Message Archive

Sermons

14
Apr

Perfect Death

Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Hebrews 10:16-25, Isaiah 52:13-53:12, John 18:1-19:42, Psalm 22

Good Friday

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Why are you so far from helping me?”  [Psalm 22:1a]  These are the words of the great King David, known as the author of so many of the Psalms.  David experienced periods of extreme desolation and fear; times when he surely felt that God had abandoned him, even such distress that he brought upon himself these feelings of separation from God due to his own poor, misdirected choices. 

Few of us go through life without some periods of spiritual desolation, desperate for glimmers of hope – some tiny bit of confirmation of God’s presence – no place to go except to our knees.

Because of our humanness, we need these times of desolation to remind us of our dependence on God, these times that force us to our knees and drive us to seek a renewed awareness of God’s presence.  These are periods of our greatest suffering and sense of abandonment; separation from God is our greatest fear – a fear much greater than that of our earthly death.

Jesus demonstrates this suffering for us from the cross.  The writers of Matthew and Mark’s Gospels put these same words from Psalm 22 in Jesus’ mouth as he dies on the cross.  But, we know (because we can smell the lilies being stored in the room across the hall) that Jesus will rise from his earthly grave and reign victorious over suffering and death; Jesus will confirm beyond all earthly doubt that God does not abandon us; we are not to fear death; we cannot be separated from God.

At the same time, if we rationalize away our suffering; if we tamp down our desperate feelings of desolation and abandonment; if we gloss over the reality of death, how can we ever truly experience this ecstasy of victory in the assurance of God’s everlasting presence in the good times and the bad times.

Our current culture encourages us to minimize the reality of our earthly death.  We tippy-toe through carpeted halls and whisper about our loved one who “passed.”  Passed what?  Are we afraid to say he “died?”  Funeral home chapels offer anterooms where family members are secluded and shuttered from the others in attendance at funerals.  Is grieving something of which we are to be ashamed – not to be shared with others who care?

Similarly, many avoid attending Good Friday services.  We just don’t want to talk about death; we’d rather skip Good Friday and Holy Saturday and get on with the glorious celebration of Easter.  But, how can we stand at the cross and shout Alleluia from the depths of our souls without experiencing the abandonment of Good Friday and Holy Saturday.  Where was God on Holy Saturday?

How many times have the worst experiences of our lives been converted to the very best experiences?  These three days are the ultimate assurance of life’s triumph over death – the ultimate conversion of Evil into Good; there is no evil that is not overcome by the God’s good.

In her book Faithful Living Faithful Dying, Cynthia Cohen alerts us to the gift of life; bringing home the point that death reminds us that life is not self-created or self-sufficient.  Dying faithfully requires living faithfully – living in the full acknowledgment that death is part of life.

This journey with Christ into death is our journey into the life of God.  It is on Good Friday that we hear Jesus’ last words as recorded by John, “It is finished.”  These are not words of finality and defeat; these are words of perfection and completion; these are words of triumph.  Jesus has completed with perfection the task given to him by the Father.  Jesus Christ, his earthly life “passing away,” confirms the perfection of our journey into the Kingdom of God where we will never again feel forsaken or abandoned.  Assured of the promise of everlasting life, we do not fear our earthly death.

With Jesus Christ as our example, we live faithfully; we die faithfully.  On Good Friday, God’s promise was perfected.  We are here to acknowledge Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins; we are here to celebrate the perfection of Jesus’ mission in the world – the task given him by the Father.  It is finished.

13
Apr

Renewed Commandment

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14 , 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31b-35, Psalm 116:1, 10-17

 

Maundy Thursday

The account of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples is found in John’s Gospel only.  In this setting on the eve of the Passover on the night before Jesus will be crucified, the followers of Jesus have come together to share a meal.  This is a very private intimate occasion.  Jesus is aware that his public ministry and his earthly life are nearing the end.  For three years now, the disciples have observed Jesus’ example of what it is to be a true disciple, bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth.   

Now, the hour has come; God’s time is the right time for Jesus to depart from this world and go the Father.  Soon, Jesus will no longer be physically present with these disciples to teach and exemplify true discipleship.  His focus now is his private ministry to his closest followers, preparing them as best he can for their future beyond his departure.

To these most intimate followers together for the last time, Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment that you love one another.”  It is from the Latin translation of our word “commandment” that Maundy is derived.  Thus, on this Maundy Thursday, we hear the powerful words of Jesus’ new commandment – we are to love one another, and we see that commandment of love demonstrated in an ultimate display of humility and self-sacrifice as he washes the feet of his disciples. 

This command to love doesn’t sound so new; we’re accustomed to Jesus telling us and showing us how to love one another.  We might think of this “new” commandment, more accurately, as a fresh, new way of understanding the message of love that has been God’s message since creation.

We read of God’s message of love throughout our Old Testament – the Hebrew Scriptures.  But, these writings prior to the birth and ministry of Jesus Christ often feel very legalistic.  Our lesson from Exodus, you notice, is very specific about the preparation of the lamb for the Passover feast.  If you read the book of Leviticus, you will find hundreds of specific rules and ritualistic regulations for how God’s people are to live and worship; how they are to dress; what foods can be eaten and when, and how the foods are to be prepared; what to do and not to do on the Sabbath.  We get a sense of this specificity of the Law of God, and the people’s difficulty in following it in order to please God.  And, we develop a sense of fear for the consequences of falling short in any one of these specific requirements.

Much like the people of Jesus’ time misunderstanding God’s command, we might follow God’s law out of fear of punishment rather than as God’s Law is intended; God’s law is intended to be guidance in how we are to live in relationship with one another – God desires that we follow his law, not out of fear, but because we love God and God loves us; and, therefore, we want to please each other just as in any loving relationship.  This “reunderstanding” of God’s law is an important aspect of Maundy – the new commandment. 

I depend upon my handicapped parking space analogy to help clarify.  The parking just outside the door is reserved for anyone who has been identified legally and medically as needing handicapped parking.  Those not designated as handicapped do not park in these parking spots because we fear being fined or perhaps towed.  In other words, our fear of punishment keeps us from parking in those spaces. 

But, let’s say, I, as your priest have agreed to pay any fines, or suppose I assure you I will not call the tow truck.  The law says you are not to park in those spots, but I have freed you of the fear of punishment for parking there by taking your punishment for you.  You are now free to park in handicapped parking without fear of reprisal.

But, you are not going to park in those handicapped spaces even if you have no fear of being punished.  This is the new commandment – the new understanding; you are not going to park there, because doing so would inconvenience or endanger your fellow parishioner who needs that parking space in order to access the church entrance safely.  We need the law because we are human; we need these guidelines to remind us of the needs of others.  But, because we are followers of Jesus’ commandment to love one another, we honor and respect one another’s needs over and beyond what the law requires.

Jesus came to redeem our sinful and evil nature; he came to vanquish death; he paid all our fines.  But, his new commandment is that we are to love one another without fear, to live according to God’s desires for our lives – not out of fear of punishment by God but because we just want to do what is right in God’s eyes and in our commitment to one another – just because God loves us and we love God.

In the margin of my most-worn and pencil-marked Bible, next to this account in Chapter 13 of John’s account of the washing of feet, I at some time in the past had written this quote from an unrecorded source: “Regardless of our countless inadequacies, we are all God needs to bring about the Kingdom of God.”

We, in humble self-sacrificing, fearless love to one another, following the new commandment of Jesus Christ, are all God needs to bring about the Kingdom of God.

 

09
Apr

kenosis

Isaiah 50:4-9a, Philippians 2:5-11, Matthew 26:14- 27:66, Psalm 31:9-16

 

Jesus was executed in the same manner as that reserved only for violent criminals, or Roman citizens who had committed high treason against the State of Rome, or the lowest-class thief such as those on his left and right.  It was the most hideous of fates. 

The Apostle Paul, as Saul of Tarsus had contributed his efforts to just such executions.  As a non-believer in Jesus Christ, Saul had mercilessly hunted down and persecuted his 1st century peers who were suspected as being followers of Jesus Christ.  Thankfully, Paul came to believe – to believe so much so that he became the best known and perhaps most prolific writer in the Bible.  He wrote the words that we heard this morning in our second lesson.  These are the words in his letter to the people of Philippi.  These beautiful and powerful words are encompassed in what we refer to as the Christ Hymn – verses 5-11 from the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  We read these words every year on Palm Sunday – the Sunday of the Passion. 

We read a portion of these words as well when we arrive at the 3rd Station of our pilgrimage through the Stations of the Cross.  The 2nd Station depicts Jesus taking up his cross as described for us in the Gospel accounts.  In the 3rd Station, Jesus falls under the weight of that cross for the first time.  Our Gospel account doesn’t tell us specifically that Jesus fell, but it is a reasonable speculation, and so we infer that Jesus fell under the weight of the Cross-as he was forced to carry his own cross toward Golgotha.  It is at this 3rd Station that our assigned scripture text is a portion of the Christ Hymn:  “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

Why is it so important to hear these words on this particular day when we have, once again, witnessed the horrors of the Cross – the Cross, which is the symbol and the foundation of our faith – in all of its complexity and perplexity.  Why do we read these same words on our individual journey to the Cross as we reflect on Jesus falling under the burden of the Cross – the Cross loaded down with the evil and death of the world?

In these words, Paul explains and assures us that Jesus had available to him the divinity of God.  And, as the divine Son of God, Jesus could have taken full advantage of his divine nature and escaped to the spiritual realm. 

And, even as a purely human being, Jesus could have, at any time, walked away from his mission, disappeared in the Galilean countryside, to be remembered only for a while as a misguided troublemaker.  

But, escaping and hiding out would not fulfill God’s purpose of redeeming the world; God’s purpose of demonstrating his ever-present, unconditional, eternal love for us; God’s purpose of vanquishing sin and death for all creation for all eternity. 

Thus, Jesus emptied himself of his divinity, taking the form a slave that he might be born in human likeness; and, fully human, Jesus humbled himself in total obedience to God, even to the point of death – death on a cross.

Paul is telling us that Jesus, though equal to God, chose not to exploit that equality.  Adam and Eve, in the paradise of the Garden of Eden, had sought equality with God by eating the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.  In the account from chapter 3 of Genesis, we read the words of the serpent, ”God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.”  Thus Eve and Adam ate of the forbidden fruit precipitating their fall from Paradise – the fall of all God’s creation from Paradise; their sin is our sin.  Death came into the world.

Sin and death came into the world through humankind; it would be necessary for humankind to be redeemed by another human.  Thus, God came into the world in the human form of Jesus Christ for the purpose of our redemption – for the purpose of showing us our capability of living in love, true humiliy, and total obedience to God and in harmony with one another.

All for love, Jesus humbled himself and became obedient to God, even to the point of death.  In carrying that Cross loaded with our sin, Jesus had no more physical strength than any other human male of his day.  Jesus was not insulated from the bite of the whip upon his flesh, the sting of the gravelly path as it dug into his face when he fell, or the degradation of the taunts and hisses of the crowd that surely cheered and mocked him all the more when he fell.

Jesus could have walked away, but escaping and hiding out would not fulfill God’s purpose of redeeming the world.  Jesus emptied himself and became wholly obedient to God’s will.  God came into the world in the human person of Jesus Christ for the purpose of our redemption – for the purpose of showing us our capability of living in love, true humility, and total obedience to God and in harmony with one another.

Jesus didn’t hide; Jesus didn’t walk away – as he could have; Jesus bore the Cross weighted down with our sins; Jesus took the form of a slave in human likeness; he died on that cross and was buried.  And, he rose victorious over that cross of evil and death. 

We don’t have any easy answers to the evil and death in this world that seem to overwhelm us – evil dictators who massacre innocent children, government officials who flex their muscles and indulge so much energy in political stalemating rather than in efforts to find common ground for the good of the people, families broken by addiction and abuse – the list goes on and on. 

The answers will come only when we empty ourselves, taking the form of a slave, submitting ourselves totally to God’s will – planting seeds one by one – seeds of true humility and total obedience to God. 

05
Mar

Temptation

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11, Psalm 32

 

Our lessons this morning from the book of Genesis and the Gospel of Matthew bring us two accounts of temptation – two accounts of temptation with dramatically different outcomes – outcomes that, in turn, have dramatic impact on our lives as God’s children.  Our epistle lesson from Paul’s letter to the Romans connects these two accounts and their dramatic impact.

First, the lesson from Genesis describes for us what has come to be known as The Fall.  Sometime after God created humankind, he placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; Eden is a name significant in the Hebrew language of Genesis meaning “delight” and “luxury.”  Here, as we translate from the Hebrew, man was to “serve” and “keep” the garden – the garden being a place to “rest, settle down, and remain.”[1]  Even today, we have these connotations of the Garden of Eden – a place to rest and remain in the delight of God’s will – a paradise.

Our Genesis account of the Fall from the Garden of Eden is a familiar story: the serpent redirected Eve to think of God as tyrannical and disingenuous in his command that she and Adam were not to eat of the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden, death being the consequence.  The serpent tempted Eve to assert her own privilege of making decisions.  Why should she and Adam not eat the fruit of this one particular tree?  Why should humankind be denied the ability to choose freely and be enlightened to the ways of the world?  After all, insinuated the serpent, God is only being selfish – maybe God is jealous of humankind’s abilities to make choices for themselves.

Adam and Eve fail to trust God; they alienate themselves from God by thinking of themselves as being equal with God, being able to make their own decisions without God’s guidance, turning from acknowledgement of their dependence on God.

And, so, as the result of human disobedience, sin came into the world.  And, though Adam and Eve are not struck dead immediately; death, too, came into the world; earthly life now has an ending, and this death became something to be feared.  Would humankind ever again return to Eden – “a place to rest, settle down, and remain?”

Let us turn to the good news of our Gospel lesson:  Much was at stake in our Gospel account of Jesus’ encounter with another serpent of temptation.  Just prior to this encounter, Jesus had been baptized by John in the Jordan; coming up out of the water, Jesus experienced the Holy Spirit and heard the words from God, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  [Matthew 3:17b]

Following his baptism and his affirmation as God’s Son, our Gospel lesson tells us that Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days.  Wilderness, for God’s people, is nearly always a place of struggle; and 40 days is symbolic of the time of searching for a closer relationship with God – just as our 40 days of Lent are a time of searching for a closer relationship with God – struggling to practice our faithfulness through the wilderness of our daily lives.

Affirmed at his baptism as the Son of God, Jesus was now confronted with these enormous temptations for power and prestige and protection.  Would Jesus capitalize on this opportunity to be an all-powerful superhuman god, as Adam and Eve had given in to that temptation, or would he throw his lot in with the rest of us humans and willfully suffer the consequences of being human?

Jesus was feeling weak and defenseless in this time of profound loneliness and physical emptiness.  Matthew tells us that he was famished.  Would he bow down to Satan, or would he trust God’s providence and worship God alone?

Think for a moment how our human story would have been changed if Jesus had simply given in to the temptation, wriggled his nose, and asserted his godly power rather than choosing to be fully human – to live and die as one of us – to struggle with temptation just as we struggle and all humans struggle with temptation.  What if events had ended differently?

Certainly, Jesus is the fully divine Son of God, the second person of the Trinity.  But, why did He have to be fully human as well?  Why is it important to us that Jesus be just like us – of humble birth, tempted as we are tempted, subject to earthly suffering and death?

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, tells us, “For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” [Romans 5:19]

If Jesus had given in to Satan, all would be lost.  But, Jesus our Savior, willingly obeyed God, in spite of the human suffering this obedience would bring.  And, through Jesus’ obedience to worship God alone, even to the cross, our righteousness is restored.

God did not create death; death is the result of our sin.  Adam and Eve are in all of us.  And, from this early time, death has been the result of our sin.

We’re the ones who make a mess of this world with our desires for power and prestige and self-sufficiency.  We think we can handle the struggles of each day on our own; we fail again and again to seek God’s guidance to resist the temptations of self-dependency.  It is for this reason that Lent is so necessary.

Adam and Eve failed to trust God; they alienated themselves from God by thinking of themselves as being equal with God, being able to make their own decisions without God’s guidance, turning from acknowledgement of their dependence on God.

But, God, himself – Jesus Christ, came into the world to overcome death that is the result of our sin.  And, just as Adam and Eve are in all of us, so is Jesus Christ present in each and every one of us.

Jesus, in his human nature, came willingly to earth to live and die as one of us.  Jesus, in his human nature, though tempted by Satan, chose obedience to God alone.   Jesus, in his human nature, has righted our wrongs.

This Lent, our 40 days in the wilderness is the time that we confront our struggle to remain faithful to God alone.  On Wednesday, as Lent began, we came to be marked with ashes and reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return.  In this Holy Lent, we will take on greater intentionality in our daily prayers and devotional time, participate more fully in mission, seek to be kinder and gentler to ourselves and others; we might pursue self-denial – giving up something we enjoy in order to be reminded frequently of our Lord’s sacrifice for us.  Or, we might seek to eliminate a bad habit that robs our valuable time and energy.  This is a time to clear the clutter – spiritual, physical, emotional clutter – that overcomplicates and stifles our ability to better serve our Lord every day.

There are numerous ways to observe our Holy Lent.  Deitrich Bonhoeffer offers us this bit of guidance: “It is not religious acts that make one Christian, but participation in the suffering of Christ in worldly life.”  God created Adam and Eve to “till and keep” the Garden.  He calls us to do the same.  


[1] Judy Fentress-Williams, “Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 2, eds. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, 27-31 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) 27.

27
Feb

Woodworkers

John 14:1-6

Woodworkers live into the lessons of life.  Instinctively, they see the potential of a fallen tree limb; they note the wood grain of a stair tread or a mantelpiece; they appreciate a distinctive mark in a wooden object that most of us would consider to be a flaw; yet to a woodcraftsman, it is a unique mark of beauty.  Woodworkers go about their carving and smoothing and fitting together of intricate pieces, striving to perfect the object of their craft, they delve into the intricacies of life; and, God is present.  When woodworkers open their hearts and minds to this presence, they live into holy moments when ordinary rough shapeless wood is crafted into a sacred vessel in which its natural God-given beauty is revealed – a vessel that carries guideposts for daily living.

Even if we are not particularly gifted in the craft of woodworking as Ray was, we can relate to these lessons in the imagery.  For the most part, we all have our rough edges, but as we encounter one another, rub against one another, embrace one another, truly listen to one another, those edges are smoothed bit by bit.  Over time, through God’s grace, our roughness is honed and polished; we find our rightful place in the Body of Christ and we become vessels of the love of Christ.

At best, as we go through our lives with one another, our relationships carve us and smooth us in this way.  At times, though, we can imagine the knife slipping and gouging us, marring our beautiful appearance – completely redirecting our lives into difficult waters.  But, through our awareness of God’s presence in his healing grace, the scar of the gouge is transformed, and we find that something very different and much more beautiful quite unexpectedly emerges – something beautiful that would not have been revealed had the carving knife not slipped and our course not been redirected in ways that reformed and strengthened us.

As Ray and his fellow woodworkers see potential in rough wood, Jesus Christ sees potential in us much like he saw potential in each of the ruffians he called to be his first disciples.  Perhaps we appear singularly unattractive and ill-fitting.  But, as a woodworker loves his craft and strives toward perfection in his finished project, so our Lord loves us, and wants only what is best for us.  Through our faith we are formed to be disciples, smoothed and polished; our separate apparently unattractive ill-fitting pieces are shaped and joined together into a composite of beauty – joined together for the kingdom – the kingdom, which is here, and the kingdom that is to come.

Through the words of John’s Gospel, Jesus promises us that he goes to prepare a place for us in the Kingdom.  Jesus doesn’t break his promises to us.

Ray lived into this promise.  He was eager to share his love of woodworking, and he was eager to share his love of fishing and the outdoors.  He was eager also to share the life lessons that were made manifest in these pursuits.

On a fishing expedition in the marshy areas of Currituck Sound, as it seems fishermen always want to go just a bit further, Ray determined he needed to get across a narrow stream of water from one bit of marsh to another.  But, as he launched his first big long stride across what he thought was a shallow stream, he was suddenly horrified to discover that the stream was actually a deep channel; he plunged down down down well over his head, desperately gathering his waders to his chest to prevent their filling up with water, thus, weighing him down like concrete.

For unexplained reasons, Ray escaped that near-death ordeal; he’s never been quite sure why or how.  But, his clearest memory of an otherwise horrifying ordeal was not the horror – it was the peace that came over him as he plunged downward, resigned to the thought that this was his time – this was the end of his earthly life, AND he was very much at peace with that anticipation.  Ray never forgot that sense of peace; he would want you to know that sense of peace that only your faith in Jesus Christ can bring – the peace of our faith in the everlasting life that Jesus has prepared for us.

Ray, now, fully understands that peace; Ray is fully engulfed in that peace even more than he was fully engulfed in the waters of Currituck Sound, and there is nothing weighing him down.  As Ray shared with great enthusiasm his love of woodworking and his love of the outdoors, he shared his love of the Lord.  He would want to be remembered most for his love of the Lord.

We are grateful that Ray did not die in the deep waters of that channel; we are grateful that he lived on to share his love of Jesus Christ and his assurance of the peace that comes to us through our faith.  Just as he has promised, Jesus has carved our dwelling place in the kingdom.  Ray is there, with his sunshine smile, admiring the perfect craftsmanship.

Burial of Ray O’Neal

26
Feb

Transfiguration Sunday

Exodus 24:12-18, 2 Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9, Psalm 2

Today we celebrate the Transfiguration.  We read the account of this amazing and awesome event in the inspired words of Matthew’s Gospel.  Accounts of the Transfiguration are included in the Gospels according to Mark and Luke as well, which accentuates the significance and the reality of this event in the life of Christ and three of his disciples – Peter, James, and John.  And, our epistle lesson from Peter describes the event in the words of Peter himself.

As recounted for us by Matthew, Peter, James, and John went up a high mountain with Jesus.  Our text begins with the transitional phrase, “Six days later.”  This event occurs 6 days after Peter had confessed Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God.  For this profession of Jesus as Messiah, we learn in previous verses, Peter had been promised the keys of the kingdom of heaven.

Here on the mountain six days later, the three disciples witnessed Jesus becoming transfigured – his face shining like the sun and his clothes dazzling white.  And, there, mysteriously and miraculously, Jesus was joined by Moses and Elijah.  Peter had so recently professed Jesus as Messiah, yet his offer to build earthly dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah betrayed his continued lack of clarity.  He cannot yet fathom the reality of the presence of that that is heavenly and spiritual rather than earthly.  We certainly cannot fault Peter for his confusion and awkward response.  Surely, we would have the same human inclination to try to fit God into something earthly that we can better comprehend.

The human Jesus, the carpenter’s son from Nazareth, is much more accessible to our realm of understanding than is Jesus the Son of God.  Like us, Peter found this reality overwhelming.

In this text from Matthew particularly, the Transfiguration defines this connection of Jesus to God as well as the eternal connection of God’s people – our connection one with another and with God.  From the beginning of humanity until today and forever, we are God’s people and we are one with God.

In our Old Testament lesson from Exodus, we read of another overwhelming mountaintop experience.  Moses has gone up alone to Mount Sinai to receive the tablets of stone containing God’s commandments for his people.

There is intentional correlation between Matthew’s account and the account from Exodus: Six days after Peter’s profession of Jesus as Messiah, he and his fellow disciples went up the mountain with Jesus; in the Exodus account, Moses waited the same amount of time on the mountain for God to call him forward into the cloud.  In both Exodus and Matthew, God spoke from a cloud that overshadowed the other characters.  And, both descriptions are of dazzling displays of light from the devouring fire or sunlight.  In both accounts, the undeniable awesome power of God is on display and intention is for us to take note.

For the benefit of Peter and James and John and for us, the account of the Transfiguration is intended to connect Jesus to the Law and the Prophets of old – Moses is the embodiment of God’s Law; Elijah is known as the greatest among the prophets.  It is Elijah who leaves the earth in the chariot of fire, taken up into heaven with benefit of bypassing an earthly death.  Moses and Elijah are the most significant symbolic representatives of what we might call the Old Testament revelation of God.  The intension is for these disciples and for us to affirm Jesus’ rightful place among these other earthly creatures who embody God’s presence with us.

Our Gospel message is that Jesus the Messiah is not a new-fangled idea that God decided to introduce into his creation on December 25 more than two thousand years ago.  Jesus the Messiah, the glorious Son of God, is Eternal, present with God from before the beginning.  Jesus the Messiah is Emmanuel, God with us, as proclaimed by the angels.  He has come to earth to fulfill the Law and the Prophets not to abolish them.  He has come to confirm our place as God’s people since the beginning.

Our Gospel message is the message that we are connected – we are as much a part of God’s ongoing revelation and redemption as were Adam and Eve and Noah and Abraham.  It is our story just as it is the story of all the people of Israel as they sought to possess the Promised Land.  We are as much a part of God’s ongoing redemption of the world as are these disciples gathered on the mountain and all Christian believers from the time Jesus walked on earth.

Our Christian story – our Christian faith does not begin with the birth of Jesus Christ.  Our Christian story began at the beginning of humanity.  The God about whom we read in the Old Testament is the same God about whom we read in the New Testament.  The story of the people of God is our story secured and brought down to us generation by generation through the Jewish faith manifested into the Christian faith.  The first century Jews who followed Jesus Christ and became the first Christians didn’t understand what they were doing as being something new; they recognized Jesus Christ as the Messiah for whom they had been waiting, the manifestation of the presence of the one God whom they had worshipped for thousands of years.  They did not discard their beliefs and worship practices that had been part of their faith from the beginning of time; they kept what was meaningful in their worship of Jesus Christ and their discipleship, and they embraced that that was new and fresh in the message that Jesus had revealed to them.

God’s Law given to Moses on Mount Sinai guides us just as it guided the Israelites from their time in the Wilderness.  God’s word spoken through the mouths of the prophets is our prophecy just as it was for King Ahab and Queen Jezebel in Elijah’s time.  Jesus clarified this message of God’s redeeming love; Jesus did not cast out the law and the prophets of old; the Transfiguration confirms that for us.

The story of the people of God is our story; it is a story of conflict and persecution and struggle.  And, it is a story of victory that will not be extinguished no matter the price.  We are God’s people descended from Adam and Eve and from Noah and from Abraham.  The Transfiguration about which we read today confirms that connection.  We are God’s children; we are one with Moses; we are one with Elijah; we are one with Jesus Christ; we are one with one another; we are one with God and have been one with God from the beginning.  As Christ is transfigured, so we are transformed – justified by grace alone through of faith in Jesus Christ our Savior.

12
Feb

Punished by our sins

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37, Psalm 119:1-8

 

This is a Gospel lesson that strikes a chord.  These are words of Jesus, some of which we’d just as soon not talk about.

The setting of our Gospel lesson is a mountain in Galilee.  It is very early in Jesus’ ministry; in fact, this is Jesus’ inaugural address, known as “the sermon on the mount,” which has comprised our Gospel lessons for the past three weeks.  Jesus had very recently called his first disciples.  We read that crowds came from all around Galilee and as far away as Jerusalem to hear Jesus teach.  Jesus’ message was fresh and real and relevant.  We can imagine his listeners were spellbound by this fresh understanding of the foundations of their faith.

Among this crowd, the large percentage were Jewish, steeped in the Law of Moses – the Ten Commandments.  They would have been familiar with the words we read from Deuteronomy in our first lesson.  These are the last words of Moses spoken shortly before his death.  Moses affirms the reality of God’s judgment, yet these words are the expressed expectations of our loving Father – love the Lord your God, walk in his ways, observe his commandments, live and become numerous.  In this, you choose life.

Over the generations, these Commandments and the image of God had been adulterated with hundreds of specific add-ons rules and regulations that had been enacted under the directions of religious leaders.  For many gathered to hear Jesus’ message, God was a legalistic wrathful God whose demands were beyond their reach.  The bar was forever being raised; God felt inaccessible to them.

Centuries after Moses final speech, Jesus’ focus, we notice, is not so much on the legal aspects of our sinful actions, but on the anger and the brokenness that precipitate these harmful and deadly actions.  Jesus is saying that there are all sorts of laws on the books that address murder and divorce and adultery; but these laws cannot legislate the fractured human relationships that culminate in these actions, and cannot reduce the compounded damage to human relationships that results from these harmful acts.  It is toward the anger and brokenness that we should turn our attention.

Jesus was eager to redirect the people’s basic misconceptions of God, their misconceptions of God’s Law, and their misconceptions of how God’s law is intended to guide our human relationships.  And, Jesus’ words are fresh and real and relevant to us in the same way they are for his first century audience on the mountain.  In opening ourselves to God’s guidance in our human relationships, as Moses instructs in his last days, we choose life.  In choosing to foster relationship by loving God and our neighbor, we choose life.

These actions Jesus highlights in our Gospel lesson are not infractions for which we can pay a fine and move on.  I would wager that there is no one in this audience who has not been hurt directly or indirectly by divorce, and the hurt goes on for years, perhaps a lifetime.  All of us would hope for an ideal world where all marriages were happy and healthy.  All of us would agree that Jesus is right to maintain the goal for this human standard though we would agree that in far too many cases, divorce is the only answer or beyond our efforts to prevent.  Regardless, it is the brokenness we are called to address.

Jesus’ message is that it is not so much that God punishes us for our sins, but that it is our sins that punish us.  We are not punished for our sins; Jesus took that punishment for us.  But, we are punished by our sins.  We are punished by the compounded brokenness that we inflict upon our relationships.  When we hurt one another; we choose death.  Jesus is teaching us to choose life.

Jesus is eager for those in his audience and for us to understand that, yes, God’s judgment is real, but that God is, first and foremost, a God of mercy – a God of second chances – third, fourth – God is a God of mercy.

Choosing life as Moses instructs us, we choose to follow God’s commands; we choose to seek God’s guidance in mending broken relationships; we choose to transform the pain of our past and present brokenness into healthy growth toward happier healthier God-centered relationships – being merciful to ourselves and merciful to others as God is merciful to us.

Our baptism is the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace of God’s mercy; as Episcopalians, we acknowledge our one baptism for the forgiveness of our lifelong sinfulness.  As we share in the baptism of others into the Body of Christ, we experience again and again the flowing waters of God’s cleansing mercy, washing away the deep pain of our sins; choosing life.

05
Feb

Salt

Isaiah 58:1-9a, [9b-12], 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, [13-16], Matthew 5:13-20, Psalm 112:1-9, (10)

 

Today, right about now, our sister-in-Christ Claire Hoffman is beginning worship at the Church of the Epiphany where the bishop is present for his official visitation, and where Claire along with a number of others will be confirmed by the bishop as an official adult members of The Episcopal Church

Confirmation is one of our seven sacraments that is reserved for the bishop.  And, because of the number of parishes in the Diocese of Southern Virginia, the bishop is able to visit only every 2½ years.  Claire was eager to be confirmed and we are grateful for the invitation by the people of Epiphany.  We look forward to celebrating with Claire in the coming weeks as she rejoins us for worship as an official Episcopalian and a member of our parish.

The sacrament of confirmation fulfills the definition of a sacrament as being an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  The outward sign of confirmation is the laying on of hands by the bishop; these hands continue the apostolic succession, in that as hands were laid upon the very first apostles, they have been handed down through the generations without breaking that succession.

The inward and spiritual grace present at confirmation and within all other sacraments is through the presence of the Holy Spirit.  As liturgical human beings, we appreciate the outward and visible signs – our tangible, human rituals – that assist in drawing us into the inward and spiritual grace of the Holy Spirit – drawing us into a deeper mindfulness of God’s presence in our lives – a clearer tangible view of his call to serve, which is particularly important to us at these times of rites of passage.

The prophet Isaiah, as the mouthpiece for God, is speaking to the people of Judah whose spiritual practices had become adulterated, watered down, and misdirected.  In our lesson from Isaiah’s prophecy, Isaiah speaks specifically of fasting – an important spiritual discipline; many of us will pursue some practice of fasting during the season of Lent, which begins in a few weeks.

But, those to whom Isaiah is writing were grumpy fasters; actually their fasting made them even grumpier.  There fasting was a form of showboating.  Isaiah was speaking to those for whom fasting was an outward and visible sign of their superficial commitment to worship.  Their fasting ignored the inward and spiritual grace.  Isaiah speaks to us as well, cautioning us to make our ritualistic worship and spiritual disciplines vessels for a greater sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit – cautioning us against the temptation to make our religious actions a showboat.

Jesus, too, is speaking of showboaters.  Last week we began our journey with Jesus as his ministry begins with his premier Sermon on the Mount.  This week’s Gospel lesson continues that sermon as Jesus begins his warnings to his disciples about the pitfalls that they will encounter – the pitfalls that so many of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day had fallen into.

Jesus says to his disciples and to us, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, … It is no longer good for anything.”

The imagery of salt is one with which Jesus’ audience could relate.  Salt is essential to life.  It was particularly essential for food preservation in the centuries before refrigeration became common.  There is historical evidence of the recognition of the importance of salt for over 8000 years.  Wars have been fought, tax rates have been determined, and communities have developed over the availability of salt.  In ancient times, roads were built for the specific purpose of transporting salt from seaports to inland areas.  Salt was bartered and has frequently been used as currency.  Roman legions, were paid in salt; thus, the word “salary” from the original Latin translation of the word “salt.”

In the negative, salt was sprinkled throughout the properties by the victors of defeated nations to prevent plant growth for years to come – rubbing salt on the wound, we might say.

And, from early times, salt has been an important element in religious practices.

Jesus’ reference to salt losing its taste is uncertain; surely, he knew that salt cannot lose its saltiness.  Salt can be adulterated by contamination; it can be watered down by the tiniest amount of moisture; it can be misdirected in ways that actually cause damage, but it cannot lose its taste.

Perhaps Jesus was emphasizing that his followers could not lose their faithfulness in the same way that salt cannot lose its taste.  Salt cannot lose its taste; we cannot lose our faith.  Jesus was directing his words at the religious leaders who had exploited their power to the point of alienating and persecuting those whose spirituality they were charged to protect.

Jesus is warning these leaders and warning us that our faith becomes adulterated when our outward and visible religious rituals lack the inward and spiritual grace of the Holy Spirit.  When our worship becomes complacent and misdirected, our faith feels watered down.  And, worst of all, when we use our religious practices and political opinions to alienate others, we inflict permanent damage on the faith journeys of others who are looking to us outward and visible Christians for guidance toward inward and spiritual grace.

As followers of Christ, we are the salt of the earth.  Our worship and our sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.  The outward and visible signs lack meaning without the inward and spiritual grace.

We are the salt of the earth.  As faithful Christians, we have the capability to bring richness to the spiritual journeys of those we encounter in our daily lives.  Conversely, we have the capacity to misdirect and alienate.

It will not be the hands of our bishop that invoke the Holy Spirit upon Claire this morning.  God will do that.  But, the bishop’s hands will symbolize for Claire, for all those being confirmed, that we brothers and sisters in Christ are present with her this morning through the inward and spiritual grace of the Holy Spirit – salt that cannot lose its saltiness, faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.

29
Jan

Beatitudes

Micah 6:1-8, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12, Psalm 15

O mortal, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?  [Micah 6:8]

These words from the eighth chapter of Micah’s prophecy are titled the “Golden Text of the Old Testament.”  They bring to mind the concluding lines of our Confession of Sin that we make as one body whenever we come together to worship.  We express these thoughts in a variety of ways:

For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,

have mercy on us and forgive us;

that we might delight in your will,

and walk in your ways,

to the glory of your Name.

In the Rite I Confession, we ask our “most merciful Father” to forgive us and “grant that we may ever hereafter serve and please thee in newness of life.”  And, in the Rite I Morning Prayer Confession, we ask for mercy and restoration that we might “live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of [God’s] holy Name.

How are we to walk humbly with God as the prophet Micah suggests?  How are we to delight in God’s will and walk in God’s ways?  What is it to live in newness of life – a godly, righteous, and sober life?

There is no better source for this answer to how we are to walk humbly with our God than the Beatitudes – the beginning words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that we read today as our Gospel lesson.  Here we find nine indications of what it is to delight in God’s will and walk in God’s ways.

We read last week of Jesus receiving the news of the arrest of John the Baptist and of Jesus’ calling of the first of his disciples.  He has moved from is childhood home of Nazareth to Capernaum, a town northeast of Nazareth, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee where his ministry has now begun in earnest.  We are to understand that the “new age” is introduced as Jesus begins his teaching; Matthew writes that Jesus sat down, as is the traditional teaching position of a Jewish rabbi.

Jesus speaks of “newness of life” – Jesus has not come to abolish the law; Jesus has come to guide us in our clarified interpretation of God’s law.  As Jesus took his place upon the mountain and began to teach, Jesus took his place as the new Moses on a new Mount Sinai bringing a new revelation of God’s law – the epiphany of the Word made flesh.

God’s law and justice are real; as humans we require strict laws and the demands of justice.  We require strict laws and the demands of justice as our guidance in the ways of living in relationship with one another.

The Beatitudes are about relationship.  Otherwise, the Beatitudes make little sense to us; we cannot keep the Beatitudes to ourselves – the blessings about which the Beatitudes speak come in our relationships with one another.  The Beatitudes do not express demands; rather they suggest characteristics that indicate one’s humble walk with God.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Those who recognize their poverty of spirit acknowledge total dependence on God’s presence – a sense of patience and calm as we place ourselves in the delight of God’s will.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Those in Matthew’s audience were mourning for the repeated destruction of Jerusalem and the persecution of God’s people.  These words echo those of the prophet Isaiah who speaks of his purpose as bringing comfort to those who mourn for the state of God’s people in exile.  We are blessed by God when we mourn with empathy for our neighbors who are grieving and broken by the ways of the world, when we recognize and mourn for injustice.  God will console us – will strengthen us – so that we might bring comfort to others who suffer.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  The literal meaning of the term used for the word “meek” is equivalent to “poor in spirit.”  What better way to understand God’s desire for meekness than that meekness expressed by the newborn babe laid in the manger – the epitome of meekness who was, at the same time, God incarnate.  Through our willingness to open our hearts and minds in all meekness to God’s powerful gifts, recognizing our powerlessness, we shall inherit the abundant prosperity of God’s blessing.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  God’s justice is real; as we hunger and thirst for God’s justice, we find guidance and nurturance in our human behavior in our relationships with one another.  We love without fear; we seek justice for our neighbor.  The psalmist speaks of those wandering in desert wastelands until they cried to the Lord and were led to an “inhabited town” by the steadfast love of the Lord.  Here, in relationship, we find God’s wonderful works to humankind, as God satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things.  [Psalm107:4-9]

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.  It is from our merciful God that we beg forgiveness of our sins.  Mercy is God’s attribute; in knowing God, we obtain his mercy and attain that mercy for others as we are expected to be merciful in the same way to others.  Our hope is founded on the mercy of God at the final judgment.  We are assured of this mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  In total sincerity, the vision of the pure in heart is not obscured by the ways of the world.  God’s uprighteousness extends to our inmost being and is expressed in our every action.  Shortly, as we offer thanks for the spiritual food in the Sacrament of our Lord’s Body and Blood, we will ask to be sent forth into the world with gladness and singleness of heart – purity of heart that we might be ever mindful of God’s everliving presence with us and through us.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. The Hebrew word for peace is shalom.  Shalom expresses the ultimate fullness of God’s gifts – peace that only God can provide.  We are children of God when we work for this peace in our earthly lives; yet, we know that it will only be accomplished in total in the perfection of God’s kingdom.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  Just as the Hebrews were and continue to be persecuted by non-believers; just as Jesus’ fellow Jews who sat at his feet listening to his words were being persecuted by their political and religious leaders; just as the early Christians to whom Matthew is writing were persecuted and martyred; so we, too, will be ostracized by the world for standing up for our beliefs in God’s righteousness.  We will be ostracized for loving without fear.

Christians are murdered for their faith daily in many areas of the world.  Yet, Jesus says we are to rejoice and be glad, for our reward is great in heaven.  We live in the hope and expectation of God’s kingdom that is now and is to come.  In God’s kingdom, his power and his righteous judgment will prevail and be acknowledged by all creation – made manifest for all creation.  There, by the grace of our salvation through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we will walk humbly with our God.

22
Jan

Vessels

Isaiah 9:1-4  1 Corinthians 1:10-18  Matthew 4:12-23  Psalm 27:1, 5-13

 

Three years ago, as a monthly mission here at the Church of the Advent, our parish collected school supplies for children in Honduras.  These were kindergarteners who had been attending class in a sparsely supplied tiny firetrap of a room attached to the rear of a home in the little mountain village of San Antonio, Cortes, Honduras.  Our Friends of Honduras USA foundation had recently completed the construction of a spacious building that was to be their school as well as a community-gathering place.

That January, my husband, daughter, and I travelled to Honduras to deliver the school supplies you had contributed and to be a part of the community celebration of the opening of the school.  We spent our first few days there doing the final cleaning and painting the interior and exterior walls, and setting up the desks and chairs.

On Sunday, we returned to the school with the generous boxes of supplies from the people of the Church of the Advent – ordinary supplies that our children enjoy daily – storybooks, crayons, drawing tablets, activity books, glue sticks, flash cards.  We laid the supplies on each table, hung some colorful displays of ABC’s and numbers on the walls, and waited for the children to arrive.

They arrived in their Sunday best, polished and groomed, not a hair out of place.  And, we were taken aback by their reaction.  We expected them to charge into the room and grab the colorful supplies.  Instead, they crept in just barely beyond the entrance door; eyeing the bright and cheerful environment, their big dark eyes growing wider and wider, amazed at the thought that these gifts could be for them, hesitant to consider the thought.  We essentially had to beg them to come in, sit at the tables, and begin enjoying the crayons and coloring books.  Clearly, they had rarely seen such a sight.  Their pure innocent amazement and gratitude was overflowing.

These children had no idea that their gift to us had a greater impact than our gifts to them.  In that moment, those ordinary crayons and coloring books became sacred – a vessel of love from thousands of miles away – from you to them.  It was a holy moment.  In holy moments, God breaks into our lives unexpectedly; the ordinary earthly things of our lives become sacred.  Your simple gifts had touched these lives in profound unforgettable ways.

In our Gospel lesson ordinary, fishermen become followers of Jesus Christ – ordinary unsuspecting men become saints whose names and legacies will be handed down through centuries of Christendom.  Ordinary earthlings made sacred.

It is an ordinary day in the lives of Peter, Andrew, James, and John as described for us in Matthew’s Gospel.  What did Jesus see in these four fishermen?  Typically, fishermen have rough gnarled hands and muscular sunburned arms.  They are covered in fishy slime from head to toe.  Their hair is crusty with salt spray; often their manners and language can be just as crusty.  Fishermen are tough and weather-beaten; they challenge nature; they weather rough cold seas and the brutal heat of the mid-day sun as they haul in their priceless nets filled with bountiful catch.  Without doubt, these fishermen in our Gospel lesson matched this description of typical fishermen on this ordinary day as they were going about their daily livelihood.  We might have wanted to turn away from them, but Jesus didn’t.  What did Jesus see in them?

And, what was in the natures of these four fishermen that made them so readily drop the nets they were right then, at that moment, casting into the sea?  The literal translation of the phrase describing their action indicates a direct response – almost involuntary response.  What was it that transformed these men and this ordinary day into a day most sacred in their lives – and ours?

“Immediately,” Matthew writes, “they left their nets and followed Jesus.”  They left all that was familiar and secure – the sea, their nets, their livelihoods, their families – and followed Jesus into the unknown and the sacred – so sacred that 2,000 years later, lives continue to be affected profoundly by their discipleship – the sacred gift of the inbreaking of God into the otherwise ordinary daily lives of four rough unrefined fishermen who could not resist Jesus’ call.

Our names may not be so famous, or even known at all, by the lives we touch as we become vessels of the inbreaking of God.  Here, at the Church of the Advent, victims of alcohol addiction know our building as a place to come to gather in comfort and receive support from others experiencing the same challenges.  Hundreds of children and adults are fed by the food distributed through our food pantry each week and their souls are fed through the ministry of our compassionate volunteers and prayer partners.  Our clothes closet patrons not only receive much needed clothing, but respect and fashion advice; they go away with a boost to their appearance and their spirits.

Our Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts are becoming an integral part of our parish.  Though most are members of other churches, these young people and their leaders will remember the welcoming spirit of our parish that provides a familiar, safe, and comfortable space for their meetings.  Many of you have come to know and respect Dr. May who comes here weekly to provide psychological counseling for a growing number of clients.  Through our monthly missions, we address needs of worthy charitable causes such as the Barry Robinson Center, the SPCA, Boys’ Home, and others; our spring and fall fundraisers provide financial contributions to numerous efforts.

On an average of seven times a year, we reach out to families who have lost loved ones, providing the comforts of Christian burial and emotional support to parishioners and extended family.  Sunday after Sunday, guest worshipers of all descriptions know they are welcome to join us for worship.

Through this parish, you are ministers to all of these.  Your ordinary lives become sacred as you become vessels of the inbreaking of God for all of these who come with these wide-ranging needs.  And, each discovers the inbreaking of God, the ordinary made sacred in each of their lives in ways that only God can measure.

It is this inbreaking of God that we come to celebrate today as we gather for our annual parish meeting.  Perhaps we think our parish membership is small and our financial resources inadequate, and certainly we can use some expansion in these numbers, but we cannot measure and we cannot underestimate the impact that our ministries make on the lives of those who come into our midst.

Each of you is an unexpected vessel for the inbreaking of God into the life of an ordinary person in need of experiencing the sacred.  Jesus sees that in each of us and Jesus says, “Follow me.”