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    • Sunday service - Holy Communion June 11, 2023 at 9:30 am – 11:00 am Grace Church 215 Pleasant Street, Sheldon, VT Website: www.gracechurchsheldon.comTime:  09:30 AM Eastern Time (US and Canada)        Every week on Sun.Join Zoom Meetinghttps://us02web.zoom.us/j/83929911344?pwd=alZQTWZMN0ZkWFFPS1hmNjNkZkU2UT09Meeting ID: 839 2991 1344Password: Call for detailsOne tap mobile+13126266799,,83929911344#,,1#,816603# US (Chicago)+19294362866,,83929911344#,,1#,816603# US (New York)Dial by your location        +1 312 626 6799 US (Chicago)        +1 929 436 2866 US (New York)Meeting ID:…
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Pentecost 23 Proper 27A November 8, 2020

Joshua 24:1-3A,14-25
Psalm 78:1-7
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

Today we have the opportunity to be present at a crucial moment in the history of God’s people. Joshua calls all the people together and reviews their history. He reminds them of how God called their ancestor Abraham to go from Ur of the Chaldeans into the land of Canaan. and how God gave Abraham many descendants, just as God had promised. He reminds them of how God led the people out of Egypt and protected them every step of the way on their journey from slavery into freedom.

Now the people have left behind their time of suffering and slavery in Egypt. They are ready to settle in the land God has promised them. And Joshua calls them to do a very important thing. As they leave their life as a nomadic people and settle down, their leader is calling them to think carefully about their values. How will they conduct their life together? How will they treat each other? Whom will they serve?

Joshua is calling them to let go of all the gods they met in the land beyond the great river Euphrates, the gods they met when they were in Egypt, the gods of the Amorites, all of those other gods. And Joshua is calling them to serve the one, holy, and living God. And, like all good leaders, Joshua is setting an example, He tells the people, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

We are already settled here in Vermont, and in Florida and New York and Virginia, but we are in the middle of another kind of journey, our journey with Covid-19. And we are dealing with our recent election. And our economy, which has been deeply affected by the pandemic. And how to help the people who are suffering because they have lost their jobs and their unemployment insurance has run out, and the people who  have lost loved ones to Covid, and the issues of injustice in our society. 

Whom will we serve? Will we serve God? If we do, we have a clear path defined in the summary of the law—“Love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” If we follow that path we will follow the Way of Love and our path will be relatively clear. It begins and ends with God’s gifts of faith, hope, and  love. It bears the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,  gentleness, and self-control. If we follow those other gods, fear, despair, hate, violence, division, ruthlessness, selfishness, greed, those will lead us down quite a different path. Here, in the midst of our Covid journey, we can renew our promise to serve God and walk the Way of Love. And I know you are doing that.

Our epistle and our gospel both address the question, “How do we deal with times of uncertainty?” In our epistle, the Thessalonians are asking what has happened to those who have died. And Paul tells them that, when our Lord comes to bring in his shalom, his kingdom, the dead will be raised. and the living will follow them into paradise.

There are many new people coming into the congregation, and Paul is giving them strong teaching in the center of hope in the Christian faith—that, as John Donne wrote, “Death has no more dominion.” Christ has risen from the dead and has conquered death forever, and Paul is letting the Thessalonians know that they will be together with their loved ones who have gone before them in the communion of saints.

Paul is giving the gift of hope to these people who are wondering what will happen to their loved ones. Will they ever see them again? Yes, they will. Hope is such an important gift from God in these times. With hope, we can go on. We can take the next step. And the next.

In our gospel, we have the familiar parable of the ten wise bridesmaids and the ten not so wise bridesmaids. Everyone in those days knew what the bridesmaids were supposed to do. They were supposed to have their lamps lighted to escort the bridegroom into the feast. If you were a bridesmaid, there was one thing to remember— take a good supply of oil. Some of our young women did that; some did not. The bridegroom is delayed. Jesus was here 2,000 years ago. He said he would return. What do we do until then? Carl R. Holladay, Professor of New Testament at Candler School of Theology, Emory University in Atlanta, has a very interesting point about this parable. He writes, “The issue is preparedness in the face of uncertainty.” Holladay, Preaching through the Christian Year A, p. 507. The gospel is really about what we will do when our Lord comes to complete the work of creation and bring in his Shalom of peace, harmony and wholeness. Will we be prepared?

Will we be prepared to meet him even in this time of Covid, which is filled with uncertainty? Can we, with God’s grace, keep our faith in this time when there are so many questions and very few answers? Are we ready to meet him? Are we ready to help him complete his kingdom? Do we love God? Do we love our neighbors? 

Someone recently said, maybe instead of having what we call the ASA, Average Sunday Attendance, which, for us, has been ranging between 11 and 17,  we should write in our register how many people we meet in a week. If we did that, our food shelf volunteers could put down all those numbers of people who receive good food to keep them going. We do that because our Lord called us to feed those who are hungry.

When, not if, but when, Summer Music at Grace resumes, the people who attend may not realize it but they are coming into a place that is filled with the presence of God. In a secular society they talk about Grace’s amazing acoustics and how there is a special feel abut the place. I believe they are encountering God’s love and the love of God expressed through the joy of music.

Whom will we serve? Are we prepared? Are we ready to help Jesus build his shalom of peace and love? Are we now building his shalom by sharing his love with others?  Or, on a lighter note—Sign seen in  church office. Jesus is coming: look busy.

Thank you, loving God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, for your gifts of faith, hope, and love. Thank you, God, for creating us. Thank you, Our Good Shepherd, Jesus, for leading us and guiding us. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for energizing us to walk the Way of Love. May we walk in that Way, every day of our lives, and may we be prepared for your coming again. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.

Pentecost 5 Proper 9A July 5, 2020

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

In our first lesson, time has passed. Sarah has died, and Isaac has become a young man. Abraham has asked his servant to go to his home area and find a wife for Isaac among Abraham’s own people.

Scholars tell us that the servant is probably Abraham’s senior servant, Eliezer. 

Abraham has heard that a his brother, Nahor, has married Milcah, and that they have had a family. One of their sons, Bethuel, has become the father of a young woman named Rebekah. Abraham thinks that Rebekah would be the perfect wife for Isaac. The whole purpose of this venture is to be sure that God’s promise of descendants as numerous as the stars comes true.

Abraham makes this loyal and wise servant take an oath that he will find a wife for Isaac and bring her back to Isaac. There are two additional provisions. Eliezer is not to take Isaac back to their homeland. And, if the young woman whom Eliezer asks to marry Isaac does not want to come back with him, Abraham says the oath is broken. Eliezer is not to force the young woman to return with him.

Eliezer takes ten camels and many choice gifts and sets out for Abraham’s homeland.  His entire journey is rooted and grounded in prayer. He is carrying out his master’s command, and he knows that this is part of God’s promise. He prays to God that if he sees a young woman come to the well and asks, “Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,” she will give him a drink and water his camels as well. 

That is exactly what happens.The young woman extends the highest level of hospitality. This shows that she is a woman of great virtue. Our reading begins with Eliezer’s report of his meeting with Rebekah as he speaks with her family, asking for their permission for Rebekah to go back with him and marry Isaac. 

Back in those days her father could have told her to go and marry Isaac. Women were chattel, property, and their fathers could give them to anyone. In this family, Rebekah has a choice. This story first appeared in the lectionary in 2008, and one of the reasons is that it shows us an evolving understanding of women as persons, not property. Rebekah does want to marry Isaac, and, as she leaves with her maids and a retinue of camels and possessions, it is clear that she is a woman of substance. When she and Isaac finally meet, the text tells us that “he loved her.”  This will be a marriage based on mutual love and respect.

Our reading from the book of Romans is one of the most compelling passages in the Bible,  “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.” When Paul talks about  “our mortal bodies,” or our “members,” scholars tell us  that he is referring to human faculties or abilities. On the human level, we may want power, wealth, possessions, fame, and fortune, but those wishes and values do not necessarily bring us closer to God. In fact, they often move us away from God. On our own, it is difficult if not impossible, to win the struggle with those seven root sins—pride, anger, envy, greed, gluttony, lust and sloth. But, with God’s grace, our focus shifts to what really matters, faith, hope, and love—loving God, and loving other people and the creation.

In our gospel, Jesus first comments on the fickle wishes of the crowd. John the Baptist lives an ascetic life and the people criticize him. Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors and they call him a glutton and a drunkard. Then our Lord thanks God for revealing wisdom to the infants, meaning those who know how to keep things simple and look at things with open hearts and minds.

Then he says those words which have echoed down through the ages, especially when we humans are facing challenges which are making our hearts heavy: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble of heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” 

And here we want to remember that Jesus was a carpenter, and when a carpenter in those days made a yoke for a pair of oxen, he carefully shaped that yoke to fit the contours of the ox’s neck and shoulders so that the animal could bear the burden with a minimal amount of pain and discomfort.

As we make our way through this pandemic and watch the increasing number of cases and deaths tragically rise in many states, we can feel afraid, discouraged, even hopeless. This is a very powerful virus, and the experts tell us that it will be around for a long time. This is exactly what we do not want to hear.

And then comes the voice of our Lord, “Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens.” That is definitely us. And then our Lord says, “And I will give you rest.” That sounds good. Somehow, although we try to get a good night’s sleep, the pandemic sounds a dissonant chord under everything we do.  The nervous rasping of this pandemic is the discordant bass line for all our days. True rest, genuine peace would be a blessing.

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” What is really important? The love of God. Several of you are devoting time and energy to sharing the love of God by volunteering at the food shelf and giving food to those who so sorely need it. All of us can find ways to let God’s love seep into the depths of our spirits and then share that love with those around us.  Let us learn more and more every day how much God loves us and all people and let us share that love.

“For I am gentle and humble of heart and you will find rest for your souls.” Our Lord is “gentle and humble of heart.” That is what we are called to be—“gentle and humble of heart.” That is what his yoke is—for us to be “gentle and humble of heart” If we become that, many of the things we think are so important will be put in their proper perspective. What is important? God loves each of us with an unconditional love that nothing can destroy or stop or interfere with or erase. God calls us to love God back and to love others as ourselves. The important thing is to accept God’s love, thank God for this wonderful love and amazing grace and then share it in whatever ways we can. His yoke is easy—The Way of Love. Amen.

Pentecost 4 Proper 8A June 28, 2020

Genesis 22:1-14
Psalm 13
Romans 5:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

Our first reading is shocking. Why would something like this even appear in the Bible? Here Abraham is, one hundred years old. He finally has a son, and now God asks him to do something unthinkable, horrible—to sacrifice his beloved son. Why would God ask such a thing? This is a passage that causes more questions than answers.

As we have so often observed, when studying the Bible, context is crucial. This passage concerning Abraham and Isaac was written by the Elohist writer, who was working around 750 years before the birth of Christ. The story of Abraham goes back to 1,600 B.C.E., almost 900 years earlier. When Abraham settled in Canaan, and even later, the Canaanites and other peoples were practicing rituals of sacrificing their children to their gods.

Walter Russell Bowie of Virginia Theological Seminary writes of Abraham: “Here was a great soul living in a crude age. He saw people around him offering up their children to show their faith and their obedience to false gods. In spite of the torment to his human love he could not help hearing an inward voice asking him why he should not do as much; and because that thought seemed to press upon his  conscience he thought it was the voice of God.”

Abraham thinks God is calling him to sacrifice his son. He packs everything needed for the sacrifice. When he and Isaac have to leave the two young men waiting, Abraham tells them to wait, saying, “We will go and worship and then we will come back to you.” “We will come back.” On the way, Isaac asks where the lamb is for a burnt offering and his father says, “God will provide the lamb for the burnt offering.” Abraham instructs his two young man  and answers Isaac’s question with tender love love and deep faith. On some deep level, Abraham trusts that God will provide. God will take care of this. And at the moment when the knife is raised and we are holding our breath, the angel speaks and Abraham sees the ram caught in the thicket. Seeing is important here. We need to be alert and able to see God’s generous grace in operation. Abraham has shown the faith needed to offer everything, his whole future, to God. God has generously responded to Abraham’s faith.  God has also shown that God does not want people to sacrifice their children. 

Bowie writes, “The Old Testament is continually lifting the conception of God out of the irrationality and arbitrariness of pagan superstitions.” Bowie quotes the prophet Hosea, speaking for God, who tells us, “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.”  (Bowie, The Interpreter’s Bible, pp. 642-644.) 

God loves us, and our loving God calls us to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourself. We are called to a journey of spiritual transformation.

In our epistle, Paul is talking about that process of transformation. We have been baptized into new life in Christ. There are many definitions of sin, but one of my favorites is that sin is separation from God, other people and our true selves. As followers of Jesus, we are growing closer to God. We are growing closer to each other, and we are growing into the true selves God calls us to be. We are following Jesus.

We are following our Good Shepherd, who knows our needs before we ask and who gives us all the gifts we need to carry out our ministry. We are following the Way of Love. We are following the way of life.

Our gospel for today is the end of Jesus’ teaching as he sends the disciples out into the world. Last week he talked about bringing not peace but a sword. In this passage, he is describing the strong bond between those who spread the message of God’s love and those who receive that message with open hearts and minds.

Biblical scholar Beverly Gaventa writes, “A new family is created of those who faithfully carry out the mission and those who openly receive the mission, and a fellowship is established that includes the divine presence.” (Gaventa, Texts for Preaching year A, p. 287.)

Jesus sends the disciples out to share the good news of his love. When people respond, that love grows by leaps and bounds. New communities are formed and the good news spreads over the entire world.

This is good news of love, healing, and wholeness not hate, division, and brokenness. This is good news that is shared when someone gives another person a drink of cold water on a hot day in the desert,  in a city where the concrete reflects the heat, or in a  small village in Vermont when the temperature has been above ninety degrees for six days in a row. This is good news given in the sharing of boxes of food that will last a family several days and then they can come back for more. This is good news of someone listening with love and care as a person shares a problem that is tying them in knots.

At the core of it all is the love of God, who does not want us to sacrifice lambs or even pigeons, and certainly not human beings and certainly not children. God loves children and calls us to love and care for children. Jesus said, “Let the children come to me.” In his day, children were considered as chattel, property, but he made it clear that children are precious, beloved human beings.

Isaac asked his father where the lamb for the burnt offering was. His father listened carefully and lovingly to the question and offered his own best answer, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” Isaac has complete trust in his father Abraham. Abraham has complete trust in God. May we have complete trust in God as we make our way through this stage of our journey in this pandemic. Like Abraham, may we look for signs of God’s grace and presence. And may we grow even stronger together as God’s beloved community as we respond in loving and creative ways. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.

Pentecost 3A RCL June 21, 2020

Genesis 21:8-21
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

Last Sunday, our first reading ended with the birth of Isaac. At last, Abraham and Sarah have a son. This Sunday, we celebrate the weaning of Isaac. Scholars tell us that in those times, about sixteen hundred years before the birth of Christ, babies were weaned when they were three years old. There is a great feast going on to celebrate this occasion, and Sarah sees the son of Hagar, her slave, playing with Isaac. Hagar’s son is older than Isaac. 

Years ago, when Sarah had been unable to have a child, she told Abraham to have sex with her maid, Hagar, so that he would have an heir. Such things were done in those times. Having an heir meant having a future. 

Now, Sarah is seeing Hagar’s son as a threat to her son Isaac. He is older and he might try to present himself as Abraham’s heir in place of Isaac. So Sarah tells Abraham that he must order Hagar to take her son and leave. They are in a desert environment, and this is going to place Hagar and her son in great peril. Abraham is very upset over this. God tells Abraham to do what Sarah is asking and God also tells Abraham that It is through Isaac that Abraham’s descendants will be named, but that God will make a nation of the son of Hagar.

Abraham gets up early in the morning, gives Hagar a skin full of water and some bread, and sends her on her way with her son. Hagar goes into the wilderness of Beer-Sheba. She puts her son in the shade under a bush to try to protect him from the sun. Then she goes as far away as she can and still see him. She does not want to see him die.

Having done all she can, Hagar begins to weep.  The text says that “God heard the voice of the boy.” Apparently, he was crying, too. Thus we learn the boy’s name, “God hears” is the translation of the name Ishmael.  The angel of God calls to Hagar from heaven and tells her that God will make a nation of Ishmael. God calls her to take her son’s hand.  Then she sees a well. She goes and fills the skin with water and gives Ishmael a drink.

The text says, “God was with the boy and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow. His mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.” Ishmael is a Bedouin, the ancestor of the Arab people. Christians and Jews trace their ancestry to Abraham through Isaac. Muslims trace that lineage through Ishmael.

On the human level, this is a story of jealousy and fear on the part of Sarah, emotions that drive her to treat Hagar and Ishmael very badly. On the divine level, this is an eloquent statement that God can love and protect more than one person or group at the same time.   

Biblical scholar Thomas Troeger writes, “The failure of people whom we have most honored and admired, people like Abraham and Sarah, cannot defeat the compassion of God who intervenes to rescue and uphold us.” (Troeger, New Proclamation A Series 1999, p. 121.)

Our epistle today reminds us that we have been crucified with Christ. Our old self has died. As Paul writes, “Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again.” We have been crucified with Christ, and now we are in newness of life with him. We are being transformed into his likeness.

In our gospel for today, Jesus talks about many things. He talks about confusing evil with good. He says that everything will come out into the light. He tells us that God cares even about a sparrow, that God knows each of us intimately, even to the number of hairs on our heads, and God loves us very much. He tells us not to be afraid. And then he, our Lord, the Prince of Peace, says something that shocks us. “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.” And he says that even family members will be set against each other.

Our baptismal vows call us to honor the dignity of every human being. This is a very difficult thing for us humans to do. In our own country, people held slaves until the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Indeed, people continued to keep slaves until the first Juneteenth, June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation. We have come to realize that one human being cannot own another. It is wrong. 

And yet, we have had such difficulty thinking of our Black and Brown brothers and sisters as fully human, just as we had a problem thinking women were fully human. We thought that getting a college education would be too difficult for them, that their minds were not up to that challenge, We thought that women should not vote, that they were not quite up to that task. 

When we were hiring workers, we hung out signs saying “No Irish need apply.” The tendency to put down other people, deny them their human rights, the tendency to be blind to the fact that God loves each of us and all of us, is, in my opinion, what our Lord is talking about when he says that he brings a sword of division. He is calling us to work our way through this issue so that we can help him bring in his peace, his shalom.

When he said, “I give you a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you,” he knew he was challenging us. But I think he also thought and hoped that, with his guidance and grace, we would be up to the challenge. 

Our lesson from the Hebrew scriptures, written by the Elohist writer almost two thousand eight hundred years ago, addresses this issue. God loves Hagar with the same infinite love with which God loves Sarah. God loves Ishmael with the same infinite love with which God loves Isaac. As Bishop Tutu says, “God has a big family.” Within that big family, may we all be one as Jesus and God are one.  Amen.

Pentecost 2 Proper 6A   June 14, 2020

Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7
Psalm 116:1, 10-17
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35-10:8

In our opening reading, Abraham is taking a siesta in his tent under the oaks of Mamre, near Hebron. It is a very hot day. As he rests and perhaps dozes a little, three men appear. This is not unusual. Travelers often came by.

In the Middle East, a desert culture, the rules of hospitality dictate that you should welcome strangers, feed them, give them water, and offer lodging if they need it. So Abraham jumps up, has his servants wash the visitors’ feet, gives them a snack of bread, and prepares a feast.

But these visitors are no ordinary people, They are God and two assistants. When they are eating the meal that has been prepared, they do a very unusual thing. They ask Abraham how his wife Sarah is doing. There is no way that a traveler would know the name of Abraham’s wife.

Now, we need to stop and remind ourselves of a few things about Abraham and Sarah. Abraham is now one hundred years old. When he was a mere seventy-five, God called him and Sarah to go from their comfortable home and life in Ur of the Chaldees, pack up everything they had, and begin a journey to a land they did not know. Ur was a town in what we would call southern Iraq. By this point in the story,  Abraham and Sarah have traveled hundreds and hundreds of miles.

Abraham is one hundred years old and Sarah is not far behind.

When God called them to make this journey, God told them that they would have descendants as numerous as the stars or as the number of grains on the beach. So far, there are no descendants.

Sarah is listening in on Abraham’s conversation with God and the two assistants. And God says to Abraham, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.”

At last? After twenty-five years of wandering and enduring one challenge after another and and no word of good news, no hope? After all this, God is going to give us a son? Sarah, listening behind the tent flap, bursts into laughter. She howls with mirth. Oh, how she laughs.  She rolls on the ground. 

Later on she tries to deny it. But she did laugh. And once the divine visitors leave, Abraham has a good long laugh, too. And, in due course, Isaac is born. We can imagine the joy of Abraham and Sarah. After all their journeying, all their suffering along the way, they have a son. The name Isaac, means “laughter.”

Abraham and Sarah are the great icons of faith. Along the way they would sometimes remind God, “Lord, you know that promise about all those descendants? It hasn’t happened yet.” And God replies, “Be patient, It will happen.”

When we have a hope or a dream that means a great deal to us, sometimes when it happens, we laugh. The joy just spills over. We have wondered whether it would ever happen, and, when it finally does, we burst out in good deep, joyful laughter. Maybe quite a bit of it is relief, too, that we did not hope in vain and that God’s grace finally prevailed.

So, this week, I hope we will all think of Sarah, listening inside the tent and bursting out in laughter. I hope we will think of how she and Abraham kept the faith, never stopped hoping. And I hope that we may actually have a few moments of laughter over something this week. This laughter scene is like a precious gem in the Scriptures, something we can carry with us forever,

Another gem is from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Like Abraham and Sarah, we have faith. And because of the love of God and the reconciling work of our Lord and the power of the Holy Spirit, we have peace, through everything. These are challenging times. But Paul tells us that we can “Boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” 

When we suffer through difficult times, and keep the faith, that builds our endurance, so that we can remain strong through other challenging times. And that endurance produces character. It strengthens our ability to follow Christ, to be the kind of person he calls us to be. And character produces hope. As we grow stronger and stronger in Christ and become more like him. we are more and more open to the hope that he gives us every day, every moment, together with his gifts of faith and love. Individually and together, we are a people of hope. 

And a third gem in our gospel for today: Our Lord is sending his apostles out to spread the good news. He is sending us, too. And he says, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Because he is with them, his kingdom has come near. Other scholars say that the translation is also, “The kingdom of God is within you.” We have been created with the divine spark of God within each of us, We are children of God and inheritors of the kingdom of heaven. We are co- builders, with Christ, of his kingdom, His shalom.

Three gems from Scripture. Abraham and Sarah burst out into joyful laughter! God does keep God’s promises! 

Paul’s wise teaching: suffering builds endurance builds character. builds hope.

And our Lord’s assurance: the kingdom of God is near you; the kingdom of God is within you. Our loving God gives us the faith and the strength and the grace we need to get through challenging times. Our Good Shepherd is leading us. God is as close as our breath. God is within us. Amen.

Lent 2A March 8, 2020

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

Our first reading today is so short, yet it says so much. Abram, later renamed Abraham, is one of the greatest examples of faith in all of the Bible. He lives in Ur of the Chaldeans, in a region which in those days was called Mesopotamia, on the bank of the Euphrates River, about 225 miles southeast of present-day Baghdad, Iraq. It is about 1600 years before the birth of Christ. 

God is calling Abram to make a journey far away from everything and everyone that he knows. Abram has a comfortable life and many possessions. Yet he packs everything up and goes on a journey.

That is what we are doing this Lent. We are going on a journey to grow closer to God. We are going on a journey to become more and more the persons God calls us to be.

Our psalm for today is one of my favorites, and, I think it may be one of your as well. It speaks of the hills, and we can think of our beloved Green Mountains and all the smaller hills that we love. This psalm reminds us that God is with us every moment of our lives. God watches over us. For those of us who are reading The Restoration, this psalm reminds us of Step One, remembering that God is everywhere and God is always with us.

In our gospel for today, we have the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of Judah. This is a group of extremely powerful men who make decisions that govern the religious and community life of the people. As a member of the Council, Nicodemus is familiar with the ways of worldly power.

Nicodemus has been hearing about Jesus and he may even have seen our Lord from a distance or heard him speak. In any case, Nicodemus has reached the point where he simply must go and talk with Jesus. But if he goes in the daytime, people will see him and this could cause great trouble for him. He could lose his place on the Council, and he could lose his life for associating with this powerful teacher who is a threat to those in power.

So, Nicodemus goes to see Jesus under cover of night. Nicodemus gets right to the point. He says that Jesus must come from God because of his teachings and his healings.

But then Jesus makes a spiritual quantum leap. He tells Nicodemus that we can’t see the kingdom of God without being born from above.

Poor Nicodemus is overwhelmed by this, and he takes it in a concrete sense, thinking that we will all have to go back into our mothers’ wombs and be born again. Then Jesus says that we have to be born of water and Spirit. For us, this is a clear reference to Baptism.

Nicodemus is still trying to figure all of this out. “How can these things be?” he asks with some frustration. Jesus refers to the time when poisonous snakes were biting and killing God’s people in the desert and God ordered Moses to hold up a statue of a serpent, which cured the people of the snake bites. and prevented them from dying. This is also a reference to the cross. And then our Lord says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

We do not meet Nicodemus again until after Jesus has been crucified. According to John’s gospel, Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate’s permission to take Jesus’ body down from the cross and bury it in his own tomb. Nicodemus comes with spices to anoint the beloved body  of our lord. Both men are members of the Council, and both are risking their lives.

We can imagine that Nicodemus never forgot his meeting with Jesus. that he meditated on their conversation and grew in his understanding of who Jesus really was.

Abraham’s journey was both earthly and spiritual. He traveled hundreds of miles to a new land, always trusting in God’s promise that in Abraham all the families of earth would be blessed. The journey of Nicodemus was not geographical but spiritual.

Every day he would go to his work on the Sanhedrin. He would watch as a kangaroo court found Jesus guilty and as an angry mob demanded his death. As far as we know, he had only one close, face to face meeting with Jesus, but every day he grew closer and closer to our Lord, until the time came when his love for Jesus told him that he had to help his colleague Joseph of Arimathea take care of our Lord’s body no matter what that action might cost. He and Joseph were not able to save Jesus, but they felt compelled to give his precious body a decent burial.

Abraham went on a journey into the unknown with complete trust that God would lead him in the right direction. Nicodemus had the courage to go and meet with Jesus, and after that, his life was never the same. He grew closer and closer to Jesus. He grew to love Jesus so much that he joined Joseph in carrying out the most intimate and loving act of washing and anointing Jesus’ body for burial.

Lent is a journey. God’s people journeyed for forty years in the desert. Jesus fasted and prayed for forty days in the wilderness. We journey together to grow closer to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Closer to realizing that God is always with us, leading and guiding us, forgiving us. feeding us, giving us the grace to take the next step, the next leap of faith, the next quantum leap into the loving heart of God. Amen.

Pentecost 7 Proper 11A RCL July 23, 2017

Genesis 28:10-19a
Psalm 139
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30. 36-43

In our first lesson today, we are continuing the story of Jacob. Last Sunday, we looked on as Jacob cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright, that is, Esau’s right to be the leader of the family and to receive a double inheritance. When Esau came in from hunting, Jacob got him to give up his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew.

Between that point and our reading for today, much more has happened. Isaac, the father of Jacob and Esau, realizes that he is going to die very soon. So he sends Esau out to hunt for game and bring it home and prepare it in Isaac’s favorite way so that Isaac can have this festive meal and give Esau his blessing, another right of the eldest son, before Isaac dies.

Rebekah, who loves Jacob more than Esau, cooks up a scheme with Jacob. She gets him to kill “two choice kids” for her to cook, and she dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothes, which are hanging right in the closet, Because Esau is a hairy man, Rebekah puts the skins of the calves on Jacob’s arms and hands. Before Esau gets home, Jacob goes into his father’s room, pretends to be Esau, and receives Isaac’s blessing.

When Esau gets home with the game for his mother to cook, he finds out what Jacob has done. He vows that he will hunt down Jacob and kill him.

In today’s reading, Jacob is running for his life. He is on his way to Haran, his father’s home, where he hopes to find shelter and support. But night is coming. He takes a desert rock, puts it under his head, and has an amazing dream. There is a ladder connecting earth and heaven, and there are angels ascending and descending on it. God stands beside him and renews the promise God made to Abraham many years ago.

Herbert O’Driscoll says of this dream, “In some strange way it is a dream of shalom, of unity, of connectedness. It shows Jacob a much bigger reality than our Western culture has seen in the last few centuries. In Jacob’s dream there is a door between realities. Humanity is no longer a prisoner of the world.” (O Driscoll, The Word Today Year A, Vol. 3, p 56.)

Jacob wakes up and he knows that God is real and that God has chosen Jacob to carry on the blessing God gave to Abraham. God has also told Jacob that God will be with Jacob always. For the first time in his life, Jacob realizes that he is not the center of the world. He has met God. He sets up a  monument to this moment and he names the place Bethel—beth-el—house of God.

God uses the most unlikely people to carry out God’s plans. Here is Jacob, the supplanter, the heel, the cheat, the schemer. He has fallen into the hands of the living God. God has chosen him.

Our psalm for today, number 139, tells us that there is nowhere we can go, that will take us away from God. God is everywhere, and God’s love and grace will follow us everywhere we go.

In our epistle today, a reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Paul is continuing his thoughts about life in the flesh, life based entirely on humans goals and needs and visions, and life in the Spirit, life rooted and grounded is the love, joy, peace, grace, and power of God. Life in the Spirit is a life based in hope.

One of the most powerful parts of this reading is the sheer fact that, thanks to our Lord Jesus, we are children of God. This relationship is so close and so intimate that we can now call God Abba. Abba is a term of endearment and intimacy. It can be translated “Daddy,” or  “Papa,” or “Dad,” or, in more inclusive language, “Mama,”  or “Mom.” We are that close to God. We are God’s beloved children.

In our gospel, Jesus tells another parable. Someone sows good seed, but in the depths of night, someone comes in and plants weeds. When the grain appears, the weeds grow up along with it.  The point of the parable is that we are going to have to let the grain and the weeds grow together.  If we try to pull the weeds, the tender little wheat plants will come up with them. When harvest time comes, the wheat plants will be sturdy. We can come along and pull the weeds and then harvest the wheat. The interpretation of the parable and the furnace of fire are not something our Lord would have said, They are later editorial additions. We recall that Matthew’s gospel was written around 70 A D. in a time of persecution and great fear and turmoil.

This parable is saying that we have to let the weeds and the wheat grow together. So often, in the Church and in the world, we want to do the sorting ourselves. We want to root out this bad thing or that bad thing.  But in God’s garden, often we need to have patience. In time, it will become clear which are the weeds and which are the wheat. Sometimes, we are a bit confused as to which is which. If something bears the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, it is of God. God is the ultimate judge.

I think of the Civil War and the issue of slavery. There were good people on both sides. Church people argued on both sides of this issue. When I was much younger, there was great turmoil and suffering over simply allowing people of color to go to a bathroom, use a drinking fountain, or be served at a lunch counter. We are still working on that issue.

Tragically, we humans have a tendency to think that we have the right to exclude some people. We find excuses to do this. We say that people of color are inferior. or women are inferior or gay people are inferior or Muslims are inferior—the list goes on and on—and then we try to shut these people out. And God says, “You are all my people, and you are all my beloved. Live together in my love.”  Amen.

Pentecost 5 Proper 9A RCL July 9, 2017

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

Our opening reading from the Book of Genesis is relatively new to the lectionary. The first time we encountered this lesson was back in 2011. Sarah has died, Abraham is growing older, and he sends his faithful servant to find a proper wife for Isaac, his beloved son.

The servant remains unnamed but many scholars think it is his beloved and trusted servant, Eliezer. Abraham has heard that his brother, Nahor, has married Milcah, and that have had a family. One of their sons, Bethuel, has become the father of a young woman named Rebekah. Abraham thinks Rebekah would be just the right wife for Isaac.

Eliezer goes back to the homeland of Abraham. Every step of his journey is steeped in prayer. He goes to the well, which is always the meeting place of the village, and Rebekah not only offers him a drink of water but also offers to water his camels. This is the height of hospitality, which is a great virtue.

In those days, women and children were considered as chattel, possessions like a chair or a good cow. A father could give his daughter to a man without even consulting her. But in Rebekah’s family, they actually ask the young woman’s opinion, and Rebekah says that she would like to marry Isaac. She has a choice in this important matter.  There is a celebration, and then Rebekah and her nurse and all her maids get on their camels, and the journey continues. Clearly, Rebekah is a woman of substance. They finally arrive in the Negeb. Isaac is out walking in the cool of the evening, looks up and sees the camels. Rebekah is very pleased to see Isaac, and they enter into a marriage based on mutual love and respect.

This story has at least two major themes. The first is that Eliezar’s journey on behalf of his master is rooted and grounded in God’s will and direction. The second is that, even in those days, Rebekah’s family asks Rebekah’s opinion, and they listen to her. Even though she is a mere woman, she has a voice. She is a capable and gracious woman of means and status, and that will be reflected in her marriage.

Our reading from Paul describes our own experience. We can want to do something, and will to do something, but sometimes, we do just the opposite. Or, we can make up our mind not to do something, but then we go ahead and do it anyway. At times, we humans can feel as though there is a war going on inside us.

When Paul talks about our “mortal bodies,” or our “members,” Biblical scholar Bruce Metzger tells us those terms can be translated as “all the faculties and functions of the person.” Left to our own human faculties and abilities, sometimes we do the opposite of what our best intentions call us to do.

If this continues, and we do things we know are destructive over and over again, that is one sign of addiction. We become powerless over alcohol, or drugs, or gambling, or spending, or eating, or electronic devices, or accumulating wealth and power, and on and on the list can go. Recently, I heard a report by an electronics expert on how our phones and iPads and computers are set up to make us addicts. We  become programmed so that we will need to check our phones or ipads more and more often to see if there is something new on Facebook or Twitter. We are constantly checking our devices. People looking intently at their phones have actually walked out into traffic.

Step Two of many recovery programs says, “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Sanity comes from the root word sanus in Latin, meaning healthy. We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could return us to health (sanitas.)

Paul writes, “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Our Lord can rescue us from this merry-go-round of brokenness.

Our gospel for today describes crowds who are never pleased. John the Baptist fasts and drinks only water, and the people don’t like him. Jesus eats and drinks wine, and they say he is a glutton and a drunkard. Jesus says that wisdom is given to infants, meaning that wisdom does not necessarily reside with those who have college degrees or important titles or great wealth and power but can be given to anyone, regardless of status, and is often given to those who have very little material wealth.

Then Jesus says those words which are among the gems of the Bible: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me: for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

The Pharisees burden people, especially, the poor, with over six hundred laws which they cannot possibly follow. The “infants”, the everyday people, do not have the leisure time to follow these rules. They have to spend most of their time working to support their families. The Pharisees and other teachers of the time ask people to follow a set of rules.

Jesus is asking us to follow him. He understands what it is to be human. He truly loves ordinary people like you and me. He is meek and gentle. He is also trained as a carpenter, and a good carpenter in those days would fashion a yoke to fit every lump and bump on the neck  and shoulders of an ox. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who knows us intimately and who can lead us into green pasture and beside still water. He can lead us into newness of life.

His yoke is easy and his burden is light. He frees us from the struggle that Paul so aptly describes.

May we follow him.  Amen.

Pentecost 4 Proper 8A RCL July 2, 2017

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

Our first reading is a story that can cause intense responses—shock, puzzlement, even anger. How could God do such a thing to Abraham after all that Abraham has endured? He has just given up his son Ishmael. How could God ask him to give up Isaac?

Biblical scholars Cuthbert A. Simpson of Christ Church, Oxford and Walter Russell Bowie of Virginia Theological Seminary tell us that this is one of those passages that must be put into context. (The Interpreter’s Bible, pp. 642-645.) Thomas Troegher echoes their insights (New Proclamation, Series A 1999, pp. 128-129.)

Scholars tell us that this passage was written by the Elohist writer, who was working around 750 B.C.E. The story of Abraham, depicting the journeys of nomadic people around 1600 B.C.E., dates back several centuries earlier.

One one level, this is a story about the testing of Abraham’s faith. Sarah has had a son, Isaac. This fulfills God’s promise to Abraham that he would be the father of countless people. But now God calls to Abraham and says, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering.” Abraham gets up early, makes things ready, and takes Isaac and two young men with him. Abraham is obedient. We have no idea what he is thinking.

After three days’ journey, they arrive at the point where Abraham and Isaac will go on and the two young men will stay with the donkey and wait. Abraham, who is not a fool or a dreamer, tells the young men, “We will worship, and then we will come back to you.” We may be wondering and agonizing, but Abraham is trusting that he and Isaac will come back. He is focused on worshipping God. He has walked a long way with God, and God has always been faithful to him.

So they journey on. Isaac is carrying the wood on his back. Abraham is carrying the fire and the knife. As they walk on, Isaac asks one of the most poignant questions in the Bible. “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham is focused fully on Isaac. His response is full of love for his son and attentiveness to Isaac: “God himself will provide a lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” Have you ever had a time when you felt God was calling you to do something you did not want to do, something you felt was extremely scary, something that you did not understand, but still you went step by step, trusting in the goodness of God? This is one of those times. The tenderness and deep faith of this moment make us catch our breath. Now Abraham and Isaac are bound together in this deep faith. God will provide.

The story moves on. Everything is prepared for the sacrifice. Now we aren’t breathing at all and our eyes are welling up with tears and perhaps rage. Why would God do such a thing?

Abraham takes the knife. But an angel of the Lord stops him. “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him.” Abraham looks up and sees a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns.

Scholars Simpson, Bowie, and Troegher remind us that, at that time in history, the Canaanites were practicing child sacrifice. They say that this story, as wrenching as it may be to us today, is an eloquent statement that God does not want us to engage in that kind of sacrifice. God calls us to offer the spiritual sacrifice of changed hearts and transformed lives.

In our epistle for today, Paul is saying that before Christ came to free us humans, we were slaves to sin. Now, because of the grace given us by our Lord, we are free. We have been changed forever. We are now living in the realm of eternal life, newness of life, fullness of life. We are citizens of God’s kingdom We are moving in an entirely new direction, a direction leading to life rather than death.

in our gospel, Jesus is instructing his disciples. He says that whoever welcomes them will be welcoming him, will be welcoming God. Whoever gives them a drink of water will be giving that drink to him.

The disciples would be going out into the world, two by two. They would be totally dependent on the hospitality of people in the towns and villages they visited. For people who welcomed them into their homes, think what a blessing that would be to those people. To sit with Peter or James or John or Thomas, to listen to what they had to say about their life with Jesus and how he had taught them and what they had done together and what a difference he had made in their lives. That would be transforming, We wouldn’t be able to get enough of that. Our lives would be changed.

Wherever he went, Jesus would take children in his arms. He always calls us to take care of the most vulnerable among us.

What are these readings saying to us today? Our first lesson is a story of faith. God sometimes calls us to walk new roads, and when that happens, we have to take each step, slowly and thoughtfully, and with great attention and deep faith, and we need to trust that God will give us what we need. God will provide. Our first reading is partly about faith and also about letting go of practices that are hurtful, practices that God would not want us to follow. God loves children; God has special love for those who are vulnerable, and God wants us to care especially for those people.

Our epistle and gospel let us know that Christ has given us a great gift, the gift of newness of life, and that gift has been shared and cherished throughout all the centuries since he was here on earth. May we open our hearts and lives to our Lord’s gifts of faith and transforming love, and may we share those gifts.  Amen.

Pentecost 3 Proper 7 RCL June 25, 2017

Genesis 21:8-21
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

As Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann observes, our first reading can sound harsh to modern people, but to people of that time, the story is about God’s mercy. Scholars tell us that this passage is from the person we call the Elohist writer, because he refers to God as Elohim, Lord. This author was working around 750 B.C.E. The events he is describing go back hundreds of years before that.

Sarah has given birth to Isaac, a happy event, and Isaac is growing. Back in those times, polygamy was the custom, and Hagar, Abraham’s other wife, has a son called Ishmael. Sarah does not want Ishmael to have the same rights of inheritance as Isaac, so she asks Abraham to send Hagar away. In a nomadic desert environment, this is an especially cruel thing to do.

God tells Abraham to grant Sarah’s wish and assures Abraham that God will take care of Hagar and Ishmael. In a heart-wrenching scene, Abraham tenderly gives Hagar some bread and water, puts little Ishmael on her shoulder, and sends her away. She wanders in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. When the bread and water are gone, Hagar puts Ishmael under a bush so that he can at least have some shade, and she prays to God that she will not have to watch her child die.

God answers her prayer. She looks and sees a well nearby and gives Ishmael some water. God promises to make a great nation of Ishmael.

Thus Abraham becomes the father of both Jews and Arabs.

It is important to note that, at this very moment,  children are dying of hunger and thirst in many places around the world because of war and famine. This reading calls us to join with God in offering mercy and help to these people. Episcopal Relief and Development and other groups are doing just that every day.

Our gospel for today is filled with many profound thoughts. Our Lord is letting us know that his light will reveal everything. He is also preparing his followers to face persecution. He says, “Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” He assures us of God’s love. God cares about one sparrow. God knows us and loves us. Jesus tells us God knows the number of hairs on our heads. As one wag put it, “God counts the hairs on our heads—and on our wigs, too!”

But then our Lord says something that shakes us to our foundations: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace  to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” And then he describes all the divisions that will happen because of him. Son against father; daughter against mother; daughter-in-law against her mother- in-law.

It is important for us to realize that Jesus is not saying that he likes this division. In his wisdom, he says that, when we are sincerely trying to discern what he is calling us to do, when we are trying with his grace, to figure out what we are called to do in order to build his kingdom, there are going to be divisions.

One of the most tragic examples of this division, in my opinion, is our own Civil War. People on both sides could find justifications for their opinions in the Bible. Clergy preached on behalf of both sides of this issue. Good people took both sides of this issue. We can picture a family on a plantation torn apart by this question.

Other relatively recent examples come to mind. Families were divided by the Vietnam War. A young man, after much prayer and guidance, becomes a conscientious objector. His father, a career military man, cannot understand this.

We continue to be divided by issues of race.

In Ireland, the home country of half my family, Protestants and Roman Catholics have been mortal enemies. Hopefully, things are changing.

In the Church itself, we have had all kinds of divisions. Scholars discovered very early liturgies, and we had the Green Book, the Zebra Book, and finally the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Some people loved the peace; some did not.  Then we revised the hymnal. That was a bit easier. Some people left the Church over the ordination of women. Some left over the ordination of LGBT people. God’s mercy and love have carried us through many times of trial and tribulation, and, thanks be to God, we are still here.

The unfailing love and inclusiveness of God challenge our longstanding notions and traditions of tribe and class and race and religion and privilege. It is so difficult for us to realize that God loves everyone. It is so easy for us to exclude one group or another, one person or another.

Our opening reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, which dates back over 2,700 years, is telling us that God loves both Jews and Arabs. Abraham is the father of Jews, Arabs, and Christians. And our Lord is calling us to take up the cross, and, as our Unitarian-Universalist brothers and sisters would say, “stand on the side of love.” God has a big family. It includes everyone.   Amen.