The Reverend Raisin Horn, Rector
16 Pentecost, Yr. A September 24, 2017
Jonah 3: 10-4:11 Matthew 20: 1-16
The lessons today tell us about expectations – our own and those of others. In the Old Testament reading from the Book of Jonah, we hear the prophet Jonah essentially throwing a temper tantrum – twice.
Ninevah was the capital city of the ancient nation of Assyria, where Jonah had denounced the people there. He had refused to go to Ninevah, fleeing to Tarshish instead. Because of the peoples’ evil ways and brutality toward others, God had been ready to destroy them. But they repented and God changed his mind, having mercy upon the city of 120,000 people (and their many animals).
So Ninevah is spared, and Jonah becomes angry that God spares these sinners – so angry, he tells God he would rather die. Jonah is so dramatic!
Like some of us, Jonah becomes displeased when those he considers enemies receive forgiveness. He is disgruntled by that ever-present steadfast love that God shows.
Then, God plays with Jonah a little. This book of the Bible has a few humorous moments. God gives Jonah shade from the intense sun by “appointing” a bush (appointing!) – and not long after that, God appoints a worm to attack the bush so that the bush dries up.
Predictably in this story, a distressed Jonah tells God a second time that he wishes to die than to live under these conditions. And God, a second time, asks, “Jonah! Is it right for you to be so very angry?”
Things didn’t turn out the way Jonah expected. Things surely don’t always turn out the way you and I expect, either. The same is true in the gospel lesson today.
Jesus tells a parable about God’s great generosity. The parable surprises us because it challenges the assumptions we make that God gives rewards we can earn simply by working hard enough.
The parable disrupts our ideas and earthly values of how we receive rewards for our efforts. It’s a reminder that God’s grace is given even to those who seem to be the least deserving. God does something different from what we (and the workers in the vineyard) expect.
God shows generosity and mercy to all who have labored in the field. Of course those who had worked all day long were unhappy: “that’s not fair!” I can hear them crying out, and I imagine feeling the same. But God’s generosity is not about fairness.
In the vineyard, only the first group of laborers had an agreement about the usual daily wage. Those who came after were given no specified amount, but rather heard the landowner say, “I will pay you whatever is right.”
With God, our ideas about what is fair or right, or who should and should not receive mercy sometimes are reversed. Those who are accustomed to being first need to think differently, for “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
God’s generosity is about abundance, about there being enough for everyone. One writer says that “God’s grace comes from a well that never runs dry.1 Drink deeply, and maybe you’ll offer an invitation to someone else who is thirsty.”
So we’ve heard about dashed expectations in both the lesson from Jonah and the gospel from Matthew. What about our own expectations – of our world, of God, and one another?
Those of us gathered a few days ago in the chapel to share the Wednesday Eucharist had a good conversation about the physical world not being what we expect right now.
We don’t expect that a major earthquake in Mexico would be followed by another one this week. Our expectations of devastating, powerful hurricanes are not that one named Harvey would be followed by Irma, Jose, and now Maria – as strong as the first, feared to bring even worse destruction than those before it.
Puerto Rico won’t recover as quickly as those in the states might. The hurricane will set the people back for many months while they struggle without power, without water – basic necessities of life.
These are not ordinary times. A friend said this week that she thought the earth is speaking to us – crying out, I would say, begging us who are supposed to be its caretakers to do something extraordinary. When one unexpected natural disaster is followed by another, this calls for more than ordinary prayer and action.
It seems that we have not always looked upon the earth as it was created: as sacred ground. We are called to see the holiness of life in the most familiar places and people, but often we forget. In part, we forget because we spend time judging and blaming others, instead.
When things go haywire and our expectations of how life is supposed to go don’t turn out to be true, it’s only human to place blame – so that we can try to make sense out of the course of events we see and experience.
One of the most troublesome kind of expectations are unspoken expectations. In our own minds, we think we know how others should act or what they should say and do, but perhaps they have no idea of what’s expected of them.
Most people don’t read minds. Being clear and honest about what we need from those we live or work with, for example, will go much further than blaming them when they fail to do what we had wanted. God, on the other hand, knows our needs before we ask. Still, it is pleasing to God when we pray for those needs, when we ask for the grace we wish to receive.
No, we cannot ever really know the mind of another, just as we cannot know the mind of God. So it matters that we give up the idea that God’s rewards and grace will go only to those that make sense to us. God shows mercy to all whom he calls to labor in his fields – whether they arrive early or late.
You and I, too, are laborers in God’s field. No matter when we show up to do God’s work, his grace, mercy, and abundance will be ours.
At the altar table when we receive bread and wine, it does not make a difference to God who comes first and who comes last. We all will be fed with the holy food and drink that are a foretaste of the heavenly banquet to come.
And that is a great expectation, one we can count on through the abundance and grace of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God.
1Scott Gunn, Forward Movement weekly message (forwardmovement.org), 9/20/17.
12 Pentecost, Year A August 27, 2017 Romans 12:1-8 Matthew 16:13-20
Built on a rock
Peter’s historic confession that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, Son of the living God, is known to be one of the great affirmations of faith in the gospels. As people gather around Jesus and try to identify him as one great prophet or another (John the Baptist, Elijah, or Jeremiah), Peter gets the answer right. He confesses that Jesus is the one sent from God, and for his display of faith he is rewarded with a powerful blessing.
Jesus blesses Peter and gives him the keys to the kingdom of heaven, declaring he will build the whole church upon a rock. Simon Peter now is given a new name: no longer Simon Peter, just Peter. It’s a play on words because in Greek, Peter is “Petros” and the Greek word “petra” means rock.
Did you know that the rock, so central to today’s gospel, has been the subject of debate between Roman Catholics and Protestants?
The Roman Catholic church emphasizes that papal authority (what we know as the succession of Catholic popes) passed on throughout generations began with Peter receiving the keys of the kingdom from Jesus. So the understanding is that Peter himself is made the rock, the foundation of the church.
The Protestant churches debated this idea by saying that it is Peter’s faith in Christ, not the person of Peter, that is the rock on which the church is built.
Despite the differences in interpretation, there was agreement that Peter is the central figure in the formation of a new church. Jesus formed the church knowing that after he was gone, the church would continue through the generations as the body of Christ. We at Christ Church are one small branch of the faithful body of Christ in the world.
It’s surprising that Jesus gives Peter a special blessing and authority because Peter – well, let’s say his personality was a bit “rocky” all along. He often missed the point of what Jesus taught. Some writers opine that Peter was the disciple who talks before he thinks.
A few verses after the ones we hear today in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus calls Peter “Satan” for tempting Jesus to set his mind on earthly things instead of heavenly things. Even further in the gospel, Peter denies Jesus three times (Mt. 26). And this is the disciple that gets the keys to the kingdom?
Yes – Peter receives all this because of his personal testimony, his faith when he declares that Jesus is the Messiah the people have been waiting for. Peter’s faith comes from God, who finally gives rocky Peter the gift of understanding.
Peter clearly has acted as a leader through Jesus’ story. And despite his shortcomings, Peter gets a second chance, along with his new name.
This message is worth hearing, because in learning of Peter’s being chosen and blessed by God, we remember that God gives each of us second chances.
Every day, we can start over. We can take whatever mess we may have made of our lives and begin again. Jesus does not give up on us. Do not ever think of yourself as too small or too unworthy to be made new in this life through God’s grace.
So the foundation of the church is formed. The church always is being interpreted from one generation to another. Our ancestors walked before us in the faith like Peter did, forming a foundation for us. We now walk into the future because of the blood and sweat of those gone before us. How we build the church next is in our hands.
The church is given the task of taking the living Jesus out into the world and out to our surrounding communities. What will we want our children and grandchildren, the succeeding generations, to say about the foundation we built here?
Each individual church gathering is one small piece of what we might imagine as a very large puzzle. Our piece may be smaller or it may be larger. Yet even the smaller pieces have every ability to be powerful in spirit, in prayer, in how we interact and show Christ’s love to those in need of our love and compassion.
One of a preacher’s tasks is to connect the gospel to the world as we are experiencing it, so that we are reminded the Bible is not static. It is the living word, not just written for those who walked the earth at the same time Jesus did.
A major event we experienced this past week was the solar eclipse, when the moon passed over the earth, blocking the sun in a path that crossed most of the continental United States. I was here at church when the eclipse passed through eastern Iowa. Though it grew darker and darker outside, a small intense sliver of light suddenly shone through the chapel windows. It was spooky, and it also was intensely spiritual.
Perhaps you saw the eclipse through special glasses or saw photos on the news. People travelled for miles to share looking up to the sky with friends or family. Several Episcopal churches around the country more directly in the path of the eclipse used their churches as gathering places for eclipse viewing parties, thus earning them the name “Eclipse-co-palians.”
A friend said it was the most extraordinary thing he had ever seen, other than the birth of his children. A writer said that “nature seemed confused, and people were gobsmacked…It was one of those moments when we all realize that we are part of something much larger than ourselves.”1
In many ways the best part of the solar eclipse was that it brought people together. Young and old, male and female, liberal and conservative, black and white – those differences faded away. For at least one day, we could forget the pain and heaviness of the world. People became one in their excitement over God’s creation of the moon and sun.
The faith of Peter and the foundation of our church upon a rock now depends on us. We have the choice of coming together as one, emphasizing what unites us rather than focusing on disagreements. It’s too easy to spread negativity that has the power to hurt our souls.
In the epistle lesson from Romans, Paul urges the people to use their individual gifts to build up the body of Christ – the church – to unify rather than divide. We can act as light to one another.
We might use the image of the sunlight that returned when the darkness of the eclipse passed by to remember that light – that which is good, that which is of Christ.
The light will always be victorious. Christ, the true light, is stronger than any evil, sin, or darkness. His light will take us by surprise and bring us joy when we least expect it. So look up to the sky, wonder at God’s creation, and be ready for the gifts of God which are greater than we can ask or imagine. Thanks be to God.
1 Scott Gunn, Forward Today: glory and majesty (Web reflection, 8/24/17).
The Transfiguration August 6, 2017 Luke 9:28-36
If it’s a sunny morning at Christ Church, you know from experience that it’s so bright in the hallway facing Second Street, you need to shield your eyes to see who has come through the front doors. The sun is so intense that we keep the red guest book closed during the week to prevent signatures of recent visitors from fading completely in the intense light.
The blazing light of the transfiguration is not that kind of light. Yes, it is intense like that. But instead of a blinding light making it impossible to see, the light surrounding Jesus that made his clothing dazzling white was an illuminating light; it revealed him clearly and absolutely. The question asked throughout the gospels – who IS this Jesus? – is answered through God’s voice from the cloud.
The scene we heard described in the gospel on this Feast of the Transfiguration is unlike anything else in scripture. Radiant light did not come upon other Biblical figures in such a dramatic way, even though in this morning’s lesson from Exodus, Moses’ face shines because he had been talking with God.
Moses and Elijah are important here because they represent all the law and the prophets. Moses gave the law, while Elijah was among the greatest of prophets. Both point us forward to the Second Coming – when Jesus will come again in all his glory.
The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke each describe the transfiguration, so we have three distinct accounts. But it is only Luke who provides the detail that Jesus went up the mountain with Peter, John and James in order to pray. Jesus had been on his way to Jerusalem and withdrew to that mountain for silence. He entered into deep prayer. Depending on which Bible translation you read, some accounts say that Peter, John and James then fell asleep.
In the gospel lesson we heard today, Luke says in v. 32 that Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep, but since they had stayed awake, they saw Jesus’ glory.
In another translation (the New International Version), Luke says Peter and his friends were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory.
The first version suggests that Peter, James and John saw everything that happened. But it’s more commonly believed that the disciples dozed for a moment, then woke up fully (almost as if they had been dreaming) in time to see Jesus’s face changed, transfigured – shining with light. No matter what language we use to describe the brightness of the light, the power of the transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ seems beyond human words.
Variations do make a difference in how we hear a story. Translating the gospels from the original Greek, and the Old Testament from Hebrew, was done as carefully as possible, yet what we hear in English isn’t always what the writer intended.
For example, the Hebrew word “chesed” translates in English to “steadfast love” or “loving-kindness” in describing God’s love for humankind. Still, Hebrew scholars say that the translation isn’t strong enough to convey the intensity of God’s love for us. If your first language is something other than English you know well that it takes some work to get to the true meaning of words and ideas.
So the disciples now were fully awake to see the face of Jesus transformed. As for Peter – he’s just had a mountaintop experience, and he’d like to stay there. Who wouldn’t? Peter tells Jesus that they should make three dwellings (one for Jesus, for Moses, and for Elijah), and remain where they are. But that isn’t to be. Then, the cloud appears.
Much as angels are known to be messengers from God, clouds are known in the scriptures for concealing the presence of God. The cloud causes the disciples terrible fright. Moses and Elijah vanish, leaving Jesus alone as a voice from the cloud announces who Jesus truly is.
‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” And with this the disciples go on in silence, telling no one what they had seen and heard. It is a moment filled with awe and wonder.
What does this moment mean for us? In the brilliant light of the transfiguration, we see Jesus for who he is. Although Jesus shines with light, he is the same Jesus as he was from the beginning. He has not changed; those who saw him did.
This week, one writer reminds us that “In a shining moment, Peter, James and John see Jesus for who he is, the eternal Christ, the fulfillment of the law. Jesus doesn’t change. He was the eternal Christ before the transfiguration. Jesus is the same, but the disciples become different through their experience.”1
Yes, Jesus is unchangeable. We are the ones who change. We are the ones who suddenly, spectacularly, see differently. The disciples saw Jesus more clearly. Might we pray for the vision to see ourselves and each another more clearly?
Can we see family, friends and neighbors who may drive us to utter distraction as people also made in the image of God, deserving of dignity and respect?
In today’s Collect one phrase especially stands out for me. We ask God that we be “delivered from the disquietude of this world.” That is a powerful word – disquietude – describing our brokenness as a people on earth. One way to change that disquietude into peace is made clear, through the voice of God from the cloud:
This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to Him!” God’s command to listen to Jesus is a simple one. It is a hard one. But it is the one that will bring us closer to the kingdom of heaven.
Listen to him when he reminds us to be people of compassion – not only for the wider world with its depth of misfortune, but to support those closer to us who are in distress, pain, or any kind of trouble. There is plenty of it to go around.
We may not always know when a friend is dealing with deep sorrow and discouragement. Jesus would tell us to pay more attention. Jesus would tell us to show up and be present.
How will you try to see yourself or the people around you differently this week? How will Jesus shine more light into your life so that you know the sure presence of God, both in times of trouble and in times of joy?
Now as we make ourselves ready to receive the gifts of bread and wine at the altar, we turn once more to the Collect that asks this day,
“Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty; who with you, O Father, and you, O Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
1Scott Gunn, Forward Movement weekly interweb message, 8/2/17.
5 Pentecost, Year A July 9, 2017 Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30
And I will give you rest
I wonder if any of you wish, as I sometimes do, that I had lived in the time when Jesus walked among his disciples, breaking bread and eating fish on the beach, teaching among the crowds. What was he really like? How did his crying out to God, his prayers, or his laughter sound? The four gospel writers present Jesus to us each from his unique point of view. Still, I wish I could have seen and heard him for myself.
Then again, since Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine, there were times he was just as impatient and short-tempered as all humans get with those around them. Perhaps it would be hard for us to see this side of Jesus.
When he asks “To what shall I compare this generation?” I get the sense that we’re in for a talking-to. Jesus describes this generation as lacking wisdom, capricious children who never are quite satisfied. In this passage they are unhappy both with John the Baptist and with Jesus.
What’s the problem for them? John the Baptist is too stern, judgmental, and brooding. Compared to John, Jesus is the life of the party, eating and drinking with all – even those he’s not supposed to hang around with. Jesus shows the crowd again and again what one writer has called a “frightening inclusiveness,”1 his remarkable acceptance and openness to others.
These capricious children are the children of the land who continue to act in selfish, immature ways. Yet this passage assures us that God’s wisdom always will be greater than all the foolishness we humans can and do create.
In the gospel lesson we hear three distinct sections. First, John and Jesus are shown to be as different from each other as night and day. You might say John is too severe and unfriendly, while Jesus comes across as a man of unflagging trust and humility.
In the second section, the gospel speaks of how we come to know Jesus and to know God. The divine is revealed to us as God’s gift, not by knowledge we gain on our own. We hear of the ones called spiritual “infants,” but this has nothing to do with age. Rather, the word “infant” describes those least sophisticated in their faith. These are the ones Jesus says come to faith most quickly, their simplicity sparing them of so much questioning and doubting.
The third section is another invitation to discipleship, not addressed to the disciples but to the crowds: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest,” a beautiful verse reminding us that Jesus stays closest to those in sorrow or any kind of trouble, and delivers them from their distress.
Taking rest is important enough that we hear it from the beginning of God’s holy word in Genesis, the first Book of the Bible. Remember that God says at the start of the second chapter, “And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.” (Gen. 2:2)
Rest is given to all, but given more readily to the ones afflicted with heavy loads and unjust burdens. Jesus isn’t only talking about ordinary work we all share, but the need for rest from labor than is unduly hard and unfair. Again and again he invites us. As I imagine Jesus, he stands looking straight at us with open arms as he says, “Come to me, and I will give you rest.”
Part of the rest God promises includes relief that goes beyond physical labor. He wants us to enjoy rest from the crippling worry that comes to most of us in our lifetime, so much that it prevents us from thinking and sleeping and working. Rest from fear and anxiety seems harder to find now, in this age when distrust and open hostility are displayed and now commonplace in news reports everywhere we look.
The Great Commandment asks us to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. As we heard at the beginning of this morning’s service, the Collect of the Day reminds us that God taught us to keep the commandments by loving our neighbors.
So how are we doing? We can try with all that is within us to love, but we cannot do any of it without God’s help, and without God’s grace.
This week, a colleague and noted author who serves as Cathedral Dean in Florida was thinking as I was about Independence Day, the birthday of our country which should give us reason for joyful celebration – wondering what it will take to turn us around from the outrageous ways we hear our nation’s leaders on both sides of the political fence speaking to and about each other.
Name-calling, bullying, deep distrust are at a frightening high. Temptation to be mean-spirited becomes contagious. We feel it even among our own communities.
It is the work of the Church to turn ourselves and others to a way of being in relationship with those we profoundly disagree, to one that is more grace-filled, seen more with the eyes of Jesus. It will require a willingness to work for reconciliation. And only by the grace of God will we get there.
My colleague writes, “Never has our country been so divided…Over half of all Democrats and Republicans today now see members of the opposing party as not only ill-informed but actually frightening.
…sin and darkness would have us focus on how much we hate each other, get consumed with our differences. Yes, for then we spend all our time fighting and we neglect to do God’s work. We are like children in a kindergarten class fighting over our toys. Meanwhile the world is suffering.”
The author writes that in order to be better, we need grace. I believe she is right. Grace is a mystery of God – we cannot hold it in our hands, yet we know it when it comes to us. We know its power because it is mightier than any sword and stronger than any hate. My colleague ends by writing,
“Grace has the courage to listen to the one who offends us.
Grace has the courage to invite the different one to the dinner table. Grace has the humility to admit…we may not have all the answers ourselves.
Grace is gracious and kind.
We are a people of grace.
Go out there and listen to the stranger.”2
Yes, she says, go out and listen to the stranger. Be a people of peace, openness and acceptance, like the Jesus we encounter at the start of the gospel today. The Jesus who walked among the children of his generation is the same Jesus waiting for us, arms opened wide. He is hungry to receive us as we are, just as we hunger and long for his amazing, life-giving grace.
1Feasting on the word, Yr. A, v.3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press; 2011), 215.
2The Very Rev. K. Moorhead, St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, Jacksonville, FL; FB post 7/4/2017.
A treasured possession
What would it be like to hear Jesus say, “You are my treasured possession”? Would you believe him? These words are from today’s Old Testament reading as Jesus restores the nation of Israel, who has been like sheep without a shepherd to lead them. Jesus then pours compassion upon his people and sends his disciples out in his name.
Our summer readings now focus on the disciples and on discipleship – what following Jesus really means. Just because it’s summer doesn’t mean we get three months off from doing the work Jesus sends us out to do. The disciples didn’t get time off, either.
Jesus’ great compassion for his people stands out clearly in the readings today. Compassion motivates Jesus’ teaching, preaching, and healings. Compassion leads him to name and send out twelve apostles, granting them authority to proclaim good news, cast out unclean spirits, cleanse lepers, and cure sickness. The apostles become Jesus’ laborers in the field. The Lord of the harvest equips them for all they are sent out to do.
Really? With that impossible-sounding job description for a disciple, I imagine the twelve felt overwhelming doubt. Wouldn’t we have that same doubt? Who except Jesus could fulfill all these expectations?
The portion of the gospel we hear today is the only place in Matthew’s gospel that the word “apostles” is used instead of the word “disciples.” “Apostle” means one who is sent. Today we hear the very moment that Jesus sends the twelve out.
For he sends them out in mission, because he has compassion upon the needs of the people. The word “compassion” means more than feeling sympathy for the suffering of others. Compassion is the actual response to seeing those needs. It means taking action.
Jesus promises that the apostles will be given what they need, saying: “Do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”
But following Jesus comes at a cost, and he doesn’t hesitate to tell it to them straight, warning of coming persecutions. He says, “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents.” This means they will be treated as Jesus was treated, not what we’d call good news of the gospel.
This is one of the times it seems God has a sense of humor, that a reading about children rising against parents comes up today – of all days – on Father’s Day. And next week it doesn’t get any better.
Followers of Jesus often get into trouble with their families, who expect love and time and attention, and rightly so. There’s tension for us in the church too, lay leaders and clergy both, between commitment to church and prayer life, and family commitments and expectations. This tension always has been part of religious history. But it doesn’t sound appealing that becoming disciples can cause serious divisions at home and with those we love. So it’s easy to back away, or think that because we’re ordinary people, we’re not the special ones, the ones God wants. But the real truth of the gospel is that Jesus desires us as we are, with our brokenness and imperfections – not ever because we are, or are not, important.
Two points worth comment today is that, first, the gospel sounds as though Jesus ignores ministry to the Gentiles. He tells the disciples, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Church historians suggest that what’s happening at this time is that Jesus sent his followers out at two different times. As one writer explains, he sent them “first to the Jews when he was in Galilee, and the second to all nations after his resurrection…Historians have suggested that perhaps the two missions reflect two separate efforts in the early church to bring the gospel first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles, for which Peter is called ‘the apostle to the Jews’ and Paul ‘the apostle to the Gentiles.’
…Both are valid and important, for all are God’s children… the first mission demonstrates God’s covenant faithfulness to his chosen people while the second is a sign of God’s inclusive love to all nations.”1
A second question arising in this gospel is why Jesus tells the apostles to travel lightly. He warns of dangers ahead, yet bids them “take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff.”
Jesus, calling them God’s laborers in the field, believes that “God will provide for them through the generosity of the people who accept their good news about the kingdom of heaven.”2 God will protect them, Jesus says; if that is not so in one town, they are to move on to another.
Could you and I do that – leave everything we usually depend on behind? It’s normal to be skeptical. Everything in our culture warns us to be wary rather than rely on the goodness and kindness of strangers. Jesus’ message is counter-cultural and always has been. God’s people are, always, treasured possessions. You are God’s treasured possession. Believe it.
The generosity hoped for in the gospel calls us to the holy work of being kind, generous, and responding to others with compassion.
I’ll end with a prayer from priest and writer Brendan Manning’s book, Dear Abba, given to each person who attended Friday evening’s Revival here at Christ Church. Manning writes of compassion, saying:
Dear Abba, I’m afraid far too many of my moments of compassion are nothing more than the warm fuzzies, experiences I can manage and keep at a safe arm’s length. These illusions of compassion can fool my friends and neighbors, but not You. When I consider this day, I don’t know if my heart was torn up about anything, my gut wrenched by another’s pain, or the deepest parts of me hurled to the surface for all to see. I know it’s a dangerous request to make, but teach me compassion so that others might take notice and be drawn to Your beautiful heart.”3
1 John Y. H. Yieh, Conversations with scripture: the gospel of Matthew (New York: Morehouse Publishing; 2012), 56.
2 Ibid., 57.
3 Brendan Manning, Dear Abba: morning and evening prayer (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.; 2013), 17.
Easter Day April 16, 2017 John 20:1-18
I have seen the Lord
It’s hard to keep big news to yourself. What is the first thing you want to do when you see or hear something surprising or extraordinary? If you’re like many of us, you’re excited and want to tell someone right away.
When our first granddaughter was born, the phone call announcing her birth and her name became our own flurry of calls to those we wanted to share in our joy. We couldn’t wait.
Twice now, I’ve had the honor of serving as a deputy from Iowa to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church at the time of the election of a new Presiding Bishop. Waiting with thousands of other Episcopalians and guests for the name of the elected bishop to be spoken aloud, we could hear a pin drop – the anticipation was that intense.
Both times, when the new Presiding Bishops’ names were announced, a cry of overwhelming excitement went up from the crowd, followed by sustained applause. The House went wild. And the first thing so many did was make calls and send texts, because we couldn’t keep the news to ourselves a minute longer.
I wonder if that’s what it was like for Mary Magdalene that first Easter morning. She went to the tomb alone. She saw the stone removed, Jesus’s body gone. She urgently needed to tell someone. So she ran.
She ran to Simon Peter and to the unnamed one called “the other disciple” whom Jesus loved, believed to have been John the Evangelist. She told them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb.”
Then the disciples Peter and John ran, too. There’s a great deal of running in this gospel! John was faster, so he arrived first to find the abandoned linen grave clothes. Peter went boldly straight into the tomb, and then they knew Jesus’ body was not simply gone, but risen. They began to understand that Jesus had fulfilled the scriptures, rising from the dead on that third day.
I wish I could transport all of you to Paris just for the morning, so you could see the oil-on-canvas painting by Swiss artist Eugene Burnand. His painting is entitled “The disciples Peter and John running to the sepulchre on the morning of the resurrection” and hangs in a museum near the River Seine. The colors and movement capture the frenzy and surprise of that first Easter. It is the perfect work of art for this gospel and for this day.
The painter was a deeply religious man who brilliantly interpreted the two disciples, Peter and John in their robes, running with hair flying behind them and eyes wide with fear and mystery all at once.
They ran because Mary Magdalene first ran to them. The gospel writers each painted different pictures of that Easter morning. In John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene appears, but no other women are present as they are in the other accounts. We hear of no earthquake or terrified guards, as in Matthew’s version.
In the gospel of John we are given something unique. It comes within the conversation between the risen Christ and Mary Magdalene, who weeps because she does not know where they have taken her Lord.
And then Jesus suddenly stands before her, where no one had been standing before. Is he the gardener, as she supposes? But when Jesus speaks her name, saying, “MARY!” she knows this voice and knows this is no gardener, but her beloved Lord and teacher.
Jesus tells her he soon will ascend to God the Father. We hear the announcement of his ascension to heaven only in John’s gospel. Mary Magdalene is the first witness to this sign of Jesus’ fully divine being.
Because he soon will ascend into heaven, Jesus promises to send his Holy Spirit – the Advocate, the Paraclete, the Comforter. Throughout John’s writing he emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit. We are rich in spirit and in mystery in this gospel.
Through his words to Mary, “Go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father,” Jesus has just made Mary a disciple. He has told her to “Go” and to “Say,” sending her out to tell others the good news of his resurrection. Go. Tell.
The word “Go!” is the very word our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry loves to use everywhere he preaches, at churches and convention centers all over the world. “Go,” he challenges us, in humble service to love and care for our neighbors as ourselves.
Go, and make good on the promises we make when we become baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So it is fitting that on celebrations of the Eucharist on Easter Day, we pray together The Baptismal Covenant. We renew the vows we make at our baptism, as we are buried with Christ into his death and raised with him to newness of life.
Near the end of these vows, we say we will pattern our lives in the way of Jesus, knowing we depend upon God’s grace, and all we do is done only with God’s help.
This morning as we renew our vows together, listen especially to what we promise:
to resist evil,
to return to the Lord,
to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God,
to seek and serve Christ in all persons,
and to strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human being.
Does one of these most stand out for you?
If it does, I challenge you to run with it. Run with the urgency of this gospel, to love God and neighbor through the power of the risen Christ.
All this running brings to mind what peace activist and author William Sloane Coffin once wrote, saying:
“God’s love is a long distance runner. Love has a longer wind than any other contestant in the race.”
Like Mary Magdalene, like Simon Peter and John, may we run to tell someone the glad news that Christ has left his grave clothes behind, and opened the gate of new life to us, his beloved children.
Friends in Christ, know that you are deeply loved and valued by the God who made you, the One who has risen and will ascend to heaven, sending down his life-giving, life-changing Spirit. So go now, and tell someone that Christ is alive, and our work of sharing God’s immeasurable love has begun. Alleluia. Christ is risen!
5 Lent, Year A April 2, 2017 Ezekiel 37:1-14 John 11:1-45
The raising of Lazarus
A friend once said that today’s readings might sound strange if you didn’t know the stories passed down through generations in the Church. A valley full of dry bones? A gospel with a dead man wrapped in strips of cloth, suddenly come to life from a tomb? She said it sounds more like preparing for Halloween than Holy Week and Easter. (M.D. Younger, Lutheran Theological Seminary)
The Halloween reference seems not entirely out of place here, because things are going to get a lot scarier as Jesus soon walks the road to his betrayal, crucifixion, and death on a cross.
In today’s gospel describing the raising of Lazarus, we hear the seventh and last of Jesus’ signs that show his divine nature. Within these 45 verses, there’s a moment especially beautiful and moving.
Martha and Mary say to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus sees their brother Lazarus, Jesus weeps with sorrow – for Lazarus was his friend.
So in the midst of this long account, Jesus shows us again that he, like us, is fully human. He is acquainted with grief. He knows our times of sorrow and stands with us in those times. Then, in the dramatic scene when Jesus calls Lazarus out from the tomb and restores him to life, Jesus shows that he is fully divine.
To some, this passage may bring confusion. It may sound as though Lazarus was raised from the dead, or resurrected, as Jesus will be on Easter Day. But Lazarus instead is unbound from death’s grip. Only Jesus is resurrected. Only Jesus tells us, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
When we pray the burial liturgy in our Book of Common Prayer, the prayers of the people mention Lazarus. The line begins, “You wept at the grave of Lazarus, your friend; comfort us in our sorrow.” (BCP, p. 497)
It brings us comfort knowing that Jesus, too, was stricken by grief, and felt the profound loss we all experience in life – times that sorrow brings us to our knees when there simply is nowhere else to go.
As in last Sunday’s gospel when Jesus restored sight to the blind man, this last sign of raising Lazarus brings us closer to the end of Jesus’ public ministry. Next week, Palm Sunday, Jesus rides triumphantly on a donkey into a crowd that spreads cloaks and palm branches on the road as they shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”
The raising of Lazarus foreshadows Jesus’ death and resurrection on the third day. Unbinding Lazarus and setting him free is the final sign of God’s presence revealed in Jesus, the great revelation of Jesus’ whole purpose on earth, to bring everlasting life.
What are we to make of the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones? “The Lord set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.” This vision comes with the promise that Israel will be brought to life again through the breath of the Holy Spirit. As if they are slow to understand, the people of Israel are assured three times that through Ezekiel’s vision and the power of the Spirit, they will know the Lord.
The wind, or breath, is the symbol for the Spirit that enters those dry bones and breathes new life where there was none. It is through the power of that Spirit that babies and adults are baptized, that we are confirmed, and that we are forgiven for sin when we say the confession. Remember the words of the prayer book, when the priest says, “and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life.”
This power is not to be taken lightly. On this Sunday, when we hold our Annual Meeting immediately after the service, the lessons call us to remember how powerful it is to confront that life-giving Holy Spirit, a mystery we will not fully understand until the day we see God face-to-face.
I believe it is the power of that same Spirit that brings us together to new ministry in this place. Many priests I know from around the corners of the Episcopal Church use the Annual Meeting Sunday to give a “state of the parish” address rather than preach on the readings. As you can tell, I have not done that. The lessons are too important to let them go unconsidered.
But the lessons do speak to us at Christ Church as we wrap up the first four weeks of ministry and worship together. We may hear about dry bones and wonder what such a reading means for us as God’s faithful congregation in Clinton, Iowa.
Perhaps you have been “bone tired” at times during the interim period between rectors – especially if you chaired the Search Committee or were Senior Warden! Maybe you didn’t come to church for a while. Or maybe you became energized by the opportunities for lay leadership during the past year. With any change, there is loss, there is wondering, and it can be hard not knowing what lies ahead.
In the congregational survey that most of you completed, your results showed that compared to other churches, you expressed three unusually strong goals.
Those goals included deepening a sense of connection to God and one another through strong worship; working together for social and institutional change to better reflect the kingdom of God; and expanding outreach ministries to those living on the margins of this community.
Though on the grids of energy and satisfaction, the parish scored low, your spiritual vitality score was over 90% — you can believe I took notice of that! This is a highly positive sign and bodes well for the future. I walked into Christ Church for the first time and experienced overwhelmingly a deep sense of prayer, as though those prayers over the years have soaked into all the rooms in this house of God.
I experienced in the people I first met here a hunger for more learning, more ways to be together, and a lively prayerful presence shows this as a place whose people love God and want to love their neighbor more.
The outstanding program of the Northend Outreach Ministries brings people together to serve others. What else can we do together to refresh and build upon this ministry which already runs well?
I hope that we will share ideas and possibilities, and that every person is heard and every thought fairly considered. We can find new ways to serve those outside our church doors. Those churches that look outside themselves are the ones that best succeed and grow.
It has been four weeks since I joined you, and I still have much to learn and experience. The month of March has felt like juggling a great many balls in the air. It takes time for anyone new to know the ways a community lives its common life together. For that, I will need your help.
Tell me your stories, those of disappointments and of success. Be patient and gentle with one another as we all try to remember that humans are imperfect, and people take time if we are doing God’s work right.
In the weeks ahead, wonder with me, and ask yourself these questions:
What is binding you now? Like the story of Lazarus, from what can you ask Jesus to be unbound? Do you need to forgive someone, or be forgiven yourself? What will help set you free into newness of life, where the Spirit breathes upon you like a ferocious wind unlike you’ve ever heard before?
How can we all, as the worshiping community that is Christ Church, help you be all that God calls you to, and all that you wish to be?
Now let us go out and do the work which God has given us to do, knowing that we do it all only through the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the power of the wild, life-giving Spirit.
3 Lent, Year A March 19, 2017 Exodus 17:1-7 John 4:5-42
Have you noticed that the gospel reading has gotten longer and longer these Sundays in Lent? The lectionary for today does not permit shortcuts, omitting verses when a reading is long. I wonder if that’s because Jesus is telling us there are no shortcuts to a life of faith – especially in Lent.
Today’s Old Testament lesson and the gospel reading give us parallel stories about the gift of water.
Imagine yourself in first century Samaria. You would have seen something extraordinary: Jesus, sitting at Jacob’s well. He’s thirsty – really thirsty, because unlike you and me he walks everywhere he goes. He gets dusty, hot, and weary along the way. He meets a Samaritan woman and speaks to her, saying “Give me a drink.”
This is extraordinary because Jesus broke two rules. A man did not start up a conversation with an unfamiliar woman, and a Jew did not keep company with a Samaritan.
The source of trouble between Jews and Samaritans involved a disagreement about where to worship – I know many of you not only can imagine that, but have lived through a serious and difficult dispute about worship. These disputes divide and can hurt people, and are hard to resolve even when everyone tries to be careful. But people take time, and it takes time to adjust to anything new in worship.
It may help to remember that even in the first century, people of faith disagreed over worship. And somehow, God saw them through it. Healing took place. Healing still can take place, even years later, with God’s grace and through the regular sharing of bread and wine at the altar.
In the gospel reading today, we learn that Samaritans worshipped at a shrine on Mt. Gerazim instead of the preferred Jewish site, the Jerusalem temple. From there, their division grew deeper.
Jesus arrives in Samaria by a road Jews did not normally take. Jesus crosses boundaries. He carries no bucket, even though he’s come to a well. He asks the unnamed woman for water and she asks him why he, a Jew, would ask her for water.
As Jesus so often did, he answers a question by turning it around. He tells her that if she knew who he was, she would have asked him for a drink, for he is living water.
Not only that, but this man she’d never seen before already knows about her five husbands, as if he can see right through her! Clearly, this was no ordinary conversation and Jesus was no ordinary Jew. She, too, questions him about the dispute over where to worship God.
When she realizes who he is – the Messiah, the one they’ve waited for – she runs off to the village to ask her people if this truly can be him. She runs with such haste that she leaves her jar of water behind.
And yes, this truly is the Messiah. In the gospel of John, Jesus keeps telling us who he is: “I am the bread of life,” “I am the good shepherd,” “I am the vine,” “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” and now Jesus says he is living water.
In today’s reading from Exodus we hear how the quarrelsome people of Israel are at their wits’ end from being without water. Moses cries out to the Lord on their behalf, and God commands Moses to strike the rock so that water flows out to the thirsty ones.
The question, “Is the Lord among us or not?” gets a clear answer with the sudden appearance of flowing water, restoring their trust in God.
In both lessons, God provides the gift of water, necessary for life. We learn that even quarrelsome people are given gracious gifts from God. For who among us could claim to be free from quarrels and impatience?
The images of water remind us of our baptism and the promises we make through our Baptismal Covenant. The Samaritan woman offers water, but the water Jesus gives is the water of everlasting life so life-giving that we cannot yet even imagine it.
How do we, here in Clinton, listen to this story knowing we are a city on a river that helps define who we are and where we are?
This week, the story of the Samaritan woman made me wonder. I wondered why Jesus took a different road when he went to the well. He crossed boundaries into a land where a Jew would normally not go. He knew all about the woman at the well and her past life. He knew he would offer her the grace of living water.
Jesus met the Samaritan woman where she was. I think we learn in this gospel today that Jesus also meets us where we are, whether we are ready and open to receive him or not.
We, too, are thirsty. We thirst for the word of God, for Jesus to show his presence in our lives. Sometimes the path is hard. Life deals us hardship, sorrow, loss, and we may find it hard to pray. At these times especially it is important to have our faith community surround us, praying for us until we can pray again ourselves.
Jesus appears to us through other people in our faith life. Jesus lavishes the gift of our faith community, of other people, around us – as he does with living water.
That’s why it makes a difference that you are here today. Your presence matters in this place. We don’t always know how what we do or what we say will affect another person, or change that person’s day for the better.
Perhaps someone here in this church received a kind or encouraging word or a prayer from you today. Because of your kindness and compassion another beloved child of God receives grace upon grace.
We are the body of Christ together. God shows up through us.
Where are the hard places in your life, right here and right now, where you most need Jesus to show up? Where do you need to ask Jesus to meet you?
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