Thursday, May 18, 2017

Share a Story


Human beings are hardwired for community. We typically live in family groups and we function best with people we know. We feel most comfortable when we know and trust those who are around us. A huge part of what creates that kind of atmosphere is the stories which are shared. One of the reasons religious groups hold together so well through conflict is the shared stories of the Bible and tradition.

I would like to offer you a challenge. Now that everyone has their new directory (and if you haven't gotten one yet, there are still some in the church office), I challenge you to reach out to someone new in the next week. (Not someone you haven't talked to in a while, someone you really don't know at all.) Look through the directory, maybe there is a picture or a name that stands out to you as someone you couldn't list three things about.  Through a phone call, an email, reaching out to them before or after the church service, introduce yourself. Talk for a couple of minutes and share a story. An easy starting point would be, why do you come to church at St. John's?

Our community consists of amazing people. People who have been here a very very long time and people who are fairly new. We all bring wonderful gifts and stories to our community. Those stories bind us together through common sorrows, through empathy, through common joys. The Holy Spirit helps us share our stories and Jesus helps us enter into communion through the stories we share together.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Who, what, why, where, when, and how. These are the questions to answer when fully explaining a concept. We have talked about the answers to Who, Why, and Where in regards to the Holy Spirit. Who? The Holy Spirit is a part of God. Why? Because we need help, the Holy Spirit is the one who inspires us on the journey. Where? The Holy Spirit can be found in community. 

Today we are going to tackle the what and the when. What does the Holy Spirit do to help us on the journey? We are filled with the Holy Spirit and inspired to follow Jesus. When? All the time. Anytime. Every time. The Holy Spirit is always with us as a guide, inspiration, and help. 

So that was easy. I've already answered the questions. But wait, I can see you about to ask me, what does it mean to be filled with the Holy Spirit?

What does it mean to be filled with the Holy Spirit?  In order to answer this question, I'll give you a few examples. The saints show us plenty of examples of what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Stephen is one of the first for which this is said explicitly. In Acts we hear the story of the stoning of Stephen, one of the first deacons. The Holy Spirit fills Stephen and he has a vision of heaven and he tries to share that vision with those around him. Stephen forgives those who are stoning him while he dies and he gives up his Spirit to Jesus. Stephen does what God is calling him to do regardless of the consequences. 
In the Episcopal tradition, we follow the steps of the faithful who go before us. We have a book called Holy Women, Holy Men which sets out the feast days of the saints and gives a short description of each of them. This past week contained the feast days of Gregory of Nazianzus, Julian of Norwich, and Nicolaus von Zinzendorf. Each of these saints were filled with the Holy Spirit and saints have a tendency to have three things in common. They do what they feel is right, what God is calling them to do regardless of the consequences at the hands of other human beings. They recognize the way, the truth, and the life, and that God is at work in their lives. They are filled with joy that motivates them and drives them forward. 

Gregory of Nazianzus was Archbishop of Constantinople during the 4th century. He was known as the Trinitarian theologian, a great speaker and writer. Gregory had an experience with a great storm while on a ship that compelled him to give his life in service to God. His father was a bishop and he wanted him to be a priest in one of the local churches. However Gregory wanted to be a monk, far away from the political and social problems of the day. God had other ideas. Throughout his life, Gregory found himself in the middle of many different political and theological debates about the natures of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Gregory was filled with the Holy Spirit and able to stand up for his beliefs in the Trinity, in the three persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Gregory was a great champion of what we think of orthodox theology today. The Holy Spirit filled him with courage to follow his calling even though he didn't want to, gave him the ability to recognize that he God was at work in his life, and filled him with joy.

Julian of Norwich lived in England during the 1300-1400's. She is remembered because she had a number of visions of Jesus which she wrote about in a book called Revelations of Divine Love. This is the first book in the English language known to have been written by a woman! Most notably, Julian wrote during a major time of upheaval in the church and community, the early 1400's were characterized by time periods of plague passing through the land. She most famously wrote, "All shall be well, and all shall be well. And all manner of thing shall be well." Despite the restrictions against women at the time, Julian followed God's call for her, recognized God at work in her life, and was filled with a joy that allowed her to see beyond the problems of her time. 

Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf is actually one saint of which I am very fond. Zinzendorf, Ludwig to his friends, was a religious reformer and community builder in the 1700's. He was an eclectic theologian and he called his group, The Church of God in the Spirit. He worked for ecumenical causes throughout Europe, especially inviting people to live in his Christian community on his land in what is now lower Austria. Eventually, through conflicts and reconciliation work, he created the Moravian Church and personally helped set up two communities in the new English colonies, one in Bethlehem and the other in Salem. This is how I met him. Every third grader when I was in elementary school in Bethlehem had to do a history unit on the Moravians and Count Zinzendorf.  Zinzendorf was led by the Holy Spirit to many different places, he even met with Benjamin Franklin when he visited Pennsylvania in the 1740's. Though he had started out as a Lutheran, and ended up a Moravian (both groups Episcopalians are in full communion with today), he was guided by the Holy Spirit in standing up for his beliefs in religious tolerance, unity, and community, recognizing that God was at work in his life, and being filled with joy at the opportunities for others which he created. 

Throughout the centuries, thousands of men and women can be recognized as having their lives filled with the Holy Spirit. Today we celebrate Mother's Day, a holiday which exists only because men and women were filled with the Holy Spirit and stood up for their beliefs in caring for mothers and their roles in peace, temperance, and reconciliation. We follow their examples of following God's call, recognizing that God is at work in our lives, and being filled with the joy that comes from following where the Spirit leads us. 

What does the Holy Spirit do to help us on the journey? We are filled with the Holy Spirit and inspired to follow Jesus. When? All the time. Anytime. Every time. The Holy Spirit is always with us as a guide, inspiration, and help. What does it mean to be filled with the Holy Spirit? Being filled with the Holy Spirit means doing what is right, what God is calling us to do, regardless of the consequences from other people. Being filled with the Holy Spirit means recognizing the way, the truth, and the life, and that God is at work in our lives. Being filled with the Holy Spirit means being filled with joy that motivates us and drives us forward. Like being filled with good music, when the Holy Spirit washes over you, it takes you on a journey you hadn't expected. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Bishops, Priests, Deacons

In the Episcopal Church we have a structure which consists of a three fold order of ordained ministers: Bishops, Priests, and Deacons. St. John's has great familiarity with bishops and priests. In fact, most of you know our current bishop, +Sean, quite well. I am the fifteenth in St. John's line of full time priests. However, we have just recently gotten our first vocational deacon! This past Sunday, Dave Betz was ordained to the diaconate and appointed to serve St. John's.

Deacons are called to serve the church in five specific ways. They are to study the Holy Scriptures, to make Christ known through their work. They are to "interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world." They are to assist during worship services, and to particularly serve the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely. (BCP 543)

Given these instructions, Deacon Dave will be taking on some new parts in our regular worship services. Specifically, at the 8 am service, Deacon Dave will be reading the Gospel, leading the Prayers of the People and the Confession, and saying the Dismissal. At the 10 am service, Deacon Dave will be reading the Gospel, leading the Prayers of the People and the Confession, setting the table and bearing Chalice, and saying the Dismissal. Deacon Dave will continue with his work with Emmaus Haven Shelter and visiting St. John's members in the hospital.

Please stay after the 10am service this Sunday as we celebrate the work that God is doing through Deacon Dave and congratulate him at the reception.

See you in church!

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Good Shepherd Sunday

Today is colloquially known as Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year we celebrate Easter with at least one Sunday discussing the metaphor of sheep. Another metaphor the gospel of John loves is the metaphor of light. Here's a little glimpse into the nature of the relationship between sheep and light from a sheep farmer in Virginia:

"One evening just after dark, I was driving my Buick up our gravel driveway. As I rounded the first turn, my headlights illuminated a flock of sheep standing about 20 feet in front of me. One of the evangelical ones must have whispered to her buddies, “Run to the light!” because they all turned and headed straight for the car. Bonk! Bonk! Bonk! One after the other, they plunged headfirst into my front grill and then staggered off to the side to let the others have a turn. I honked the horn, but that just seemed to confuse them more. The sheep sped up, and my car rocked as every ewe threw herself at it. Finally, when they were all sprawled on the edges of the driveway, I edged past them and drove on to the house. They staggered to their feet and followed me in."

This story is from Ginny Neil who writes a blog about the sheep farm she owns with her husband in the mountains of Virginia. Ginny received quite the welcome home party that night. For most of us, even if we have no personal experiences with sheep, we have spent our lives hearing about the wily nature of sheep. They run away, they go where you don't want them to, they are always somehow in your way. Yet, sheep get a bad rap from many people. Not everything about sheep is bad. Sheep follow their leader, as notably shown in the story from Ginny, sheep are communal, they live in flocks, and sheep are each unique. 

One of the most iconic images Jesus gives us to teach us about who he is is the Good Shepherd. Jesus compares a good shepherd to a bad shepherd. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who calls each of his sheep by name. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who protects the sheep from harm. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who carries the sheep home when they get lost. Interestingly enough, the gospel passage for today stops one verse short of where Jesus says he is the Good Shepherd. In this passage Jesus says, I am the gate. Its a slightly more confusing image, Jesus being a gate. However, we understand the metaphor. Jesus is saying that all the sheep must go through him, or we must go through him to get to the kingdom of heaven. Sheep tend to be great at following each other. When we choose to follow Jesus, he will show us the way through the gate. By going through Jesus, we can find and have abundant life, more than we have ever dreamed of. By following our Savior, we become part of God's people. 

Naturally, since this image of the Good Shepherd is such an important one to how we understand ourselves in the church, we have Good Shepherd stained glass windows - both in the church and in the chapel. The Good Shepherd is a comforting metaphor, allowing us to know that Jesus is always caring for us. As Jesus goes on to say in the gospel of John, "The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." Jesus would do anything for his people. 

In the passage from Acts, well, we don't see any sheep. At least, not literally. The passage does talk about Jesus' followers and what they are doing, so in a way, it is metaphorically about Jesus' sheep. His disciples are the ones who have heard his voice and responded. And its clear that these sheep, the group of Jesus' followers in Acts have some of the characteristics of sheep. Let's face it, they probably smelled. More seriously, they are communal, they share space and food and possessions. In everything I have ever read or experienced of sheep, they are herd animals, they live in flocks. They stick together, communally, for safety and survival. 

In some sense, that is what we do all the time as well. In family groups, friend groups, and community groups, we rely on our communities in times of joy and sorrow. We stick together with other people for safety and survival. We share our food and our possessions in different ways with those around us. Yet, in our increasingly individualistic society, we are losing some of the values of what it means to be communal creatures. In the passage from Acts, you can see what value the community brings to each of the members - teaching, fellowship, mentors, dinner and meal partners, the ability to share possessions needed. We tend to look at this passage as an example of agreeable community - everything was perfect in the early church. However, we know this wasn't the case. The early church still had plenty of disagreements and discussions about what they were supposed to be doing. They each had to listen for Jesus' voice calling out to them. They worked out their disagreements, as far as they were able, staying in community together. 

You may be thinking, last week I told you that we would be talking about the Holy Spirit and yet I haven't mentioned the Holy Spirit once! Do not be afraid! Here comes the Holy Spirit. Dun dun dun! What does the Holy Spirit have to do with sheep or Jesus being the Good Shepherd? Well, we already agreed with St. Augustine that the Trinity never works alone. So the Holy Spirit must be part of the act of Jesus tending the sheep of his pasture. Whether the Holy Spirit is acting in the sheep in order for them to respond or helping Jesus wrangle the sheep, the Holy Spirit is present. Now, it may be simply because of the nature of the Holy Spirit's home life, but I tend to see the Holy Spirits' presence as a requirement in any act of communal nature. Flocks of sheep cannot be flocks of sheep without the instinct for survival that tells them that being in a group is safer, and communities of Jesus followers cannot be communities without the Holy Spirit. What connects and binds us together in community is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is that which makes us the sheep of Jesus' flock. 

Lastly, the metaphor extends to each of us. Even though sheep live their lives as part of a flock, live their entire lives in a community, they are each unique. Just as the flock of sheep now around me, we are each unique in our community. Bringing together gifts and abilities from different people allows us to work together to accomplish more than we could ever do by ourselves. Knowing one's place as a sheep of God's fold means following Jesus, living together in community, and being true to God's calling for you. Follow Jesus the Good Shepherd. Share in the community of Jesus' sheep. Listen for His voice calling out to you. The Good Shepherd cares for you.


PS. I was joined in the pulpit by a small flock of sheep for this morning's sermon.
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Thursday, May 4, 2017

Jesus is fully alive!

"When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead." John 21:9-14

Jesus' disciples had a hard time believing that Jesus really was alive again. Partly this seems to be because Jesus looks different than he had before. We never find out how, except that Jesus is not always recognized at first. In this story from John, there seems to be some question as to who Jesus was, and this was not the only time. The disciples on the road to Emmaus don't recognize him, Mary Magdalene doesn't recognize him at first, the disciples in the boat don't recognize him at first either. It is only when Jesus does something specifically related to his ministry and relationship to the people in the story do they recognize him. In this passage, when he feeds them.

What are we like after death? What does the resurrection mean? These are good questions that we don't have any concrete answers to. Jesus does eat and drink, so he is resurrected with his body, not as a ghost or a spirit. He shows them his hands and his feet, his wounds. Jesus tries to make it clear to his followers that indeed he is alive and that this means great things for the world. However, it is a hard concept to grasp. We don't have a tendency to live in this way. How would we live, what would we do if we had nothing stopping us? Death is no longer something to be feared. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Easter 3

The Trinity were planning a holiday. The Spirit, manifesting the creative part of the divine nature, was coming up with the ideas. "Let's go to New York," he suggested. "No, no, no," said the Father, "They're all so liberated, they'll spend the whole time calling me 'Mother' and it will just do my head in." So the Spirit sat back and thought. "I know, what about Jerusalem?" he said. "It's beautiful and then there's the history and everything." "No way!" the Son declared. "After what happened the last time, I'm never going there again!" At this point, the Spirit got annoyed and went off in a huff. Sometime later he returned and found that the Father and Son had had a idea they both thought was excellent: "Why don't we go to Rome?" said the Son. "Perfect!" cried the Holy Spirit. "I've never been there before!"

Who is the Holy Spirit and why hasn't it ever been in Rome? Joking! The Holy Spirit has been all over the whole world.

Since we spent all of Lent talking about who Jesus is and what Jesus was doing in the world, building up to Holy Week and Easter, we are going to spend the Easter season building up to Pentecost talking about the Holy Spirit. Who is the Holy Spirit? What does the Holy Spirit do in the world?

We know the Holy Spirit from scripture as the Spirit, as the breath of God, as the advocate, the Paraclesis, the Sustainer, the Comforter, the one who inspired the authors of the scriptures, the one who moves us to repentance and baptism, the part of God working in us before we know it and can name it. But who really is this Holy Spirit?

Early on in the Christian tradition, St. Augustine of Hippo said in his book, On the Trinity, "the Trinity works indivisibly in everything that God works," in other words,  never does one part of the Trinity work alone. The Trinity always works together. So whenever we see the presence of Jesus or God the Father or the Holy Spirit, the other two are at work as well. In the passage from Acts, we see the workings of the Holy Spirit in all those who repent and are baptized by Peter and the other apostles. The people who are baptized "receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." We talk about this gift being given to us in baptism. In the passage from Luke, we definitely see Jesus in this passage, so the Father and the Holy Spirit must be present. We see the Holy Spirit in Cleopas and the other disciple walking along being opened to the scriptures. We cannot believe anything about God without the working of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is which gives us the ability to make the leap to faith.

Who is the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. In Christian history, discussions about The Holy Spirit happened fairly late. In the original edition of the Nicene creed, the Holy Spirit had one phrase, "And in the Holy Ghost." That was it. The Holy Spirit was the afterthought addendum to the Nicene Creed.  The theologians at the time were too busy trying to figure out Jesus. However, once they figured out Jesus, they did start discussing the Holy Spirit and so we end up with the end of the Nicene Creed as we now know it.

"We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen."

Much more meaty! But still kind of vague. The fuller ending of the Nicene Creed shows how the church has settled on the question of who the Holy Spirit is and what the work of the Spirit is. The Spirit is part of the Trinity of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is what inspired the prophets. The Spirit is what has created the church. The Spirit is that which moves in us to prompt us to baptism and shares with us the grace of the forgiveness of sins. The Spirit is that which gives us hope for the resurrection. All good things. But as you can see, still no determination on what the Spirit is, even though we can point to areas where the Spirit is at work.

In this way, the Spirit goes with the oldest metaphors of its name. In the books of the Hebrew scriptures, the Holy Spirit is known as the breath of God, in Hebrew, the feminine word, ruach, meaning breath or wind. Even though the wind blows and we can feel it, we cannot see it. We cannot see where it is coming from or where it is going. The Holy Spirit works in this mysterious way. In the New Testament, the Greek word for the Spirit is pneuma, also meaning breath or wind.  And of course, we get our name for the Holy Spirit from the Latin word meaning breath or wind, spiritus. God breaths out the Spirit and shares himself with us. I want you all to do something silly for a moment. Look over at the person closest to you and intentionally breathe towards them.  Go on... We all share God's breath, God's Spirit in us.

Who is the Holy Spirit? The Catechism from the Book of Common Prayer asks this very same question. It has this to say about the Spirit, "The Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Trinity, God at work in the world and in the Church even now." "The Holy Spirit is revealed as the Lord who leads us into all truth and enables us to grow in the likeness of Christ."
"We recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit when we confess Jesus Christ as Lord and are brought into love and harmony with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation." Who is the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is that which inspires us. Which is God breathing on us and leading us back to God. Through worship and prayer, we recognize the presence of the Spirit as everywhere in the world.


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday Sermon


Three years ago this May, I spent three weeks traveling and studying in the Holy Land. Every day was packed full with visiting places throughout Israel, my classmates and I had adventures to the tune of singing Christmas carols in the caves where Jesus may have been born in Bethlehem, drinking from Jacob’s well where Jesus talked with the Syrophoenician woman, swimming in the Sea of Galilee, renewing our baptismal vows in the Jordan River, taking time to walk across the barren hills of the Judean wilderness, and walking the stations of the Via Dolorosa, the way through Jerusalem Jesus is believed to have walked on the way to his crucifixion. On one of our action packed days we experienced an unplanned stop at the border wall separating the Israelis and the Palestinians. The guards went through our tour bus, checking all of our passports, asking a few of the group to get out and check through personal items. We waited there for a while, with the bus facing the wall and seeing the increasing line of people waiting to pass through the border check point. It was sad to see such obvious division between people who have so much in common.

Last summer I journeyed to Germany and took the time to visit the Berlin Wall, that infamous wall of separation between what used to be West Germany and East Germany. Even in pastoral Ireland, when I visited there, the landscape is littered with stone walls, crisscrossing the rolling green hills. Everywhere I go it seems, there are walls. I lived in Texas. And everyday I heard questions and worries about the wall and the border between the USA and Mexico. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to matter where we are in the world, we as humans are great at building walls. Stone, brick, concrete. It doesn't matter, we know how to build walls to keep each other out.

When I think of the gospel passage this morning, I see many differences between Jesus and ourselves, however one stands out to me in large letters. Jesus is not stopped by being entrapped behind stone walls. No tomb will contain Jesus. No walls can contain Jesus. No stone will stop a messenger of the Lord. God has done a marvelous work in Jesus. Jesus has overcome death. If even death cannot stop Jesus, nothing can stop Jesus. Not walls, not those we perceive as strong, not massive armies, not the rich and powerful. Jesus has already overturned the foundations of society. The foundation stones of society cannot stop the gospel, cannot stop Jesus.

Along with physical walls, there are, of course, emotional walls holding us back. Letting someone else inside your personal walls is a tell-tale sign of personal connection. All these walls stop us from sharing the community and unity for which Jesus stands. However, when we share our stories of Jesus, when we share our stories of what it is to be human, when we share what our lives are like, those walls come down. We are able to break on through to the other side. We are able to experience a bit of the joy and new life which Jesus wants to share with us.

It is a scary proposition, to live without walls. To break down the walls already in place, with decades of tradition, justifications miles long, and defenses to defy the most powerful forces. Yet, Even though we are afraid, there is no stopping the power of the gospel. There is no stopping Jesus. When walls come down there is plenty of debris and dust and confusion and cleaning up and readjusting to the new way of living. In the freedom of the gospel, that is the work of loving other people. Tearing down the walls and reaching out to those on the other side.

Do Not Be Afraid

Certainly, there is plenty to be afraid of in our current world. War, terrorism, unemployment, hunger, poverty, losing your home, losing your loved ones, losing your life. The list could go on and on for a long time. In the gospel passage, we hear, along with Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, the instruction, Do not be afraid, we hear it not once, but twice. Once from the angel of the Lord who meets the women at the tomb and, again, from Jesus when they meet him on the way to tell the disciples. The women’s receptivity to what the angel tells them and their ability not to be struck dumb by fear stands in stark contrast to the guards who are watching the tomb who shake at the appearance of the angel and become “like dead men.” (The Bene Gesserit mothers from the scifi series Dune were right, fear is the mind-killer, fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.) Fear literally held those guards back from experiencing Jesus.

Yet, we are told, Do not be afraid. Do not let fear hold you back. Do not let any wall, tomb, fence, hold you back. Trust in God. The good news of Jesus’ resurrection goes in so many directions. God has already started a marvelous work in the world. God is about to do a marvelous work in us.

When you are given a mission (and we have been)(you'll hear more about that in a minute) do not hold back. The women are giving a job to do. I would totally understand if they are afraid of telling the disciples about what they experienced at the tomb. Who was going to believe them? In Jewish law, you had to have three women to equal the testimony of one man, so already their witness is in the underdog category. And then to think of the actual message. Jesus is not dead, even though they all already know he has been crucified.  Jesus “has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him!” Those poor women, the men were going to think they were crazy.

However, they listen to the angel and Jesus. They do not let fear hold them back. Immediately, they worship Jesus, there on the spot. Worship and fear cannot go together. True worship wipes out fear and unites us in community. Then they go and tell the disciples the good news. They tell the disciples about the resurrection. The benefits of following Jesus are worth the vulnerability, worth the moment of being thought crazy. Biologically, fear is a natural reaction, and while the protective parts of the brain have kept us alive for so long, fear has no place here.

In the middle of the Eucharistic prayer, everyone in the rooms says something together. We call it the Memorial Acclamation. In today's service, in Eucharistic Prayer B, the Memorial Acclamation goes like this: We remember his death, We proclaim his resurrection, We await his coming in glory. Basically, the Memorial Acclamation is the encapsulated version of what it means to be a Christian. We are people who remember Jesus' death. We proclaim his resurrection, (that is part of our mission). And we wait. It does not speak about fear. Christian life is standing up to fear - not letting it stop us.

When angels, messengers of the Lord, come to tell us things, the first thing they say is always, Do not be afraid. Many have ruminated on this and said that obvious angels must be scary looking. However, there is a part of me that wonders whether the reason they say do not be afraid first is because they know what is coming. They warn us ahead of time. What is coming may be scary, they say,  do not be afraid. In this instance, with Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, what they are told next is fear inducing. What they are told to do was going to take courage. But what they are told is oh so important! And by no means to be stopped by fear. They were given a mission. A mission from God.


Do you remember playing hide and seek as a child? Or playing hide and seek with your child? Do you remember trying to be silent, waiting, filled with expectancy…waiting to find or be found. I remember many a game of hide and seek growing up at the Cathedral in Bethlehem, trying to squeeze myself into a particular little cabinet under a counter in an alcove near the offices that contained the office fridge, microwave, and coffee pot. Amid the coffee filters, Styrofoam cups, and napkins, I would wait breathlessly. Feeling suddenly very alone in a small space in a huge building. And when it was my turn to count and seek, wandering those hallways, searching for my siblings, friends, cousins, neighbors, expectantly going and searching, knowing that strung around the building, like a string of pearls, were other children already waiting for me.

Jesus does the same thing. He waits for us, throughout the world. Both the angel and Jesus himself tell the women to tell the disciples to go find Jesus elsewhere. The women are given a mission, Go! He was not in the tomb, he was waiting for them in Galilee. Go! They say. Go find Jesus! He is not here. Funny enough, the women find Jesus even before they get to Galilee. Jesus wasn’t just waiting there for the disciples, he was also there near the tomb. We are given the same mission. Go! Jesus is waiting for us everywhere. He has gone before us and will meet us out there.

Now, you may still question where you will Jesus hiding out in the world. I tell you, Jesus is there. Jesus is here, in the midst of the community present. In the people sitting next to you, in front of you, and yea, even behind you. Jesus is here, in the Eucharist, in the act of giving thanks for all the blessings that we have received from God. Jesus is in Galilee as well, out among the people, among the needy, the poor, the outcasts, the every day ordinary folk. Jesus is out there, at school, at work, in our neighborhoods, at the grocery store. Jesus is on the journey with us, as a pilgrim, wherever we go, we cannot be out of God's reach. Jesus in your heart, waiting for you to find him.

There is always that emotional moment in the game of hide and seek. When the seeker finds and the hider is found. There is joy, there is laughter, there is the knowledge that you are not alone. That is the way it is when you find Jesus, out there in the world waiting for you. When we go looking for Jesus, we will find him. After all, that is the beauty of hide and seek, you already know that you will always find, because you know they are waiting for you. You already know what is waiting for you too, and you will always find Jesus.


Good Friday

They laid Jesus in the tomb. A tomb cut out of the rock of the garden. A tomb of stone with a large stone standing in front of the entrance as a door, as a barrier, as a wall. The stone represents the end. Nothing else can happen now. There is such a sense of finality to the ending of the story today. We know death. We have experienced death in our lives before. Death is the end. We see Jesus finish his earthly mission and accomplish everything the Father has sent him to do. I wonder if he felt any sense of relief or success in completing his mission. Yet, it looks so much like failure. There is such a sense of loss. The Messiah, the Christ, the Rabbi Jesus is dead. 

Naturally, the first question after any loss is why? Even if there exists a perfectly reasonable explanation for why a person died, it is never enough to comfort the bereaved after the loss of a loved one. The disciples must have asked this question as we do today. Why? Why did Jesus die? The most direct answers to the question also leave much to be desired. Jesus died because of fear, because he had to, because it was the only way to show us how much God loves us and set us free.
Why did Jesus die? Jesus died because of human fear. At that time, fear in the midst of the leaders, fear of uprising, fear of the unknown, fear of people being, saying, believing, and doing differently. Certainly, though, we cannot blame those at the time for their fear. We have the same fear living inside of ourselves. It comes out in our prejudices, it comes out in our ability to allow people to fall through the cracks, it comes out in our desire to stay within groups of like-minded people. We hold on to those same fears as the people living in ancient Palestine. We have for generations and centuries. Fear is many times as much as an end as death. We cannot get past our fear. 

Thankfully, fear is not the only reason Jesus died. Jesus most definitely could have saved himself. Jesus' death is an event which people have dissected for centuries. However you look at it though, Jesus died because he had to. Jesus in a way, allowed himself to be killed. He sacrificed himself upon our fear to show us a better way. Not once does Jesus act out in fear during the events leading up to his death. Jesus' death is not a ransom for a vengeful God - no, Jesus gives of himself. Its an act of self-giving that many of us cannot fathom, our sense of self-preservation is too strong. Jesus gives everything he has and is, his mission, his ministry, his family, his life. We may never be able to understand why he had to die. 

Why did Jesus die? Jesus died because it was the only way to show us how much God loves us and to set us free. Really? Death was the only way? I think of the story of Lazarus and the rich man, who asks Abraham to send Lazarus back as a dead man raised to go speak to his brothers. Yes, really, it was the only way. The largest things holding us back from life, from love, from freedom, are fear, sin, and death. Jesus had to go through those things in order to be able to save us from them.

During the season of Lent, the Adult Formation group discussed six heresies that have to do with Jesus' nature. The first question we discussed was whether or not God does suffer. The orthodox position, the non-heretical position, on this question is that God in human form did suffer as Jesus. In his suffering, as both divine and human, Jesus bridges the gap between human beings and God, a gap which only exists because of fear, sin, and death. Through Jesus we have a way to encounter, engage with, and become one with God.

Through breaking death, God saves all of us from our sins and the power of death. In Jesus' death, there is hope. There is not only a promise of forgiveness, but a very concrete act of forgiveness. By taking on the consequences of our actions, by removing them, Jesus opens up the possibility that we might live freely in gratitude and peace.

Why did Jesus die? Jesus died for us. We celebrate and we memorialize this every year. Jesus' death is both a very communal event and a very personal one. We come together to stand at the foot of the cross, at the door of the tomb to witness to Jesus' death. To witness to the insufficient reasons that the Son of God had to die. To witness to the loss that we feel. To witness to the end of a way of life on earth. Jesus died for us and we come together today to remember his sacrifice on our behalf. 


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Ordinary Stones

Palm Sunday

The reality of the situation this morning is, that after the story we read and heard, I feel emotionally tired and confused. We could rename this day, Whiplash Sunday. Palm Sunday is the most emotionally confusing day in the whole liturgical calendar. Why do we start with Jesus being proclaimed King, only to witness the whole story of him being betrayed, condemned, crucified, and dying, and then leave it there. Waiting for the rest of this week to reenact the story again. What is there to be gained from starting in triumph, only to end in defeat? What is there to be gained from starting in celebratory community, only to end in personal isolation? What do we gain from listening to the hopes of an entire people for their freedom, only to end in their leader being nailed to a cross?
There is a deep seated irony in the layout of the church service this morning. We come together to share this story, letting it rest in death for a while, and then after the prayers, and the peace, we are going to celebrate the rest of the story in Eucharist, in sharing communion, before we have even told the whole story.
Yet, it is into this irony that we must walk. The paradox of this week is that it is the greatest journey of our lives. This is part of the reason we do it over and over again every year. We celebrate a terrible story of human pain and suffering, because the ending is the defeat of all pain and suffering. We share this story this morning because this paradox of killing our Savior takes time to sink in, to stretch our minds, our hearts, so that we will be open to the working of God in our lives. This paradox turns our worlds upside down, inside out, front to back, in the best way imaginable.
I have a lot of favorite things about Jesus and his way of doing ministry on this earth. One of my favorites is his ingenious way of using the ordinary things of this created existence, the every day materials, to share extraordinary ideas. It is another paradox, for a day saturated in paradox, that the ordinary can be extraordinary. What strikes me as ordinary in the Passion gospel story today – but as also extraordinary, is the image of the rocks splitting at the end.
A stone takes time to make - thousands of years to make. And yet, we see the rocks splitting in this story almost instantaneously. Bible imagery of stones is not one typically talked about. We talk about bread and wine, we talk about fish and boats and water, we talk about the wilderness, we talk about hearts and minds and bodies, we talk about tents and temples, but not stones.
Yet, stones, the end result of soil being compacted through pressure for a long time into something very solid, stones are littered throughout scripture. I can think of Jacob's pillow when he dreams of the ladder to heaven, countless altars, pillars, idols, the foundations and pillars of the temple, the imagery of the chief cornerstone from the psalms, the tablets of stone on which are written the ten commandments, the stone with which David kills Goliath, the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, the heart of stone imagery, stones crying out, children of Abraham being made out of stones, Jesus' temptation to make bread out of stones, the destruction of the temple, not one stone will be left upon another... all the way from the beginning of creation through to the splitting of the rocks and tombs of stone being opened when Jesus dies. 

In every day literature, we use stones to represent the most basic of things and situations. Stone walls to keep each other out or to keep ourselves and our stuff safely inside. And those stones take time to break. In a way, we are given time, this Holy Week, to contemplate the stones set before us now. We need time to contemplate, to meditate, we need this week to see the stones before us and figure out how to knock them down. So that when we get to the tomb, we don’t get entrapped by his rock. We are left with the image at the end of the passage of the earth shaking and stones being split. How extraordinary!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Community of all the Saints

At St. John’s this year, we have been focusing on the theme of community for Lent. We have been reflecting on community in the newsletter each week, we have been learning about the agreement that makes it possible for St. John’s and Grace to be together in community during our Wednesday night program, and we have been studying some of the theological questions which have brought together the Church community throughout the centuries. While Lent is a time of many different spiritual practices, there is one pretty popular one that focuses on this theme of community, especially the communion of all the saints.

Lent Madness is a Lenten spiritual devotion that seeks to inspire and educate people about the communion of saints through humor and competition. Based on a tournament style, single elimination bracket system, those who take part in the community of Lent Madness gradually learn about different saints throughout the season of Lent and eventually chose one saint from the year’s original pool of 32 to win The Golden Halo. Each day the community votes based on the biographical information, quotes and quirks, legends, and even kitsch of each saint in the bracket. In this way, many learn new stories and ways that people throughout the world and centuries have lived and worked for Christ.

It is always good to remember and learn from those who have walked this journey before us. We walk as pilgrims on the way, following in the footsteps of thousands of faithful people. Learning about them and each other can inspire us on our own journeys. As we head into Holy Week and the hard walk of following Jesus to the cross, remember that we do not go alone. We make this walk together, with those we can see and those we cannot.

(If you would like to learn more about Lent Madness, visit their site:

See you on the journey!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Stones in the Way

Lent 5A
Jesus if only you had been here...
We all know what it feels like to have loved and lost. Maybe you have lost a beloved pet, a spouse, a child, a parent, or another family member or friend. Maybe this loss hit you in ways you hadn’t thought it would, making life harder, each day more painful, making rational thought less focused. We all know the feelings of individual loss. And as a congregation, St. John’s has gone through communal losses, the losses of beloved community members, the loss of church buildings due to fire, the loss of priests due to death, vocation change, and family transitions. Each time one of these situations happen, we find it easy to say with Martha and Mary from the gospel passage today, Jesus, if only you had been here… implying that if Jesus had been here, we would not have had to lose what was beloved to us. Both Mary and Martha voice this longing to Jesus, knowing that he could have stopped their brother Lazarus from dying, and feeling sorely his lack of presence in that moment. Surely, we have all thought at some time or another, Jesus, if only you had been here.
Martha is the first one in the passage to voice this lament, Jesus, if only you had been here… Naturally, Jesus doesn’t answer her with a straight forward reply. No, Jesus offers truth to the pain. “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” In listening to Jesus say this, there is that immediate momentary joy, there is a way to escape death! The immediate and momentary joy of good news… before the other shoe drops. Because then there is the realization of truly what Jesus is speaking about, what it means to believe in him.
Do you believe in Jesus? Do you believe in Jesus Christ?
Martha answers, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” She answers yes, however John tries to make it clear in this passage that this answer is not the fullness of belief, you can’t just SAY that you believe. Full belief in Jesus requires our souls and bodies. Our hearts, our minds, our strengths, our weaknesses. Giving ourselves to Jesus is like giving ourselves in marriage. In Church tradition, we talk a lot about Jesus being the bridegroom and the church being the bride. We talk a lot about how Jesus is married to the church because there is a fundamental fullness to the self-giving that happens in true marriage. A person doesn’t give themselves partially to another in marriage, a marriage will only work well if they give fully of everything they are, have, and will be. Do you believe? Have you given fully of yourself to Jesus? It is a hard question to answer with a firm yes! Giving everything we are and have takes real dedication, practice, and devotion. We are human and we fail at times. In this story, we hear Martha give more of an affirmation of believing in who Jesus is than Peter ever does in the book of Mark. In the gospel of Mark, this would have been good enough as a firm yes, however, John demands both word and action. John is waiting for Martha to show her belief in her actions.
John demands both word and action in showing belief in Jesus. Unfortunately, John finds Martha lacking in the action department. So, what does this look like? Who is really living into belief in Jesus? Society and Christianity differ on who can be considered to be really living. Society says that you need to have tried everything, been bold in relationships with other people, climbed the career ladder, traveled the world, and tested human boundaries to be really living. Basically only the people who cliff jump or are CEOs of startup companies or celebrities are the people who are really living. Yet, Christianity has a very different idea of what it means to be really living. To live a full life in Christianity means to live fully into belief in Jesus Christ, into the new life given to us through his death and resurrection. We see this in those in our community who are tirelessly working on behalf of others. Who give themselves over to devoted prayer for others, who show up to support those who are hungry, homeless, lacking healthcare, economic stability or education. Those who care for those who no one else cares about.
What about the rest of us? What is stopping us from giving our full selves? What is stopping us from living real and new lives? I think of the stone between Jesus and Lazarus in this passage. Stones were symbols of death and isolation in ancient times. Most graves were constructed of stone, as the safest way to keep animals away from the dead. That stone, keeping Lazarus and his smell in, acted as a boundary wall, keeping Lazarus stuck where he was. Sometimes the walls between us and Jesus are stone walls, sometimes they are brick walls. Sometimes they are the walls of our offices or our houses or even our church. Sometimes those walls are inside of our minds, thoughts and ideas that isolate us or hold us back from living fully and in newness. Anytime I think of boundary walls inside the mind, I think of Pink Floyd’s famous album, The Wall. If you’ve ever fully listened to the album, you know the disaster that comes from the main character building an emotional wall between himself and the world, in part brought on by the loss of his father.
No matter what kind of wall, stone, brick, or emotional, holds us back, Jesus calls to us.
And Jesus doesn’t just call us up on the telephone politely. No.
He shouts.
Lazarus, come out! Elizabeth, come out! Dave, come out!
There is a saying in the more evangelical denominations that Jesus had to specifically say Lazarus’ name because otherwise all the graves would open and all the dead would have risen. Can you imagine? Can you hear Jesus calling your name now? Come out! Come out from behind the stone that is holding you back. Let the community of the church help unbind you! Be unbound! It’s not just Jesus that unbinds Lazarus, the community of Jews present helps as well. Let this community help you be unbound. Heed Jesus’ cry, hear the Good Shepherd calling to you, come out! There is work in this world waiting to be done which can only be done by Jesus working through us. Come out! Be unbound! Believe in him! Live fully into Jesus’ love for you.


Thursday, March 30, 2017

Community Polishing

If you have been reading along this Lent with the Episcopal Relief and Development Lenten Meditations booklet that we handed out this year, you will know that one of this week's reflections was about a rock polisher, a coffee-can-sized cylinder that turns rocks around and polishes them. Michael Buerkel Hunn, a Canon in the Presiding Bishop's office, wrote about how he used to love rocks and loved to see what they would look like when they came out of the rock polisher. He used that metaphor to describe the church. "So I think of church as God's tumbling coffee can for our souls. We come together and as we interact we bump into one another, sharing our conflicting ideas and diverse perspectives. In the process, our souls are polished." Michael Buerkel Hunn, Lenten Meditations 2017, p. 44

In any community we interact with the other people involved in that community. Since no two people are alike, everyone is unique, we always have the opportunity to be learning from each other. As we are learners, we are teachers. In this process of learning and growing in a community, we become more fully the person that God is calling us to be. Sometimes this happens through agreements and finding other people who share our perspectives. Sometimes this happens through sharp edges, challenges, and growing in patience and perseverance. Yet, we are not on this journey alone. We are polished with care, bringing out the best in each of us.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Blind Man Who Saw Jesus

Lent 4A

It was a beautiful Saturday morning. Jesus and his disciples were walking around Jerusalem, deciding what they were going to have for lunch and what he was going to teach about in the synagogue that afternoon. As they were walking, Jesus happened to lock eyes with a blind man and when his disciples saw who he was looking at, they asked him a question. Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?  They assumed that he had been born blind, he must not have been an old man. Neither, Jesus replies, he was born blind so that God may be glorified. And he makes one of his famous I AM statements, I am the light of the world. Seems like a bit of a non-sequitur. Then Jesus spits on the ground, makes mud, and spreads it on the blind man’s eyes. Reminding the disciples of the story of creation, where God created humans out of mud. Jesus tells the blind man, face covered in mud, to go wash in the pool. It wasn’t far from where they were and the man came back excited. He could see! Astonishing! The people around started noticing and creating a stir. Is this the same blind man? While the man was washing and exclaiming about his new sight and figuring out what everything looked like, Jesus and his disciples had moved along. Another day in the kingdom. But the crowd kept asking the formerly blind man, where is he? Where is Jesus? All he could answer, the poor man, who had never even seen Jesus, was I don’t know.

How often are we able to answer the question, Where is Jesus? Certainly, it can be hard to see Jesus in this world. The priorities of our government and society are not well aligned with Christian action. I think of all the pictures of Jesus as a white, long blonde haired, bearded, blue eyed man with perfect skin, and I look out into the world and I see no one who matches that description. Where is Jesus? Where is he now? Yet, once Jesus has opened our eyes, we are able to see him everywhere, in everyone. Not as a white man, but as the light of the world. Lighting up that which is most precious in each of us.

The formerly blind man is a spectacle. Of course, someone decided that the Pharisees needed to see this, so they take him to them. Naturally, because it’s a Sabbath day, this great news doesn’t go over so well. What happened? Who was it? How did it happen? Why did it happen? When did it happen? I’m sure the formerly blind man was subjected to full questioning. However, the answers don’t clarify the situation. Who is this healer and how can he heal on the Sabbath day? A sinner couldn’t do this, but then it is a sin to work on the Sabbath. Human rules get very confusing. The Pharisees turn on the formerly blind man, What do you say about him?
He is a prophet, he says.  Funny enough, Jesus doesn’t actually do anything prophet-like in this passage. Prophets weren’t known for curing people. Prophets weren’t known for disappearing. Prophets were long winded. They cried destruction and ruin down on the people of Israel. They wouldn’t let people alone. The people had tried to kill Jeremiah, and Daniel, and Elijah… but they kept coming back. Wouldn’t shut up. However the formerly blind man insists. Jesus is a prophet. If I were dragged into court because of my encounters with Jesus, what would I say about who Jesus is? I would say Jesus is my redeemer. Jesus died that I might live more fully. Jesus is my Savior and that which keeps me caring. If you were dragged into court because of your life experience with Jesus, what would you say about Jesus? Is Jesus a prophet, a teacher, the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God?

My guess is that no matter how the formerly blind man had answered, the Pharisees were not going to be happy. They call in the parents. Perhaps they will get a good answer to what has happened from them. However, his parents have no idea. This is probably the first they have seen of their son that day. Look at that! He can see! I feel for them, emotionally confused. Wanting to be happy their son can see, and also scared because of being questioned. Worried about their son getting mixed up with this Jesus character. They try to bow out, ask him, he can speak for himself.

The Pharisees are getting frustrated now. They call back the formerly blind man. The man who healed you is a sinner, they tell him. It doesn’t matter to the healed man. He has already become a disciple of Jesus. He shows more spiritual maturity than the Pharisees, the synagogue teachers! Naturally, that bothers them to no end and they drive the formerly blind man out. The formerly blind man, the healed man, knows. Jesus comes from God. There is no other acceptable answer to how this miracle happened. The joy in the healed man must be overwhelming. He has met a man of God. God has given him life, new life, healing, love, a new teacher, a new mission.

We don’t know what Jesus was doing all day, however, when all is said and done with the Pharisees, he turns up again. Jesus goes and finds the healed man. He asks him, Do you believe in the Son of Man? At this point, the healed man may have believed anything Jesus told him. You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he. Not a grand I AM statement this time, but the indirect logic of “oh, that’s me.” The healed man confesses belief in Jesus and worships him. He doesn’t scoff at him, shout yea, right! He doesn’t ask his list of top ten questions to ask God. He accepts and praises. He moves on with his new work in the world. His maturity in accepting his place as a disciple is astounding. This healed man has gone from being an outcast because of being blind to being acceptable in society to being an outcast again, this time because of Jesus, all in one day.

Unfortunately, the Pharisees are shown misunderstanding Jesus one last time. The passage plays with the ideas of light and darkness, seeing and being blind over and over again. What can we see with our eyes? What can we see with the eyes of our hearts? Of our souls? Through the eyes of God?  Jesus specifically says that he is the light of the world, but being able to see the light of the world requires being able to see beyond the light of day. This story, like so many others in the gospel of John, parallel the stories in Genesis. John has written about the new creation. Jesus is recreating the world, healing it, saving it, loving it. That is Jesus’ work. Our work in the world is the work of the healed man, accepting Jesus’ marvelous gift and praising, confessing and worshiping, being open and being made new. Amen.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Born Again In Baptism

Lent 2A
12 March 2017

“How can anyone be born after having grown old?” A very logical question, Nicodemus. Unfortunately, Nicodemus is thinking a little too logically. Because when Jesus answers back with this gem, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” It’s really no surprise that Nicodemus is a bit confused. What does he mean, born from above? Whatever can Jesus mean?
The phrase, “born from above,” in the NRSV is the same phrase that is translated as “born again” in other translations. “Born again” is definitely a buzz word in modern Christianity. It stands for inclusion into the more fundamental evangelical conservative groups on the Christianity spectrum. Only if you have had an experience of being born again, having a total life reversal because of an encounter with Jesus, can you be born again. When I think of the phrase, born again, I think of televangelists and celebrities who have done bad things and then claim to be born again. I think of people walking the streets with pamphlets asking if I have been saved or born again or if I know if I am going to heaven or hell.
So what does Jesus really mean? Jesus tries to clarify by saying, being born of water and Spirit. Now, that is still not the clearest answer in the world, however it is one step further. We can make a connection with being born of water and Spirit. We are born of water and Spirit in our rite of baptism. Baptism is where we acknowledge and accept the spiritual nature our lives and where we are imbued with the Holy Spirit. We become part of God's family through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In baptism we are reborn with the intention of living a life following Jesus and in relationship with God. In Episcopal parlance, being born again would mean living very seriously out of our baptisms. I like how Jesus says that we must be born of water and Spirit. It is a both/and situation. Being born again requires both the physical aspect of our bodies and the spiritual aspect of the Spirit. We are not just physical or not just spiritual. One of the many heresies that the church tried to shed itself of in the early centuries of Christianity was the gnostic movement, which came out of popular Greek philosophy which viewed the body as evil and corrupt and that the best way of life was to escape the body as much as possible. This is not the case with Jesus, water is a very physical aspect of our lives as human beings on this planet. We need water for survival. I was at the Carnegie Science Museum this past week and one of the things I learned is that I have approximately 13 gallons of water in me, about 60% of me is made up of water! We are both physical and spiritual and we need to be born both physically and spiritually in order to follow Jesus into eternal life.
Living out of our baptisms is what Episcopalians have been trying to do very specifically since the approval of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Baptism makes all people ministers of the church. We all have a mission. In order to take our baptisms seriously, in order to make that mission our own, we have to take the baptismal covenant promises seriously. If you look at the promises of baptism in the BCP (p. 304), you’ll see that we are all called very intentionally in the Baptismal Covenant to do certain activities, to be part of the community, even when we disagree with those in the community. To share in the breaking of bread, to continue in a prayerful relationship with God, to share your story about Jesus with others, to serve others, to love others, and to love yourself! We have been called to renounce the evil ways in our lives. Wait, I know none of you are intentionally maliciously evil to anyone else. However, evil is sneaky. We are all unfortunately complicit in the institutional evils in our country that trap people in poverty and ignorance and hunger. We all have prejudices we cannot see or don't wish to see. We are all tempted in many and various ways to use our abundance selfishly or to put something other than God first in our lives. We all fall into the trap of thinking that we can save ourselves through hard work or smart plans or through some deal. Thankfully, as we are called to repent and renounce all this evil, we have God’s promise of forgiveness. And there is still more. We are called to work for justice and peace and dignity for everyone. Not just those who are like you or us. Not just those who speak the same language or follow the same religion. Not just those who legally live in Franklin in a separate house. We are called to work for justice and peace and dignity for everyone, of every color, nation, gender, ability, background, we are all born of water, made up of water.
Jesus ends the gospel passage from John that we hear today with such good news! God loves us. God sent his Son to save us. God wants us to have eternal life. This is definitely good news. Baptism is part of our way of accepting this good news. There are others. We accept the gift that God has given us. Good works come forth from our acceptance and our willingness and our desire to share. Through this acceptance and belief we come to see the kingdom of God. The author of the gospel of John only refers to the kingdom of God twice in the entire book. Both times are in this passage. The kingdom of God is not something that we are waiting for, Jesus says, it is something to be seen. “Very truly,” Jesus says, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” How can we see the kingdom of God here on earth? We see it in the sharing of communal life. We see it in those who are working on behalf of others. We see it in the time and effort of those who work the Shepherd's Green Community Food Pantry. We see it in all the great work and mission being done outside our doors.

Being born of water and Spirit is about accepting the invitation into the family and kingdom of God. Once in the family, there are, as every family has, family rules. The rule of God’s family is most simply summarized in one word. It is in fact a four letter word, and it is not the easiest word in the world to do and act on and be and feel… but it is the family rule. God calls us to love. As God loves, we are called to love. With love, we will see the kingdom of God around us. With love, we will be healed and saved. With love, we will understand the greatest mystery in the world. Amen.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Trusting God

Lent 1A
5 March 2017
“Forty days and forty nights, thou wast fasting in the wild; forty days and forty nights tempted, and yet undefiled.” Hymn 150 begins. We have officially started the season of Lent. The gospel passage for today sets us firmly in the season of Lent and it fits the beginning of Lent so very well. We are told that Jesus is led into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. The number forty in the Bible is symbolic of a time of transition, and this story comes as the transition for Jesus between his baptism by John in the river Jordan and the beginning of his ministry throughout the region of Judea. Jesus is led by God into the desert for some transition time to test and strengthen his call to ministry and his identity. This passage calls to mind another transitional testing period in the wilderness – the time the Israelites spent in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. However, we know full well that the Israelites failed the testing they experienced there. They did not trust God and so they had to wait forty years before they could enter the Promised Land. However, we will see that Jesus doesn’t fail his test.
The other important number in this passage is the number three. Three is a magic number!, says School House Rock and so it is in the Bible. Human beings tend to like the number three. In public speaking courses, I was always taught that three is the easiest number to remember and thus, it is best to keep arguments, examples, and lists to the magic number of three. Certainly, three also has a very solid place in Christianity, being Trinitarian as we are.
In the gospel passage today, we see Jesus tempted by Satan three times. The word, “Satan,” literally means "Adversary" and was the ancient term for the prosecuting attorney in a court of law, so naturally, Satan was going to put Jesus through some tough questioning. After Jesus spends forty days and forty nights fasting in the wilderness, Satan finds him and puts him to the test. He questions him and as much as anyone can pin down the intentions of the devil, it seems that Satan is trying to do three things. Satan was trying to have Jesus doubt himself, his vocation, and God. Satan was trying to hijack Jewish tradition by taking over the special places where we find God at work, the desert, the holy city, and the mountaintop. Satan was trying to tempt Jesus into committing selfishness, distrust, and idolatry.
In order to see these things more clearly, and to see what Matthew is showing us about Jesus’ identity, we are going to dive into each of Satan’s tests.
First, the tempter comes to Jesus, after forty days and forty nights of fasting, when Jesus is especially famished and probably willing to kill for a good full meal, and says, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Here is where doubt enters the equation. Satan doubts that Jesus is the Son of God and puts the burden of proof on Jesus. While there really isn’t a question here, just a demand, Satan effectively asks Jesus for proof that he is who God said that he was. Jesus doesn’t give in. Satan also chooses a temptation that holds a lot of significance for Jesus. In the coming chapters of Matthew, Jesus does multiply bread so that everyone might be filled in the feeding of the five thousand. Turning stones into bread for himself would be wasteful and selfish, since he would probably be only able to eat one loaf anyway. Turning stones into bread would also bypass the human labor involved, which becomes the work and vocation of humanity in the Genesis story where Adam and Eve are thrown out of the garden. So Jesus tells Satan no, he says, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus puts his faith in God, who led him out into the wilderness in the first place. God will get him through.
Second, the devil takes Jesus to the top of the pinnacle of the temple of the holy city, to a view point with which to see all of Israel, and says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Again, Satan starts with the big IF. If you are the Son of God, which puts the burden of proof on Jesus. Satan also knows very well how to quote scripture. If that is the game, as Jesus had quoted scripture to him, then he could play that game. However, Jesus does not need to gain the holy city for himself. Jesus does not need power over Israel. Jesus is already Emmanuel, the Messiah, the Christ. God with us. Jesus knows that his trust rests in God, so he replies, “Again, it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Third, the devil takes Jesus to the mountaintop. We know from our reading of the gospel passage last week of the Transfiguration what it means to go up to the mountain top. There is power and tradition and insight at the top of the mountain. Satan does his best to supplant all of that. The irony is that while Satan offers all the kingdoms of the world to Jesus if he will worship him, all the kingdoms of the world, and much more besides, already belong to Jesus. God has entrusted him with power over all of creation. Jesus knows that Satan wishes him to commit idolatry by worshiping something other than God.
It is interesting to note that the order that the tests appear in Matthew are different than in the gospels of Mark and Luke. Matthew is making a point about the levels of power involved. The devil starts with Jesus himself. Then he moves on to Israel, the chosen people. Lastly, the devil offers Jesus the world. Yet, Jesus does not fall into the trap of feeling the need to justify himself at any power level. Jesus is not insecure. He does not need to prove that he is the Son of God. God has already spoken and Jesus trusts God.
Unlike the Israelites in the desert, who failed to trust God, Jesus puts his faith in God and is faithful. Through the temptations of Jesus we see a man in solidarity with humanity. We see a man who has integrity. We see a man who trusts God. Through Jesus’ example, we know that we can trust God. We are called to serve God, to trust God, not to test God. We are called to stand fast as Jesus did through the trials and tests of this world. At the end of his temptations, Jesus knows more fully his true identity and purpose. He knows more fully that he can trust God. He is given strength for his journey. Because the road to Jerusalem will not be an easy one. May we walk with Jesus this Lenten season, being tested and tempted, but trusting God to the end. Amen.