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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:…
    • Sunday service - Holy Communion December 18, 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:…
    • Sunday service - Holy Communion December 25, 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:…

Lent 3C RCL March 3, 2013

 Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

In our first lesson, Moses is tending the flocks of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian. In other words, he is going about his daily routine.  As we recall, Moses’ mother had hidden him in the rushes by the Nile in order to save his life, He had been brought up in the palace by the Pharaoh’s daughter. One day, after he had grown up, he had gone out of the palace to see his people. He had seen, the scripture reads, “their forced labor.” Worse yet, he saw an Egyptian beating “a Hebrew, one of his kinfolk,” and he killed the Egyptian.  Herod then wanted to kill Moses, so he escaped to the land of Midian, married a woman named Zipporah, settled down, had a family, and helped his father-in-law with the family business.

God has a ministry for Moses, and our reading today tells us about God’s call to Moses, their ensuing dialogue, and Moses’ acceptance of the call. As God called Moses those many years ago, God calls us today.

 In our epistle, Paul continues his letter to the congregation in Corinth. Some people in the community have gotten the idea that, since they are saved, they can do anything they please, and they are indulging in sinful behavior. Their actions concern Paul, but he is even more deeply concerned about the arrogance which leads them to think that freedom in Christ means a license to disregard the rights of others and engage in selfish and sinful behavior.

In our gospel, Jesus is with a group of people, including the disciples. Some people tell Jesus about a grisly thing that has happened. Apparently there were some Galileans, that is, people from Jesus’ home area, who had gone to the temple in Jerusalem to make sacrifices. Pilate’s troops had killed these people while they were worshipping and then had mixed their blood with the blood of the animals on the altar to show that Rome was in control. We know from historians of that time that Pilate did not hesitate to use violence against anyone he thought might cause trouble.

There was a belief in Jesus’ time that, if something bad happened to a person or a group of people, it was punishment for sins which they had committed. This is what Jesus is getting at when he asks, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Then Jesus answers his own question and says, Absolutely not. And he gives another example. Apparently a building had fallen down and killed eighteen people. Does this mean that the people were sinners? No. In the gospel of John, when Jesus and the disciples meet the man born blind, the disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And Jesus says that no one sinned. This is an opportunity for him to do his healing work.

I have met thoughtful, intelligent people who have been going through horrible experiences, the death of a family member, or a terrible illness,  and they have wondered what they did wrong in order to have this happen to them. Some people even think that God is punishing them for some thing they have done, but, on careful examination, they have lived exemplary lives. This belief really hurts people.

Bishop Michael Curry, whom some of us met at our diocesan convention, says about this passage, “Frankly, if God was in the business of meting out punishment and curses in relation to our sins,  there probably would not be anyone on the planet.”

We humans like to try to explain things. We do not like to admit that there are some things that are beyond our limited understanding. We don’t like to admit that there are mysteries, things we do not understand.

Jesus emphatically says that the people who were on the receiving end of Pilate’s violence and the people who were killed when the tower collapsed were no worse sinners than anybody else. Then, immediately, he calls us to repent. The Greek word is metanoia. He calls us to change our thinking. He calls us to turn to God. He calls us to be open to his work of transformation.

 And he tells us a parable about a fig tree. The owner of the vineyard has gone to this fig tree for three years, and the tree has borne no fruit.  The owner wants to cut the tree down. But the gardener says, no, don’t do that. Let me dig around it and put manure on it and if it bears fruit next year, well and good. If not, you can cut it down. The point of this is that God is patient with us.

 There are so many things that are beyond our understanding, and there are so many tragic things happening in the world.  It is human to try to find answers. Jesus is calling us not to jump to that old, easy answer, someone has sinned.

He is calling us to look within, to ask God’s help in clearing out our sins, and, for those of us who tend to be hard on ourselves, he is reminding us that God is loving and God is patient.

He is calling us to take action. The gardener takes action to cause the tree to bear fruit.  We need to take action so that we will bear fruit. I think of the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  And we are also called to reach out to others and help to build the shalom of God.

Bishop Curry writes, “ I once heard the late Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, president of Morehouse College, say that faith is taking your best step and leaving the rest to God. Bishop Curry continues, “…those who would follow in the footsteps of Jesus are charged with witnessing to the world in the name and spirit of Jesus. …The working out of God’s kingdom is not ours to figure out. Our task is to labor, without having all the answers, to acknowledge the deep mystery of it all.”

May we turn more and more toward God. May we take our best step and leave the rest to God.

Amen.

Lent 2C RCL 2/24/13

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Psalm 27
Philippians 3:7-4:1
Luke 13:31-35

Our first reading today, from the Book of Genesis, shows us Abram, later to become Abraham, in an encounter with God. But here we see Abram in an unusual light. Abraham is the major Biblical example of a person of faith. Yet, as Herbert O’Driscoll puts it, “Here we see Abram, the seemingly towering founding figure of a future people, nervous and insecure! We hear the voice of God making effort to reassure Abram. “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great. The words could be said to a fearful child and not be out of place. Interestingly, they do not have the slightest effect in calming Abram’s fears. Yet this is the person who has come down in history as the wonderful example of a person who trusts God!”

God continues to try to reassure Abram, but Abram remains full of doubt. So God asks Abram to make an offering and God gives Abram a dramatic sign and makes a covenant with him.

This lesson can speak deeply to our hearts. Even Abram, the great icon of faith, had times of wavering, times when he needed reassurance. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. We all have times of doubt, times of questioning. God has given us minds with which to think. When we have times of questioning, this does not mean that we have lost our faith. It means that we are continuing our journey of faith.

In our gospel for today, an unusual thing happens. The Pharisees get a bad press in the gospels, but today, they warn Jesus that Herod wants to kill him. In contrast to Abram, Jesus is not wavering. He is courageous, resolute. He tells the Pharisees to go and tell that fox that Jesus is doing his ministry. He is making people whole.  In using the word “fox,” Jesus shows that he is not naïve, that he sees exactly the kind of person Herod is. He is as crafty as a fox. He is wily. He will do anything he needs to do in order to preserve his power.

Jesus says that he will finish his work on the third day. This is a reference to the resurrection. He says, in a sad and ironic tone, that it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside Jerusalem. The holy city is a dangerous place for truth-tellers. The powers that be will mow them down.

And then he says those words, which are so moving and poignant: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”  Jesus offers his tender, nurturing love to Jerusalem, but that love will not be accepted. Instead. He will be killed. But first, he will be hailed and welcomed with the words, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” God gave us the gift of free will, and sometimes we humans use that gift to reject the love of God.

Our epistle today is from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Philippi was a city in Macedonia on one of the main east-west roads in the Roman Empire. The Church in Philippi was the first Christian Community which Paul founded in Europe. This community was subject to all the influences of the Roman Empire, and scholars tell us that the Empire was beginning to sink into decadence.

We don’t know exactly what was going on in Philippi, but we all know what a preoccupation with what Paul would call “earthly things” can do to people. Paul calls the people to imitate him. This is not an arrogant gesture. In those days, you would choose a moral teacher and you would imitate the life and practice of that teacher. If course, we know that Paul is really calling us to imitate Christ. Paul tells us that our citizenship is in heaven. Our Savior Jesus Christ is at this moment transforming us as we grow closer and closer to him.

In my daily AA meditation book, entitled, “Twenty-four hours a Day, ” the message for April 20 reminds me of our epistle for today. It reads, “There are two paths, one up and one down. We have been given free will to choose either path. We are captains of our souls to this extent only.  We can choose either the good or the bad. Once we have chosen the wrong path, we go down and down, eventually to death. But if we choose the right path, we go up and up until we come to the resurrection day. On the wrong path, we have no power for good because we do not choose to ask for it. But on the right path we are on the side of good and we have all the power of God’s spirit behind us.”

The prayer that goes with the meditation says, “I pray that I may be in the stream of goodness. I pray that I may be on the right side,  on the side of all good in the universe.”

Like the Philippians, we have a choice. Every day we have many choices. Will we follow where our Lord is leading? Here we are, a week and a half into Lent. Maybe we are like Abram. Maybe we need to ask God for some help, some reassurance.

Some commentators think that the Pharisees told Jesus that Herod was out to get him in order to scare Jesus and make him turn away from his ministry. If so, it didn’t work.  Jesus walked courageously toward Jerusalem and his death. Think how much he loved the people of Jerusalem. Think how much he loved everyone. Think how much he loves you and me. He even loved Herod. But Herod’s mind and heart were so focussed on protecting his power that he couldn’t let God into his life. Herod is a perfect example of what Paul is calling us to avoid.

Jesus knows exactly whom he is dealing with. He knows what people will do when they are preserving their power at all costs. Yet he goes ahead. That is the model of courage we are called to follow. That is the model of love we are called to follow.  This could be quite daunting if we had to walk alone, on our frail human level.

But we are not walking alone. That is the whole point. And we have made our choice. And we are making our daily and hourly choices to follow Jesus, to be citizens of his realm.

“Our citizenship is in heaven.” What a thought. Not that we are other-worldly. No, we are quite down-to-earth, as Jesus was, and we have chosen to follow Him, because he is gathering the whole world together in loving and healing arms and making everyone and everything whole.

May we be in the stream of goodness.  May we be on the side of all good in the universe.            Amen.

First Sunday in Lent Year C RCL February 17, 2013

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 Psalm  91:1-2,9-16 Romans 10: 8b-13Luke 4:1-11

In our first reading this morning, the people of God have almost completed their forty year journey in the wilderness. They are on the verge of the promised land. Moses is about to die, and he is giving the people instructions on how to conduct their community life.

Moses tells the people that, when they have entered the land of Canaan and they have settled there and planted their crops and the harvest has come, the people should take the first fruits of the harvest and offer them to God. Moses says. “This is the land that God is giving you.” This implies that God is constantly giving us gifts. We, in turn, are called to return the first fruits to God. This means that our returning a portion of God’s gifts to the divine Giver is not an afterthought. It is the first thing that we do. This is what we do when we prayerfully consider our pledge for the coming year.

In our epistle, Paul is reminding us that God is near, that Jesus gives us the gift of new life, and that we are called to proclaim the good news that this gift of new life is available to everyone.

Today we read Luke’s account of the temptation of Jesus. He has not yet begun his ministry. He has been baptized. The Holy Spirit leads him into the wilderness. The Spirit also sustains and supports him throughout this experience.

Jesus knows that he is going to begin his ministry. It’s going to be a big job. This time of testing in the wilderness is something we can all identify with, especially when we are about to embark on a challenging task. We question, “Who am I, really? Can I do this? How will I carry out this mission? Am I good enough to do this? Will I succeed? Or will I fail? What are my values? What is the compass that I will use to guide me? Where will I turn for help?”

Luke states that the devil is the tempter. Some people have a problem believing in the devil.  The wise scholar Fred Craddock gives us these thoughts:  “In whatever images or concepts, Scripture agrees with experience that there is in us and among us strong opposition to life, health, wholeness, and peace. Being committed to the way of God in the world does not exempt one from the struggle. In fact, it is those who are most engaged in the way of God who seem to experience most intensely the opposition of evil. If Jesus struggled, who is exempt? Nor did the presence of the Holy Spirit mean the absence of temptation. Rather, the Spirit was the available power of God in the contest.”

Jesus is alone and he is hungry. Why not turn these stones into bread?

The wilderness in that area is full of stones. Jesus could feed himself. He could feed everyone.  This is not a bad thing, to feed people. There were many people in those days, as in these, who could use a good meal. Jesus could open the world’s largest soup kitchen.

The tricky thing about many temptations is that they aren’t asking us to do something bad. Feeding people is not bad. But it isn’t what Jesus is called to do. Later on, he will feed large crowds, and that is fine. But we do not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Beyond the physical feeding, Jesus calls us into close relationship with him and with God so that we can listen and hear every word that comes from the mouth of God, and follow God’s leading.

Then the devil shows him all the kingdoms of the world. If Jesus will worship the devil, that is, the forces that oppose life, health, wholeness, and peace, all these kingdoms will belong to Jesus.  This is the temptation to turn to worldly political power. Jesus’ home country was occupied by the Roman Empire. To be able to control that empire would certainly be handy. He could free the people. But that is not the course Jesus is called to follow. He answers, “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” As we place God at the center of our lives and serve God, it may be that we will be helping to free people from tyranny, but the use of political power is not our first priority.

Finally, Jesus is tempted to jump off the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem. The scriptures say that God’s angels will come and rescue him. This would prove he really is the Son of God. It would be a great public relations stunt. But that is not what Jesus is called to do. He says No to this temptation as well.

Throughout our lives, and, especially when we are about to take on a major challenge, we will be tempted to veer off course. Many times, it’s not that we are tempted to do something bad or wrong, but rather something that is less than the best we are called to do and be.

This morning we have the great joy to be celebrating the baptism of Nicholas Alexander Sturgeon. As you know, Nick is about to begin serving in the United States Marines. He has thought long and hard about this vocation and will soon be leaving for Basic Training, a challenging and demanding experience.

This baptism is our way of formally welcoming Nick as a member of the Body of Christ. All of us are members of our Lord’s risen and living Body. We are called to carry out his ministry here on earth. We are his arms reaching out in love, his voice speaking words of strength and comfort and his hands offering healing and forgiveness. Today our Lord gives us the example of  his courageous struggle to figure out how God wanted him to carry out his ministry. Every temptation offers a chance to miss the mark, to choose a lesser course, and every time Jesus centers on God’s love and guidance so that he can find his true direction.

May we all follow in the footsteps of Jesus our Lord. May we always seek God’s guidance and grace. May we help and support each other.

Nick, God will be walking with you every step of the way. You have our love and support. God bless you.    Amen.

 

Ash Wednesday February 13, 2013

Isaiah 58: 1-12
Psalm 103
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

In our first reading today, the people of God have returned from exile in Babylon and they are doing the work of rebuilding the temple. Scholars tell us that the people were getting into controversies about the details of how to worship. They were frustrated because God did not seem to be answering their prayers.

Through the prophet Isaiah, God is calling the people and us to show our faith in the way that we treat other people.  Isaiah writes, “Is this not the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” Isaiah reminds us that God calls us to share our food with the hungry, to shelter the homeless.

When we do these things, Isaiah says, “Your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.”  If our prayer and worship lead us to be compassionate toward our brothers and sisters, God’s light shines upon us and we are made whole. This is in harmony with 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.”

As someone once said, the Christian life is cross-shaped. The vertical part reaches up to God. The horizontal part reaches out to others,

Paul is calling the Corinthians and us to be reconciled to God. “Now is the acceptable time,” Paul writes. This is the season during which we ask God’s help to remove anything that gets in the way between us and God. This is the season in which we focus on allowing God to help us to align our lives with God’s will for us.

In our gospel, we have another angle on this matter of prayer and spiritual discipline. Whatever we do as our Lenten discipline or as our general spiritual discipline, we are called to do it in order to grow closer to God, not in order to impress people, or for any other reason.

I know that we all take our faith seriously and we will all be giving up some thing or things and/or taking on some spiritual disciplines that we will do in order to be closer to God and more in harmony with God’s will. And yet, I think we also know that, even as we fast and pray, we are not going to go around looking glum or advertising that we are fasting and praying.

Yes, on this day, our foreheads are marked with the sign of the cross in ashes. This symbol goes back thousands of years. Centuries ago, people would wear sackcloth and ashes as a sign of penitence. We wear these cross-shaped smudges of ashes as a sign of our mortality, our weakness, our frailty and fallibility. These ashes remind us that we indeed are dust and we will return to dust.

This is a time and a season when we look inside ourselves and we acknowledge our sinfulness and our profound need for God. We remember being on the mountain just a few days ago, seeing our Lord transfigured, and we know he has called us to grow more and more into his likeness, and we also know that, if we are going to make that journey with him, we are going to need his grace, his guidance, his help in so many ways.

And yet, as we set out on this journey to the cross, we are going to put oil on our heads and we are going to wash our faces precisely because we have seen him on the mountain, we know the direction in which we are going, and we know he is walking right beside us. We are walking with him. He is walking with us. And that makes the journey much easier. Even as we fully acknowledge our sinfulness and ask for God’s help, the light begins to dawn and we feel God’s healing already and ever with us.

Lent comes from the root word for spring. May we have a Lent full of growth and light. May we  faithfully walk the way of the cross with you, O Lord. May we grow more and more into your likeness. In your holy Name we pray.

Amen.

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany Year C RCL February 3, 2013

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71_1-6
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4: 21-30

In our opening reading today, God calls a young man, Jeremiah, to be a prophet. God tells Jeremiah that God has called him to this task even before Jeremiah was born, that God knew Jeremiah when he was growing in his mother’s womb. Jeremiah tells God that he couldn’t even think of serving as God’s prophet because he is too young. The Bible is full of stories about people being called, and they all offer reasons why they should not be called. For example, Moses said he wasn’t a very good public speaker, and God said, “That’s okay, Aaron can speak for you.”

In the case of Jeremiah, God stops the argument by reaching out and touching Jeremiah’s mouth, and God says, “I have put my words in your mouth,” How can anyone argue with that? Jeremiah is indeed young, probably about eighteen. From other parts of his book we find out that he is a quiet, private person, someone who does not like to be in the public eye. As a prophet, he will be a public figure. He will also have to go through some terrible experiences. He is put in prison; he will be in constant conflict with the rulers of his time; he will have to go into exile. A prophet’s life is anything but easy. Yet, through it all, the grace of God empowers Jeremiah to remain courageous and faithful.

What God is saying to Jeremiah, God is also saying to you and me. God has known us since before we were born. God called us into being. We are the apples of God’s eye. And God has called each of us to our ministry in the Body of Christ and has given us the grace and power to carry out our ministries faithfully.

In our epistle, we continue the reading of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. This is one of the most familiar and beloved pieces of scripture. It is important to remember its context. Paul is writing to a very troubled and divided congregation. This beautiful statement about the nature of love is not a general address; it is especially tailored to speak to a congregation in which certain people are being, well, unloving.

Paul names the very qualities these people need to develop within themselves with God’s help. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” And Paul makes it clear that love is the greatest of the gifts of the Spirit and it is the foundation of all the gifts. If we do not treat each other with love, all our efforts are in vain. This is the ground upon which our community life must rest if it is to be authentically Christian. This love is what animates the Body of Christ.

This is our goal.

As we return to Luke’s gospel, we remember that Jesus has read the passage from Isaiah which describes his and our healing and freeing ministry. He concludes by saying, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” At first, people are pleased with him. They are happy for the local boy who has done so well.

Then Jesus begins to talk about the nature of his ministry. He says that prophets are not accepted in their home towns. And then he talks about the two great prophets, Elijah and Elisha. During the time of famine, many people were in need of food, but Elijah was sent to the widow of Zarephath in Sidon. He saved this woman and her son. But they were not of the synagogue community. They were Gentiles. They were outsiders.

Similarly, there were many people in the time of Elisha who had leprosy, but God called Elisha to heal Naaman, the Syrian, who was also a Gentile, an outsider. Jesus is making it clear that his ministry is to the whole world, to everyone, not just a select group.

This offends the people and they actually try to throw him off a cliff, but he slips away and escapes. This foreshadows what is going to happen in Jerusalem during Holy Week.

Biblical scholar Beverly Gaventa writes, “The prophets rescued, not the hometown folk but those regarded as outsiders, those who could not call themselves God’s people.”

What does all of this say to us today? First, that God knows each of us and loves us and calls us just as God called Jeremiah to be a prophet in a difficult time of war and dislocation and just as God called Paul to minister to a fractured congregation in Corinth.

Secondly, God called Jeremiah when he was very young. This reminds us of how important our young people are to us. In our classes and gatherings their comments often go right to the heart of the matter.  Their ministries among us and outside in the world make a real difference to all of us.

Finally, the people in Jesus’ hometown got angry because he wasn’t just going to stay there and be their local celebrity. They got angry because the heart of God is so big that God’s love includes everyone.

Beverly Gaventa’s  comment that the prophets rescued “even those who could not call themselves God’s people” got me thinking.

One sad thing about our world today is that there are many people who are actually trying to live as Jesus calls us to live, but they don’t even know enough about Jesus to realize that that’s what they are doing. There are many folks who have not learned the basics about who Jesus is and what he did in his ministry.  Although they are trying to lead lives of compassion, they do not realize that that’s what we as Christians are trying to do, they do not think of themselves as God’s people, and they do not think of going to church.

These are some of the folks we are called to reach out to and share, in our own quiet way, that we are all God’s people, that God loves each of us,  that we are all part of God’s big family, which includes everyone, and we are all called to share the kind of loving community Paul is talking about in today’s epistle.

May we walk in the light and love of Christ, and may we share that light and love with others.

Amen

Epiphany 4C RCL January 27, 2013

Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6.8-10
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Luke 4:14-21

All of our lessons this morning are dramatic, moving, and full of significance for us today.

In our reading from the Book of Nehemiah, the people have just returned from exile in Babylon. During the exile, they have lost everything. The temple in Jerusalem has been leveled. This was the center of their worship and their life together. They are desolate, grief-stricken. So what do they do? Lose faith? Give up? No.

They study the scriptures and the law. The scholars and teachers go over and over the Law to learn its meaning and let that meaning sink deeply into their hearts and spirits. The law is the set of moral teachings that holds them together and gives order and meaning to their lives. They spend all those years in captivity, over fifty years, studying and researching and refining their understanding of the scriptures.

Finally, they are allowed to return home. When they arrive, the leaders of the people assemble all the people together. The leaders read tgen the law—for hours—from early morning until midday, and the teachers and leaders interpret the law to the people. They have just been through a time of great difficulty and challenge, a defeat by the mighty Babylonian Empire. They have been deported to a foreign land. But they have studied the scriptures, and prayed, and used this time of darkness and bondage to turn to the light of the Lord and to seek God’s guidance.

As the law is read, the people are so moved to hear the voice of God guiding them that they weep. Imagine this huge crowd of people weeping.  They share this moment of deep gratitude for God’s care for them and for their opportunity to return home and rebuild. They weep because they are so thankful for God’s presence with them all through this long journey.  Then they have a feast and we note that they are instructed to share this good food with those “for whom nothing is prepared.” No one is left out.

In our epistle for today, we have one of the basic texts for baptismal ministry. Paul is writing to a congregation that is torn by division. A self-appointed elite group is telling people that, if they do not have certain gifts, in this case, the gift of speaking in tongues,  they are not really members of the group, They are not true Christians. What if a congregation today were to say, if you don’t have perfect pitch and can’t sing perfectly at all times, you are not a Christian? That would certainly leave me out.

Paul is writing to these people as their founder and loving pastor. I can imagine how distressed he must have been to hear of the way in which this self-proclaimed group of leaders was tearing up the fabric of the community. Perhaps he might even have been quite angry. Where is the love in that kind of fracturing?

Paul offers them and us the compelling metaphor that a Christian community is like a human body and that the Church is the living Body of the Risen Christ.  Two thousand years ago he is saying that the Body is inclusive. Everyone belongs. Differences are a source of strength. We can learn from each other. And he says that those who are the weakest and most vulnerable deserve the highest respect. He is echoing our Lord, who said that the last shall be first.

As you may have guessed, this is one of my favorite chapters in all of the Bible. What a thought! We depend on each other just as much as the eyes and ears and nose and hands and feet and arms and legs and hearts and lungs of our bodies depend on each other to function. Everyone is necessary. This means that we are called to value each other, to respect each other’s gifts and to be tender and forgiving toward each other’s weaknesses.

All of this is summed up in our gospel. Jesus goes to his hometown. He goes to synagogue every Sabbath. He reads the powerful passage from Isaiah which sums up the ministry of the Suffering Servant, his ministry, our ministry. We are called to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Our ministry is to heal, to encourage, to help free people from whatever imprisons them. Each in your own way, with the gifts God has given you, is carrying out the ministry of our Lord in your life. This is what it’s all about.

And when we have a job to do here, each person joins in with his or her gifts. The result of this is that we have a good time when we are together, a time full of love and lightness. This past Sunday, we had our Annual Meeting. We carried out our business, but we also shared joy and laughter. To be able to laugh together is a sign of light, love, and health.

The shalom of Christ is not yet fully here. Like our ancestors who came out of the Exile with renewed faith and vision, let us continue in our ministries, Let us spread the light and love of Jesus with the gifts God has given us. And let us gather to allow our Lord to feed and renew us and to worship and learn together in the presence of God’s love and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Amen

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany Year C RCL January 20, 2013

Annual Meeting

Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 36:5-10
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

I will keep this short to leave time for our Annual Meeting. In or opening reading, the prophet known as the Third Isaiah proclaims the good news that God’s people will be returning from the Exile in Babylon and will rebuild Jerusalem. God expresses a powerful love for God’s people, Herbert O’Driscoll notes this and reminds us that Church tradition speaks of the Church as the bride of Christ, the beloved. O’Driscoll goes on to ask us to think about how much the Church is criticized these days, He encourages us to think of the ways in which we love the Church. This struck me because I hear from all of you often about how you love the Church and how much you love Grace Church. Certainly we are not closing our minds to the problems facing the Church. But that does not negate our love for the Church.

In our epistle for today, Paul is addressing a difficult congregation—the Church in Corinth. Herbert O’Driscoll’s thoughts on these lessons impressed me deeply. He writes of the Church in Corinth, “The Corinthian community was, for the most part, affluent, sophisticated, and cosmopolitan. Many of its people would be exceedingly sure of themselves socially and intellectually. Think of the jolt some of them would receive upon hearing that their abilities and gifts are spiritual gifts, given from outside themselves and not in the least due to their own brilliance.” Scholars tell us that the community was full of divisions and controversies, possibly because so many of the members had such a high opinion of themselves. One problem was that they did not realize that there are many spiritual gifts and all these gifts are precious and equal

The leading group thought that the gift of speaking in tongues was the highest and best gift, and that, if someone didn’t have this gift, they were probably not a true Christian. Paul makes a powerful statement  that every member of the Body of Christ and every gift is precious and equal. Everyone is needed. One of the many things I love about grace is that you know this. You know that each of you is a member of Christ’s body and that each of you has certain gifts. No one is better than anyone else. We are all needed. And you step up and offer your gifts.

Our reading from John’s gospel shows us Jesus’ first miracle. He and his mother are at a wedding. The host has run out of wine. This is not only an embarrassment, it is a lack of hospitality, and the ministry of hospitality was very important in the culture of that day.

When Mary, his mother, first encourages Jesus to do something about this, he thinks it is not the time to act. Sometimes we need someone who knows us well to guide us into our ministries.  O’Driscoll says,  “There would not have been any wine had she not applied her gentle pressure.” He adds another truth which is important in the Body of Christ. “All of us can be grateful to others—perhaps not even remembered—who at various moments in our lives drew us further than we were prepared to go, and thereby helped us discover gifts and powers that otherwise we would not have known. Mary knew her son. Perhaps she intuitively knew the wondrous reality that was in him, even as someone who loved us knew the lesser but nevertheless precious reality hidden in us.”

These lessons call us to love God and the Church, to be humble and faithful members of the Body of Christ, and to encourage each other to  use our gifts. This is a wonderful description of what you do every day.

God bless you. Keep up the good work. I am deeply grateful to serve and work with you.

Amen

 

Epiphany 1 The Baptism of Christ Year C RCL January 13, 2013

Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3: 13-17

In our opening reading from Isaiah, God is calling God’s people home from Exile in Babylon. God is telling them and us: “I have called you by name. You are mine. Be not afraid.” When we pass through high water, or fire; when we make our way through challenges, God will always be with us. What a wonderful promise and what a strengthening message from our loving God.

In our reading from the Book of Acts, one of the first deacons, Philip, has gone to Samaria, and many people, almost the entire population, has joined the new faith and been baptized in the name of Jesus. Peter and John go to Samaria, lay their hands on the people, and they receive the Holy Spirit. Not only does God walk with us every step of the way, God sends the Holy Spirit to empower us to live lives of integrity, compassion, and service. One good and simple definition of the Holy Spirit is that the Spirit is God at work in us and in the world. The Holy Spirit is God’s loving and healing energy enabling us to live as God calls us to live.

Today, we are gathered to baptize Krista Alexa Sturgeon. This is a celebration of great joy for all of us.  The vows which we will take this morning are stated in ancient language. We are renouncing  certain things and following a certain path which has been blazed for us by Jesus.  To put those vows in more contemporary terms, we are choosing to align ourselves with the forces of creativity, compassion, and wholeness rather than the forces of destruction, hatred, and brokenness. We are promising to gather together and learn together about God’s love and care for us, for the whole creation, and for all people. We are promising to continue on our journey with God and with each other, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ, to seek and serve Christ in every person, to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.

We pray that God will give Krista  “an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”

And we are asking God to give each of us these gifts as well. If we have inquiring and discerning hearts, this means that we are on a journey with God, and toward God. When we ask to have inquiring and discerning hearts, we are saying that that we don’t have all the answers, that we are seeking and asking God for guidance. We ask for the courage to persevere because we know the journey is not easy. There will be times when we may just want to quit trying to seek and do God’s will. We will need the help of God and others who love us and who are also on the journey with us. We ask for a spirit to know and love God. To remember that God loves us beyond our  ability to understand or imagine. When God says that Jesus is his beloved Son, God is also saying that to each of us. We’re God’s beloved sons and daughters. We ask for the grace to ask God and others for help. And, finally, we ask for the gift of joy and wonder at all of God’s works.

Joy and wonder at a dawn, or a sunset, at the ocean waves rolling in, at a flower, or a forest, the stars, the planets in their courses, the love of friends and family, the healing touch of a conversation, the gift of joy and wonder at all that God gives us.

The other day I happened to be listening to the radio and someone was interviewing the actor Jeff Bridges and a Zen master whose name I do not remember. They were talking about being open, going with the flow, and being in the moment.  The interviewer asked the Zen master what the thinking today is on enlightenment. Traditionally the path to enlightenment involves spending hours in meditation.

The Zen master said that there are probably still traditional Buddhists who feel that the only way to enlightenment is through meditation. But he said that there are many paths to enlightenment, and then he said something that struck me deeply. He said that the mark of an enlightened person is service to others. Jesus said, “I am among you as one who serves.” I follow the Christian path, and I have dear Buddhist friends. Back in undergraduate school, I took a course in comparative religions. It was clear that all of the major religions  have the same ultimate point—treat others as you would like to be treated.

To see Christ in every person we meet. To see the revered Buddha in every person we meet. To see everyone as a child of God. To care for others, To have compassion. That is what these vows are about.

I say this because I know that we are gathered here as God’s beloved children who are Unitarian-Universalists, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Episcopalians (Fully catholic and fully reformed). Some of us are hybrids. For example, I have been deeply touched by my Quaker and Buddhist brothers and sisters.

We may carry different labels. We may be on slightly different paths, but they are all leading toward the same divine presence and love. May we all support Krista Alexa on her journey. And may we all support Nicholas as he leaves later this month for Basic Training.

May we all support this beloved young family in every way that we can.

Nicholas, please keep in touch so that we know exactly where to send all those care packages!

Amen.

The Epiphany January 6, 2013 Year C RCL

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2: 1-12

Today we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. The word epiphany comes from Greek roots meaning to manifest or to show.  Jesus is shown to be the light of the world and the savior of all peoples.

All of our lessons today point toward this meaning. Our first reading, from the prophet called the Third Isaiah, is a joyful proclamation to the people held in Exile in Babylon that God’s light is shining on them, that  they will return home under the protection of King Cyrus of Persia to rebuild Jerusalem.

Psalm 72 gives us a powerful description of the justice and mercy of the shalom of God under a good king and shepherd of the people.

Our reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians celebrates God’s call to Paul to spread the Good News to the Gentiles—to all the world.

The themes of Epiphany are light, gifts, and mission.

Biblical scholar Paul Achtemeier says that the wise men were most likely astronomers from Babylon, which was the seat of astronomical studies in the ancient world. If that is true, it would strike a bittersweet note in the story, given that centuries before our Lord’s birth, the Babylinian Empire had conquered Judah and exiled its leaders.

In any case, we have a story of three wise men. Scholars tell us that they probably were not kings. Isaiah’s oracle about kings coming to Jerusalem with gifts probably is the source of the kingly title. They are not kings, but they are learned, wise, men–scientists, astronomers, men of wealth and prestige. They have quite a retinue—a camel for each of them to ride, but also camels to carry supplies and, of course, gifts for a new king, and assistants to manage the camels and run errands and so on. They see this star and they are compelled to follow it. They just have to do it. In addition to being learned men, they are spiritual seekers. They have the feeling that this star means something very important, that it is the sign of the birth of a new king.

Being of high social status, they respect and follow proper protocol. They go to Jerusalem and visit King Herod. When he finds out that they are searching for a new king, as Barbara Brown Taylor writes, his “deadly duplicitous thoughts are revealed.” He asks them in unctuous tones to be sure and come back to let him know what they have found, and secretly he is already planning the extermination of this new king. After all, he killed three of his own sons to remove any threat to his power.

The three wise men leave Herod and follow the star. Since their journey has taken them at least one and perhaps as many as two years, Jesus is no longer an infant when they arrive. They find him with his mother. Scholars note that, as Matthew tells the story, it almost appears that Mary and Joseph have set up housekeeping.

The details do not matter. When they see Jesus, the wise men fall on their knees and worship, They also offer gifts which are the usual things given to a new king—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then, warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they go home by another way. I have a feeling the dream was only confirmation of what they already knew, that Herod was up to no good.

The wise men followed the light of that star and they encountered the light that was destined to break through every death and every darkness.  In his poem “The Journey of the Magi,” T. S. Eliot hints that their lives were never the same after that. The light shines in the darkness and it attracts everyone to it. That is one of the themes of this day—light.

Another theme is gifts. The wise men offer gifts. I think they probably also offered themselves. I think that, in their encounter with Jesus, they realized that they were meeting a King unlike any king that had ever been before. And today, as every day, we offer ourselves to our Lord and King, so that he may guide us in building his shalom, his kingdom of peace, love, and harmony. We offer back to God the gifts God has given us—gifts of music, gifts of building, gifts of teaching and guiding young people, gifts of healing, gifts of balancing the books, gifts of listening and supporting, all these gifts to be used by God in the building of God’s kingdom.

As we watch this story unfold, we see so many different expressions of power. We see the self-serving, self-protecting concept of power that controls the life of King Herod. He will kill members of his own family to protect his power.

We see the power of the wise men. They follow the star at great cost. It isn’t easy. They endure hardship, long months and years on the journey. They are highly respected, wealthy, powerful. Yet when they see Jesus, they know they have met a new level of kingship, a revolutionary expression of power, the power of love and compassion, power that gives itself for the life of the world.

Epiphany is the season of mission. We have so much to share.  We have been given so many gifts.

This coming Sunday, we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is one of the Sundays in the Church year when it is especially appropriate to have baptisms. And we are blessed that we will be celebrating the baptism of Krista Alexa Sturgeon, the daughter of Nicholas and Francesca Sturgeon. Nick will be leaving later this month to begin his service in the United States Marines, a vocation to which he has felt called for several years. Please keep them in your special prayers.

May we walk in the light of Christ.

Amen.

Lent 4C RCL March 10, 2013

Joshua 5: 9-12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

In our first reading today, the people of God have just gone through a purification ceremony. They enter the promised land and celebrate their first Passover in the new land. The manna no longer falls from heaven. They now live off the produce of the land. Their wanderings have stopped. After all their wanderings and their tendencies to turn to idols and build golden calves as soon as Moses’ back is turned, they are once more in a covenant relationship with God under their new leader, Joshua. They are reconciled to God and ready for the next steps in their life together.

The theme of reconciliation continues in the epistle. Paul calls us to be reconciled to God, not only as individuals, but as the Church, as a community of faith. We and the Church are a new creation. We are being transformed so that we can be ambassadors for Christ, sharing his love and forgiveness with the world.

I want to focus on our gospel for today, the beloved parable of the prodigal son, or, as many folks like to say, the parable of the loving father. This morning, I want to try to help us to look at this parable through the eyes of Jesus’ first-century listeners.

First, the context is that the Pharisees and Scribes are accusing Jesus of being very close to sinners. He eats with them, and in that culture, eating with people meant that you were close to them, you were friends with them.

So Jesus tells the parable, and we all recognize the opening line, “There was a man who had two sons.” The younger son asks his father for his inheritance, his share of the property. This was an agrarian culture. These were farmers. Your land was everything. You tried to amass as much land as you could so that your family could live on the land and support all the coming generations. To ask your father to sell some of the land while he was still alive was almost like killing your father. It was a disgrace. It was something that a son was never supposed to ask

Now, if we look at the father, in that culture, the father was a powerful patriarch. He told everyone else what to do. If he said, “Jump,” you were to say, “How high.” Period. Any self-respecting father of that time would have had to say, “There is no way I am going to sell any of our land.” But this father sells a portion of the family land. This brings disgrace on the family, It simply isn’t done. The whole village knows that this had happened. You know how word gets around. In that culture as now here in Vermont, you depended on your neighbors for help. People were close. When folks threw a party, they invited everyone in the village.

After this disgrace, they would no longer invite this family.The son goes off to a far away land and spend his entire inheritance. A famine comes to the land. He gets a job tending pigs. Pigs are unclean.No good son would have gone near pigs. This is a disgrace. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “… he loses everything, and he loses it to Gentiles– Roman citizens, pagan pig owners, complete strangers to the God of Israel. He might as well have used his birth certificate to light an Italian cigar.”

Taylor says that losing the family inheritance to Gentiles is “so reprehensible” that there is a ceremony, the qetsatsah ceremony that is designed to punish such a person. If he ever returns to his village,“the villagers can fill a large earthenware jug with burned nuts and corn, break it in front of the prodigal, and shout his name out loud, pronouncing him cut off from his people. After that, he will be a cosmic orphan, who might as well go back and live with the pigs.”

The young man “comes to himself.” He is hungry. He begins to rehearse what he will say to his father. “Father. I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.; treat me like one of your hired hands.”

Scholars tell us that most of the folks who were listening to Jesus were farmers. They knew all the rules about how to behave. I imagine that they were wondering what ailed that son that he would do such a horrible thing and disgrace his father and his whole family. And they surely wondered why the father didn’t act like a proper strong patriarch and keep the son from breaking up the family land. Nobody was doing what they were supposed to do according to the rules of those days.

So here is the son rehearsing his confession. He has gone off to seek his fortune. He has been entirely self-centered. He has sunk as low as anyone in his culture can sink. He will ask his father to employ him as a hired hand.

While the son is still far off, the father sees him, and what does he do? He runs out to the road to meet him. A patriarch was not supposed to run. He was supposed to proceed with dignity and deliberation and show himself to be worthy of respect. Several scholars tell us that, in running to meet his son, the father is now acting like a mother. Susan Bond writes, “only a woman in the ancient Near East would defy macho expectations and race down the road.” Robert Farrar Capon says that, by their aberrant behavior, the father and the prodigal son commit suicide. They die to self and are raised to new life. The only one in the story who does not die is the elder son. He has done everything perfectly and is stuck in the prison of his self-righteousness. The older son shames his father by refusing to go to the banquet. Custom says that the father should stay at the head table and not leave his guests. But he goes out to try to explain to the elder son and welcome him to the celebration.

I share these insights to allow us to see how shocked Jesus’ hearers must have been as they listened to this parable. Rules are being broken. This father loves both his sons. This father loves everyone. God loves everyone. The banquet is for everyone. But we have to be ready to be reconciled to God, We have to be willing to admit our sins and shortcomings. We have to be ready to die to self, to be transformed.

Amen.