greeting of peace, saying it twice. He tells the disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Their mission is to go out and serve others in Jesus’ name, preaching forgiveness. Finally, he breathes the Spirit upon them, to strengthen them for service.
The energy in this story centers around Thomas. It’s Thomas who shows us change of heart, the very thing we experience through our own repentance and forgiveness. Martin Smith, author of the book Reconciliation: preparing for confession in the Episcopal Church, writes this about forgiveness:
“There is a clue right away in the word ‘forgiveness’ itself. It is a strengthened form of the word GIVE…In forgiveness, we are seeking a gift from God…What is the gift? That the one I injured should trust me and restore the relationship between us, making the consequences of my wrongdoing into an opportunity for love.”
Who waits for a word of forgiveness from you, or simply for the strength of your presence? The joy of Easter Day is past, but the sad realities of our broken world are with us. Christ waits for us to break open his word of reconciling peace with someone who needs to hear it.
And though Christ did not appear to us in the flesh as he did to the disciples, we are encouraged in our faith by that same breath of the Holy Spirit, as Christ says: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
So, friends, I send you. Go out bearing the spirit of forgiveness. Peace be with you. Amen.
Martin L. Smith, Reconciliation: preparing for confession in the Episcopal Church(Cambridge: Cowley Pub.; 1985), 45.
5 Lent, Year B March 21, 2021 Psalm 51 John 12:20-33
Sir, we wish to see Jesus
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” In our gospel, the Greeks at the festival said this to Philip. So Philip told Andrew, and Andrew and Philip went to tell Jesus.
No matter why any of us come to church – maybe church always has been part of your life, or you come for support, friendship and belonging, for holy communion, or forgiveness – at the heart of our reasons there really is one at the center. We come to experience God. We come because we, too, wish to see Jesus.
We come looking for something bigger than ourselves, for solace and comfort when life just hurts, for something to hang onto when the world changes unpredictably. The Collect of the Day reminds us that the world’s changes are “swift and varied” and we ask that “our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found.”
What can we really count on to steady us? For me, Psalm 51 brings comfort, assuring us that in life’s chaos, we find sources of strength. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
In asking God to renew a right spirit, we affirm that God forgives our sins and creates in us clean hearts again and again. There is nothing – nothing – we can do to make God give up on us, or turn away from us.
Those who grew up in the Lutheran Church may remember “Create in me a clean heart” as a short piece from the 1958 Lutheran Service Book and Hymnal, sung at the time of the offertory week after week throughout the year.
No matter how we encounter holy scripture, God works in whatever way needed to get our attention. God is writingon our hearts, as we heard from Jeremiah. God’s law upon our hearts is not one we can erase, just as the sign of the cross made at baptism never can be removed.
As we come closer to Holy Week, Jesus is ever closer to being lifted upon a cross, so that he can draw us to himself after the resurrection.
In Psalm 51 we cry out for God’s love and mercy. Notice that the words are set for an individual – create in mea clean heart – but we pray this psalm together as a church community.
In today’s gospel lesson, the disciples move about in pairs. “Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.” They established community, not relying on their individual talents alone, but working with the help of their fellow disciples.
And although individually today we make confession, we pray together for forgiveness and reconciliation. We follow the example of the disciples who knew they would experience Jesus more fully together than any of them could alone.
The Jesus we find as we approach the passion on Palm Sunday is humble, willing to be spat upon, mocked, and nailed to the cross.
A writer in a recent Christian Century magazine said this:
“Maybe this isn’t the Jesus we come looking for, but this is how Christ comes. This is how Christ heals. He bears with us, for us, every tragedy, every anxiety, every rough edge and broken promise. He bears the sin, and he bears the pain. We do not need to question where God is in times of suffering: God is right there in the center of it. The true glory of God is God’s willingness to share fully in what it means to be human. But it is also a symbol of God’s willingness to transform what it means to be human.”
For despite all the world’s human brokenness, we find on the other side of the cross a promise of joy, as written in the psalm: “Make me hear of joy and gladness, that the body you have broken may rejoice.”
Katherine Willis Pershey, in “Living by the word,” (Chicago: The Christian Century, 2/23/2021).
1 Lent, Yr. B February 21, 2021 Mark 1: 9-15
On this first Sunday in Lent and the next four Sundays, the readings tell us about covenant. When we speak of covenant, we speak about a promise, a pledge, an agreement.
Workplaces have written agreements about performing jobs or tasks; churches sign letters of agreement with their priests; even our vestry has a covenant. We promise to treat each other with respect and understanding. We pledge to work together for the church’s greater good.
Today we hear God’s promise to Noah and all creation: never again will God destroy the earth through the waters of a flood. With that promise God brings a sign, a rainbow, saying: “I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth…and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.”
Next week, we’ll hear of God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah; the week after, the story of God’s covenant with Moses and Israel in the commandments. A week before Palm Sunday, we’ll hear the prophet Jeremiah’s words of a new covenant written on the heart.
Covenant, promise, agreement. God asks us to keep his commandments; he promises to bless us and raise us to eternal life with him and the communion of saints forever. We promise to follow the commandments to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind; and to love our neighbor as ourselves. But we are easily tempted away from doing as God asks. Evil – whether we call that evil Satan or the devil – tempts us. I believe that evil forces are active in the world.
The devil runs a victory lap every time we turn away from God, fail to keep a promise, giving into our self-indulgent desire to focus on ourselves and those things we think will make us content. Satan is just waiting us out, ready with an endless supply of temptations to turn us away from God.
In our gospel reading from Mark, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness immediately after his baptism. I wondered about that. Wouldn’t the Spirit lead Jesus only into what is good? Why does the Spirit lead Jesus to a wilderness where Satan is waiting and ready?
Jesus was tempted and tested, again and again. He wrestled with and defeated the devil, showing us that we too can withstand temptations throughout our lives. We hear this reading at the start of Lent, a whole season of testing for us.
As the holy one of God, Jesus conquers evil by leaping right into the heart of it. One writer puts it this way:
“If Jesus had been sent to announce…the kingdom of God, he must prevail over the kingdom of Satan. That is why the Spirit who descends on Jesus at his baptism immediately drives him out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. Confronting the enemy is the first order of business for the Messiah.”
Forty days is a long time to be in the wilderness. Perhaps you remember a time when you were in a spiritual wilderness, feeling alone, sure no one would hear or help you. If you are in the midst of pain, illness, or grief, forty days sounds like a lifetime. Each of us bears something only God’s grace can make whole again. Being in the wilderness can mean that in self-examination, we see things in ourselves we do not wish to see.
One of the biggest temptations we face is not to walk into the wilderness at all. Who wants to see our brokenness so fully, our sins and broken promises, our lack of concern for those who share this earth God gave us?
Lent is a time of opportunity and reconciliation. Reconciliation requires willingness to see and hear those we don’t agree with. It requires listening before reacting and praying for those we do not like or respect.
God’s command to respect the dignity of every human life has never gone away. God has not gone away. It is humans who, tempted by the world’s evil, have turned the other way.
After the flood, God sent a sign to Noah and all his descendants that never again would he send waters to destroy the earth. He promised to uphold all created beings. Now it’s our turn to promise.
In today’s gospel, Jesus comes to Galilee to proclaim the good news of God. That good news is Jesus, who tramples down Satan’s evil. The good news is God’s abiding grace. May we walk through these forty days accompanied by it, guided by it, holding onto it for dear life.
John W. B. Hill, “Sermons that work,” Episcopal Digital Network, 2/18/18.
2 Advent December 6, 2020 Mark 1:1-8
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
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On today’s menu: Mark’s gospel and a little about his life, the peculiar character John the Baptist, and 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.
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 about the last three years of Jesus’ life. In the gospel for today, 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 tells us that being a disciple of Jesus is not all glory and triumph, as we might hope. Mark’s task in the reading for today is to introduce John the Baptist. 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 people?
John appeared to the people in the wilderness, telling them: “Repent! Prepare the way of the Lord!” I haven’t spent time alone in the desert wilderness, but most of us know the emptiness of being alone: the lump-in-your-throat fear that no one is nearby to hear or to care. It surely wouldn’t be what we think of as the good news of the gospel.
So maybe, out in the wilderness, even this peculiar, crazy-looking prophet was a welcome sight. At least he was someone who might try to help those who were oppressed for a long time. He appeared 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 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. Jesus is coming through that desert land to bring peace and forgiveness. As a shepherd cares for his sheep, he will comfort and care for his people. Isaiah says, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms.”
In today’s Collect we pray we will receive grace to heed the prophets’ warnings to forsake our sins, “that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.” Joy is the light at the end of the road, where we’ve traveled with burdens, disappointments, and unfulfilled desires. This year of 2020 has given us many burdens and disappointments. Yet we travel with hope, for we are called to be people of hope who lead others into the joy of Jesus.
We are nearly halfway through Advent. May we be like those first disciples who followed Jesus, even when they didn’t know where he would lead. 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.
Last Pentecost – Christ the King November 22, 2020
Jesus said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
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Imagine yourself in a time when we’re no longer in a pandemic and we can gather in groups again. Take heart – it will happen. Now imagine that you’re standing before the Son of Man and the angels with him. As a shepherd divides sheep from goats, Jesus places people at his right hand or his left. Would he find you to be a sheep or a goat? Have you been kind to a stranger, comforted the sick, or shared food with the hungry?
The images in this gospel reading point to royalty on this Christ the King Sunday: the Son of Man sits on a throneof glory, gathering nations, judging who will and won’t be welcomed into the Kingdom of God. What matters is whether those who heard Jesus’ commands to show compassion to the poor, sick, and needy did anything about it.
To be truthful, I think that you and I all have a mix of sheep and goat in us. When the Son of Man comes, separating us into those who cared for the less fortunate and those who didn’t, will the sheep or the goat in us stand out?
It’s not popular to preach about judgment, sin, or the ways we fall short of the gospel. We’re not comfortable coming face-to-face with our shortcomings. Some years ago at a church gathering, I experienced worship that emphasized onlyour goodness and belovedness in the eyes of God. That’s not wrong, but we never got a hint of being anything other than lovely sheep. All the readings at this event were about our good, worthy selves. There was not a word about sin, or goats, nor about the judgment to come.
In Matthew’s gospel we hear that what we doas God’s beloved, how we show compassion for the least of us, will be judged. Jesus says, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” He bids us to pour compassion upon neighbors, strangers, guests, all members of Christ’s family.
Sara Miles, a self-proclaimed nonbeliever who wrote the book, Take this bread: a radical conversion, started on a surprising journey when she walked into a San Francisco church. The welcome and the taste of communion bread led her to organize a different sort of food pantry – one that grew out of thankfulness for the welcome she first received.
She says of her journey, “The first time I came to the Table…I was a hungry stranger…I’ve shown up – undeserving and needy – and each week, someone’s hands have broken bread and brought me into communion. Because of how I’ve been welcomed and fed in the Eucharist, I see starting a food pantry at church not as an act of ‘outreach’ but one of gratitude. To feed others means acknowledging our own hunger and at the same time acknowledging the amazing abundance we’re fed with by God.”
We serve others not by looking to decide if we see the face of Christ in them or not, but because our paths have crossed with theirs, and they dare to hope we’re the ones who will welcome them.
Here’s where my own blend of sheep and goat shows itself. Do I think that sending money and helping to feed people here in Clinton through the work of Northend Outreach Ministries, or donating to Episcopal Relief and Development, means I’m off the hook the rest of the year?
If I think so, then I’m with the goats. Author and priest Barbara Brown Taylor writes that “…the goats are not condemned for doing bad things…but for doing nothing…they simply did not see any relationship between their lives and the lives of the least…and at the last day, when we will all stand before Christ the king [we will] find out who we are.”
As sheep or as goats, we don’t need to judge others, but we freely do it. It’s human nature to judge those who wrong us, whether family, guests, or strangers. Hard as it is, let’s leave that work to God. We can choose instead the work of patience and prayer, whether for those who suffer close to us, or prayer that goes out to wider circles of brokenness.
We know that countless other people stand in need of God’s healing and reconciliation. What I hope we also know is that there is no place – and no one – that is out of God’s reach. Yes, we will be together again and taste communion bread. But right now, we’re waiting. And waiting is what the next season in the Church, Advent, helps us to do. Stay tuned.
17 Pentecost, Yr. A September 27, 2020
Philippians 2: 1-13 Matthew 21:23-32
They said to Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Mt.21:23)
The question of authority comes before us most anywhere. Today we heard about the authority of a father over his sons, and the sons’ obedience or disobedience. We all can relate to working our way around various authority figures in our lives, beginning as children.
A child who doesn’t get the permission she wants from mom might then go to dad instead. Authority within families often gets negotiated. And the same is true in other places. If you go to school, at any grade level, you know that the teacher holds authority, while the principal or superintendent holds even greater authority.
In the church, clergy hold authority in a congregation, as does the vestry. I know from experience when there are multiple clergy serving a parish, some parishioners go immediately to another priest to get the permission they were hoping for from the first. Of course, clergy answer to authority when we take vows of obedience to the bishop. That has been especially tough this year, when the bishop and his task force on regathering hold the authority over when we can and cannot safely hold church services.
Even Jesus got questioned about his authority.
In the gospel lesson from Matthew, Jesus’s authority is tested by the religious leaders of the temple. The chief priests and elders challenge Jesus as he teaches.
To set the scene for what we heard today, earlier in the chapter Jesus entered the temple, overturned tables, threw out the money changers and called them robbers in his house of prayer. When the blind and lame approached him, Jesus healed them. All who saw these things wondered: from where does his power come?
So when the chief priests and elders challenge his authority, they are hoping to trap Jesus into saying that his power comes from God.
If Jesus says so, his opponents could charge him with blasphemy. Instead, Jesus answers a question with a question. This may sound like avoidance, but the question and counter-question was a common form of debate in those times, and Jesus was very good at it!
Jesus restates their question to focus, instead, on the question of John the Baptist’s authority. John the Baptist had acted as God’s servant and messenger when he called the people to baptism and repentance.
The true sense of the word “repent” in the original Greek of the gospel writers is one of turning, or changing one’s mind – a turning toward God. Today’s story of the two sons gives us a fine example of a turning, a changing of minds.
The two sons do not do what they say they will do. It’s a good son versus bad son story. The son who acts does the father’s will, even though he says he will not.
The parable shows that the son who answers the father, the authority, with all the right words, saying he will go but in the end does not go, are like those who reject John the Baptist’s call to repentance.
By rejecting John’s message, they turn their backs on the work Jesus seeks to do in asking that they turn their hearts, their work, and their wills toward God.
At the end of the gospel passage, Jesus tells those who challenge him that because they rejected John the Baptist, they are like the second son; they will find themselves in line behind tax collectors and prostitutes to enter into God’s kingdom. And the lesson ends here.
But the story doesn’t end for us. When Jesus said to the elders, “…even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him” (Mt. 21:32), he reminds us that repentance: truly changing our minds, turning our hearts and wills, always stands before us as an invitation. We choose to turn, or not to turn.
As we hear in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phil 2:13)
We hear in both the epistle lesson and the gospel today the obedience of a son to the father. Christ is the obedient son, humbly doing the will of God as he empties himself to death on a cross.
In the Philippians passage, Paul encourages the people to “be of the same mind, having the same love,” and to regard others as better than themselves. This is a call to the humility Jesus shows, a humility and obedience whose purpose is, above all else, to glorify God.
In the epistle, we find a “Christological hymn” in verses 5 – 11. There are two sections: first, Christ humbles himself to become human and suffer death; second, Christ is exalted. The holy Word tells us, “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.”
Christ’s obedience breaks open the way to glorify God. The lesson for us is that our purpose here on earth also is to glorify God, in the way we choose to live our lives and in our relationships with other people.
Jesus continues to challenge all of us to embrace the actions of the obedient son who turned his will toward the father. He calls us to direct our wills, to turn toward him – the one to whom every knee shall bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess as Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
When we acknowledge Jesus as Lord, we join in the ancient confession of the Church with all the faithful who have gone before us through the ages, and we lead the way for those in the ages to come.
16 Pentecost, Yr. A September 20, 2020 Jonah 3: 10-4:11 Matthew 20: 1-16
The lessons today talk about expectations – our own and those of others. In the Old Testament reading from the Book of Jonah, we hear the prophet Jonah all but 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 was 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 – 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 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 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. 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?
We don’t expect that two simultaneous hurricanes in the gulf coast would be followed by another this week, too soon even to imagine recovery. We don’t expect that the deadly wildfires we prayed about last year, and the year before that, now would become so devastating that they turn the western skies bright orange. Last week, the governor of California said in an interview that the smoke and orange skies were what they expected in the year 2040 – not this year. And we don’t expect the heart-wrenching arguments among family and friends over the political climate.
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.
We have not always looked upon the earth as sacred ground. We are called to see the holiness of life in the most familiar places and people, but we forget. We forget because it is easy to judge and blame others, instead. When things go haywire and 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 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 wanted. God, on the other hand, knows our needs before we ask. Still, it pleases God when we ask for the grace we wish to receive.
No, we cannot ever really know the mind of another, as we cannot know the mind of God. 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.
When we receive communion bread, it doesn’t matter to God who comes first and who comes last. We all will be fed with the holy food that is 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.
 Scott Gunn, Forward Movement weekly message (forwardmovement.org), 9/20/17.
15 Pentecost, Yr. A September 13, 2020 Genesis 50: 15-21 Matthew 18: 21-35
Numbers! It seems that lately, everything is about numbers. Every day, I hurry to look up the test positivity number for Clinton County, to learn when we can have church inside again. Virus numbers all over the globe have been the top story in the news for months. The number of weeks till the election is in the news. The strength of a hurricane or the inches of rain this week has us talking numbers. And we know that numbers are important in scripture.
One Sunday years ago, today’s gospel lesson came up in the lectionary. Then, as today, we heard Peter ask Jesus, “If another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times? Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Why the number seven? Ancient belief held that seven symbolized completeness because it combines the number three (representing the Holy Trinity) and the number four (for the four corners of the earth). Seven gives us the number of days in the week and is considered a lucky number outside the church, too.
After the preacher that day talked more about numbers, our grade school-aged son whispered, “How come we’re doing math problems in church?”
His question wasn’t entirely out of line. I do think we have a kind of math problem here. We have an equation that won’t ever come out right, no matter what our math skills are – because God doesn’t stop forgiving, and we shouldn’t, either. But humans don’t forgive others every time, no matter how we try. We hold on to anger and resentment as though it could help us, though it never does.
In the Old Testament lesson from Genesis, Joseph’s brothers beg his forgiveness for having sold him into slavery after kidnapping and throwing him into a well. The brothers fear Joseph’s wrath after their father Jacob (who had pleaded for them) has died. They even make up a story so that Joseph will spare them. They plead for mercy. Will Joseph seek revenge?
Surprisingly, Joseph reacts in a way they never imagined. Joseph weeps as he sees them, urging them not to be afraid, promising to provide for them and their children. This is not what they expected! And why does Joseph weep as he speaks to them and bestows mercy?
He weeps because he is physically and emotionally released from the forceful, ugly grip of a grudge. Forgiveness is not fair, and not deserved. It is grounded in grace.
A person who forgives experiences profound release and freedom, for refusing to forgive is like a stone around our necks. It wears us out and sinks us lower.
Forgiving another person offers new freedom, a fresh start from an unhelpful replay of the hurtful event over and over.
But forgiving is not the same as forgetting. I think that is why it’s so hard for us to imagine complete forgiveness: we think we must forget the wrong or cruel deed. That is not so. We still remember, and we lament the wrong. We ask God for the grace to forgive so that the power of the original hurt will be taken away.
In the gospel for today, Jesus tells a parable about a man who was himself forgiven, but gave no mercy to others. This doesn’t fit with God’s unlimited generosity and grace. Those who are forgiven must give mercy to others.
Next time that you pray The Lord’s Prayer, take time with the line that says, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” Do we really mean it when we say these words?
Whatever we have endured in the past, we remain wrapped in God’s grace. Our broken world surely needs grace. The enormity of the world’s pain can overwhelm us. We can’t remedy all that pain ourselves. But as Presiding Bishop Curry once said, “We can do something. We can pray. We can give…The one thing we cannot do is to quit…
Jesus in the Great Commission said after calling His disciples to go and make disciples of all nations…ended that Commission by saying ‘And remember, I am with you always.”
Bishop Curry reminds us all that we don’t do the work of giving to others on our own. Neither do we do the work of forgivingothers on our own. God gives the grace to forgive, and bestows the blessing of compassion and mercy. Our psalm for today affirms this blessing. So with rejoicing we pray the words of the psalm together:
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me, bless his holy Name…
He forgives all your sins
and heals all your infirmities.
He redeems your life from the grave
and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness…
The Lord is full of compassion and mercy,
slow to anger and of great kindness.. (Ps. 103)
Now may our loving God be with us, pour out upon us the gifts of forgiveness and kindness, and crown us with the jewels of his love.
The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, Presiding Bishop’s Reflection (Episcopal News Service, 9/12/17).
14 Pentecost, Yr. A September 6, 2020 Romans 13:8-14 Matthew 18:15-20
Put on the armor of light
With last week’s pair of hurricanes roaring into the U.S. gulf coast, on the heels of the devastation of the Midwest’s derecho, it’s hard to imagine when urgent prayer requests will slow down.
Vast numbers of people were displaced, coping with the shocking destruction of businesses, churches, and homes. At an Episcopal church in Louisiana last week, a preacher apologized for becoming teary in the pulpit – she was about to lose her home in a hurricane for the second time.
Meanwhile, deadly wildfires light up the west coast, and intense smoke from the north has filled our Iowa sky with a strangely colored smoke. This summer, even the state of North Carolina experienced an earthquake, when they normally get tropical storms.
That’s just a glimpse at stories hitting our newspapers and television screens. There’s more personal need for prayer and concern, of course. We ourselves, or families dear to us, are dealing with unexpected, unwanted health crises, loss of jobs, failure of relationships. The personal trauma we are thrown into can make it nearly impossible to hear what’s happening in larger news stories.
Our personal drama affects how we hear what happens in the wider world. We can become so overwhelmed, we don’t know how to pray.
Into this mix the gospel lesson for today has us imagine how a church helps solve a dispute between two members when one claims the other has sinned against him. Matters of church discipline in that time were laid out: if the two cannot resolve things, two or three witnesses are to be brought before the whole church.
We know it’s more typical for disputes to happen out in the parking lot – at least they would be if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic. In our current social culture it would be strange to see this gospel scene played out. But the gospel lesson does remind us of disagreements. We don’t need to just imagine serious conflict, because we’ve been there. Most every church has been there at some point.
Even before I arrived, I knew the difficult history of Clinton’s two Episcopal congregations merging. The fallout from that time still is the topic of conversation. Other interpersonal conflicts have been unearthed as well, and I expect there are more. Miscommunication and arguments happen, people get hurt, and it’s not easy to let go.
We know that conflict is a normal part of life, at church and home and workplaces, wherever relationships are part of the story. Things were no different in Jesus’ time. Bible stories are rich with kings and battles, misunderstandings, and ruptured relationships in the attempt to gain power or wealth, or win a battle of strong wills.
In those days, as now, people made a mess of things. Then Jesus showed up. He appeared among the disciples, called them friends, and commanded them to follow him. With the disciples gathered, Jesus took bread and blessed it. Then he broke it.
Jesus broke bread with people who were broken themselves – imperfect, troublesome, quarrelsome, prone to sin. If this sounds anything like you and me, it should. Our lives inevitably are thrown into both the beauty and the brokenness of the world.
But Jesus takes our sin and brokenness, no matter how great or small, and transforms it – blesses it, heals it, makes it whole. We sometimes are put into places with people with whom we are most in disagreement – but still we hold out our hands for communion bread with a hunger for God to feed us with his broken body, his blood poured out for our lives.
The absence of sharing bread together in these restricted COVID-19 months has made a hard time even harder. We want to be together, see friends, and receive the body of Christ in real time. There’s good news: now that cooler weather is here, we will gather outdoors for worship soon. We will keep it simple, but dignified. So come, spend time minutes in prayer surrounded by the beauty of the natural world. Hold out your hands, and take in the bread of life in the presence of neighbors and friends.
In the epistle lesson from Romans we hear that the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself is of greatest importance. As Paul writes, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Rom. 13:14)
Within the epistle passage Paul discusses the nearness of salvation. He writes that “the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” (Rom. 13:12) That armor is Christ himself, who put on humanity so that we might put on the light of Christ.
Whenever two or three are gathered in his name, Jesus stands among them. God is always with us – even after the wild storms have gone past, and we are given another new day to begin again.
13 Pentecost, Yr. A August 30 Rom.12:9-21 Matt.16:21-28
Needs of the saints
In our scripture readings we often hear about saints and their fascinating histories through the ages. Once I was asked about a line in today’s epistle from St. Paul to the Romans. Paul wrote, “Contribute to the needs of the saints.” Here’s the question: If you are a saint, what could you possibly need?
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he speaks of putting aside extra earnings on the first day of each week, to be collected for the needs of the saints. Consider Peter as we think about saints.
In the gospels these past few weeks, we’ve been following Peter’s story. In last Sunday’s passage Jesus said to Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” In last week’s reading, Peter was honored and celebrated.
But today Jesus speaks harshly to him, calling Peter a stumbling block and, worse, “Satan” because of the temptation Peter’s words bring. Satan! And spoken to the one who was a saint.
Yes, Peter was a saint, but he showed human doubt when he rebuked Jesus. When Jesus told of his coming crucifixion, Peter protested. He protested knowing that Jesus was a willing partner, even accepting suffering and death, in God’s plan for our salvation.
Peter learns that both for Jesus and for the disciples, the cross is the way to resurrection life, an “Alleluia” life. Discipleship requires much faith. Following Jesus will require everything, but ultimately leads to joy.
Peter’s story, and the story of the saints throughout the ages, teach us to redirect our lives toward God, how to live in the kingdom on earth even while longing for the kingdom of heaven.
This is the work of the saints. Their stories are sometimes inspiring, other times peculiar, but these faithful servants all followed Christ – bearing extreme burdens, pointing the way to joy through patience, hospitality, and love.
What do saints need? They need their stories to be remembered and retold as we continue their work of hospitality and genuine love. They need to be models for us in our commitment to Christ.
May our stories and the stories of our children be woven into theirs. May we come to know that hidden flame of the great cloud of witnesses – all the saints living, past, and yet to come.
11 Pentecost, Yr. A August 16, 2020 Psalm 67 Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 Matthew 15:10-28
Mercy is a worthy focus in today’s lessons. We’re in need of mercy when the world seems such a mess, and I am grateful for these teachings from scripture. Psalm 67 begins with the words, “May God be merciful to us and bless us,” and asks that God’s saving health be poured out upon all nations.
In the epistle lesson from Romans, the word ‘mercy’ is used four times. God’s people have been disobedient and strayed from God’s ways, but now will receive mercy.
It’s mercy that the Canaanite woman asks of Jesus in the gospel: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
Jesus ignores her, acting in a way that Mary his mother would not be proud of. And the disciples? They’re no help at all! They advise Jesus to send the woman away because she is a Gentile. To make matters worse, she has been shouting at them.
Then, the woman breaks the barriers of how women then were expected to behave – meek, quiet, causing no trouble. Because of her faith, she persists. She kneels in front of Jesus, calls him Lord, and says, “Help me.” She does not give up.
She has the boldness to ask for what she needs, even when he is about to send her away. Because the Canaanite woman has the faith to keep pestering Jesus, showing she trusts in him to take away the demon, Jesus saves her daughter.
Jesus teaches that the words that come out of our mouths begin in the heart. What comes from the mouth, the words we speak – especially in criticism and anger – have the power to hurt others for a long time.
The people in Jesus’ time spoke with as much ugly anger and judgment as we do. But they did not use social media. Their words and actions, however bad they were, did not instantly get tweeted, shared, and broadcast around the world with one click of a smart phone key. Words are sharp as swords. Their damage can last a lifetime without ever being visible to others except the person who had the misfortune to receive them.
As I have prayed for mercy for our country and our world, I want to share with you these words from the author Anne Lamott. Her book is entitled Hallelujah anyway: rediscovering mercy. Lamott writes that, “Mercy points the way forward…It is mercy – the promise to offer and receive relief and forgiveness – that lies at the heart of all great faith traditions and our own spiritual identity.”
She writes, “Mercy is radical kindness…it involves forgiving the unforgivable. Mercy brings us to the miracle of apology, given and accepted…Mercy, grace, forgiveness, and compassion are synonyms, and the approaches we might consider taking when we are facing a great big mess…Mercy means that we soften ever so slightly, so that we don’t have to condemn others.”
Psalm 67 brings us back to the miracle and gift of mercy. I ponder it, our need for it, Jesus offering it to us. I pray that God give us the wisdom to speak up for love, and denounce hate. I believe that with God’s help, love always wins over hate.
I pray that what is hidden in our hearts may be spoken boldly like the Canaanite woman in the gospel, so that Jesus brings peace and healing in our time. As the psalmist writes,
May God be merciful to us and bless us, show us the light of his countenance and come to us. May God give us his blessing, and may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of him. (Ps. 67: 1, 7)
Anne Lamott, Hallelujah anyway: rediscovering mercy(New York: Riverhead Books, 2017), front flap).
4 EASTER, YR A MAY 3, 2020 PSALM 23 JOHN 10:1-10
The voice of the shepherd
Today’s readings remind us that the scriptures speak to the challenges of our current day as clearly as they did in Jesus’ time. On this Good Shepherd Sunday, it’s reassuring to picture the Lord as shepherd and guide. We surely need guidance through the days ahead. What we cannot do, amid this experience of a pandemic, is gather closely together in one place, as sheep do.
The 23rdPsalm tells us that in times of danger and sorrow, God is present and full of mercy. John’s gospel gives us two images of Jesus – the shepherd who knows his sheep by name, and the gate through which his sheep enter. “They will not follow a stranger,” the gospel says, “but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”
I learned firsthand that sheep run from a stranger’s voice. I was the first person to arrive at a small chapel near Solon, Iowa, as I waited for a wedding party to arrive. A field next to the church was full of sheep. I wandered over, all dressed up, carrying a prayer book. The sheep standing nearest the gate stared at me. What do you say to sheep? I just said hello. In an instant, that sheep turned around and went the other way, all the other sheep following. I was no shepherd, and they knew it. They were waiting for another voice.
In the midst of these long weeks, as we are separated from places, people, and things that we love, I wonder whose voice you and I are listening to. If we take in a steady diet of news reports, it is all too easy to experience daily doses of fear. We may have trouble focusing, sleeping, eating, and praying. It may not be easy to center ourselves on Jesus, the shepherd who revives our soul and guides us along right pathways.
A guiding voice for me through these days has been 94-year-old Queen Elizabeth. On April 5 she gave a rare television address from Windsor Castle to reassure her people. She encouraged solidarity and drawing together. The queen said, in part, “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return. We will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.”
Despite the alarming news around us, our faith teaches us to hope, to put our trust in Christ, to know he will be with us when we get to the other side. The shepherd is the gate through which his sheep enter the sheepfold. Might we be the gate for others? Sometimes a shepherd lies across the gate to protect his sheep, to make his faithfulness known. May our care for others in these weeks ahead help us all get across to safety, where God’s goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives.
3 Lent, Year A March 15, 2020 Exodus 17:1-7 Romans 5:1-11 John 4:5-42
The woman at the well (Preached at Trinity Cathedral, Davenport)
Friends in Christ, in this time of anxiety amid a virus that has upended lives across the globe, it is important that we remember to Be the Church. A Church is her people even more than it is her buildings. It’s a time to be more gracious with one another, as most of us have never dealt with a situation quite like this one.
Today’s readings give us timely reminders that God is present and will remain present with us, bearing the gift of his grace. Many gifts are to come. Both today’s Old Testament lesson and John’s gospel tell us 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 at the well, and already things are not as they normally should be.
In those days, women from the village got their water at dawn or dusk. Appearing alone in midday was considered improper. Jesus speaks to the woman, saying “Give me a drink.” This is extraordinary because Jesus broke two rules. A man did not start up conversation with an unfamiliar woman, and a Jew did not keep company with a Samaritan.
The source of trouble between Jews and Samaritans involved disagreement about where to worship. Samaritans worshipped at a shrine on Mt. Gerazim instead of the preferred Jewish site, the Jerusalem temple. From there, division grew deeper. Such disputes can divide and hurt people, and are hard to resolve even when everyone is careful.
It may help to remember that even in the first century, people of faith disagreed over worship. The gift of grace working in them saw them through it.
The good news is that true worship is not found in a shrine or building, but in the hearts of those who follow Jesus in Spirit and in Truth. This is timely news as we grapple with what it means to be the Church when, for a few weeks, our in-person worship is suspended in order to do all we can to minimize the spread of illness.
One major consequence of this illness is fear and even panic, causing people to stockpile groceries, thinking mostly of themselves. From news reports this weekend, panic caused chaos in parking lot lines, with drivers engaged in physical fights over who was next in line to gain entrance into a store. This is individualism displaying its worst behavior.
We, as the Church, can imagine Jesus at the well, recognize the depth of that well, and reach out to others who may need special help during this anxious time. Those who, from fear, are draining the well of needed supplies can be countered with our compassionate attention to others.
We are the Church. Our baptismal vows compel us to seek and serve Christ in all others. The significance of the Baptismal Covenant cannot be overstated, especially in times of great concern.
One writer says that baptism is a moment that lasts a lifetime. It’s true that being marked as Christ’s own forever is a gift that remains with us for life, and should help inform our thoughts and actions from that day forward.
We are to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, finding ways to create fellowship, even if we are apart. This is a time to connect with those who are alone, who bear burdens, or are in need of hope. In so doing, we are sharing the Good News of God in Christ.
When our gatherings are cancelled, and we wonder what we will do instead, this is a time to call someone who would love to hear your voice. Check on neighbors. Write an encouraging letter – yes, an actual handwritten letter that you put into a mailbox – remember those?
In the gospel, Jesus carried no handwritten letter. He arrived in Samaria by a road Jews did not take, crossing boundaries. He carried no bucket. He asked the woman for water, and she wanted to know why he, a Jew, would ask herfor water. He told her that if she knew who he was, she would have asked himfor a drink, for he is living water. Not only that, but this man she’d never seen before already knew about her five husbands, as if he could see right through her!
Clearly, this was no ordinary conversation and Jesus was no ordinary Jew. When she realized who he is – the Messiah, the one they’ve waited for – she ran off to the village to ask her people if this really is him. She ran with such haste that she left her jar of water behind.
Speaking with Jesus, the living water, in broad daylight, this woman broke rules – but when she left, she took with her the gift of being one who believes.
The conversation Jesus had with woman at the well is the longest conversation he had with any woman in the four gospels. Will we follow her example, in the unexpected turns through this Lenten journey, and make time now to have the longest conversation with Jesus that we have had in a long time?
In today’s reading from Exodus we hear how the quarrelsome people of Israel are at their wits’ end 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 abundance of flowing water, restoring their trust in God.
In the midst of our current anxiety we may ask, “Is the Lord among us or not?” We can Be the Church when we respond out of the deep well of our faith and trust in the God who promises always to be with us, till the end of the ages.
Today we thirst for the word of God, for Jesus to show up. Like the Israelites in the wilderness we call out, “Give us water to drink.”
Sometimes the path is hard. Life deals us hardship, loss, and pain, and we may find it impossible to pray. It is important to have a strong faith community, praying for us – even when we cannot gather in person – until we can pray again ourselves.
Jesus appears through other people in our life. God is a God of relationship who lavishes the gift of other people around us – to be at our side until the storm is past – as he does with living water.
It matters that you are here today. We don’t know how what we do or say will change someone’s day from how it began. Perhaps someone here received a caring word from you. It might be that yours was the first voice someone heard this morning. Because of your kindness, another child of God receives grace upon grace. In these next weeks, we can continue this work from home, or from wherever we may be.
As imperfectly knit together as humans are, we are called to Be the Church in this time and place. God shows up in us and through us, offering living water when we are discouraged and dry.
Where are the hard, dry places in your life, right here and right now, places where you most need Jesus to show up? When life brings you to your knees, when there is nowhere else to go, where is the well where you will ask Jesus to meet you?
The Rev. Dr. Ruth Meyers, Hodges-Haynes Professor of Liturgics, Church Divinity School of the Pacific.
2 Lent, Yr A March 8, 2020
Genesis 12:1-4a Romans 4:1-5,13-17 John 3:1-17
Faith Out Loud
What would you do if God called you to leave everything and everyone behind, and go to a new land that he would show you?
Today’s lessons show two contrasting stories of faith and trust, with two different responses. In the reading from Genesis, God calls Abraham and Sarah to new life in a new land. He will show them the way they are to go. We are told in this short passage that Abraham went as the Lord had told him. But was it that easy?
Abraham and Sarah did not know where they were headed, or how long it would take them to get there. God promised that if they went, all their descendants would be blessed.
Abraham and Sarah lived their faith out loud. Their answering the call of God required a great amount of trust. I wonder if you and I could do it. It would come as a terrific challenge. I would want to say goodbye, to pack supplies. And I don’t like big surprises. I’d want to know exactly where we were going, where we might stop to rest along the way, what we would be doing once we got there, and where we would sleep.
It’s difficult for any of us to live with uncertainty. Faith and trust take time. For another faith story, let’s look at the story of Nicodemus, in the gospel lesson.
Nicodemus was a well-to-do, respected leader in the community. In the public eye, his loyalties were to the Jewish establishment. Privately, though, he had doubts, and he was curious about Jesus.
He waited till the dark of night to find Jesus. Nicodemus didn’t want to be seen asking questions – what if someone saw him, and knew that he didn’t understand what Jesus was teaching about being born again, born of water and spirit?
One writer says that “Nicodemus saw that Jesus was a good teacher and…interpreter of Torah, but Jesus was also filled with God’s life-giving Spirit, and Nicodemus wanted that kind of relationship with God, too…
Jesus tells Nicodemus that in order to see the kingdom of God, we have to give our whole selves over to an entirely different way of being.”
When Nicodemus asks “How can these things be?” Jesus grows impatient with him, annoyed that Nicodemus doesn’t get it. In displaying his annoyance, Jesus shows us his truly human nature. It can be a relief to know that even Jesus was impatient and disappointed. It reminds us that it’s acceptable to show our human imperfections.
Then, except for a brief mention in the seventh chapter of John’s gospel, Nicodemus seems to disappear from the scene. But later, something begins to turn in Nicodemus.
It takes a long while, but Nicodemus has a change of heart, a turn toward faith. He appears again, at a crucial point in the life and death of Jesus. Now he’s ready to be seen with Jesus.
He’s the one who, when the other disciples flee for fear of being persecuted, comes with myrrh and aloe to help Joseph of Arimathea prepare the body and bury Jesus after the crucifixion. He carries the broken body of Jesus. Finally, no longer fearful of being seen, Nicodemus is living his faith out loud.
Some of us find it hard to proclaim our faith in public. You may know that Episcopalians jokingly have been referred to as God’s frozen chosen, as our prayers and worship are more quiet than some. We can be reluctant to pray in public, especially if we have to come up with a prayer of our own.
Well, just let someone try to call us here at Christ Church the frozen chosen. All they need to do is to see what happens during the passing of the peace!
But what really is meant by Episcopalians being quiet is that we don’t go rushing out to tell others our faith story. For some, our faith is personal. It’s between us and God.
We may not even think we have a faith story, or one worth sharing. We tend to think we’re just ordinary people trying to live faithfully with our families, friends, and neighbors. Mostly, we live our faith quietly.
One way to live our faith out loud is to invite others to church, to show them why it matters to us to be with our faith community week after week. Nothing is more powerful than personal invitation – not the prayers, the building, the music, or the pastor. Studies over the past decade shows that still to be true. Another way to live our faith out loud is to pray in public, not caring who watches us.
For years, growing up, I didn’t get it. Like Nicodemus, I’d sit on the steps of a nearby church and pray in the evening so that I wouldn’t be spotted. My faith was private, personal, and such a golden possession that it never entered my mind to share that faith with others.
Then, also like Nicodemus, something in me turned. No longer quiet in church , I volunteered for things that scared me. At first, my voice and hands shook. Even making a simple announcement in front of everyone felt terrifying.
If someone had told me then that I would stand up in front of people every week for years to preach the gospel, I would have laughed – like Sarah laughed when told that in her old age she would bear a child.
Who would you be in these lessons today? Are you a willing adventurer like Abraham, going to a new land without argument? Are you Nicodemus, having to think things over without being noticed by others? Perhaps there is some of both Abraham, and Sarah, and Nicodemus in each of us.
And if that is true, friends, then we can be glad in this news. Because it means that something in us, slowly or quickly, is ready to turn toward Jesus, and follow where he walks.
This day, this week, this holy Lenten season, may we follow him all the way to the cross and beyond, where he will rise again and dry every tear from our eyes.
The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly, Sermons that work (episcopalchurch.org), Lent 2A, 3/8/2020.
4 Epiphany – Presentation of our Lord February 2, 2020
Malachi 3:1-4 Hebrews 2:14-18 Luke 2:22-40
A light to enlighten the nations
If I asked you to tell me what day this is, you probably know I’m not looking for Groundhog Day, or Super Bowl Sunday as the right answer. On the church calendar, today we celebrate the Presentation of our Lord in the temple.
This feast also is called Candlemas, because of an ancient practice of blessing all the candles to be used in the church in the coming year. Some churches celebrate Candlemas with processions and extra candles for all to light.
Today, we bring more light into the church by using the large candle stand that normally stays in the chapel. The many individual lights remind us that the infant Jesus was a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and has come among all people as light to the world.
In the Old Testament lesson, the prophet Malachi (whose name means “my messenger”) speaks of the coming of the God of justice, and tells that a time of purifying judgment is begun. Malachi promises that God will send a messenger to make the way ready.
From the epistle lesson we learn that Jesus has shared in all aspects of human life, including his own death on a cross, and in doing so breaks the power of death upon all the descendants of Abraham.
In Luke’s gospel, we hear the story of Jesus brought to the Jerusalem temple by his parents, to be presented according to the law of that time. The holy family keeps the ancient Jewish rite of offering an animal sacrifice on the fortieth day after the infant’s birth.
Around this time, an old man named Simeon received the gift of the Spirit upon him, telling that Simeon would not die before seeing the Messiah. Simeon goes to the temple, where he takes the baby in his arms. And instantly, he knows. This is the Messiah, the Lord. Simeon then speaks the words of the Nunc dimittis, or Song of Simeon, that we say during Evening Prayer:
Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised; For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see: A Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel. (BCP p. 120)
Simeon blesses the family. He tells them that the child will be great, and will deliver his people and bring salvation. Can you imagine what Mary is thinking when she hears this? Who is this man Simeon, that he knows these things?
Simeon is old, yet we do not find out how old he is. The prophet Anna, however, then appears and gives her testimony about Jesus. Her age is given. She lived as a widow to the age of 84. Is it by chance that the psalm we pray today is Psalm 84?
In Luke we have the contrast of the baby Jesus with very old prophets. We have light breaking into darkness. The joy of Jesus’ birth is set against Simeon’s warning words to Mary that a sword will pierce her soul.
One writer describes the scene this way:
“Mary and Joseph are walking to the temple…and then they see him. The old man. He walks up to them with a look of intensity in his eyes. This is Simeon. God has told him that he will not die until he sees the Messiah, the Lord’s anointed. And God tells him to go to worship that day…there he is, looking all around, waiting for the Messiah…we know that he is still alive for this reason, to see Jesus.
“Does Simeon know that the Messiah will be a baby? Is he looking for a child? We will never know the answer to those questions. But we know that Simeon comes to the temple expecting to see God’s anointed one and he sees Jesus. He recognizes him…
“’Now, I can die,’ Simeon says, ‘for I have seen this child.’ Simeon comes to the temple expecting to see God.”
Simeon’s story intrigues me, and it leads me to wonder. I believe that we come to church for many different reasons – some, because it is our lifelong habit; for prayer support, deep friendship, to accept an invitation, or because someone made us come. I think that we really come because we are looking for an experience of God.
When we look for God, what is it exactly that we look for? No one has ever seen God, this side of the resurrection. We know God as Father, as Creator, as love itself. But it is difficult to imagine any one physical image that expresses God’s love.
Perhaps we are looking for connection with the holy. We are hungry to know what God’s love means in our life, and in the lives of those we care about. God loves us, no matter how much we doubt that we are worthy, no matter how much we sometimes do not love ourselves – so how shall we act in response?
Pastor Peter Marty of The Christian Century magazine writes that “Biblical faith insists that God doesn’t love us because we’re worthy; we have worth and value because God loves us.”
Our response to love this great is to rejoice, as the opening lines of Psalm 84 proclaim: “How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.”
Even the sparrow and the swallow find a home by the side of the Lord’s altars. All of life is to be treated as sacred. All of life can be guided by the Spirit, as Simeon was, seeking God. Simeon comes to the end of his life, fulfilling what the Spirit had told him. He blesses Mary and Joseph.
Then the holy family returns to their own town of Nazareth. And what becomes of Jesus? Luke’s gospel tells us this: “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”
May we, too, guided by the Spirit, held in the light and love of God, be acceptable to God with pure hearts, and strong minds to know and love him.
Kate Moorehead, I witness: living inside the stories of Advent & Christmas (Cincinnati: Forward Movement; 2017), 88-89.
Peter W. Marty, in The Christian Century(Chicago: Christian Century; 1/29/2020), 3.
2 Epiphany, Yr A January 19, 2020 Isaiah 49:1-7 1 Cor. 1:1-9 John 1:29-42
Come and see
All three readings today speak of being called.
In the Old Testament lesson from the prophet Isaiah, we heard “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.”(Is. 49:2)In Paul’s letter to the people of Corinth, call comes right away: “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” (1 Cor. 1:1)
In the gospel lesson, call comes from Jesus as he encounters John the Baptist with two of his disciples. John points to Jesus as Lamb of God, and the two disciples follow, asking where Jesus is staying. Jesus’ call to them is “Come and see.” This is call; this is immediate invitation, and in this reading the first disciples are named.
The disciples gradually have been learning more about who Jesus is. A month ago in the season of Advent, we heard John the Baptist introduce Jesus, saying “Prepare the way of the Lord.” John talked of the One who is to come and, as John always does, pointed to Jesus. He bids the disciples to focus on Christ.
In last week’s gospel passage, the voice of God proclaimed Jesus as Son of God, Beloved, the One in whom God is well pleased. Today that revelation of who Christ is continues with John the Baptist naming him Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Then the two disciples call Jesus “Rabbi,” (meaning teacher), and finally, “Messiah,” meaning Anointed One. So, each week, we hear more ways of telling who Jesus is. You might say that Jesus gets more titles.
Throughout John’s gospel, we continue to hear ways to name Jesus: bread of life, good shepherd, gate for the sheep, light of the world, the true vine; the way, the truth and the life, and the resurrection and the life. We are told again and again who Jesus is.
In the Collect I often use following the Prayers of the People, we address God as “lover of souls.” We find many ways to say who God is.
We, as God’s people, also tell others who we are, through our words and actions. We, too, claim titles – so, here at Christ Church we can say “There’s Pierre. He has many titles on any given Sunday: acolyte, lector, Prayers of the People reader, dish washer, chauffeur.”
The same could be said of many of you who give of yourselves in multiple ways, and juggle roles because of your love, dedication, and commitment to Christ Church.
When God looks at each of us, what words might he use to tell us who we are? God knows what is in our hearts. We are God’s children. We are Christ’s own forever, always in relationship, called into community. The people of Corinth, an important cultural and economic city, are affirmed in Spirit in the Epistle reading: “the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you – so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift.”
In this lesson, Paul talks about the communal life hoped for among followers of Christ, who are called into love of others and into a life of service. Paul’s words give strength to the community and uplift them.
In this new year, as a church we will build on the work we already do in loving service to the surrounding community.
This past Thanksgiving and Christmas, we had more church members help to prepare food boxes for our neighbors. It would be wonderful to see continued involvement. All our efforts both inside the church and outside help form the story of who we are – with many titles you might give yourselves – just as we have been hearing the many ways we name who Jesus is.
It’s up to us to continue writing the story of who we are, to tell others this story through word and action, through attentiveness to those who are on the community’s margins, waiting for a sign of hope.
This weekend, as our nation remembers The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we are particularly invited to honor his memory by serving others, by caring about and working for justice, praying on the behalf of those who hunger not only for food, but for hope.
Dr. King cried out for freedom and stood boldly among those in deep distress. He grounded his tireless work in God. We are called to do the same.
We can be light to those in darkness as Jesus was light to the nations. You and I can, in our own unique way, be like John the Baptist, pointing to Jesus. In all our work, we know that God strengthens us to the end, as God strengthened the people of Corinth.
God will continue to remind you of who you are: made in his own image; and that by God’s grace you have what you need to succeed in ministry to others by keeping Jesus at the center.
Jesus, as he did in the calling of Andrew and Simon Peter, will in ways that you do not yet imagine, call to you, and invite you to share in his life and ministry, saying, “Come and see.”
Let us pray: Holy God, our strength and our redeemer, by your Spirit hold us forever, that through your grace we may worship you and faithfully serve you, follow you and joyfully find you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior.” (adapted from Sundays and Seasons: Preaching, Yr. A 2017, p. 67)
Second Sunday after Christmas January 5, 2020
Jeremiah 31:7-14 Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a Mt 2:13-15,19-23
After being warned in a dream
“After the wise men had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you.’” The story we hear today tells of Mary and Joseph’s escape to Egypt with the newborn Jesus. They flee the jealous wrath of King Herod, and remain there until Herod’s death, when it is safe to return.
These moments and movements in the life of Jesus fulfill what the prophet had foretold. Jesus is brought out of Egypt, just as were the people of Israel. In the reading from Jeremiah we hear, “Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel.” This passage was written as a vision of hope for the people of Israel. The Lord will bring them safely back from exile.
On this Second Sunday after Christmas, we celebrate Jesus’ coming among us as the living Word who continues to dwell with us in the months ahead. Our Christmas lights and ornaments may be put away for another year, but the presence of Christ remains, covering us with grace. At times this means that God sends messengers, as happened with Joseph.
Notice that in the gospel lesson, Joseph is warned by an angel of the Lord twice. I wonder about the angel waiting until the wise men had left before visiting Joseph the first time. Perhaps the urgent and glory-filled work of angels goes that way: one-on-one, often mysterious and always sent from God to protect those receiving a message.
Now, as a new calendar year has dawned, it is natural for us to wonder what the year will bring. What can we hope for, dare dream about? What should we come to expect from ourselves and from one another?
Author and radio personality Krista Tippett engaged similar questions in her book Becoming wise: an inquiry into the mystery and art of living.
I heard her speak about this when she came to Davenport as a keynote speaker not long ago.
Entering into a new year, we may ask ourselves if we dare speak aloud the desires within our souls. St. Augustine, the great spiritual giant of the early church, wrote of learning to desire well. It is good for us to open ourselves to the mystery we find in our faith and our life, as we learn to wonder, to imagine, and to act with greater compassion.
Our human relationships and our spirituality deeply connect to our bodies, minds, and spirits. This is incarnational living, Jesus’ example of coming among us in the flesh. When we continue to learn love and compassion, we do well to remember to extend compassion toward ourselves.
Learning to love self and others also comes with heartbreak and disappointment. Surely we will know some of this, too, in the year ahead. But all love comes with risk. To know sorrow is to realize that you also have loved, and loved well, which in the beginning and the end – the Alpha and the Omega – is what our God teaches us.
Some of our best teachers are our own failures and imperfections. We are not so different from the centuries of saints who lived before us, with their many failures and disappointments. They wrestled with it all as we do. They longed for love and acceptance as we do. And they modeled for us those virtues which we are wise to practice.
Among these virtues, Krista Tippett points to the art of listening. Joseph and Mary listened when the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. Mary listened when she was about to bear the infant Jesus into the world.
Tippett suggests that we have unlearned how to listen. It isn’t primarily that we forget how to be quiet enough to hear, but that our daily lives are so full of noise and distraction that we neglect being really present to one another, to be generous with the gift of our time and attention.
Also important to the quality of our spiritual life in this new year is to pay attention to beauty in its many forms – in God’s created world, in color, sound and silence, art, music and literature; in all those activities and people that bring us a sense of wonder, humor, and joy.
In these months ahead, amidst the inevitable bone-chilling cold and snow that will challenge goodwill, may we remember to search out and take in all the good that we can. It will take some work. When sorrows come in this life, we take in goodness together by caring for each other. Our care is a particular source of strength and beauty. Joseph heard the angel and cared for Mary and the baby.
In the year 2020, may we learn wise living: getting away from turning criticism on ourselves and others; instead looking around us and saying, This is the day that the Lord has made! Let us be glad and rejoice in it!
Krista Tippett, Becoming wise: an inquiry into the mystery and art of living(New York: Penguin Group USA; 2016).
4 Advent, Year A December 22, 2019 Isaiah 7:10-16 Psalm 80 Romans 1:1-7 Matthew 1:18-25
Watching and Waiting
Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.- Ps. 80:3
Near the end of Advent, some years ago, I led a group on an overnight retreat at New Melleray Abbey, near Dubuque. Some of you may have seen the abbey, or been there to witness the monks at prayer and work.
Driving up the winding road with snow all around, the first sight of the monastery reminded us that we were entering a place set apart from ordinary space. Even though I’ve been there before, the abbey still was a gift; when you enter, it is clear that for a while, time and space will be steeped in holiness and deeper quiet than our daily lives offer.
The sparseness of individual guest rooms helps to empty the clutter from overstimulated minds and overscheduled lives, reminding all who come that they need only basics here – a place to sleep, plentiful food, heat and light, and the constant rhythm of daily prayer led by the monks. It’s a time to refocus, to be still long enough to hear see who and what surrounds us.
A place such as the abbey provides a perfect setting for our Advent watching and waiting for the One who soon is to come. In the two days between this fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve, we wait with hope for the birth of Christ, humbled in the form of a baby. His is no grand birthplace, but a simple stable with the earthly smell of animals and the sharp cold of a starry winter’s night.
We wait and watch for a sign of Christ’s coming. It’s easier to do this in a monastery than in parking lots full of impatient Christmas shoppers honking at one another, or in line at the post office when it’s the last day the gifts you mail will reach their destination on time.
Culture expects us to buck up, even when life’s losses and unexpected events render us weary and anxious at this time of year. How do you hope to fit into the festivities of the season when you have been changed by grief or pain, financial hardship, health challenges, or difficult news? Do you feel alone if you want to avoid the whole holiday season, daring to cry out to God in complaint instead?
Psalm 80 is a psalm of lament that we might well relate to. The people lament their experience of God’s absence, asking that the Lord restore them so they might be saved. We just prayed together, “You have fed them with the bread of tears; you have given them bowls of tears to drink.” (Ps. 80:5)
All those who are among the least and last may well feel that they drink the bowl of tears daily. And where is God for them, or anyone who will help, in their struggle to get through another day?
The readings today lead us to the hope and expectation of the holy child who is to come. The gospel tells of the miraculous birth of Jesus, and the angel assuring Joseph not to fear when he finds that Mary is about to bear a child. Matthew’s gospel highlights three things that Joseph learns: the coming birth of Jesus, the naming of Jesus, and the identity of Jesus as son of God and savior of God’s people.
In the Old Testament lesson, King Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign from God, but receives one still, in the words of the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us.”
“God with us” is divine promise. In the Greek, “God with us” has no “to be” verb, so is not confined to past, present, or future time. It is forever.
In the epistle, St. Paul’s long greeting to his brothers and sisters in Rome makes clear that he, “set apart for the gospel of God,” has attended to the promise of prophets; that his purpose is to be a servant of Christ. Note that today’s lesson from Romans is all one sentence!
Imagine what it would be like if we greeted one another as Paul did – highly unusual in our world of instant messaging, emails, texts and tweets that often don’t take the time for using personal names. Our desire to enjoy the most efficient communication prevents us from taking the time to greet or even really see one another.
I’ve been intrigued by the way that our inspirational leaders have captured our hearts over the past years. While the world watched celebrations of Nelson Mandela’s life a few years back, news reports came out, showing how the people of South Africa greet one another. Their greeting that’s the equivalent of our “Hello” translates to “I see you.” And the response back affirms that the other person really matters.
How would we feel God’s presence, believe that phrase “God with us,” if our very being were affirmed by the people we meet face-to-face?
The popular Pope Francis, not long ago named as Time magazine’s Person of the Year, rejected the fancy trappings of his position and even went sneaking out at night to serve the poor. He sees and names the ones who go unnoticed. He sees those who have been rejected and unloved and would most have reason to doubt God’s presence.
In an interview, the Pope talked about the loss of hope today, yet he did not name those causes that we’ve come to expect. Instead, he said:
“The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old. The old need care and companionship; the young need work and hope but have neither one nor the other, and the problem is they don’t even look for them anymore. They have been crushed by thepresent…This, to me, is the most urgent problem that the Church is facing.”
When the interviewer wonders if loneliness and unemployment are more political and economic problems for states and governments, Pope Francis replies, “Yes, you are right, but it also concerns the Church…because this situation does not hurt only bodies but also souls. The Church must feel responsible for both souls and bodies.”
Paying close attention to our souls is one of the rare gifts you can find amidst the quietness of a monastery or another holy space you may know. That, too, requires watching and waiting for the wisdom to really seeyourself and others, knowing yourself to be safely in God’s presence. Doing so in the deepening quiet of a holy place may just change your soul.
In these few days before Christmas, telling another person that he or she matters, and is trulyseen, is one way to bring light and grace – just as Emmanuel, God with us, bears light and surrounds us, victorious in shattering any darkness that may cross our path.
Let us keep watch, give attention to our souls, and wait in joyful expectation for Christ to be born again in us. No, we don’t all have a monastery nearby where we can see the glory of God so easily through the continual prayer of the monks, year after year.
But we each can make a space deep within ourselves, where we might quiet down, open our hearts, and receive the grace and mercy of God. Together we have waited in hope through these four weeks of the Advent season. But God has waited for us all along.
1 Advent, Yr A December 1, 2019 Isaiah 2:1-5 Ps. 122 Romans 13:11-14 Matthew 24:36-44
Put on the armor of light
“Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.” The powerful words of today’s Collect suggest that we are to go about our everyday lives as if dressing ourselves in the armor that is Christ. Imagine pulling on that cloak of protection, every morning, knowing that Jesus’ strength covers you.
On this first Sunday of Advent, we begin a new church year. The word Advent comes from the Latin for “arrival” as we anticipate the great birth of Christ among us. During these four weeks of preparation and expectation, we “wake up” to God’s presence with us. We look ahead to that glorious time when God’s reign of peace and justice will be not only a dream, but a new way of life.
Today’s readings talk about the end of the world as we know it, in a way that one writer finds to be odd. The readings talk about “the end of humankind, the Judgment Day, the destiny of humanity. It’s a funny way to begin the new church year on the first Sunday of Advent – by talking about the end of the world.
So, what exactly does Jesus have to say about … the end of the world? ‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.’ What’s the point, you might ask, of Jesus bringing up the end of things just to tell us that we don’t know anything about it?
By telling us [what] we don’t know Jesus tells us a lot. It can be easy to fall into the trap of making our faith about the end goal – heaven! As a people who are marked by death and resurrection, we can become enamored with thinking about what God’s kingdom will be like – and, when that happens, we can lose sight of the gift we have been given in this world and in this life.’”
The message we are given today is to keep alert, keep watch, and wake up. But what does that mean, exactly? Iowa artist Brian Andreas of Decorah, whose Story Press cards and drawings have captured the hearts of many, has one drawing especially appropriate for this season of Advent.
The card says, “Most people don’t know there are angels whose only job is to make sure you don’t get too comfortable & fall asleep & miss your life.”
For me, the words “keep alert” don’t just mean staying awake long enough to finish the last chapter in a book, or to see the end of the late-night movie. It is more a reminder not to sleepwalk through my life. Because some days, if I’m honest with myself, I’d like to sleepwalk through the news cycles whose stories show how cruel and disrespectful our world can feel.
Kindness, generosity toward others, and genuine respect seem as though they belong to a past era. Part of the appeal of British movies and novels is that the characters all seem to have a mutual agreement of basic respect – even when they cannot bear one another’s faults or personalities.
People of that time, whether young or old, would not stoop to the level of name-calling and insults we see regularly in national news. So yes Jesus, let me sleepwalk through this unpleasantness, please.
But Jesus says no. Ignoring these times is not why we are put here in this time and place. Instead, we’re to ask: how can we make the world where we live better? How can we be better ourselves? How will we bring the light of charity and hope to dark places we pass through in this short life?
The work God has given us to do is to be bearers of hope, to be peacemakers, to believe that Christ’s light is stronger than the spiteful, angry behavior around us. Our work is to believe that with Christ as our armor and shield, better days are coming – even on days when the world does its best to make us think otherwise. God has his hold on us, and now is the time to keep awake to see all the goodness that is waiting.
Listen now, as we prepare to break bread together at the communion table, to these words from the late poet Maya Angelou, who bids us to continue – continue the good work God has given us to do:
“My wish for you/ Is that you continue
Continue / To be who and how you are
To astonish a mean world / With your acts of kindness
Continue / To allow humor to lighten the burden
Of your tender heart / Continue
In a society dark with cruelty
To let the people hear the grandeur
Of God in the peals of your laughter
Continue / To let your eloquence
Elevate the people to heights
They had only imagined
Continue /To remind the people that
Each is as good as the other
And that no one is beneath
Nor above you / Continue
To remember your own young years
And look with favor upon the lost
And the least and the lonely
Continue / To put the mantel of your protection
Around the bodies of / The young and defenseless
Continue / To take the hand of the despised
And diseased and walk proudly with them
In the high street / Some might see you and
Be encouraged to do likewise
Continue / To plant a public kiss of concern
On the cheek of the sick / And the aged and infirm
And count that as a / Natural action to be expected
Continue / To let gratitude be the pillow
Upon which you kneel to / Say your nightly prayer
And let faith be the bridge / You build to overcome evil
And welcome good
Continue / To ignore no vision
Which comes to enlarge your range
And increase your spirit
Continue / To dare to love deeply
And risk everything / For the good thing
Continue / To float
Happily in the sea of infinite substance
Which set aside riches for you
Before you had a name
Continue / And by doing so
You and your work
Will be able to continue
The Rev. Jazzy Bostock, “No one knows” in Sermons that work (episcopalchurch.org), 12/1/2019.
Guest Preacher: The Rev. Meg Wagner, Missioner for Communications, Reconciliation, and New Initiatives in the Diocese of Iowa
Christ the King Sunday November 24, 2019
Good morning. I’m so very glad to be with you this morning and that my dear friend Raisin invited me to preach today on this Christ the King Sunday here at Christ Church.
Christ the King Sunday is a liturgical celebration that was instituted in 1925, by Pope Pius the XI — 7 years after the world had been rocked to its core by the First World War. The Italian dictator, Mussolini and his fascist government were coming to power. The pope was responding to rising nationalism, secularism, violence, AND he believed that humanity was replacing their belief in God with a belief in human supremacy. He wanted Christians to be reminded that Christ is our king, and that God’s kingdom is won through peace, love, forgiveness, and service. Eventually the feast day was moved to the last Sunday before Advent, this Sunday, which is why we hear about Christ on the cross right before the season of preparing for Christ’s birth.
Growing up, it was hard for me to wrap my head around kingship in the Bible – and the language of kingship permeates the Scriptures. I knew kings of pop, kings and queens of the movies, and, my personal favorite, the Magic Kingdom. Back then I knew of one Royal Wedding (and now 2) that had captivated our country during my lifetime. But I had no understanding of what kingship would have meant to the people in Jesus’ time.
At first the monarchy had begun in Israel in large part as a solution to national defense. As the Israelites became more established in their own land and were no longer wandering, they now had a land to protect, a geographic location they believed had been given to them by God. God’s rule over the tribes of Israel was not seen as enough to protect it from external threats. But choosing a king to rule over them also created a system of exploitation in which the rural poor were heavily taxed or pressed into forced labor to meet the demands of the kingdom and the ruling elite.
But by the 8thcentury BCE, the prophets began to challenge the oppressive structure of kings and kingdoms and called for Israel to return to a kingdom ruled by God, one that would be marked by economic justice and concern for the poor. Our reading from the prophet Jeremiah speaks from that place. The earthly kings had failed to care for the people and the land and now the people were in exile. Speaking of them as shepherds, God says it is the kings who have scattered the flock and now God will bring them back. God promises to raise up for David a righteous branch who will bring justice in to the people.
I think it is important to remind ourselves that Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God was rooted and grounded in the tradition of prophets like Jeremiah. Jews had been living under direct foreign occupation and domination for most of the 800 years before Jesus was born. Despite believing that they were God’s chosen people, they had been suffering for generations. The people in Jesus’ time were hoping for a powerful and mighty king and warrior to defeat the Roman Empire. A “mighty savior, born of the house of his servant David”(Lk 1:69) who would save them from their enemies and guide their feet into the way of peace, as Zechariah sings to his baby, John the Baptist.
But the king they got in Jesus was a peacemaker, a healer, a king who preached and practiced non-violence, justice, and concern for the poor and outcast.
They got Jesus, who in our Gospel reading is hanging on the cross and dying, being executed like and alongside criminals. Yet even while he is being mocked by his tormentors, his words are those of forgiveness. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” “Today you will be with me in Paradise” Jesus promises the criminal who asks Jesus to remember him when Jesus comes into the kingdom.
So what does it mean for Christians today to speak of Christ the King? Why is it important that we end each church year and begin Advent by reminding ourselves of the sovereignty of Jesus as a descendant of David?
Hopefully it reminds us that our human constructions of power, privilege, and economic inequity are in direct contrast to the kingdom as Jesus lived it here on earth. Jesus life and death demonstrated a Kingdom of God that can be experienced here and now in the quality of our relationships, the equality of people, and the sharing of both resources and power.
One of the commentaries I read put it this way, “The love of God will outlast every ruler. All thrones will crumble eventually, but God’s justice is eternal. Our hope, our healing, our way is that of the One who “makes wars cease, breaks the bow, and shatters the spear. We who follow Christ follow the one who was crucified. Who side-stepped every invitation to take-on the title King. Who practiced power-with. Who challenged imperial rule. Who pointed towards salvation that doesn’t come from thrones of power but from within, and from together-ness, and from alternatives to thrones – like Tables.” (Liturgy that Matters Nov 24).
In my work with the diocese, I am blessed to work with Beloved Community Initiative, the diocesan ministry focused on racial justice, healing, and reconciliation. In that work, I am reminded daily how important it is to be focused on following Christ crucified. Just a few days ago, the Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of Episcopal Divinity School was asked, “How does a majority white church deeply implicated in white supremacy now speak, preach and stand up to white nationalism?”
“The cross is central,” she says. “It means the savior we believe in gave up privilege – in this case the privilege of whiteness – in order to enter into solidarity – in this case solidarity with black and brown people. You can’t be Christian and not stand with the crucified class in your day.”
What does real solidarity look like for Christians, especially white Christians? How does worshiping a crucified God shape how we go about that work? At Beloved Community Initiative it means a commitment to center the leadership and experience of people of color in all that we do, it means a commitment to working with other groups to affect structural changes in the community to improve the lived experiences of people of color. We offer programs and events – some that are designed to be universal and inclusive – with awareness of different group’s needs…and some that are specifically for communities of color OR focused on white learning. And we have a brand new curriculum called 2020 Vision for Becoming Beloved Community that we have developed – designed for individuals or small groups – to learn a little more about the different ways that race has and continues to shape this country and invites us all to be change-makers.
And at every stage in our work at Beloved Community Initiative, and every level, we work on practicing shared leadership, acting with our partners of color, to oppose oppression in all its forms.
As we spend the next month awaiting the celebration of Jesus birth, may we all remember that Jesus’ example of kingship wasn’t about dominating, or power-over, and that he showed us that God’s power is power-with, that true power comes from serving others, being peace-makers and working for justice. Amen.
The Reverend Raisin Horn, Rector
17 Pentecost, Yr C October 6, 2019
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 2 Timothy 1:1-14 Luke 17:5-10
Increase our faith
The apostles said to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” Have you ever wanted to ask for the same thing when you pray? Maybe it’s hard to admit there are days when your faith doesn’t feel very strong. The apostles asked for more faith. In response to their many questions and requests, Jesus rarely gave a simple, direct answer.
Some Biblical writers say that of the hundreds of times the disciples ask Jesus a question, or ask him for something, he gave a straight answer about 3 times. Those other times, he makes them work to figure things out. They misunderstand and mess up often. In the passage we heard, Jesus replies by talking about a mustard seed and a mulberry tree planted in the sea.
Even the disciples who spent time following Jesus say that their faith felt so small. They acknowledge feelings of inadequacy and their reliance on God to strengthen them. Perhaps they feel they’ve got faith as big as only one mustard seed – and one sounds like an awfully small number.
One. I know what one is. Some of you do, too. I’m an only child. Growing up, I felt wildly alone. Any of you who are single by choice, anyone who has lost a spouse or partner of best friend or sibling knows the startling aloneness at a restaurant when the well-meaning host, ready to seat you, asks, “Just one today?”
One can look and feel small, isolated, even powerless. One mustard seed would feel small to the disciples because they know that Jesus asks them to do hard work.
Jesus expects them to make God’s kingdom more a reality on earth, a place where we help the poor have enough to eat; the sick and weak are visited and comforted; the unpopular person is welcomed anyway. From every encounter, we learn something about giving of ourselves.
In the Old Testament reading from Habakkuk, the prophet complains to God about the injustice in the world, then is told to act faithfully, to trust that good will prevail in time. But God also expects us to have a hand in righting those injustices.
Why should the disciples, and why should we, do any of those things? We do them because Jesus compels us to, we who are made in God’s own image, strong enough to be willing servants. We do them even if we feel too small ourselves to make a difference. The power of the faith of one person never should be underestimated.
In the gospel, Jesus tells the disciples rather sharply that if they had faith at all, even faith the size of a mustard seed, then extraordinary things might happen. They might even uproot a giant mulberry tree and replant it in the sea!
Planting a big tree in a body of water sounds like an absurd and impossible task. We may feel that Jesus gives us many impossible tasks: feed all those hungry people, welcome them, and while you’re at it, heal them.
The gospel tells of the servant who serves Jesus without receiving praise or reward, the one who serves without expectation that he will receive more faith, more blessing, more favor, more grace.
But if we are to be honest, we do want some reward, or at least thanks, for the work we do. I’m a believer in expressing thanks to people for all they do and give.
A writer I enjoy talks realistically about how human it is for us to want thanks, or at least acknowledgement, for the good we’ve done. Yet he recognizes that so many times, this just doesn’t happen – especially in everyday life. He writes,
“Do you get thanked every time you do the dishes? Or cut the grass? Or wash the laundry? Or make your bed? Or do your homework? Probably not. But permit time to pass without doing the dishes, cutting the grass, washing the laundry, making your bed or doing your homework and you are sure to hear about it. These are thankless tasks and you take them on with no thought to getting praise for doing them.” He goes on to say:
“Notice that in this Gospel reading, Jesus tells of the servant who does what he or she is supposed to do in response to the disciples asking for more faith. First he tells them the parable of the mustard seed and how the tiniest amount of faith is enough to accomplish great things for God.
Then he goes on to describe the thankless task of serving God his Father. It is in serving God that we find our faith strengthened. We are not to serve others for the thanks we get.
We are to serve others as serving Jesus, because that is the life God calls us to, knowing that we will benefit more than the people we help. We will benefit in increased faith and increased love.
Walking the life of faith then is not done in search of thanks or praise, but is simply an act of love… We call ourselves servants knowing that what we do, we do for love, for the one who knows us fully and loves us more than we could ever ask for or imagine.”
Friends, it’s up to us as a faith community to believe in the power of our faith – even the size of a mustard seed. We who follow Jesus can offer our Christian hope. We offer it to a world hurting and broken, a world we are witnessing these days where it has become common for public figures to treat others without respect, generosity, or graciousness.
If just one of us has enough faith to serve as a model of the hope we know in Christ, we can reach out to one more person. I can reach out to my neighbor, my neighbor can reach out to a friend, and before you know it, we are three instead of one.
One is a small number. Yet all it took was one man, Jesus, who came in the name of love to change the world. Amen.
Frank Logue, Sermons that work (episcopalchurch.org): Proper 22, Yr C, 2016.
16 Pentecost, Yr C September 29, 2019
Amos 6:1a,4-7 1 Timothy 6:6-19 Luke 16:19-31
Lazarus at the gate
Maybe you noticed that the lessons these past weeks have focused on riches and wealth. And we’re not done yet. This week, there’s something different.
Things are reversed in the gospel story today. The rich man who wore fancy clothing and ate his fill whenever he wanted ended up badly after he died. His soul went into Hades, forever tormented. Meanwhile, poor, miserable Lazarus was lovingly carried in the arms of angels to into the company of Abraham.
In life, the rich man had everything. In life, Lazarus had nothing except trouble and physical agony. Now, their fates are reversed. Lazarus has comfort, the rich man is in eternal misery. Did you notice that the rich man doesn’t have a name in this story? Generally, important people are given names, so that we better remember them. But Lazarus, the one cast off and barely regarded as human, instead is the one named. It’s a lesson for us that even poor, sick, seemingly unimportant people have names, histories, and whole life stories.
The rich man begs Abraham to send a warning to his brothers that they too will be in misery forever if they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets. But Abraham says that if they already ignored Moses, someone advising them from the afterlife will not change their minds.
It’s clear what message we are to take away from this lesson. We are to share what we have been given, to have mercy upon the poor and discarded. Our security and future are not in riches, but wealth is a good thing when we share with those who have little.
We heard a similar message last week in the lesson about the dishonest manager. The gospel last week ended with “You cannot serve both God and wealth.” In the epistle today, we hear from First Timothy about the love of money. We are warned: the poor will be lifted up and the rich sent away empty, just as we hear in the words of the Song of Mary when we say Evening Prayer.
In Children’s Chapel, the book our younger people are using for the Bible lessons is called God’s Word; My Voice. The book explains in simpler language what the Bible is saying to us. The epistle lesson from Timothy is especially good in this book. Listen to what it says:
“We brought nothing into this world when we were born, and we can take nothing out of it with us when we die. Enough food and clothing should make us happy. If you want to be rich, though, it is very easy to fall into temptation and get trapped into things that can destroy you. The love of money is the cause of all kinds of evil.
Some rich people forget about their faith and sometimes cause themselves no end of trouble…Instead they should rely on God, who provides us with everything we need.”
Even the Old Testament reading from Amos reminds us that God’s people have forgotten how to share their wealth with the poor, as they lie on beds of ivory, drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils. We understand the message here. Give what we can, practice generosity not just once but as a life practice, act mercifully to the ones truly in trouble.
But as I’ve studied these lessons this week, something bothered me about them. It took some time to figure out what that was. Here’s the problem I see in the characters we’ve just heard about: it sounds as if we should assume that the rich man in the gospel enjoyed his riches to the fullest throughout his whole life, going about in his royal purple robe and never caring one bit for others. We might also be led to think that the people for whom Timothy wrote his letters spent all their time since birth seduced by the trappings of wealth.
I wonder if this is the whole story. I wonder, because I have come to believe that peoples’ lives are too long and complicated to be so black and white, so completely one way, or its opposite. Peoples’ lives and circumstances can and often do change. Even if the rich man ignored Lazarus in this story, we do not know for certain that at every moment of his life he failed to show kindness or mercy.
If we each are made in God’s image, if we all are beloved children of God, there must have been some goodness in us from the start – even if it’s the smallest dose – before we chose to turn away from God.
As for Lazarus, he is sick and poor, and surely needs to be dealt with mercifully. But what about his life before that? Is it possible that there was a hint of self-centeredness in him, or that as a young person, he enjoyed a better or healthy life – even if for a brief time?
For me, thinking about these characters as having more varied lives helps me realize that the people we now spend our lives with – neighbors, friends, family, and those we simply do not appreciate or like – are not necessarily all good, all generous, nor all unfriendly, unhelpful, and greedy.
So, part of what I take from the readings is the reminder that there is both some Lazarus and some of the rich man within ourselves, even when the word “riches” has nothing to do with money. There are other ways to be rich and blessed, in this life. We may be blessed by the people around us, by the support and care we have received, by the simplest act of kindness from someone unexpected.
And every one of us, no matter our status in life, has the opportunity to be grateful, to choose differently, to experience a conversion of heart.
I believe it is no coincidence that our scripture lessons these weeks teach about sharing our money and distributing our financial blessings, just when the fall stewardship season begins in many churches.
Those of us whose task is preaching week after week also have the task of asking people to support their church by sharing their money. In my own family, my father flatly declared that he stopped attending the Catholic Church or any other church, because they kept asking for his money. It didn’t help that he regularly fainted as a young altar boy, and got no sympathy from a mean-spirited priest.
When I hear stories like the one my father told, I learn not to ask for money too many times during the year, because people tune out the request – even when it’s a good one.
There is one time each year, however, that it is important and necessary, and we’re there now as we approach the pledging months of the fall season. So I do heartily encourage you to prayerfully consider how you can support your church in the coming year.
But rather than suggesting that by holding too tightly onto our money, we are acting like the rich man who ignored the needs of Lazarus, I ask this:
When you consider the blessings you have gained through your faith community – the riches of relationship, prayer after prayer offered with love for you, your family, and other members – can you do your part to help ensure that future generations will sit in the very pews where we give God all our hopes, frustrations, pleas, praises, and love? If you didn’t give in the past year, can you do so now?
The rich man and Lazarus had wildly different lives, as we here all have different lives from one another. Our blessings and sorrows weave into our histories and form us for who we are today. What we have in common is that God made each of us, loves us deeply, and gives us a chance each day to reorder those things that are important.
Where in your life do you need a change of heart, as you continue to receive and be grateful for the blessings that God has given you?
Lyn Zill Briggs, God’s Word; My Voice: a Lectionary for Children(New York: Church Publishing, 2015).
14 Pentecost, Year C September 15, 2019 Exodus 32:7-14 Luke 15:1-10
Who’s in, who’s out?
Reading today’s lessons, I remember a woman named Patty. She sat alone at a table near the piano at the Agape Café, where I used to work. At this weekly free, cooked-to-order breakfast in Iowa City, it’s unusual for guests to sit so far from others in the room.
“I’m way over here,” she said, “because I like the piano and I wanted to play it.” “Go ahead and play,” I said. Her eyes grew wide. “But I won’t get in trouble? Nobody will kick me out?” “Nobody,” I said.
When Patty was finished with her improvisations that sounded like good jazz, she took her coffee cup and moved to a table with two others. “I can play next week, too?” she asked. Suddenly, people noticed her. They’d never paid any attention before
Soon after, a young man who had looked frightened to engage in conversation got up and approached the piano. He just stood there. “It’s okay to play,” I told him. He ran his fingers over the keys. “I only know the right hand. I forgot the bottom.” He started playing, slowly. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” Then he stopped.
“How about if I play the bottom part?” I said. “I know how it goes.” He stared at me at first, but then moved over. “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” “Let’s do it again,” he said. Some of the other guests were smiling at him.
Both these guests at the Café taught me something about being on the margins, lost from the center where others always look comfortable.
Both Patty and the young man give us examples of how the cycle of “lost” and “found” can be most anywhere, repeating much as the words repeat in this gospel passage.
As it happened, the piano players were male and female. Like the shepherd looking for his sheep and the woman searching for her coin, they represent us all: male and female, all of humankind. Any one of us may be searching for something lost, or feel lost ourselves.
As you can tell, this parable is not only about sheep and coins. It’s also about hospitality, about places of our own deep loss, and the need for repentance in order to reach the joy of heaven. The parable ends in joy and celebration. That’s a lot to pack into a story that starts with one lost sheep and one silver coin.
St. Cyril of Alexandria, one of the early Church Fathers, suggested that the shepherd represents Jesus, the gathered sheep are like the angels, and the lost sheep represents humankind. While it may sound obvious to us that the shepherd represents Jesus, the reference to angels may be less clear – though the passage ends with the presence of angels as heaven rejoices.
Although sheep suggest a pleasant, pastoral setting, they do not otherwise seem particularly angelic. Perhaps Cyril of Alexandria is getting at something, however: this gospel is very much about the question of who is inand who is out. Who’s pure, and who’s impure?
The “in crowd” may well perceive itself to be pure as angels, not touched by those on the fringe that are different, who bring unknowns into a community.
But Jesus would turn society on its head as was his habit, saying that those on the margins bring us closer to a wholeness so often shut out by our human-made boundaries.
Another guest at the Café told me a story about being formerly disabled and in a wheelchair. Some years ago, he had been asked to leave a restaurant because of the so-called “Ugly Laws” in several American cities between the 1860s and 1970s.
For those unfamiliar with the “ugly laws,” they were in place to make it illegal for persons with “unsightly” disabilities to be in public places. The rationale was that the quality of life and standard of appearance would be preserved. Who’s in, and who’s out? And who gets to decide?
In today’s parable, the grumbling on the part of the Pharisees and scribes is provoked by Jesus practicing radical hospitality. They say, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” One writer proposes that this sort of grumbling really asks the question, “If we bring outsiders in, will there be room for me?”
But God rejoices when the religious insiders change their minds about who is in and who is out. God rejoices in the recovery of every lost sheep, every lost sinner, every banished guest. The dividing line that throws us humans into the “lost” part of life shows up when we least plan on it.
Losing our faith may happen in the midst of suffering a profound loss or change in our lives.
The dividing line may be the unwelcome letter of job termination, the diagnosis of serious illness, a time of national mourning, or the death of someone close that feels as shocking as a blow to the chest.
It’s the moment when we think, “Before this happened, my life was all right.” It’s when we look out to the street and wonder why other people are going about the day as though life were normal.
Our natural reaction, our defense against a world that hurts so much at times, can be to dig ourselves into a hole of isolation because we are desperate for a shield, for anything to stop the pain. It may feel like God is with all the other people out there, but not with us. We place ourselves outside the rest of those sheep, and try to hide.
But there is nowhere we can hide that God will not find us. This is the God who keeps searching, “the God who crawls into the hole [we] have dug for [ourselves] and lifts [us] up and out.”
What Luke’s gospel tells us is that God never will abandon us, especially when we are the most lost. Jesus shows again and again that he is most zealous in his mission to comfort the marginalized.
Like the lost coin and the lost sheep, we are found thanks to God’s action, not our own. As theologian Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “God’s talent for finding us proves greater than our talent for getting lost.”
The thing that separates humans from being just like the lost coin and lost sheep is that the coin and the sheep don’t repent. We, on the other hand, are like the one sinner in this parable, the one who represents all of us.
Yes, God’s love and forgiveness are unconditional, but God also expects action on our part. It’s not popular to talk about sin these days, but that’s part of what our faith asks of us. Because there is sin, there is need for repentance.
In today’s gospel we hear, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
Confronting sin and repenting are hard work. But joy is the outcome, and without work, that joy is harder to find. All the rejoicing and celebration in heaven at the sinner who repents reminds us, too, of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which immediately follows today’s gospel passage in the same chapter in Luke. Will the son who refuses to join the celebration finally, like the lost sheep, wander back to the place he belongs? Will he be in, or out?
Each of us, as part of God’s flock, is invited again and again to assist Jesus as our shepherd. When we see someone stray from the flock, will we help the shepherd? Will we help to blur the division of who’s in, and who’s out, and extend our welcome?
Ask a piano player who started out as the outsider. Ask the wheelchair-bound or disfigured guest who finally is shown to a table with equal graciousness. Ask the newcomer to church who is surprised by your invitation to lunch. They’ll tell you: no matter where they try to hide, Jesus shows up.
Jesus goes after the one lost sheep and lovingly lays it on his shoulder, rejoicing. Maybe it’s you. So be watchful! Jesus, the good shepherd, never ceases to pick us up, drape us over his shoulder, and carry us home. Amen.
This is a random bit recalled from church history notes, but an exact reference is still in the “lost” part of the “lost and found” cycle.
Feasting on the word, Year C, v.4, Barbara Brown Taylor and David L. Bartlett, eds. (Nashville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 73.
Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life(Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1993), 149-150.
13 Pentecost, Yr C September 8, 2019
Jeremiah 18:1-11 Philemon 1-21 Luke 14:25-33
Refreshed in Christ
A friend says this about the readings today: “The gospel reading is a fun one, Jesus tells us to hate our families. Good thing it’s not Mother’s Day. So, what did he mean by that?”
He asks a good question. What do we make of a gospel that has Jesus telling a large crowd of followers to hate their families? My friend calls this gospel “Jesus’ terrible marketing campaign.” Who wants to hear this, when we’ve always been told to love one another?
First, we should look at the word “hate” in English. It’s a terribly strong word, one used too freely, one that people wish to take back as soon as it leaves their lips. But in in the Greek language of Jesus’ time, the word was used more to suggest holding someone in disregard – not giving them the highest preferential treatment. So in this case, it means giving God higher priority than anyone in your family.
It’s interesting also that in Matthew’s gospel, the language is much less harsh. Matthew writes, “Whoever loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Mt. 10:37).
Luke’s gospel tells us that we need to redefine what we think of as family, because it extends wider than the people we live with. We are to try our best to grant love and forgiveness in our other relationships, as well.
We’re asked to love the elderly in our community (such as our church community) as we love our own parents; to forgive the stranger, the lonely one, the one who has been in prison, as much as our own brother; to love the children around us as we do our own. That is an especially tall order. Because the people around us in our church or community aren’t always easy to love.
My friend insists, Jesus would say: “People often are unreasonable and self-centered: forgive them anyway. People will not always be kind to you; be kind to them anyway. Some people will never appreciate the best work you do or offer; give your best anyway. In the end, it’s between you and God.” It’s God to whom we are asked to give our primary commitment.
The gospel also asks us to think about how much time and energy we spend on collecting and maintaining possessions. These things we treasure are so hard to let go – many times it’s the memories attached to them that we wish to keep. In the end, we can’t take any of them with us, as the saying goes. They don’t matter in the end; but people do.
Our real desire should be the desire we hear from Paul’s request to Philemon in the epistle. In this reading, Paul asks that his heart be refreshed in Christ.
In his letter, Paul asks Philemon (whose name means “the useful one”) to receive back in love the runaway slave, Onesimus, returning voluntarily and recently converted to Christianity. Paul himself is writing from prison. Now he suggests that the slave be considered a brother in Christ. Again, whom we consider family becomes wider than we thought it was.
Refreshed in Christ, we come to see that we are brothers and sisters in Christ, beloved children of the God who created us.
In the first reading from Jeremiah, we hear of the potter who creates out of clay. Jeremiah says, “So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel.”
God shows Jeremiah that just as a potter can make, and then destroy, a pot that has flaws, and begin again to remake it. Just like clay in the potter’s hand, we who are his created beings are in God’s hand. God forms us, each person unique and made in God’s image. Yes, as we grow up we each gain imperfections. But we can be reshaped, reformed, and refreshed in God.
Potters often fill a pot that is cracked with fine gold. Those who work with clay say that the most important step in throwing a pot is to get it centered.
Like the potter, the cost of following Jesus means that we, too, need to center ourselves in Christ again, because our increasingly secular world makes it easy to become off-center. Demands and expectations of others, even family, may pull us in directions that we do not wish to go.
It is only in re-centering ourselves in the unending, unchanging love of God that we become like the pot which through its flaws and cracks will shine again like gold.
Our hymnal, Life Every Voice and Sing – new to us, but not new in the Episcopal Church — includes the song, “Have thine own way, Lord.” We affirm God as the potter, we as the clay that God will make and remake until all our imperfections are cast away.
I especially find the last two verses fitting for our lessons today. Hear them once more:
Have thine own way, Lord, have thine own way.
Wounded and weary, help me, I pray. Power, all power surely is thine
Touch me and heal me, Savior divine.
Have thine own way, Lord, have thine own way.
Hold o’er my being absolute sway.
Fill with thy Spirit ‘til all shall see
Christ only, always, living in me.
Pulpitfiction.com (Proper 18c, 9/8/19)
Paraphrased from pulpitfiction.com, Ibid.
11 Pentecost, Yr C August 25, 2019
Isaiah 58:9b-14 Hebrews 12:18-29 Luke 13:10-17
Trampling the sabbath
Our readings today remind us of the sabbath – a day of rest. I am taken by the line from the Isaiah reading that speaks of “trampling the sabbath” and pursuing one’s own interests on God’s holy day. I picture stomping on the newest blooms in a garden, wiping out all the healthy new growth.
In the gospel, Jesus gets into trouble with the leader of the synagogue for healing on the sabbath — curing a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years. We hear this, but how do we relate to it? I think that few people now pay attention to keeping a day of rest.
But let’s back up. Why is the sabbath important? First of all, mention of it appears in the very first book of the Bible. In the second chapter of Genesis after we hear that God has created everything and called it good, we hear this: “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)
God provided the model for setting aside a day to rest. Some of us have days off from our working lives, but then we find it easy to fill that time with other kinds of work. I remember a particular time when I was shown how normal it seemed to neglect our God-given sabbath rest.
When our son was in high school, we welcomed a German exchange student into our home for a semester.
Before that, we had been a one-child family and never experienced sibling rivalry, or normal childhood competition and disagreements. After our guest’s arrival, we soon were plunged into a world we hadn’t ever known. At the dinner table, disagreements were over odd things. Our son was even-tempered and calm. Our German son was as dramatic in every way he could be. It was a real education for us.
The biggest drama happened when I took our guest to a local pharmacy. I parked in front of a sign that read, “Open 24 hrs./365 days per year.” Suddenly I heard him exclaim loudly. Our German son was outraged that, in the United States, this store did have not even one designated holiday during the course of an entire year. He thought this was a terrible way to treat employees, and a sad commentary on the driven, frantic way we live.
In Europe, he was used to the long afternoon “siesta,” an enforced couple of hours when shops and restaurants all closed to give everyone some rest.
I had to admit I agreed with his viewpoint, the longer I thought it over. What is so important – excepting places such as hospitals, of course – that we feel that no one can take a break? What was Jesus thinking in our gospel story when he encountered someone in need when he was to honor the day of rest?
Well, Jesus simply saw a woman suffering for years, and he up and did something about it. Note that she didn’t even ask him to heal her. Jesus said, “Woman, you are healed from your ailment,” and just like that, in an instant the healing happened.
She was restored physically, and also socially, no longer seen as an unfit, unproductive member of society. He restored her dignity.
When Jesus broke the sabbath rule, the leader of the synagogue was displeased. Was that because Jesus had broken a law? Did the leader care more about worshipping laws and rules than seeing a woman restored to health and a productive life?
The Isaiah passage today tells of trampling the sabbath by pursuing our own interests on a holy day. Yes, Jesus desired to heal the crippled woman, but it wasn’t his own interests that compelled him to do it. Jesus came to bring healing and the promise of a new life to someone greatly in need. If he considered the consequences of working on the sabbath, he considered it less important.
One reason I think that we are less tuned into sabbath rest now is that rules about taking a break can sound like a long list of things we cannot do. What if we turned this around, so that instead, we imagined those pleasurable things that time spent not workingallowedus to do – things that matter to us and keep us grounded and well?
I think there’s a tie-in to the church, as well. The church of the past, like Sundays of the past, had the reputation of being a place where so many things were forbidden. You had to keep quiet and always be on your best behavior. You had to dress up. Women were to cover their heads and were not allowed on the altar, on committees, or in certain leadership roles. Some denominations were stricter than others. If you were divorced or if you had a child out of wedlock, you were no longer in good standing.
The list of can’t-dos still goes on in some churches. Part of people’s disenchantment with church in our current generation may be that they imagine it a place where too many things are forbidden. Instead, what if we encourage people to imagine those things we cando because we are the gathered church?
We should first accept people where they are in life – no matter if they are lifelong churchgoers or if they aren’t at all sure what they believe; no matter how they dress, who they live with, or what kind of family they grew up in. We’re here now for a reason. We need to come together despite our disagreements, and pray the world into a better place than it has become – to offer that world a sign of hope and the brighter light of Christ.
This is a time to join together across differences. In that spirit, I am delighted to say that last week, I met with the new pastor next door at Lyons Methodist. Pastor Betty is in her first call in the Methodist church. She and I agreed to invite the members of our separate congregations to be prayer partners with a member of the other congregation. As a start, Betty and I have promised to pray for one another.
Here’s how it works: having a prayer partner is not about rules. It is about prayer. If you desire to have a person from our neighboring church pray especially for you every week, please sign your name on the sheet outside in the hallway. You do not have to meet your prayer partner, unless you decide that you wish to. If you have a particular prayer request, we can communicate that to the person praying just for you.
Prayer is one important way that I keep sabbath rest. My style is to pray in absolute quiet, though with Jesus, there are no rules about the right way to pray. Prayer simply is connecting with God. Without it, I wonder how I’d continue to have the strength, patience, and humor to get going each day.
Our German exchange student grew to adulthood, and called us every Christmas for years. Now he’s married with children, and he still sounds excitable. It was good for our family to learn from a person who looked at our way of life and wondered if it was healthy and good.
God created everything on the earth and called it good. And then God rested. If God can rest, then how about you and I?
July 28, 2019
7 Pentecost, Yr. C: Luke 11:1-13
Teach us to pray
When I was in seminary near Chicago, we attended chapel services three times a day. We were free to choose any seat in the beautiful stained glass-filled chapel. One year, a new seminarian came to stand next to me at the celebration of Holy Eucharist. When we spoke The Lord’s Prayer, he prayed quietly in his native Japanese. The sound, reminding me of a delicate waterfall, actually moved me to tears.
After chapel, I told my new friend how beautiful his words were. He looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “Oh, but I really was just reciting my grocery list!” I paused. “I don’t think so,” I said. I didn’t believe him.
I didn’t believe him because I’ve not known anyone to mess with The Lord’s Prayer. As the prayer given to us directly by Jesus, it stands set apart from other prayers. The prayer is the one we hear in serious and anxious places: a surgical waiting room, at the scene of an accident, on the way to a job interview, whenever we want something really badly. It’s the prayer that, when I served as chaplain-on-call at a hospital, patients always wished to say with me. So did their families.
It doesn’t matter if we pray in the traditional or the contemporary forms found in our prayer book, or in Japanese or French or Spanish. Jesus doesn’t care if we blend the older and the newer forms (like the more contemporary one heard in the gospel today) into one if we get mixed up because we sometimes pray both forms. What matters to Jesus is that we pray.
What matters is that we persist in prayer, like the neighbor in Luke’s parable, courageously seeking, asking, and knocking to rouse the man already asleep near his children. The neighbor in Luke’s story knocks and knocks, because he is sure that his friend will answer. It’s the same with God and us: we expect God to hear us.
Luke’s gospel speaks both of prayer and worship of God in many places. Today’s passage begins its focus on prayer: “He was praying in a certain place.” Then we’re off and running when the disciples ask, “Lord, teach us how to pray.”
In those times, one mark of a religious community was to have its own unique prayer. So it began, all those years ago: faithful, hungry people – hungry for bread, for peace; hungry for God, for a better life, for hope – joined together saying, “Our Father in heaven.” They prayed these words in hope and in confidence. So should we.
We pray with the confidence of children who know that God wants to give us good things, with the assurance that God’s goodness is superior to anything we know here on earth. The Lord’s Prayer has beauty in its directness and simplicity.
We ask a loving, heavenly father to give us what we need. The prayer points to our absolute dependence upon God to hear us, and to respond to our needs – if it were not so, why would we continue to ask? The prayer teaches us not only how to pray, but how to live.
We hear words that tell us that forgiveness matters: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” These are Jesus’ words, so they are as true for us now as they were for his disciples.
Who do you need to ask forgiveness from this week? Is it possible that you hurt someone without ever intending to? Pray with the questions a while.
“Our daily bread” stands as the earthy, crusty symbol of our basic human necessities. In the context of Holy Eucharist, the bread reminds us that it is not given for ourselves only, but is to be broken and shared. Breaking bread with others, coming to the same communion table, gives us a glimpse of what being truly reconciled one with another might taste like.
Asking forgiveness from one another and from God is critical if we wish to work for reconciliation here at home, or in the world. If we wish to do that work, the best place to start is within ourselves. We need persistence, and generous repeated doses of patience.
Certainly we need patience with our brothers and sisters and neighbors, but absolutely we need it with ourselves. How hard we can be on ourselves, expecting perfection at every turn. I don’t believe that Jesus expects us to be perfect, but rather than we follow in faith to try harder, to act as his disciples in a world that needs our care. We get there beginning with simple prayer. We get there by relying on God’s disarming, unfailing grace.
We persist in prayer because we want to stay in conversation with God, and because as God’s Church, we are the people God sends out to do the work he has given us to do. Our work includes persuading minds and hearts, to convert them to look with compassion upon those who are on the margins, just as Jesus did.
Jesus gave us The Lord’s Prayer to pray alone in a deserted place as Jesus did, or to pray in communion with others. We are fortunate; it wasn’t always true that people were free to pray without getting into trouble with authorities who persecuted those of faith. Today we pray as the gathered people of Christ. On mornings such as today, God puts other people in our path whether we choose them, like them, or not.
We come today as a very particular community – a group of people unique in time and space who write our own story. We are the ones who get to decide how the rest of our story gets written, whom we include, whom we cherish, and how we take our place in bringing to light God’s kingdom on earth.
Wherever our lives intersect with the lives of those outside our doors, they also intersect with the face of Jesus, who asks us to extend hospitality, welcome, and care.
So in a few moments, when we pray in the words that Jesus taught us, I invite you to pray more quietly, becoming aware of the voices surrounding you in these pews, where generations of others have prayed these same words.
Listen for your neighbor, your friend, the person who irritates you, the person you wish to know better. Hear the music of the voices around you; breathe in their shape and color. As God’s outstretched arms in Clinton, we have work to do, because the world waits and hopes for us to share God’s love. The world waits for peace like a river, joy like a fountain, love like an ocean.
Author Joy Douglas Strome, writing a few years back in The Christian Century, said this: “Prayer isn’t for dummies. It’s for the faithful who, empowered by the Spirit and supported in community, are willing to stake our lives on the belief that God will open the door when we knock.”
Luke tells us, at the end of today’s gospel passage, that God answers our prayer by giving us not only good gifts, but the best gifts we can imagine: the surprising gifts of the Holy Spirit. These gifts include joy, courage, hope, and strength.
As we ask, seek, and knock, I ask that we listen deeply for one another’s voices. Pray earnestly, as though we are engaged in controversial activity. Because, friends, prayer is both deep and controversial: we might actually change lives and convert human hearts.
So as we pray together, being fed by the beloved words of our common prayer, I trust that we will keep writing the story that God has chosen us to write.
July 28, 2019
Pentecost, Yr. C: Luke 11:1-13
The Mary and Martha story in today’s gospel gives us two sisters with personalities many of us can relate to. Jesus has been on the road with his disciples, and enters the village of Bethany where his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus have made their home.
There’s Martha: the good host, doing what needs to be done to pull off this meal for Jesus. This short gospel passage doesn’t specify, but most likely the disciples followed Jesus right into Martha and Mary’s kitchen, where Martha is now quite busy. Her busyness defines her in this story. There’s a lot to prepare for over a dozen guests, and that dreamy Mary just sits listening to Jesus.
From what we hear in the gospel, Martha is left alone with all her tasks. Notice that she doesn’t ask Mary to get up and help her. She asks Jesus to do it. She’s not impressed with Mary, and she’s sure Jesus will help her out. But he doesn’t say what Martha hopes he will.
I’ve known many Marthas in my life: the take charge, practical, driven ones that make sure things happen; the responsible ones that become resentful when they have to do everything themselves. I can relate, for I find Martha within myself: anything worth doing is worth doing perfectly.
Then there’s Mary. Her head is in the clouds; she’s oblivious to practical needs of the household. She know her sister will take care of everything. I know some Marys. Perhaps you do, too: that one who never washes a dish because she is busy, thinking deeply. Martha is seen as the one taking care of worldly needs, while Mary’s heart is full of spiritual matters.
Martha and Mary likely were women with financial means, as they have their own home in a village where such resources might be uncommon. They seem to have independent status.
Their kitchen, and their home, has served as a place where important things happen. And, they appear to have the financial means to support Jesus’ ministry.
In their house, their brother Lazarus was called back to life by their friend Jesus. It was in their home that Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with a pound of costly perfume. And now Martha is running herself ragged preparing this meal.
When Jesus answers Martha, saying that she is worried and distracted, while Mary has chosen the better part, it’s worth noting that he isn’t telling Martha that she is wrong to be working so hard. Nor does he tell her to stop. Instead, Jesus points out that Mary is doing something important enough that Martha might take note and learn from her.
I think that Jesus is issuing an invitation to Martha. It’s not likely that she would see his words as an invitation, but I believe that they are. Jesus invites Martha to loosen up, to let go of her desire to produce the perfect, over-the-top meal.
I can imagine Jesus gently suggesting that a big pot of stew would be sufficient, more than enough to satisfy her guests. And I can imagine Martha agreeing in theory, but insisting that there had to be more: bread, some figs, something else sweet. Because Martha can’t let go of how important Jesus is, and he deserves the best.
But if we truly want to serve as Jesus invites us, we need to remember his words from visiting Mary and Martha. He wants Martha to know that her busyness and nonstop preparations are keeping her from what’s important: listening, praying, and simply being. He’s teaching them that sometimes, we need to work and serve. Other times, we need to listen, to pay attention, and learn. But above all, it’s our relationship with Jesus that needs tending.
At the heart of this lesson, we need the skills and personalities of both Mary and Martha in order to make the world run smoothly. We could each use a bit of each of them in our lives, to remind us when we neglect our souls and prayer life; to encourage us if we aren’t helping others serve.
When Jesus visits Martha and Mary’s home, he comes as a guest. Most of us can relate to having guests. There can be a good bit of preparation: cleaning, shopping and cooking. That’s all commendable, but are we focused more on the house and its demands than on the guest himself? When Jesus comes to us, are we really ready to welcome his presence within us?
Today’s epistle reading from St. Paul to the Colossians tells of the Christ who is within us. Christ comes as wisdom, in whom all things find their meaning. In Christ, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. Jesus comes to us too, made known to us in the breaking of bread, which we will do in a few moments around this altar table. The words from the beloved prayer known as “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” are fitting here:
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
We are invited, daily, to welcome Jesus as our guest. We are to listen and learn like Mary, and work when needed, like Martha. Both are necessary. As a Christian community, we are bidden to hold onto the hope Jesus promises in the gospels.
Christ is in us, the hope of glory. Through Christ, firstborn of all creation, we are reconciled to God and one another – on this day that the Lord has made, and in all the days to come, till the end of the ages.
Some ideas from Lindsay Hardin Freeman, Bible women: all their words and why they matter(Cincinnati: Forward Movement, 2014), 406.
June 23, 2019
2 Pentecost, Yr. C: Kings 19: 1-15a Galatians 3:23-29 Luke 8:26-39
No east or west
We return today to the gospel of Luke after many weeks of John’s gospel. We now are in what the Church calls Ordinary Time, a few major feasts now past and the long, green season ahead of us.
Today, we hear a strange story in the gospel. Parts of the earlier readings also take unexpected turns. It helps to place the readings in the context of what had happened before.
In the lesson from First Kings, the prophet Elijah has returned from a battle, from victory overthrowing the prophets of Baal through the might and power of God. Now, God strengthens the weary Elijah through an angel who comes to assist Elijah for his 40-day journey to Mt. Horeb. 40 days and 40 nights is a familiar length of time in scripture, both in the Exodus story with Moses, and as a length of time for the season of Lent.
Now Elijah, weary from the battles already fought, flees from Queen Jezebel. It sounds as though he can use some help! At the end of his journey, he unexpectedly is met by the Lord. But the Lord does not come the way he imagined.
The Lord does not come to Elijah in might and power of wind, earthquake, or fire, but in the sound of sheer silence. God comes to us in the places we may least expect. God assures Elijah, as he does us, that we are not alone. God is with us.
In the epistle reading, St. Paul tells the Galatians that in Christ there is no longer distinction between male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free. Now they are one in Christ, where there is no east or west. How can this be? The male and female, the Jew and Greek hearing this near one another wouldn’t have understood before that in God’s eyes, they are equal.
Paul announces new life for those who have faith in Christ, really a new identity of being clothed in that faith, and made new in God’s grace. It must have struck the people as strange to see themselves as Christ does – no longer looking with eyes that only see how they are different; instead looking to what makes them one, makes them children who inherit God’s kingdom.
Paul tells them that relying only on the law, that which makes them aware of their sinful natures, will not get them to the land of promise. Rather, they are to rely on Christ, the only true source of salvation.
The gospel story has peculiar details, too. It’s a miracle story, taking place near Galilee. We find Legion, a crazed man possessed by demons, living among the tombs. Legion was also the name of a military unit of 6,000 Roman soldiers.
The people had grown accustomed to Legion being crazed and possessed. They hadn’t counted on those same demons recognizing Jesus for who he is. So we have a crazed man, tombs, and demons who talk to Jesus. When Jesus commands them to come out of the man Legion, they do, but then something even stranger happens.
Now, pigs enter the story. We’re Iowans. Pigs are farm animals we know well. Pigs even make an appearance as part of the NOM summer free lunch program entertainment and education for neighborhood children, right near our church. And what happens to these poor, unsuspecting pigs in the gospel story?
We hear this from Luke: “Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.” Yes, those pigs run right off the cliff and drown.
What have the pigs done to deserve this? To answer this question we need to know that the Jewish people of that time held a highly negative view of pigs. The animals were not at all valued.
Some writers say that the demons who take hold of the pigs think they can escape from Jesus by running into the sea. But the plan doesn’t turn out well. Imagine the people who witnessed all these things. They would have been stunned to see the man Legion transformed by Jesus, while the pigs ran off the cliff.
The gathered crowd would be bound together by their fear of these events. As for Legion, he wishes to be bound to Jesus. A changed man, set free from his infirmity, his calling now is to tell of the wonders God has done for him.
Our opening hymn today, “Tell out my soul,” is perfect for the story of Legion:
“Tell out, my soul, the greatness of his Name! Make known his might, the deeds his arm has done; his mercy sure, from age to age the same; his holy Name the Lord, the Mighty One.” (The Hymnal 1982 #437, v.2)
But the people who knew Legion the way he was before had a hard time adjusting to this seemingly newly made person in their midst. The change in him disturbs the way of life together as they had come to know and accept it. After all, they were comfortable with his identity as that wild and crazy person. They were all bound together in their pointing to him, a seeing only his faults.
What happens when a person changes after many years can be more complicated than we think. Each of us has the potential to change, even though many may choose not to. But the community where we belong may not know how to act when a person no longer is known because of his or her affliction, by the thing that sometimes drives people away.
Apart from whatever deficiency afflicts a person, does this person have an identity, a chance to be seen as whole and made new in Jesus?
One writer says this: “Don’t we also tend to define ourselves in terms of our deficiencies, our disappointments and failures?.. Why is it that every time we want to take a risk…we are reminded of every failure, every disappointment we’ve experienced before? Perhaps because we’ve allowed these things to possess us. We, too, are Legion.
There are so many voices trying to possess and discourage us that we might still call them Legion. Yet against all of them stands the still, small, but mighty voice of the one who still crosses oceans and boundaries to tell us of God’s love and call us back to our right minds and grace-filled identities. Thanks be to God.”
 David Lose, “Legion,” (workingpreacher.org, 6/16/13).
June 9, 2019
Day of Pentecost, Yr. C: Acts 2:1-21 Romans 8:14-17 John 14:8-17
Spirit of the living God
Thirty-five years ago on Pentecost Sunday in a church in eastern Iowa, Bishop Walter Righter formally received me into the Episcopal Church by the power of the Holy Spirit. We never know at the time how that spirit will act and move within us, sometimes leading us to a place we never expected to go.
Even though a festive red color is used for the Day of Pentecost, the feast would be called Whitsuntide (meaning “White Sunday”) if you were in England. The reference to white is said to represent the color used for baptism, as those who weren’t baptized on Easter Day once were baptized later, on Pentecost.
The word Pentecost comes from the Greek word “Pentekostos,” meaning 50. Like “pentagram” which means five-pointed star, the first five letters in the word help us remember that Pentecost comes 50 days after Easter.
This is a day to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit and the unity of God’s people, even with their many differences in languages, races, and nations. It is day to mark joy and unity in Christ.
The Jewish people who gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost celebrated the spring harvest, when they offered baskets of bread to God after their work was finished. The day also marks the giving of the Law to Moses at Mt. Sinai. Tongues of fire and mighty wind are symbols of God’s presence on Mt. Sinai.
This is the day we celebrate God’s sending down the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the beginning of the Church. Some think of it as the birthday of the Church. The parish hall today is dressed in red, ready for a party.
In the Bible, the prophet Joel had said many years ago that God would pour out the Holy Spirit, and that the people should wait. So, as the first reading today tells us, on Pentecost, everyone was together. They came to wait. They came from many different countries. They didn’t know what would happen next.
The people spoke in many tongues, or languages. The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles doesn’t make readers pronounce all those complex names just to throw us a challenge to get the names right. Rather, all the names and places represent how many different kinds of people God calls together to come be the Church.
On that day, suddenly, a great wind came. Red and orange flames of fire appeared. The people were surprised because even though they were all from different places, they could hear their own languages. The Spirit made it possible for the people to understand what was being spoken.
It all sounded so strange that people thought everyone was drunk on wine. But Peter, who was with the apostles, said that wasn’t true – it was early morning and too early to be drunk – and he reminded them the prophet Joel said God would give people the gift of the Holy Spirit. They just didn’t think the sending of the Spirit would be so noisy and bright and joyful.
Today, many churchgoers wear red to remember the flames and the boldness of the Spirit, who is called the Comforter – and in today’s gospel reading, the Advocate. An advocate is one who will be with you, stand up for you through everything that happens, the one who will comfort you and be present, even though we can’t really see the Spirit.
The spirit is present to us, sometimes with sighs too deep for words. The Spirit leads us because we are children of God, as the lesson from Romans says. The spirit of adoption comes by the grace of God who unites all people. The spirit helps us when we are weak, when we are not sure about our place in the world around us, when we need someone simply to be there with us.
The spirit speaks to us through all our senses – sight and sound, taste and touch. The feeling that something special and unusual is happening when the spirit is present is hard to explain to other people. The spirit gives us protection when we feel most alone, or feel like giving up. God never will give up on us, and the spirit comes to us to tell us that God is always with us.
The beginning of the Church is the beginning of building more disciples for God’s kingdom. This is no ordinary kingdom. Jesus did not build up an army – instead, he built a church.
His work was not the work of showing power and control over others.
His work, the work that God has given us to do, is feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, and lonely, being encouragers rather than critics, welcoming the stranger, and praying at all times – even for those who drive us crazy at times and hurt us. Remember that Jesus prayed even for his enemies while he was on the cross.
In the gospel lesson from John, Philip and Jesus are talking together. Philip doesn’t understand the complicated and very intimate relationship between God the Father and Jesus, the Son. Philip says to Jesus, “Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”
Jesus explains, as he has explained before, that to know the Father, the disciples must know Jesus, for God is revealed through the power of the Holy Spirit in the person of Jesus.
This is all a wonderfully timed lead-in to the lessons next week, Trinity Sunday, another feast during which we worship God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – one in three persons, and three in one. The spirit is called the third person of the Holy Trinity, but that doesn’t make the spirit any less important than the other two.
The outpouring of the spirit does not come to us just on this one Day of Pentecost, or as a one-time deal and done. The spirit rests with us and within us, waiting to see how we show that spirit to the world around us.
You may know people that you’d describe as “full of the spirit.”
Sometimes, you just know. It might be someone who has the gift of speaking in tongues. It might be someone who is irrepressibly joyful, hopeful, with brightness of energy.
But we shouldn’t mistake quieter people for those who missed the boat when the spirit came down. There are many whose power lies in their deep trust, confidence in God, and a quiet, steady joy and strength that repeatedly draws others to them.
When church is over, and we go into our neighborhoods, what can we do to let others see that we are people of God? How about you? Where are you in this lineup of spirit-filled believers?
Noisy or quiet; old or young or somewhere in between; new to the faith or faithful from birth: How will you show the power of the Holy Spirit and God’s love for you this week? Let us pray:
Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on us. Melt us, mold us; fill us, use us.
May 12, 2019
4 Easter, Yr. C: Acts 9:36-43 John 10:22-30
All we like sheep
Last weekend when I was away at a conference, one of our speakers talked about the gospel for today, and about the gospel of John overall. The speaker’s last name happened to be Shepherd, which struck me funny when he began to discuss sheep.
Dr. Shepherd talked of the complexities in John’s gospel, as it is so full of phrases such as “I am in you, you in me, and I and the Father are one.” It’s beautiful writing, but takes some unraveling. A main idea in John’s gospel, Dr. Shepherd said, is to tell of relationship with God: he is the vine and we are the branches; he is the good shepherd and we are the sheep.
The gospel points us to God’s desire to be in union with us. There is a line in today’s Eucharistic Prayer that says, “Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself.” (BCP p. 362). Our relationship with God matters not only to us; it matters to the God who made us. He is the good shepherd, who needs his flock.
Some of you may have heard me tell the story of when our son was young, and my husband took him and a friend to a rural area in Iowa to see a field of sheep. A fence separated the sheep from their visitors, and soon the sheep gathered at the fence to check out the people. The sheep looked at the people. The people looked at the sheep. After a few seconds my husband said loudly, “Hello, sheep!”
With that, the sheep – every one of them – turned and went off in the opposite direction. They were no dumb sheep. They knew that this guy wasn’t their shepherd.
In today’s gospel, we encounter Jesus as the Good Shepherd who knows his flock, whose sheep hear his voice and follow him. Listening for the voice of the good shepherd is not always easy. Other strong voices want to claim our attention.
Those who are loudest and most insistent often win over the quieter ones. Living a gospel-centered life is different. The gospel urges us to listen to the one who cares for the poor, the neglected, and those for whom there is no justice.
On Easter Day, when we’ve freshly experienced the joy of the resurrected Christ, the festivity brings the voice of Jesus near. But how do we keep our ears tuned to his voice, our hearts and minds tuned to his presence during all fifty days of the Easter season? A colleague shared the story of asking this question to former Archbishop of Durham, N. T. Wright. Wright said to her,
“It’s true! We do not know how to sustain the Great Fifty Days. I have been trying to figure out how to feast the way we should for years during this season. One year, I insisted on serving champagne for breakfast every morning at my house during the fifty days of Easter. My children thought that I had gone mad.”
Keeping an Easter life beyond the festivity of Easter Day is shown in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. We hear of Dorcas (also known as Tabitha), a disciple devoted to good works and acts of charity. She has been a featured saint in the Lent Madness contest that many of you have followed.
Dorcas was praised for her care of the poor. She brought her community together through prayer and acts of compassion. Her ministry witnessed to Christ’s resurrection.
The story of Dorcas serves as a reminder that not all disciples were men. The early church has powerful examples of women disciples, and Dorcas is but one whose story we hear.
When Dorcas fell ill and died, the disciples sent two men to find Peter, saying to Peter, “Please come to us without delay.” With the disciples and widows surrounding him, Peter raises Dorcas. Peter keeps resurrection joy alive through this act, which significantly he does in community – just as Dorcas’ ministry took place in community.
Today’s story of the good shepherd highlights the sheep as one flock. Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” This has different focus from Luke’s parable of the lost sheep that tells of the shepherd who goes after one sheep missing from the flock.
John’s gospel shows us the sheep who together respond to the shepherd, upon whom they are completely dependent.
The relationship between Jesus and the Father is made known in today’s gospel. Jesus proclaims that he and the Father are one. His work is done in the Father’s name. Oneness with God is central to this passage, as belonging is central for the sheep. Jesus says at the festival of the Dedication, “You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.”
As God’s people, how are we to listen for the voice of the risen Christ, carry forth a resurrection spirit, and truly live out our alleluias? The readings today suggest that we do so paying attention to relationship, to belief and belonging, and to community.
In one of the hymns chosen for today, “My shepherd will supply my need,” the third and final verse talks about belonging, the sheep coming home – in other words, all of us who try to follow Jesus.
Our true home is in Jesus, the shepherd. Jesus says that our belief brings us into the fold. Our journey’s goal is to reach the joy of Christ and to be led home.
The hymn acknowledges that journey and leads us, as the words say, to “find a settled rest, while others go and come; no more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.”
As children of God, we try to follow the example of the sheep who run away from the one who is not the shepherd. We trust that the good shepherd always will lead us in paths of truth and grace.
Presiding Bishop Curry, in the Easter Season, calls Episcopalians to a Season of Prayer on behalf of those who experience violence and civil strife. He writes, “In this season of Resurrection, I call on everyone to pray for our brothers and sisters in areas where there is much burden and little hope.”
Bishop Curry asks that, through our prayer, especially for our companion dioceses, we remain connected with those in other parts of the Anglican Communion.
Keeping the great fifty days alive with alleluias and resurrection hope is best done in community, as our lessons show. Raising our prayers in the company of one other makes our fold stronger.
While I was away last week, I experienced the simple beauty of Evening Prayer said in community. So this summer, I’m going to offer this 25-30 minute Prayer Book service, once a week beginning in June. You’ll find a signup sheet on the table outside the parish hall asking if you would prefer coming to this service on a Tuesday or a Wednesday.
If there is sufficient interest, we could also gather afterward for some refreshment. If this sounds like something you would like to do, please indicate your preference of weekday so that we can plan further.
It matters that you are here today. It matters to those around you. Because together, we are the flock. The shepherd needs us to gather and share our alleluia life.
In this season of prayer, I invite us to keep the remainder of the great fifty days in confidence that we will hear and know the voice of the good shepherd, who will lead us and never let us go.
Kate Moorehead, Resurrecting Easter: meditations for the great 50 days (Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 2013), 50.
April 28, 2019
2 Easter, Yr. C: John 20:19-31
Some churches call today, the Sunday after Easter Day, “Low Sunday.” That’s because so many people turn out for Easter Day as they do Christmas Eve, and then participation tends to drop off for a while. It’s too bad that we would think of any Sunday as “low,” as though we are planning to put less effort into our worship and our prayers. This is the day that the Lord has made, so let us rejoice and be glad in it!
Because Easter Season lasts for 50 days in the church, we say “Alleluia, Alleluia” at the end of the dismissal for those 50 days. We proclaim joy because God has shown us through Jesus rising on the third day that love and life are stronger than death and sin.
In our readings these next few weeks, we’ll hear more stories of Jesus appearing to the disciples, stories that reveal the hope we share in Christ.
We have two resurrection stories before us. Jesus has shown himself to the disciples, but Thomas was somewhere else. Poor Thomas has endured years with the word “doubting” next to his name. It’s time to show him some compassion.
Thomas really is the “odd man out.” He’s that person in a classroom who doesn’t understand a thing the professor says; the awkward one at a dinner table who sees things differently than the rest – or doesn’t see at all, because Thomas wasn’t there when the other disciples saw the Lord.
Thomas fits well into our scientific, technological age. He demands proof that the disciples have seen Jesus; he wants solid evidence that doesn’t leave room for mystery. Who among us doesn’t find doubt and skepticism either in ourselves, or in those around us? What kind of proof would be enough?
Jesus appears, offering that proof: sight and touch, urging Thomas to examine his hands and side. And Jesus offers something more: his own voice, speaking the invitation to touch and see. We don’t actually know from the text whether Thomas extended his hand to touch.
What we do know is that he heard the Lord’s voice. Hearing and seeing proved to be evidence enough that Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”
Imagine Jesus, having just entered the room where the disciples sit, even though the doors were locked for fear of the Jews. Whether the disciples are afraid of religious authorities, or afraid they might be accused of stealing Jesus’ body from the tomb, we don’t know. What an electrifying pair of verses in this gospel passage! Twice, we hear that the doors were locked, but Jesus came in, anyway.
Who is this, who can walk through doors? And what has he come to do for them? He has come for three reasons. First he brings a greeting of peace. Then, he sends them out.
Jesus tells the disciples that they have work to do. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” Jesus says. Then, he breathes the Holy Spirit upon them, the very breath that sustains new life.
With this action of the Holy Spirit, he enables them to carry out the work of speaking peace, declaring God’s forgiveness, and restoring right relationship with others.
God’s work requires speaking mercy and justice, claiming the authority …”to speak, as [Jesus] would, the words of peace – both sharp challenge and abundant forgiveness, comfort to the afflicted and affliction to the comfortable…[to speak] what God needs spoken…to use our speech with holy responsibility.”
In our worship community, we pray the psalms together. One writer suggests that Psalm 150, one psalm appointed for this day, is the Easter Alleluia ‘turned into an entire psalm.” “Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament!…Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!”
In this psalm, God’s people offer their lives to praise God and his mighty deeds, “particularly God’s mighty deed of raising Christ from the dead.”
The language of Psalm 150 calls out for all of creation to join in, praising God. What a contrast it is to the doubt of Thomas in the gospel! But, as the writer points out, “the song of praise does not begin with us. God’s people have sung and lived praise since God brought life. We join our lives and song to theirs, which even a small gathering of frightened disciples can do.”
Just as Jesus sent out his disciples, he sends us forth spreading the gift of peace in this season of Alleluias. We are to look for that doubting Thomas around us; when we find him or her, may we speak peace, practice forgiveness, and aided by the Holy Spirit, give her whatever she needs for faith.
This is what Jesus did. The real center of this story is not Thomas, but Jesus, who showed up in the midst of the gathered disciples to give Thomas what he needed, and who will continue to show up for generations to follow.
The voice of the Lord is unmistakable to Thomas. He has heard the Lord. He has heard Jesus say, “Peace be with you.”
Peace offered from the lips of Jesus is not simply a greeting, but a gift. “Peace I leave with you,” Jesus said. He has left behind something we can’t see or touch, but is very real and very deep.
Jesus extended the gift of peace three times in this gospel passage so that his disciples would pass it on. His words give them authority to speak peace.
We, too, are invited to speak peace. Sharing the peace is part of our worship every Sunday. Receiving peace from another person can be a powerful experience, especially in the midst of turmoil in our lives that we have not freely shared with others.
But we, in our eagerness to talk with one another, often clutter up the peace with longer conversation that would be best saved for coffee hour, or before and after church.
Hopefully you know that, of course, we are not going to police this part of the service! It’s a gift to be in a loving worship community where many friendships are longstanding, and mean so much.
But, on some Sundays, we timed the length, and found that the peace took longer than hearing all the Bible readings together. Then we knew it was out of balance. So, I hope we can keep the peace shorter, and save some of our good conversations for later.
We know how easy it is to have doubts and questions, especially about our faith. Thomas did. At times, we aren’t all that different from Thomas. We like reassurance and proof. We may need to ask others whom we trust to help us when we struggle with our faith.
Faith is a gift from God that is ours to receive and ours to share. Be ready to receive the gift, so that when you feel the presence of Jesus, you can cry out as Thomas did, “My Lord and my God!”
John K. Stendahl in Feasting on the word, Year c, v. 2, Barbara Brown Taylor and David Bartlett, eds. (Nashville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 400.
James Luther Mays, Psalms, Interpretation series (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 449.
Craig A. Satterlee in Feasting on the word, Op. Cit., 389.
Nancy Claire Pittman in Feasting on the word, Op. Cit., 401.
April 18, 2019
Maundy Thursday: Exodus 12:1-14 1 Cor. 11:23-26 John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Do this in remembrance of me
The three holy days have begun as we gather tonight. Their stories are woven together – from the Passover meal and institution of the Lord’s Supper, the drama of Jesus hung on a cross on Good Friday – through the festive celebrations of Easter Day.
In our world we hear enough bad news, so we can be tempted to focus on the more pleasant stories in today’s readings. In First Corinthians, Jesus shares a meal of bread and wine. In John’s gospel, Jesus acts as a servant – washing his disciples’ feet and commanding them to love one another.
If we look only here, we skip over God’s judgment and anger in the Exodus reading: “I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments.”
The Exodus reading tells of Israel’s deliverance and protection, along with detailed instructions for taking a lamb for each household. A sense of urgency is part of these instructions – when families eat this meal, they are to do so hurriedly with sandals on their feet and a staff in their hands, ready for a journey.
With the threat of Egypt’s land being stricken by plague, this is not a time to linger. They are to mark their doorposts with the blood of the lamb; they have been told the Lord will pass overtheir household and not destroy them when he sees the lamb’s blood.
In protecting the families of Israel, God pours compassion upon Israel – the oppressed and powerless – and shows that those who wish to follow Jesus need to share his same loving compassion.
Notice that the instructions for the Passover meal includes joining with neighbors if one household is too small for a whole lamb. Jesus is teaching the benefit of a gathered community.
The disciples share in the breaking of bread and passing the cup of wine, as we heard in the epistle lesson. Jesus said, “’Do this in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
Jesus knew, as the gospel tells us, “that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” In this gospel passage, Jesus begins his farewell to his beloved disciples.
Jesus addresses the disciples as little children when he says he will be with them only a little longer. Though “little children” can be considered an expression of affection, suggesting parental love, it may also describe the disciples’ often childlike understanding of Jesus’ teachings which leaves them searching for him, even after he has departed from this world.
Christ has become the Passover lamb, willingly sacrificing himself for the sins of the world according to the will of God. Remember the story from Exodus when you hear the words “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” at the time of breaking of the bread before we receive communion.
Jesus, who calls himself Lord and Teacher, washes the feet of his disciples – lovingly, with a servant’s humility.
Ask yourself: if Jesus knelt before you and washed your feet, would you be ready for him? If Jesus put bread into your hand, and asked you to remember him, how would you respond?
Tonight we will come forward to receive bread and wine as the disciples did at the Last Supper, then feel the mood change when the reserved blessed sacrament is carried reverently out of the church and into the chapel entrance. As you pass by the chapel, you will see the candle lit in vigil on this night.
We grow more somber as the altar is stripped and we, together, pray in the words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? And are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress?
O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer; by night as well, but I find no rest.” (Ps. 22: 1-2)
At the conclusion of Psalm 22, it is fitting that we depart in prayerful silence as darkness is about to fall, and the morning turns to the poignant hours of Good Friday.
As we journey through these holy days, can you imagine Jesus calling you friend, offering you the bread and cup? Are you ready to let Jesus get just that close?
Guest Preacher: The Rev. Heidi Haverkamp
March 2, 2019
Last Sunday After Epiphany, Yr. C: Luke 9:28-43a
It is good to be with you this morning at Christ Church. My name is Heidi Haverkamp, and I’m a priest from the diocese of Chicago. I’ve known Raisin for over a dozen years – we met in seminary and I am so pleased to worship with her and with you, and to share in God’s Word with you this morning.
The reason I’m here is because I wrote a book called Holy Solitude: Lenten Reflections with Saints, Prophets, Hermits, and Rebels. Yesterday, at a workshop I taught at Trinity in Davenport, someone asked if I had a sort of personality test to whether you are a saint, prophet, hermit, or rebel! But the book is actually about all those kinds of people, and how through spending some time in solitude, for a short time or a long time, different kinds of Christians found themselves feeling closer to the heart of God, and to the heart of their own self, as well; people like Elijah, John the Baptist, St. Francis, Julian of Norwich, and many others.
When I use the world “solitude,” I don’t just mean being alone, because sometimes we are alone and it is painful and lonely. The kind of solitude I mean is when we choose to be alone with God somehow. To be alone with God, even if we are in a crowd. To have enough space inside and around us, that we can notice God, inside and around us.
That’s hard to do in a time like ours, where our attention gets broken up and yanked all over the place. When there are few public places you can go where there isn’t some kind of noise or chatter. Where there seems so often to be so little use for silence, or stillness, or listening, or the possibility that the still small voice of God might be speaking just to you, and the Holy Spirit might be hoping you might listen.
Today’s gospel tells us about Jesus taking Peter, James, and John, his beloved disciples, up to a mountaintop, to pray together. Then, Luke tells us that they saw Jesus’ clothes glow with light and glory, and that two great teachers of Judaism appeared with him, Moses and Elijah. And the disciples are so confused! But God speaks to them from a mysterious cloud and reassures them, “This is my Son – Listen to him!”
I don’t know about you, but I’ve hiked up a few mountains in my time (or at least several reallybighills) and nothing like this has ever happened to me. Now, Jesus is not walking on this earth anymore, not in the way he was with Peter and John, so we cannot be with Jesus in the same way that they were. But I wonder if this story is still an invitation to us? Not to climb up a literal mountain, but I wonder, to climb the mountain of our own life, or soul or heart, and see if we might meet Jesus there, too?
If we might also see him, glorified and radiant, in our heart or our mind’s eye, in our prayer life?
Our Christian ancestors would say yes, that we need to “come away” for a while sometimes, from everything else, and go up on a mountain of prayer to step into someplace above and apart, like the disciples — to be with God, to feel God’s presence with us, and to listen to Him.
My book is a kind of field guide for doing this, with many short chapters about Christians who climbed the mountain of prayer and solitude, trying to grow their relationship with Christ, usually for long periods of time – days, months, years, and sometimes decades. We can’t all do this and God doesn’t expect us to, but I believe a little solitude now and then can help us focus ourselves in prayer and notice the presence of God within us, and around us, more and more.
Prayer is sometimes easy and sometimes hard. Sometimes, maybe we make it harder than it needs to be. I know I do.
This reminds me of Peter in today’s Gospel, who when he sees Jesus transfigured gets nervous. Shouldn’t he do something? Doesn’t he need to build something to show Jesus his devotion, to prove himself?
Can’t he get going and build some nice booths for Jesus and the prophets? Sometimes we may feel this way in prayer, too. Is prayer just sitting there?
Don’t we need to do something? Produce something for God?
Nope. Sister Ruth Burrows, a Carmelite nun from England, says prayer is nothing fancy – it means to just sit still and let God love you, she says. That’s it.
Sit still a minute, and let God love you.
Now, some people love solitude, some people aren’t sure about it, and other people mostly try to avoid it. Sometimes we might feel like Peter because solitude makes us nervous – we’d rather build some booths than sit still and have all those feelings bubble up inside us. That’s not wrong or abnormal.
Whether you love solitude or dread it in your own life, using it to sit with God can be tricky. Yes, it’s a place to encounter God.
But solitude is also a place where evil spirits can lurk, wanting to grab and shake at us, pulling us away from God. They can come as distractions, boredom, bad thoughts, a voice of criticism or pointlessness.
Early Christians believed that, when these bad feelings came to you in times when you were trying to pray, or do any spiritual discipline that would bring you closer to God, that it was evil spirits or demons trying to stop you.
“When the good get going, the going gets tough,” as a friend of mine used to say.
I think it’s interesting that in today’s Gospel passage, Jesus goes from that mountaintop experience of glory and communion with God and his disciples, and comes down to face down a demon, right away. So often, our prayer lives or our Lenten spiritual practices can be like that too – we have good intentions, we have good experiences, but then other things get in the way.
We get tripped up, or we find ourselves pulling away, or we feel like we’ve messed it up. This is normal. We can’t be up on the mountaintop all the time, but you know what, Jesus stays with us no matter what.
Even if we’re confused or fidgety or upset. And Jesus is more powerful than demons or evil spirits. Jesus invites us to keep trying. God says, “”This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”
Solitude can be profound, but it can also be hard. I wanted to write a book that helps people – including myself! – with the good parts and the hard parts, with practical ideas, suggestions, and tools, but also with a whole back-up army of holy people from scripture and Christian history to help, people who went deep into solitude and came back with a lot of wisdom.
People who often had their whole lives changed by the time they spent in prayer and solitude, and who in turn, changed the world around them, too: Moses, St. Paul, Catherine of Siena, Thomas Merton…
We may not all have the time they did, forty days or forty years – maybe sometimes we have a hard time finding forty minutes, or even forty seconds. But I believe we all can do this simply through moments in our everyday life.
And that God invites us to:
- to make a space of solitude, even just in our own heads and hearts –
- our own mountaintop with Christ…
- to think about God,
- to talk to Jesus,
- to let the Holy Spirit guide us,
- to tell the demons to get lost,
- to sit still a little while,
- and let God love us.
February 24, 2019
7 Epiphany, Yr. C: Genesis 45:3-11, 15 Cor. 15:35-38, 42-50 Luke 6:27-38
The other side of forgiveness
Today’s Old Testament lesson begins abruptly. “Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?’” If you hadn’t already been reading this chapter, you’d have questions. So let’s back up.
In the story we hear about Joseph, known as a wise man who serves God, with his brothers. We find a few surprises. The brothers sold Joseph into slavery, thinking they’d never see him again. Now he appears among them, and does the last thing they expect. He forgives them and tells them not to be distressed. He tells them to go, tell their father that the son he thought was gone forever is very much alive.
Joseph tells his brothers that what happened between them was part of God’s plan to preserve life in a time of famine. He wants them to ask their father to come and settle nearby, in the land of Goshen.
The brothers were surprised when Joseph appeared. They were surprised to learn he was one of Pharaoh’s officers. And they were surprised when Joseph forgave, so that reconciliation among them began. The fourth surprise is that Joseph’s act of forgiveness – and it’s true for us as well – does as much good for him as it does for his brothers.
Forgiving is easy to talk about, but much harder to do. Turn the other cheek and take more insult? Really? There are people we are sure we never can forgive. Or it may be ourselves that we hold to such high standards and struggle with, that we can’t forgive.
We pray about this each time we say The Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize winner and author, with his daughter The Reverend Mpho Tutu, wrote a book entitled The Book of Forgiving. Their writing serves as a kind of “how to” guide on the art of forgiving others. The writers wish us to know that each of us is capable of healing and reconciliation.
“Each of us has a deep need to forgive and be forgiven. After reflecting on the process of forgiveness, Tutu recognized that there are four important steps to healing:
admitting the wrong and acknowledging the harm; telling one’s story and witnessing the anguish; asking for forgiveness and granting forgiveness; and renewing or releasing the relationship.
Forgiveness is hard work. It can feel like an impossible task. But it is only through walking this path that Tutu says we can free ourselves of the endless, unyielding cycle of pain and retribution. The Book of Forgiving offers Tutu’s wise advice and shows the way to experience forgiveness. Ultimately, forgiving is the only means we have to heal ourselves and our world.”
In Luke’s gospel passage for today, Jesus calls his followers into a way of life – not only the best ways to act toward others for a day or two – but a whole way of being: the way of mercy, kindness, and forgiveness.
The problem is that Jesus is dealing with humans, and humans always are prone to quick reactions, judgment, and competition with others.
Jesus in his encouragement to live the way of mercy and forgiveness asks us to put on the characteristics of the heavenly Father: to reach for the highest role model of all, to extend compassion and love toward ourselves, our relationships, and in community.
This gospel passage we hear today has the phrase many have heard often: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Even if we think that makes sense, it’s harder to put this into practice. This requires imagining ourselves in another person’s shoes when we would rather have nothing to do with the person in the first place.
But Jesus promises good things in these words, “Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High.” As children of the Most High, we inherit the life that God promises waits for us – eternal life with God through Christ’s resurrection.
Today’s epistle from First Corinthians is one of the first written discussions of resurrection.
Paul tells the Corinthians that their bodies, which have come from dust, will be transformed from the physical to the spiritual. They will be raised in a new spiritual body. Our physical bodies do not inherit God’s kingdom. Only when God raises us up will we know new and unending life in him, as our prayers preparing us for Holy Communion assure us.
Resurrection can be hard to understand and even harder to believe, because none of us has ever seen God. Nor have we heard anyone return to tell what it’s like. The beauty of resurrection is that a taste of it can come in other ways. It can come while we live our ordinary days and lives. Forgiveness is one way we can experience the joy of resurrection.
We may have learned that through forgiveness of another, we give them a great gift, deserved or not. Through our choice to forgive, we give that person freedom. What comes as a surprise is that in forgiving, we are really freeing ourselves.
Imagine a time when you were hurt by someone, whether it was a harsh and ugly remark, a case of real physical harm, or the all too common emotional hurt that humans inflict upon each other – often without realizing the damage.
Imagine that the hurt still lives within you, like a heavy stone you still carry with you every day, everywhere you go. I know that some of you do not need to imagine this, for you have lived it.
Now imagine shattering that large stone to bits, letting go of its terrible weight and never welcoming it back, through your best effort to forgive whoever caused it. The freedom you gain no longer carrying the stone is a taste of resurrected life – life that is lighter and free.
The surprise of forgiveness is that in forgiving as Joseph did with his brothers, as Jesus asks of us in Luke’s gospel, we free ourselves of a burden we may have carried for a long time. With the help of God’s mercy and grace, the power of the past can be broken, and we are renewed.
The writer and priest Richard Rohr says this: “Nothing new happens without forgiveness. God does not love us if we change; God loves us so that we can change. Forgiveness is the only way to free ourselves from the entrapment of the past.”
Now create in us a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within us.
Tutu, Desmond and Tutu, Mpho, The book of forgiving: the fourfold path to healing ourselves and our world(New York: HarperCollins, 2014). Description adapted from the book cover.
Richard Rohr, Forgiveness: weekly summary(Albuquerque: Center for Action and Contemplation; 9/2/17), cac.org.
Guest Preacher: The Very Rev. John Horn
February 10, 2019
5 Epiphany, Yr. C: Isaiah 6:1-13 1 Cor. 15:1-11 Luke 5:1-11
First, let me say how wonderful it is to be here with all of you. Raisin and I did a “pulpit swap” a number of years ago when she was in Iowa City and I was in Burlington. This is our first in our current positions. What makes it fun for us, and I hope for you, is that we know people in both congregations. It’s always a delight to be with people we know.
You may know that Raisin grew up as an only child. Meeting my family was a shock for her because I’m the youngest of six. Most of my siblings had spouses and children when we met, so she had a lot of family to get used to.
For me, being the youngest had advantages. I got away with a lot. My parents were pretty distracted by the time I arrived, so my older sisters took care of me. They did their best to keep me in line. Eventually they left home, leaving me with my brothers. Let’s just say we had a good time growing up.
I got used to letting others taking the initiative and then I’d follow along. I’m sure I did a lot of whining along the way, but I like to think that I did what I was told after I finished whining. So I can really relate to the feelings of those fishermen who encountered Jesus in today’s Gospel. Simon Peter, probably with his brother Andrew, and their partners James and John, had spent the whole night dragging their nets through the sea without catching anything. They were ready to clean up and go home when Jesus stepped into Simon’s boat and asked him to go out a bit so he could speak to the people on the shore. I expect Simon dozed off during that sermon, as exhausted as he was.
Eventually Jesus stopped talking. No doubt Simon thought he could finally go home. Instead, Jesus told him to head out to deep water and put the nets down again. I can just hear Simon say, “Aw, Jesus, do I have to?” But after whining, he did what he was told and put the nets down. Suddenly they were so full of fish that they began to break. He had to call James and John out to help. Even at that, the weight of the fish made both boats begin to sink. Now they were no longer tired. They were terrified. Who was this man? Calmly, Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid.”What simple words! We hear them often in Luke’s Gospel. It’s the first thing said to anyone who encounters the living God, whether it’s the angel Gabriel talking to Mary or the resurrected Jesus appearing to the disciples behind locked doors. Do not be afraid. Simple words worth remembering.
Once back on shore, the fishermen left everything behind and followed this man who alternately terrified and comforted them. The bulletin cover today tries to depict that scene, with the boat left high and dry and the nets still hanging over the side. What it doesn’t show are all of the fish left behind! That must have been quite a stench.
The first reading presented us with another call from God, equally dramatic. Isaiah appeared to be serving in the Jewish Temple when he had a vision of God, surrounded by the fantastical seraphim. Those strange beasts called to one another – and I hope you recognized their words, because you say them every Sunday! “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that when we sing that during the Eucharist, heaven and earth are joined. We are lifted up to the presence of God.
Isaiah, however, was petrified. He knew just how unworthy he was to be in the presence of the living God. This time God’s reassurance is also frightening. One of the seraphim took a coal from the altar – it had to be hot, because he used tongs – and touched Isaiah’s lips, as though burning his sins away! Amazingly, Isaiah can still speak. So when God asked for someone to send, Isaiah could say, “Here am I. Send me.”
Here am I. Again, simple words. In the original Hebrew, in fact, it’s just one word: hinneni. That’s what Abraham says when God calls him. It’s what the prophets say. Hinenni. Here am I. More simple words worth remembering.
In the second reading, St. Paul is starting to wrap up his long letter to the church in Corinth. As if in summary, he presents the basics of the Christian faith: Christ died for our sins, was buried, and on the third day rose again. Paul says this was predicted in the scriptures. He gives a long list of people who saw Jesus after the resurrection to reinforce that it was real. And Paul shows his true personality. In the same breath in which he says that he is the least of the apostles, he claims to have worked harder than any of them. One gets the impression that he is constantly trying to keep his ego under control, and often fails. I’m so glad that Paul wrote his letters, and I’m so glad that he’s not in my church.
Paul doesn’t provide us with any short sayings – nothing he said was short – but he does give us the Christian faith in brief. An easy way to remember what he says is the response in Eucharistic Prayer A: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” It is through the Eucharist that we receive the Word (capital W) that is Jesus Christ. Jesus comes to us in the bread and wine every week. That’s one of the great things about the Episcopal Church – Jesus is here in weekly communion, even when the sermon makes you feel like tired Simon listening to Jesus drone on.
God calls us in many ways. I do know that God has a sense of humor, because he decided that this youngest child who followed everyone should be the dean of a cathedral. I’m fortunate that my parents and siblings guided me in the right direction, even when I whined about it. I’m deeply grateful that they led me to the greatest gift of all, faith in Jesus Christ. That faith continues to sustain me, as I hope it sustains you. We saw today that it can be expressed in a very few words:
Do not be afraid.
Here am I. Send me.
Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
Powerful words. Transformative words. Hold on to them, and they’ll guide you well – whether you’re an only child or the youngest of six or anything in between.
January 20, 2019
2 Epiphany, Yr. C: John 2:1-11
The good wine
Whenever we hear the gospel story of Jesus turning water into wine, I think of a young acolyte in another Iowa church who accidentally poured wine instead of water over my hands at the altar. The poor acolyte looked so horrified, and I didn’t want him to spend the rest of the service feeling badly. All I could think to say was, “Oh, look! Jesus did it again!” It took a second, but he got it. He knew that Jesus performed a miracle turning water into wine, so my smile was a big as his.
Another water and wine conversation happened with a guest at the Free Breakfast Café in Iowa City where I served as director. Sometimes I prepared towering columns of toast, other times talked to people with struggles who came to the dining room. One day, a guest called out as I made rounds with pitchers of water and juice.
He said, “Hey Pastor, can you turn this water into wine?” He made all his buddies at the table laugh, whether or not they knew the Bible story. So I told him no, only Jesus performed miracles, and I sure wasn’t Jesus. Then he asked, “But can’t you be Jesus?”
His question stayed with me: Can’t we be Jesus? Literally, of course, no. We cannot. Yet when Jesus walked weary on the earth as fully human, teaching that following him means lifting up the lowly, caring about the poor, then I think Jesus says that you and I have work to do – God’s work. As some in the church put it, we are like Christ’s hands and feet in the world.
In the gospel reading, Jesus turns scarcity into abundance. Though at first there was no wine, when Jesus acted there was an astonishing, overflowing amount – some 120 to 160 gallons!
Jesus’ mother brought this need to Jesus’ attention. She’s not called by her name, Mary, in the gospel passage, but I wonder what would have happened without her! The wedding guests would have been very thirsty. The answer Jesus gave her sounded very human: “What concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His answer has to do with timing. He’s not guided by his mother’s timing, the wedding guests, or anyone else’s. He’s on God’s time – heavenly, not earthly.
In Jesus’ own time, he points beyond himself to God’s grace and abundance – signs of the joy that God hopes for us. Today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah also gives us a wedding scene. Isaiah says, “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” (Is. 62:5)
The changing of names from “Forsaken” to “Delight” signifies a new future for Israel, as when a bride often (but not always) chooses to take on the bridegroom’s name to mark their new future together. But so often before real change, someone’s encouraging voice needs to rise up. Isaiah says, “I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest.” (Is. 62:1)
Later prophets after Isaiah, whose voices rose up throughout history, have challenged us to work for a better world where hope and joy are more than unreachable jewels. It’s timely today to remember Martin Luther King, Jr. as we have a holiday tomorrow in his name.
Dr. King challenged the nation in his “I Have a Dream” speech, boldly preaching his vision of a world where hatred, cruelty, and the injustice of racial inequality are overcome; where his own children could be treated with respect and dignity. Some of you know his words well:
“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…
I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama… will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers…
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” (MLK, Jr.)
Another prophet of our time, Archbishop Desmond Tutu kept Dr. King’s words close when writing his book, God has a dream. Tutu expresses hope and joy despite the injustices he witnessed in South Africa, refusing to give up on the human capacity for turning to goodness.
Tutu begins his chapters with, “Dear child of God.” He points directly to Dr. King’s work:
“’I have a dream,’ God says…It is a dream of a world whose ugliness and squalor and poverty, its war and hostility, greed and harsh competitiveness, its alienation and disharmony are changed into their glorious counterparts, when there will be more laughter, joy and peace, where there will be justice and goodness and compassion.” (Tutu, pp. 19-20)
I wonder what Dr. King and Archbishop Tutu would say if they could walk together today. Dr. King might repeat his famous “I have a dream today” refrain that rings throughout our history as a litany rings through our worship each time we celebrate the Eucharist.
Archbishop Tutu might address Dr. King as he does in his book: “Dear child of God,” he would begin.
“Dear child of God,” Tutu writes, “it is often difficult for us to recognize the presence of God in our lives and in our world…Despite all the evidence to the contrary, there is no way that evil and injustice and oppression…can have the last word. God is a God who cares about right and wrong. God cares about justice and injustice. God is in charge.” (Tutu, pp. 1-2)
Yes, God is in charge, but God needs all of us together to serve as Christ’s loving hands on earth. Can’t we be Jesus? With ears tuned to the world’s suffering and scarcity, and hearts fixed on the kingdom promised to us as God’s children, we can better see abundance, promise, and hope, where there is none.
I think of that question I got: Can’t you be Jesus? My answer, still, is no. I cannot, and you cannot. We do not work miracles, and even though we’re made in God’s image, we are but human. But we can live like Jesus. What we can do is listen to the Jesus who lives within each of us. What we can be is God’s partners here on earth, as Archbishop Tutu says.
He writes, “God calls us to be his partners to work for a new kind of society where people count; where people matter more than possessions; where human life is not just respected but revered; where people will…not suffer from the fear of hunger, from ignorance, from disease; where there will be more gentleness, more caring, more compassion…where there is peace and not war.
Our partnership with God comes from the fact that we are made in God’s image…To treat a child of God as if he or she were less than this is not just wrong…it is…to spit in the face of God. Each of us is a ‘God carrier,’ as St. Paul put it. Human beings must not just by rights be respected, but they must be held in awe and reverence.” (Tutu, p. 63)
No, we can’t change water into wine, or do all we do without God’s help and grace, but we can make that grace visible through loving action, through welcoming those who know what it is to be outcast and forgotten.
In the joy into which Desmond Tutu invites us, in the dream which Martin Luther King places before us, we can see beyond the ordinary to find the extravagant grace and love of God.
Martin Luther King famously said, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” As we continue in and beyond this Eucharist to give thanks to God, may we take up the challenge of prophets before us to stick with love.
Desmond Tutu, God has a dream: a vision of hope for our time(New York: Random House, Inc.), 2004.
January 13, 2019
1 Epiphany, Yr. C: Isaiah 43:1-7 Acts 8:14-17 Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
I will, with God’s help
On this first Sunday after the Epiphany, we remember the Baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan. His baptism sets apart all the waters of creation as special. From that day forward, water becomes the primary symbol of our baptismal life. We hear about water in today’s Collect, in the Old Testament reading, in Psalm 29, and in Luke’s gospel.
Jesus is named as Beloved, as Son. We are called to remember our baptisms, knowing we each are called by name in the baptismal liturgy. In today’s gospel passage, God’s voice from heaven proclaims, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” You and I, at our baptism, are given our identity, too: we are marked as God’s own forever. Nothing we can do erases or removes that blessing.
Think of your own name. Were you named to honor someone – a member of your family from an older generation, or an important person who had a special impact in your family’s life?
Naming is important. We do it in church beginning with baptism, as each of us also is called child of God. Knowing one another by name matters. I know that naming those we call Brothers and Sisters in Christ has changed the way I approach coming to church, no matter what day of the week it is.
Some weeks ago, knowing I complain about the number of hours I spend driving to and from church each week – the equivalent of an entire work day – I decided that enough was enough. It was time to be done with complaining.
On the road, I began praying for each of you, by name. When I first began this prayer routine during Advent season, you all made it easy. Since we are creatures of habit, it is easy to recall where you tend to sit, even if you change it up every so often. To speak your names, taking time with each name in prayer and holding it up to God, is a holy privilege.
It is holy privilege for God, too, to know us each by name and call us Beloved, as he first did when Jesus was baptized in the waters of the Jordan.
But notice that in addition to a name and an identity, Jesus has a seemingly impossible mission – to save all humankind from their sinful behavior, to lift up the lowly, heal the sick, comfort those who mourn, and welcome all into God’s presence. How did Jesus know how to do all this; where to start?
Today’s lesson from the prophet Isaiah encourages us to remember the sacrament of baptism. The Lord says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” And here’s where the passage speaks of water: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.”
The Isaiah lesson is one of what is known as the Servant Songs. In the passage we hear today, the Lord reassures Israel that they are not to fear, for God has come to save them. This was the time of the exile, and the people awaited their savior, God’s chosen one.
But this savior turns out a bit differently than they may have expected. What they thought they’d find wasn’t a mighty conqueror clothed in splendor. Instead, God’s son comes as a servant who is patient and obedient, caring about the needs of others. Luke’s is the only gospel to tell us that after Jesus was baptized, he prayed. As he does so, the Holy Spirit falls upon him, and the voice from heaven comes down.
In today’s lesson from Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit also falls upon the people who came from Samaria to accept the word of God. Peter and John lay hands upon the converts, and they receive the Holy Spirit. In this book of the Bible, the stories we hear and read are the stories of how the early Church was formed and grew.
On this Sunday, in the place during our worship when we pray the Nicene Creed, we pray the Baptismal Covenant, and renew the vows we made, or that were made on our behalf, by sponsors and Godparents.
You’ll see that the Baptismal Covenant has a set of questions and responses in a dialogue form, as we reaffirm our faith in God as three persons in one. We then recommit ourselves to a life of faith and service.
The most important line we speak in this set of promises is the one we repeat. We say, “I will, with God’s help.” These are key words to remember about the promises we make to God. We cannot keep all our vows alone. We do it by the grace of the God who made us, cherishes us, and calls us by name.
We promise to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers. When we say these things, we mean that we will come to worship, be in fellowship with each other, and pray, even after church is over.
We promise to resist evil. When we sin, as is our human nature, we say that we are sorry. We promise to do better. Every day is a new chance to start over. God will never give up on us.
We promise to proclaim by word and example God’s good news. What we mean here is that we show other people, by the things we say (or refrain from saying) and the things we do (or the way we treat others), that being God’s people changes everything about how we see and interact with the world outside.
We promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. This doesn’t mean we have to like everybody – we know that we don’t, and it’s not reasonable to think that we will. But loving them in the name of Christ is different from liking them. We are asked to pray even for those who hurt us.
Finally, we promise to work for justice and peace among people, and respect the dignity of everyone. Whether others look, act, or think like we do; whether we think they deserve to be dealt with kindly when we don’t approve of things they do; each person God places in our path is someone in need of being treated well, like a child of God.
This is a tough one, and it’s one for which I am most grateful that I end the promise by saying, “I will, with God’s help.”
After Jesus had received the Holy Spirit and prayed, he was filled forever with God’s grace to do the work of healing, blessing, forgiving others, and welcoming the stranger. We too, are sent out from our time together each Sunday with strength to do the work God has given us to do.
We can do it with God’s help, with God’s never-ending love for us, and by God’s grace. Psalm 29 reassures us that, “The Lord shall give strength to his people; the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.