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Pentecost 8 Proper 14 August 7, 2011

Pentecost 8 Proper 14A RCL  August 7, 2011

 Genesis 37: 1-4, 12-28
Psalm  105: 1-6. 16-22. 45b
Romans 10: 5-15
Matthew 14: 22-33

This morning we continue with the story of Jacob and his family. Rachel has died. As we know, Jacob, now Israel, loved Rachel dearly. She had had two children, Joseph and Benjamin. Jacob loved Joseph more than any of his other children.

Joseph is different. He has dreams.  Unfortunately, he tells these dreams to his brothers. One is that they are binding sheaves of grain in the field, Joseph’s sheaf rises upright and his brothers’ sheaves gather around Joseph’s sheaf and bow to it. Joseph’s brothers don’t like these dreams very much. To add to their ire, Jacob gives Joseph a beautiful long robe with sleeves. Now his brothers really hate him.

One day Jacob sends Joseph to check on his brothers as they tend the flocks. First they are going to kill Joseph, but Reuben, the eldest, persuades them to throw Joseph into a pit instead. He plans to go back later and rescue Joseph. Some traders come by, and the brothers decide that they will sell Joseph to them as a slave. The brothers then dip the amazing cloak into goat’s blood and take that to Jacob, who thinks Joseph has died and goes into deep mourning.

Meanwhile, the traders sell Joseph to a powerful man in Egypt, one of the Pharaoh’s chief assistants, Potiphar. Joseph is intelligent and capable. Potiphar puts Joseph in charge of everything. Joseph is also handsome. Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph, but he resists her repeated advances. In a scene which could only occur in the Old Testament, she grabs at his garment and he runs from the house, naked.  Potiphar comes home, his wife accuses Joseph of sexual misconduct, and Joseph ends up in prison.

In prison, he becomes the trusted assistant of the jailer. He is placed in charge of two servants of the Pharaoh who have been accused of misdeeds and face the death penalty. The Pharaoh’s chief baker and chief cup bearer tell Joseph their dreams, and he tells them that the cup bearer will return to his position with the Pharaoh and the baker will be executed. Sure enough, he is correct.

As time goes on, the Pharaoh becomes afflicted with bad dreams. He calls all his magicians and wise men and they cannot help him. The chief cupbearer, now back in the service of the Pharaoh, remembers Joseph’s gift of dream interpretation. He tells the Pharaoh of this young Hebrew who interpreted his and the chief baker’s dreams. and the Pharaoh asks for Joseph’s help. The Pharaoh has had a dream of seven fat cows grazing in the meadows by the Nile. Then seven cadaverous cows come and eat them up. Then the king dreams of corn, seven fat ears and seven lean ears. 

Joseph makes it clear that God is trying to tell the Pharaoh something and that Joseph’s gift of interpretation comes from God. Then he tells  the king the interpretation: there will be seven years of good crops and then seven years of famine. The king should store up as much food as possible during the good years. The upshot is that the king is deeply impressed with Joseph’s gift and with his wisdom and with Joseph’s God. He places Joseph in charge of everything.

 The next installment of the story will come next Sunday. Clearly, Joseph has come a long way His story illustrates a poster I like very much. It shoes a mountainside in early spring. The winter snow is melting and new life is about to burst forth. The caption reads,  “What we think is the end may really be a new beginning.”

Our psalm recounts the story of Joseph. Our epistle reminds us that we are all one in Christ and that our Lord is very near.

 In our gospel,  Jesus has just fed the five thousand families. He goes up to the mountain to pray. This reminds us to take time to be with God and restore the presence of the Spirit within. The disciples get into the boat; the storm comes up; they are terrified, and there he comes walking across the water. At first they think he is a ghost, but his words speak volumes, “Take heart; it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus says one word, “Come.” Peter starts out, but when he notices the strength of the wind, he gets scared and starts to sink. With our Lord’s help, we can do what he calls us to do, but, if we lose our focus on Jesus, we falter. If and or when we falter, his hand is there; his help is there.  “Be not afraid,” he tells us. He is so near we can touch him.  He is so near we can reach out to him, grab his hand, and get pulled out of the waves which threaten to overwhelm us.

All through his journey, Joseph is aware of the hand of God leading and guiding him. He never loses his faith. He proclaims his faith unabashedly as these powerful people keep entrusting him with more and more responsibility because of his wisdom, which both he and they attribute to God. Here is this young man, this alien stranger, earning the trust of the Pharaoh because he has the gift of speaking the truth. The Pharaoh says of Joseph, “Can we find anyone else like this, one in whom is the Spirit of God?” (Genesis 41: 37.) But the presence of the Spirit in Joseph will be even more fully revealed next week. Stay tuned.

What is God telling us today? Someone can be sold into slavery and, by the grace of God, end up second in command over an empire.  Joseph never forgets God. He speaks the truth as his gift reveals the truth. His ethics are of the highest caliber.

And God is telling us, “Do not be afraid. I am right here beside you. I am walking with you, I am swimming with you. I am very close. We will see the depth of Joseph’s spirituality next Sunday. Peter became a rock of the Faith. He may have had a bit of an impetuous and wobbly beginning, but, when the tough times came, he was faithful and wise and open to God’s leading.

But the main thing is, “Be not afraid. “ A few other favorite thoughts have been in my heart this week.  We have already talked about one: “Faith is fear that has said its prayers.” Another one we have talked about that bears repeating is, “Faith and fear are two sides of the same coin.” And another one which I really like is, “Fear not tomorrow—God is already there.”  With everything going on in the world and around us, let us be strong in our faith with God’s help. Let us jeep on keeping on. Let’s help our brothers and sisters who are suffering in Somalia and elsewhere. Let us persevere in hope. Let us reach out for that steady, strong hand that is always there, and let us share his love and grace with others.    Amen

Pentecost 7 Proper 13 July 31, 2011

Pentecost 7 Proper 13A RCL July 31, 2011

 Genesis 32: 22-31
Psalm 17: 1-7, 16
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14: 13-21

 Our first reading this morning comes from ancient sources, from a time when people believed that there were river gods or river spirits and one had to get the permission of those gods before fording the river. It was first written down by the writer we call the Jahwist, or J , who worked around 950 years before the birth of Christ, three thousand years ago.

 Jacob is headed home to see his father, Isaac. He has become rich. He has two wives, two maids, all kinds of livestock. He has sent some servants with gifts for his brother Esau, whom he cheated out of a birthright and a blessing. He is afraid that Esau will kill him.

 The servants come back saying that Esau is headed their way with four hundred men. Jacob is scared. He divides his wives, maids, and possessions into two portions and sends them over the river, figuring that, if Esau gets one batch, the other batch may be preserved. As we can see, Jacob thinks that success equals material possessions.

 During the night he wrestles with, the text says, “a man,” but we know that it is more than just a human. Various people have said that Jacob wrestled with an angel, but, by the end of the passage, we know that Jacob is wrestling with God, or perhaps with his darker side, as God calls him to become the person he is called to be.

Although this is a very old story, it has universal implications. If we are at all honest, we know that all of us struggle with certain aspects of ourselves that we don’t want to look at or examine. We would rather ignore these parts of ourselves. But God calls us to grow into wholeness. Sometimes this has a high cost. We all have wounds of one kind or another. Sometimes our own wounds and the struggle to bring our darkness into the light of Christ can be the source of our ability to help others on our journeys. I think of the insightful book by Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer.

Jacob wrestles through to a new identity, Israel, one who has striven with God and human, and has prevailed. Jacob knows that he has seen God face to face, and yet has survived that experience. He will forever walk with a limp.

The next day, Esau arrives with four hundred men. Far from killing Jacob, now Israel, Esau hugs him and kisses him, and they weep together.  We will meet Jacob again.

In our epistle, Paul expresses his sadness that his fellow Israelites are not all choosing to follow Jesus. He expresses his respect for all they his people have. In our time, it is crucial that we respect the faith of others, whether we are talking about Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, the spirituality of our First Nation peoples, or any other faith expression. Regarding Judaism, one of my most beloved mentors often points out that, in order to be a good Christian, we must first be a good Jew. In other words, we need to study and respect our heritage from Judaism.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is tired to the bone. The crowds are following him everywhere he goes. He gets into a boat to go off by himself. But the crowd walks around to the other side and meets him when he arrives. He has compassion on them and cures the sick among them.

The disciples want him to send the crowd away so that he and they can have a quiet supper. But Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.” They take stock of what they have to work with. Immediately, they express a theology of scarcity. “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” We don’t have enough. He tells them to bring him the loaves and fish. He takes them in his hands and looks to heaven. He takes, blesses, breaks, and gives this food to the people. This is a eucharistic action. When we take what God has given us, when we offer that to God, when we ask God’s blessing upon the gifts, when we break the bread and share it, it becomes more than it was, It becomes the food that Jesus gives us, the energy of his loving self, the gifts to do our ministry. So these five little loaves and two fish become enough to feed a crowd of over five thousand people.

Jesus can make a feast out of five little loaves and two fish. Jesus does not need a lot to work with. We don’t have to be a huge church with a vast staff of clergy and several choirs. We don’t have to have an organist every Sunday. We do not have to have oodles and oodles of programs. That was the Church of the Christendom era, as Anthony Robinson calls it in his book Changing the Conversation.

A small and lively congregation can wrestle through to its own sense of identity just as Jacob did. And it doesn’t have to emerge with a limp, either. A small congregation can be creative about finding ways to do high-quality Christian formation and support for its members and can discern the ministry or ministries to which it is called. I think Grace has been engaged in that process for many years.

When we think of ourselves, I hope we will be careful. Instead of saying, “Well, all we have is five leaves and two fish,” while comparing ourselves to great cathedrals, may we always remember that, with Jesus’ help and grace, we have all the gifts we need to do the ministry to which he is calling us.                            Amen

Pentecost 6 Proper 12 July 24, 2011

Pentecost 6 Proper 12 A RCL July 24, 2011

Genesis 29: 15-28
Psalm 105:1-11, 45b
Romans 8: 26-39
Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52

In our first lesson this morning, Jacob gets a taste of his own medicine as Laban turns the tables on him. But Jacob hangs in there and works another seven years so that he can marry Rachel, whom he loves.

In the passage from Romans, Paul reaches some of the pinnacles of his theology and his rhetoric. In clear and ringing tones, he makes it clear that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Today’s gospel is one of my all-time favorites. Jesus does not put things in literal terms. He gives us glimpses, metaphors, similes, parables, stories. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. It is among the smallest of seeds, yet it grows into a large shrub, in which birds can nest. The shalom of God starts small, but it grows into something big and beautiful.

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that we take and mix into flour until it is leavened. You can’t see it, but it is there, transforming things. A lump of dough becomes nourishing and delicious bread.

The shalom of God is like treasure hidden in a field. Like the pearl, worth everything you have. It is like a net bursting with fish. Abundant, full of life. The kingdom of heaven is growing almost invisible, quietly, gentle, without fanfare, lovingly. It is a realm we can step into through prayer, meditation, and change of attitude. It is a realm full of gifts beyond our ability to imagine. It is the realm in which we are trying to live and move and have our being, by God’s grace. It is that process of transformation which is at this moment restoring the creation and making it whole.

How do we get in sync with the kingdom of heaven? Mainly  through prayer.  Prayer, both individual and corporate, keeps us in touch with God and with God’s guidance. Prayer keeps us on track, both as individuals and as a community of faith. Sometimes it is easy to pray, and then sometimes it can be very difficult. Paul tells us that, in those moments when we have no idea how to pray, the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. The Spirit of God prays for us, because God knows us and loves us beyond our ability to comprehend. And that is why we can be sure that all things work together for good for those who love God.

The image of the mustard seed is so important and so ignored in this age of bigger is better. Last weekend many of us had the privilege of attending the Sheldon Old Home Day celebration. The turnout was impressive. Everyone worked together. The music was great. History came alive with demonstrations of how things were done back in the day. We had a chance to see Sheldon’s Horse, The Second Continental Light Dragoons, and to hear a fascinating lecture by Howard Coffin, the noted authority on the Civil War.

The spirit of this day and the strong community support and participation reminded me of similar occasions in my home town of Calais.  Small is beautiful. Vermont is small, but what a gem. Sheldon and all the communities in Franklin County are small, and each of them has its own character and strengths.

Small is beautiful. Communities and churches do not have to be big to be good. Small places can be vibrant, alive, and full of gifts and love. I wasn’t surprised that we all worked together to prepare and serve the strawberry shortcake, and we had a wonderful time. We enjoy being together. We enjoy doing things together. We all share a common faith and a knowledge that nothing can separate us from the love of God. We all go out into the world, fed with the nourishment of Christ’s own self, to share his love with others.  There is much to be said for that.

Grace Church is a wonderful place to be, and because of the character of its members, namely you folks, Grace is the center of many vibrant ministries out in the world. We are richly blessed.  Not only did we have a wonderful time doing the strawberry shortcake ministry. We actually had fun doing the audit on July tenth!

Thanks be to God.             Amen

Pentecost 5 Proper 11 July 17, 2011

Pentecost 5 Proper 11A RCL July 17, 2011

Genesis 28:10-19a
Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23
Romans 8: 12-25
Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-41

In various ways, all our readings today tell us something about our relationship with God.

First, we meet Jacob once again. He has cheated his older brother Esau out of his birthright and his father’s blessing. Esau is trying to kill him. Jacob is on the run, headed back to his father’s home town of Haran. He stops for this night, takes a desert stone and places it under his head as a pillow, and has a dream or a vision of a ladder connecting earth and heaven with angels going up and down the ladder.

God renews God’s promise, first made to Abraham. And God tells Jacob that all the peoples of the earth will be blessed and that God will be with Jacob. This is a vision of shalom. God’s peace and blessing over the whole earth.

Jacob wakes up. We can safely say that, until this point in his life, Jacob has been putting Jacob first, not God. But now Jacob knows that God is present. He builds a monument and names the place Beth El—Beth—house and El-Lord–Elohim—House of the Lord, place where God dwells. Jacob is still Jacob, the cheater, the guy who takes care of Number One, but he is now aware of God’s presence in his life, and his relationship with God will grow closer.

Psalm 139 eloquently tells us that, no matter where we go, God is always with us.

In our epistle, Paul has been talking about life in the flesh and life in the Spirit, two very different paths. Paul tells us that we are children of God and we can call God Abba—Dad, Papa, or in inclusive terms, Mom or Mama. We are that close. Paul describes the world in terms we can identify with. There is much struggle. People are suffering from hunger, poverty, war, and oppression. The world is not as God would have it. But something is coming to birth, and that is the kingdom, the shalom of God in which all will be made whole.

In today’s gospel, the kingdom of God is compared to a man who sows good seed in his field, but an enemy comes in the night and sows weeds, darnel.  The servants want to fix this right away, pull the weeds, clear this up. But if they pull the weeds, they will uproot the wheat. The landowner tells them that they will have to wait until the harvest. Then they can separate the wheat from the weeds.

This parable appears only in Matthew and some scholars think that it applies to Matthew’s community. As we have noted earlier, some people were falling away because of the challenges of living the faith in a hostile world.  There may also have been some folks in Matthew’s community stirring up strife and conflict.

Sometimes in the Church we have people who say, “We have to get rid of these people or those people.” This has been happening from the earliest days of the Church. These people are in. These people are out.
These people are right. These people are wrong.

The point of this parable is that God is the judge. We are not. Look at Jacob. He has done some awful things. Yet God has chosen him. Jacob is now aware of God’s presence. God will work with him. Yes, Jacob will still be flawed and fallible, just as you and I are, but God will make his life a blessing. Jacob will grow in faith, and he will become a better and better person. We all have our flaws and failings, yet God loves and cherishes us as God’s beloved children.

Theologian Richard Pervo writes, “God has invited us to gather rather than to judge, to get together and learn to live with one another, weeds and wheat alike. There is wheat within each of us as well as those all-too-visible weeds. From this patchy crop, God can fashion a miraculous bread, transforming each of us by the pure wheat of this holy offering, making us into beings shaped by hope.” (New Proclamation 2011, p. 99.)

Gracious God, thank you for seeing in us potential we cannot always see. Thank you for loving us and walking with us wherever we go. Thank you for never giving up on us. Help us to feel your presence in this and every place. Help us to sense your love. Help us to let the wheat and tares grow together and trust in you for the harvest.

                        Amen.

Pentecost 4 Proper 10 July 10, 2011

Genesis  25: 19-34
Psalm 119: 105-112
Romans 8: 1-11
Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23

Our first lesson this morning is a part of the story of Jacob and Esau. From the beginning, these twins struggle with each other. In this part of the story, Jacob manages to cheat Esau out of his birthright. Esau is famished and he sells his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. And even the Book of Genesis has family dynamics we can recognize. Isaac loves Esau and Rebekah favors Jacob, so we have a complicated situation here. By the end of today’s reading, Jacob has supplanted Esau. By purchasing the birthright at a bargain price, he now has the privileged place of an elder son. Not a very admirable or brotherly action on Jacob’s part, and, as we know, this is not the end of his scheming.

Paul is talking about the way in which our Lord Jesus has set us free from sin and welcomed us into a new kind of life. When Paul talks about life in the Spirit and life in the flesh,  scholars tell us that he is not talking so much about our individual inner struggles as he is talking about the fact that there are two ways of living. Life in the Spirit is a life centered in God’s will and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Life in the flesh is life centered in our own will. Jesus has already told us that the Spirit dwells within us. Now we are free to live in a whole new way on a whole new level that we would not have dreamed possible.

Our gospel for today is the familiar Parable of the Sower. Scholars tell us that the actual parable is the story Jesus tells..  A sower goes out to sow. Some of the seeds fall on the path and the birds come and eat them. Some fall on rocky ground and they spring up quickly, but there is not enough good soil to root them, so when the sun comes up, they are scorched and they wither away. Some fall among the thorns and the thorns grow up and choke them. Others fall on good soil and they bear grain, some thirty, some sixty, and some a hundredfold. The point is that there is a huge harvest.

The interpretation of the story comes later. Scholars tell us that Matthew’s community at a point in its history around 70 A. D. had lost some members. It was not easy to be a follower of Christ. People had left the community because of various challenges. Some may not have understood the new faith deeply enough and may have fallen away.  Some may have joined the community with great enthusiasm, but living a Christ-life in the middle of a  hostile culture was just too much, and they fell away. Some may have heard the word but the cares of the world and the powerful call of the world’s values of money, power, and prestige are too much, and they fall away. We should keep in mind that there was actual persecution happening in those times.

We know that Jesus just taught that wonderful and powerful message. No matter what poor soil the seeds hit, the total result is a huge harvest. No matter what challenges a community may face, no matter what challenges we as individuals may have to endure, the harvest is going to be abundant.  

Matthew’s community was living in a time of persecution. We are fortunate and blessed because we do not live in a nation where Christians are actually killed because of their faith. Some of our brothers and sisters do live in such places. Persecution is still going on. This is a very real thing. In El Salvador, shots were fired at Bishop Barahona and his driver as they went about their pastoral work.  Our Bishop in Harare, Zimbabwe is not allowed to enter the church building. We think he is still allowed to go into his own home, but we are not sure. Communications are not good.

Here in the United States, as Bishop Tom said, we probably won’t be killed because of our faith, but we may be seen as irrelevant. We need to be aware of that, but we also are called not to allow that to make us lose heart. Jesus says in this gospel, “Listen! A sower went out to sow.” In another place, he says, “Let anyone with ears listen!”

The important thing is that God is sowing God’s kingdom. Are we listening for God’s message? Are we letting God’s love go deeply into our hearts? Are we opening the arms of our hearts and minds and letting God come into our lives, not just superficially, but to the core of our being? Are we letting the seed of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus said is within us, bear fruit, and give us the gifts for ministry which we need? Are we taking God seriously in a joyful kind of way? Are we really listening?

Back in those days, they used to broadcast the seed, throw it all over the place and then plow. We pick out the best soil we can find, and prepare it in the best way we know how, and then plant that seed and nurture it and fertilize it and water it and pray for just the right amount of sun and rain. In other words, we try to up the odds for a good harvest. But God, at least God in the first century, generously throws the seeds of God’s shalom all over the place, and still there is a harvest that sets a new record.

One scholar says that maybe at one time in our life we may be the path; the seeds fall and the birds eat them. Some times we may be the rocky ground, all full of enthusiasm and then it just gets too hard to follow Jesus and we fall away. At another time we may be in that thorny situation and we may decide to put worldly values in the place of God. There is much truth in that. Still, the harvest is huge.Just for the record, I think that every one here is God’s wonderful dark loamy soil—the best!

I tend to return to that wonderful analogy which is used in a meditation book called Twenty-four Hours a Day. The author talks about being part of the stream of goodness in the world.  That is how the writer describes what we call the kingdom or the shalom of God.  The stream of goodness in the world. The meditation for July 8 ends with this prayer: “I pray that I may try to make God’s will my will. I pray that I may keep in the stream of goodness in the world.”

I think that is what Paul was taking about. That is what Isaac eventually did, but he traveled over quite a few different kinds of soil before he finally got the ears to hear. And I think it’s a good metaphor for what Jesus is saying today.

May we prepare the good soil of our spirits for a bountiful harvest. May we send our spiritual roots deep so that we can bear much fruit. May we be in the stream of goodness of the universe and may we bring forth a hundredfold for our Lord Jesus.

Amen

Pentecost 3 Proper 9 July 3, 2011

Pentecost 3 Proper 9A RCL July 3, 2011

Genesis 24: 34-38. 42-49. 58-67
Psalm 45: 11-18
Romans 7: 15-25a
Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30

Our reading from the Hebrew scriptures today tells the story of how Abraham finds a wife for his beloved son, Isaac. The psalm is a song for a royal wedding. Our passage from Romans is Paul’s honest and insightful account of the struggles of the spiritual journey. We want to do God’s will, but, in spite of our best efforts, we do fail. Sometimes we get into recurring patterns of doing what we do not want to do and not doing what we know is right. At such times especially, God’s grace is the only thing that can break the chain and get us back on track. In our gospel, Jesus tells us that he is here to help us carry our burdens. It is a yoke for two oxen, a double yoke. We don’t have to do it alone.

This morning I want to try to shed some light on the first lesson. This passage has not appeared in our lectionary until the development of the Revised Common Lectionary which we adopted for use only in 2008.

If we read the part of Genesis which precedes this passage, and we look at the part right after God has spared Abraham from sacrificing Isaac we learn that Abraham has found out that, back in Haran, Abraham and Sarah’s home, Abraham’s brother, Nahor, has married a woman named Milcah, and they have had several children. One of these children, Bethuel, has become the father of a young woman named Rebekah.

Then Sarah dies, and Abraham arranges for her burial. Abraham is now old. God has richly blessed him, and he wants to be sure that God’s promise of descendants as numerous as the stars will come true.

So he asks his most trusted servant, who is not named but we think it is his servant Eliezer, to go back to Haran and pick a wife for Isaac from their home tribe and family. He does not want Isaac to marry one of the Canaanite women because they do not believe in Abraham’s God. Abraham also does not want Isaac to go back to Haran. He wants Isaac to stay in the promised land, so he tells Eliezer that an angel of the Lord will go with him and guide him on this mission. Abraham tells his servant that he should, with God’s guidance, pick out a woman to be Isaac’s wife, but, if the woman does not want to come back to Canaan with Eliezer, he should abort the mission. And he will be free from the oath he is about to take. Eliezer takes a solemn oath to carry out his master’s wishes.

So Eliezer takes ten of his master’s camels and all kinds of choice gifts from his master, and he sets out for the town of Nahor, which is near Haran. When he arrives, he makes the camels kneel outside the city near the well. It is toward evening, and the young women will come to draw water. Eliezer prays to God, and he says, “Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer me your jar, so that I may drink,’ and she shall say,’Drink, and I shall water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac.”

Along comes Rebekah, with her water jar upon her shoulder, and the scripture says that she is very fair to look upon. She fills up her jar, and Eliezer asks her for a drink, and, sure enough, she offers him a drink and says she will water his camels, and the scripture says, Eliezer  “gazed upon her in silence to learn whether or not the Lord had made his journey successful.” (Gen. 24:21.)

As you can see from the passage which Lori has read, everything went according to plan, and we need to remember that Eliezer is trusting in God’s guidance every step of the way. This is the next step in carrying out God’s promise—to find the wife God intends for Isaac.

Rebekah has extended hospitality to Eliezer on behalf of her father, Bethuel, and now Eliezer has come to their home and is asking for Rebekah’s hand in marriage on behalf of his masters, Abraham and Isaac. Here we have to add a note about courtship in 1600 B.C. E. As one scholar puts it, the well is the singles bar in each town. The young men go to the well. The young women are drawing water.  The young man, of course, usually knows the young woman and what family she comes from; he asks her to marry him, gives her some appropriate gifts, and goes to her father’s house, whereupon the father would usually, if he feels this young man is a good match, just hand over his daughter to be married.

This is not the case in our story, Rebekah is given the privilege of choosing whether she wants to marry Isaac.  She is given a great deal of power in this account. She chooses to go to Canaan and sets out with her retinue.

They finally come upon Isaac in the Negeb. He is walking in the field in the cool of the evening. Rebekah sees him and asks who the man is. Eliezer says that it is his master. Isaac has become his master. The leadership is passing from one generation to the next. Isaac and Rebekah do not actually run across the field into each other’s arms, but they might well have done so. Eliezer tells Isaac the details of the journey, and all is well. Isaac brings Rebekah into his mother Sarah’s tent, and the rest, as they say, is history. And there is another very important point. This is not just another arranged marriage, as was the custom in those days. The text says of Isaac, “He loved her.”

As with the story of Abraham and Isaac, this story points out an increased level of understanding of several things. First, this marriage comes about as a result of God’s guidance. Eliezer, the faithful servant, is praying throughout the journey and seeking God’s will. Secondly, Rebekah is respected. Her father asks her what her wishes are. Her husband loves her.  She has a voice. She is a woman of substance.

But the major point is that every step in this story is taken with the guidance of God. What a wonderful example for us to follow. What a faithful servant of God and of his master Eliezer proves himself to be.

As Paul eloquently describes it, our journey is sometimes a struggle. Thanks be to God for the gift of grace. With God’s grace, following in the footsteps of our Lord can be, and often is, a journey of joy.

May we seek God’s guidance as faithfully as did Eliezer; may we seek and do God’s will with God’s grace. May we let our Lord Jesus be our partner in the shared yoke of obedience.

                            Amen

Pentecost 2 Proper 8 June 26, 2011

 Pentecost 2 Proper 8A June 26, 2011

Genesis 22: 1-14
Psalm 13
Romans 6: 12-23
Matthew 10: 40-42

 Our first lesson this morning can be shocking, to say the least. Why would a loving God ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his beloved son? Why would Abraham have to go through the torture of taking Isaac up the mountain to make this sacrifice? The poignant moment when Isaac asks his father, “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” almost tears our hearts out. Abraham answers that God will provide the lamb. And just at the crucial moment when Abraham is reaching for the knife to kill his son, the angel of the Lord tells him to stop and Abraham sees a ram caught in the thicket by its horns. God has indeed provided, but what a wrenching story. One scholar says that, for those who want to scoff at Christianity, this is prime ammunition.

 The context for this story is that, at the time of Abraham, around 1600 B.C.E., the people of Canaan and surrounding areas were still making human sacrifices. In fact, they were sacrificing their children to their gods. This story, together with many words of the prophets, including Hosea, who wrote, speaking on behalf of God, “”For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6). God wants us to open our hearts and lives to transformation, God does not want us to be sacrificing animals, much less our own beloved children. But this was a new idea when this story was first written by the Elohist scholar around 750 B.C.E.

Jesus was very clear about the role of children. He welcomed and cherished children. He told us that we need to become like children, open, trusting, willing to allow him into our lives. Children are to be nurtured and protected.

In approaching our epistle for today, we are coming into the middle of  Paul’s letter to the Romans, In the ending to the preceding section, Paul has written,  “We know that Christ being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death that he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Some of Paul’s language can cause problems for us. When he talks about presenting our members to sin as instruments of wickedness, scholars tell us he is talking about the commitments we make with our whole selves. Do we devote ourselves to climbing the ladder of success at any cost, or do we devote ourselves to helping others? Paul talks in terms of slavery, which his listeners would have underatood. But this tends to put us off.

What Paul is talking about is, what is the direction of our lives? What is governing our lives? Are we rooted and grounded in God? Do we accept God’s love for us, and do we share that love with others? The term ”righteousness” does not mean a holier than thou attitude. It means right relationship with God. If we are in right relationship with God, we are deeply aware of God’s love for us and for all people.

My definition of sin is separation from God and from other people and from our true self.  Paul is talking about sin as a way of life, not as distinct choices. Am I centered in God and God’s compassion? Or am I centered in something else? It could be money, power, acquiring things without regard for those in need. But it’s a whole approach to life, an approach that leads away from God and away from love and compassion for others. It is easy to get caught up in this, and Paul is telling us that, because of our baptism in Jesus, our lives can go in a new direction and we can grow closer and closer to God. Recently, my daughter asked me what my bucket list is, and I said I really hadn’t thought about it. After thinking for a while, I realized it is just that—to grow closer and closer to God and more and more compassionate to other people.

In our gospel for today, Jesus is instructing the apostles on how to go out into the world and spread the Good News. They were going to have to depend on people’s hospitality. They were going to have to travel light. And Jesus says that whoever welcomes one of them welcomes him.  Whoever gives a cup of water to someone gives it to him.

Here these twelve people were, being entrusted with this message, this good news, this way of life. And whenever someone welcomed them, they would go in to that home and share the love and joy of new life in Christ, and often those people would be baptized. And as the apostles went around the Mediterranean basin, that good news spread, and the communities of followers of the Way were formed and grew.

But it all depended on the gift of hospitality. Because of hospitality, a new family was formed, the family of followers of Jesus.

What does this mean for us? During our journey in faith, we may have to make sacrifices. Working with kids in an inner city doesn’t pay as much as some other things, but it may be what we are called to. Working with kids anywhere is a vocation  which is close to the heart of God. But we are not called to sacrifice our kids or our families.

Jesus has freed us from slavery to sin and brokenness and has welcomed us into a dimension of life we had not dreamed possible.  Because of our baptism, we are committed to his shalom; we are partners with him in bringing in his kingdom.

Hospitality is so important. When someone knocks on the door, we are called to welcome them as though they were our Lord.  God loves us and calls us to make the choice to love God in return and to love others as God loves them. God wants us to open our hearts to God’s love so that God can lead us into a new dimension of living and a new level of community, here and over all the earth.

And it’sall summed up in something as simple as welcoming folks and giving them something to eat and drink.

What does all this mean for us today? First, God created us good. Jesis told us that the Spirit is within us. We have the ability to choose to be creative or destructive; to be living or unloving, to be compassionate or uncaring. God wants us to choose to love God back and to love other people as God loves them. God wants us to open our hearts to God’s love so that God can lead us into a new dimension of living and a new level of community here and all over the earth.

And it’s all summed up in welcoming folks and giving them something to eat and drink.

                                                Amen

Trinity Sunday June 19, 2011

Trinity Sunday Year A RCL June 19, 2011

Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13: 11-13
Matthew 28: 16-20

We celebrate this morning Trinity Sunday, and this gives us the opportunity to try to clarify the doctrine of the Trinity, which tells us that God reveals Godself to us in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.

 In our reading from the Book of Genesis about the creation of the world, there is a great joy. God is creating this wonderful world for the love of it, and we notice that, after each stage of creation, there is a refrain, a very positive refrain—“And God saw that it was good.” The creation is good and we are created as good people. Our other two readings today emphasize the love of God in three persons and our vocation to spread that love.

 Robert Farrar Capon, an Episcopal priest and theologian, captures the spirit of the creation better than anyone I know. For our newer members, there is a tradition here at Grace, a tradition started by our beloved brother in Christ, the Rev. David Walters, who served Grace for twelve years. The tradition is the reading of the creation passage from Capon’s book, The Third Peacock.

 “Let me tell you why God created the world. One afternoon, before anything was made, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit sat around in the unity of their Godhead discussing one of the Father’s fixations. From all eternity, it seems he had this thing about being. He would keep thinking of all kinds of unnecessary things—new ways of being and new kinds of beings to be. And as they talked God the Son suddenly said, ‘Really, this is absolutely great stuff. Why don’t I go out and mix us up a batch? And God the Holy Spirit said, ‘Terrific, I’ll help you. So they all pitched in, and, after supper that night, the Son and the Holy Spirit put on this tremendous show of being for the Father. It was full of water and light and frogs; pine cones kept dripping all over the place and crazy fish swam around in the wineglasses. There were mushrooms and grapes, horseradishes and tigers—and men and women and children everywhere to taste them, to juggle them, to join them, and to love them. And God the Father looked at the whole wild party and he said, “Wonderful! Just what I had in mind. Very, vcry good. And they laughed for ages and ages saying how great it was for beings to be, and how clever of the Father to think of the idea and how kind of the Son to go to all the trouble putting it together, and how considerate of the Spirit to spend all that time directing and choreographing. And forever and ever they said how wonderful and good it was.” Capon reminds us that this process is going on all the time. God is constantly creating. There was not just one “celestial bash,” as he puts it. Capon writes,

What happens is not that the Trinity manufactures the first duck and then the ducks take over the business and a kind of cottage industry, it is that every duck is a response to the creative act of God. God the Father thinks up duck #47307 for the month of June AD 2011, God the Spirit rushes over the edge of the formless void and, with unutterable groanings broods duck #47307 and over his brooding God the Son, triumphantly shouts, ‘Duck #47307!’ And presto, you have a duck. Not one, you will note, tossed up in some response to a mindless decree, but one neatly fielded in a game of delight. The world is not God’s surplus inventory of artifacts. It is a whole barrelful of the apples of God’s eye, constantly juggled, relished, and exchanged by the persons of the Trinity. No wonder we love circuses, games, and magic. They prove we are in the image of God.”

 Now I want to share with you the theology of a man named John Macquarrie, an Anglican theologian who uses an analogy to explain the Trinity.  Vision, plan, realization of the plan.  Let’s take a work of art, say, a novel. The artist has a vision. She plans the book. There will be this or that character and these characters and there will be this situation and these events and so forth. Then the author writes the novel. God the Father is the author. He has the vision of creation. God the Son is the plan, the Word, the logos, the model, the blueprint for human life. By coming among us and living his life, and by his teaching and preaching, he gave us the details of how life should be lived. God the Spirit brings about the full realization of God’s vision and plan. The Spirit is God at work in us and in the world. The kingdom, the vision, the shalom of God is not yet complete, but it is in process, It is growing. We are called to be co-creators to bring in the shalom of God.

 Another way to think of the Trinity is God the Creator, God the Redeemer, and God, the Sanctifier. God the Creator, transcendent and holy, yet immanent, within us, near us.

 God the redeemer. Christ. God walking among us. Immanuel. We can enter into the shalom of God right now by living the life in Christ, aligning ourselves with the vision of God’s kingdom, which is even now growing like the mustard seed or like the invisible yeast in the dough.

 God the Sanctifier—the Holy Spirit. Often, especially in the Eastern Church, the Spirit is associated with Wisdom and is seen as feminine. The reign of God has begun but is not yet complete. The Spirit is the one who is bringing it to completion.

 God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. God the Creator, God the Redeemer, God the Sanctifier. Vision, Plan, Realization of the Plan. Three persons who are one, three aspects, three ways in which God reveals Godself to us. And God’s joy in the creation, God saw that it was good.

 God’s loving creative energy. What a wonderful thing to celebrate. What an amazing thing to be part of. The Holy Trinity is the original model of Community. And what a team they are. The joy and mutuality and encouragement with which they do the ongoing work of creation is our model for how to live in community.

                                                           Amen

The Day of Pentecost June 12, 2011

The Day of Pentecost Year A RCL June 12, 2011

Acts 2: 1-21
Psalm 104: 25-35; 37b
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
John 20:19-23

Last Sunday we talked about Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples to spread the good news. He has told them that he will not leave them comfortless, that he will send the Holy Spirit to guide them into all truth.

He has told them to wait. They are waiting. He has told them to pray. They are praying. They are together in one place. That is a key thing. We are together in one place. The Spirit comes in power when we are gathered in community.

Yes, there have been the betrayals, the denials. Some have run away. Some have come back. But now they are together, waiting, praying, as we are waiting, praying. Because they have hung in there, gathered in prayer and expectation, we can accurately assume that they have much more trust than they had, say, on Good Friday, and maybe even on the first Easter. He told them that he would die, and that happened, and it was horrible. He told them that he would rise, and they have seen him, in the upper room, on the road to Emmaus, on the beach, and other places. It has been an intense journey, and all of it has brought them to that place of trust and openness which allows God to work fully.

They are in the house, and we can just imagine the scene. A mighty wind, like the desert ruach, the wind of the Spirit, molding and shaping us into the persons God calls us to be. And something like flames dancing over the heads of the apostles, and gifts pouring out everywhere, gifts of the Spirit pouring into their hearts, into the core of their being. And suddenly, overflowing with the Spirit, they burst forth, speaking all the languages of the known world.

There are faithful Jews gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish feast of Pentecost, fifty days after the Passover, a celebration of the giving of the covenant on Mt. Sinai and also a harvest festival. Wind and flames are swirling around the house where Jesus’ followers have gathered, and we can imagine people coming to see what’s going on here. There is a joyful commotion. The whooshing of the wind and flames, the paradoxically harmoniously unifying cacophany of all these languages. And the strangest thing—these people gathered from all over the known world—the writer of the account wants to make sure we understand just how far they have come, so the writer names the nationalities—Parthians, Medes, Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Rome, Egypt, Arabia, people from far and wide—all these people can understand what these Galileans are saying! Jesus’ disciples, who have never gone to the Middlebury language school, are breaking through the barriers and the separations caused by our human brokenness and limitations, and they are speaking the good news heart to heart with all these people. And that’s how the good news spreads—from one heart to another.

In today’s gospel, which we also read on the second Sunday of Easter, we have another account of Jesus giving the Spirit to his followers. Another side, another aspect of how the Spirit comes to us. Again, the key thing is that they are together. They are waiting and praying. It is the evening of the first Easter. They are afraid. The doors are locked for fear of the religious and secular authorities. Suddenly he is in the room. He quietly and gently walks through their fear. “Peace be with you,” he says. He gives them the gift of shalom, peace, that paradoxical peace that means the reconciling and bringing together of opposites and conflicts and differences. He gives them the gift of forgiveness—forgiveness of others, yes, and also forgiveness for them—for all the denials and betrayals and doubts and self-seeking. His whole attitude is one of forgiveness and acceptance. Now, given the gift of forgiveness, they are called to share that gift with others. And he gives them his breath; he breathes into them his life. This band of fearful people becomes his body, carrying on his ministry.

Our epistle today comments on the extraordinary nature of the Body of Christ. The Corinthians had a misunderstanding about the Body. They were beginning to think that some gifts, mainly speaking in tongues, were better than others.  Paul says very clearly that all the gifts and all the members of the Body are equal. Every gift and every member is needed. Weeding our gardens and washing the windows and cleaning the church are just as important as conducting the liturgy in a reverent manner, teaching, preaching, praying, and learning.

The Holy Spirit comes to us in different ways at different times. Sometimes, it is a dramatic encounter, as at the first Pentecost, the Birthday of the Church. But at other times, the Spirit comes into our lives and hearts quietly, as Jesus came quietly into this world, born in a stable. But the Spirit is always at work, transforming our lives and our world, building God’s shalom. The Spirit is always building, always creating.

May we be open to the gifts of the Spirit. May we, as the Body of Christ in this place, know that each member and every gift is infinitely precious in God’s sight. In the power of the Spirit, may we live the Good News and share God’s love.

                        Amen.

Easter 7 June 5, 2011

Easter 7A RCL June 5, 2011

Acts 1: 6-14

Psalm 68:1-10; 33-36
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5: 6-11
John 17: 1-11

In our reading from the Book of Acts, Jesus is with the   apostles for the last time. They ask him if he is going to throw out the Roman Empire and restore the royal dynasty which goes back to King David. Of course, his shalom is a kingdom of a different kind. His shalom of wholeness within each of us and among all humans is a restoration of the wholeness of the entire creation. And he commissions them to spread that shalom.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” With these words, Jesus ascends to be with God and leaves his followers, the original band of centuries ago, and us, to be his Body on earth.

Let’s stop and think about this for a moment.

The original followers, the twelve, now eleven because of Judas’ betrayal, some additional folks, we really don’t know how many, the mother of Jesus and several other women who seemed to stay very close throughout his time with the apostles, all these people had lived with Jesus. They had eaten, slept, studied and discussed the scriptures, wrestled with questions of theology and life, traveled the countryside, lived very closely together with him, and over the one and a half to three years of his ministry, depending on which gospel we read, these people had come to realize that Jesus represented humanity on its highest level and they began to feel that Jesus was God walking the face of the earth. They found his words and actions compelling, and, through all the process of getting to know him, they came to love him very deeply.

In a way that goes far beyond our understanding, though I think we keep trying to understand it—you and I, by reading the gospels, by gathering in community as they did, by praying, individually and together, by being fed by his presence in the sacraments, you and I have become part of that band, so that, as they receive the commission, we, too, receive it.

And the wonder is that he would count so heavily upon all of us, that original band and this community gathered here today, and Christians all over the world. We are so, well, human. We are flawed. The very fact that there are only eleven of them in those final moments before he leaves reminds us that Judas had betrayed him. Peter denied him three times. Most of them fled in terror after he was crucified. Yes here he is, entrusting the mission to them and to us.

How can he do this? The record is hardly sterling. Though Jesus prayed that we might be one as he and the Father are one, we Christians have divided into many denominations. We have committed violence in the name of God. Think of the Crusades, the Inquisition. The Salem witch trials. Many things have been done in the name of God which, in my opinion, have probably made God cringe in shock.

If we expand the field of vision to include the entire human race, God’s beloved family, the record has many noble chapters and events, but there is profound brokenness and violence—genocide, wars upon wars, and now we are at the point where we have the power to destroy the planet which God has entrusted to our care—“this fragile earth, our island home.”

Herbert O’Driscoll writes, “We find the actuality of what each of us is, and the actuality of what the church seems to be, too flawed and stained for us to believe that we and the church can really now be the body of Christ!  Can our all too obvious humanity be that body? Can our ordinariness be the repository of divine glory? Can we be the instruments of God’s divine will? (A Year of the Lord, p. 107.)

And yet, because Jesus has cared about us so deeply and has come to live with us, we know that we have within us something of the spark of the divine. He told us that the Holy Spirit lives within us. Because of that love, we know that, frail though we are, we can do God’s work with the help of God’s grace.

Jesus instructed his followers to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. While they waited, they did two things: they stayed together and they prayed. Although waiting and praying are very difficult things to do in our rushed and hectic culture, they are wonderful and wise things to do as we prepare for the Feast of Pentecost.

I ask that we all take time this week, just as they did so many years ago, to pray for the coming of the Spirit in great power and great love this coming Sunday at Pentecost. The Feast of Pentecost, as you know, is the third great feast, after Christmas and Easter.  May we wait and pray for the coming of the Spirit, with all the gifts we need to carry out our ministry.

                            Amen