Message Archive

The Rev. Anne Edge Dale

02
May

Faithful through Uncertainties

Wisdom 3:1-5,9, Psalm 46, John 6:37-40 

Jesus said, “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”

Eleanor Ward died with the faith that she would inherit eternal life as promised by our Lord.  Our Lord does not break his promises.  It is the will of the Father that all who accept and receive this gift of grace will not be turned away.  This reality is beyond our comprehension, but Eleanor now understands this great mystery as she resides now in eternal life.

Eleanor’s life was an ever-recurring series of uncertainties.  Even in death that came around midnight, we cannot be quite sure if she slipped into the embracing arms of Christ on Good Friday or Holy Saturday.  These are two days in particular that cause us Christians to pause.  Where was Jesus from Good Friday through Holy Saturday?

Our Gospel accounts assure us that Jesus died an earthly physical death on Good Friday and was buried, that he descended to Hell where he overcame death for all and for all eternity; AND He rose again on the third day.  In rising from the grave, Jesus vanquished death forever, meaning we are not to fear our earthly death.  Jesus has risen victorious over death.

And, we are redeemed  – justified by God’s grace alone through our faith in Jesus Christ.  We did not and cannot earn that grace; we cannot rid ourselves of that grace, even if we turn and walk away, the gift of God’s redeeming grace remains.

Eleanor understood this holy mystery through faith.  Faith is not based on certainty.  Eleanor’s life was a life of overcoming uncertainty through faith.  Orphaned at an early age by the tragic death of her parents, she was embraced by loving extended family who guided her through childhood into adulthood.  Encountering a young sailor at the US Navy submarine base in the Holy Loch near her home in Dunoon, Scotland, her life would take a vastly different direction than she might have expected.  Committing her life to that sailor led her to leave her family and home country and journey thousands of miles across a vast ocean into a quite uncertain future following the Navy wherever it led, embracing a new family, becoming a mother and teacher and best of all a grandmother, but never loosing that beautiful brogue of her Scottish upbringing, which was her anchor.

Day after day, for her life long Eleanor was faced with uncertainties – the greatest and most fearful being the diagnosis of cancer and the reality of quickly failing health.  But, Eleanor kept being faithful; she just kept being faithful – reaching into her faith for assurance that God was holding her and that, even in earthly death, all would be well. 

Our former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, has been quoted as saying that the opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is certainty.  The opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is certainty. 

If I tell you you are seated in a wooden pew, you do not need to depend on your faith to believe that you are seated on a wooden pew; you are certain that you are seated on a pew made of wood.  Thus, it is not required that you have faith that the pew is wooden.  You don’t need to take out your saw and cut into it to investigate.

On the other hand, our faith in everlasting life is fraught with uncertainties beyond our human limitations of spiritual understanding.  Our human doubtfulness leads us to continue searching for truth.  We are faithful, as Eleanor was faithful, that our Lord has kept his promise – the promise that none whom the father had given him would be lost.  The Lord asks only that we continue being faithful – just keep being faithful – just keep walking toward the light of truth.

In the book from the Apocrypha known as the Wisdom of Solomon we read that we are foolish to believe that death brings disaster and destruction; in death we are at peace, “Those who trust in him will understand truth, and the faithful will abide with him in love.

Eleanor was bound in love by family and friends.  She accepted and received and embraced the love of Jesus Christ that was evermore present with her in her last days – present in the healing grace of the loving embrace of all who cared for her.

Eleanor abides with our Lord in that everlasting love; and he will raise her up on the last day as our Lord promises the Father.  None is lost.  Through faith, we can be certain.

30
Apr

At Table

Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

“So he went in to stay with them.  When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.”

Yesterday, your vestry met for retreat.  I’ll admit that when my alarm went off at 5:00 a.m. yesterday morning, I was not feeling enthused, but when it crawled into bed last night, I was still feeling the euphoria. 

The Rev. Canon Charles Robinson was our facilitator for a session on vestry leadership and responsibilities; he presented questions that helped us explore our mutual ministry as delegated leaders of the Church of the Advent.  We worked hard through the morning; then we celebrated the Holy Eucharist together; and then we shared a meal; and then we worked so more. 

I think we would all agree that sharing Eucharist and sharing the noonday meal was just as important to our sense of community and call and commitment to the mission and ministry of the Church of the Advent as was our discussion and decision making.

Perhaps you can remember a time that a meal was profoundly important in recognizing the presence of Christ – equally physical as spiritual – a warm loaf of bread for a grieving neighbor, a meaty sandwich for the homeless, comfort food for a child home from college – food, not just for the body, but even more so for the soul – food that articulates the presence of Christ.

 I will never forget the left over cashew chicken from a nearby Chinese restaurant that Roland brought me in the hospital on my first day of being allowed solid food following an emergency Caesarian.  The dish was so cold that the oil had coagulated; but to the amazement of my visitors, I ate it with great abandon, and have never forgotten its depth of nourishment.  I was physically starved and emotionally spent, and this cold cashew chicken fed my soul. 

Jesus talked a lot about food and shared important soul time at table; mealtime was clearly a holy time.  The hospitality associated with sharing a meal has been significant for the people of God since the beginning of humanity.  The feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle that all four Gospel writers include in their Gospel accounts.  Jesus was eating at the home of one of the Pharisees when the unnamed woman bathed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 

Jesus was accused of sharing meals with sinners.  This violation is far more complex than local clergy being seen sharing a draft and a sandwich at the local beer hall.  Food for the faithful Jew is governed by all sorts of regulations – what foods can be eaten, how they are to be prepared, when they can be eaten, and with whom.  For Jesus to eat with someone outside his faith tradition would be a violation of a myriad of dietary decrees.  But, it was obvious that Jesus was eager to share a meal with anyone willing to join him for that experience.  Sharing a meal was and is about so much more than physical need.

Even after the Resurrection, we read of Jesus eating fish on the beach with his disciples.  Jesus highlights the importance of being physically fed; in so doing he emphasizes the intermeshing of physical and spiritual food.

Time and again this message is reinforced in the Gospel accounts.  We know, in fact, that in Jesus’ last evening with his disciples, the main focus was their meal together.  This is the meal in which we re-participate each time we share the Holy Eucharist– the meal we share in remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord, and not simply as a memorial, but as true participants – true members of that group of burdened and confused disciples on that night before the crucifixion.

In this morning’s Gospel lesson, we read again of Jesus sharing a meal – but not just an ordinary meal; this meal has the clearest of connections with the Holy Eucharist – the meal that we are instructed to continue in the memory of our Lord each time we come together for worship.

As we read from Luke’s Gospel account, “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” 

In the same way, as specifically instructed and demonstrated by Jesus Christ our Lord, we take the bread; we bless the bread; we break the bread; and, most importantly, we share the bread.  And, as we share this holy meal in communion with one another, our eyes are opened and we recognize the very real presence of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Our receiving of the Holy Communion is not intended to be an individual experience; it is a sharing in communion as one Body of Christ.

When I am asked the meaning of the Holy Communion, I refer to our prayer of thanksgiving that sums up the need, the blessing, and the purpose of the Holy Communion.  Let’s look together at that prayer. 

As our Vestry gathered in communion to share this holy food we received [Rite I: God’s grace to continue in holy fellowship, to do good works that our Lord has prepared us to do through the Church of the Advent.] Rite II: the strength and courage to continue to love and serve through the Church of the Advent as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord – as members incorporate/living members of the Body of Christ.

“At the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.”

23
Apr

Inner Attunement

Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’”  [John 20:21]

What is this peace that Jesus declares to “be” with his disciples?

Cynthia Burgeault is a writer and teacher of contemplative living.  In her definition of peacemakers she asserts, “the inner being comes to rest, and that inner peaceableness flows into the outer world as harmony and compassion.”  The right actions of one who is at peace stem from “inner attunement.”  This inner attunement, she goes on to say, allows us to “discern what action is required of us to lovingly and effectively serve our hurting planet.”[1]  Peace -> Inner Attunement -> Right Action.

Jesus does not speak of peace as something we keep to ourselves.  This peace of inner attunement that only Jesus Christ can bring culminates in loving, effective serving of the world through the flow of harmony and compassion.  Jesus’ words are words of commissioning: “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

From the beginning, peaceableness of Christians in the face of crisis has been most instrumental in conversions of non-believers.   This phenomenon was most present during the various plagues over the centuries, and specifically the 14th century rampage of the Black Death/Bubonic Plague in Europe.  Throngs of frightened villagers fled more populated areas out of fear of contracting the disease.  Thus, the plague was spread across the continent of Europe, resulting in the deaths of one quarter of the population of Europe.  Over the next four hundred years as this pandemic reemerged in Asia and the Middle East, it is estimated that 140 million people died from the Bubonic Plague.

But, in contrast to the fleeing frightened villagers, Christians stayed in their hometowns, remaining calm and active in efforts to aid their gruesomely ill neighbors.  Moving about with non-anxious presence, Christians with certainty of mission fearlessly bathed and cared for the sick, and consoled the dying.  They joined with other Christians throughout Europe in providing nourishing meals for the stricken, giving them physical and spiritual strength in hopes of overcoming their horrible life-threatening condition.  Christians, who themselves had survived the plague, were now immune to the disease and most ardent in their efforts to serve their stricken brothers and sisters lovingly and effectively, whether religious or pagan wealthy or poverty-stricken, young or old.

The compassionate actions illuminating the peaceableness of the Christian faith impressed even the most skeptical rulers who had been effectively paralyzed by fear and hopelessness of The Plague.  Rulers and peasants witnessed the Christian faith expressed not just in ritualistic worship, but also in active earthly deeds of compassion – fearless, selfless actions in the face of the grave threat of death.

The clearsightedness of these Christians demonstrated in these fearless acts of compassion fueled the desires of non-believers to seek the Good News of the peace of Jesus Christ.  Non-believers wanted this peaceableness and certainty of mission for themselves; they desired this same sense of peace in the face of crisis.  Thus, the Bubonic Plague became the catalyst for the prolific spread of Christianity throughout Medieval Europe.  Those who survived found their lives drastically changed by the peace of Christ; those who died died in the peace of Christ.

As we read in our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus called his disciples to peaceableness as he breathed the Holy Spirit upon them.  Jesus returned to these closest followers periodically over the 40 days between the Resurrection and Ascension.  Penetrating their locked doors of fear and confusion and doubt, Jesus prepared them for their mission in the world by calling them into peaceableness.

Jesus calls us to be at peace – to present our fears and doubts to him openly where he can breathe on us His peace.  Jesus BREATHES peace into us – just as he did Thomas and the other disciples – just as God breathed the world into creation and breathed life into Adam and Eve.

The word for peace in Hebrew is shalom – we have no accurate translation of the word.  Shalom is peace that is an inter-meshing of inner peace of the heart with outward peace in our relationships with others.  Shalom produces a rich and fruitful quality of life that can bring peace to the entire world if only we do our part in spreading that peace.  This peace of Christ is not something we can keep for ourselves; it’s not about us; shalom is expressed in our non-anxious approach to the little incidents and great crises of our everyday lives.

I don’t have any formula for finding peace in your life; I know that that peace comes through our faith in Jesus Christ, that being at peace requires daily discernment and prayer.  It requires keeping our voices low and our hearts open.

I know that the absence of peace is a signal of unaddressed anger; anger, like acid, eats its container from the inside out.  Anger causes us to lash out irrationally, heaping unjust criticism on those who innocently land in our crossfire.  Anger can destroy our world.  The world is looking to Christians for peace.

Jesus breathed peace into the hearts of the disciples in response to their expressions of fear and Thomas’ expressions of doubts.  The disciples were now prepared to pursue their missions without doubtfulness; they would take the peace of Christ to the world.

Perhaps, Cynthia Burgeault expresses it best in her phrase “inner attunement” – being attuned with God, attuned with the world, and attuned with ourselves.  For the peacemaker, “the inner being comes to rest, and that inner peaceableness flows into the outer world as harmony and compassion.”

It is our tradition always to exchange the peace of Christ with one another in preparation for the Holy Eucharist.  We, then, come together in peace to receive the holy food and renew our certainty of mission.  In a few moments, as you offer that peace of Christ, let your inner peacebleness flow toward your fellow worshiper in harmony and compassion.  Then, come in peace, to share the victory of our Resurrected Lord.


 

[1] Adapted from Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—A New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Shambhala: 2008), 46-47.

16
Apr

Do not be afraid

Jeremiah 31:1-6, Colossians 3:1-4, Matthew 28:1-10, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

Easter Day A

For our Prayers of the People this morning, our friend Eleanor Ward comes off the list of concerns and goes onto the list of those who have died.  Eleanor died Friday about midnight.  We’ve been praying for her for these many months since her diagnosis of lung cancer.  Eleanor was not a member of our parish; she had visited only a few times and was known to only a few of us. 

But, when Eleanor was stricken with severe breathing problems a few weeks ago, she reached out to her friends here – friends who faithfully gathered around her.  She knew she was very ill, and she was terribly afraid.  She needed to be assured of God’s presence with her; she needed to be assured that even though she had not had a close association with the Church, she was still loved by God.  She spoke of her love for God and her desire to follow his will.

Eleanor reached out in need of the Risen Christ who has fulfilled his promise of everlasting life.  As I read our Gospel lesson for this morning determining a direction for the sermon, I reflected on our discussion on my first visit to Eleanor in the ICU at Leigh.  We spoke of God’s most frequent command – a command we read hundreds of times throughout the Old and New Testament – “Do not be afraid.”  I believe, for most of us, this is the most difficult command to follow – trusting that God is truly the breath we breathe; Eleanor’s breaths came with great difficulty; perhaps she felt she was suffocating physically and spiritually.  The assurance of angels – friends and family gathered around her, surrounding her in prayer, was of great comfort.  God was present in these healing graces at this time of great fear and uncertainty.

Hundreds of times throughout the Bible, we hear, “Do not be afraid.”  These are the words of the angel to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary as we have just read in our Gospel account from Matthew of Resurrection morning.  In the words of the angel whom these two women encounter, we hear echoes of other familiar joyous scripture.  We remember the angel Gabriel’s words to another Mary, the newly expectant mother of Jesus, when she was told she would bear a son – the Messiah – “Do not be afraid; you have found favor with God”; and, we remember the words to the shepherds as the angels appeared to them to announce the birth of Jesus.  “Do not be afraid; you will find the babe wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 

To Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, the angel said, “Do not be afraid.  He has been raised.  He is not here.  Come, see the place where he lay.”

And, to their great amazement, as the women turned to run to share these glad tidings with the other disciples, Jesus, himself, appeared, and again we hear the words, this time from Jesus’ lips, “Do not be afraid.”  Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were beginning to understand.  It was important that they go and gather the other followers – carry Jesus’ message that they were to gather in Galilee.  Jesus, their teacher and leader, had kept his promise.  He had overcome death and risen again.  All who believe would be gathered to him as one Body.

You have come this morning to gather with others to find and to share the assurance of this message of great joy – that Jesus Christ lies no longer in the grave.  Jesus Christ has risen to overcome death and evil and he gathers us to him, sustaining us with his ever-abiding presence, so that we are not to be afraid.

We arrive for worship as individuals or perhaps two by two as the women came; we come shouldering our earthly cares and fears.  As we gather with one another – friend or stranger, and as we worship and pray, we come to believe and understand bit by bit that we are one in the Body of Christ.  Living into our worship together, gathered as one, our fears are assuaged; in the place of our fear we find greater faith.

We gather in communion with one another to receive the Body and Blood of Christ; we become one in the mission of Jesus Christ.  Jesus’ mission on earth was completed and perfected by his death and Resurrection.  The mission is ours to carry on.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Do not be afraid.

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Come and gather with him at His Table

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Go and tell the others.

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.

 

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.