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Pentecost 14 Proper 17B RCL August 30, 2015

Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Our opening reading is from a beautiful series of poems. Christians usually think of them as being about the love that exists between God and the community of faithful people, or between Christ and the Church. Our psalm for today is a song of celebration for a royal wedding.

The Letter of James is one of the most down to earth parts of the Bible. It is about putting our faith into practice, We might say that this letter tells us where the rubber meets the road. It all begins with God’s love for us. “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above,” writes James, Everything begins with the generosity of God, who showers us with gifts. God does not change. God’s love for us is always there. God’s grace is always available to us. God gives us life itself. We are the first fruits. That is, we are placed here by God so that we can share God’s blessings with others.

What are we called to do? First, we must be ready to listen. always open to hearing what others might want or need to say. We are called to be more ready to listen than to speak. So often, especially in this fast-paced world, everybody wants to get a word in. As humans, we want to be heard. We want to get our point across first. But our Lord is calling us to be good listeners first and foremost. So, we are called to be “quick to listen, slow to speak.”

We are called to be slow to anger. Anger is a normal human emotion, but we are called to practice “restraint of tongue and pen.” Elsewhere, Paul calls us to aim for the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. So we are called to weed the garden of our souls, get rid of all the stuff that gets in the way of our spiritual growth and make room for the word of God to be planted in us, because that word has the power to save our souls. The incarnate Word, Jesus, has the power to transform us.

Then we get down to the meat of the matter. We are called to be doers of the word and not hearers only. It is comparatively easy to listen to the word of God, listen to the call to be people of compassion. But to live that twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week is a tough challenge. We will need generous doses of grace from our loving God to do that work.

When we look deeply into God’s vision for human life, when we look to the living Word, Jesus, and use him as our model, when we truly study his life and his ministry and try to model our lives on his, and let him live in us, that’s when our actions are in harmony with what we profess to believe. And we will be truly blessed.

And then James deals with a very small part of our bodies which can do a great deal of good if handled well, but a great deal of damage if not properly bridled. That, of course, is the tongue. As we know, our tongues are small, but, in this passage, they are compared to horses that need to be bridled. We all know what it is to let some words slip out and then want to take them back. Like horses unbridled, our tongues can trample over people if we let them. Our tongue needs to be speaking words of compassion, and our deeds need to match those words.

The bottom line is that we are called to take care of those who are the most vulnerable. This letter calls us not only to talk the talk, but to walk the walk.

Our gospel for today is extremely complex, and I hope we can think about it carefully. Jesus and the disciples have just fed the five thousand, and they have crossed the Sea of Galilee to arrive at Gennesaret on the northwest side of the lake. They are in Galilee, but some of the Pharisees and Scribes have come up from Jerusalem. We have to be careful not to make caricatures of these authorities. They were not evil people. They were deeply concerned about ritual purity, a concept that is quite foreign to us. Some scholars tell us that things in Galilee were a bit looser than in the areas nearer to Jerusalem.

Jesus and the disciples are having a meal. They have not washed their hands. The Pharisees and Scribes do wash their hands before meals, and the text tells us that this is the tradition of the elders. Scholars tell us that this is a tradition rather than the law. In any case, the Pharisees and the Scribes challenge Jesus and the disciples by asking why they have not washed their hands.

Jesus calls them hypocrites.This may not be the best analogy, but I am trying to find an example of a tradition that at one time could really stir up strong feelings among Episcopalians, so I am going to turn to liturgical matters. The comment of the pharisees was like telling us that we didn’t really believe in God because we were using Rite One instead of Rite Two, or the other way around. Our liturgical practice is not a reflection of whether we believe in God. It is a tradition. It is not the Law. Peter later had a vision of different foods, clean and unclean and God told him there was nothing that was unclean. But that was later.

Now, we all know that it is a good idea to wash our hands often, especially before eating. But Jesus was trying to focus on essential spiritual matters, not on tradition or even hygiene. Our inner attitude, the attitude of our hearts, is at the center of it all. This takes us right back to the Letter of James.  What comes out of our mouths reflects the contents of our hearts, the Spirit within. On a literal level, what goes into our mouths can certainly hurt us, especially if it is infected with salmonella or Listeria. But on a spiritual level, the question is, do our words and actions reflect our belief in Christ?

Lord Jesus, help us to love you with all our hearts and to love and serve others in your Name. Amen.

Pentecost 13 Proper 16B RCL August 23m 2015

1 Kings 8:(1,6,10-11), 22-30, 41-43
Psalm 84
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

In our opening reading, the Ark of the Covenant has been brought to the beautiful new temple. King Solomon offers an eloquent prayer. God’s presence is signified by the cloud, which is so thick the priests cannot perform their duties. Yet King Solomon acknowledges that God is far bigger than this temple, impressive as it is.

As we have followed the story of King David and his son, Solomon, the scriptures have revealed that both these leaders, though they were respected and loved by the people, were, like us, flawed human beings. One of the endearing things about the Bible is that it does not gloss over the weaknesses of our heroes. Both David and Solomon  loved God deeply yet they  sometimes made mistakes and failed to do as God would have them do. This can be reassuring to us. We don’t have to be perfect in order to love and follow our Lord.

This is made clear in our gospel for today. Even among Jesus’ followers, there were degrees of faithfulness. Judas betrayed our Lord for thirty pieces of silver. Peter denied him three times. And yet, Jesus calls us to abide in him and he says that he will abide in us. In today’s gospel, Jesus can see that some of the disciples are having problems believing in him. Some actually leave. But, when Jesus asks Peter if he wants to go elsewhere, Peter says in his forthright way that there is no one else to go to. Peter speaks volumes when he says, “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Believing is not something that happens just with the head or with the intellect.  Believing is not simply intellectual assent. Believing and knowing involve every aspect of ourselves and of our lives. Believing involves the heart. We remember that the heart in the Biblical sense, is not just the seat of the emotions. It is also the center of the will and the spirit and the motivations. When we say that we believe in Christ, we are saying that we believe with all of our selves.

Our reading from Ephesians addresses this and gives us tools. The letter was written at a time when the Roman Empire ruled the known world. Following Jesus is seen as a cosmic battle, because the community of faith is surrounded by a culture that is violent, materialistic, and tyrannical. Christian values are very different from the values of the surrounding culture, then as now.

In this passage, Paul calls us to clothe ourselves in the virtues we are going to need, as individuals and as a Christian community. The first thing we put on is the belt of truth. Earlier in the letter, Paul said that we need to speak the truth in love in order to make the Body of Christ healthy and strong. Then we put on the breastplate of righteousness. Righteousness does not mean being holier-than-thou. Righteousness is being in a right relationship with God, being in a healthy relationship with God, depending on God for help and opening ourselves to God’s power. The Roman Empire and all empires rest on human power. The Christian community depends on God’s power.

Let us just remind ourselves of the distinction between tyranny, imperium, and authority, auctoritas, as described by the Rev. David Brown. Imperium is the boot coming down and crushing the little guys. Auctoritas is authorship, creativity, calling things into being as our Lord did at the creation, letting be, freeing. Very different kinds of power.

Our reading says, “As shoes for your feet, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” Shalom, the creation in harmony, with all creatures living in safety and wholeness and health. Then we take the shield of faith. The journey can be challenging. Faith is the only thing that will get us through. We are called to put on the helmet of salvation. Scholars tell us that the Hebrew word for salvation means literally “to make wide.” Kathleen Norris writes that, when Jesus said that a person’s faith has saved him or her, the Greek word would be translated “has made you well.” Salvation is being made whole. It is not something that happens in an instant; it is usually a process. Theodore Wedel says that, when we are saved, we know that we are sinners, but we also know that we are forgiven. In this passage from Ephesians, we put on the helmet of salvation and we know that we are frail humans and sinners, and we also know that we are forgiven, we are on the way to wholeness in Christ, and this gives us a sense of the protection of our Lord. We may walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but we need fear no evil, because he is with us. We take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Our Lord is with us, the Spirit is with us, and we are called to speak the word of God. And we are called to pray in the Spirit at all times. That is how we stay in touch with God. We keep alert and we pray for all the saints, that is, all members of the Christian community. We are clothed in these gifts, these qualities, as we try to spread the gospel of peace, love, and healing in the world.

What are we hearing in these lessons? Our greatest heroes and heroines of the faith loved God with all their heart and soul and mind and strength, and they were not perfect. Even Jesus’ disciples were not perfect. Salvation is a sense of wholeness in Christ,  and an awareness of God’s forgiveness even as we are also aware that we are flawed.

We are on a journey. We are called to be spiritual athletes. We are called to stay in training. The Greek word for this is askesis. It is translated as ascetic.  But it does not mean that we have to go off into the desert and eat locusts and wild honey. It is what Paul is talking about in today’s reading. To stay strong in order to serve our Lord, there are tools we can use, and Paul is talking about some of those tools. Prayer is a very important one. You dear people are well acquainted with these tools. You use then every day.

We began today with the blessing of the new temple in Jerusalem.

One hundred and ninety-nine years ago, on August 12, 1816, some faithful folks gathered in Sheldon and formed what they called an Episcopal Society. Next year, Grace Church will celebrate its two-hundredth birthday. Please begin to think and pray about how to celebrate this wonderful occasion. Keep up the good work.  Amen.

Pentecost 12 Proper 15B RCL August 16, 2015

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
Psalm 111
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-55

In our opening reading, King David has died, and his son, Solomon, is the new king. At this point in his life, Solomon is a young man. Scholars tell us he is about twenty. In this passage, Solomon has a dream of an encounter with God. He shows humility, admitting that he does not yet know how to perform the duties of a king, and he asks for the gift of wisdom. In the passage immediately following this one, Solomon does show wisdom when two women come to him claiming to be the mother of the same baby. When Solomon offers to decide the case by cutting the child in half and giving each of them a portion, the real mother, putting the baby’s welfare first, tells him that there is no way that she is going to let him do that, and he should simply give the baby to the other woman. Of course, Solomon gives the baby to her.

We know that Solomon built the great temple in Jerusalem. He also built himself a palace, and, toward the end of his life, he built shrines to the various gods of the many foreign ladies he married. All of this construction required workers, and he forced his subjects to do this labor. He also taxed the people heavily in order to afford all these projects plus the luxurious lifestyle of his large court. In short, he did not show  proper respect and concern for the people. He also failed to respect the traditions of Israel. Soon after he died, the country split in two.

It was a good thing to ask God for the gift of wisdom, but Solomon did not follow through on the gift. In the beginning of this lesson, we read that Solomon loved the Lord, yet he worshipped at the high places and had gone to Gibeon to sacrifice to another deity. We have the beginning of a theme here, the conflict between wisdom and foolishness.

Ephesus was a port city, full of all kinds of temples to various gods and goddesses, full of many temptations and worldly distractions. By the time Paul was writing this letter, most followers of Jesus were expecting the Lord to return very soon. They felt that their time was limited. He might come any day. So Paul is calling them and us to make the most of the time we have. The Greek word used here for time is kairos. Kairos is kingdom time, the quality of time that we experience when we are living in the new life, as opposed to chronos, or clock time.

Paul calls us not to be foolish, but to seek the will of the Lord. That is what it means to be in Christ. We ask our Lord what he wants us to be doing. We don’t simply do what we want to do. We let him guide our actions and our thoughts.

We are called not to get drunk on wine. Then as now, people used to get drunk because they thought it let them have a quick way to have an ecstatic experience of God. Obviously, getting drunk is not an experience of God. Paul calls us to allow ourselves to be filled with the Holy Spirit. That happens from giving every moment of our lives to God, and asking God to lead us and guide us in our choices so that we are living in the Spirit and filled with the Spirit.

We are called to praise God, to sing psalms and hymns to God. When we sing praise to God, especially when we sing and pray together, something happens within us. Praising God allows us to open ourselves to God’s love and grace.

We are called to “thank God at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” That is a tall order sometimes. Do we thank God that Elizabeth is going to have to have more surgery and chemo and radiation therapy? I find it impossible to do that, but we can thank God for the love and faith of her family and for the skill of her medical team, who are doing everything possible. We can thank God for the gifts of faith and hope, and we can pray for and with everyone who is praying for Elizabeth.

“Be careful then how you live,” Paul writes. Thank God that we know that there is another set of standards that go beyond the values of this world, and that we are trying, with God’s help, to live by those standards and to become new in Christ.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is actually asking us to eat his flesh and to drink his blood. In the early days of the Christian community, some people thought that we Christians were cannibals. As we study this reading, we think of Eucharist. “This is my Body,” our Lord says, “This is my blood.” Jesus is with us. He is the host at this Thanksgiving Dinner. Remember, Eucharist means “thanksgiving.”

No, we are not cannibals, but our Lord is giving us Himself in a way that goes beyond our understanding. Centuries after he walked the earth with healing and love, he is able to be more present at every point on this planet and throughout the universe because he has risen.

Every time we gather, he is here, and he feeds us with food and drink that transforms us into his likeness and welcomes us into a new way of living, a way that is very different from the values of this world. We are not just spectators at this feast. We are participants. We are joined with him in something that can transform us and transform the world.

Once again, the religious authorities are caught in the literal, the earth-bound. Jesus is inviting us into the heavenly realms that transcend those earthly prisons, and thanks be to our Lord we are able to follow him. At the center of our life in Christ is the cross. Living in wisdom and love requires sacrifice and discipline.

When he was young, Solomon asked for wisdom, but he did not have the spiritual stamina to sustain that gift. Paul calls the Ephesians and us to use every day and every moment to choose the way of compassion, maintain the spiritual focus to follow our Lord. Jesus comes to us, having suffered every horror, even the horror Elizabeth and Keith and Sara and Chris and Jack and Teddy are now enduring, and he gives us the food of himself so that we can walk into a new dimension of life and eternal life with him. Amen.

Pentecost 11 Proper 14B RCL August 9, 2015

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
Psalm 130
Ephesians 4: 25-5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

We remember that last Sunday, the prophet Nathan had the difficult job of confronting David with his sinfulness, and God told David that David would be subjected to serious troubles from within his own family. This morning, we witness a tragic example of these troubles.

Absalom was an exceedingly handsome young man with a magnificent head of hair which he allowed to grow long. Although King David loved Absalom, he did not discipline his son, and Absalom did whatever he felt like doing. By the time we reach today’s reading, Absalom had murdered his brother Amnon and had burned a field owned by King David’s loyal commander, Joab, because Joab would not do what Absalom wanted him to do.

At this point in the tragic story, Absalom is leading a revolution against his father. Many of the Israelites are following this charismatic young man. A battle is about to take place. If David loses this battle, he will lose his kingdom. But this is not his greatest concern. David does not want anything bad to happen to his beloved son. He tells his commanders that if they come upon Absalom, they should be gentle with him. Absalom is riding on his mule, passes under a huge oak tree, and gets caught in the branches. He is hanging helplessly when Joab’s ten armor bearers come by. They kill Absalom. When David hears this news, he is heartbroken.

This whole chain of events began when David lost his own way and committed adultery and then murdered Uriah to cover up that sin. We might say that David was so busy fighting battles and building up his kingdom that he did not have the time and energy to be a good father to Absalom. Joab, his faithful commander, does what is necessary to  protect David and the kingdom.  What a sad story of human sin and frailty.

Our reading from Ephesians describes the qualities of a healthy Christian community. We must tell the truth to each other because we are members of each other. We are joined together as hands and feet and eyes and ears and heart and lungs and brain are joined in a body.  We must work so that we can help those who have less than we do. We must always be building up, not tearing down. We must put away bitterness and anger and truly love each other as Christ loved us.

This is such a contrast to the story of David and his family, which is so full of struggle and selfishness and major sins, including murder. King David would undoubtedly have given his life if he could have saved his son. But it took a greater King, our Lord Jesus, who was also of the house of David, to lead us out of the mire of our sins and give us new life.

When we live as the Letter to the Ephesians calls us to live, we all grow more and more into Christ, Our gifts are nourished for the good of the body and of the entire human community, We become stronger and stronger because our Lord is leading us. Sometimes quite suddenly, sometimes gradually, our sins fall by the wayside. We are growing into maturity in Christ. We see the Christ in each other and we truly love each other. We love to be together. We support each other on our journeys. Sometimes we are called to speak the truth in love and disagree on some things. We can speak the truth and still love and respect each other. Always, we know that we are being led by the risen Christ, who is in our midst.

I thank God often for the gift of being at Grace, where these qualities of a loving community are lived on a daily basis.

In our gospel for today, Jesus is telling us that he is the bread of life. The religious authorities can’t understand this. They keep focusing on the idea that Jesus is the son of Mary and Joseph, and there is no way that he could have come down from heaven. The idea that God loves us so much that God would actually come and live here as one of us just boggles their minds. When we  humans are closed to the amazing depth of the love of God, that’s what happens. We just cannot get our minds around the fact that God loves us so much that God would come among us as a baby, just the way we came into the world. And that God would have a profound understanding of what it means to be human because God has lived on this earth as a fully human being. Jesus is the living bread. Jesus gives us this heavenly food, the food of his very self, his energy, his love, his healing.

Maybe that is why Paul could write so eloquently and powerfully about what it means to be a Christian and how a healthy Christian community looks and functions. Because, on the road to Damascus, as Paul, then named Saul, was fuming with rage on his way to kill more followers of Christ, our Lord  broke through Saul’s hate and unbelief when he asked that question which changed everything: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Paul went blind for awhile but he saw the light. And he became the apostle called to share this news with everyone. His mind and heart were opened to this new truth, this new life.

Jesus loves us so much that he does things like that. He breaks into our mental and spiritual prisons and sets us free. All of us are human. We have all made mistakes, and we will make more. But our Lord is with us. He is the light of the world. He is the Good Shepherd, leading us. He is the Bread of Life. We also have a community of loving people who will listen to us, support us, pray for us, and help us along the way. That is what it means to be members of the Body of Christ. Grace, love, and healing are flowing through us every moment. And we are here to share all these gifts with others.

Lord Jesus, thank you for all these blessings. Lead us and guide us always. In your Name we pray.  Amen.

Pentecost 10 Proper 13B RCL August 2, 2015

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a
Psalm 51:1-13
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-35

In our opening lesson, David has committed adultery with Bathsheba and then has murdered her husband, Uriah the Hittite, who was one of David’s most loyal and valiant soldiers. After the time of mourning, David and Bathsheba are married, and they have a son.

God is not pleased with David’s behavior, so God sends Nathan to confront the king. The job of a prophet is to hold God’s measuring rod up to individuals and society. This is not an easy ministry. And it can be dangerous, Kings do not always like to hear God’s opinion of their less than sterling behavior, and prophets have been beaten, thrown in prison, and even killed.

Let’s pause for a moment. If we were in Nathan’s position, how would we confront David and call him to repent? And an accompanying question: how would we do this and survive?

Nathan is a wise and courageous prophet. He tells a story about a rich man and a poor man. The rich man has everything anyone could want. The poor man has very little, and his most prized possession is his ewe lamb. He treats her like one of his own family. A traveler arrives at the rich man’s house, and the rich man is so stingy that he does not want to kill one of his animals to throw a dinner for the guest. So he takes the poor man’s lamb, kills it, cooks it, and serves it to the guest.

Never does it dawn on David that he is the rich man, Uriah the Hittite is the poor man, and Bathsheba is the ewe lamb. At the end of the story, David is enraged. “That rich man deserves to die,” he yells at the top of his lungs. Then poor Nathan has the courage to say those words we will never forget: “You are the man.” And Nathan tells David that God has given David many gifts and David has done terrible things, and now David is going to have great trouble from within his own family.

David does not kill Nathan. He comes to his senses. He admits his sin. He begins to see and accept the truth of what he has done. We have all had times like this, times when we have done things we ought not to have done or not done things we ought to have done, and there is no health in us.  Our psalm, which is also used on Ash Wednesday, is the proper response in these moments. We need to be washed and cleansed of our sin, and we must trust in God’s forgiveness and God’s ability to help us make a new beginning.

In our gospel, Jesus and the disciples have gone across to Capernaum, and the crowd follows them. Jesus calls them to grow into a higher level of spiritual maturity. He tells them that they are following him because of the bread that he gives them, but they need to see him as the bread that feeds them for eternal life.

A young mathematician named Blaise Pascal once wrote that we all have a God-shaped vacuum in us, and we try to fill that vacuum with all kinds of things, but it can only be filled with God. How true that is. We may fill that empty place with power or money or possessions or food or alcohol or drugs. We try to fill that God-shaped empty place with so many things. But our need is for God.

Herbert O’Driscoll notes that all our readings today are about growing into maturity. Our epistle certainly emphasizes that. What are the qualities of Christians and Christian communities? Humility, gentleness, patience, “bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

We are all members of the Body of Christ. We are all part of our Lord, our living, risen Lord. There will be tough times. There will be misunderstandings. We won’t always agree. And we are one in him.

We have been given many different gifts, and all those gifts have been given for the building up of the Body of Christ. One of the things that distressed Paul so much was that the Corinthians were using their God-given gifts to compete. “Oh, I speak in tongues, That’s better than what you do.” That is not true, as Paul tries to teach them. Each gift is as precious as the next. Everyone is essential to the Body, and every gift is necessary.

All the gifts are given “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro by every passing fad and fashion, But, speaking the truth in love, we  must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”

Paul gives us a dynamic picture of each of us growing into maturity and all of us growing together into Christ, and this is how the Body of Christ, the Church, stays healthy. And the whole purpose is to extend his love to the world.

“Speaking the truth in love” is a central and powerful concept for us as Christians. Nathan spoke the truth to David from the loving heart of God. Jesus speaks the truth to the people following him and to us. He could have operated the biggest soup kitchen in the world, but he wants to give us himself, so that we can get beyond our human selfishness and be transformed and live in a new way.

I think Herbert O’Driscoll has a wonderful insight into these lessons when he says that they are about growing into maturity. It’s not easy to face the fact that we have sinned. It may be even harder to do the work, always with God’s help, of getting back on track.

Here we gather, frail and fallible humans who are called to be the Body of Christ in this place, part of his risen Body which fills the whole wide earth. We make mistakes; we stumble and fall; we confess our sins; we receive forgiveness, and we keep growing, growing more like our Lord, growing into maturity in him.

Blessed Lord Jesus, help us to keep growing into maturity in you. Amen.