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Pentecost 3 Proper 5B RCL June 10, 2018

1 Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15)
Psalm 138
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Mark 3:20-35

Last Sunday, we were present as God called Samuel to be the last of the judges, the leaders who mediated between the Israelites when they had a conflict, but were also spiritual leaders and prophets. Ironically, Samuel is now in the position that Eli was in last week. Samuel has grown old; his sons are not able to carry out the work of a judge, and the people want a  king just as all their neighbors have.

Samuel may be old, but he has not lost his wisdom or his integrity. He knows that, in the words of Lord Acton , “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.” Samuel warns the people that their king is going to place their sons in military service; and he will he will take their daughters to serve his court in the palace; and he will take over fields and orchards and give them to his courtiers and will demand tithes of all the produce of the land.

As usual. Samuel consults God about this issue, and God instructs Samuel to listen to the will of the people. In the end, Samuel anoints Saul as king. This is the beginning of a tragic time in the history of God’s people.

As Christians, we are called to understand the right use of power. Here again, we can remember David Brown’s distinction between auctoritas and imperium. Auctoritas, authority, the right use of power, is authorship, creativity, helping the people to be creative and to flourish. Imperium is tyranny, control, the opposite of true authority.

In our epistle, Paul is writing to his beloved congregation in Corinth. People have been accusing Paul of being insincere, and he is struggling to help the Corinthians realize that charge is simply not true. Yet, as Herbert O’Driscoll points out, Paul is becoming discouraged. Paul writes powerfully and eloquently, “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” We’re all getting older, but God is constantly renewing us. Our “earthly tent,” our mortal body, will perish, but our spirits will dwell forever with God. How anybody could accuse Paul of being insincere about the faith when he could give us such poetic insights about God’s love and the nature of life in Christ is beyond me, but there were folks in Corinth who wanted to take control of the congregation and teach some ideas that were very far from our faith. There again, we have an example of people who were trying to seize power and then misuse that power.

In our gospel for today, we have a complicated and heart wrenching scene. Jesus is surrounded by huge crowds. His truth and his love and healing are magnetic. Word is going around that he has lost his mind. Some people are saying that he is doing all these healings by the power of the devil. It is a very serious and terrible thing when we give credit to the devil for the works that God is doing. It is a serious distortion of reality when we call what is good evil and what is evil good. The scribes, supposedly religious leaders and scholars are doing this. That is a horrendous misuse of power. Jesus vehemently denounces this. Biblical scholar Bruce Metzger writes, “The unforgivable sin is the utter rebellion against God that denies him as the doer of his own acts.” (Note, Matthew 12:31-32, NRSV NT p. 18.) It is difficult to fathom how anyone could watch what Jesus was doing for God’s people and accuse him of being possessed by the ultimate evil forces.

Meanwhile, there is another encounter happening in this gospel. Jesus’ family has come. Even his mother, Mary, has made the long journey. Perhaps they have heard the rumors that Jesus has lost his mind. I think it is more likely that they know the authorities are watching Jesus and trying to entrap him and they are hoping to persuade Jesus to go with them and lie low for awhile. The crowd is so big that they can’t get anywhere near Jesus, but they do get a message to him. “Your mother and your brothers and your sisters are outside asking for you.” And Jesus responds, “Who are my mother and my brothers? He looks around at those near him and says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Herbert O’Driscoll invites us to think about how Mary must have felt when she heard that. It always reminds me of that time the family headed home and found out Jesus wasn’t with them and went back to the temple in Jerusalem. When they told him how worried they were, he said, “Didn’t you know I have to be about my father’s business?” That must have been a shock to Mary and Joseph.

This time, I think he is trying to say that he is creating a new family. It does not erase the former family, but it includes everyone who does God’s will. It may have hurt Mary and Jesus’ siblings to hear that comment about family.

We do not know the rest of the story, but we do know that Jesus would steal away to the mountains to pray, or take some time and go to the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus. We can imagine that he found some time to get away and talk with Mary about what God was calling him to do and to reassure her of his love for her and his brothers and sisters. We know that one of his brothers, James, became Bishop of Jerusalem and died for his faith. Obviously, the family of Jesus cared deeply about him. They all showed up to try to help in whatever way they could. Jesus, the personification of love, cared about them as well.

And, of course, we recall that, in John’s gospel, when Jesus was dying on the cross, Mary stood there at the foot of that horrible instrument of torture and John stood beside her, and Jesus made them a family, He said, “Son, here is your mother; Mother, here is your son.” He was asking his beloved disciple John to take care of his mother. That was part of forming that new family. He wasn’t abolishing existing family ties; he was expanding the concept of family to include all of us.

There is so much to think about in these lessons. May we choose leaders who have true authority. May we, with your help, O Lord, accurately discern between good and evil. May we know the power of your love and healing. In your holy Name. Amen

Pentecost 6 Proper 10A RCL July 16, 2017

Genesis 25:19-34
Psalm 119:105-112
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

In our first reading this morning, we continue the story of Isaac, Abraham’s son. Isaac is forty when he marries Rebekah, and it is a long time, twenty years, before she is able to have a child.

When she becomes pregnant, she is carrying twins, and the brothers struggle  so much that she cries out, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” God tells her there are two nations within her, and that her older son will serve her younger son. This is not the way things usually happened in those days.

When the children are born, the first one comes out all red and hairy, and he is named Esau. He is associated with the nation of Edom, meaning red. His younger brother comes out grasping Esau’s ankle, and he is named Jacob, Jacob means, “he takes by the heel,” or “He supplants.”

Esau becomes a skillful hunter, someone who can bring home game for meals. Jacob is quiet and lives in a tent. Isaac loves Esau because he is fond of game. Rebekah loves Jacob. Biblical scholar Bruce Metzger tells us that the two boys represent the hunter and the shepherd, two opposing ways of life in those days.

I often remark that the Old Testament often has the makings of a great soap opera, Here we have the father preferring one son and the mother preferring the other, and we have two boys representing two ways of life. There will be conflict and drama in this story.  

One day, Jacob is cooking a stew—some translations call it a “mess of pottage;” others call it lentil stew. Esau comes in from hunting, and he is famished. He asks his brother for a bowl of stew. Here Jacob proves he is truly a heel and is trying to supplant his brother. Most people would give their brother a bowl of stew for nothing, but not Jacob. He makes Esau promise to give his birthright to Jacob. The is no small matter. The birthright is the ancestral privilege of the eldest son. It involves becoming the leader of the family when the father dies and also receiving a double inheritance. Esau is not exactly good at long-term planning. He wants the lentil stew and the wants it now. So he sells his birthright for a mess of pottage. Esau throws away his future for a bowl of stew.

Historically, Edom was a nation before Israel was. This story explains why Israel became more powerful than Edom. Much later, Jacob will wrestle with an angel and learn some things about the nature of God and his relationship with God. Now, he is a heel who is out for whatever he can get.

Our epistle, from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, talks about life in the flesh, that is life centered in the human faculties and abilities, and life in the Spirit, that is, life centered in God’s will. Jacob is obviously operating on the human level, the level of the flesh. Thanks be to God, we are living in the Spirit, and the Spirit dwells in us.

In our gospel for today, Jesus is in Galilee, a place that is comfortable for him, a place far away from the human power centers in Jerusalem. The crowd is so large that the people push him right to the shores of the lake, so he gets into a boat. He tells a parable.

A sower goes out to sow some seed. Back in those days, you sowed seed broadcast. You held it in your hand and spread it over the ground. After that, you plowed. In the parable, some seed falls on the path and the birds come and eat it up. Some falls on rocky ground, springs up quickly, but because there is no depth of soil, the seeds are scorched by the sun and wither away. Some seeds fall among thorns, which grow up and choke them. Others fall on good soil and bring forth grain.  Nowadays, the seed has a much better chance of growing well because we plow and harrow and make the soil ideal for growth before we plant the seed.

The bottom line on this parable is that, even with all the adverse conditions, the harvest is abundant. This parable is about the kingdom, the shalom of God. It is growing even now. The kingdom of peace, love, harmony throughout the whole creation is growing even now. In spite of everything, the shalom of God is growing.

But the parable is also dealing with an important question: why do some people hear the word of God, put it at the center of their lives, and bear much fruit, and why do others hear but then let various things get in the way? Matthew’s gospel was written around 70 A.D. in a time of persecution. The community had lost some members. People went into hiding. We can certainly understand why some people would leave the community when their lives and the lives of their family members were threatened. Various issues can get in the way of people’s hearing the Good News and following Jesus. Once again, the point is that, in spite of adversity, the harvest is abundant.

Two hundred and one years ago, a group of people got together here in Sheldon and formed what they called an Episcopal Society. Out of that grew Grace Church. Over all these decades, Grace Church has provided good soil for the Good News and good soil for the growth of the Kingdom of God.

I first came to Grace about thirty years ago, back in the nineteen eighties, and I felt as though I had received a great gift. Here was a community of folks who were living kingdom lives, shalom lives. I still feel that way. Thanks to the faith of people through the years and the grace of God, we are in a community where the Good News can grow, where the seed of God’s love can blossom and flourish. We can come and be nurtured and then go out into the world and share God’s love and caring for all people, from children to the elderly, and everyone in between.

Dear Lord, thank you for your many gifts, and especially for this community of faith which is now entering its third century. May we follow you faithfully.  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.

Epiphany 4A RCL January 29, 2016

Micah 6:1-8
Psalm 15
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12

In one way or another, all of our readings today deal with the questions, “What does it mean to follow God’s will?

Our first reading today is from the prophet Micah, who was a younger contemporary of the great prophet Isaiah. Micah’s ministry took place between 750 and 687 B.C. Unlike Isaiah, who was a part of the temple priesthood, Micah was not of noble birth. He was a commoner from the little village of Moresheth in the foothills southwest of Jerusalem. He was someone who could give an outsider’s view of what was happening in the great city.

As Biblical scholar Bruce Metzger writes, “Micah looked on the corruption and pretensions of the capital with a different eye.” This was a time when the temple was offering more and more animals at the altar. People had even fallen into the practice of offering their firstborn child in hopes of gaining God’s favor. They were offering all these things, but they were not offering their lives to be guided by God.

At the same time, people were not caring for each other or treating each other with respect. Corruption was widespread, especially among the privileged. The rich were growing richer and the poor were having a difficult time surviving.

Micah tells the people that this is not the kind of behavior God wants. What God wants is for us to “do justice and love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.” Commentator Andrew Foster Connors writes, “God desires justice that is measured by how well the most vulnerable fare in the community, a loyal love (hesed) that is commensurate with the kind of loyal love that God has shown toward Israel, and a careful walking (halaka) in one’s ethical life.”(Connors, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 1, p.292.)

Walter Brueggemann writes that to walk humbly with God means, “to abandon all self-sufficiency, to acknowledge in daily attitude and act that life is indeed derived from the reality of God.” (Brueggemann, Texts for Preaching Year A, p. 120.)

In our epistle, Paul is telling the Corinthians and us that our faith does not rely on worldly wisdom or power. Our faith flies in the face of earthly power. We proclaim Christ crucified. The idea of a leader who died a criminal’s death is a disgrace in terms of Greek thought, which proclaimed the power of wisdom to overcome every obstacle, and to Jewish thought, which looked forward to the coming of a messiah who would defeat the Roman Empire.

We follow someone who suffered a death reserved for the lowest of the low, the poorest of the poor. No one of noble birth would ever undergo such a horrible death. Paul says, “God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

There is something amazing about our loving God. He did not assemble an army. He did not attack the religious and secular leaders arrayed against him, powers that were trying to protect their turf, powers that were working against the justice and love of God. He accepted all their hate, all their venom and violence. He took it into himself and transformed it into healing, forgiveness, and newness of life.

That is why we follow him. That is why we worship him. Because he shows us a different kind of wisdom, a different kind of life-giving power, a different way to live.

In our gospel for today, we have Jesus’ Beatitudes, some of the most profound and wise words ever spoken. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus begins. This takes us back to Walter Brueggemann’s wise observation that to walk humbly with God means “to abandon all self-sufficiency.” To be poor in spirit means that we know we cannot do it alone, that we need to be constantly asking for God’s help and guidance. Blessed are those who mourn because of the brokenness of this world. Like the people of Micah’s time, we as a society are not living God’s vision of justice and love. Blessed are the meek. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines meek as “enduring injury with patience and without resentment.”  The Riverside dictionary defines meek as, “exhibiting humility and patience; gentle.” Blessed are the gentle, the humble, the patient? Yes, for they will inherit the earth. In the world’s terms, the meek get run over or pushed aside. But, as we know, Jesus’ shalom is a whole different realm from this world.

We are here because, in the words of the song, “We have decided to follow Jesus.” We know that it’s wise to ask for help from God and others on the journey with us. It’s not a sign of weakness. All the qualities that Jesus is talking about are part of the life we are trying to live, with his help and grace.

There is great joy in knowing that we have God’s help every moment of every day, and that we have wise guidance from our brothers and sisters in Christ whenever we want to ask for it. We know that compassion is not weakness. We know that all of these qualities which Jesus is describing today are the blueprint for life in a richer, fuller dimension. That is what we mean by God’s kingdom, God’s shalom.

We do not have to compete. We do not have to fight. We do not have to claw our way up the ladder of success no matter whom we hurt on the way up. There is a better way, and that is the way to life in and with Christ.

May we do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with our God. May we live these Beatitudes, with God’s grace.  Amen.