Recent Sermons

The Reverend Raisin Horn, Rector

2 Pentecost, Yr C                                                            June 23, 2019

1 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.”[1]

Amen.

[1]David Lose, “Legion,” (workingpreacher.org, 6/16/13).

 

Day of Pentecost, Yr. C                     June 9, 2019                                                                       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.

Amen.

 

4 Easter, Yr C         May 12, 2019        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.”[1]

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 togetherrespond 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.

[1]Kate Moorehead, Resurrecting Easter: meditations for the great 50 days(Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 2013), 50.

2 Easter, Year C                         April 28, 2019                                                                                     John 20:19-31

Speaking Peace

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 risingon 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 Thomashas 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.”[1]

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!”[2]

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.”[3]

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.”[4]

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.[5]

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 themauthority 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!”

[1]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.

[2]James Luther Mays, Psalms, Interpretation series (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 449.

[3]Craig A. Satterlee in Feasting on the word, Op. Cit., 389.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Nancy Claire Pittman in Feasting on the word, Op. Cit., 401.

Maundy Thursday                                          April 18, 2019                                              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                                                                                                              Last Sunday After Epiphany C, March 2, 2019

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 sittingthere?

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 awayfrom 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.

Amen.

 

7 Epiphany, Yr C                                                   February 24, 2019

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 Forgivingoffers 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.”[1]

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, judgement, 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 ifwe change; God loves us so thatwe can change.  Forgiveness is the only way to free ourselves from the entrapment of the past.”[2]

Now create in us a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within us.

Amen.

[1]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.

[2]Richard Rohr, Forgiveness: weekly summary(Albuquerque: Center for Action and Contemplation; 9/2/17), cac.org.

 

 

5 Epiphany, Yr C    February 10, 2019     Isaiah 6: 1-13    1 Cor 15: 1-11 Luke 5: 1-11         The Very Rev. John Horn, Guest Preacher

Simple Words

First, let me say how wonderful it is to be here with all of you. Raisin and I did a “pulpit swap” anumber 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 bothcongregations. 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 goodtime growing up.

I got used to letting others taking the initiative and then I’d follow along. I’m sure I did a lot ofwhining along the way, but I like to think that I did what I was told after I finished whining. So Ican 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 toclean up and go home when Jesus stepped into Simon’s boat and asked him to go out a bit so hecould 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 longertired. 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 whoencounters the living God, whether it’s the angel Gabriel talking to Mary or the resurrected Jesusappearing 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 thoughburning 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 tokeep 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 EucharisticPrayer 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 wineevery 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 thatthis youngest child who followed everyone should be the dean of a cathedral. I’m fortunate thatmy parents and siblings guided me in the right direction, even when I whined about it. I’mdeeply 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.

 

2 Epiphany, Yr C                           January 20, 2019                                           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.[1]  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 cando is listen to the Jesus who lives within each of us.  What we canbe 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 canmake 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.

Amen.

[1]Desmond Tutu, God has a dream: a vision of hope for our time(New York: Random House, Inc.), 2004.

 

1 Epiphany, Yr. C.               January 13, 2019           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.

 

Christmas Eve, Yr C          December 24, 2018             Isaiah 9: 2-7                                   Titus 2: 11-14                        Luke 2: 1-20

 Love came down

On a night like this one, I wonder.  I wonder who gathered on Christmas Eve in these pews, in this beautiful church in the years before us.  Did they speak these same prayers together? Which carols did they sing?  What joys and worries did they hold in their hearts?

And I think about the very first Christmas.  There were Joseph and Mary – Mary, so great with child. Joseph, wanting to care for her and the baby.  It would have been easier for them to stay in Nazareth in their home, to have the birth take place there, where everything was familiar.

But in those days, they were told to go to Bethlehem for the census ordered by the emperor.  So they set out, weary, surely counting on finding a room for the night.  But as we know, there was no room for them in the inn. So Jesus, this mighty king, savior of the nations, slept in a bed of straw under a starlit sky.

Do you remember a song called “Love came down at Christmas?” The words came to mind this week, when I read the Christmas message from the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church – you know, that guy – the famous black bishop who was just named Religious Celebrity of the year.

He protests about that, by the way – because all the recognition he has gained since preaching at the royal wedding is not about him, he says. It is about God’s message of love, which is what he preaches.  Love: every time, in every place.

Bishop Curry sent his Christmas message to share with our congregations. His message is simple, and it is timeless.  From John’s gospel, we know that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that all who believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

The Bishop says: “That’s what love is.  To give, and not to count the cost.  To give, not for what one can get, but for what the other can receive. That’s what love is.”

Trouble is, even if we hear the Bishop’s words, it is hard for us to believe – really take in – that we deserve so much love.  God assures us again and again; still we wonder whether we are good enough, or special enough.  If you wonder that too, then know that yes, you are loved that much.

This is the night when we celebrate God’s love.  We come together in song, with candlelight, with good will. God promised that Jesus would be born to bring peace, and come into our hearts. But that doesn’t mean that Christmas is easy for everyone.  For some, holidays are a time of struggle, while the rest of the world seems to laugh and dance.

In days when, with our holiday traditions, we may bear some pain or grief, a perfect Christmas isn’t as important as it once was.  The loveliest tree and shiny wrapped gifts are stripped of importance when compared to the gift of someone willing simply to sit or pray with us, to take our hand in silence, and stay with us till our souls are restored.

That is what “Emmanuel,” God with us, is about.  God finds us, stays with us, to help bear both hardship and joy, all those wildly different emotions we may bring to this holy season.  God sent Love at Christmas, love that stands with us especially in the messiest places in life we have to offer.

Tonight’s reading from the prophet Isaiah reminds us that life in those days was hard.  The people truly lived in a land of deep darkness and carried heavy burdens.  They knew what it was like to be cast down, like they were nothing.  But the Isaiah lesson also is a hymn of thanksgiving and hope, because the birth of a new kind of king is about to take place.

In the reading from Titus, we hear of hope and assurance that when Christ comes in glory, he will save us from past sins and make us purified by his light and power.

I have been rereading a book by Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor.  Her book, An Altar in the world: a geography of faithinvites readers to find God in the world right where they are, apart from real altars inside church buildings.  She invites us to look for God’s presence in others, and in other places.

Church is never just a building.  Church is you and me – God’s people, and it matters how we treat those around us once we shut off the church lights and go home.

The book describes practices that serve well at any time of year, but especially at Christmas, when it matters to bring into sharper focus those things that are really important.

In the chapter “The Practice of Encountering Others,” Taylor encourages us to resist hurrying through daily tasks as fast as possible, instead taking a moment to really see and acknowledge the person who is helping you: the tired grocery store checkout person working a double shift, the hassled man behind the post office window, the woman at the shopping mall who’s had her fill of rude customers and their returns, who simply wants to be at home with her small children.

Especially in these hectic holy days of Christmas, telling another person through your actions or words, “I see you,” or “you matter,” is a way of participating in a holy surprise; for in the practice of encountering others, it lifts others up when they most need it.

One act of kindness in a week such as this one goes a long way. The simplest of greetings brings an otherwise unseen person into the light and love of God.  Then, love will come down.  Love will come back to us.  Because we are beloved of God who lives within each of us, full of grace and truth.

May the wonderful mystery of Jesus, Word made flesh, awaken you with holy surprise, and remain close to you this day, and in the year to come.

A most holy and blessed Christmas to you all.  Amen.

 

1 Advent, Year C           December 2, 2018       1 Thessalonians3: 9-13        Luke 21:25-36

 Great expectations

 This is the time of year when the church and the world look at things from different directions.  In the world, we’ve begun the 12th and last month of the calendar year.  It’s dark early; it’s cold and wintry.  Some people wish to hibernate – take a good, long nap and wake up when winter is over and gone.

But in the church, Advent is here.  It’s the beginning of a new church year – not the end – and a liturgical season with new colors and prayers and traditions.  The gospel reading tells us not to sleep through the long winter, but to wake up!  Be alert! Something good is coming: the strongest, brightest light the world has ever known.

That light coming to dwell with us is the Christ Child.  It is in Christ  that we place our trust, our hope and expectations.

It’s in our nature to expect things.  We expect and we hope, that if we live worthy enough lives, work hard, and try our best, things will turn out well.  But sometimes, life throws a curve ball.

Maybe there’s a loss that takes our breath away, a health crisis, or trouble meeting our basic needs – all keeping us so drained that reaching out to others seems impossible.  On top of that, there’s the coming merriment and noise of the holiday season.  Maybe it doesn’t match the anxieties and doubts we’re feeling.

Yet isn’t there a part of us, that hopeful part like when we were little and Christmas was just around the corner, that still expects something good to happen, despite everything?

As we celebrate the First Sunday of Advent, we can expect good things. We can expect that Christ, our brightest light, will overcome the darkness of the present time.  We see a pattern over the next weeks, one of hope amid our dark nights.

Today on the first Sunday, the readings urge us to pay attention, to be ready for the coming of the Son of Man. We are to be alert in prayer and wise in compassion toward others, so that we have nothing to fear when judgment comes.

On the second Sunday, we learn about the life and ministry of John the Baptist, one of most peculiar characters in the scriptures.  On the third Sunday in Advent, John the Baptist still is with us, urging and calling us into repentance.  He must be pretty important to get two Sundays.

On the fourth and final Sunday, we hear in Luke’s gospel the wonderful birth narrative.  We focus on Mary, the God-Bearer who sings her Magnificat, one of the most beloved passages in the Bible in every translation, as it has been passed down from one generation to another.

And already this morning, Mary’s song and the meaning behind it makes its way into the Old Testament lesson from the prophet Jeremiah.  Mary assures us that the lowly and poor will be lifted up, and the rich sent away empty.  The world order as we thought it was suddenly is to be turned on its head. Jesus isn’t impressed with wealth or title or position.

The Jeremiah reading is like another branch coming from the gospel message.  The people are promised that the Lord will come to restore justice and righteousness to all, looking with favor on those cast aside by society and circumstance. There is expectation in Jeremiah, that God would provide his people with leaders that rule with justice.

The epistle reading – a prayer spoken while waiting for Jesus to come again – lets us hear Paul, in writing to the people of Thessalonica, encourage joy and love for one another as they wait.  And this from a man who suffered through time imprisoned and removed from all those he cared about.

Wrapping up these Advent readings, we soon await the birth of Jesus –   king born in a stable made of straw, not a castle with riches or a gold crown waiting in the wings.

The Collect for the Day powerfully reminds us of the great humility Jesus brings with his birth.  We ask God to give us grace to cast off the powers of darkness, as we put on the armor of light.

So we wait for Jesus to come in human form, to know the world and its hardships as humans know it.  We wait for the dark days to turn lighter.  We wait and expect that as Christmas Day dawns, a new hope born into the world will find its way into our hearts.

We wait, even while knowing that good things will come on God’s time table, and not always our own.  And, we are told to Be Alert.  But why? I believe that sometimes what we expect turns out differently in real life. Maybe we need to look or listen to something again.  Maybe when we listen, we will hear something surprising.

This happened a few weeks ago.  I was in Des Moines for a church gathering.  The subject of the greater Church, reports of dwindling numbers of churchgoers across most mainline denominations arose, as it often does.  Along with this comes shared anxiety.

Inevitably, we expect what comes next in these conversations.  Someone says that young people don’t come to church anymore, that all we have now is us older folks. After all, we’re the ones who grew up with church as a regular part of our lives.

Those of us who fit that description inherited the tradition of being part of a church, much as we inherit the set of valuable, fine china left behind by a treasured old aunt.

The surprise I heard about this subject came from our Presiding Bishop. Here’s what he said.  Someone in our group had suggested that the church is fading from our current culture, so it is fragile.  Bishop Curry said quite strongly,

“I believe that the church isn’t fragile.  The church is durable.”  Well, that roomful of us paid attention.  We don’t often hear something so positive, so affirming.  Curry went on to say that yes, the church’s population is aging.  But why should that mean that it is fragile?

His experience all around the wider church is that people who have lived a longer time have the benefit of wisdom and years of experience.  The older and wiser ones have lived through wave after wave of change, innovation, and latest trend.  But they know what is important.

Honoring traditions of the past, yet looking to the future is much more helpful than wishing for things to be exactly as they used to be. Wisdom tells us that that is not to be.

These gifts of wisdom and experience need to be passed on.  Our aging bodies, with physical aches and pains keep us less active to be sure.  But us wiser, older folks remember church when it didn’t try all the newest things and louder music, screens and entertainment.  This aging church came into being knowing how to keep the main thing The Main Thing.

That Main Thing is Jesus – always the light, the center, the focus of our hope.  When we lose our focus on Jesus, we get into trouble.

The Presiding Bishop’s message of the Way of Love now calls us to return to who we really are, and always have been.  We are the beloved, baptized disciples of Jesus Christ – the way, the truth, and the life.

When the early disciples chose to follow Jesus, they turned themselves around. They enlivened the church. And then they turned the world around.  I believe that as the church today, we are just as hungry for Christ to illumine our lives.  So let us reach for that armor of light, the habits of grace, and the practice of prayer and fellowship.

As Paul wrote in his letter to the Thessalonians, may Jesus so strengthen our hearts in holiness that we may be blameless before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

Amen.

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

Tell us who you are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us pray:

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

(For Peace, BCP p. 815)

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

[2]Ibid., xi.

[3]Ibid., 101.

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

 

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

Material Possessions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

2 Taylor, ibid., 124.

 

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

The tongue of a teacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

10 Pentecost, Yr. B July 29, 2018

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

Enough and more leftover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

7 Pentecost, Yr. B July 8, 2018

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

Hometown boy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

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

Ordinary Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The writer William Martin says it this way:

Make the Ordinary Come Alive

Do not ask your children to strive for extraordinary lives.

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

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

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

Show them how to cry when pets and people die.

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

And make the ordinary come alive for them.

The extraordinary will take care of itself.

Amen.

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

No longer servants, but friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

 

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

I am the vine, you are the branches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

Your Right Hand, O Lord, Glorious in Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

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

Come and see

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

 

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