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    • Sunday service - Holy Communion December 11, 2022 at 9:30 am – 11:00 am Grace Church 215 Pleasant Street, Sheldon, VT Website: www.gracechurchsheldon.orgTime:  09:30 AM Eastern Time (US and Canada)        Every week on Sun.Join Zoom Meetinghttps://us02web.zoom.us/j/83929911344?pwd=alZQTWZMN0ZkWFFPS1hmNjNkZkU2UT09Meeting ID: 839 2991 1344Password: Call for detailsOne tap mobile+13126266799,,83929911344#,,1#,816603# US (Chicago)+19294362866,,83929911344#,,1#,816603# US (New York)Dial by your location        +1 312 626 6799 US (Chicago)        +1 929 436 2866 US (New York)Meeting ID:…
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Lent 5B RCL March 25, 2012

 Jeremiah 31: 31-34
Psalm 51: 1-13
Hebrews 5: 5-10
John 12: 20-33

In our first lesson this morning, the prophet Jeremiah is speaking a word of hope to God’s people at a time of discouragement and despair. King Nebuchadnezzar of the great Babylonian Empire has conquered Jerusalem and the people have been deported to Babylon to spend years in exile. They are trying to hang on to their faith and keep to the law, but the threads of hope are fraying to the breaking point. This is a time of great suffering.

In the midst of this terrible pain, God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah. God is going to make a new covenant with the people. This new covenant is not the covenant of the law that was received at Mt. Sinai. God will put God’s law within the people. God will write the law on their hearts. There will be deep intimacy between God and the people. They will not need others to teach them about God, for each of them will know God. The love and guidance of God will be within the people.

As Christians, we believe that the new covenant is present and active in Jesus. Through his grace, he helps us to write God’s love in our hearts and to live according to the Great Commandment: “Love God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

In our gospel for today, it is the feast of the Passover, the celebration of the freeing of God’s people from slavery. People from all over the world have come to Jerusalem. Some Greeks, that is, Gentiles, approach Philip, possibly because he is from Galilee, which had a large population of Gentiles. “Sir, we want to see Jesus,” they tell Philip. So Philip takes them to Andrew, and the two apostles take these men to see Jesus. Scholars tell us that the approach of these two Gentile seekers lets Jesus know that his ministry is to the whole world. He knows his hour is coming soon. He is going to be glorified by dying on the most shaming, humiliating, agonizingly painful instrument of torture ever invented—the cross.

He addresses the crowd and us. He calls us to be like grains of wheat, falling into the rich soil of God’s love and life to be bread for the world. He calls us to lose our lives for his sake, to let go of our careful control which gives us such a sense of security and let God propel us into a new dimension of living–life on God’s terms.

And then he shares with us his full humanity. He is troubled, deeply torn. What should he do, ask not to go through this? Of course he does not want to hang on a cross and suffer. And he has a choice, He can choose to go into hiding, avoid the authorities, live quietly, maybe do a few quiet healings and help people in some small way.

Then, “Father, glorify your name.” The decision is made. I think most of us have had those times, perhaps one time especially when we had a choice to protect ourselves, stay in control, not take the quantum leap which would propel us into the service of God’s transforming love, into God’s kingdom. We know our comfortable little world, and, if we can just stay in control, stay on the safe path we know we won’t have to take this big risk.

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “ According to John, Jesus died to fill the world with wheat, with so many sons and daughters of God that no one would ever want for bread again.”

She continues, “Because Jesus was willing to die, God could raise him from the dead. Because Jesus was willing to die, people could discover that death was not the worst thing that could happen to them. Because Jesus was willing to die, a new community could form in his name, one that redefined its life on the basis of his death.

She continues, “One of the main points in that redefinition was a new view of suffering. It was no longer something to be avoided at all costs, nor did it mean that God was mad at you. It might in fact mean that God loved you very much, because when someone on a path toward God deliberately chooses the self-offering that goes with that path, then suffering becomes one of God’s most powerful tools for transformation. It is how God breaks open hard hearts so that they may be made new…

“When Jesus died, this power was made manifest. By absorbing into himself the worst that the world could do to a child of God and by refusing to do any of it back, he made sure it was put to death with him.  By suffering every kind of hurt and shame without ever once letting them deflect him from his purpose, he broke their hold in humankind. In him, sin met its match. He showed us what is possible. These are just some of the fruits of Christ’s death, things that could never have happened if he had not been willing to fall to the ground. (God in Pain, pp. 64-65.)

As we move closer and closer to Good Friday, and as we contemplate the enormous love which our Lord has shown for us, we are called to make our own choices.  Can we love and trust God enough to let go of some of our control and offer ourselves to God on a deeper level? Can we come to a more profound sense of the depth and breadth of God’s love for us, love that can free us so that we can allow God to help us grow into the person God is calling us to be? Can we let go and let God bring us into new life?

Loving and healing God, give us the grace to offer ourselves to your service that we may be partners with you in building your shalom.

 Amen

 

Lent 4B RCL March 18, 2012

Numbers 21: 4-9
Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2: 1-10
John 3: 14-21

Our Lenten journey is mirrored in the journey of God’s people. They have to go around the land of Edom because the Edomites have not granted them permission to cross their territory. The people become impatient. They forget all that they went through making bricks for the pharaoh in Egypt, all the suffering and the slavery. They are thinking only of the great food they had there, and the water, and all the comforts. This is so helpful to us thousands of years later because we do the same thing.

 Sometimes, when the journey becomes particularly challenging, we tend to look back on times in the past when, as we recall though rose-colored glasses, everything was so much better and things went so much more smoothly. Nostalgia can be deceptive. As we look back with that idealized vision, we can forget the bondage that was involved. At any rate, the people start to complain about Moses and his leadership and about God.

 The text says that God sent poisonous snakes. In those times, everything was attributed to God. The snakes bite some of the people and they die. The people come to their senses.  They realize that they have sinned against God. They have not trusted God to lead them. Moses prays to God, and God instructs him to make a serpent and set it on a pole. The people look on the serpent and are healed. In ancient times, snakes were thought of as having healing properties. To this day, the symbol of the medical profession, the caduceus, is a staff with two snakes wound around it and two wings at the top. The people look at the serpent and they are healed. The journey goes on.

 Our gospel for today begins by referring to the lifting up of that healing serpent in the wilderness journey of the people of God. Jesus is going to be lifted up on that horrible instrument of torture and death, the cross. He will also be lifted up at the resurrection into new life and he will be lifted up at the ascension.

This portion of John’s gospel follows Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a leader of the Temple, who comes under cover of night to meet Jesus. Jesus tells him he must be born again. The first step in being born again is to believe that Jesus has faced every form of death and has overcome all of them. This is where we read that stirring summary of the Good News, “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son so that everyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Jesus came to share God’s love, but God’s love is like the light. It shows things as they truly are. We can’t hide anything. Jesus has come to bring everything into the light. As the hymn says, we are called to walk as children of the light.

 In today’s epistle, Paul talks about how our Lord came to us when we were living in the passions of our flesh. For Paul the flesh does not mean the physical body, but self-centeredness.  When we do whatever we want to do, without any thought for others and with no thought for the consequences of our actions, things can go downhill fast. When all we are thinking of is ourselves and our wants, which we often frame as needs, we become alienated from God, from other people, and from our true selves. Also, there is no sense or community if each person is living only for himself or herself. As a Pharisee, Paul also knows how it feels when we have a code of laws to follow but we just can’t do it.

 In the face of this human dilemma, Paul writes, “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”

 Have you ever felt enslaved to something? To a habit, perhaps, or to a trait of character you wanted to get rid of but just couldn’t seem to shake? Have you ever kept breaking one of the Ten Commandments over and over? I think Paul could probably answer yes to all of those questions, and I think many of us can as well. We try and try and we just can’t get out of that pit.

 The love of God, expressed in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord, is our way out of that pit. It’s a path to new life, life in an entirely new landscape, with a completely different outlook, so  different that it feels like being born again, and, for all practical purposes, it is as though we were a new person.

 Paul puts it so well. He writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

We have a wonderful reminder of this in the banner which DiAnne made and which hangs here to inspire us.

 God has given us a great gift—the gift of newness of life. This gift has required nothing of us. We did not have to earn it. God loves us so much that God comes among us and gives us this gift. But we do need one thing, one thing in order to open this gift. God also gives us this one thing—the gift of faith. 

 This fourth Sunday in Lent marks a turning point, a lightening up in the discipline. In years past, we called it “Mothering Sunday.” People went to visit their mothers. People also enjoyed the delicious fruit cake known as simnel cake.

 Let us take some time today to think about this gift we have been given—the gift of faith and the gift of new life in Christ. Let us take time to give thanks for God’s immeasurable love. And let us remember that nothing can separate us from that love.

 “By grace through faith….”

 

                                                           Amen.

Lent 3B RCL March 11, 2012

Exodus 20: 1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1: 18-25
John 2: 13-22

The people Israel have arrived at Mt. Sinai. God has freed them from slavery and they are making their way through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Scholars tell us that today’s summary of the Ten Commandments was actually a liturgy, a worship service which was performed down through the ages to celebrate God’s leading the people out of slavery and the covenant which provided the foundation of their life with God and with each other.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The first commandment makes it clear that God has acted first to bring us out of bondage. Now we are called to respond.

We are not to make idols. Obviously, we shouldn’t manufacture golden calves for ourselves to worship. But the commandment not to make idols covers all those things we may put in the place of God. Apparently, Volvo at one time identified itself as “a car that can save your soul.” Gert Behanna said that we put “In God we trust on the thing we really do trust.” A great mystic said that our souls are restless until they find their rest in God. It is so easy to put things in the place of God, but there is only one God.

“You shall not make wrongful use of the Name of the Lord your God.”

 “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.” Sabbath time is so important. We need to stop and rest and have fun with friends and family and enjoy recreation. We are also called to worship God, to share and reflect on the Word of God, pray together, receive the sacraments, and support each other on our journeys.

“Honor your father and your mother.” Family is so important, and this commandment and the ones following it all have to do with how we conduct ourselves in the context of ur own families and the family of faith.

 No murder, even with the tongue or the pen or the computer keyboard. Be faithful to your spouse. Honor the relationships of others.  Don’t steal. Be honest. Do not covet anything that anyone else has. These guidelines are wise and tried and true. They are a wonderful framework for our lives and for our life together.

As we turn to our epistle today, we remember that, as Paul moved around the Mediterranean Sea building congregations, he was dealing with two groups who were joining the new community of faith.  Neither of these groups had any use for a leader who had been crucified. The Jews saw crucifixion as a criminal’s death for the lowest of the low. If someone had been crucified, that immediately made him suspect. The Greeks respected philosophy and philosophers, not crucified leaders. We need to remember that Paul was well-versed in Greek philosophy and in Hebrew scholarship as well.  Paul was no dummy. We would make a big mistake if we were to think that Paul is telling us to forget reason and scholarship as we try to understand the scriptures and our faith. Some people seem to think that Paul is anti-intellectual, and that is not the case.

I believe that Paul is making a very important distinction between human wisdom and divine wisdom. Yes, we are called to study and to learn and to be responsible in how we think about theology. But human wisdom only goes so far. Some people in the congregation in Corinth felt that they possessed superior wisdom. That’s when Paul said that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

Paul is saying that our God has come to us as one who is crucified, as one who suffers the death reserved for the lowest of the low, as one who lets go of his life and then rises to new life. Power is not about holding on to control and bossing people around and getting them to do what we want them to do. Power is about letting go and letting God bring the new life. That’s what Jesus does on the cross. And we are called to let go and to fall into the endless healing power of God’s love so that God can make us new. The whole Christian faith is a huge paradox. As our own Episcopal Church ads say, God does not ask us to check our brains at the door. God gave us brains and we are called to use them to the utmost. Then we take the next step and experience God, and that goes beyond the human mind. That’s where the Holy Spirit touches our hearts and lives.

In today’s gospel, we find Jesus in the great Temple in Jerusalem. Once you had climbed the steps to the outer courtyard, you had to pay the temple tax. To do this, you had to exchange your Roman coinage for the temple coins .The money changers charged a fee for their services, and this weighed most heavily on the poor. Jesus is not attacking the idea of worship. He is not attacking the spiritual tradition in which he has grown up. But he is very angry that people are making a sacred space into a marketplace, a place to make money, especially from those who could least afford a surcharge that shouldn’t be there in the first place. The temple worship had gotten to a point where it was placing barriers between the people and God. Jesus wanted people to be able to meet God face to face.

Obviously, we don’t make animal sacrifices and we don’t have money changers in church these days. But our readings pose some questions. Are we worshipping God in spirit and in truth? Are we putting barriers in the way of seekers who might come to our door? Are we, like the Corinthians, getting sidetracked with irrelevant points, such as who has the greatest knowledge among us?

I have been thinking about our worship here at Grace. We come together. In the winter, it can be cold. I never hear a complaint. I hear good-natured joking, but that’s a different thing, a good thing. Our worship is simple.  Every one pitches in. Everyone sings, people read, we pray. I have rarely seen such a depth of commitment as I see here. These days we are talking about the emergent church, the church which emerges from the ashes of the Christendom era. Communities which can love God and each other, use the gifts they have, travel light, rejoice in being together, share the food and drink which our Lord gives us, and go out into the world to spread his love and healing, are the kinds of communities we will need.  Grace Church is a living, positive response to our readings for today.  Well done, good and faithful servants!

 

                                                          Amen.                                                                                              

 

Lent 2 Year B RCL March 4, 2012

 Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16
Psalm 22: 22-30
Mark 8: 31-38 

This morning we start out with the great man of faith, Abram. He is 99 years old. God appears to him and tells him that he is going to be the “ancestor of a multitude of nations.” The only problem with this is that Abram and his wife have not been able to have any children. But God tells Abram that they will have a son. God also says that Abram’s name will become Abraham and Sarai’s name will become Sarah. There will be a change of identity for each of them.

 In our epistle for today, Paul builds on this image of Abraham as the major example of the faithful person. Paul tells us that, “hoping against hope,” Abraham did not doubt God’s word to him. And we all know what happened. God was faithful.

I want to focus on today’s gospel because it has so much in it. Jesus has alluded to it before, but now he is trying to help the disciples to understand the nature of his ministry. He spells it right out for them: he is going to be rejected by all the important authorities and he is going to be killed.

Peter can’t stand this. He takes Jesus aside and begins to scold him for saying such awful things. I think he does this for several reasons. The first is that he loves Jesus and he doesn’t want Jesus to die. The other is that he has the idea of a messiah as a liberating king who comes in and sets up his reign by force. It’s going to take a long time before Peter gets this idea out of his head. The idea of the suffering servant as presented by Isaiah and other prophets was not as popular and easy as the idea of the conquering hero, but that’s the messiah God was sending.

But then we have this painful, dramatic moment. Jesus snarls to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Ouch! How this must have stung Peter. How it must have shocked him to have Jesus call him this name. Satan is the ultimate tempter, and Jesus is calling Peter this terrible name.

I believe that Jesus uses this wording because he is indeed tempted. He doesn’t want to suffer. Later in the garden he asks that, if this cup may pass from his lips, let it happen, but, if not, he will go through with it. I wonder if Jesus was shocked after saying these words. I wonder if he wanted to take them back. But there they were, hanging in the air.

Then Jesus gathers the crowd along with the disciples and he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

What does this mean? On the most simple level, it means that, if we are focused only on ourselves, on what we need and what we want, we are going to miss the point of life. In Twelve Step programs, there is a saying that EGO means Ease God Out. There is much truth in that. On the other hand, Jesus is not calling us to destroy ourselves by taking on too much or to sacrifice ourselves by taking care of others and never taking care of our own needs. We are called to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. In order to do this, we need to realize that God loves us and we need to love ourselves. So, there is a fine balance here.

I believe that Jesus is calling us to make our major commitment to him   and to his shalom. He is calling us to give ourselves to something larger than ourselves which will give meaning to our lives and will bring us true joy. But life in him is not trouble free. We may have to make difficult sacrifices, hard choices.  Some folks seem to believe that if we follow Jesus, our lives will be all peaches and cream; we will be protected from all pain and problems, and we will live happily ever after. All we have to do is to look at the lives of a few saints to realize that that is not true. When we look at the life of Jesus, we know it isn’t true.

On Ash Wednesday we said that Jesus is calling us to take up our cross and he also said that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. We talked about each yoke for each individual ox was carved specifically to match every bump and lump on that ox’s neck and shoulders. To take up our cross is to walk our Lenten journey knowing that our yoke is  especially fitted to us. There is a certain lightness of being associated with taking the focus off self and throwing ourselves in with the work of God’s shalom.

One of my favorite followers of Jesus, Barbara Brown Taylor, talks about taking up our cross in terms of facing our worst fear. She says that the reason Peter said what he said was that, when Jesus told them he was going to die, that raised the specter of Peter’s worst fear: death. Peter had to face the fact that Jesus was going to die and he, Peter was going to die.

Whatever our worst fear may be, she says, we need to look it in the face. It may be fear of a diagnosis of some dread disease, or it may be fear of not measuring up, or it may be fear of death. But, whatever it is, that fear holds us in bondage. That fear is running our lives.

Taylor writes, “Whatever it is that scares you to death, so that you start offering to do anything, anything at all, if it will just go away, that is your cross, and, if you leave it lying there, it will kill you. If you turn away from it, (God forbid it, Lord!) with the excuse that this should never have happened to you, then you deny God the chance to show you the greatest mystery of all: that there, right there in the dark fist of your worst fear, is the door to abundant life.

Taylor continues. “I cannot say more than that. I don’t dare, or God might test me on it, but Jesus does dare. Stop running from your cross, he says. Reach down and pick it up. It isn’t nearly as scary once you get your hands on it, and no one is asking you to handle it alone. All you have to do is believe in God more than you believe in your fear. Then pick it up, come on with me, and I will show you the way to the door.”

May we walk the way of the cross. May we pick up the cross of our worst fear and let our Lord transform it into new life.  Amen.

Lent 1 Year B RCL February 26, 2012

Genesis 9: 8-17
Psalm 25: 1-9
1 Peter 3: 18-22
Mark 1: 9-15

 Martin Smith is a priest and a monk, a member of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, a religious community for men in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. Martin is a member of the community based in Boston. I have long respected his spiritual depth.

In his book of meditations for Lent,  A Season for the Spirit, Martin has a wonderful meditation on the Baptism of Christ. I am going to share this meditation with you because it gives us a perspective I have never heard expressed by any other person. I hope this will be as helpful to you as it has been to me.

Martin Smith writes, “If you were to picture the scene of Jesus’ baptism in your imagination, what would it be like? What feelings would arise? I did not realize how much I had been influenced by the typical representations of the scene in conventional Christian art until I went to a showing of Paolini’s film, The Gospel according to St. Matthew.  I found myself taken by surprise at the scene of Jesus’ baptism by John, and wept. It took a lot of thinking and praying to gain insight about why I had been moved by this scene in particular. In time I realized that hundreds of stained glass windows and paintings depicted only the two figures in the water. But the film shook me into the realization that Jesus’ baptism was  not a private ceremony but a mass affair with hundreds of men and women swarming in the river, and hundreds more waiting on the bank to take their place. Religious pictures had blunted the impact of the gospels’ insistence on the sheer numbers involved. “And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem, and they were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins.”  (Mark 1:5.) Luke repeats the word ‘multitudes’ and paints the picture of a mass baptism. ‘Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized….’  (Luke 3: 21.)

Insight gradually dawned that I had been moved by an intuition of Jesus’ solidarity with ordinary, struggling men and women. John preached a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” It was for the masses of mediocre people whose failures, lukewarmness, and mundane unfaithfulness made the prospect of coming judgment terrible. New converts to Judaism passed through a baptismal rite as part of their initiation. Now everyone needed a fresh start, as radical as the one made by a pagan who was embracing Judaism. John was offering  to the masses of ordinary people a baptism which could give them that new beginning.

Jesus’ reaction to John’s preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins was a crucial turning point. He could have kept his distance, an innocent young man conscious of unbroken faithfulness to God, looking with pity on the thousands of ordinary people who were overwhelmed by the realization of their own moral inadequacy. But instead of looking down on them from afar, secure in his own guiltlessness, Jesus plunged into the waters with them and lost himself in the crowd. He threw away his innocence and separateness to take on the identity of struggling men and women who were reaching out en masse for the lifeline of forgiveness.

It was at that moment when Jesus had thrown away his innocent individuality in exchange for the identity of needy, failed, struggling human beings that ‘the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, “thou art my beloved Son: with thee I am well pleased.”’ (Luke 3: 21, 22.)

God’s pleasure in Jesus can no longer be contained, and it bursts out. God is well-pleased precisely in Jesus’ self-emptying assumption of our identity. The Spirit reveals to Jesus that he is the beloved Son of God at the precise moment when Jesus had taken on the role of the son of Man. The strange idiom which Jesus was to use to refer to himself might be better translated, ‘the Human Being.’ In the muddy river Jesus was taking on the role of representing Humanity, of being its suffering  Heart and Self before God. As soon as Jesus had done that decisively, God flooded him with awareness of his unique relationship as Son and anointed him with the life-giving Breath for his mission.

I had wept because the fleeting images of the film had invited me into the Jordan experience as no static stained-glass window or old master had done. Can you feel and see yourself as part of that crowd of  humanity in the muddy water, as I started to then, and experience the entry of Jesus into our condition, into our needs? He chooses to plunge into it and make it his own. Nothing about me, about us, is foreign to him. He has chosen to be the Self of our selves.

And now, years later, I believe I wept because of the timing of the descent of the Spirit, the coincidence between the moment of Jesus’ solidarity with human beings and the moment of God’s revelation of intimate relationship with Jesus. Never did any event so deserve the name ‘moment of truth.’ The Spirit descended when Jesus embraced the truth of our interconnectedness, our belonging together in God. As soon as Jesus undertook to live that truth to the full, he was suffused with awareness of his own unique origin from and union with God and was filled with God’s Breath. This coincidence reveals the axis on which the gospel turns. The barriers which hold us back from one another in fearful individuality are the identical barriers which block the embrace of God and insulate us from the Spirit. It is one and the same movement of surrender to open ourselves to intimacy and personal union with God in the Spirit, and to open ourselves to compassion and solidarity with our struggling, needy fellow human beings. I was weeping in that Oxford cinema, though I did not understand it at the time, under the impact of this insight. To be open to the Spirit is also to be open to humanity in all its fractured confusion and poverty and its ardent reaching for fulfillment. To be open to the embrace of the Father is necessarily and inevitably to be open to the whole creation which is held in that embrace.”

Martin closes the meditation with this prayer:

“Spirit like a dove descending, in spite of my timidity I am appealing to you to centre my heart on this axis of truth in these forty days. Every small step you enable me to take towards a deeper compassion for my fellow human beings will lead me further into the experience of the Father’s delight in me and care for me. And vice versa. Every step I take in meditation to intensify my awareness of the love of God poured into my heart through the gift of your indwelling, will take me into a deeper identification with the suffering world, ‘groaning in travail together until now.’”

Ash Wednesday February 22, 2012

 

Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17
Psalm 103
2 Corinthians 5: 20b-6:10
Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21

Our first reading today is from the prophet Joel. He is one of the so-called Minor Prophets whose writings are found at the end of the Hebrew Scriptures. We know very little about Joel except that he is the son of Pethuel and his name means “the Lord is God.” Scholars are not sure about the time of his ministry, but their best research at this point says that Joel was a prophet closely acquainted with the temple whose ministry took place sometime after the return from the Babylonian Exile in 539 B.C.

 There is some kind of a crisis. It is described in agricultural terms as a plague of locusts and also in terms that suggest the approach of a threatening enemy.  In any case, Joel, speaking for God, calls the people to return to God with all our heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning. God says to the people, “Rend your hearts, not your clothing.” Apparently the people have drifted away from God, and God is calling them to an inward renewal of the spirit. God is also assuring them of God’s steadfast love and mercy. The whole congregation is called to this “solemn assembly,” from the oldest to the youngest, even infants who are still nursing.

 In our epistle, Paul calls us to be reconciled to God. Now is the time for us to focus our attention on growing as close to God as we can and to accept God’s grace as fully as we can. Paul tells us of all the many challenges and calamities he has suffered in his life and ministry, and yet he is still persevering and rejoicing.

 In our gospel, Jesus is giving us so much wisdom about our Lenten journey. In his time, there were people who made a big show about their religious practices. He tells us to work on our spiritual discipline quietly, almost secretly, because it is between each of us and our loving God. He tells us not to store up for ourselves treasures on earth, treasures that will not last, but to store up for ourselves treasures in heaven. And he says that wonderful thing: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” If we recognize that God and our life with God is our great treasure, right up there with our love for our families and friends, and, if we remember that the reason we are committed to this Lenten journey is because we want to respond to God’s love and grace, which have freed us from all that imprisons us, God’s love and grace, which have given us eternal life, we will have something like the proper focus for Lent.

 Lent comes from the root word for spring. Lent is a time for growth. It is a time to let go of anything that gets between us and God or between us and other people, in other words, sin. Sin is anything that gets between us and God, between us and other people, or between us and our true self. And Lent is a time to take on any discipline or practice that will help us to get closer to God, closer to other people, and closer to becoming our true self, the person God is calling us to be. Each of us is unique, and each of us is going to be giving up or taking on different things for Lent.

 

This past Sunday we saw who Jesus really is, and when we came down the mountain we realized that we are going to be walking the way of the cross.  Jesus says that, if we really want to follow him, we have to take up our cross and follow him. He also says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Back in Jesus’ time, when a carpenter made a yoke for an ox, the carpenter custom made that yoke to fit every bump and every contour and every little idiosyncratic aspect of that ox’s neck and shoulders. That yoke was carefully fitted so that the ox could do its work. That’s how our Lenten discipline and our daily spiritual discipline needs to be fitted.

 And, yes, we are to take up our cross. We are called in some way to take on a discipline that will involve sacrifice. There is no way in which it could possibly be the kind of sacrifice or self-offering that our Lord made. He is divine and we are human. But the idea is to participate in his self-giving on some level.

 

Our goal is to become more like our Lord. We can keep in mind the need to grow in the cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude, and in the theological virtues: faith, hope, and love and to move away from the seven root sins: pride, wrath, envy, greed, gluttony. lust, and sloth. We can remember the very helpful framework of the Ten Commandments. We can focus on our Lord’s summary of the law: “Love God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. All of these are tried and true guidelines as we navigate the journey of the spirit.

 We are walking with Jesus toward Jerusalem, toward the cross. I would like to share with you some thoughts by Barbara Brown Taylor, from her book God in Pain.

Christianity is the only world religion that confesses a God who suffers. It is not all that popular an idea, even among Christians. We prefer a God who prevents suffering, only that is not the God We have got. What the cross teaches us is that God’s power is not The power to force human choices and end human pain. It is, instead, the power to pick up the shattered pieces and make something holy out of them—not from a distance but right close up.

 By entering into the experience of the cross, God took the man-made wreckage of the world inside himself and labored with it –a long labor, almost three days–and he did not let go of it until he could transform it and return it to us as life. That is the power of a suffering God, not to prevent pain, but to redeem it, by going through it with us. (God in Pain, p. 118)

 This passage is extraordinary, I think, because it helps us to begin to understand that when we focus on God, when we walk the way of the cross, when we follow a serious spiritual discipline, we are living into the redemptive work of our Lord. By doing the work of growing closer to God, we are asking God to help us pick up the pieces of our lives so that we can put those pieces in God’s hands and invite God to transform our brokenness into wholeness and life. Lent is a time to move from death to life.

 May we have a Lent full of growth and new life.

                                                                    Amen.

 

Epiphany 6B RCL February 12, 2012

2 Kings 5: 1-14
Psalm 30
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Mark 1 40-43

 In our opening reading, we have the wonderful story of Naaman, a powerful general who has leprosy. Scholars tell us that the word “leprosy” in the Bible does not necessarily mean the horribly disfiguring  ailment which we call leprosy, Hansen’s Disease.  In biblical times, many different kinds of skin ailments were called leprosy.  These diseases all caused great distress for their victims. In Jewish law, anyone with such a disease was considered unclean. More on this later.

 Naaman is an excellent general and a very successful and wealthy  man. Except for this one problem, his life is perfect. The great preacher and theologian Herbert O’Driscoll says that he wonders why someone in the nineteenth century didn’t make an opera out of the story of Naaman’s healing.After many ups and downs, he finally does wash himself seven times in the Jordan river and is immediately healed, but it is entirely through the efforts of servants and other little people that he finally sees reason and follows Elisha’s simple directions.

 Naaman is a foreigner and is not a Jew, yet God still heals him. His money and his power have nothing to do with this happy outcome. It is purely the gift of a loving God.

 In our gospel for today, we have another healing of a leper. If you had a skin condition in Jesus’ time, as we noted earlier, you were considered ritually unclean.  Biblical scholar Paul Galbreath tells us that anyone with such a condition  had to go to the priests who would determine how serious his condition was and would make a treatment plan. If the disease was in an acute stage, the person would be quarantined to determines the severity and infectious nature of the condition. Galbreath says that if the person showed no signs of healing, he could be banished. Herbert O’Driscoll writes that a person with such a skin condition had to stay 150 yards away from any other human being, except another leper. In addition to the physical suffering inflicted by the disease, the isolation and stigma and loneliness were horrendous.

 I share this information to allow us to get a sense of the desperation of this man. We wonder how many times this person had tried to approach Jesus. We think what it must have taken for him to get to this point. He calls out to Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Of course Jesus chooses to make this man whole, He reaches out, touches him, and says, “I do choose. Be made clean!”

 It is almost impossible for us to understand all the levels of meaning in this. In those days, to be ritually unclean was almost worse than being dead. This is why the priest and the Levite walk by on the other side rather than touching the man who has fallen among thieves in the parable of the Good Samaritan. In order to obey the law, they have to choose allowing someone to die rather than risking becoming ritually unclean.

When Jesus reaches out and touches this leper, he not only takes the risk of getting the man’s disease, he becomes ritually unclean. He tells the man to go to the priest and make the offering required in order for them to declare him clean. That’s what you had to do. The priest had to say that you were well now and you could return to your family and friends, associate with people, talk with people, and generally become human again.

But Jesus can’t go to the priest and be declared clean. From now on, he is going to be fighting this system of ritual purity and impurity. Paul Galbreath writes, “ Thus the point of the healing is to press the issue of injustice with religious leaders who uphold laws in ways that violate God’s mercy for those who are sick and weak. Jesus sends the man to the priest in order that he may provide witness over and against a system that has isolated him from contact with members of his community.” (Galbreath, New Proclamation, Year B 2012, p.94.)

Jesus transcended the purity code. He reached out and touched everyone you weren’t supposed to associate with. We can ask ourselves, what kinds of folks do we consider impure or not quite up to snuff? People with HIV/Aids, drug addicts, alcoholics, those who have served time in prison, migrant workers, all these groups come to mind. We still have this tendency to say these people are in, but those people are out. As we run the spiritual race, as we develop our askesis, our athletic training of the spirit which Paul described so eloquently, it’s so important for us to remember that, in our Lord’s kingdom, everyone is sitting at the table.  Everyone is at the feast.

This past Tuesday, I had the privilege of meeting the Rev. Kim Erno, a native of Swanton who has spent the past ten years in Mexico doing all kinds of creative ministries which we will be hearing more about in coming months. For some time now, Kim has felt a call to return home and work with our Mexican migrant workers here in Franklin County.

Beth and Jan will have the opportunity to meet with Kim on February 16 at a gathering of folks from churches around this area and they will be discussing this new ministry.

This new ministry, called FARM (Franklin Alliance for Rural Ministries) is a wonderful response to today’s gospel. Kim is now working in the areas of Mexico from which most of our farm workers come. He speaks Spanish fluently and, when he returns and begins this ministry, he will be able to make personal connections between our brothers working here and their families in Mexico. He told me that the men working here do not have Spanish as their native language. Their native tongue is Mayan. Their roots go way back. Kim is also creating a network in Canada with people who help migrant workers north of the border, so we have all kinds of borders being crossed, barriers being broken, brothers and sisters becoming part of God’s loving family.

At the end of our visit, Kim and I came up and knelt at the altar rail and prayed together. I would ask that we pray together now.

Loving and gracious God, thank you for making us one in You. We pray for Kim as he prepares to come back home. Fill him with your grace, lead him in your light and guide him in your Spirit. We pray for those who will meeting on February 16, that your Spirit will be with them. And we pray for our migrant workers and those who are ministering and will be ministering to them. May they be surrounded by your love and filled with your grace. In Jesus’ name.

Amen.

Epiphany 5B RCL February 5, 2012

 Isaiah 40: 21=31
Psalm 147: 1-12, 21c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1: 29039

Our first reading, from the prophet known as the Second Isaiah, takes us back to the time of the Exile in Babylon. The people are feeling that God has forgotten them. Here they are, far from home, trying to hold on to their faith, but beginning to lose heart. They think that God does not understand their situation. Sometimes we feel that way. We ask, where is God in all of this? Does God care that we are going through this awful situation?

Through the prophet Isaiah, God answers the people. God is the One who created all things. As the text says, “The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.” And God assures us that God does not grow weary, that God “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless …Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles.”

There is a deep truth in these passages from Isaiah:  that God is with us, that God understands us, that God will never grow weary in helping us, that, as Paul says, “God’s power is made perfect in weakness.” When we feel powerless and admit our powerlessness, God enables us to fly like eagles.

This theme of weakness carries into our epistle today. The congregation in Corinth has some members who feel they have superior knowledge. They are coming from a position of power, and they are attacking Paul. Paul is not saying that he has superior power or knowledge. He is saying that he tries to understand people, to walk in their shoes and have empathy for them so that he can share the good news with them in ways that they can understand. He writes, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some….” He is coming from a place of humility and meets people where they are. He is following the example of our Lord, who said, “I am among you as one who serves.”

In our gospel, Jesus and his disciples leave the synagogue in Capernaum and go to the home of Simon Peter and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. They tell Jesus that she is ill. Jesus goes and takes her by the hand, and lifts her up. Scholars tell us that the Greek word used by Mark for “lifted up” is the same word Mark uses for Jesus’ resurrection. So this word means more than just lifted to a standing position. It means a rising to new life. The fever leaves her and she begins to serve them. The word for “to serve” is diakonia, the root word for deacon. Jesus heals her and calls her into new life and restores her to her ministry. Like the ministries of most of us, it is an ordinary everyday ministry of service—diakonia.

Word spreads fast. A healing has happened. By evening the whole city is at the door bringing people who need healing. Jesus ministers to them, but then, in the early morning, he goes off to pray. We all need to do that. We have times when we go to be with God and be recharged and renewed.

The disciples go to find Jesus and he tells them to go to the neighboring towns to share the good news and to make people whole.

What are these readings saying to us? First, at times when we feel that God is far away, times when we think there is no hope, times when we feel weak and unable to put one foot in front of another, God speaks to us and says, “I am the Creator of the vast galaxies, and I am also your loving God who will never leave you. I am always with you, to help you and guide you.”

Secondly, Jesus came as one of us, and Paul models that awareness in his ministry. He becomes the people he is called to serve, as Jesus became one of us. When we do our ministry we are called to become one with the people we are called to serve, to come from a place of empathy and servanthood, rather that a place of superiority and power. As Paul said, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

Third, Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, and she goes right back to serving them. He lifts her up, he makes her whole. He welcomes her to new life, and then she serves a meal. Not very exciting, we could say.

Most of our ministries are ordinary, everyday ministries of service. Nothing very dramatic. But because our Lord has called us and walks with us every step of the way, we do these ordinary things in a different way. Because he is with us, we listen to a troubled person in a different way, with his concern, with his love. Because he is with us, we may be writing a grant or working on a budget, or cleaning someone’s teeth, or doing laundry for a traumatized kid, or baking, or doing carpentry, or making a building more accessible, but we are doing it in a different way. We are carrying the presence and grace of our Lord to those we meet.

The fourth century theologian and bishop Cyril of Jerusalem wrote, “Everywhere the Savior becomes ‘all things to all men.’ To the hungry, bread; to the thirsty, water; to the dead, resurrection; to the sick, a physician; to sinners, redemption.” (New Proclamation Year B 2012, p. 91.)

Loving and gracious God, thank you for coming among us and leading us into newness of life. Thank you for calling us to minister to others in your Name. Give us grace, we pray, that we may be aware of your presence and help in the smallest and most ordinary of tasks and that we may share your love and healing as we serve our brothers and sisters, who, like us, are your beloved children. In Jesus’ Name.  Amen.

Epiphany 4B RCL January 29, 2012

Deuteronomy 18: 15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8: 1-13
Mark 1: 21-28

In our first reading, God’s people are on the border of Canaan, poised to go into the promised land. God is assuring them that God will raise up prophets like Moses to guide the people. There is a long line of prophets such as Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea, and many others who held God’s measuring rod up to their societies and called people to follow God’s ways.

More recently, we have prophetic people such as Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyl, who has led the struggle for democracy in Burma, also called Myanmar, and Professor Wangari Maathai, the tree lady of Kenya, founder of the Green Belt movement to plant trees and combat deforestation.  The Green Belt Movement has also promoted social justice and democracy. God is constantly calling forth prophets.

 Our reading from 1 Corinthians asks the question: Is it all right to eat food that has been sacrificed to idols? This may not be a burning question for us, but there are other issues which can divide us.  Paul offers a profound insight. He says, “Knowledge puffs up but love builds up.” As we are working through decisions and issues in the Body of Christ, it is important to treat each other with respect and to exercise humility.  Freedom and license are two different things. Our behavior affects the lives of others in the community.

In today’s gospel, Jesus and the disciples go to Capernaum, a large town located on the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. When the Sabbath comes, they go into the synagogue. In those days, the local synagogue was a place for teaching, praying, and studying the scriptures together. The Temple in Jerusalem was the place where worship and sacrifice took place.

Jesus teaches the people. They are astounded because he teaches with a personal authority and immediacy that is magnetic. They can tell that he has a close personal relationship with God.  He is not just mouthing things he has learned in a scholarly setting.  Jesus is not a Scribe, one of the people who are the official teachers of the law.  His authority comes directly from God.

Then we move into the next part of this gospel. There is a man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue.

 Scholars tell us that, in the first-century Mediterranean world, people believed that everything was caused by personal forces.  God was at the top, followed by “other gods,” sons of gods, and archangels. Then came angels, spirits, and demons. Then came humans with our own layers of social status.

Demons resisted any attempt to dislodge them from their host. In this gospel, the demons try to protect themselves by using Jesus’ name and recognizing his authority. If the demons admit Jesus’ power, maybe he will leave them alone.  Theologian Nancy Koester writes, “After all, why should the Holy One of God care about a bunch of unclean spirits inhabiting some worthless human being—especially if these unclean spirits know and confess who is boss? But Jesus will have none of it. For Jesus, authority is not merely the right to wield power over those of lesser rank, but it keeps in view the ends for which that power is used. Jesus does not make little compromises with evil. He has the authority to deliver, heal, convict, forgive, cleanse, and raise from the dead. He aims to defeat evil so that we can be set free.” (New Proclamation Year B, 1999-2000,  p. 111.)

 People believed that demons (the Greek term) or unclean spirits (the Semitic term) could control human behavior. Demons were seen as a force causing people to behave in unacceptable ways that separated them from the community. To set someone free from the demons not only cured them but also restored them to the community.

 Normally when Jesus encounters unclean spirits or demons in the gospel, I talk about how diseases were in those days attributed to demon possession. But this gospel is focusing on Jesus’ ability to confront and defeat the forces of darkness. Very early in his gospel, Mark is putting Jesus’ ministry in a cosmic framework.  He cares about even the most humble and insignificant person, and he has the power to defeat any and all forces that would rob us of God’s intended wholeness.

 Jesus has authentic authority. Remember that the word “authority” comes from the Latin auctoritas, authorship, creativity, that which sets us free. If we go back to our epistle for today, we would say that true authority builds up, does not tear down. True authority is always working toward health and wholeness.  The opposite of authority is the Latin imperium, that which imprisons, confines, controls.

In this scientific age, we do not often think in terms of forces which may control us. But they exist even if we don’t want to name them or face them. Greed, materialism, self-serving ambition, violence as entertainment, all forms of addiction including substance abuse, gambling, internet addiction, and the list goes on. All of these imprison people.

 We also don’t like to acknowledge the existence of evil in this world. But it is there. Many times it comes from our own misuse of God’s gift of free will.  Whenever we think we are facing the forces of darkness, it is a good idea to look within and see what we are doing to create this or contribute to it. But there are times when it is clear that there is a powerful and palpable force of darkness. C. S, Lewis, in his classic The Screwtape Letters, cautioned us neither to deny the existence of evil nor to give it too much power. 

I am an Associate of a religious order for women in the Episcopal Church called the Order of St. Helena.  I had the privilege of working with a wonderful spiritual guide who was a member of the Order. Her name was Sister Rachel Hosmer. Sister Rachel worked for many years in Africa. The people she worked with had beliefs similar to those of Jesus’ time. Their world was full of spirits and they practiced voodoo. People actually died from curses and other practices. Once, when I was having some encounters with the forces of darkness, Sister Rachel told me something like this: “When you are being assailed by these forces, they seem huge and endlessly powerful, so dark that they block your view, but just remember that, in the face of the light of Christ, they are but a little speck.”  Sister Rachel’s comment is a perfect summary of our gospel for today.                                   Amen.