Message Archive

Sermons

14
Jan

Follow Me

1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20)1 Corinthians 6:12-20John 1:43-51Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17

Jesus found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”

Last week we celebrated Jesus’ baptism.  All four of our Gospel writers include the account of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist.  In each case, this is our first glimpse of the adult Jesus, and in each case, this is the first we know of his earthly ministry.  Now, once again, we have begun our yearly journey along with Jesus and his disciples through this earthly ministry.

Today’s Gospel lesson relates the calling of Philip and Nathaniel.  Next week, we will read of the calling of Andrew and Peter and James and John.  Jesus says quite simply, “Follow me,” and they follow and become his disciples.

Jesus saw in Philip – something – something that qualified him to take his place among the twelve disciples that he was to call to share his ministry on earth.  Other than having his name listed among the twelve disciples, we know little of Philip.  He takes on the persona of sort of a killjoy in the few scripture passages that include him.  He was a fisherman accustomed to calculating the profit of his catch.  It would be Philip who would determine that the monetary cost of feeding 5,000 worshipers is not humanly possible.

Extra biblical information suggests that Philip went on to become a great missionary in the areas of Asia Minor as Christianity spread north from Palestine in the decades following the Resurrection and Ascension.  Legend contends that Philip slew a dragon before he was martyred, perhaps by crucifixion on a long cross.  But, all in all, the earthly biblical picture we get of Philip the Apostle is of an ordinary, very human follower of Jesus of Nazareth.  What, then, did Jesus see in Philip?

What does Jesus see in each of us – as he finds us and says, “Follow me”?

Facebook allows me to stay in communication with several of my seminary classmates.  Two of those are a young married couple, both ordained priests, who together were called four years ago to “plant” a church in their home diocese in Oklahoma.

Recently, they posted a video of various members of this church plant known as Grace Church.  We hear from a non-traditional family who express their delight that they finally feel welcomed and embraced in a church family after years of searching and being made to feel unwelcome.  A lovely young woman recounts her earlier struggles of being inquisitive, questioning her faith, asking hard questions, and expressing some doubt about religious teachings.  For these expressions of struggle with faith she had been chastised by the religious leaders of her previous faith tradition.  But, now, in the Episcopal Church, specifically Grace Church, her questioning has been valued and nurtured; she has been encouraged to ask hard questions and, thus, seek greater depth in her faith.

“Follow me,” Jesus says.  I believe the Episcopal Church is strategically well-placed to hear Jesus’ call, to provide a sacred atmosphere of love and healing, a safe place for hard questions, a place where unity doesn’t mean we all agree in thought or style of worship.

Too many people have been driven from the church by sanctimonious religious leaders and congregations seeking to control thought, fearful of tough questions for which they have no textbook answers, retreating to comfort zones that ignore reality.

The Episcopal Church provides order amongst the ever-increasing chaos.  We hold to our structured liturgical worship because it frames and expresses our beliefs and broadens our understanding of our faith in Jesus Christ.  Our worship is intrinsically orderly and meaningful.  Our worship is serious work that brings great joy and greater depth of understanding of what our earthly lives are all about.

Yet, while holding to traditional worship, The Episcopal Church thinks broadly and openly.  This broad acceptance of thought does not mean we are loosie-goosie in our theology and that “everything and anything goes.”  It means we welcome open conversation and exchange of ideas as we seek spiritual guidance in the interpretation of the scriptures and as we seek guidance in the ministries to which each of us is called.  It means we welcome reason.  All, as we love one another as Christ loves us and as we come together again and again in communion at his Holy Table – our common ground regardless of all differences.

Jesus says, “Follow me.”  As his Church, we are called to be a place of welcome and healing especially for those who have been damaged by the very people called to represent Christ in our earthly communities.  Jesus’ harshest words were for religious leaders who misled the people with their self-righteous exploitation of religious belief and practice.

Too many have been shown a God who is filled with vengeance and wrath – a God who is never pleased with us and who glories in punishment.  It is we who are called to bring healing to these injured children of God.

I offer my building contractor analogy:  When we began planning the construction of the guest cottage behind my mother’s home, we were held up for weeks trying to come up with a plan for a septic tank and all proper permits in order to begin building.  At best, it looked as if we were going to have to convert the entire yard to drainage field in order to be in compliance.

For weeks, we heard “No, you can’t do it that way and if you try it you’re subject to fines and even incarceration.”  Potential contractors said, “I can’t really give you any advice, but if you can figure it out and get the permits, call me back and I’ll look at your plans.”  Finally, Jeff the Contractor said, “I don’t have the answer, but come on and get in my truck and let’s ride to the county office and see how we can get this worked out.”

The spiritual journeys of too many of God’s children have been thwarted by those recognized as God’s representatives.  Each of us, as the Church, bears the responsibility to bring healing.  We won’t have all the answers, but we can join our brothers and sisters in their struggle, assuring them that God wants only what is best for each and all of us; God is love.  God’s judgment is real (as is a mother’s judgment for a child who wants to play in the street); but God judges with compassion.

Jesus sees in each of us – something – something unique that he needs for his ministry, something his Church needs to welcome and heal the wounds of those who have been hurt or misled by the teachings and practices of the Church.

Jesus is saying, “Follow me.”  Share the power of the healing love of Christ.

 

 

31
Dec

Incarnation

Isaiah 61:10-62:3  Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7  John 1:1-18  Psalm 147 or 147:13-21

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.”

In the weeks to come, we will celebrate the birthdays of late great men in our society – Martin Luther King, Jr.; Abraham Lincoln; and George Washington.  These are men whose birth dates are honored because they grew to become leaders, contributing significantly to our country’s formation and heritage.  I can remember eating cherry tarts in elementary school to commemorate George Washington’s birthday, as we would hear the story repeated of our first president’s integrity in his confession to his father that he did indeed chop down the cherry tree.  He could not tell a lie, we are told.

We should remember and acknowledge the great contributions of our country’s leaders; we should glean wisdom from their life lessons and continue their honorable callings.

It concerns me, however, that we too often acknowledge Jesus’ birth in a similarly simplistic earthly way.  Do we remember Jesus’ birth date every December 25th simply because he grew up to be a great man?  We have some fruitcake and eggnog to celebrate his birthday.  But, do we take time to peel away the distraction of the festivities and see what it’s really all about?

In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he writes that Christ Jesus revealed true faith.  Was Jesus simply a great prophet – a seer and revealer of God’s intentions for all creation? 

We know Jesus of Nazareth as a great teacher who redefined God’s law for us humans, living his life on earth so that we might take up his example in living in relationship with another.  Does that role model end with his earthly death?

We recognize Jesus Christ as our redeemer.  Did God’s intentions for our redemption become possible only due to the birth of Jesus?  Did this plan for redemption begin on December 25 in year 0000?  Did God say, “Ah, this newborn babe in the feeding trough has real potential; now perhaps I can make a plan to redeem creation.”?

Do we define Christmas simply as the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth who just happened to grow up to be a great man?  So, we celebrate with fruitcake and eggnog, and then we move on to the next birthday celebration….

No, the Apostle Paul and the writer of John’s Gospel do not allow us to carry on in this state of ignorance and superficial understanding. 

Jesus’ earthly birth occurred, says the Apostle Paul, “when the fullness of time had come.”  Paul assures us that the birth of Jesus Christ was, from the beginning, all part of God’s plan, in God’s time, on God’s terms.

Jesus’ earthly birth was not a happenstance; and, Jesus did not, simply by coincidence, become a great man.  Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh – God Incarnate.  His earthly birth was an intentional event in God’s divine plan – God’s one story of redemption of all creation. 

John’s inspired words of Good News are clear:  “In the beginning was the Word [big W], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….  And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”  The Word became the Incarnate Word – the Word made flesh.  There is nothing coincidental or superficial:  God, in his divine eternal plan, in the fullness of time, came to earth, being conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, birthed in a cattle stall because there was no room in the inn.  God came to earth on that first Christmas – the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-present God fulfilled his plan in the birth of Jesus Christ – that’s not just fruitcake and eggnog.

The “Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung.”  We will sing this beautiful Christmas hymn [#81] as we share communion.  The quietness of this time in our worship will offer you an opportunity to reflect and inwardly digest the words of the hymn.  The words of Verse 3 encompass the Gospel message:

O Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,
dispel in glorious splendor the darkness everywhere;
true man, yet very God,
from sin and death now save us, and share our every load.

The fragrance of our Lord’s presence fills the air – continues, ever-present, to fill the air and dispel the darkness.

Fully man, yet fully God, our Lord came to earth from heaven on the day we celebrate as Christmas.  He was a great prophet, a great teacher, a great man, but above all the Word made flesh, God Incarnate. 

We can consume the last of the fruitcake and eggnog, pack away the ornaments, and haul the discarded gift wrappings to the curb.  But, that sweet fragrance made possible by the earthly birth of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, has redeemed us once and for all time.  Jesus Christ carries our every load every day.

We are none worthy, but we come worthily to share in his Body and Blood, to celebrate our redemption – all according to God’s eternal plan – the Word made flesh, living among us.  We are living members of the Word made flesh.

 

 

24
Dec

Faith IN Christ

 

Isaiah 9:2-7  Titus 2:11-14  Luke 2:1-14(15-20)  Psalm 96

Well, here we are again, kneeling in the hay of the drafty cattle stall; the hay is scratchy but sweet smelling.  Along with the cattle and sheep, we are warmed and mesmerized by the sight we see – the tiny baby snoozing in the animal’s feeding trough.  Can you imagine a more humble birth, and yet, we have faith IN this birth and the impact it continues to have on the world.

We have faith in this newborn; we have faith that this tiny baby is our savior who, through his life, death, and resurrection, redeemed us from our sinfulness.  God has come to earth in the human person of the Son, Jesus Christ – God Incarnate, God in human flesh.  We are gathered here to celebrate because we have faith IN the Incarnation; we have faith IN Jesus Christ, our savior.

But, as we draw nearer, the babe opens his eyes and we see ourselves reflected there; and we understand, there is more.  We are not called simply to have faith IN Jesus Christ; we are called to have the faith OF Jesus Christ.  The calling of Christian discipleship requires us to seek the faith OF Jesus Christ.  The tiny babe has come to earth to live and die as one of us, to show us what it is to have the faith OF Christ – the faith to which we are called.

There’s a wonderful story of a 1966 Children’s Christmas pageant that appeared in a publication of Guideposts and continues to circulate the Internet.  I’ve shared it with you before and I share it again because it is so very filled with messages of the Good News.  It is a story that we can remember and carry with us for reflection as we enter into the season of Christmas.  The story illustrates so well the concept of expanding our faith IN Christ to the faith OF Christ.

The story is of Wallace Purling who was nine at the time and in the second grade though he should have been in the fourth.  Wally was big for his age, described as clumsy and awkward in movement and mind.  He was well liked, a known defender of the underdog, but nearly always the last to be chosen, if at all, for team sports.

For the parish Christmas pageant in this particular year, the director had assigned Wally the part as the surly innkeeper – a part with only a few lines and well-suited for Wally’s large intimidating stature.  The big event arrived, and as the pageant progressed Wally waited off-stage for his cue, mesmerized.  The journalist described the scene:

No one on stage or off was more caught up in the magic of the night than Wallace Purling.  They said later that he stood in the wings and watched the performance with such fascination that Miss Lumbard [the director] had to make sure he didn’t wander onstage before his cue.

Finally, the moment came for Joseph, gently escorting Mary, to knock desperately at the innkeeper’s door.  Wally opened the door to confront the weary travelers who pleaded repeatedly for lodging.  Again and again, their pleas were turned away by the surly innkeeper’s (attempted) gruff and stern responses, “There is no room.”  “Seek lodging elsewhere.”

But, as this discourse continued, Wally’s eyes focused on the character of Mary, skillfully exuding the desperation of the expectant mother heavy with child.  Then, there was an awkward silence as Wally, the innkeeper, struggled distractedly with his final line before he was to slam the door in the faces of the pleading couple.  The director prompted him from offstage, “No.”  “Begone.”  At length, Wally regained his composure and repeated the words of the prompt, “No.”  “Begone.”

These words were the cue for Joseph to place his arm around Mary’s shoulders and begin to move away dejectedly.  As they departed, Wally stared behind them with his big sad eyes.  And, caught up more in the mystery of God’s story of redemption than in this artificial role, rather than slamming the door in disgust as called for in the script, innkeeper Wally’s eyes filled with tears.  To the amazement and/or consternation of the cast and the audience, Wally, departing from his script called out, “Don’t go, Joseph.  Bring Mary back.”  And Wallace Purling’s face grew into a bright smile.  “You can have my room.”

Wally Purling wasn’t just IN the Christmas pageant; Wally was transformed into the faith OF the Christmas mission.

We have come on this holy evening to worship, and as we worship we come to know more of what it is to have the faith OF Jesus Christ.

In a few moments we will participate in the Holy Eucharist – our very first act of Christmas.  Like the Incarnation, we will not simply remember and re-enact the Last Supper of our Lord, we will participate in and partake of the real presence of Christ.  As we come in communion with one another, we live into the Body of Christ; we are transformed – we live into the faith OF Christ.

Christ’s Holy Table is set.  We are invited to take and eat.  C.S. Lewis reminds us, “The command was ‘Take, eat; not Take, understand.”[1]  So, like the Incarnation, it is in our finding of our place in the intricacies of the Holy Eucharist that we come to take on the faith OF Christ.  Bit by tiny bit, the holy mystery is revealed and, like Wally the innkeeper, we experience the real presence of Christ in our midst and in our hearts and in our relationship with one another.  Beyond having faith IN Christ, we are transformed into the faith OF Christ.

Merry Christ Mass in the faith OF Jesus Christ Our Lord.

 

24
Dec

Mary said Yes

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16  Romans 16:25-27  Luke 1:26-38  Canticle 15

We, the Church, are privileged to know something about the history and significance of the birth of Jesus Christ – most of us having been reared in Christian families, where the accounts of the birth, life, and ministry of Jesus Christ have been long familiar.  As our own Paul Harvey would agree, “we know the rest of the story” beyond the words of Luke’s Birth Narrative that we love to hear again and again at this time each year.  We know that Jesus grew up to preach and teach and bring healing and salvation to the world – that he died on the cross and rose again.

And so, we come with awe into this season of celebration of the Nativity, reflecting on the impact the birth of Jesus Christ has had on our lives and on all creation.

First Century Christians did not have the benefit of 2000 years of Christian history and teaching.  They did not yet know the rest of the story.  Jesus’ birth was not hailed by many-at-all of the known world as a significant event.  Luke’s Gospel account of the birth tells us that the shepherds acknowledged the angels’ glad tidings of great joy, and Matthew describes the Magi as they were intrigued to follow the astrological signs that led them to seek out the Christ child; and, we like to think the cattle and sheep and doves were aware of the marvelous new thing that was occurring. 

The narcissistic King Herod, we are told, sought the babe out of great fear for his monarchy; this fear led Herod to the widespread slaughter of newborn males in an effort to eliminate the perceived threat to his throne. 

But, besides all these, there is no indication of others in general paying attention to this world-changing, life-transforming event as it occurred in Bethlehem so long ago.

Certainly not the innkeeper in Bethlehem:  Luke’s Gospel indicates that the innkeeper said “no” to the expectant couple; “there is no room for you here.”  [Luke 2:7b]. 

We know that Jesus grew up in Nazareth in a traditional Jewish family where surely his hometown neighbors admired him as a “good” boy – perhaps a “favored son.”  Yet once Jesus came of age and began his teaching and ministry, they said, Huh, “is not this the carpenter’s son?  Where did this man get all this wisdom and deeds of power?”  Matthew tells us “they took offense at him” – their local boy; they said “no” to his teaching and wisdom and deeds of power. 

In John’s Gospel we read the account of the “woman at the well.”  This Samaritan woman was at least suspicious.  After her encounter with Jesus and his words of “living water,” she ran back to her people with breathless exaltation, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”  [John 4:29b]

Yet, Jesus’ own religious community – the leaders from whom he had been taught the history and the prophecy and the law – those of his own faith and heritage said “No,” he is not our king; he is not the Son of God as he claims to be; he is not our long-awaited Messiah.  They said, “No.”  They said, “Crucify him!”

As the centuries have passed, many have said “No.”  Many continue to say “no” to the peace that passeth all understanding in the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ.  God grants us the freedom to say “No.”

 

Mary did not say “No.”  Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  Mary said, “Yes.”  Few, if any, would suffer the cost of discipleship more than Mary.  Mary said, “Yes.”

What if Mary had said, “No, I’m too much afraid”?  What if Mary had said, “I have no room”?  What if Mary had said, “He is only a carpenter’s son”?  What if Mary had said, “He cannot be the Messiah”?

Mary said, “Yes,” in spite of fear and all the uncertainties.  Mary said “Yes” to being the vessel for the coming of God into the world in human person – to live and die as one of us.  The angel of God said, “Do not be afraid.”  And Mary said, “Yes.  Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

We, the Church, are privileged to know something about the significance of the birth of Jesus Christ.  We, the Church, are privileged time and again to hear these words of the Annunciation that we have heard this morning in our Gospel lesson.  We, the Church, are privileged to be the vessel of God’s grace as Mary was the vessel – the Godbearer.   We, the heirs of those who said, “yes” to the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ are privileged to continue to carry on that mission.

Despite the uncertainties, despite the fear, be the vessel as Mary was the vessel.  Say, “YES.  Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

10
Dec

Peace

Isaiah 40:1-11  2 Peter 3:8-15a  Mark 1:1-8  Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

 He will feed his flock like a shepherd;  he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom,

As Mark recorded the divinely inspired words of the Gospel near the end of the first century, war raged throughout Galilee, southward through Palestine, in and around Jerusalem – all over the land we know and hold in our prayers as the Land of the Holy One.  Vespasian, by this time, had been crowned the Holy Emperor of the Roman Empire – after all his competitors for the crown were conveniently assassinated.  Vespasian followed Emperor Nero who is best known even until today for his fanatical persecution of Christians, perhaps personally calling for the execution of the apostles Peter and Paul less than a decade before the time of Mark’s writing.  War raged for the people of God at the time Mark records his Gospel.

 

Mark writes as Rome rules in the Land of the Holy One.  Amongst the diverse and divisive groups are the Zealots – Jews who are zealous in their beliefs and actions to overcome Roman rule, to restore Judaism as the state religion, and once again to proclaim Israel as the major political power as they believe God intended.  The Zealots look toward the day that God will raise up leaders to bring war that will overthrow and drive out the Romans and all non-believers.  It was not uncommon for their rage to erupt into public attacks and murder against fellow Jews who were seen as colluding with the Roman authorities. 

In addition, the Zealots raged against those who sought peace with the Romans at any cost – deriding those who pursued their beliefs and practiced their worship only in the safe zones of their tightly defined religious communities, being careful never to challenge the Roman presence, going about their daily business by turning a blind eye to Rome’s heretical rule.  For the Zealots, this group was just as problematic as the Romans themselves.

And, even more serious division and unrest amongst the people had been created by the life and ministry of Jesus, the Jewish Rabbi from Nazareth in Galilee.  Those who followed him had become known as Christians and were intent on furthering his ministry even though this Jesus had been crucified nearly forty years ago in the midst of the ensuing insurrection.  Rome frowned on underlings who were inclined to incite uprisings. 

Jesus had lashed out at the Romans, calling them heretics, but he had not led Israel toward military superiority as some had hoped.  In fact, he had condemned many of the Jewish religious leaders as well and gone so far as to embrace Gentiles not to exclude Roman soldiers.  Even so, nearly 40 years after his death, the numbers who followed his teaching were increasing continuously – both Jew and Gentiles.  How could Jews and Gentiles – God’s chosen people side-by-side with non-believers – join together?  These Christians continued to preach the message of one who died the most appalling and shameful deaths by crucifixion – the means of execution reserved for the lowest most common criminal of Rome?  They continued to declare Jesus their Savior – the Messiah whom the prophets of old had foretold would come to set God’s people free.

The message preached by this Jesus was and is a message of peace and unity for a world in turmoil.  This message is said to be the Good News – the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Imagine if this message – this Good News – could bring peace and unity to such a world torn by such division and turmoil, as was this world of the 1st century.  It is into this tumultuous climate that God’s words, recorded by Mark, emerged. 

God’s people needed Good News of comfort and peace during the latter part of the 1st century.  And yes, of course, God’s people need these words of Good News equally in this 21st century.  Thus, Mark records these words of Good News for all generations past and present and future.  They are timeless words that cast the light of the prophetic message, words that declare our salvation through the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.  Mark’s divinely inspired words alert us that we must be prepared for the impact of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

Mark begins his Gospel account with John the Baptizer, a wild-eyed hairy man of the wilderness who ate honey and locusts.  John the Baptist comes to declare the divinity of the One who is to come.  John the Baptist had many followers, inspired by his fiery preaching of repentance and salvation.  But, John was clear in his declaration, “the one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

We read John’s quotes of the prophetic voices of Isaiah and Malachi.  The words of God revealed by Isaiah came long ago at another time in history when God’s people so desperately needed words of comfort and redemption.  After years of exile and brutal persecution, the people of the Judah were returning to their homeland.  How desperate they were to be affirmed of God’s presence, gathering them, guiding them home again. 

“See the lord God comes with might,” says Isaiah – not the military might that was so desired by the zealots of Jesus’ community so certain in their wish to see Israel restored as a military power over Rome insurgence.  God’s might is the power of peace through the faith of Jesus Christ – the inexplicable peace that only Christ can bring, peace that surpasses all human understanding – the peace and comfort and sustenance of the shepherd who feeds his flock and gathers the lambs in his arms, carrying them in his bosom and gently leading the mother sheep. 

John the Baptist cries out in the wilderness of our journey through this season of Advent.  John the Baptist demands our attention – he’s not a pretty sight, but his message is urgent and essential. 

Only life of and in Jesus Christ can bring true peace.  We know Jesus to be our Messiah; we understand the coming of the Messiah to be the inbreaking of God into our earthly human existence – the inbreaking of God. 

As in Mark’s time, our world is tumultuous; it seems it has been always.  Perhaps your heart is tumultuous as well; perhaps your heart and soul know no true peace. 

Listen to John the Baptist, “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.”  Be baptized in the Holy Spirit.  Allow God to inbreak into your life.  Make this Advent the time to receive the peace that only Jesus Christ can bring.

03
Dec

Constancy

Isaiah 64:1-9  1 Corinthians 1:3-9  Mark 13:24-37  Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

 

Throughout the renovation process of our family home over the past year and a half, there have been a number of treasures I have sought to guard from demolition and sheet rock dust.  Of particular attentiveness are the letters that my parents exchanged while my father was overseas in WWII.  They have been stored for all these many years in tattered boxes tied with faded ribbon.

On Friday, I removed the letters from the boxes and placed them in safekeeping for the years to come.  And, as I lifted the bundles of beribboned envelopes I was impressed by their consistency.  The envelopes in the stacks were all the same, all addressed in the same way with the same handwriting – my mother’s upright neat script, my father’s more flowing loopy scrawl.  From the outside, every letter looks the very same as the next one, but inside, without doubt, the written words brought joy and comfort to a soldier far away and his anxious young wife waiting back at home.  I stood for a moment, imagining this ever-flowing stream of letters – so grateful that tragedy or complacency did not bring an abrupt end to the flow.

One letter was lumpy; I investigated to find a very dry branch of heather from the English countryside.  My father knew how much my young mother would treasure heather from England.  I’ve read some of the letters; mostly they tell of ordinary day to day events – visits with relatives, the weather, mundane experiences.

As I pondered them on Friday, I was struck by the constancy that the letters represent – the ebb and flow of daily life within a deep and undying desire to be linked, determined that oceans and continents and wars could not separate one from the other – this is the providence of love.  

This determination to remain linked – counteracting the fear of separation – is a theme that runs through our lessons for this first Sunday of Advent.  The prophet Isaiah is speaking to the people of God who have been allowed finally to return to their homeland after decades of exile; their faith has been challenged; they have been overwhelmed by the fear of being separated from God; they have struggled to remain faithful in a foreign land where they were persecuted for worshipping the one God of the their fathers.  Now, they have returned to the ruins of their homeland, faced with the overwhelming reality of arduous rebuilding.  But, throughout it all, God has remained constant; God’s providence has gathered them and brought them home again.  God has been with them throughout their horrendous ordeal.  God never separates from us.

Our Psalmist writes, “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”  Our only fear is separation from God; as long as we look toward the light of God we are saved. 

These treasured days of the season of Advent are set aside as a time to re-acknowledge the light of God.  God’s light is constant; God’s light shines upon us day and night – in the mundane of our daily lives, at the times of significant rites of passage, at times of great joy and great tragedy.  We are never separated from God. 

But, we need this season of Advent to sit quietly in the silent darkness, to imagine what life separated from God would mean.  We need this season of Advent to sit quietly in the silent darkness of these long cold nights and discern what it is to be alert and prepared for the light that is to come. 

God’s light is constant – the handwriting is always the same. 

In today’s lesson from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is speaking of the end times.  This thirteenth chapter of Mark is known as the “Little Apocalypse.”  This time of which Jesus speaks is not necessarily some far off time; Jesus is speaking to us of the here and now.  Jesus is speaking of our need to be patient, to endure the persecutions of this world, to remain faithful that the light will come. 

Consistently, day-by-day in the mundane and the sensational events of our lives, we remain constant in our awareness of God’s presence – constant in our understanding that our only fear is separation from God, and God is never separate from us.  In God’s time and on God’s terms, God will send his angels to gather his people “from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

Jesus’ message is that it is more important to spend our time being prepared to recognize and follow “the Son of Man coming in clouds of great glory” than to devote our time and energy fretting and speculating over the day and the hour that the end times will come.

In Advent, we might say that we wait in an empty room – there are many windows in our room, but nevertheless, it is a very dark empty room.  There, in the empty quiet darkness, we await the coming of the morning light, faithfully and prayerfully preparing our hearts and minds to receive the long-awaited Messiah.  We remain there awake and alert to his coming.

The Messiah comes, we celebrate the Incarnation and the Epiphany of our understanding that this is the One for whom we have be waiting. 

The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, assures us that our Lord Jesus Christ will strengthen us to the end, so that we may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Hear the words of our Lord, “What I say to you, I say to all, ‘Keep awake.’”

May your Advent be blessed with the reality of God’s constant providence of love freely given in our salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord.

15
Oct

Reality and Gentleness

Exodus 32:1-14  Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23  Philippians 4:1-9  Matthew 22:1-14

 

Our lessons this morning address the realities of life.  The reality of life is that we struggle; we become impatient and seek to intervene with God’s guidance; we like to be in control; and, blinded by our own self-seeking goals, we too often overlook God’s invitation into a life of peace and joy.  But, God does not abandon us, even when the realities of humanity lead us to feel forsaken.

Reality is a cost of our humanity.  In contrast to costly humanity, we could be God’s tin soldiers; God would wind us up and we would praise him.  We would be robotically polite to one another, each of us accurately and efficiently fulfilling our responsibilities to one another.  Perhaps there would be no evil or tragedy – certainly, there would be no violation of the Ten Commandments. 

Somehow, I suppose, we would have to be programmed to love God and love our neighbor, since that is where we experience God’s presence.  But, it would be love lacking free will – wind-up love, love out of a can, so to speak.  Well, I just get more and more confused trying to imagine life without the costs and frailties of our humanity – life without the joys and sorrows that are intrinsic in our humanity.  

God created us with free will, and with free will comes the reality of consequences.

In our Old Testament lesson, the people of Israel are struggling with the consequential realities of life in the wilderness.  In chapter 20 of Exodus, Moses goes up to meet God on Mount Sinai.  There, Moses receives the Ten Commandments and an assortment of other laws and guidelines mostly specific to worship.  Actually, there are thirteen chapters of these laws and guidelines that Moses is instructed to put into effect among the sojourning Israelites. 

As I said, it is in Chapter 20 that Moses leaves the people to go up the mountain.  We are now in Chapter 32, and God and Moses have become aware that their visit has gone on too long.  Feeling abandoned, as we read in our lesson, the people of God take matters into their own hands.  Deciding that God and Moses have forsaken them, they gather all their precious metal possessions, melt them down, and fashion a golden calf to serve as their god. 

A reality of our humanity is that sometimes we are not willing to be quiet long enough to listen for God’s voice; we are not willing to be patient with God’s will for us.  We want to take matters into our own hands, and when we do, we really foul things up, as did the Israelites in our first lesson.  And yet, the privilege and ability to foul things up is part of our gift of free will; every element of creation has the gift of freewill.

Christians for the 1st century had similar ups and downs.  From prison, Paul, writes to the church in Philippi addressing the reality of a conflict between two of the church leaders, Euodia and Syntyche.  Conflict is a reality of Church; Church is human relationship; conflict is a reality of our humanity.  The two women about whom Paul is concerned apparently are waging a power struggle within the church at Philippi.  Paul exhorts the Philippians to be patient as they seek to help Euodia and Syntyche.  Among other requests is the admonishment to “let your gentleness be known to everyone.”

Gentleness is, what the Apostle Paul would label, one of the fruits of the spirit.  This admonition to “let your gentleness be known to everyone” came to mind again and again last week as we blessed our precious pets; our pets teach us the necessity of gentleness. Even when they are disobedient, our pets require our gentleness.  Would we want them to be tin soldiers, marching about in complete obedience, fearful of our wrath?  Would we want them to please us out of fear of punishment?  No, our pet’s love for us is pure even when they fear we have abandoned them, and our love for them is pure even when they are disobedient.  Gentleness guides our relationships among the harsh realities of life’s struggles.  We are to help one another with gentleness; gentleness is a fruit that needs more reality.  

Yet, gentleness does not seem to be a reality of our Gospel lesson.  This lesson is the continuation of a tense conversation between Jesus and the elite religious leaders of the Temple in Jerusalem.  There are thousands of sermons here.  But, for today, I just want to highlight one message of the lesson, which is to be prepared – to be open and available to God’s invitation to life in communion with God and with one another.  Jesus emphasizes that, unlike the man without the proper wedding robe, we are to seek to be prepared when we come to the feast – to recognize the heavenly banquet of eternal life – to recognize our host as a friend and not a stranger. 

As confirmed by our Gospel lesson, judgment is part of the reality of our earthly lives.  As teachers and students and parents and policemen and wherever we find ourselves in our adult lives, we affirm that laws and guidelines and the necessity of judgment are part of the reality of our earthly lives.  Thus, we affirm the necessity of being prepared to follow the guidance of authority.

How is it that we are to be prepared?  Unlike the Israelites of our Exodus lesson who fell prey to mob mentality, be quiet; listen intently and patiently for God’s message.  Listen to the admonishment of the Apostle Paul, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.”  In spite of the difficulties you will face, never give up on God, be prepared, and “let your gentleness be known to everyone.”  Make that a reality of your humanness. 

Sometimes the costs of humanity seem so severe that we feel God has forsaken us, or that God has judged us unprepared, hopelessly disobedient, and tossed us into the outer darkness.  Human love and loss are a great paradox.  Don’t give up on God; in his infinite wisdom, he made us human.  In our wisdom, we accept the realities of our cost of humanity.  We truly would not want the wind-up life of a tin soldier even with its simplicities.

Remember our precious pets who teach us about patience and gentleness and the reality of God’s unconditional love even when we make such a mess of our lives with our impatience and disobedience and spiritual blindness.  When the realities of our humanity tear away at our faith, God calls us to be patient and gentle with ourselves and to let our gentleness to known to everyone as we accept Jesus’ invitation to the heavenly banquet spread before us now and in the age to come.

 

08
Oct

Cornerstone

 

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20  Psalm 19  Philippians 3:4b-14  Matthew 21:33-46

Our Old Testament lesson presents to us the Law sent down from God to Moses, preserved for us in the 20th chapter of Exodus.  This Law is the foundation – the cornerstone, if you will – of the religion that is the whole of life for the Hebrew people even to this day.

This Law that is summed up in what we know as the Ten Commandments is sheer gift to the people of God.  Their ancestors of many generations had lived in bondage in Egypt; now, they had been freed miraculously from the bondage.  The gift of the Law is given to guide their appreciation for the blessing of living and worshipping in freedom – a guide to becoming one with their creator and living in relationship with one another.

Centuries later, we have this allegorical parable from the Gospel of Matthew, which we have read just now, in which Jesus clearly convicts the religious leaders in his audience of failure to accept and follow God’s Law sent down so many centuries ago.  As religious leaders, it is their role to guide the people in understanding and following the law.  Instead they have misinterpreted and misused the law, abusing their positions of power.  They have failed to interpret the Law as a gift that guides the people in becoming one with their creator and living in relationship with one another as God intends.  Jesus is speaking to all of us who fail over and over to acknowledge and keep sight of the cornerstone of our faith.

Jesus quotes from Psalm 118:  “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”  Jesus condemns the religious leaders for failing to connect with the Son of Man who has come.  His parable indicates Christ’s expectation that they will collude in is earthly death.

Jesus Christ is the cornerstone.  The connotations associated with the cornerstone are interesting food for thought, and I think we would all agree that “cornerstone” carries much more of a spiritual metaphorical image than a tangible brick and mortar image.  Inscriptions on cornerstones are significant symbols of beginning and preservers of history – some even contain time capsules or relics of saints.  There is a wide range of tradition associated with cornerstones.

Cornerstones mark our beginnings.  And, we should not forget that cornerstones mark our endings.  We lay the cornerstone; we follow the guidelines laid down for our building project – or, we might say, our lives; and, in the end, we return to our beginning – our goal is to keep focused and to return to the cornerstone – the foundation of our faith.

In South Nags Head last week, we decided to ride down to Oregon Inlet to check the progress on the bridge.  What a mammoth, unbelievable feat of engineering.  Building is taking place from the north shore of the inlet, the south shore of the inlet, and in the middle – the highest section of the high-rise span.  It is inconceivable to me how these calculations will come together so that the three sections will meet as intended.  The tiniest fraction of an inch of miscalculation will result in three disconnected constructions that go nowhere.  How glad we are that God allows us mercy in our miscalculations, when we lose sight of our cornerstone. Even then, God stays connected and guides our reconnection.

Our foundation – our cornerstone engenders our lives.  We keep sight of that foundation in order to connect with one another and with all creation as we work toward the perfection of our circle of life.  We have to connect with one another.

The monstrous act of evil that gloried in the killing of innocent people in Las Vegas last week was carefully calculated.  The murderer was an accountant and a gambler and a calculated killer.  And, it is obvious that he had made every effort to disconnect with humanity in the months, or perhaps years, before this strategically engineered travesty.  I can imagine that once his life is analyzed from beginning to end, we will find broken human relationships that created this disconnected member of human society.

We can blame the guns; we can blame the police; we can blame the government.  We don’t like to blame ourselves for neglecting our own responsibility to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness and the evil powers of the world – to turn to Jesus Christ and to put our trust in his grace and love.  These are the vows we take when we are baptized in to the Body of Christ.

We are the Church; we are the Body of Christ; it is our purpose to connect – to be connected and to remain connected.  It is our purpose to keep sight of our cornerstone – to be vigilant constantly for the presence of Jesus Christ in our midst – and the presence of evil in our midst.  We look into the eyes of the people we encounter in the most casual of circumstances; we listen; we tune in to the hurts and the frustrations of the people around us.  We all want our voices heard.  We don’t necessarily have to have our way at all times, but we want our voices heard in the decision-making process.  When voice go unheard, ill will ferments.

It is the gift of God’s guidance, first brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses, that is our cornerstone, leading us to live in relationship with God and with one another.  We cannot allow the World’s increasing desire for disconnection to divert our sense of cornerstone – our beginning and our ending quest toward everlasting life where north and south meet at the highest point to become one in Christ.  As tenants in the vineyard, we are one body, in union with God and each other with Christ as our cornerstone.

01
Oct

Latecomers

Exodus 17:1-7  Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16  Philippians 2:1-13  Matthew 21:23-32

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

In the setting of our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus encounters the less than welcoming high priests entrusted as God’s representatives in the Temple in Jerusalem.  Jesus did not come here to the Temple in Jerusalem to bask in the revelry of his glorious entry.  Jesus came to Jerusalem to clarify God’s message of grace and mercy – a message that had been distorted by many of these religious leaders – distorted even by those who considered themselves called by God to their positions of power and prestige. 

Through this parable of the two sons, without incriminating himself, Jesus is making the point that the religious leaders have accepted their call to be God’s representatives, yet they have dishonored that commitment – they have said yes and then reneged.  On the other hand, there are others to be gathered into the kingdom, often those less typically identified as God’s representatives.  These, who come later, Jesus identifies as the tax collectors and prostitutes – those who are seen to have forfeited their lives by extortion and degradation.  These latecomers are those who first say “no” to God’s call, but later recognize and respond to God’s call; these come late, yet when they come with great intention, they come humbly and faithfully to follow the will of God. 

Through God’s grace and mercy, the door remains open to tax collectors and prostitutes as well as to these spiritually short-sighted religious leaders maintaining the Temple.

Among these religious leaders of the day, we could imagine a young man by the name of Saul.  Born a decade or so after Jesus and reared by diligent Jewish parents in Tarsus – modern day Turkey, the young boy Saul likely fulfilled the dream of being accepted to study in the Temple in Jerusalem at the feet of the great leaders.  And, as he grew and learned more of Jesus of Nazareth and his followers, Saul came to despise those of the movement whose message often challenged that of the chief priests.  As a non-believer in this movement, Saul set out with great intention to extinguish the movement through persecution of the followers of Jesus. 

But the life of Saul of Tarsus was to take a dramatic turn on the road to Damascus where he encountered for himself the crucified and risen Christ.  As Saul was seeking to carry out the persecutions of the followers of Christ, he, Saul himself, was transformed; he became Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, known as the most prolific of all Christian writers and the most famous of all leaders of the early Christian movement.  We read from Paul’s epistles nearly every Sunday.

Paul could represent the son in our parable who said, “I will not go, but later changed his mind and went to work in the vineyard” – witnessing, founding church houses, writing, shaping the early Church, setting down guidelines for how the Church is to be formed and lived out, and, later, traveling by sea to Rome where his life ended in martyrdom.  

For our modern perspective, some of us said “yes” early, having never known what it is to be without the Church in our lives.  From earliest childhood, Sunday meant Sunday School and church attendance; summers included Vacation Bible School and Church camp; Wednesday evening was the time set aside for choir practice and prayer meeting.   Others of us knew nothing of that lifestyle.  And for most, our “church life” is something in between – ebbing and flowing through our lives.  Yet, we are all here today. 

For those who said “yes,” faith has been pursued with great intention since early age; for others, even if we went through the motions, we did not become intentional Christians until a later time in our lives.  Perhaps, being intentional about your Christianity is still not something you consider consciously, though you are present and continuing to seek a greater awareness of God’s presence.

Regardless of where we’ve been along our faith journey or where we are going, we all stand redeemed.  The wretched Saul who, like the religious leaders in confrontation with Jesus in the Temple, believed himself to be pursuing God’s call, though that call was corrupted from his distorted view of God’s will for his life.  God would change that dramatically on the Road to Damascus.

Similarly, time and time again throughout history and today, those we would consider to be the most unlikely – the most wretched of souls – have found God’s redemption made available through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  John Newton, the eighteenth century Anglican priest and author, had lived a scandalous previous life of drunken debauchery.  As the son of a highly ranked officer in the Royal Navy, Newton spent much of his early life as a sailor who was picked up and brushed off after many a drunken brawl that led to his near demise more than once.  Finally, pulling himself together well enough to become a financially successful ship captain, John Newton invested in the highly lucrative business of transporting slaves across the sea.  Early on, John Newton was a well-known slave ship captain.

Yet, in a fantastic demonstration of God’s ever present offering of the gift of grace, John Newton turned from his wretched abhorrent life; the seeds of faith having been sown in early childhood by Newton’s mother; finally, those seeds sprouted.  Late in life, John Newton began seeking God’s will for his life.  He was ordained into the Anglican faith. 

Today, John Newton is best known for penning the words that were the source of his guidance into a hymn that almost everyone knows regardless of the degree of “churchiness.”  The hymn is Amazing Grace – penned by this former slave ship captain.  John Newton had come late, but he was redeemed nonetheless.  The poignancy of the hymn is accentuated, not by the fact that it was created by an Anglican priest, but because it flowed from the fervent converted heart of a former slave trader who for so many years said “no” to God’s call, but then said “yes” with the greatest intention.

John Newton and the Apostle Paul first said “no” but then came later to the vineyard.  And, Paul continues to speak to us in his timeless epistle writings such as these words included in Paul’s letter to the people of Philippi that we have read today – words known as the Christ Hymn.  Paul writes to the Philippians from prison.  “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” 

Say “yes” with great intention, to the ministry to which you are called by God.

As the Body of Christ, we are representatives of Jesus Christ; we have said “yes” very publicly to the work of the vineyard.  The world is watching to see if we will distort God’s message and renege on that call or accept it with great intention. 

Few understood this truth better than the latecomer, the Apostle Paul, reminding us:  “It is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  [Phil. 2:13] – enabling our work in the vineyard, it is never too late to say yes and to go.

 

24
Sep

A Day’s Wages

Exodus 16:2-15    Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 Philippians 1:21-30 Matthew 20:1-16

The landowner/employer of our parable from Matthew’s Gospel does not follow the expectations of society in his decision to pay all the laborers the same amount regardless of whether they worked all day or only one hour.  We might agree that it seems outrageous, but we cannot deny that the employer does not violate the commitment he had made to his workers.  The employer is free to reward his workers as he determines is best, and he does so. 

As for the gift of God’s grace, the wages are distributed by the good employer without discriminating who came early and who came late.  God’s grace does not differentiate.  Fortunately, none of us receives what we deserve; our heavenly reward is not based on our rank or our place in line – God’s grace is that that we receive that we have not earned – that that we cannot earn.  God’s grace throws earthly human conventions to the wind and God’s grace is awarded freely and in keeping with His eternal covenant.

God’s promise is to provide for our needs.  Each time we pray together our beloved prayer as the Lord has taught us, we ask God to “give us this day our daily bread” – not just “Give us our daily bread,” but “Give us just for today the bread we need.”  

The daily bread of the Israelites was manna in the wilderness about which we read in our lesson from the wonderful story of the Exodus.  Like this daily bread for which we pray, the manna was perfectly tailored to the needs of the sojourning Israelites just for that day with adjustments to meet their needs for the Sabbath.  It could not be hoarded or held for another time – sustenance just for that day, anything beyond the daily amount became infested with worms. 

The manna was not earned; it appeared with the morning dew without any effort required by the Israelites to prepare or provide it.  There was no differentiation between those who had the ability to work for it and those who did not.  It was sufficient to satisfy hunger, but it was not fancy.  In fact, it’s a little gross to describe.

The manna is explained by Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim as a natural phenomenon in the Sinai Peninsula – the area through which the Israelites fled when they escaped from Egypt.  I quote in detail, “a type of plant lice punctures the fruit of the tamarisk tree and excretes a substance from this juice, a yellowish-white flake or ball.  During the warmth of the day [the flake or ball] disintegrates, but it congeals when it is cold.  It has a sweet taste.  Rich in carbohydrates and sugar, [the substance] is still gathered by natives, who bake it into a kind of bread (and call it manna).  The food decays quickly and attracts ants.” 

We read also of the quail provided by God for meat for the Israelites.  Regarding the quail, [Fretheim says] “migratory birds flying in from Africa or blown in from the Mediterranean are often exhausted enough to be caught by hand.  Such gifts of God’s good creation are placed at Israel’s disposal; but what they do with the gift [says Fretheim] is not an insignificant matter.”[1]

So, even though miraculously provided, the food from which the Israelites are fed is just the ordinary stuff of life – God taking the ordinary gifts of nature and making them holy – providing sustenance for His people.  Neither the Israelites nor God considered this system of food provision to be any big deal.  It was God’s way of satisfying the grumblings and ungratefulness of His people in the wilderness, which even for God seems to be an impossible task.  We read the words of the Israelites from our text this morning, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Would we, like the Israelites, prefer to be in bondage and well fed rather than free and hungry?  Would we, like those in our parable from Matthew, prefer to be standing idle in the marketplace as the laborers who came late to the vineyard, rather than coming early to work in the heat of the day?  After all, the reward at the end of the day is the same.  

Just the ordinary stuff of life – a day’s wages.  Whether we come early or late, God’s grace is the same.  But, let’s think again of those laborers who worked all day in the heat.  Let’s think of that day as the time of our lives spent with the knowledge of the presence of Christ.  God’s grace is the same at the end of time, but what of our time spent on earth here and now in the knowledge of Christ – in the work of the vineyard.  Is that not itself our special gift?  Are we not rewarded every day that we spend in the Body of Christ doing the work God has given us to do? 

Give us this day, our daily bread.  Take us and all the ordinary stuff of life and make it holy in your sight – just for today, that’s all we can ask.   This is the gift that is turned aside by those who stand idle in the marketplace or those whose existence is in earthly rewards while held in bondage by their ignorance of the love of Christ.  Our daily labor within the Body of Christ is our gift.  We have no need to grumble with God’s providence – though we do grumble like the Israelites.  And, God continues to respond to our grumbling by continuing to take that that is gross and ordinary – making it holy for his purpose of good.

God’s eternal grace is the same for all, but our gift for today is to live in the knowledge and love of Christ. 

Give us this day, our daily bread.  Heavenly Father, give us this day to spend in your presence; your provision is enough – the gift of your grace freely given – just for today.