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.