Sermons

26
Jun

Face set to Jerusalem

1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21  Psalm 16  Galatians 5:1,13-25  Luke 9:51-62

I find myself being reminded frequently that there are many passages of scripture that we are not to “pick to pieces.” Our Gospel lesson is one of those. Is Jesus telling us that we are not to attend to our loved ones who are dying; we are not to take time to say our farewells to those we may never see again? I don’t think so, and most commentators agree. God created us in relationship and he expects us to serve him in and through one another.

In this case, perhaps Jesus is simply and rightfully calling our bluff on our rationalizations and procrastinations that inhibit us in answering our call to ministry. We are not to be distracted by rituals, even religious rituals, that stand in the way of true discipleship.

Definitely and more importantly, Jesus is being brutally honest about the cost of following him. Being a disciple of Christ is about miraculous healing and the salvation of sinners, but those are not window dressings; experiencing true healing and salvation in this world comes only at the cost of following Jesus to the Cross. We all have a call to ministry. God grants us the freedom to reject our call as did these Samaritans who rejected Jesus in our lesson. Jesus came to live and die as one of us; he wanted to be certain we knew that in accepting his call we accepted the true cost of discipleship.

It seems we’ve barely begun our Year C walk through Luke’s Gospel – Jesus’ birth, baptism, and ministry. In today’s lesson, Jesus is carrying out his ministry in this northern area of Galilee where he was reared as the carpenter’s son and where his ministry began. As we have read over the past number of weeks, he has restored life to marginalized Gentile non-believers; he has brought salvation to the sinful; and he has cast out the legion of demons from one so utterly possessed by them.

But, already, so early in his ministry, our Gospel lesson tells us that Jesus has “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Jesus knows that the days are drawing near when his ministry of healing the physically and spiritually sick and the calling of disciples to share that ministry will culminate in his being taken up in Jerusalem – taken up on the Cross, taken up from the grave, taken up into heaven 40 days later as he ascends to be with the Father. Already, Jesus has begun to warn his disciples of the journey to which he is called and the hardships that will beset them. From the start, Jesus wants us to know that following him means following him to Jerusalem – life lived under the shadow of the Cross. True discipleship is not cheap.

Jesus gives us the freedom to reject him or to fall in step with him on the journey to Jerusalem. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great Lutheran theologian and martyr, tells us that the “cross is laid on every Christian;” and our first call is to “abandon the attachments of this world.”[1] Bonhoeffer offers the analogy of the small child who is sent to bed by his father. The child, in his own “wisdom,” presumes that his father sends him to bed because he is tired and the father doesn’t want him to be tired. However, the child rationalizes, he can overcome his tiredness just as well by going out to play rather than to sleep. Thus, he determines that he will go out to play and, in so doing, better fulfill his father’s desires for his wellbeing.[2] We laugh at this childish conjecture, but we too often do the similar thing in response to God’s commands for our calls to ministry and mission. So often, we second guess God; we rationalize a call that meets our own comfort level rather than Jesus’.

It is our single-minded encounter with Christ that brings about the death of these old selves that are fueled by rationalization and procrastination and attachments to this world. The Apostle Paul alludes to our old selves in speaking of our yoke of slavery to the desires of the flesh – our shallow worldly obsessions and distractions. And, our going down and our being taken up out of the waters of baptism speak of the death of our old selves. In the prayer of Thanksgiving over the Water, we thank God for the water of baptism in which “we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” [BCP 306]

Regarding this cost of discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer goes on to say,

Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise godfearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls (us), he bids (us) come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him or it may be a death like (Martin) Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time – death in Jesus Christ.[3]

Bonhoeffer is speaking of the death of our old selves, the death of our need for the shallow worldly powers and comforts that distract our single-minded focus on Christ Jesus our Lord.

United with Jesus, we set our face to go to Jerusalem. It is not an easy road; even the original disciples who shared Jesus’ physical presence did not find it easy; they stumbled and bumbled in spite of Jesus’ tireless efforts to prepare them.

United with Christ and one another, we come together in Holy Communion. So graciously, as we come to the Table, Jesus offers himself for us and to us. So graciously, as we come to the Table, he prepares us for the road to Jerusalem. So graciously, as we come to the Table, he guides our focus away from our worldly cares, toward trust in him. And, then, we pray the prayer of thanksgiving; the Rite II prayer expresses it most clearly, asking of our heavenly Father: “grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.” [BCP p. 365] Gladness and singleness of heart – our face set on Jesus and the road to Jerusalem – without looking back, without succumbing to worldly distractions and rationalizations and attachments.

We read in our Old Testament lesson of Elijah casting his mantle on Elisha who will take his place among the great prophets. Later in the narrative, Elijah will be taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire. Perhaps our being taken up will not be with the earthly fanfare and whirlwind of Elijah’s horse-drawn chariot of fire, but it will be equally sensational for each of us.

Jesus will know us and we will know him, because, together we have journeyed to Jerusalem.

19
Jun

Σοζο

Isaiah 65:1-9  Psalm 22:18-27  Galatians 3:23-29  Luke 8:26-39

There is a movie entitled Luther, produced in 2003 that encompasses the reform efforts of Martin Luther in 16th century Germany. Luther became one of the most famous Protestant reformers. The truth is, as a faithful monk of the Church of Rome, Luther’s intent was to push for reform of the Church of Rome rather than separate from it, thus, beginning a new course for his faith. Once excommunicated for his “radical” interpretation of the scripture, however, the seeds of Lutheranism were planted.

So, in this 2003 movie, there is one very poignant scene in which Martin asks an elder monk who is his mentor, “Have you ever dared to think that God is not just?” Martin continues, “He has us born tainted by sin, then He’s angry with us all our lives for our faults, this righteous Judge who damns us, threatening us with the fires of hell!”

After some thought, the mentor asks, “Martin, what is it you seek?”

Martin responds, “A merciful God! A God whom I can love. A God who loves me.”

Our Gospel lesson is an account of Jesus’ encounter with a man possessed by demons – a man that was surely considered tainted by sin and separated from the love of God – separated by the demons, not one demon, but legions of demons, who had cast him into the ultimate outer darkness. We know this man we call the Gerasene demoniac was in a land foreign to him; our lesson tells us that he was from the city and that he now dwelled in a place “opposite” Galilee. We know that he represented the epitome of uncleanness; he was naked and lived among the dead. We are told that he lived in close proximity to pigs, creatures most despised by traditional Jewish culture. Thus, the Gerasene demoniac represents for us the ultimate outcast – foreign, naked, unclean, despised – and possessed by legions of demons.

Interesting, isn’t it, that the demons possessing this frightful man caused him to fall down immediately before Jesus and shout to the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” The scriptures tell us of very few “healthy” individuals who fall down before Jesus and address him so boldly as the “Son of the Most High God.” Even most of those who believed Jesus to be the Lord were too fearful to display this faith so publicly.

But, the demons and evil spirits about which we read in the scriptures always recognize their greatest adversary. They are savvy to know their competition; they must be savvy if they ever expect to overcome that competition – their survival depends upon remaining in a position of most effective offense. Interesting, isn’t it, that these demons recognize Jesus’ power far better than we do? Isn’t that how they win us over and take possession of us as they did the Gerasene demoniac?

The demons that possess us, like the demons that possess the Gerasene, are relentless in their efforts to fight off the good that would send them back to the abyss. These demons are the “little voices” that speak in our heads drowning out God’s message that we are all ministers of the Gospel; they convince us we are inadequate in our efforts to be the Body of Christ – to be the Church serving in the name of Jesus Christ to all the world. The demons that possess us are in our anxiety over our finances, or our health, or our fractured relationships with others – anxiety that robs us of peaceful rest and clarity in discernment.

And, like these demons that possess the Gerasene, our demons know well their competition. They know how to entice us into complacency in our worship and daily prayers, to convince us to be indifferent toward the neighbor or family member who is suffering, to ensnare us into the comforts of selfish thinking. Above all, the demons are skilled in driving wedges that separate us from God, rendering us unable to believe with all our heart and mind that God wants only what is best for us. The demons that possess us seek to tear away bit by bit from that image of God about whom Martin Luther speaks – a merciful God – a God whom we can love – A God who loves each of us.

Our psalm speaks of the lion’s mouth and the horns of wild bulls. Most of us have not experienced the lion’s mouth or the horns of wild bulls in the literal sense, but at one time or another in our lives, demons have mauled us with the teeth of lions and gored us with the horns of bulls. And, we have begged liked the psalmist for the Lord’s salvation from these demons.

The Gerasene demoniac is the ultimate outcast, possessed by legions of demons. Yet, the demonic powers that possess him are no match for Jesus, the Son of the Most High God. Even the demons are well aware that they have encountered a power like no other power – a power far-surpassing their power – a power to save, a power to heal. Jesus speaks healing and salvation to this outcast in the country of the Gerasenes.

In most cases the Greek language in which the New Testament is written is more descriptive than our English language. There are words in the Greek for which we have no literal translations. For instance, the Greeks have a number of different words to describe the different aspects of love where we have only one word for love – a word that is overused and under-appreciated.

There is only one word in the Greek, however, that expresses healing and salvation. Where we have two words: “heal” and “save,” Luke uses the one word, σοζο, which expresses both at the same time. Thus, to be healed by Jesus Christ as this demoniac was healed is to be saved. Σοζο may or may not include our earthly physical healing; we are human after all. But, this healing encompasses all that is our spiritual healing – our salvation. There is only one word; the meaning is the same. Through the grace of Jesus Christ, we are healed of our demons and saved by faith. And, through the gift of this grace, we know that God is a God we can love and a God that loves us and wants only the best for us.

Martin Luther took the words of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which we read earlier, and marched forth into the 16th century Protestant Reformation. His message, for which he was excommunicated from the Church of Rome, is just as vital and relevant today as it was for Martin Luther in the 16th century and just as it was for the 1st century Galatians receiving Paul’s letter: Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection have inaugurated the new age in which we are justified by grace through our faith in Christ. Yes, God’s judgment is real, but we are not to think of God as a God who demands that we earn our way into heaven, an angry God who focuses on our faults and dwells on punishment. As God’s law guided the descendants of Abraham prior to the birth of Christ, faith in the risen Christ now guides our right relationship with God and our neighbor. God’s laws have not changed, but we see them more clearly as our guide rather than as a catalyst for punishment.

In our Old Testament lesson we read the words of the prophet Isaiah who speaks the voice of God as he says to us, “Here I am, here I am… I hold out my hands all day long…”

God does not separate himself from us. It is we who allow the legions of demons to implant doubts, ignite our anxieties, and construct pitfalls in our path. Our God wants only what is best for us – σοζο – healing salvation. He wants us to know that he loves us, that he is a God we can love, and that we are healed by his grace.

Fathers, today is your day. This is the day we honor you; this is the day you reflect on the blessings and enormous responsibilities of fatherhood. God the Father is your model. God’s judgment is real, as a father’s compassionate discipline is necessarily real. God the Father wants only what is best for his children; so it is with our earthly fathers. Our earthly fathers know that we must suffer the consequences of our poor judgment and that we must learn from our mistakes.

It is the responsibility of our earthly fathers to bring us into the understanding of what it is to be loved unconditionally – as we are loved unconditionally by our heavenly Father. Our Heavenly Father wants us to know that he loves us, that he is a God we can love, and that we are healed by his grace.

12
Jun

Extravagant Love

2 Samuel 11:26-12:10,13-15  Psalm 32  Galatians 2:15-21  Luke 7:36-8:3

The god of Simon the Pharisee is a god who cannot endure sinners. Simon’s god has been boxed into a strict earthly purity code. Simon’s god apparently approves only of those that Simon approves.

Jesus enters the house of Simon the Pharisee. The absence of welcome is quite present. Hospitality norms dictated that a visitor entering the home from the hot dusty streets would have his head anointed with oil and be offered a bowl of cool water and a towel to wash and dry his bare blistered feet. We know Jesus is travel weary; we have read of his journeys from city to city healing the sick and restoring life in our lessons from Luke’s Gospel over the past several Sundays. As Jesus enters the home of Simon, Simon offers no such comforts; and it is clear that Jesus should not expect to be received or encouraged to linger, as would others of Simon’s social and religious status.
As if the setting was not uncomfortable enough already, in ultimate outrage, Simon observes a woman of the city well known for her sinfulness as she slips into his home and stands behind Jesus, then, apparently drops to her hands and knees at Jesus’ feet – “child’s pose” in Yoga language. Overcome by humility and gratitude, the woman is weeping. She loosens her hair – a disgraceful act for a woman in the presence of strange men; and she breaks open the alabaster jar of healing ointment.

Thus, in profound contrast to Simon’s lack of the bare basics of welcome, this lowly sinful woman pours out her soul as she pours out the soothing oil on Jesus’ feet, bathing his feet with her tears, and drying them with her loosened hair – a gesture of extravagant love. It is a gift of grace, and in this moment, this desperate woman exemplifies and experiences for herself the gift of God’s extravagant love. Is it the love that brought the forgiveness or the forgiveness that brought the love?

As an aside, if you look closely at these verses of scripture, you find no confirmation that this woman was a prostitute. And, quite coincidentally perhaps, it is in the next chapter that Mary Magdalene is named. Very unfairly, the early Church surmised the sin and the sinner to be Mary Magdalene, the prostitute. Searching the web for a depiction of Mary of Magdala, you will find quite alluring, if not pornographic, portraits of a voluptuously exposed woman with exceedingly long and thick curly red hair.
Whether the women are the same or two different, both exemplify God’s gift of extravagant love, both humbly and gratefully and equally received God’s immeasurable gift of forgiveness for their great debt of sinfulness.
Similarly, the great King David is brought low in the presence of God as he humbly acknowledges his sinfulness in the orchestration of the death of his loyal soldier Uriah. In an incredible feat of desperation, David orchestrated this death for the purpose of covering his illicit affair with Bathsheba, named in our Old Testament lesson from 1st Samuel only as “the wife of Uriah.” The prophet Nathan shocks David back into reality with his parable; David recognizes his sin, unforgiveable in the eyes of humans, only quenched by the extravagant grace of God, God’s extravagant and freely given gift of unsurpassed love.

The child born of this affair would die; later Bathsheba would again conceive, and this child would be named Solomon; he would grow into the great King Solomon who would build The Great Temple and be remembered for his humility and wisdom. There is no evil that God does not overcome in his time on his terms with his extravagant love.

This extravagant love cannot be earned. It is clear that David did not earn God’s love through his despicable acts of adultery and murder. Like the woman weeping at the feet of Jesus, was it the love that brought the forgiveness or the forgiveness that brought the love?

God created all that is, all that has been, all that will be; God created all in love. God wants only what is best for us, not because we have earned it. God wants only what is best for us just as others who love us want only what is best for us. We don’t reinvent love each time someone comes into our lives in whom we recognize great love.
God’s extravagant love is his grace-filled gift; we but have to open our arms and hearts to that extravagant love. That love bathes us in forgiveness and challenges us to spread that love and forgiveness. God came to earth in the human person of the Son, Jesus Christ, to show us how to love. If you have loved and been loved, you know that there is no human law or human word that can legislate or initiate love or even describe love adequately. You have to feel it, and all that you feel of love comes from God. If you do not believe in God, you do not believe in love. God is love; love is God.

In his letter to the Christians in Galatia, the Apostle Paul expresses God’s grace – this indescribable immeasurable extravagant love. Paul writes, “We have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ,” justified by faith alone, Paul would say, “and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.” Paul reminds the Galatians they cannot earn their way to heaven through earthly means. Salvation/justification comes by grace through our faith in Jesus Christ.

These words in Galatians were the words that sparked the Reformation, dividing Christians from the 16th century until today into a variety of faith traditions throughout the world over this question of the relationship of faith and works and our misinterpretations of works’ righteousness and God’s “law.”

The god of Simon the Pharisee is a god who cannot endure sinners who do not abide by Simon’s strict interpretation of the law – those who, for Simon, must earn God’s love. Simon’s god has been boxed into a strict earthly purity code that condemns the sinner on earthly terms and grants love and forgiveness only to those who earn it. Simon’s image of God is a god who approves only of those that Simon approves.

Our image of God creates us. Is your god a god who is limited by earthly expectations – a demanding god who cannot endure sinners? Or, is your god a god of extravagant love – God who bathes us with the healing oil of forgiveness of our sins? And, is it this extravagant love that brings about our forgiveness or is it the forgiveness that brings us to our knees in the realization of the extravagant gift of love?

05
Jun

Other

1 Kings 17:17-24  Psalm 30   Galatians 1:11-24  Luke 7:11-17

In our Old Testament lesson from 1st Kings, the great prophet Elijah has been sent by God into enemy territory – the homeland of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, who desire Elijah’s death. Prior to this portion of the lesson we read, there is drought in the land for which Elijah as a representative of God is blamed. Elijah, near death from starvation himself, seeks out the widow of Zarephath to share the tiny bit of food she has left. In faith and profound hospitality, the widow shares with the stranger Elijah and finds that her jar of meal and jug of oil are miraculously continuously refilled.

Yet, sadly, as the story plays out, the son of the widow of Zarepath dies; this son is the widow’s only hope for provision in this harsh landscape; again Elijah is blamed. But, through Elijah’s obedience to God coupled with his unquestionable trust, the life of the widow’s son is restored.

The two scenes illustrate the cooperative efforts of two unlikely companions in faith – a man of God whose life is under siege by ruthless enemies and physical scarcity; and a widow, unable to provide for herself in this ancient society, her fate held in the hands of neighbors who may or may not have the compassion to reach out to her. For Elijah, the widow is the “other,” and for the widow, Elijah is the “other.” Yet, in the acceptance of each one for the other, God makes his presence known in miraculous ways. The jar of meal and the jug of oil do not fail to provide.

Similarly, Jesus reaches out to a widow, restoring the life of her only son. As in the time of Elijah, a widow in first century Israel was among the most disadvantaged socially and economically. The death of her only son further compromised her ability to survive as a marginalized member of society.

Jesus had nothing to gain by acting on the widow’s behalf, in fact he subjected himself to the disapproval of the religious leaders who would condemn him for reaching beneath his societal status and declare him ritually unclean for coming in contact with the dead body of this young man. Jesus’ actions demonstrated a new understanding of God’s mercy – mercy that extended beyond the boundaries of the old law and societal norms – mercy based on the greater good of compassion – mercy that was intended for all – mercy intended for the “other.” Jesus died on the Cross because he took his mission to the “other”; Jesus is vindicated in the Resurrection, which is the confirmation of God’s mercy for “the other.”

And, it is a situation of complications with the “other” that has riled the Apostle Paul as illustrated in his letter addressed to the people of Galatia. The majority of Paul’s letters begin with thanksgiving and expressions of joy for the faith expressed by his previous companions on his journeys. Not so, in this letter to the Galatians; Paul is abrupt, obviously angry, even rude.

Paul journeyed through the area of Galatia on the first three of his missionary journeys. By the time of his letter, the house churches he had inspired have begun to spring up and thrive within communities of Gentile believers. Interestingly, Paul’s anger is likely directed toward the Judaizers – Paul’s fellow Jews – Jews who insisted that non-Jews first convert to the strict religious requirements of Judaism before they could be accepted among the believers and followers of Jesus Christ. Apparently, these Judaizers had traveled the areas of Galatia intervening and disrupting the spiritual health. Perhaps they were putting their own spin on the Good News brought previously to Galatia by Paul as he was guided by God through the communities of this region. We don’t doubt their faith and sincerity; perhaps they feared that Paul had set the standards too low, receiving those on the fringes, making acceptance into the Church too easy.

The Judaizers preached the requirement of human initiation rites as prerequisite for inclusion in the Body of Christ; Paul preached salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ as the sole requirement for inclusion in the Body of Christ. The Judizers sought to enforce standards that separated them from the “other” – those they considered to be outsiders dependent upon them to find their way as God’s people.

Paul, on the other hand, emphasized God’s gift of salvation free to all who believe – free to all, free even to those outside the previously established earthly norms and barriers. Paul argued that he did not receive a gospel that was reconfigured to suit human earthly desires; Paul affirmed that the gospel he proclaimed was revealed to him by Jesus Christ himself.

The Apostle Paul, through his mission and ministry of Christ, reminds us that the Church is intended to be stretched to the margins. The Church is intended to be constantly going to the edges; we, the Church, are to make known the Word of Christ to those who make us uncomfortable with our selves. Here, we find our fullness in Jesus Christ.[1]

How appropriate that we are reminded of the intention that we be stretched to receive those on the edge during this seemingly endless political season. Somehow we have always been quite crafty at compartmentalizing our political activities. We can throw eggs and hurl nasty insults and verbally attack our neighbor’s character, feeling quite justified and remorseless.

Jesus’ only criticism was of those groups who felt justified in raising themselves up while seeking to exclude others from God’s gift of eternal grace. As people of God we share the common ground of Jesus Christ; this is where we begin; this is where we return; again and again, we come together to the common ground of Jesus Christ. With lowered voices and open hearts, embracing the “other,” we come to the fullness of Jesus Christ.

In the fullness of Jesus Christ, embracing the “other,” our jar of meal will not be emptied and our jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord reigns on the earth.

01
May

Vessel

Acts 16:9-15  Psalm 67 Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5 John 5:1-9

For thirty-eight years, the unnamed “sick man” of our Gospel lesson had been seeking healing; for a “long time” he had been lying by the pool by the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem. Our lesson tells us that he was too weak to drag his frail body through the encroaching crowds. Angels would occasionally stir up the waters and just at this time it was necessary to be the first to make one’s way into the healing waters and, thus, receive the mystical healing power – impossible for one so weak with illness. This pool was a vessel of healing, but it remained inaccessible to one who could not get into the waters on his own strength, and there was no one to help.

Quite unexpectedly, the sick man heard the voice of one whose attention he had attracted. “Do you want to be made well?” What must have seemed to be a chance encounter with an amazing stranger had suddenly turned his life right side up. “Stand up,” the stranger said to the sick man, “take your mat and walk.” The man picked up his mat and walked away, healed by virtue of his faith in the words of an unknown stranger – there was no touch, no healing waters, just Jesus’ command, and the man’s faith. In what had seemed to be a chance encounter, God had been revealed in the human person of Jesus of Nazareth – the true vessel through whom God is revealed to all the world.

In our lesson from Acts, we read of what seems to be another chance encounter between the Apostle Paul and Lydia. Lydia is a follower of Christ about whom we know very little with the exception of this brief mention of this encounter with the Apostle Paul who, in a dream, had been compelled to travel to Macedonia. We hear of Lydia only in these few verses from Acts 16 and later when she again opens her home to Paul after he is released from prison, yet she is often depicted in religious paintings and stained glass. Lydia, the seller of purple, symbolizes the hospitality of the open heart of a worshiper of God, listening intently for the word.

Lydia was not the typical worshiper of God or typical citizen of first century Macedonia. From this brief description in Acts 16, we know that she was female – not a plus in this society. However, she had her own business – a rare position for a woman of this time and place. And, not only a business, but obviously, an upscale business; purple was reserved for the elite of society and particularly royalty – these members of high society would be Lydia’s customers with whom she interacted throughout the day.

Furthermore, from this small amount of information, we perceive that Lydia, at some point in her past life, had left the protection of home and family in Thyatira located in Asia Minor, and that she would have travelled quite a distance for this seemingly chance encounter with Paul in the Roman colony of Philippi in the district of Macedonia.

Our lesson tells us that the “Lord opened [Lydia’s] heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul” – the word of God that Paul brought to Macedonia, as he had been instructed in his vision – carrying the words and works Jesus Christ to the world – the words and works of Jesus Christ, which were and are the revelation of God to the world. Lydia listened to these words of revelation; she became perhaps the very first convert to the word of Christ in, what is today, Eastern Europe. She and her household were baptized. Lydia, seller of purple among the elite of Philippi, became the vessel for the revelation of God on this new horizon of the known world. And, she invited the bearers of the word into her home just as she had invited the Father and Son and make their home in her heart.

This “chance” encounter with the Apostle Paul was indeed no chance encounter – just as the encounter between the unknown sick man and Jesus at the pool by the Sheep Gate had been no chance encounter. Ordained by God, both lives and hearts were opened to the revelation of God through Jesus Christ.

What seems to be chance encounters are incidences of God’s miraculous hand at work in our lives and those touched by our contact. Unlike the original disciples who gave up their livelihoods and left their families, few of us are asked to do that. Even the Apostle Paul continued his tent making as he journeyed through Galatia and Philippi, and Corinth. He used his skill to provide for his needs and he used his skill as an introduction into the lives of those he encountered on his journeys. As we read in today’s lesson from Acts, Lydia didn’t give up her trade as the seller of purple. Actually, it was her trade specifically that allowed her entry into the lives of those to whom God had called her to be a vessel of the Word of Jesus Christ.

Each and every one of us is a vessel. Each one of us gathered here has a story to tell, a message to share. Few of us are asked to give up our livelihoods and leave our families behind to go into world spreading the Gospel, but every one of us is commanded to be a vessel.

Are there anxieties, resentments, fear, anger, uncertainties, or other distractions that are clogging your vessel – keeping it from flowing freely?

In what ways is your vessel flowing as it should? How are you a vessel – at school, at work, in your civic activities, at the grocery store, or on the fishing pier? How are you a vessel serving Jesus Christ is the world through the Church of the Advent? We do not serve the Church – we are the Church serving the world in the name of Jesus Christ. How and where are you a vessel just as Lydia, seller of purple, was a vessel? One with Christ, how are you the vessel that God is calling you to be? Do you want to be made well?

We celebrate our oneness with Christ as we come together to the Table to share his body and blood. Here, through the work of the Holy Spirit, we become living members of the Body of Christ – vessels through whom the Word of God will be carried into the world. And, WE, the Body of Christ, loving, listening, offering hospitality, and keeping his word, go forth in His name, vessels of the peace of Christ in a broken world.

24
Apr

Love beyond fear

Acts 11:1-18 Psalm 148 Revelation 21:1-6 John 13:31-35

As described in John’s Gospel account of the Crucifixion, as Jesus was dying on the cross, his last words were, “It is finished.” We might interpret these words to mean, “It is over, done, ended, forecast is doom and gloom.”

When we step back, however, reading more closely Jesus’ words to his disciples in the hours before he would go to the cross, we begin to better understand, “It is finished” to mean more accurately, “It is complete; it is perfected.”

If Michelangelo stood gazing up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and spoke the words, “It is finished,” his meaning would not be indicating an ending but a beginning. “It is finished.” [Though it is well-known to have been quite a miserable four-year experience for the artist] But rather, his statement would mean for us, “My work is completed, with God’s help it is perfected to the best of my ability;” generations going forward will be inspired and enlightened by this magnificent work of art.

Understanding that Jesus’ death and resurrection completed our salvation causes us to look more closely at the words we read from our Gospel lesson for this 5th Sunday of Easter. These words from our Gospel lesson are a portion of Jesus’ last discourse – a discourse that consumes four full chapters of John’s Gospel – chapters that preceded the account of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Jesus is speaking to his followers, trying as best he can to prepare them for the horrific events that are to come, planting seeds of insight that would be nurtured and understood as the events unfold, planting seeds of insight that would guide them in the days when Jesus would no longer be physically present with them, and it would be up to these first followers to see that the seeds of the Good News would be spread throughout all the world.

Jesus spoke to his followers of the New Commandment – a new understanding of what it is to be the people of God – a new way of understanding that the Crucifixion was not an ending, but a beginning.

Certainly, Jesus’ command that we love one another is not a “new” commandment for us, for the disciples to whom Jesus is speaking, or for the audience to whom John is writing.

Our lesson in John follows the departure of Judas into the night for the purpose of betraying Jesus to the authorities who would arrest, convict, and crucify him. Just prior to Judas’ departure, in the essence of ultimate humility and servanthood, Jesus had bathed the feet of the disciples as they gathered in this upper room where they shared their last meal together.
Jesus’ time for instruction of his disciples was coming to a close; these are among his last words to his followers during the last hours of their time together. There are no parables or allegories to tease their understanding of his message. This setting creates the paradox of Jesus’ words. And, Jesus gets right to the point.

How odd that Jesus would speak of the Son of Man being glorified and God being glorified in him. This gloomy setting would seem to be the opposite of glorification. Yet, without question, Jesus is speaking of the fulfillment of God’s work through him, fulfillment that would come in the next hours and days.

God would be glorified. The horrors of the darkness of this night were just beginning. But, the evil darkness would be overcome by Jesus’ Resurrection on the third day, and the truth of Jesus Christ as the Messiah would be illumined for all the world to see and believe. God would be glorified.

Jesus exemplified humility and servanthood in the washing of his disciples’ feet – even the feet of Judas. Now, Judas had departed to commit his evil deed. Jesus knew of the physical, emotional, and spiritual torment that he was to face and, yet, he spoke of love, forgiveness, and peace as he went forth willingly to the cross.

These last hours are most sacred and intimate for Jesus and his followers. His address, “little children,” emphasizes the intimacy.

Certainly, Jesus’ command to love one another is not new, but the background and the circumstances of this intimate setting broadens and clarifies the meaning of loving one another in a way that challenges the disciples – in a way that challenges all of us – to love beyond the limits of our fears, beyond our surface understanding of love, beyond our preconceived opinions of one another.

Jesus demonstrates the servanthood of love.

In our lesson from Acts, the seeds of understanding the new commandment of love beyond fear are beginning to sprout for Peter. In this mysterious rather bazaar dream, Peter is the first perhaps to experience this new understanding. For Peter, God’s people were those of the Jewish faith, circumcised believers, children of Abraham. Anyone outside the faith was a condemned sinner, outcast, not worthy or even capable of receiving and understanding the Word of God.

This dream, about which we read in our lesson from Acts, changes that interpretation of God’s plan for all creation. Peter, prior to this time had been criticized for his violation of the strict dietary laws of his Jewish faith. In his dream, he is assured of the cleanliness of all foods, kosher or otherwise. In interpreting the dream, Peter comes to see that the message doesn’t really apply only to food for human consumption and dietary laws so strictly enforced; the message applies to people. All people – men/women; Jew/Gentile/Greek/Roman; young/old; black/brown/white; familiar/foreign – all people are to be the recipients of the spread of the seeds of the Good News. “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

The ministry of Jesus Christ was not “ended” on the cross; it was “perfected.” Now, it would be up to his followers to carry that message of perfection to the world – to carry that new understanding of the new commandment – a clarified understanding through the mission and ministry of Christ – a new commandment of just how we are to love one another – loving beyond our fears, loving beyond our prejudices.

Love is loving others more than our earthly selves – accepting, embracing, forgiving, upholding, loving each other even when we are so hard to love. In love, the glory of God is fulfilled as our lives, our community, and our relationships are centered in Christ. In these last hours, Christ breathed peace into his disciples. The peace of his love overcame the betrayal and the denials. The peace of his love overcomes our betrayals and denials.

Listen again to the words of Jesus – words among the last that he would speak to his disciples before being condemned to death on the cross, “Little children, I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. I have loved you in order that you also love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Thus, Jesus’ time on earth was finished, completed, perfected.

Through the servanthood of love beyond fear, in peace and forgiveness, everyone will know that we are disciples of Jesus Christ.

17
Apr

The Good Shepherd

Easter 4C
Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Rev. 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

For just a few moments I’d like for you to close your eyes and imagine that you are seated in a chair across from Jesus. The two or you are discussing the week that has passed. What were the good things about the week? What were the difficult or frustrating experiences? Were there times when the two of you felt particularly close? Or, were you two ships passing in the night?
Can you relate at least one particularly incident of the past week in which you were quite surprised to find Jesus present? Were there times that Jesus was present with you, but you turned and walked away? What are Jesus’ words to you? Are they encouraging and complimentary? Comforting? Or, are they judgmental and reprimanding? Perhaps they even seem quite harsh. Jesus is often depicted as a tough disciplinarian. How do you see Jesus in your face-to-face one-on-one conversation?

The setting of our Gospel lesson is the Temple. This conversation between Jesus and “the Jews” is quite heated. Remember that the writer of John is angry and frustrated with his fellow Jews for their lack of belief in Jesus and for their persecution of the followers of Jesus. His anger pervades his writing and we shouldn’t see this as grounds for anti-Semitism. Rather, we use these writings as a mirror to look at our own misconceptions and actions that inhibit the Christian message.

Historically, the Jews see the Temple as the place where God lived. From near and far, they would make pilgrimage to Jerusalem, preferably yearly, to worship and bring their appropriate sacrifice to the Temple. From their time of their sojourn through the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt, God had resided in a tangible place – the Ark of the Covenant – a large box containing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, a jar of manna, and Aaron’s rod. The people carried the ark through the wilderness. Many years later when King Solomon constructed the great Temple, the Ark was placed in the Holy of Holies. Finally, God had a house.

But, Jesus’ message is that God does not live in a physical house built of mortar and stone. Jesus’ message is that God’s laws are not in a box, maintained there for the purpose of strict obedience to tangible earthly rules.

Jesus’ message is that God lives in him – Jesus the Messiah – and that his laws are guidance in the ways his people are to live in relationship with one another. This clarity of God’s law – this new interpretation is something that those charged with policing Jewish laws and traditions find it difficult to accept. For some of these religious leaders, God was a god of harsh judgment who needed these leaders to enforce his brutal authority. All faith traditions have leaders such as these, even today. And, too often, we see our selves in relation to God’s harsh judgment rather than unconditional love.

Jesus is asking these leaders – these “religious police” to believe that he, Jesus of Nazareth, and the Father God are one – that God lives in Jesus rather than this earthly Temple. Jesus knew that it was difficult for them to believe.

The imagery of the Good Shepherd would be something to which the inhabitants of this culture could relate. Jesus uses this imagery to emphasize their failure to believe the evidence that had been presented to them throughout his ministry.

This 4th Sunday of Easter is Good Shepherd Sunday. Each year on this Sunday our focus is on the Good Shepherd imagery. On this Good Shepherd Sunday especially, I invite you to take time before you leave today to stand before the Good Shepherd Window that for too much of the time rests in the dark recess of our parish hall. Much unappreciated, the window dates back to the very early years of the history of this parish. Stand there and imagine a face-to-face conversation with Jesus, the Good Shepherd. What variety of emotions do you experience – perhaps a balance of both senses of compassion and discipline.

Stand there and reflect on your relationship with Jesus and the emotions that well up from your connection with that image.

There are numerous bits of symbolism expressed by the Good Shepherd. The imagery of the 23rd Psalm is endless and we could spend hours exploring the symbolism. There is an article from the December 1949 issue of the National Wool Grower that has been reprinted a number of times. The article describes sheepherding in the Holy Land. It takes Psalm 23 line-by-line to connect the imagery of shepherding with the guidance of Jesus, our Good Shepherd.
Among the most fascinating imagery within the article is that of “the valley of death” through which we are to “fear no evil” for the Good Shepherd’s rod and staff comfort us. To help us visualize the profound message of this verse of the psalm, the shepherd describes for us a valley known as the South Defile through which climate and grazing conditions make it is necessary for the herders to move their sheep each season.

“The valley is four and a half miles long. Its sidewalls are over 1500 feet high in places and it is only 10 or 12 feet wide at the bottom. Travel through the valley is dangerous, because its floor, badly eroded by cloudbursts, has deep gullies. Actual footing on solid rock is so narrow in places that a sheep cannot turn around, and it is an unwritten law of shepherds that flocks must go up the valley in the morning hours and down towards the eventide, lest flocks meet in the defile. Mules have not been able to make the trip for centuries, but sheep and goat herders from earliest Old Testament days have maintained a passage for their stock.

“About halfway through the valley the walk crossed from one side to the other at a place where the path is cut in two by an eight-foot gully. One section of the path is about 18 inches higher than the other; the sheep must jump across it. The shepherd stands at this break and coaxes or forces the sheep to make the leap. If the sheep slips and lands in the gully, the shepherd’s staff is brought into play. The old-style crook is encircled around a large sheep’s neck or a small sheep’s chest, and it is lifted to safely. If a more modern narrow crook is used, the sheep is caught about the hoofs and lifted up to the walk.

“Many wild dogs lurk in the shadows of the valley looking for prey. After a band of sheep has entered the defile, the leader may come upon such a dog. Unable to retreat, the leader baas a warning. The shepherd, skilled in throwing his rod, hurls it at the dog and knocks it into the washed-out gully where it is easily killed. Thus the sheep have learned to fear no evil, even in the valley of the shadow of death for their master is there to aid them and protect them from harm.”

This shepherd describes his rod and his staff as implements of protection. What we know as the shepherd’s crook, symbolized by our bishop’s crozier, is known to provide protection as well as discipline. Certainly, the shepherd would use his crook or rod to direct the sheep down the appropriate path, and, as described above to rescue a sheep that had fallen off the path.

The Good Shepherd is a profound symbol of our Lord Jesus Christ – our Lord who comforts us in the valley of death. Our Lord comforts us, not only by protecting us with his staff as he rescues us from dangerous pitfalls, but, also, with his rod, as he directs and judges us – sometimes gently, sometimes more harshly.

Like the Jews gathered around him at the temple, Jesus directs us to believe in him and to observe God’s laws by his example – not as a means for punishment but as guidance in our relationship with one another – believing and guidance received through our intentional efforts to come to know Jesus and make him known – to recognize Jesus in our day to day encounters – to recognize the rod and the staff as the rescuer, the comforter, and the gentle disciplinarian.

So, how is that conversation going between the two of you?