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Pentecost 7 Proper 11A July 19, 2020

Genesis 28:10-19a
Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

In our first reading, from the Book of Genesis, Jacob is on the run. Last week, we read about how he manipulated his older brother Esau into selling his birthright for a bowl of stew. This means that Esau will no longer be the head of the family when their father, Isaac, dies, Nor will Esau receive a double portion of the inheritance, which usually goes to the older son. Jacob has robbed his older brother of his birthright.

Meanwhile their father, Isaac, who is now blind, has realized that he will die soon. He wants to give Esau his blessing. He tells Esau to go out and kill some game, bring it in, prepare it, serve it to his father and then Isaac will give Esau his blessing.

Rebekah has listened in on Isaac’s conversation with Esau. Because she loves Jacob more than Esau, she hatches a plan for Jacob to get Isaac’s blessing instead of Esau. She kills two kids and makes them into a savory stew. Then she dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothes and covers his hands and neck with the skins of the kids so that, he, who has smooth skin, will seem as hairy as his older brother. Jacob pretends that he is Esau, serves his father the savory stew, and gets Isaac’s blessing, which cannot be revoked.

When Esau comes to see his father, offer Isaac his savory stew, and get his father’s blessing, he finds out what Jacob has done and vows to kill Jacob. Rebekah advises Jacob to go to their family in Haran, some 600 miles away in what is now Turkey.

Our reading takes place on the first night of Jacob’s journey. Jacob stops to rest. In Hebrew, Jacob’s name means “He supplants.” He has always thought of himself first, last, and always. He always wins. Now his older brother has vowed to find him and kill him.

Jacob takes a stone and uses it for a pillow, and he has the most amazing dream. There is a ladder between earth and heaven, and angels are going up and down the ladder which links heaven and earth. Herbert O’Driscoll says. “In some strange way, it is a dream of shalom, of unity, of connectedness.” (O’Driscoll, The Word Today Year A Volume 3, p.56.) This amazing vision is granted to Jacob, the cheat, the scoundrel.

And then God speaks to Jacob and renews the promise that God first made to Abraham. Jacob will have descendants as numerous as the dust of the earth. God says, “All the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.” And God tells Jacob that God will be with him always and will keep him wherever he goes and will bring him back home.

To his credit, Jacob, the cheat, who would rob his own brother of the birthright and the blessing, seems to realize what is happening. He knows that God has spoken to him. “Surely the Lord is in this place,” he says,”and I did not know it!” 

He actually is afraid. He senses at last that there is someone more powerful than he is. He sets up a monument to God and names the place Bethel—Beth—house, El, the first part of the word “Elohim,” which means Lord or God.  Bethel—house of God.

This story, which oscillates between the sublime and the soap opera, tells us some very important things. God does not always choose perfect people to do God’s work. God often chooses frail, fallible, flawed humans to receive huge blessings and carry out important missions. Most of us are only too profoundly aware of our weaknesses and imperfections. The story of Jacob’s encounter with God assures us that we can help God build God’s shalom, too. Last Sunday we noted that great bumper sticker—“Be patient, God isn’t finished with me yet.” God is definitely not finished with Jacob. Thanks be to God, who has finally gotten through to Jacob, at least to some extent.

Our gospel for today is the famous story of the wheat and the weeds, in earlier translations called the tares. The point of this parable is that there are good and bad things happening in our world. In Matthew’s congregation, scholars tell us, there were some people who took their faith very seriously and lived their faith, and there were others who were quite lukewarm followers of Jesus. There may have been some folks who wanted to throw those nominal followers out. But the message is, let God be the judge.

If we see good things happening, such as our food shelf, let’s pitch in and help those good things in every way that we can. Let’s focus on the good things and help them all we can. If there are bad things, certainly we will not support them, but we will not focus on them and get discouraged. We will do all we can to help good things grow, and we will let God do the sorting. 

There are times when we do have to take action against evil. The rise of Hitler was such a time, and thank God for all those in the Greatest Generation who gathered together with profound courage and stopped him. But we have to be very careful about labeling things good and evil. Our own Civil War was a time when people on both sides quoted the Bible in defense of their positions. We are still working through the issue of racism.

If something shows the fruit of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, it is of the Spirit. If it does not show these qualities, God will guide us as to how to respond. Most of all, let us work on the side of the things of the Spirit.

In our epistle for today, we read that we are God’s own beloved children. We can call God “Abba.” “Abba” is an intimate familiar term for a father. We can call God Daddy or Dad, or Mom or Mama. St. Paul says that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains to bring forth God’s shalom of peace and harmony. He also says, “For in hope we were saved.”

We are a people of hope. We are a people of love. We are a people of faith. Amidst all the struggle and ambivalence and confusion in our world, we are a people of faith, hope, and love who are constantly working for the good things we see God doing in this world. And our loving God is saying the same thing God said to Jacob all those centuries ago: “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”  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 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.

Pentecost 9 Proper 14C August 11, 2019

Isaiah 1:1. 10-20
Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

Our first reading today, from the prophet Isaiah, dates back to around 742 B.C. Isaiah’s ministry began in the Southern Kingdom of Judah a bit after the time of Amos and Hosea. Scholars tell us that Isaiah was probably familiar with the work of his two colleagues who ministered in the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

Isaiah addresses the kings of his time. He calls them “rulers of Sodom” and “people of Gomorrah.” This language serves as a big wake up call. The prophet is addressing a society whose leaders need a major transformation.

Isaiah addresses the issue of worship. The temple in Jerusalem was the center of the life of the people. Sacrifices were being offered; holy days were being observed in worship, but there was a glaring problem. The leaders were corrupt. Even those leading worship in the temple were not adhering to God’s values.

God does not want offerings of animals. God does not want the spilling of blood. God calls these “abominations.” We begin to wonder, is God asking the temple officials to stop all worship?

Then God hits the nail on the head: “I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.” What is going on here? The temple leaders are conducting the services, but their hearts are not in the right place. Their attitudes are so far away from what God wants us to have when we worship that God is disgusted.

God says. “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do good; seek justice; rescue the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow. In the society of the Southern Kingdom, the rulers are corrupt; the gap between the rich and the poor is growing larger and larger. God is calling them to return to justice, help the oppressed, and care for those who are the most vulnerable.

This passage from Isaiah calls us to remember that when we worship God, we can’t just go through the motions and say the beautiful words in the prayer book and then ignore and forget the values of God’s kingdom. For us as Christians, the values expressed in our worship need to be reflected in our lives.

Our epistle, from the Letter to the Hebrews, was written to Jewish people who had made the decision to follow Jesus. This was extremely difficult for them. Their families could not understand what they were doing; their home congregations were upset, and, as followers of Christ, they were subject to persecution.

To give them strength for the journey, the writer of this inspiring letter turns to the great icon of faith, Abraham and his wife Sarah. When God called them, they set out from their comfortable life to go to an unknown country. Along the way, they met great dangers and challenges.

God had promised the they would have children as numerous as the stars, but, by the time they arrived at their new home, they were very, very old. When God came and told Sarah that she would have a child very soon, Sarah rolled on the floor with laughter, and it was infectious.  Abraham couldn’t help but laugh right along with her. Nine months later, their son Isaac was born. The story of these two courageous people reminds us that God loves us and that we can trust God to lead and guide us to the promised land.  

Our gospel for today is a reflection on our story last week of the man who had such an abundant harvest that he decided to tear down his barns and build new ones to hold all his riches.

Jesus begins with those wonderful and powerful words: “Do not be afraid.” God gives us good things beyond our imagining. God gives us God’s kingdom of peace and harmony. Our Lord reminds us to remember how much God loves us, and to trust in God to guide and strengthen us.

Then our Lord gives us a kind of Advent call: “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.” Don’t be like those five foolish maidens who ran out of oil. When the master comes, open the door for him. And then what happens? He invites us to sit down and he serves us a meal. Our Lord truly turns the world upside down. Our Lord, our leader, is serving us, just as he washed our feet on Maundy Thursday.

If we are focused on him and on his shalom, his kingdom, we are constantly praying to him for grace to do his will. We are filled with his love and we are extending that love to others. We are working to build his shalom, his kingdom of peace, in which everyone has food and clothing and a place to live, and medical care and good work to do.

That’s what it means to be ready, to be awake. And then Jesus comes in and puts on an apron and serves us a meal! Patricia Lull from Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota writes, “The Gospel text for this week entices the hearer to place first things first. The things of God are to be given the most urgent priority in every Christian’s life. Neither fear nor worldly distraction is to lure the children from God’s tender, attentive care.   God promises to surprise with the gift of the kingdom those who stand ready and willing to receive this singular treasure.” (Lull, Feasting on the Word Year C Volume 3, p. 334.

When our Lord comes again to bring in his kingdom, to complete his work of creation and heal and make the world whole and full of his love, it will be a time of great joy. This text adds a wonderful picture of our servant Lord serving us a midnight supper or an early morning breakfast!

May we stay awake. May be ready to receive him. May we be ready to receive the gift of his kingdom with great joy and gratitude. 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.

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.

Second Sunday after Pentecost Proper 7A RCL June 22, 2014

Genesis 21:8-21

Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17

Romans 6:1b-11

Matthew 10:24-39

In our first reading this morning, Abraham and Sarah have received a great gift—the birth of their son, Isaac. On the day that Isaac is weaned, there is a feast of celebration.

But then jealousy creeps into the picture. Sarah sees the son of Hagar, her maid, playing with Isaac. Years ago, when she thought she would never have a child, Sarah told Abraham to have sex with Hagar so that Hagar might give birth to an heir. Now Sarah sees Hagar’s son Ishmael as a threat, so she tells Abraham that he must send Hagar and Ishmael away.

Abraham is upset. This seems extremely harsh. God tells Abraham to follow Sarah’s orders and God will not only save Hagar and Ishmael, God will make a nation of them. Abraham gives them bread and a skin of water and sends them away. Hagar is devastated. She wanders around until the water is gone, then puts Ishmael under a bush so that he might have some shade, walks off the distance of a bowshot, meaning that she can still keep an eye on Ishmael, and sits down to wait for her child to die. She is so desolate that she cries. Ishmael cries, too, and God hears his voice. God opens Hagar’s eyes so that she can see a well of water right in front of her. Their lives are saved. Ishmael grows up and marries a woman from Egypt.

To us, this story may seem cruel. But back in those days, your heir was your future. Sarah is trying to protect the rights of her son and the future of Abraham and her family. Hagar is a slave. She has no power in the culture. She must obey the orders of her mistress and master.

The key theme in this story is God’s mercy to Hagar and Ishmael. God protects them and gives them a future. God saves their lives.

Biblical scholar James Newsome writes, “The saving of Ishmael’s life and his subsequent marriage to an Egyptian woman fulfill God’s promise [that God would make a nation of Ishmael]. And so, Abraham is on the way to being the father of not one, but two nations, an understanding reflected in the modern Arab view that Abraham is the father of both Jews and Arabs.” (Newsome, Texts for Preaching, Year A, pp. 372-73.) This story, written by the Elohist writer about 750 B. C. reminds us that, in the family of God, there are no outcasts. Also, God’s blessing can be given to more than one person or group.

In our reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul is dealing with people who think that, since Christ has set us free from sin, this gives us a license to keep on sinning over and over again. Paul is reminding them and us that baptism is a death to sin, death to the old life and rebirth into a new life. In the early Church, baptism was done by immersion. The imagery of drowning, dying to sin, was very clear. Paul closes with that wonderful sentence, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Through our baptisms, we have been changed. We have been made new. We are new people. The course of our lives has been changed forever.

In our gospel for today, Jesus is preparing to send the disciples out to do their ministry. He is giving them the most powerful guidance that he can offer. He is letting them know that their ministry is not going to be easy. He has already been facing pressures and threats from various authorities. He knows that his followers will face challenges.

One of his most profound messages is not to be afraid. How fear can paralyze us! Someone said that ninety-nine percent of the things we worry about never happen.

Nothing that Jesus teaches is secret. Scholars tell us that the Essenes had secret teachings. We know that other groups do that as well. With Jesus, everything is right out in the open. “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light,” Jesus says. Don’t be afraid of what people can do to you or say about you. Don’t be afraid. God is holding you in the palm of God’s hand. God knows you and God loves you.

And then he says that thing that is so difficult for us to understand, that he has come to bring not peace but a sword. Sometimes when we answer the call to follow him, it cuts to the core of the most important things in our lives, even our families. A young man feels deeply called to be a medical missionary in Africa, and this means he will not carry on the family business. This hurts his father. The mother tries to see both sides.

A young woman is brought up in a family that does not practice any faith tradition. They do not go to church, synagogue, or mosque.  In fact, they identify themselves as atheists. They feel that all religion, all faith, any kind of belief in God or in a Higher Power, is illogical foolishness. The young woman goes off to college and enters a time of spiritual exploration. She discovers the beauty and depth of the Episcopal Church. She wants to be baptized. Her parents are shocked. They think she has lost her mind.

In the early Church, as folks answered the call to follow Jesus, they were moving into uncharted territory. Their families had no idea what they were getting into. Often, entire families adopted the new faith. But if only one or two family members decided to follow Jesus, there was often great tension over this decision. All of this took place against the backdrop of Roman persecution and hostility from those who looked askance at the new faith. All of these factors put pressures on families.

Is Jesus saying that families are not important? Absolutely not.  Scholars tell us that, when Jesus talks about members of families being set against each other, his premise is that families are one of the highest values in life.  (Fred Craddock, Preaching through the Christian Year A, p. 338.) The family is precious, and following Christ is even more so.

To entrust our lives to our Lord, to give our lives to him, to allow him to live in us and to live in him, that is the goal.  Our Lord ends with this paradox: ”Those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Sometimes we humans think we know what life is all about. Sometimes we tend to think only in human terms. There is something much bigger than the human level. God loves us beyond our power to fathom. God cannot protect us from every adversity because we live in a fallen creation, but God can help us find wells of new life where we did not see them before, and God can lead us to paths of compassion and service we are not able to discover or travel on our own. Amen.

Pentecost 7 Proper 13 July 31, 2011

Pentecost 7 Proper 13A RCL July 31, 2011

 Genesis 32: 22-31
Psalm 17: 1-7, 16
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14: 13-21

 Our first reading this morning comes from ancient sources, from a time when people believed that there were river gods or river spirits and one had to get the permission of those gods before fording the river. It was first written down by the writer we call the Jahwist, or J , who worked around 950 years before the birth of Christ, three thousand years ago.

 Jacob is headed home to see his father, Isaac. He has become rich. He has two wives, two maids, all kinds of livestock. He has sent some servants with gifts for his brother Esau, whom he cheated out of a birthright and a blessing. He is afraid that Esau will kill him.

 The servants come back saying that Esau is headed their way with four hundred men. Jacob is scared. He divides his wives, maids, and possessions into two portions and sends them over the river, figuring that, if Esau gets one batch, the other batch may be preserved. As we can see, Jacob thinks that success equals material possessions.

 During the night he wrestles with, the text says, “a man,” but we know that it is more than just a human. Various people have said that Jacob wrestled with an angel, but, by the end of the passage, we know that Jacob is wrestling with God, or perhaps with his darker side, as God calls him to become the person he is called to be.

Although this is a very old story, it has universal implications. If we are at all honest, we know that all of us struggle with certain aspects of ourselves that we don’t want to look at or examine. We would rather ignore these parts of ourselves. But God calls us to grow into wholeness. Sometimes this has a high cost. We all have wounds of one kind or another. Sometimes our own wounds and the struggle to bring our darkness into the light of Christ can be the source of our ability to help others on our journeys. I think of the insightful book by Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer.

Jacob wrestles through to a new identity, Israel, one who has striven with God and human, and has prevailed. Jacob knows that he has seen God face to face, and yet has survived that experience. He will forever walk with a limp.

The next day, Esau arrives with four hundred men. Far from killing Jacob, now Israel, Esau hugs him and kisses him, and they weep together.  We will meet Jacob again.

In our epistle, Paul expresses his sadness that his fellow Israelites are not all choosing to follow Jesus. He expresses his respect for all they his people have. In our time, it is crucial that we respect the faith of others, whether we are talking about Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, the spirituality of our First Nation peoples, or any other faith expression. Regarding Judaism, one of my most beloved mentors often points out that, in order to be a good Christian, we must first be a good Jew. In other words, we need to study and respect our heritage from Judaism.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is tired to the bone. The crowds are following him everywhere he goes. He gets into a boat to go off by himself. But the crowd walks around to the other side and meets him when he arrives. He has compassion on them and cures the sick among them.

The disciples want him to send the crowd away so that he and they can have a quiet supper. But Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.” They take stock of what they have to work with. Immediately, they express a theology of scarcity. “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” We don’t have enough. He tells them to bring him the loaves and fish. He takes them in his hands and looks to heaven. He takes, blesses, breaks, and gives this food to the people. This is a eucharistic action. When we take what God has given us, when we offer that to God, when we ask God’s blessing upon the gifts, when we break the bread and share it, it becomes more than it was, It becomes the food that Jesus gives us, the energy of his loving self, the gifts to do our ministry. So these five little loaves and two fish become enough to feed a crowd of over five thousand people.

Jesus can make a feast out of five little loaves and two fish. Jesus does not need a lot to work with. We don’t have to be a huge church with a vast staff of clergy and several choirs. We don’t have to have an organist every Sunday. We do not have to have oodles and oodles of programs. That was the Church of the Christendom era, as Anthony Robinson calls it in his book Changing the Conversation.

A small and lively congregation can wrestle through to its own sense of identity just as Jacob did. And it doesn’t have to emerge with a limp, either. A small congregation can be creative about finding ways to do high-quality Christian formation and support for its members and can discern the ministry or ministries to which it is called. I think Grace has been engaged in that process for many years.

When we think of ourselves, I hope we will be careful. Instead of saying, “Well, all we have is five leaves and two fish,” while comparing ourselves to great cathedrals, may we always remember that, with Jesus’ help and grace, we have all the gifts we need to do the ministry to which he is calling us.                            Amen