Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday Sermon



Stone

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.



Go!

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.


Amen.

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. 

Amen. 


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Ordinary Stones

Palm Sunday
4/9/17

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: www.lentmadness.org)


See you on the journey!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Stones in the Way

Lent 5A
4/2/17
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.
Amen.

 

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

3/26/17
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.
 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday
3/1/17
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Paradox always seems to hit in the most sacred of moments. Today, I am experiencing some serious conflict between what we have come here together to do this morning and the gospel passage for today. Ash Wednesday is best known for the imposition of ashes in the sign of the cross on our foreheads, but it is also known as a major fast day for the Church. A day where people give up food, sweets, meats, and all manner of other things in order to focus on God. Yet, in the gospel passage from Matthew, Jesus tells us very specifically not to make it known to everyone that we are fasting… which is slightly incongruous with putting ashes on our heads. Paradoxical? Maybe. Hypocritical? Maybe.

The true question underneath this ironic situation is, “What is appropriate piety to practice?” This passage in Matthew is structured around the three major ways of the Jewish tradition to practice piety, to practice following their beliefs. First, alms giving. Second, prayer. Third, fasting. Jesus is teaching on these three pillars of the Jewish practice in order to teach his followers differently from what the religious leaders of the day are teaching. Throughout the gospels, we see Jesus at work combating the ideas of the religious leaders of the day through modeling as an example of what to do instead of what was shown by others. Even in the way that Jesus talks about these three practices you can feel the tension going on. The passage goes back and forth between what hypocrites do and what we should do. The passage goes back and forth between human rewards and divine rewards. The passage goes back and forth between the reality of what happens and the intention of the practice.

This conflict gets even worse when we think about what we are doing today in our service. Putting ashes on our heads during a fast and looking sad during a Eucharistic service. How many times in your life do you think you have ever looked bored while in church? How many times in our lives have we come to church simply because we feel like we have to? We fast when we should be feasting. Our regular Sunday morning service is a celebration of thanksgiving, a time when we are feasting because of the abundance that God has given us, and yet… many times the spirit in the pews is not one of rejoicing. Yet we come to Ash Wednesday and we could almost be said to be showing off.

So what does it mean to be hypocritical? Originally, the word used was the same word used for actors in plays. Today we use the word for those whose words and actions did not lineup, who say one thing, but mean or do another. Hypocrites remind me of the two faced Roman god Janus. Hypocrisy in our spiritual and communal lives means that when we parade around what we are doing, while justifying ourselves with the intention, but simply looking for others to notice us, we are causing our actions and words to not line up. When it comes to true piety, practice of our beliefs, we have to follow through on the intentions of the practices and not just the actions. We do things for their own reward, not because other people will notice that we are doing them.

The ashes that we will wear this day reflect a true intention. They will be blessed, with the intention that they are a symbol for us, and not just to others who see them. However, they are only part of the symbolism that is being made. The season of Lent throughout history was primarily a time to prepare those who were going to baptized. The catechumenates, those preparing for baptism, spent the entire six weeks of Lent preparing, learning, and changing their behaviors, in order to be able to live the new life of a Christian when they were baptized, usually on Easter Sunday. Thus, the counterpart of the symbol of ashes on our foreheads is the seal of oil that is put on our foreheads when we are baptized. We are dust, but we are also beloved children of God. For those of us who have been baptized, that seal is still on our foreheads, and the two, the ashes and oil, mix together. We know the new life in Christ. But we also know the death of life in Christ as well. We are reborn with Christ in his resurrection because we die with Christ in his crucifixion.

Each year, we take the season of Lent to remember and prepare anew for this reality to be made more real in us. Though not many of us are going through this journey for the first time, we still continue with this journey. Like the legendary phoenix, which prepares to die, though we know it will be reborn from the ashes of its death. We prepare ourselves for death, hoping to join in Christ’s resurrection. The ashes on our foreheads show this preparation, this time of growth, this journey that we begin. Not individually, but together, as the body of Christ with all the believers.

How do we prepare? We give, we pray, we fast. Not as the hypocrites, but as people who know and believe in the intention of the practices. As people who have no thoughts as to the rewards. If our ultimate goal is the living out of God’s love for this world, then Jesus sets out a few examples in this passage for us to follow. Be a good steward and don't brag about it, he says. Prayer has one purpose, conversation with God, he teaches. You don’t need to be verbose, you don’t need to always include others, you don’t always have to have your conversation with God out loud. Jesus reminds us, Be sincere. Enjoy your relationship with God.  Remember that what matters is the love of God, the love of neighbor - these are the treasures worth having.

Amen.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Salt and Light

Many people when they reach a certain age start to feel like nothing can change. There isn't any point in setting any new goals, there isn't any reason to dream for anything different. Some people reach a state of despair or a state of indifference such that nothing really matters anymore. And really, this can happen at any age, however, it has become largely noticeable in the seventy and over age group these days. Despair can hit anyone who has struggled for a long time and feels like they are not attaining anything different or important. Working with people who have reached rock bottom can be hard to do. However, we all need a little encouragement some of the time. Our good friend, C. S. Lewis once said, “You are never to old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.”

Encouragement. Most people at some point in their lives find themselves an encouragement story or quote that they hang on to when the going gets rough. I remember the halls and walls of my middle school being covered in encouragement posters, saying things like, "If Plan A doesn't work, the alphabet still has 25 more letters." Or Frank Sinatra's, "the best revenge is massive success." In high school, I adopted my own personal encouragement statement, "smile, defy gravity." Not only was I trying to remember to smile, but I was also sticking it to Isaac Newton and his infallible physics laws. Two points for me.

Encouragement is the name of the game today because that is one of the plays that Jesus is trying to make in the gospel passage for today. This passage comes directly after last week's passage, commonly known as the Beatitudes, a series of blessings for the people following Jesus. He switches from blessing the crowds to encouraging them to share what they have with others. He tells them that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Jesus tells the crowds that they are following him through the laws and beyond. What he does not tell him, but what is implicit in what he does say, is that they are worth it. That they are able to make a difference. You are the salt of the earth. You can make a difference. You are the light of the world. Let your light shine. You can make a difference. That sounds like encouragement to me.

Maybe you aren't buying it. Why would being the salt of the earth be a good thing? Salt was a very precious commodity in the ancient world. Salt had to be gathered and purified. Salt was used to preserve food so that it didn't have to be eaten immediately. Salt also has healing and cleaning properties. In Jewish tradition, and later Christian tradition, salt was blessed and used in exorcisms and baptisms and blessing places.  Salt really doesn't have too much of its own flavor. Garlic, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, all of these spices definitely have their own flavor. Salt, though is really only used to enhance the flavor of something else. Its kind of like a magnifying glass. It makes what is already present harder, better, faster, stronger.

The funny thing about salt is that it is like honey. Left by themselves, honey and salt never go bad. Salt is a stable chemical compound. Unless it gets wet, it will stay salt and salty for a very very very long time. 

The analogy then is that when we act like salt of the earth, we do not call attention to ourselves. Instead, we enhance what is already present. We bring out the good flavor of what is already going on. We make things better. Salt's mission in this world is not to promote salt, but to make everything else better. We are not called to promote ourselves, but God.

So after Jesus blesses the crowds with the beatitudes, he encourages them by telling them that they are the salt of the earth. They are imminently good. And necessary. The crowds that Jesus was talking to were the lowly country people. They were not the high and mighty, not the celebrities. And yet, Jesus tells them they are the ones giving flavor to this world. They are the ones that can make life better for other people.

In the same manner, Jesus tells the crowd that they are the light of the world. Human beings need light to be able to see. We are created that way. And in order for other people to see God, they have to have the right kind of light. The people who are in darkness can't see God, because there isn't any light. Light does also normally follow Newtonian physics. Which means that unless something stops it, it will shine everywhere it can reach. Jesus tells his followers that they are the light, that unless they stop themselves for some reason, they can shine the light of God everywhere. Being light can be a burden, a responsibility, but it is also an honor. We are the light. Only we can show others what it is to see God in this world.

We follow in the footsteps of those in the crowds that day. We are the salt of the earth. We give flavor to this world. We are the light of the world. We can shine light on what it means to see God in this world.


So, I encourage you. Be salt and be light. I encourage you to try something new out this week. Try something you've always dreamed of doing or set a new goal this week. I encourage you to write down all the ways in which God has worked through you to help someone else. I encourage you to shine, to sparkle, to add flavor to another person's life. I encourage you to love, love deeply, love widely, love even in the midst of the hard moments and difficult emotions. I encourage you to be salt and light. I encourage you to trust God and follow Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Hope

Epiphany 4A
In the late 1960’s, when the United States was trying to come to terms with the civil rights movement, one man in Georgia saw the confusion and hostility and hopelessness experienced by his neighbors. Instead of marching or demonstrating, he decided to open a communal farm based off the stories in the Acts of the Apostles where all possessions were held in common and all members were considered equal. Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farm, based off the Greek word for community, were well known at the time and seen as a threat to many in the South who believed in segregation. As part of his work, Jordan also wrote a new version of the gospel stories of Matthew and John, translating scripture from the Greek into the southern Georgia context. The Cotton Patch Gospels are well known for their folk style and their sense of humor. In the story of Jesus’ temptation, after Jesus stands up to the Devil and the Devil takes his leave, the angels come to take care of Jesus… “bearing a sack of chili cheese dogs for him.” However, the point was to make the gospel stories new and open them up for new understanding, in the hopes that the tension of the time would change.
I want to share with you the Beatitudes from Matthew, Cotton Patch Style.
“When Jesus saw the large crowd, he went up the hill and sat down. His students gathered around him, and he began teaching them. This is what he said:
“The spiritually humble are God’s people,
for they are citizens of his new order.
“They who are deeply concerned are God’s people,
for they will see their ideas become reality.
“They who are gentle are his people,
for they will be his partners across the land.
“They who have an unsatisfied appetite for the right are God’s people,
for they will be given plenty to chew on.
“The generous are God’s people,
for they will be treated generously.
“Those whose motives are pure are God’s people,
for they will have spiritual insight.
“Men of peace and good will are God’s people,
for they will be known throughout the land as his children.
“Those who have endured much for what’s right are God’s people;
they are citizens of his new order.
“Y’all are God’s people when others call you names, and harass you and tell all kinds of false tales on you just because you follow me. Be cheerful and good-humored, because your spiritual advantage is great. For that’s the way they treated men of conscience in the past.”
Any way we read the Beatitudes, we already know what they are about, right? They are a moral teaching from Jesus to his followers, which begins the famous Sermon on the Mount.
But is that really all that is involved in this passage? No.
There are two layers going on in the Beatitudes. What Matthew is trying to tell us and what Jesus is trying to tell us. Matthew is trying to show us who Jesus really is, impart to us Jesus' teaching, and comfort his community in their hard times. And then there is what Jesus is trying to tell us.
But let's start with Matthew. In Matthew's portrayal of Jesus, we see three views of Jesus. First, Jesus is in the line of Jewish tradition, as the new Moses. Jesus is shown on a mountain giving the people reformed rules to follow. Symbolically, Jesus is taking the role of Moses in delivering God’s rules to the people from the mountain. Second, Jesus is a part of those who are peacemakers, meek, merciful, hungry, persecuted, mourners, and poor in spirit. He is a revelation that God stands with humanity. Third, Jesus is compassionate for his people, recognizing their brokenness, and blessing them. Matthew really wants to show his hearers that Jesus is in line with the Jewish tradition, that Jesus is talking about regular people, including himself, and how much compassion Jesus has for his oppressed people.
Then we have what Jesus is saying. When I read through this passage, these are all the things I hear Jesus saying.
Jesus is highlighting some priorities for his followers, the well-known moral teaching aspect of the passage.
Jesus is teaching about the kingdom of heaven, which he has already preached has come near.
Jesus is making a promise and predicting the future, staying firmly in the prophetic tradition.
Jesus is challenging people to see others as God sees them.
Jesus is giving his people a blessing and building hope in his followers.
Perhaps this is why we read the same passages over and over again! We can get so much out of twelve verses! All of this is pertinent to us as Christians today. However, what I want to emphasize is the building up of hope that Jesus is doing.
Jesus' people were marked by hopelessness. They were under Roman occupation and oppression. We are marked in this Northwestern Pennsylvanian region by hopelessness as well. Not because of occupation and oppression, but because of a faltering economy and a sense that things cannot be better than they already are. Could the Israelites do anything about the Romans? Can we do anything about our situation? The Israelites were waiting for the Messiah for exactly this reason! We have been looking for a modern day savior in many the same way. But a human leader was not going to solve all of the Israelite's problems and a human leader is not going to solve all of our problems either. Instead Jesus is the savior that we need, and he teaches us to hope in an entirely different way.
Hope - however abstract - is very important for society. We define hope as a feeling most of the time, but hope functions much more deeply than that. In university research by professors of social work and sociology, hope is much more than a feeling. Hope is a way of thinking. Hope is a process of setting goals, finding different pathways to achieve those goals, especially when difficulties present themselves, and believing in the ability to complete the goal. Hope is a way of thinking for individuals as well as communities. Hopeful individuals are able to see change in their lives and the world around them, even if it is very small. Hopeful individuals do not believe that their successes or failures determine who they are. Jesus gives us all three in this passage from Matthew.
Jesus gives us hope in a way that goes far beyond feelings. Jesus teaches us that the goal is the kingdom of heaven. The pathways to that goal lie in being merciful, meek, deeply concerned, peacemakers, standing up for our beliefs, in having pure motivations. We can do these things and Jesus reinforces this message by sharing his encouragement as a blessing in this work. The blessings that Jesus gives are both in the present and in the future tenses. Some of these blessings are already present realities. Some of them are still to come. With Jesus' blessing, we are given the agency, the ability to go forth differently, with hope. Because Jesus is all of these things and we are following in his way, we can be all of these things. Not because we will be rewarded with riches, but because then we will have strengthened our relationship with God and we will experience the kingdom of heaven.
The Christian tradition has tried to pass along these ideas, but hasn't always done a good job. One way it is easy to see them is in the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer. There is a whole section titled "The Christian Hope". The first question asks, "What is the Christian hope?" And gives this answer, "The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God's purpose for the world." In that answer, there is a goal and there is an expectation. We are to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life. We are to wait for Christ and God's purpose. Living in confidence of newness and fullness of life in Christ is something that we can do. Living in confidence of newness and fullness of life in Christ is what we do together.

Our hope is to make the goal – to see the kingdom of heaven. This is not easy, it takes endurance. We may realize our hope and achieve our goal in this life, we may even realize it today! We may also take a long time to realize this goal. But may we never give up on it! Let us hope in the fullness of life in the community of God!

Catalysts

Epiphany 3A
Matthew 4:12-23

We tend to think of being arrested as a bad thing. In many cases, this is the truth. However, for a number of people throughout the world, being arrested was the necessary catalyst for changing the world. 
Every movement has a catalyst. A precipitating event that causes the rest of the story to happen. We know this well. For Martin Luther King Jr., the precipitating event that turned him into a national civil rights leader was the Montgomery Bus Boycott, sparked by Ms. Rosa Parks, an African American woman, being arrested for not giving up her seat on a bus for a white person. 

In Jesus' case, according to the gospel of Matthew, the catalyst was his cousin's John's arrest. John's arrest proved to be a little bit of a wake up call and a time of acknowledgement of the risks of what he was doing. Jesus probably knew that his ministry was not going to be easy. Spending forty days in the desert to prepare yourself for the task is one clue that he knew this was not going to be a walk in the park. After his baptism, Jesus goes out into the wilderness then he goes home to Nazareth, to his family. However, John being arrested put a new perspective on the timing of his ministry. Now was the time. He could not wait any longer. When John is arrested, he decides it is time for something new to happen. So he moves away from his family. I imagine this was one way that he tried to give himself room to focus on what God was calling him to do. So we see the real, on the ground, start of his ministry. In this passage, Matthew shows us that Jesus' ministry is in three parts. Jesus' ministry is about being present, proclaiming the good news, and healing his people. 

Jesus was present. We talk about Jesus being the incarnation. The dwelling of God in humanity, that in Jesus, God was present with humanity. Jesus comes to us as God made manifest, as God made obvious. Matthew wants us to acknowledge the fullness of what God is trying to do by also making sure we are aware that Jesus had a home in Capernaum. We tend to think of Jesus as an iterant preacher. Always wandering around without any home. And I've never heard any tradition about Jesus' home in Capernaum, and it is not on any tour in the Holy Land. But the point isn't whether or not Jesus had a house in the town of Capernaum. The point is that God was really truly living among his people. Jesus had a home and it was with us, his people. He was not just talking to them and curing them... and then retreating to a quiet safe space... no. God in Jesus was living right among them. He had an address and everything. He did not turn anyone away, the poor, the middle class, the rich. He dealt with his neighbors, with the store keepers, with the tradesmen, everybody. Jesus was present.

Jesus also proclaimed. Matthew wants us to believe the authenticity of Jesus being a prophet of God, being called from God with a word to speak, part of the tradition of the scripture. Matthew gives us Jesus' ministerial catch phrase as it starts out. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." Prophets were known by what they spoke and the messages that they repeated. Matthew also wants to make sure we know that Jesus is following the tradition of John and the other prophets from scripture. Jesus isn't coming from out of left field, Matthew wants his listeners to know that Jesus is the one whom they have been waiting for for a long time. Jesus' proclamation was what people had been waiting to hear. Good news! You may be wondering how "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" would be good news. But we hear this proclamation with different ears than it would have been heard twenty centuries ago. Repent has connotations to us that push out some of the other meanings of the word. "Turn around, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" sounds a little bit different to our ears. Its almost as if Jesus is pointing something out to us, that maybe is behind us where we cannot see. If only we turned around, we would be able to see that the kingdom of heaven is near! Sadly, over and over again, we fail to see how near the kingdom of heaven is. Luckily, that didn't stop Jesus from proclaiming. 

And Jesus healed. The third part of Jesus' ministry that Matthew highlights in this gospel passage is the healing of diseases, casting out demons, and generally making his people whole. Jesus has come into the world to save God's people and part of saving them means returning them to wholeness. We become broken in so many ways. We are broken by each other's sins. We are broken by diseases that mess with our minds and bodies and souls. We are broken by demons of anger and malice and hatred. We are broken and lacking the peace that comes from being whole. God sees us in our brokenness and sends Jesus to forgive our sins, to cure our diseases, to bind up the demons that torture us, to give us the peace that goes beyond all the brokenness in our world. Jesus walks among the people of Galilee and he walks among us. Healing as he goes. Being the light in the darkness that clouds our sight. Giving us hope for the future of life eternal with God. Jesus healed.

This is what Matthew wants us to know. That Jesus came, was fully present, proclaimed the good news, and healed the people of Galilee. Because when Matthew continues the story with the calling of the disciples, there is an implication about the ministry that Jesus is doing for the disciples. Jesus tells Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, to follow him. To follow him on his walk. To follow him in his ministry. When we agree in our baptismal vows to follow in the apostle's teaching and fellowship, we are agreeing to be a part of the work of the first disciples in following Jesus. In following Jesus in his walk and in his ministry. Following Jesus in his ministry of presence, proclamation, and healing looks different for each of us because each of us have different gifts. However, these three are the underlying foundation for all of our ministry. We are called to be among the people of this world, not hiding away our faith, but sharing it through word and action. We are not called to be secret Christians, only following him for an hour or so one day a week. We are called to live as followers of Jesus everyday in every place. We are called to proclaim the good news, to share Jesus as we know him. We are called to bring healing to others, through our own gifts, through all the gifts of teaching, listening, studying, welcoming, organizing, praying, serving, speaking the truth, and all the other gifts the Holy Spirit gives us.

As Jesus called his disciples to follow him, Jesus is calling us to follow him. He knows the great darkness into which we may walk in this journey. He knows the great fears that may hold us back. He knows the occasional awkwardness of being present, the uncertainty of belief in the proclamation, the brokenness of the healing, and yet, he still calls us to follow him. To be the catalyst for someone else, to be light sharing God's love.

Let us go forth following Jesus!