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Lent 4C    March 31, 2019

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

Today is the Fourth Sunday in Lent, known as Laetere, Rejoice Sunday, from the opening words of the mass from Isaiah “Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and come together all you that love her….” (Isaiah 66:10)  In the British Isles, this day is known as as Mothering Sunday, when people would return to their mother church, the church where they were baptized and servants would be allowed to visit their mothers.

This joyful note is found in our opening reading from Joshua. After their long journey through the wilderness, the people of God celebrate their first Passover in their new home. The manna disappears and they eat the produce of the land. They have moved from slavery into freedom.

In our epistle, Paul echoes this sense of joy and freedom. “So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new. All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”

In our gospel, we come to one of the best known of Jesus’ parables. Biblical scholar Fred Craddock calls this the “Parable of the Loving Father.” Before our Lord tells this story, the text tells us that “ all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus.” We know that tax collectors were hated because they had taken jobs with the Roman occupation government and made good salaries collecting taxes from their neighbors to benefit the Roman occupiers. On the topic of sinners, Fred Craddock writes, “Sinners were persons so designated because their offenses had gotten them thrown out of the synagogues.” (Craddock, Preaching through the Christian Year C, p. 259. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, and the Pharisees and the scribes are upset that Jesus allows these people, who are generally considered offensive and beyond the pale, to actually draw near and listen to him. And now Jesus tells this parable.

“A man had two sons.” The focus is on the man. He  loves his two sons. The younger son asks for his inheritance. A younger son was entitled to one-third of the estate, but he usually inherited this at the time of his father’s death. The father breaks with tradition and divides the property. Scholars tell us that the neighbors were probably scandalized.

The son goes to a “distant land” and spends every penny in “dissolute living.” Scholars tell us that this doesn’t necessarily mean that he spent it on prostitutes as his older brother will later accuse him of doing. It means he wasted the money on useless things. He has taken his family’s legacy and blown it. He has taken something very precious and ground it into the dirt.

Now a famine comes and he gets a job as a hired man feeding pigs. This means that he is breaking the religious law and is considered ritually unclean. Religious people should avoid him. He is eating the pods of the carob, something reserved for animals and the very poor.

Each of us in our own discipline of self-examination can identify with the feeling of shame, uselessness, and hopeless that arises when we make a series of unwise decisions and end up feeling alone, alienated from the people we love, and alienated from God.

We have a moment of sanity. The text says that the son “came to himself…” When we get off the path, we have to recover our true self. We have to go home. And we go over the list—I did this and this and this, and I am unworthy and I am sorry. And we want to get back on track.

If this father had been the traditional patriarch who says, “Jump” and you say “How high?” he wouldn’t have been out there at the end of the driveway waiting for his son. But he isn’t the traditional patriarch. Before his son says a word, he hugs and kisses him. Then he puts a robe on his son, probably his own robe, puts a ring on his finger, and sandals on his feet. Scholars tell us that no slaves wore sandals. Those sandals are signs that he is freed and restored to his true self. And then the feast begins.

But this father has another son. The elder son refuses to go to the feast. He is operating from a theology of scarcity. There’s only so much love to go around. My younger brother gets everything. I get nothing. His father loves him just as much as he loves his foolish younger son. The father comes out from the feast. The elder son lets him have it. The father stands there patiently, lovingly, And then he tells him, “Son, everything I have is yours, always has been, always will be,  but your brother was dead and now he’s alive. We have to celebrate.”

We have all made bad decisions. We have all done things we wish we had not done. We have all sinned.

For many centuries, we humans viewed God as someone who hurled thunderbolts, spewed forth fire and brimstone, and, all in all, was extremely scary. The word was that God did these things especially when we humans went astray. I suppose this was supposed to help us stay on the path. In my humble opinion, this misunderstanding about God is not very helpful to us, especially when we are acutely aware of our sinfulness. It makes us scared to go home.

Thanks be to God, Jesus came among us. Here he is, telling this parable because the Pharisees and scribes, the elder brothers so to speak, are grumbling that he hangs out with those detested tax collectors and sinners. Heaven forfend, he even called a tax collector to be one of his apostles!

For some of us humans, certainly for me, and I trust for you, the huge depth and breadth of God’s love is a source of great hope. The sheer fact of God’s love and grace makes everything new!  And here in the midst of Lent, we rejoice.



Pentecost 4 Proper 6B RCL     June 17, 2018

1 Samuel  15:34-16:13
Psalm 20
2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17
Mark 4:26-34

Last week the people wanted Samuel to appoint a king for them. Our reading ended with Saul becoming King of Israel. As our reading opens today, Saul’s reign is spiraling downward. He is a disaster as a leader, and he has little regard for the guidance of God.

While Saul is still alive, God calls Samuel to anoint the next King. The tyranny of Saul is apparent in Samuel’s asking God how he can go to the home of Jesse to carry out this mission, for Saul will kill him. God tells Samuel to say that he has come to sacrifice to the Lord.

You know the story. All of Jesse’s excellent sons pass before Samuel. As wonderful as they are, none is the one called to be King. It is the youngest, David, the shepherd, who will become the beloved leader of his people. In this passage, we read something on which we could meditate for the rest of our lives: “For the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” God does not look at our outward appearance. God looks into our hearts. That is to say, God looks at our intentions, our will, our intuitions, our thoughts. Bishop Tom mirrors this statement about God when he says that we should always evaluate situations, especially vocations, in terms of two things—intentions and integrity. What are our intentions? Are we carrying out those intentions with integrity?

In our epistle for today, Paul is still in difficult circumstances. He actually admits that it is difficult for him to be here on earth alive. He would rather be at home with the Lord. But since he is here, he is going to try to please God. We can all follow his example. Paul says that Christ died so that we would no longer live for ourselves, but for our Lord. I think we are all trying, with his grace, to do that.

Then Paul echoes our first lesson when he says that, because of Christ, we should no longer regard others from a human point of view, that, because we are now following Jesus, we are called to look at others through the eyes of Christ and love them with the heart of Christ.

And then he says this most mysterious thing—mysterious because we can think about it and pray about it and meditate on it, but we probably will never plumb its depths.  Paul writes, “So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.” That is what is happening to us. We are being made new. We are being transformed in Christ.

In today’s gospel, we have two parables. In the first, the kingdom of God is as if someone plants the seed, time goes by, the seed grows, we know not how. The grain grows, as if mysteriously, but the growth is energetic and robust. Finally, the grain is ready to be harvested.

In the other parable, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. very, very small. Yet is grows into a large shrub, so large that birds can nest in it.

What are these parables telling us? Here are some thoughts. The kingdom of God is growing all the time. We do not understand how it grows, but it is progressing constantly without our awareness of how it grows. And, the other amazing thing is that the kingdom of God starts small, just like a seed, like the tiniest of seeds. Yet it can grow into something we would not believe possible.

Here in Vermont, the parable of the mustard seed is very important. Here in Vermont, a very small state which assumes national leadership on all kinds of topics far out of proportion with its size, we really do think that small is beautiful. Bigger is not always better.

In the Church, we are grappling with the fact that we will never return to the glories of the nineteen-fifties, with burgeoning buildings, bulging church schools, and no end in sight. We are now in the post-Christendom era. Membership is shrinking, formation is taking place in different ways, and we are looking around our neighborhoods seeing where God is doing good things and finding ways that we can pitch in and help. Once again, Vermont is leading in this effort, and I give thanks for Bishop Tom’s leadership on these issues.         

One of the things we will want to continue is the practice of placing just as much value on small churches as on large ones. St. Martin’s Church in Houston, where Barbara Bush’s service was held, is the largest parish in the Episcopal Church, with an average Sunday attendance of 1700 people. Vermont has no parish that even comes close to that size in numbers. But in depth of faith, commitment to the life of local parishes,  interest in learning, willingness to help neighbors near and far, the Episcopal Church in Vermont has no equal. In numbers of what we may call “mustard seed churches,” Vermont may be our national leader. This is a great gift, and I hope we will cherish that gift. When people visit with you here at Grace, or even hold concerts here, they sense a deep quality of faith and life in community. This is a pearl of great price.

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation. Let the whole world see and know that things that have been cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Ash Wednesday March 1, 2017

Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 103:8-14
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Lent is a time of penitence, that is, sorrow for our sins. It is a time for honest self-examination, a time to ask our Lord’s help in allowing him to transform us into the persons he calls us to be. The Greek word for this is metanoia.  We have seen him transfigured on the holy mountain, and we are deeply committed to growing into his likeness. The ashes that will soon form the sign of the cross on our foreheads have been made from the palms that we waved on Palm Sunday to welcome our King. We will go with him to the cross and we will move with him into newness of life.

In our first reading, Isaiah reminds us that if we truly love God, we will love our neighbor. We will be a people of justice; we will free our brothers and sisters from oppression. We will feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and provide shelter for the homeless.

In our epistle, Paul tells us that this is the time to be reconciled to God, that is to grow as close to God as we possibly can.

In our gospel, our Lord calls us not to make an outward show of our spiritual practice, but to do an honest evaluation of our spiritual state and to follow spiritual practices that will build up treasures in heaven, that is, practices that will bring us closer to God. Our Lord also reminds us that deep and true spirituality is the source of great joy.

How do we do an honest assessment of or spiritual condition? One way is the summary of the law, “Love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and love our neighbor as ourself.” Our reading from Isaiah also speaks to this.

Another guideline would be the Ten Commandments. We will be reading these each Sunday during Lent.

Another set of guidelines for self-examination and transformation are the Seven Root Sins, also called the Seven Deadly Sins, counter- balanced by the Cardinal Virtues and the Theological Virtues. These insights have come from many sources, but I especially thank David Brown, beloved mentor and former rector at Christ Church, Montpelier, now retired in Connecticut, for his wisdom and guidance.

So here we go with the Seven Root Sins, or as David used to say, “Sins I have known and loved,” and don’t we all!

First comes pride, doing it our way instead of God’s way.

Wrath, (Ira), not normal healthy anger, but holding onto a grudge, nursing it until it becomes a voracious cancer that infects everything we think and say and do.

Envy—the inability to rejoice in the blessings bestowed on others.

Greed—wanting more than we have.

Gluttony—taking more than we need.

Lust—Using other people, exploiting others for our own needs.

Sloth (acedie)—Giving in to that “I don’t care” attitude. Despair. Giving up hope.

On the positive side, we have the Cardinal Virtues.

Prudence—Kenneth Kirk defines prudence as, “The habit of referring all questions to God.” Constant communication with God. Lord, what is your will in this situation? What would you call me to do or not do?

Justice—treating everyone equally. “Respecting the dignity of every human being.”

Temperance—Balance. Like steel that has been tempered in fire and ice. Flexibility. Again, a sense of humor.

Fortitude. The grace and ability to hang in there with faith and patience on the side of God’s shalom.

And the Theological Virtues—

Faith—Total trust in God.

Hope—The ability to look at a situation in all if its brokenness and see the potential and the path for growth and healing.

Love—Accepting God’s unconditional love for everyone, including ourselves, and extending that love to others.

Always remember that Lent comes from the root word meaning “spring,” a time of growth and renewal.

In addition to all of these resources, many of us are using “Living Life Marked as Christ’s Own.”

May this Lent be full of joy and growth and healing for all of us.

Special prayers for jan’s surgery tomorrow.


Lent 4C RCL March 6, 2016

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

In our opening reading today, Moses has died and God has called Joshua to lead God’s people. They have crossed the River Jordan and have reached the promised land. They celebrate their first Passover in their new home. They have escaped their slavery in Egypt and they are now free. They will no longer need the heavenly manna that has sustained them, for they will be enjoying the produce of their new land. In this lesson, we hear the important themes of freedom from slavery, new beginnings, and, of course, God’s generosity and guidance and love for all of us.

Our gospel for today is the beloved parable of the prodigal son. Some people call it the parable of the lost son because it follows the parable of the lost sheep whose shepherd left the ninety-nine other sheep and searched until he found the lost one. It also follows right after the parable of the lost coin. The housewife searched and searched until she found it. Some people call this the parable of the loving father or the generous father.

Although this story is familiar, every time we hear it we can see it in a new way. We can identify with the younger son in that we, too, have made some unwise decisions in our lives and have asked God’s forgiveness. We can also identify with the older son in situations when we feel that our loyalty has been taken for granted and we have not received enough recognition for our hard work. We can also identify with the father when we think of all that we have done for our children.

The younger son asks for his inheritance and he goes to a far country and spends it all. He ends up feeding pigs, which, for a Jewish young man is terrible because pigs are unclean and now he is considered unclean. He comes to himself. We have all had experiences like this. We go off on a tangent and make a series of bad choices, and one day we realize that this is not who we want to be. This is not our real and true self. This is not who God is calling us to be.

The younger son goes home to ask his father for forgiveness.  His father is out there at the end of the driveway waiting for him with open arms. There is a feast because this son was lost and now is found. When one of us finds our way back, there is great joy in heaven.

The older son is fuming and he tells his father what is on his mind. “Here I have slaved and slaved for you and you never so much as let me have a party with my friends. Now you’re throwing a big wing ding for this son who has spent our family’s money.”

And then the father says the thing that tells us so much. “Son, I know that you have been with me always and you have worked very hard. Everything that I have is yours. This feast is for you, too. But we have to celebrate because your brother is now found.”

It’s a both-and. It’s not that the feast is just for the younger brother. It is a continuous feast for all of us in the Communion of Saints, and it is also a feast for those who have gone way off the path and have returned. It is a feast for those who have been faithful from the word go and all the rest of us who have made mistakes along the way.

Saint Paul addresses some of this when he writes, “We regard no one from a human point of view.” He knows what he is talking about because when he did regard things from a human point of view, he thought that anyone who did not follow the law and anyone who was not part of the in-group should be killed. That is why he went around persecuting the followers of Jesus.

But then he met our Lord on the road to Damascus and Jesus asked him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  Scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he saw the world in an entirely different way. He saw the world from the point of view of Christ. And that is why he can write, with stirring conviction, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away. See, everything has become new!” Now I know that just because my father gives a feast for my brother who lost his way does not mean that I don’t get a feast, too. God is incredibly generous, loving, and inclusive.

God is reaching out to everyone in a spirit of reconciliation. and God is calling us to carry out the ministry of reconciliation.

But there is an important point to keep in mind. If Saul had not listened to Jesus, if he had continued on his destructive path, we would never have had this letter to read.  If the younger son had not come to himself and repented and turned back toward God and gone home to confess his destructive behavior which affected not only his family but all the workers on his father’s land and all the folks in the surrounding area who depended on his father for their livelihoods; if we humans do not come to our true selves and acknowledge our destructive behavior, and confess it with a sincere intention to change our behavior, there is no reconciliation possible. It is a two-way street. There are people who do all kinds of destructive things to other people and have no idea of the damage they are doing. They think they are doing just fine. Their chances of true repentance and full commitment to changing their behavior are small.

Most of us in this sacred place right now are somewhere on the other end of the spectrum. We are acutely aware of our errors and are genuinely pained by our sinfulness.  We sincerely confess, and we truly want to change. We know we need God’s help. The parable of the prodigal or lost son is for us. We feel so distressed and sad about our sins that it is easy for us to feel hopeless. This is why, especially during this season of self-examination and repentance and metanoia, conversion, we need to hear this parable.

God is out there at the end of the driveway waiting for us to come home—home to God, home to our best and truest self, home to the human family, home to the feast of forgiveness and new life. God is waiting to wrap us in a big hug and welcome us home to the awareness that God’s love and healing are far bigger and deeper than we could ever imagine and that we are welcome to God’s infinite and eternal feast.  Amen.

Ash Wednesday Year B RCL February 18, 2015

Isaiah 58: 1-12
Psalm 103:8-14
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6”10
Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21

Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines penitence as “Sorrow for our sins or faults.” Webster’s says that to repent is “To turn from sin and dedicate oneself to the amendment of one’s life.” Our opening reading from Isaiah calls us to penitence and to repentance. Scholars tell us that this reading goes back to the time when the exiles had returned from Babylon and were trying to rebuild the temple and the city. It was such a huge task that they were becoming discouraged, and they were falling away from God.

They were going through the motions of worship but they were not asking God’s help to change their behavior and attitudes. They were observing the fasts, but they were oppressing their workers. They were fighting with each other instead of working together, and they were wondering why God appeared not to be listening to their prayers.

In today’s gospel, Jesus addresses this same issue. As we fast and pray and give alms, we are doing these things, not for outward show, but to grow closer to God. In our epistle, Paul adds a further dimension to this when he calls us to “be reconciled to God.” This is a lifelong process.

Lent is a season of penitence and repentance. We confess to God that we have sinned, and we ask for God’s grace to change our lives, to grow closer to God. We kneel at the altar and receive ashes on our foreheads marking the sign of the cross. These ashes come from the palms strewn in the path of our Lord on Palm Sunday as we welcomed our hero. They have been burned. and now they remind us that “[we] are dust and to dust [we] shall return.”

Lent is a time of increased devotion to prayer, fasting, and giving. We take more time to be with God, to seek God’s will for our lives and just to spend time with God and Jesus and the Spirit and to bask in their presence. We fast. We give up something or things that give us pleasure. This self-discipline helps us to experience the profound self-giving of our Lord on the cross. And we try to increase our giving to others. We fast, not only as a discipline, but in order to share our food with others.

Although Lent is a penitential season and it involves serious work on our part with God’s help and grace, Lent is a time of growth. And there is joy in Lent, because, as we walk the way of the cross, we are moving into new life.The word “Lent” comes from the Middle English word “lente,” meaning “springtime.” As we all know, springtime is a season of growth.

As we move through this season, walking the way of the cross with our Lord, yes, it is hard work, and we will need his help as we keep our discipline, but it is important to remember that we are doing this in order to grow closer to God and to love God and our neighbor more. Every part of our Lenten discipline, every thing we give up or take on can teach us about our own frailty and limitations and our profound need for God’s grace. Our discipline will also teach us about God’s love for us, God’s unfailing willingness to give us grace and healing so that we can grow into the likeness of Christ.

One of our readings for Morning Prayer today is from the Letter to the Hebrews. It begins, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who, for the sake of the joy that was before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of God.”

May we follow him. May we run the race. May we become more like our Lord. 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.