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Epiphany 6A, February 13, 2011

Epiphany 6A RCL February 13, 2011

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 119: 1-8
1 Corinthians 3: 1-9
Matthew 5: 21-37

We have some challenging readings this morning, and we could spend hours discussing them. In our first lesson, from the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses is with the people and they are on the verge of crossing into the Promised Land. But he is not going to be able to go with them. So he is trying to make sure that they understand how important it is for them to keep their covenant with God and with each other.

The choice is between life and death, and Moses urges the people to choose life. Once they cross over into Canaan there will be other gods and other ways of living. Moses wants the people to choose the way that is life-giving. The choice also seems to be between prosperity and adversity. This is interesting because we know that following God does not always lead to prosperity or success in the world’s terms. Scholars tell us that the link between life in and with God and prosperity refers more to the quality of community life centered in God. A community that focuses its life on God and follows that central command to love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves is more able to weather the challenges of living in a broken creation because its members help and support each other through difficult times. That love and support is true prosperity as we jump the hurdles of life.

The people of Corinth are breaking into factions, and Paul is telling them that, in God’s vineyard, Paul planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. We are God’s field, God’s building. We are all servants, God is helping us to do the ministry we are called to do. If we truly stay centered on God, we are all one in Christ Jesus and in the Spirit.

Our Gospel for today is the continuation of the Beatitudes. One scholar says that, in reading this passage, we need to remember that Jesus is being a visionary. He is going to the root if the law. He is not here to abolish the law but to fulfill it. For example, we all know we are not supposed to murder anyone, and it is safe to say that none of us has murdered anyone literally, But, if we are angry at each other, or if we insult each other, or look down on each other, Jesus is saying that’s the same as murder.

In the early Church, when they got to the Peace, if anyone was in a fight with someone else, the Celebrant, who, in those days was usually the Bishop, would call the people who had a disagreement to reconcile right in front of the congregation. That’s what the Peace really means, that we are at peace with one another.

Jesus talks about adultery and about divorce. Back in those days, a man could divorce his wife if he did not like her looks, if he did not like her cooking, or if she talked too much. He could just write a certificate of divorce and put her out in the street. A woman without a man to protect her was totally vulnerable in that world. Unless a family member took her in, she was homeless. So Jesus is doing a revolutionary thing: he is saying that women are human. He is saying that we all need to respect each other. When he talks about adultery, he is going far beyond the actual act of adultery. He is saying that objectifying others is denying their humanity.

When he talks about swearing, this does not mean profanity; this means the taking of oaths in court, for example. Jesus says that, if we were all honest, we would not need to have oaths. When I think of this world of oil spills and Enron and Mr. Madoff, I think that the first thing a CEO does when the evidence has been gathered and he or she is charged with the crime, is to deny it. You can just expect it. It’s all a game of legal jousting. What if we all simply told the truth?

What if we truly reconciled with each other, held no anger, treated each other with respect and love, did not objectify others in any way, and told the truth? That would be the Shalom of God.

One of my heroes and role models, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has written a deeply inspiring book called God Has a Dream.
Bishop Tutu writes:
God has called us to be his partners to work for a new kind of society where people count, where people matter more than things, more than possessions, where human life is not just respected but positively revered, where people will be secure and not suffer from the fear of hunger, from ignorance, from disease, where there will be more gentleness, more caring. More sharing, more compassion, more laughter, where there is peace and not war.

Our partnership with God comes from the fact that we are made in God’s image. Each and every human being is created in the same divine image. This is an incredible, a staggering assertion about human beings. It might seem to be an innocuous religious truth, until you say it in a situation of injustice and oppression and exploitation. When I was rector of a small parish in Soweto, I would tell an old lady whose white employer called her “Annie” because her name was too difficult, “Mama, as you walk the dusty streets of Soweto and they ask who you are, you can say, ‘I am God’s partner, God’s representative. God’s viceroy—that’s who I am—because I am created in the image of God.’ ” (God Has a Dream, p. 62.)

That ability to see each other as being created in the image of God is, I think, what is at the heart of the attitudes that we are called to have as we try, with God’s help, to be shalom people. Every one is an Alter Christus. Every one is created in the image of God.

Amen

Epiphany 5, February 6, 2011

Epiphany 5 RCL Year A February 6, 2011

Isaiah 58:1-9a(9b-12)
Psalm 112:1-9 (10)
1 Corinthians 2: 1-12 (13-16)
Matthew 5:13-20

Our first reading this morning is from the prophet and poet we call the Third Isaiah. His or her ministry took place in the Southern Kingdom, Judah, between 538 and 515 B.C.E. During this time, some of the exiles had returned from Babylon, and others were in the process of returning. Those who had been home for a while, at least some of them, had achieved some level of stability and security in their lives. Others were poor, did not have adequate food or shelter, and were suffering. Scholars tell us that things were in chaos. The temple had not been rebuilt, there was violence in the streets and quarreling going on, and people did not reach out and help those in need.

Yes, there were fasts and prayer going on all the time. The peace and harmony the people had looked forward to when they first returned home under the reign of King Cyrus of Persia, had not happened. Now there was a new king and things looked bleak indeed. The people were saying, We are fasting and praying. Why is God not noticing us? Why aren’t things getting better?

Isaiah tells the people and us that our worship must create transformation in our lives and that true worship changes us: true worship causes us to “loose the bonds of injustice.” To “let the oppressed go free, to share our bread with the hungry and let the homeless poor into our house.” Isaiah tells us that, when our lives are congruent with our worship, that is when the light breaks forth like a new dawn. That is God’s shalom. That is the time when we know that God is very near.

Isaiah also says that when the people live lives of compassion, when they feed the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then their light will rise in the darkness, the Lord will guide them and make their bones strong, and they will be like a watered garden and like a spring of water that never dries up. Isaiah also says that their ancient ruins will be rebuilt, they will be called the repairers of the breach and the restorers of streets to live in. Isaiah is saying that the depth and quality of the people’s spiritual life is related to their material life, specifically, their ability to rebuild the temple.

There is so much in our lesson from Paul this morning. If we try to reduce it to its essence, he is telling his brothers and sisters in Corinth that conveying the message about Christ does not depend on intellect; it does not depend on exercising the intricacies of logic or the rules of rhetoric. The way he tries to convey the message is to live it, and that’s the way we are called to do it. Paul is not denying the value of intellectual activity or logic or rhetoric. He is saying that, as a preacher, he tries to stick to substance, not gimmicks. Fred Borsch, retired Bishop of Los Angeles, writes of this passage, “I remember being surprised in my seminary preaching class to learn that some of the great preachers of my Anglican tradition (for example, Philips Brooks), were not that gifted by our contemporary standards when it came to public speaking styles. It was substance and perhaps above all, who they were as believing Christians that allowed the Spirit to speak through them.” (Borsch, Proclamation 4, Series A, 1989, pp. 39-40.) This takes us back to that old saying, that we may be the only Bible someone reads.

The gospel is again speaking to this whole matter of living our faith. Jesus is not saying , “Try to be the light of the world, Try to be the salt of the earth. “ He is saying that’s what we are. Salt gives zest; in those days it was an essential preservative. Food would spoil without salt. Light is to be shown, not hidden.

What are these lessons saying to us? One thing, I think, is that how we live our lives, individually and together, is crucial. If I were going to try to sum it up in one question that we could ask ourselves, it would be: are we people of compassion?

There’s a lovely old hymn and prayer which was given new life in Godspell. It came to me as I was praying through these lessons. It goes like this: “Day by day, dear Lord, of thee three things I pray: to see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly, day by day.”

Amen

Epiphany 4, January 30, 2011

Epiphany 4 Year A RCL January 30, 2011

Micah 6:1-8
Psalm 15
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12

God does not see things as we do. God is not concerned with the externals. God is not concerned with the outward appearance. That is one theme of today’s lessons. Another theme is that all these lessons help us to understand what qualities mark the lives of people and communities who are dedicated to the building of God’s reign on earth. Shalom people and shalom communities.

The prophet Micah lived and worked in the eighth century B.C.E. He was a contemporary of the great prophet Isaiah. As he looks at the religious and secular leaders of his time, Micah sees widespread corruption. The people have forgotten that God led them out of slavery in Egypt and has walked every step of the way with them ever since. They are focussed on externals. Their worship consists of sacrifices of things—animals. The people are even turning to thoughts of sacrificing their eldest sons, as the native Canaanites do.

God does not want any of this. God is concerned about the offering of our hearts, minds, and spirits. God wants us to focus on the spiritual journey as individuals and as communities. So Micah writes the words which have come down to us through the ages, words which call us to a truth which is as relevant today as it was almost three thousand years ago. “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” To do justice means to focus on equity in all human relationships. To love kindness, in Hebrew hesed, mercy, or compassion, mean to be faithful in covenant relationships, to maintain solidarity with others, including those in need or trouble. To walk humbly with your God. Humility comes from the root word humus—good earth ready for planting. Humility is openness to God, the will and desire to be open to God’s will rather than our own will. Walter Brueggemann says that “to do justice is to be actively engaged in the redistributi0n of power in the world, to correct the systematic inequalities that marginalize some for the excessive enhancement of others.” He says that “to walk humbly with God means to abandon all self-sufficiency, to acknowledge in daily attitude and act that life is indeed derived from the reality of God.”

The beatitudes flesh out this thinking. Happy are they. Fortunate are they who have these attitudes. Happy are the poor in spirit. Fortunate are those who realize that they need God. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are those who have a profound sense of the brokenness of this world and of how far the world is from where God wants it to be. Blessed are the meek. Meek. Now there is a word we don’t use that often. Meek does not mean weak or being like Mr. Milquetoast. Scholars tell us that the best one word translation is nonviolent. Blessed are those who renounce the methods of this world’s power. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. Blessed are those who actively pursue their spiritual life, who engage in active seeking for God and for right relationship with God and with others. Blessed are the merciful, for they will obtain mercy. Again, compassion is the mark of a shalom person and a shalom community. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are those who are devoted to God with all their hearts, who are not divided in their loyalty. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who pursue the ministry of reconciliation.

The church in Corinth is marked by factions, as we saw last week. This week we find that there are some who lord it over others because they claim special wisdom. Paul is almost desperate to get these people to see the point that shalom community has one focus and one focus only. Here, the paradox of our faith is most clearly evident. The cross was the way the Roman Empire eradicated those who would dare to challenge the status quo. Kings did not die on the cross. Only the poor and outcast, only the powerless were crucified. Yet Paul is saying that the Cross reveals God’s power. Because, if we truly allow ourselves to absorb and to participate in the ministry of our Lord, if we allow the love and the compassion and the strength of his courage to infuse our hearts and minds and spirits and lives, then something happens.

Nothing else matters because, in the light of Christ as the mystic Julian of Norwich said, all manner of thing shall be well. We can let go and let God. We can focus on the only thing that is going to make us and the world whole, the love of God in Christ. We can ask for help instead of trying to prove how well we can manage things on our own. And, with that help, things go differently, very differently. Everything is transformed. We become channels of God’s peace and wholeness. Individuals and communities become living, vibrant icons of God’s shalom, and the whole creation moves ever closer to God’s vision of wholeness.

Amen.

Epiphany 3, January 23, 2011

Epiphany 3A RCL January 23, 2011

Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1, 5-13
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4: 12-23

The Lord be with you
And also with you.
Let us pray.

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Lord Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the good news of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Isaiah is speaking hope to a people who have been conquered by the powerful Assyrians. They live in the northern portion of the Kingdom of Israel, which was called Galil and later the Galilee. It was called “Galilee of the Nations” because it had been conquered and ruled by so many empires. The people are depressed at their constant war and oppression. Isaiah writes, in words we can hear echoed in the music of Handel, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them has light shined.” These words, this hope, speaks to all ages. God’s light is coming. God’s light is here, and it is a light of illumination and transformation.

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?” says our psalm. The psalm goes on to tell us that the light, the presence of God, is also the presence of hope, strength, safety, shelter, and protection.

Writing to the congregation in Corinth, Paul is encouraging them to remember that they are not following him, or Apollos, or Peter, but they, and we, are following Christ. Christ calls us to be one in him. Later on, Paul is going to elaborate on the whole idea of the Body of Christ. We are all parts of that Body, working together in harmony. In John’s gospel, Jesus says, “I am the vine, and you are the branches.” We are all interconnected. Each of us, by using our gifts fully, helps the Body function at its best. All of our gifts are energized by the power of the Holy Spirit flowing through the vine to the branches, flowing through the Body. Paul was asking the Corinthians to move away from their factions into oneness in Christ. The more we can focus on our Lord and his call to us, the closer we become,

In today’s gospel, Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy. The light comes to the littlest places, the Galilee, Zebulon and Naphtali. God loves the little places, like Sheldon, Franklin, Fletcher, Fairfax, Rouses Point, Montgomery. The light is coming into the world. The darkest time of the year is over. The light is growing. Jesus calls Andrew and Peter, James and John. They and we become fishers of people.

We remember today our beloved sister in Christ, Sue. Sue was and is a beacon of light and love. She was and is an inspiration to all who know her. We all have been changed because of her compassionate, encouraging and healing presence. Sue is part of the light of this world. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

Now, at the darkest time of the year, the light is growing. We grieve for the loss of Sue, and we give thanks that her suffering is over. We know that she is with God and with all her loved ones who have gone before her. May we, like Sue, be people of light and love and hope.

Amen.

Epiphany 2, January 16, 2011

Epiphany 2 Year A RCL January 16, 2011

Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40: 1-12
1 Corinthians 1: 1-9
John 1: 29-42

What does it mean to be called by God? Today’s lessons give us insight into this question. In our lesson from Isaiah, the Servant is discouraged. He knows he is called; he knows that God has called him from even before the time he was born, as indeed God has called you and me. The Servant is trying to call the people Israel back from their exile in Babylon, back to Zion, back to community with each other and with God. But the message is falling on deaf ears.

The Servant complains to God about this. “I have labored in vain. I have spent my strength for nothing.” This is an excellent example for us. When we are trying to do God’s work and things are going poorly, we need to talk to God about it. It may sound like complaining, but it is really praying.

God hears, but what does God do? In the case of the Servant, God expands the mission. The Servant’s mission is not just to the people Israel, but to everyone. “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” Watch out. Sometimes when things are not going that well, God expands the vision and the mission by a few quantum leaps!

In today’s gospel, John the Baptist has a two-fold calling. First, he has to know who he is not. He is not the Messiah. Secondly, he has to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, the Lamb of God. This phrase has so many meanings. If we were to try to sum them up, we might say that Jesus is the One, who, by offering himself, heals all the brokenness of the world. As John continues to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, two of John’s disciples follow Jesus. Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?” He knows they are seekers of spiritual truth. They ask him, “Where are you staying?” This is more than a request for his address. This is a question about what he is about, how they can hear more. He says, “Come and see.” Ultimately maybe he is saying, “It’s a hands-on thing. You have to live it.” They go with him and they remain with him that day. This is all it takes for Andrew, one of the men, to go home and tell his brother, Simon Peter, “We have found the Messiah.” How the word spreads after that!

Today we read the opening portion of Paul’s letter to the Church in Corinth, a bustling port city with all sorts of temples to various gods and goddesses, all kinds of philosophies being discussed. The congregation in Corinth is blessed with many gifts. Lack of gifts is not their problem. The people in Corinth tend to divide into factions. They have many controversies over which gifts are better and which teachers are superior. Is it Paul, or Apollos or someone else who is best?

Today, Paul begins to build the foundation for a letter full of teaching. He tells the people that they are not lacking in any spiritual gift. Later on, as you know, he will tell them that the greatest gift of all is agape—unconditional love, the kind of love that mirrors, as best we can, God’s love for us. He also emphasizes this matter of being called by God. He, Paul, is called to be an apostle, and he tells the people that they, too, are called into the fellowship of God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Paul will spell out later in this letter the idea that gifts are given to build up the Body of Christ rather than to divide the Body.

What is all this saying to us, here in the twenty-first century in Sheldon, Vermont? One thing is that, in the Church in Corinth and in the Church in Sheldon, we are called into the fellowship of Jesus Christ, the community of Christ. The Greek word for this is koinonia. And in Corinth, and in Sheldon, in every Church, there are plenty of gifts to get the job done.

In Grace Church, Sheldon, Vermont, we have all the gifts we need to do the ministry to which we are called. We are not too small or too poor or too weak or too anything else to be the light of Christ. We have all the gifts we need. We have an overflowing of gifts of the Holy Spirit. We are the Body of Christ here in this place; we have everything we need to do God’s work, and God is going to give us the strength to do that work. God is at this very moment strengthening us.

We are called. God has called us since before we were born, when we were still in our mother’s womb. We are called into koinonia, fellowship, community. And we have all the gifts we need to do a beautiful job of carrying out our ministry together.

This past week, we have all been keeping the situation in Tucson in our thoughts and prayers. We remember those who were killed—Christina Taylor Green, a nine year old girl who had just been elected to her student council and wanted to meet her Congresswoman; Dorothy Morris, a retired homemaker and secretary, who died in the shooting while her hospital, George, a retired airline pilot, remains in the hospital recovering; John Roll, a highly respected federal judge who lived his faith; Phyllis Schneck, who, after raising her children, devoted her time to volunteering at her church; Dorwin Stoddard, who threw himself on top of his wife to save her life; and Gabe Zimmerman, Director of Community Outreach for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Gabe had a degree in social work and cared deeply about helping others. He was engaged and planned to be married in 2012. Rest eternal grant them, O Lord, and may light perpetual shine upon them.

We give thanks for the vibrant spunk of Gabrielle Giffords, who opened her eyes and gave, not only a thumbs up, but a raised arm. Her doctors are saying that her whole journey of recovery is a miracle. We thank God and good physicians for miracles like that. And we pray for the others who are continuing to heal, and for their families and all who love them, and for all who are affected by this event. That probably includes our whole country, perhaps even our whole planet.

I would not attempt to try to explain this event. But what I would say is that, in the face of brokenness, we are called to continue to build God’s shalom of wholeness. You are all doing this in your lives. Every one of the people we lost was someone who lived to help others. Let us do the same. Let us be a community of love, compassion, healing, and transformation.

Amen.