Seeds and Soil
July 12, 2020
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, guide us by Your Spirit to understand what you are saying to us today. Grant us humility to change our ways and the faith to trust you, we pray in Jesus name. Amen.
During Pentecost Season 2020, the Revised Common Lectionary offers two “tracks” of readings from the Old Testament. The second track of readings which we are using perfectly pairs with the reading from the Old Testament with the Gospel reading.
In our first reading from Isaiah we hear:
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
Then in our Gospel from Matthew we have the well-known parable of the sower.
Both readings are about God’s word, and both use agricultural imagery, including the language of “sower” and “seed.” Both readings agree that God’s word works in subtle, unobservable ways, and ultimately produces unimaginable abundance.
Those who are familiar with agriculture know that a good famer never wastes anything, especially any of their seed, since that is their means of living. Our Gospel today tells us a strange and vivid story, but when we look a little bit deeper, it might not be so strange after all. Think about it – when we witness the birth of a child, accomplish a hard-earned goal, our favorite team wins, or we receive a birthday present that we are overjoyed about, aren’t we so happy that we are about to burst? We’re just bubbling over and feel we have to share our good news with others. We don’t care what kind of day they have been having or if they know us or if they even care; we just have to share our joy. We’re throwing it everywhere with abandon—we’ve got plenty!
Isn’t that what the sower in our parable is doing? The seed is so abundant; the sower doesn’t care where it goes. What that sower trusts is that God will provide the response in the hearts of the people where the Word is being sowed. God’s generous abundance keeps overflowing in us so that we are compelled to share it with others.
And, what about the others? Jesus further elaborates on his own parable by describing each of the different soils where the seeds land. This is about the cycle of sowing and reaping; telling and hearing; sharing and responding. Now, we all know people from each of these soil “types” and most of us shift between one soil and another - sometimes on the same day or even within an hour. We’d like to believe that we are the good soil, but if we are honest, we probably aren’t – at least not all the time.
As human beings, we are complex creations of thoughts, feelings, and the ability to act on them. When we experience discomfort, we want it to go away and may act impulsively in order to find comfort or release from pain and anxiety. We all have experienced this—whether shopping, gambling, food, sex, our tempers, drinking, lying—you name it. Sometimes it isn’t a big deal, but sometimes the little things add up to extremely damaging consequences, both for ourselves and those close to us.
Right now, in the news and on social media, we are seeing deaths from COVID-19, deaths from angry violence, relationship struggles, job loss, bankruptcies, and despair from anxiety, causing people to behave reactively with dire consequences. These things take root from a seed misleadingly small—the desire to be our own God – a desire to have what we want, when we want it, regardless of the costs or who else may be affected. St. Augustine astutely reminds us that no one should “say that he [or she] is more worthy of life than others,” and if we are to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves,” then this is the standard toward which we must grow.
The Bible is full of people putting themselves before God and their neighbors. When we are focused on our own desires, our envy, our fits of rage, our discord, our hatred—the good soil of our hearts turns into a wasteland.
Those impulses can get us into loads of trouble; when we give in without tempering them with our call from God, we end up with no depth of spirit, choked with the thorns of the world. We yield nothing, and our actions break the cycle of abundance. Others do not experience the love of God through us and we have lost the chance to share the abundance we received.
Have you ever met someone that you immediately feel is a holy person? There is something about the way they move and live and have their being that speaks to you on a soul level. We might say they are living in the Spirit and, oh, how we long for what they have! But we have those qualities as well. They are the seeds that were first planted in us when we heard the Word of God from a sower, nurtured in us by baptism, and enriched by coming together in community for strength and renewal. Seeds sown in the good soil of our hearts blossom into the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
If the seeds of God’s love flower into these fruits, then what do those new seeds look like? There is pollination, cross-pollination, and new growth all over the place! The cycle of sowing begins again. God’s abundant love sees to that. We go about our daily business, living in faithfulness in God’s abundance and being sowers among those we encounter. We don’t often get to see where the seeds fall, but the point is that we continue to sow. The Church’s mission and our mission is to spread the Good News to every end of the Earth. Archbishop William Temple said, “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” This still holds true for us today. There are infinite ways for us to be the Church he describes: by giving a smile to someone who is feeling lonely, watching the kids so a couple can have some time to themselves, donating money to an organization that helps those who are marginalized, speaking up when you witness an injustice occurring, praying for those you dislike – the list can go on and on.
As Isaiah said: ”So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
We are both the sowers and the soil. Without the one, the other would not make sense. When we go forth today, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit, may we sow abundantly, and may the seed that is sown in us bear the plentiful fruit of God’s love. Amen.
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, we come before you, asking for understanding. We want to see ourselves as you see us: the empty and barren places, the halfhearted struggles, the faint stirrings of new life. Do not let us be blind to your presence. Shine upon us, O God, and make our paths clear, for we pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Come to me, take my yoke, learn from me; I am gentle, humble in heart; you will find rest for your souls.
Hearing these readings on a day when many are still engaged in celebrating American Independence Day certainly brings to mind the symbolic freedoms associated with the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Along with these celebrations there is a time for rest. It is a long weekend for many; three days of rest rather than the usual two-day weekend. This weekend brings to mind picnics, fireworks, and parades with patriotic overtones. Even though our country is made up of a diverse mix of people, nations, cultures, and languages, these readings, and this holiday challenge us to engage in a full understanding of power and a complete surrender to God. They challenge us to question where our loyalties lie, but more importantly, we are challenged to understand that sin sometimes comes from inaction as surely as it comes from action. On this day we might even say that we are being challenged to free ourselves from the sinfulness of the world and to declare our lives in dependence to our God.
How often have we felt like Paul did in his letter to the Romans? No matter how hard we try to live according to the great commandments, to love God and love our neighbor, it doesn’t always turn out that way.
This is not because we are horrid, retched creatures, but because there is sin in the world. And sin is powerful. It is so powerful that sometimes we just withdraw from action and words, and we allow whatever is happening to happen. Our inaction becomes the sin, especially when we know that an injustice is causing suffering and causing separation between people and God.
Paul sounds like he is exhausted and in his desperation is unable to do any more to free himself from sin. His words suggest that maybe sin is lurking like a monster under the bed, just waiting to take us over.
Even in the gospel reading, Jesus reminds the crowd that some thought John was possessed with a demon, yet he lived a life of denial and simplicity. Jesus lived overturning injustices and unveiling the many ways that society’s attitudes and laws actually reflected sinfulness rather than loving God and loving neighbors. He pointed out that sin could come from twisting the law to cause loss of humanity and life. Paul’s cry of desperation is quickly calmed with his own acknowledgement that sin is defeated by God through our life in and with Jesus as our companion.
Jesus does not tell us that it is an easy task to be free of sin and follow him. In fact, there is a cost. The cost may even come from the place we have trusted and have pledged our loyalty. That is why it is so hard to understand what sin is, and often just as hard to know what love is as well.
So, even when our motives are on target, sin seems strong enough to destroy. And yet, sin cannot exist when we abide in Christ and Christ in us. When we transfer our loyalty from the material powers of the world to the infinite love of God we find ourselves experiencing the passionate expressions of love that we read about in today’s Old Testament reading and psalm. We are filled with a sense of blessing and abundance.
The answers to everything are found in the unexpected, and with that come both peace and joy. Paul’s cry of desperation is quickly calmed with his acknowledgement that sin is defeated by God through our life in and with Jesus as our companion. And no words, no matter how profound, can really describe love so that we or another can understand.
These readings both challenge and assure us. They hint at the profound simplicity of a life in Christ, and they serve as a mirror for us to examine our understanding of who we are along with how we are living. Our desire is to love God and to love our neighbor. When we do not love God and our neighbor, we are in sin.
Jesus gave us these most reassuring words: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Come to me, take my yoke, learn from me; I am gentle, humble in heart; you will find rest for your souls.
Let us come to God through Jesus. Let us take on the yoke of discipleship. Let us learn from Jesus. Be gentle, humble in heart and you will be at peace with all that God made.
Let us pray: Gracious and loving God, only in freedom can we direct ourselves toward your goodness. Our ancestors made much of this freedom and pursued it eagerly. Help us we pray, to remember that your Son is yoked to us and gives us His freedom, so that in obedience to your will we may find our perfect freedom. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
June 28, 2020 Romans 6:12-23
Let us Pray: Lord Jesus Christ, nourish us through your word, nurture us through your grace, feed us through your Spirit, and fill us with your love for your name’s sake. Amen.
Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcome me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
We have a short Gospel lesson today. What is this Gospel about? Is it about the disciples, the twelve? Yes, of course, it is about them; these are Jesus' final words of instruction to them and astonishing words they are! "Whoever welcomes you guys welcomes me," Jesus says, "and whoever welcomes me welcomes the Father who sent me." Their mission was God's mission; their words were God's words; the people whom they met encountered God through them and their teachings.
These are strong words, but we know these disciples turned the whole world upside down with their proclamation. Whoever welcomed them did indeed welcome Christ and the one who sent him.
But what is it about for us today? These disciples are long gone. Do the words still apply? How do we welcome them and in so doing welcome Christ and the Father? One way is by receiving their witness, by joyfully believing the New Testament scriptures. When we receive the message they wrote down for us, we receive Christ. It's the old, old story, as a hymn says, but it's new in every generation and those who want to hear it most are those who already know it best. Faith comes by hearing, as the apostle Paul wrote, hearing the word of Christ as it was spoken and written by the disciples and by others who were converted by their words.
Just so we get this straight: whoever welcomes you welcomes Jesus, and whoever welcomes your friend or neighbor or family member, or work colleague, or elected official, or mother-in-law, or next door neighbor, or chatty seat companion on an airplane, or grocery checker, or barber, or the UPS driver, or the kid who hit your new car with a baseball…and so on and so forth…welcomes God? We could have fun with this! But would there ever be an end to such a list of those who are welcome? Is there a line for you where the list ends of who is welcome? What does this mean?
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me. And whoever welcomes any one of us welcomes Jesus, welcomes God.
The message we hear in this morning’s gospel reading from Matthew was important enough to Jesus and to the early church that some variation on this theme shows up in each gospel, and often more than once. Also in Matthew’s gospel from chapter 18 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…” and from chapter 25 “The king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these …you did it to me.’” Mark includes similar verses. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus declares that “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” The Jesus in John’s gospel, declares in chapter 13 “Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”
The church is not a club of like-minded individuals; it is not a voluntary organization gathered to do good or meet needs (important as these things may be); it is not a powerful institution whose product is religion. The church is a body of believers who welcome the apostles' teaching -- who trust it and live it and continue the work of mission.
It seems, there was a farmer who was putting up a fence with another young farmer, to help a neighboring farmer. The first farmer suddenly dropped a heavy fence post right in the middle of a mud puddle. Both men were splashed with mud. Later, an eyewitness asked the first farmer, "Jim, did you drop that post in the puddle on purpose?" The farmer nodded his head, saying, "Yes, I sure did."
Puzzled, the man asked him why he would do a thing like that. The farmer grinned and said, "Why, Willy, the boy I was working with had on a new pair of overalls. And we weren’t getting any work done because he was so worried about getting dirty. So I dropped the post in the mud hole and got him dirty. Did you notice how much faster the work went after the baptism?"
It seems that generally the stance of the world we live in is quite contrary to this – we are encouraged to keep ourselves safe, to establish our boundaries, to take care of number one – to not get our overalls dirty. And yet the Gospel and the words of the scriptures are radically different.
Pause for a moment and think about what we’ve been hearing through all this election drama, protests, and anger, fear mongering which is all about division, exclusion, keeping people separated, and kicking people out.
There may be legitimate and compelling reasons to consider the economic impact or national security issues in such things, but if an inhospitable, exclusive attitude goes along with these ideas, then they are hostile to the teachings of Jesus who talked so very much about welcome, inclusion, hospitality.
“Jesus said, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.’”
This is an invitation of comfort and welcome reminiscent of the words on the base of the Statue of Liberty written by the poet Emma Lazarus. “Give me your tired your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me; I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
Is this what we hear? Or do we hear, instead, words of separation, words of breaking relationship, words of opposition and rejection?
So many of the ugly attitudes playing out on the national and world stage we see on the evening news have spilled over into our popular culture, showing up in the increase in violence and hatred flowing out into our cities and neighborhoods, among other things.
This Sunday precedes two other occasions marked on the Church calendar: The Feast of Saints Peter and Paul on Monday, and our celebration of American Independence on the Fourth of July on Saturday.
A “Peanuts” comic strip shows Linus talking to Lucy: He is saying: “Charlie Brown says that brothers and sisters can learn to get along…He says they can get along the same way mature adults get along…and he says that adults can get along the same way that nations get along… ” and at that point with a frown on his face he says “at this point the analogy breaks down.”
As we celebrate this Fourth of July, and as we sing God Bless America, and as we roast hot dogs and hamburgers and marvel at fireworks and the good ol’ red, white and blue, let us also ask ourselves what Jesus meant in telling us over and over again, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
We may believe differently about the details of our faith, as Peter and Paul certainly did and as Christians are prone to do. We may understand civic responsibility differently; Americans have always held a variety of opinions on things.
But for us as Christian Americans or American Christians, the question of the day growing out of this gospel asks: What does it mean to welcome, and how do we do that? What does it look like in our churches, in our neighborhoods, in our national policies, in our very attitudes? For we are Christians first, as citizens of God’s kingdom, living that faith in an American framework of privilege and challenge.
Jesus didn’t say that we have to agree on everything, but he pretty clearly told us to be welcoming. Like Peter and Paul, we won’t all agree on everything. And as Americans, we will stand proudly to celebrate on the Fourth. When we put all that together, one possible outcome is that we may have to agree to disagree on some aspects of American policy as we live our Christian faith in daily practice.
Christian people are called to be welcoming, for in welcoming others we welcome God. we should at least be able to agree on that.
As the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us, when we welcome strangers, we may be entertaining angels unaware.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, grant that not only our words but everything we are and do may be offered to you as a living prayer, in the name of Christ. Amen.
June 21, 2020
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, in ignorance we come, to receive light. In weakness we come, to receive strength. In confusion we come, to discover our true worth. May we ever seek you, and in you, may our hearts be ever joyful. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Have you ever felt that having a relationship with God should make your life easier? With God on your side, you’ll slide through life with no problems, right?
The readings this morning should shatter that notion.
In our Old Testament lesson, we hear from the prophet Jeremiah. Today he’s known as the “Weeping Prophet.” Today we hear more than weeping from him. He’s complaining against God, using words on the edge of blasphemy. Jeremiah has been out doing what God asked him to do, and it hasn’t gone as well as the prophet had hoped. Jeremiah says, “I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me.” He goes on to complain, “All my close friends are watching for me to stumble.”
The psalm offered no comfort either, lamenting:
Save me, O God,
For the waters have risen up to my neck.
I am sinking in deep mire,
And there is no firm ground for my feet.
I have come to deep waters,
And the torrent washes over me.
I have grown weary with my crying;
My throat is inflamed;
My eyes have failed from looking for my God.
Then in our gospel reading, Jesus tells his disciples, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.” Jesus is himself the master of the house and we are the members of his household, so if Jesus was called Beelzebul, a name for Satan, then how can we who follow him expect to be treated?
This is the Good News? So much for getting comfort from scripture for the week ahead.
Yet, for those who would follow Jesus, perhaps the question is not, “Why do things go wrong for those of us with a relationship with God?” The questions may well be, “Why are things going so well?” “Why aren’t we having more problems?” or for any follower of Jesus, “Why am I not being persecuted?”
Jeremiah did what God asked of him, and he was laughed at. The psalmist tried to follow God’s will and grew weary with crying for justice. Jesus was put to death, and after his resurrection, Jesus’ disciples went on to preach, teach and the disciples were killed for their faith in Jesus, with the exception of John,
So where did we go wrong? Why don’t people laugh at us more? Make fun of us more? Why are our lives going so well?
Certainly, we are fortunate to live in a time and place when those who proclaim faith in Jesus Christ may do so without risking their lives. Baptism into the church no longer puts a death sentence on you as has been true in some times and places.
But we still can’t expect that following Jesus will lead to a life of no problems. Your relationship with God will not remove all the obstacles from your path. You aren’t guaranteed a perfect marriage, perfect kids, a perfect job or a perfect boss. Faith is not the path to a life of no worries. Jesus promised the victory, but he never taught of a life with no battles.
So what, then, is the point? Why believe?
Well, for one, believe because the gospel is true. There is a God who loves us and wants a relationship with us. That God is best known to us through the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ. As God made man, Jesus not only showed us how we should live, but his death and resurrection reconciled us to God. Knowing the truth of Christianity is at the core of our faith. One believes, not because this is the easy path to a good life, but because the faith we profess is true. The Bible warns that problems can and will follow.
In fact, the 16th-century spiritual writer and mystic Teresa of Avilla wrote to God, “If this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few!”
Often a problem is that the faith we were given in Sunday school of “Jesus Loves Me This I Know,” while true, may not be realistic or even strong enough to handle a cancer diagnosis, the decline of a parent, the death of a friend or the end of a marriage.
But when we read further in our texts for this week, we find a confidence in God’s presence and mercy.
Jeremiah says confidently, “My persecutors will stumble, and they will not prevail.” So convinced is the prophet that a few verses later, while people are still laughing at him, Jeremiah can proclaim, “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.”
Likewise, in Psalm 69, the poet first felt that he was sinking in deep mire with no firm ground for his feet. Then he grabbed hold of the conviction that God is the firm ground on which he stands. For the psalmist never loses the conviction that God’s love and compassion will get the last word. The psalmist refers to God’s unfailing help, God’s kind love and God’s great compassion.
Finally, Jesus tells his followers, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
Not only does he not promise smooth sailing, Jesus warns that storms will besiege the faithful. But in the tempests of life, we are not to be fearful. The question is not “Why are things going wrong?” Maybe we should ask, “Why is no one bothering me?” Perhaps your faith has not so changed your life that anyone else can notice.
For as Verna Dozier, an Episcopalian and great champion of the ministry of all baptized persons, once wrote, “Don’t tell me what you believe. Tell me what difference it makes that you believe.”
When your faith leads you to make public stands that are not popular, opposition will come. Problems will arise. This is to be expected. But we also know that we do not face these problems alone.
The anchor has long been a symbol in Christian art for the hope that we have in Jesus Christ. Though storms may come, we have a sure and certain hope that gives us purchase on the rock. Hold fast to the faith that is in you, knowing that Jesus said, “Even the hairs of your head are counted. Do not be afraid.”
Jesus did not promise you a life of no battles, but he did promise the victory.
Let us pray: Gracious God, day after day, year after year, you are there to hold on to us in all the changes and chances of life. Help us to put our hand in yours, know that you are there, sharing our concerns and seeing us safely through, through the grace of Christ. Amen.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, in ignorance we come, to receive light. In weakness we come, to receive strength. In confusion we come, to discover our true worth. May we ever seek you, and in you, may our hearts be ever joyful. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We have so many ways of learning about God. We learn from Holy Scripture, of course. We learn from our worship, from the seasons of the year and the glories of nature, from one another, in our prayers.
There is also a way of watching movies that can open our minds and hearts to God in ways more powerful than we might imagine. When we see a movie strictly for entertainment, we've received our money's worth, but when we watch the screen through the eyes of faith, God can touch us in ways that are worth much more, ways that are surprising, even transcendent. So, Ordinary, commercial films may become "Jesus movies."
In this time of social distancing Nancy and I have re-watched a number of old movies. Recently we watched the movie The Green Mile, for instance. The Jesus figure in The Green Mile is obvious. John Coffey, an enormous black man in the South, has been accused of murdering two small girls, and upon his arrest he is delivered to "the Green Mile," death row in a southern prison. It becomes apparent fairly early in the film that John is innocent; he is sweet and what we used to call "simple-minded;" despite his huge size, he weeps quietly at times and is afraid of the dark. He shows tenderness to all but the truly evil fellow inmates and guards he encounters on the Green Mile, and after a couple of miraculous healings,(including the wardens wife) there's no doubt in our eyes just who John Coffey represents. He's our Jesus figure in this movie.
Jesus showed us the nature of the Divine as he walked this earth among us. So what can John Coffey show us about the nature of God if we view him through the lens of Christ, praying that the Holy Spirit guide us to any truth?
In Matthew's Gospel today, we learn that "Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness." Matthew continues: "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd."
Compassion. "Com-passion." "Feeling with." Feeling another's pain, another's suffering.
In The Green Mile, one of the several climactic scenes shows us a gruesome execution, one in which a sadistic rookie guard deliberately omits a step in the electrocution process, essentially cooking a Cajun inmate named Edouard Delacroix, a man for whom John Coffey -- and the movie's viewers -- have developed a fondness. In one of the most graphic death scenes in cinematic history, as Del screams and jolts and jerks and smokes, John Coffey, in his own death row cell, experiences exactly the same torture. He jerks and grimaces as though he were sitting in "Old Sparky" himself. The lights on the Green Mile dim, then burst, as he lives through Del's electrocution from afar.
After the body has finally died and has been removed for burial, the officer in charge of the Green Mile, Paul Edgecomb, returns to his block and walks to John's cell. Sweat pours from John's body; he is still trembling. He says to Edgecomb through clenched jaws, "Boss, Del, he the lucky one. He out of it now."
"Do you mean you heard that all the way down here, John?" asks Edgecomb.
"No, Boss. I felt it," replies John. John Coffey, our Jesus character, actually felt the pain of his friend. He experienced his torture, as though he had somehow been in the body of Edouard Delacroix.
Com-passion. Feeling with. In this time of turmoil, it seems many are lacking in this com-passion which is so needed in our society.
"Freely you have received, freely give," Jesus tells the twelve as he sends them out to preach and heal those for whom Jesus has such great compassion. We might overhear him saying something like, "Heal every disease and sickness. Cast out evil spirits. Take the message of the Kingdom to those who live on death row every day of their lives. Help me care for them. Have "com-passion" on them. Feel with them. I can't do it all by myself. The task is too great to be done alone, even by me. And it's not God's purpose that it all be done by me. You're in this, too. We can't do it without you. You're going to be my Body on earth soon, so you'd better get out there and start learning what that means before I leave you."
So the followers of Jesus, his disciples, the ones who had left fishing nets and families to follow and learn from this magnetic young man who spoke so winningly of his heavenly Father, these twelve meagerly prepared ones were now to take their first steps as apostles -- those who are sent out to do for the hurting of the world that which Jesus himself wishes done.
As we step into their shoes today, let's listen to this story carefully, because it is our story, too. We are his disciples today and more -- we are his Body. Christ, the compassionate one, is the Head of the Body. Information Central. Where the commands to the Body come from. Unless our own head tells our index finger and thumb to move closer together, we can't do so much as pick up a pencil. We need, as Christ's Body, to listen more carefully to Christ, our Head.
What is Christ telling us? To go out and be do-gooders in the name of the church? No! Some folks see this passage as a mandate for evangelism, and that can look scary, even impossible, especially for Episcopalians. During the Decade of Evangelism, the 90's, someone was heard to say that an Episcopal plan for evangelism was to build a really attractive aquarium next to the ocean and then wait for the fish to jump in. That's not what Jesus is calling us to here.
Jesus is sending us out to do the work that springs from a heart filled with compassion, with empathy, with doing our best to experience another's pain. We can never reach this ideal, of course; each person's pain is unique. But the heart of the compassionate Christ, which is and must be our own corporate heart, has no place for criticism, for judgment, even for merit. We help those who need help, not those we deem worthy of our help. It is not our own help we offer, of course; we are merely the vehicles for Christ's healing touch, his saving grace, his Word of hope and compassion.
As we move more deeply into our identity as Christ's Body, as 21st century apostles, in this work of embodying Jesus today, church growth is a side effect of Christ's impact on those we encounter. Evangelism happens because the "evangel" is Good News indeed! And as we do the will of the one who sends us out, our own lives become daily more filled with the love and grace of our Savior.
Freely we have been given, not deserving. Freely and with compassion we are called to give. The harvest is plentiful, and we are the laborers today in a field filled with weeds and hungry for the harvest.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, grant us courage to live sacrificial lives, dedicated to unlimited and unending service, even as Christ came to serve and not be served. Grant us boldness to answer your call to discipleship and compassion so your work may be done, and your kingdom come through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
A QUESTION OF FAITH
June 7, 2020
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Let us pray: Almighty God, open our eyes anew to your greatness and remind us again that your ways are not our ways or your thoughts our thoughts. May we glimpse once more your glory, and, though we do not always understand, may we walk in faith, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
A story is told of an elderly Jewish man crossing the street in front of a Roman Catholic Church who was knocked down by a hit-and-run driver. Half-conscious and lying in the street, a priest ran out of the church to administer last rites. 'Do you believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit?' the priest asked. The old man cried, 'I'm dying, and this guy is asking me riddles!'”
On this Trinity Sunday the church celebrates the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We recognize God as power (the Father, the Creator of all things), God as person (the Son), and God as presence (the Holy Spirit). Paul’s final benediction to the Corinthians switches this order a bit to better express each person’s unique experience of the divine. For Paul, Jesus Christ comes first, for it is through the grace of his life, death and resurrection that humans may be reconciled to God. Only grace enables us to experience “the love of God.” As we stand renewed and redeemed before this loving God, yet another gift is made available, “the communion of the Holy Spirit.” The person, the power, and the presence of God come to us in a threefold design-package.
The church year began last Advent with the world God the Father created, yearning for light and peace and joy. Then came the birth of God the Son, followed by his ministry, his passion and death, his resurrection and ascension. Finally came the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Today the church puts it all together in its affirmation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as One God, after all. The celebration of the Holy Trinity summarizes our encounter with God and positions us for witness and service in all the world.
The Sunday after Pentecost each year is designated in the church calendar as Trinity Sunday. It is a Sunday that strikes fear into the hearts of many preachers because there is a sort of an assumption that they are supposed to preach a sermon that is both inspirational and explains the doctrine of the trinity, and as anyone who has ever tried it knows, it is not possible to adequately explain the doctrine of the trinity, let alone make the explanation inspirational. You might as well ask someone to explain the evolution of barbed wire and make it sexy.
It is not that the Trinity is not inspirational. It’s attempts to explain the Trinity that almost inevitably fall well short of being inspirational. Not only do they fall well short of being inspirational, they usually fall well short of succeeding as explanations as well.
I’ll give you a tip. When the church has traditionally described something as a mystery, don’t expend too much energy trying to exhaustively explain it. They probably called it a mystery because nobody else had ever managed to explain it completely either.
The good news is that this doesn’t matter. Christian faith is not about explanations, it is about experience. It is about a relationship with the living God. Have you ever attempted to come up with an exhaustive explanation of the experience of falling in love? You can’t do it, can you? You can say things about it that are true, but you can never explain it in such a way that a person who hadn’t experienced it would understand what you were talking about. In the end it is still a mystery.
In fact, to push that analogy a bit further, imagine trying to write down a set of instructions for falling in love. An explanation for someone who didn’t previously know the experience, so that if they followed your description they would actually fall in love. Could you do it??? It’s a ridiculous idea isn’t it?
And yet the fact that you can’t explain the experience or write a manual for it doesn’t stop you from falling in love. The experience comes whether you can comprehend it or not.
Now exactly the same is true of the Trinity. You see before there was ever a doctrine of the Trinity, there was an experience of the Trinity. The early church experienced God in certain ways, and as they attempted to describe their experience the idea of the Trinity emerged. They began with their experience of the living God. The theology came second. I hope the same is still true, although I fear that sometimes we attempt to create experience on the basis of our theology and it never works.
A pastor once asked a skeptic: "Do you mean to say that you don’t believe the Trinity as revealed in the Bible?"
The skeptic answered: "I don’t know about that, but I know that I can’t get it into my head. And therefore I don’t believe it."
"What size hat do you wear?" asked the pastor.
"Six and seven-eighths," the skeptic said. "Why do you ask?"
"Oh, I was just wondering," replied the pastor, "how you expect to get the full understanding of the Almighty into six and seven-eighths." This reply may seem simple, but it states our intellectual dilemma with the Trinity quite simply and honestly.
Although the smallest minnow doesn’t understand the vastness of the oceans or the chemical composition of the water, he is at home in the water. A single sparrow has little comprehension of space and aerodynamics but is at home in the air. Our minds, too, simply cannot fathom the magnitude of God although we keep trying, unsuccessfully.
Imagine this scene with me:
Jesus said to His disciples, “Who do men say that I am?”
And his disciples answered and said, “Some say you are John the Baptist returned from the dead; others say Elijah, or another of the old prophets.”
And Jesus answered and said, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter answered and said, "Thou art the Logos, existing in the Father as His rationality and then, by an act of His will, being generated, in consideration of the various functions by which God is related to his creation, but only on the fact that Scripture speaks of a Father, and a Son, and a Holy Spirit, each member of the Trinity being coequal with every other member, and each acting inseparably with and inter-penetrating every other member, with only an economic subordination within God, but causing no division which would make the substance no longer simple."
And Jesus answering, said, "Huh?"
I can’t help but wonder if that’s Jesus’ response when we try and explain in grand theological terms all aspects of our faith. “Huh?”
So many times we try and explain our faith in theological terms and all we do is get our feet tangled up in our underwear and fall flat on our...faith.
Much of our Christian belief is not a theological question, but a question of faith. Jesus said it and I believe it! Jesus said, “I and the Father are One.” That’s two-thirds of the equation. On Pentecost Jesus breathed on his disciples and promised them His Holy Spirit. That’s the other third of the equation. Jesus said it and I believe it!
One of the great errors that people make in Christianity is to say, “If I can’t understand it, it obviously doesn’t make any sense.”
God is not like anything we can explain. We will never understand God. God is far beyond our understanding – far greater than our peewee brains.
We live by faith. Not knowledge. God does not expect us to understand everything. But God will show us everything that is necessary.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. Amen.
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
Let us pray: Gracious and Loving God, quicken our hearts again, that we may receive Your Word afresh and anew. May your Spirit's voice be heard, and in hearing may we respond in service and in witness to Your Name through Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Easter Season officially ends today, Pentecost Sunday----a day when the Christian Church celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit into our midst.
In the Christian Church calendar, there are three days that are usually considered to be the most important. They are, quite obviously, Christmas, Easter, and this day, Pentecost. We recount today the coming of the Holy Spirit which, in many ways, marks the birthday of the Church.
Today we hear the reading from Acts of the Apostles recounting Luke’s rendition of the coming of the Holy Spirit into the early church. And then in John’s Gospel where Jesus breathes upon the disciples telling them to “receive the Holy Spirit,” and giving them and the church, the charge over forgiveness of sins.
As a child, I was often bullied by my grade school classmates, so one of my favorite comic strips was Popeye the Sailorman. Popeye was regularly bullied by Brutus. Brutus would often seek to cause mayhem in the life of Popeye in all kinds of ways. He would try to steal Olive Oil. I never quite understood why, but that was part of his program. He was always beating up Popeye until Popeye just couldn't take it anymore. And after he had taken all he could stand he would reach for that can of spinach. After he had done everything he could to get that can of spinach and swallow it, things changed. Brutus was now the victim and no longer the victor. Brutus was now subject to this new infusion of power that Popeye possessed, and for a while at least Popeye was on top. But you could bank on this one thing: by the time that comic strip ended, and another Popeye strip came, he was losing again. So, he needed another can of spinach. I was always wondering if there was something besides spinach I could eat that would give me the strength of Popeye.
I am here to declare that we serve a risen Christ that has given us peace and a power by breathing on his disciples that is not subject to how much spinach we consume, but is a power that can transform our trials into triumphs.
In reflecting on this day, and the readings, there are several things to say about the importance and power of this day.
One quality of the Holy Spirit is that the Holy Spirit is disruptive. The fruits of the Holy Spirit are fruits and gifts that bring us together; but the Holy Spirit is, by the nature and grace of the Holy Spirit, quite disruptive.
In John’s Gospel, in a conversation with Nicodemus Jesus said: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
The Holy Spirit lives and moves among us, but often moves in directions we don’t always like or appreciate.
A lot of people of have faith believe that God calms things down, that God makes everything go according to plan. It’s usually not the case.
We tend to think of the Holy Spirit as a “Comforter,” “Advocate” or “Counselor” and nice soothing things but in our first reading from Acts we heard of the disruptive power of the Holy Spirit. Violent wind, tongues of fire, speaking in other languages. The neighbors claiming they were drunk.
So the Holy Spirit, like Jesus, tends to be disruptive, especially about such issues like faith and religion. Little things.
And we who live and breathe in organized religion should take note of this. Jesus was known, on occasion, to be disruptive in his interaction with the religious community.
In Matthew, Mark, and John’s Gospel Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem in great triumph, goes to the Temple, and overturns the tables of the money changers and, generally makes a scene. He was totally disruptive.
And that’s what the Holy Spirit is all about. Being disruptive—moving us out of our comfort zones. The Holy Spirit comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. This day, Pentecost, is a day when we are challenged to be moved from that which is comfortable. To be around God, to be open to the Holy Spirit, is not necessarily to just be comfortable.
Secondly, John teaches us that Jesus taught the apostles they had the power to forgive sins or bind people to those sins. In the Gospel of Matthew, in Peter’s declaration of faith, Jesus gives to Peter, and the Church, the power to “bind and loose.”
Over the centuries the Christian Church, and Christians have been good with the “binding” part and have struggled with the loosing part. We’ve been, historically; better, at rendering judgment on people than we have at forgiving them. In the Middle Ages the Bible was reprinted, by hand, in monasteries spread out over Europe. There was a debate amongst some of the monasteries about the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman--the story that culminates with the line, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
Some of the monks struggled with this story. Some felt it seemed to be condoning the sin of the woman, condoning adultery. But the bigger problem was that Jesus forgave the woman, in the minds of the monks, way too easily. The issue, of course, was resolved because the story was in the Bible and the monks believed that they had no right changing the story--or Jesus’ intention.
But it’s actually a story that does impact us. The cry for salvation is not a simple problem with a simple solution; it is a deep, cry for deliverance. It is a cry that the quick and easy formula of: “Say these six words and the rest of your life will turn out OK” can’t fix. It is a cry that a date on a calendar or a memorial of what happened a long time ago can’t soothe. No, this cry can only be answered with a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit – a Pentecost right here in our midst!
But that’s impossible, right? Rushing winds and howling storms and spontaneously learning to speak different languages – the whole bit – that just doesn’t happen anymore, right?
Well perhaps it doesn’t happen anymore in a dramatic and spectacular way such as 2000 years ago. But that’s not the question Pentecost dares to ask. Do you believe in the presence of the Holy Spirit in your life bringing you comfort and peace when you invite and ask?
I don’t use wooden pencils very much anymore, but I remember, when I was in school growing up, using pencils and wearing out the erasers. I made a lot of mistakes and I used my eraser a lot.
Pencils had different kinds of erasers. Some of the erasers were really soft, and pink, and they worked great.
But some of the pencils had erasers that dried out and lost their softness and were really, really hard. Whenever I’d try to erase with them, they’d smudge the lead on the paper and, all too often, tore the paper.
I sometimes wrestle with being either type of eraser. When I am kind, loving, and forgiving, I tend to do good things and I interact with my family, with friends, and with everyone a lot better. But when I’m like that hard eraser, angry, mean-spirited, and unforgiving, I just make a mess and tear into people and things. It’s pretty ugly, actually.
In this time of health and social and faith challenge, we need the reassurance of God’s healing grace. We need the memory of Pentecost to inspire confidence in God’s welcome for all people. We need an enlarged understanding of the Body of Christ. We need to believe that God is good enough, big enough, generous enough, to make a place for each and every person in the Kingdom of God.
Let us pray: Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful people and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created, and you will renew the face of the earth. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Update from Bishop Matt Gunter
"We will begin a phased resumption of gathering for worship in our buildings, possibly as early as the middle of June. But that will largely be determined by the rate of infection and other public health factors. Directions for the first phase of regathering in our church buildings will be published next week. "
read his complete post here Bishop Update
Split Screen Unity
1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11
Let us pray: Gracious and compassionate God, we thank you for inviting all your children into your kingdom. Prepare our hearts to be about the work of being one people, the body of Christ, and ministers of his unconditional love. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Jesus said: “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
In every musical show – and in many movies – there seems to be a moment when two or more main characters, are separated, but both still on stage or screen. In a musical, they may sing a song together. In a movie, the screen is likely split between them, showing what each is doing. It’s typically not a happy moment. It often happens after a separation of some kind between the characters. It often signifies an emotional rift as well as a physical one. In these scenes, the characters are together but separate, in what John Mayer termed in his 2003 song of the same title, “Split Screen Sadness.”
2020 has given us all our very own “split screen sadness” moments — too many to count. COVID-19 has forced us all to maintain physical distance, canceling our services, keeping us apart, away from our churches and away from the Eucharist. What, then, does Jesus’ prayer for us all to be one mean here, for us, in our times? How can we “be one” when we have to settle for online services, phone calls, and Zoom meetings rather than the hugs, sacraments, and in-person love to which we are so accustomed?
The church throughout history has had its share of split screen sadness. The 1918 flu pandemic forced churches closed in many of the same ways that we have had to close in 2020. The HIV-AIDS pandemic gave people a healthy fear of disease and of one another, too, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s. Long before that, plagues would occasionally rip through the population, forcing separations and leaving sickness and death in their wake. In turbulent times, it is helpful to remember that we are not the first to walk the road before us. We are not the first church people to experience the “split screen sadness” caused by disease.
In this Gospel passage, Jesus is preparing to die. He has spent a long time talking to the disciples and attempting to prepare them, as he shared dinner with them and laid aside his robe like a servant, the night before he would lay down his life for his friends. Now, it seems, he is preparing both himself and his disciples for his death, as he prays for them.
Some of us understand what it is like to be with a person as they prepare to die. We know that truths are spoken then. We know how to say goodbye. This farewell discourse of Jesus is more relatable in its Holy Week context than it perhaps is here, in the Easter lectionary, right after the Ascension.
Perhaps one thing this pandemic has done for us is to point out that we don’t often know how to be separate but still united. Now, as we read this passage in light of the Ascension, we realize that that is exactly what Jesus is preparing them for — to remain united with him, and with each other, even when he is not physically present.
Later in this chapter of John, Jesus will say, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”
Crisis teaches us truths. This is true of the disciples at the time of Jesus’ death, and it is true of us here in 2020. In the Gospel of John, Jesus himself is the Word made flesh, the truth made flesh. In Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the disciples learn that the worst thing is never the last thing, but that in Christ, all things are made new. In our own time, perhaps, we are learning similar things.
When Christ ascended, the disciples looked around at each other, and the sky, such that the angels standing by asked them, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” It is okay not to know what to do next. It is okay to be still. It is okay to put one foot in front of the other and muddle through. And it is okay to be taken aback by physical separation from those we love and whose presence comforts us and lifts us up.
We are learning, or have learned, to be with one another, united in Christ, even when we are not physically present. During our time of “split screen sadness,” we have united around the Word and our mutual love for Christ and for one another. We have done nothing perfectly, but we have allowed the crisis to teach us. We have been sanctified by the truth and held together in love by Christ.
I love the lines from our second reading from 1st Peter: “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” What else do we need to know? Jesus prays for our protection and unity – and we are under the mighty hand of God, because he cares for us.
Perhaps, then, this pandemic can teach us more than how to better wash our hands. Perhaps it can do more than be a moment of split screen sadness for all of us. Perhaps it can truly teach us to be one in Christ with people with whom we may never be physically present in this life. Perhaps it can serve as a reminder that regardless, we are all one in Christ, and Christ is with us, now and always. In Christ, neither death, nor life, nor pandemics, nor wars can ever separate us. Thanks be to God.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
1 Peter 3:13-22
Let us pray: Father in heaven, for Jesus’ sake, stir up in all of us the gift of your Holy Spirit; confirm our faith, guide our lives, empower us in our serving, give us patience in suffering, and bring us to everlasting life. Amen.
In the Gospel reading this morning Jesus sits with the disciples in the Upper Room. The candles of the Passover meal have burnt down and it is time to go. One disciple has already fled their gathering, his betrayal a shock to all. Another disciple’s denial is predicted and the pain of the cross awaits them all. In the midst of this uncertain gathering, Jesus reaches out to them in love. Listen again to what he says:
“I will not leave you orphaned—I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live…And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.”
I will not leave you alone, Jesus tells us. I will not abandon you as orphans. I will send you an Advocate, a Counselor, a Comforter and Friend... who will care for you, who will offer hope when there is none to be found, help when you are helpless, comfort when you can find none and life in the face of death. The Holy Spirit, God’s gift to us in our Baptism. The Holy Spirit, God’s presence in life. The Holy Spirit, Christ’s gift to us and the promise to all the faithful.
At a Vestry meeting a number of years ago our opening prayers used the word “Paraclete.” When we were finished with the prayers someone asked what’s a Paraclete?” Before I could respond a discussed developed: “A Paraclete is a little green bird that people keep in a cage.” And another: “A Paracletes is what football players wear to keep from slipping.” And so it went. (A Vestry in action.)
Well, I finally did get a chance to explain that Paraclete is another word for the Holy Spirit. The Greek word for advocate is “parakletos” which means, literally, to “call beside,” or “to call alongside to help” and is used in some translations. This word is variously translated in different versions of the Bible as, “advocate, or comforter, or counselor, or helper.” However, as with many translations none of these can really capture what the word means. It is the same word used in a court of law to describe the role of a person who is called to stand beside a defendant and plead his or her cause. Interestingly, in French the word for lawyer is “avocat.” It can mean anyone who is called upon to give practical assistance to someone in time of need. And it was used in military circles to refer to an officer called in to boost the morale of a dispirited company of soldiers. 2
This Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, is Someone who comes to our side, helps us cope with the things of life, encourages and energizes, strengthens and empowers for living.
Joyce Rupp, the Catholic spiritual writer says, in her book, Pieces of Light, “I am always assured by the stories from Scripture of all those women and men who had tough times, because God continually gives two messages over and over to those in darkness: ‘Do not fear’ and ‘I am with you’. I find great comfort in these assurances and clutch them to my empty heart when times are tough.”
The Bible is certainly filled with tough times and empty hearts. We have Joseph sitting alone in a prison cell; the children of Israel wandering, wondering if they will ever arrive at the land of promise; Elijah fleeing for his life and feeling totally alone; and the disciples, hiding for fear that the same fate that came to their beloved teacher and leader will come to them. Our own lives have their share of empty hearts and tough times; times of fear and “not knowing.” Yet as we look into those same stories from scripture, stories which resonate in some ways with our own experiences, we find more than someone who “knows” what we are going through.
The phrase “Do not be afraid” appears 71 times in the New Revised Standard Version. It seems that fear was a common response to either an encounter with the holy or a new and understandably frightening situation. The Word of God came to those folks and before the message was even proclaimed the people were told, “Fear not. Fear not, I am with you.” The angel brought that message to the shepherds in the fields, “Fear not, I bring you good news of great joy,” and we know the rest of that story.
Now it is many years later and Jesus is preparing to finish his earthly ministry. As he is preparing to leave his disciples behind, Jesus’ message is almost identical to that of the angel, “Do not be afraid.”
The promise is not exactly, “I will always be with you; I will never leave you”, but it is: “I will send an advocate. I will send another who WILL be with you.”
There is a story told of a rookie ballplayer, just up from the minor league that was sent in to bat against the great Hall of Fame pitcher from the St. Louis Cardinals, Bob Gibson in his prime. Just off the bench and as nervous as a kid on his first date, the rookie stepped up to the plate and took a couple tentative practice swings as the great right-hander Gibson glared down at him from the mound. And then, with a great windup and pitch, Gibson blew two consecutive fastballs right down the center of the plate, so fast that the rookie didn’t even have time to swing the bat. With that the rookie turned on his heels and started to walk back to the dugout. “What are you doing?” the manager hollered. “Get back in there. You’ve still another strike coming.” “Let him have it,” the rookie sighed. “I’ve seen enough already.” 3
Have you ever felt that way? Outmatched by life? Up against what seems to be impossible odds? Depressed? Downhearted? Hopeless and helpless, overpowered by life? What do we do when life bullies us into a corner? Where do we turn when trouble traps us alone? Where do we turn when it seems there’s no help in sight? Well, this morning the Resurrected Christ, the One who has triumphed over the cross and the grave, the One who stands eternal before the throne of our Heavenly Father, our Lord Jesus Christ says to us (as he did to the disciples) “I will not leave you alone.” “I will not leave you orphaned.” Or as another translation says, “I will not abandon you as orphans—I will come to you.”
I will not leave you alone, Jesus tells us. I will not abandon you as orphans. I will send you a Counselor, an Advocate, a Comforter and Friend... who will care for you, who will offer hope when there is none to be found, help when you are helpless, comfort when you can find none and life in the face of death. The Holy Spirit, God’s gift to us in our Baptism. The Holy Spirit, God’s presence in life. The Holy Spirit, Christ’s gift to us and the promise to all the faithful.
I think it's interesting that Jesus begins by saying, "If you love me." We forget sometimes that it's not enough to just say, "I love Jesus." Or "Jesus is Lord and Savior of my life."
The important part is living that love. The important part is the manifestation of the love of Jesus in all that we do and say. Jesus said, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." Or as The Message by Eugene Peterson puts it: "If you love me, show it by doing what I've told you."
Why did Jesus promise this Advocate, this Paraclete to us? Just for our comfort when times are tough and seemingly hopeless? I believe it is for more. To come beside us and help us keep his commandment to “Love one another.” As His advocate to give practical assistance to someone in time of need.
The Holy Spirit, sends us forth then as messengers of God’s love to the poor, the unemployed, the young and the elderly, the sick and the rejected, the unhappy, the sorrowful, the lonely and the dying. Who is there to say to them, “I will not leave you as orphans...” Sometimes, God willing, it can be us. For we are the ones whom God entrusts with the Good News. We are the ones sent forth with his love.
Let us pray: O God, your Holy Spirit is alive in all the earth. Help us to see signs of your goodness in each moment. Let us be uplifted by your promise. You have not left us as orphans. let us not be fearful. So, we may walk boldly forth, knowing that you are at our side. Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
1 Peter 2:2-10
Let us pray: Lord, keep us always as searchers for the Way, the Truth and the Life. In your presence may we feel your tender love, hear your words of guidance, and be changed by your truth. In your light may we see life clearly, and in your service may we find purpose for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
It’s kind of strange as a preacher to put together Mother’s Day with a Sunday when the lectionary features the brutal murder of the first Christian martyr. St. Stephen is the featured central character of our first lectionary reading from Acts, and we get to see him meet his end at the hands of an angry mob who kill him by attacking him with rocks. It’s not exactly a sweet Hallmark card Mother’s Day sentiment. Granted, there are probably a lot of mothers who have been—or who at least see themselves—as martyrs, and who willingly pass the sentiment along to their children in never-ending recitations of their parental drudgery and their offspring’s ingratitude.
If you think about it, the lectionary fits pretty neatly into the theme of our secular holiday. Why is that, you ask? Because in Greek the word “martyr” actually means “witness.” It didn’t start out meaning someone who died for their faith (although getting killed for what you believe in is, you must admit, a pretty darn strong testimony!); rather, it simply referred to someone who was willing to speak of what they knew to be true. If I were to ask many of you to name the person who most influenced you in your Christian faith, I think many would answer, “My mom.”
Moms are powerful “martyrs” in this respect. My own mom was a hard-working farm wife. She was also prone to being hyper-neat and very concerned about her appearance, a borderline obsessive compulsive, and a world-class cigarette smoker which I believe accounted for her early death. But her short-comings notwithstanding, my mother was determined to raise her children in the Christian faith – specifically as Lutherans. She and I may not have always agreed on politics or popular culture, but she taught me very early about prayer and gave me the gift of my faith beliefs and for that I will always be grateful.
When we take a look at the First Lesson in the Lectionary for Easter 5, I think it’s important that we read back a chapter and see that the most important witness we get from this guy Stephen is not how he died but how he lived. The Bible says Stephen was “full of faith and the Holy Spirit” as well as being “full of grace and power.” I’m guessing this means Stephen was a strong believer in Christ, had a good relationship with God, was open-minded, thankful, and pretty competent in his work. He was also well-versed in Jewish history and literature, astonishingly courageous in the face of death, and openly forgiving as we see in chapter 7. All of these traits are witnesses to his faith in Christ and to the Spirit which dwelt within him.
The Gospel Lesson this Sunday is one which I preach on more than any other. John 14:1-6 is a recommended text for funerals and memorial services, probably because of the promise that we will one day be with Christ.
The disciples were still in the upper room. Jesus had washed their feet. They had shared a meal. Judas had gone out to betray Jesus. And Jesus had just told Peter that Peter was going to deny him. The room was filled with apprehension, unease, distress! It is a liminal space, a space in which life seems to be on a knife’s edge. Things were out of control as the disciples leaned in and listened to Jesus. It is into this moment of uncertainty and fear that Jesus speaks.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”
Facing his own death. Aware of the disciple’s confusion, their fear and the impending desertion Jesus offers to them hope.
Jesus always offers to them and to us hope.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”
In the face of uncertainty, confusion, doubt and fear:
“Believe in God, believe also in me.”
Although we may seek to live a good life, a life of discipleship, a life responding to God, the reality is that we miss the mark, we get it wrong. When we listen to each other’s life stories we discover that this truth that all of us miss the mark and fall short of the glory of God, and this has consequence for us and for those whom we travel with in community. Sometimes we realize that we have missed the mark and sometimes it takes another person to reveal this to us.
I am also reminded of this truth on days like today which is Mother’s Day. My mom was not perfect, and I was not the perfect son. Each of us missed the mark in our relationship. I am thankful that we were able to work through this and to continue to love one another. Not all mothers and children are able to achieve this so for some, Mothers’ Day comes with a mix of emotions for a range of reasons.
What I like about the story is that Jesus is certain that his disciples “know the way.” Poor Thomas is a little confused, thinking that Jesus is referring to some geographic location, but Jesus sets him straight. To be in relationship with Jesus is to be in relationship with the way of God and the peace which flows from that path of living. The disciples “know the way” because they know Jesus.
So, what is this “way?” Certainly, it has a lot to do with love, sacrifice, gratitude, willingness to suffer, and faith in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. I’m willing to bet that if you learned this “way,” it might well have been because of the witness of your mother. She was the “martyr” who spoke the language of Christ to you.
We are all called to “martyrdom.” That is, we are all called to be witnesses. It’s good to reflect, on how we see Christ in others, but we are also called to be Christ to others. Pope Benedict XVI had a cool way of expressing this:
“Life in its true sense is not something we have exclusively in or from ourselves; it is a relationship. And life in its totality is a relationship with Him who is the source of life. If we are in relation with Him who does not die, who is Life itself and Love itself, then we are in life. Then we “live.”
All of us, personally and communally, are people who miss the mark. All of us, personally and communally, are therefore people to whom Jesus words of grace apply. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God believe also in me.
As we sit in the middle of all this uncertainty, I am reminded that most of us have been here before. As we enter limited spaces in life, spaces of doubt, and even fear, I am constantly reminded that in my own life I miss the mark, but I am also constantly reminded that despite this, Jesus is the way the truth and the life and it is he who guides us home.
As you consider this moment in your own existence, personally and as a community, hear the good news and be strong in faith, for on the night those disciples gathered full of fear and apprehension Jesus words came to them as good news of hope for them and for all people: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
A Happy Mother’s Day to you all.