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Lent 5B March 21, 2021

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-13
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

Our opening reading today comes from the Book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah was one of the great prophets of God. Here is what God said to him, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Scholars tell us that Jeremiah was very young, around eighteen years old, when God called him to be a prophet. Jeremiah told God that he was too young to answer this call.  Here is how Jeremiah tells the story. Then I said, “Ah, Lord God, truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy.’ for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord. Then the Lord put out his hand, and touched my mouth, and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.” God calls all of us to our ministries, and God gives each of us the gifts we need to carry out our ministry.

Jeremiah was called at a time when the leaders were corrupt. Jeremiah pronounced God’s judgment on their immoral and unjust behavior, and they responded by persecuting him. Some religious leaders tried to kill him. He was beaten, put into the stocks, and thrown into a cistern. Eventually, the Babylonian Empire conquered Judah and deported the leaders and others to Babylon.

As we know, this was one of the lowest points in the history of God’s people. In the midst of this terrible time, God says about the people, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts….They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” The law will no longer be words written on tablets long ago. The law will be written on their hearts. God will be close to the people, and the people will be close to God. Each person and all the people will have a close relationship with God. And God will forgive the people.

Think of what these words from God meant to these people over twenty-five hundred years ago as they tried to hang on to faith and hope during the exile. Thanks to the love of God and the encouragement of their spiritual  leaders, they kept the faith, they gathered to pray and study the scriptures, and they strengthened their community during this time of exile and desolation.

In our gospel for today, the people are gathering for the Passover, and Jesus is preparing for the cross. He says something that has so much truth in it that we can meditate on it for our whole lives and still only scratch the surface of its meaning. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” We can think of ourselves as a little seed, a grain of wheat, self-contained, individual, able to make our own choices, do things our own way. We are sitting on a large rock in a field. Will we jump into the rich loam of God’s love and grace and grow? Or will we remain in our own little world? If we jump into the richness of God’s love and grace, we grow. We love and follow Jesus.

But then our Lord, right in front of us, goes through a dialogue with himself and God. “What shall I say—Father, save me from this hour? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”

In meditating on this gospel, i found my mind and heart turning to thoughts of Brian Sicknick. Brian was 42 years old.  In a statement posted on the Capitol Police website on January 7, Brian’s family wrote, “There really aren’t enough kind words in any language to describe how sweet Brian was. He was truly a lovely, humble soul. Everyone who met him adored him. We are missing him terribly. He loved his job with the U. S. Capitol Police….He also had an incredible work ethic. He was very serious about showing up to work on time and refused to call out sick unless absolutely necessary.” 

Brian went to work on January 6, faithfully carried out his duties amidst the physical brutality and chaos of the attack, on our Capitol, was sprayed with a powerful chemical substance, became very ill, returned to his division office, collapsed, was taken to the hospital, and died the next evening at 7:30. He was protecting our Capitol. He was doing his job. As you know, a friend of mine has a connection with Brian. She knows someone who is a good friend of the family. From all accounts, Brian walked the Way of love.

There is something about walking the Way of Love. There is something about jumping into the good earth of God’s grace and helping to build God’s shalom of peace and harmony. There is something about surrendering our ego, giving ourselves to something bigger than ourselves, throwing ourselves into the loving arms of God. When we try to save our lives, we lose them. When we lose our lives for Jesus’ sake, we find new meaning in our lives. We enter into eternal life, life in a new dimension.

We are following Jesus. Today and again in the garden we will hear his own struggle about the cross.  He knows everything about what it is to be human. And that is everything to us when we have to face our own cross, whether it is a decision we don’t want to have to make, a child or a grandchild going through something horrible, a sacrifice of something that has been very important but, when we finally let it go, we find ourselves on a path to new life. In all of these things, we can follow him because we know that he understands exactly what is being demanded of us because he has gone through it himself. Every time we face our own cross, he is there with us. And that makes it possible for us to take the right course, to follow him, even though we are sure it will lead to some kind of death. And every time it leads to new and light-filled life. 

We are at a delicate time in our exile, our desert wandering, our fast. There is great hope for freedom, but we have to continue to follow the science and be careful, or we may cause another spike. This may be our most profound challenge yet. Fortunately, blessedly, we are not alone. We are never alone. We have help, the best possible help. Blessed Lord Jesus, thank you for leading and guiding us. Help us to walk the Way of Love with you. In your holy Name,  Amen.

The Second Sunday after Christmas January 3, 2021

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 84
Ephesians1:3-6, 15-19a
Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

This is our first Sunday in the year 2021, and I know most of us are happy to see 2020 go. This is also the Second Sunday of Christmas, a day we do not always have in our calendar. I actually counted back to 2012. Out of those eight years, we have celebrated the Second Sunday after Christmas only four times.

Our Collect for this day begins, “O God, who wonderfully created and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

In our opening reading from the prophet Jeremiah, God’s people are going to come home from exile. We have spoken of how our experience with Covid-19 has been like an exile.  We can’t travel; we can’t even get together with neighbors. We have to wear masks when we go out. It feels as though we are living in a foreign land.

This passage from Jeremiah is God speaking to God’s people, including us. God will become as a shepherd to us. God will be our father, guiding us home. God will answer our weeping with consolation. God will “Turn [our] mourning into joy, God will comfort [us], God will give [us] gladness for sorrow.” Things will be getting back to normal. It will take time, but it will happen. We can help this process by continuing to follow the guidance of our medical experts.

In our gospel for today, the Wise Men have been warned in a dream not to go back to King Herod. They have gone home by another road. And now the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt because Herod is searching for Jesus in order to kill him. Guided by an angel of God, Joseph takes Mary and the baby to Egypt. Herod never finds Jesus, but, in order to preserve his power, he kills all the baby boys under two years old. Tyrants will stop at nothing to hold on to their control. When Herod finally dies, an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him that it is safe to go home. Joseph is in constant contact with God and follows the divine guidance immediately. Finding that Herod’s son is now ruling Judea, Joseph does not want to risk going there. Guided by God in a dream, he travels to Galilee, a place far from the centers of power, and settles in Nazareth.

When God chose a man and woman to raise God’s Son, God chose two ordinary working people, Mary and Joseph. They were people of profound faith who had strong prayer lives, close communication with God, wisdom, accurate intuition, extraordinary courage, determination, and self-discipline. But they did not have worldly power.

Mary became pregnant before they were married, so Jesus was born under the shadow of illegitimacy. Jesus was born when they were homeless. A kind inn keeper gave them lodging in a stable. Then they became refugees. They had to escape into Egypt. They were seeking asylum, some degree of safety.

In his sermon on the First Sunday after Christmas on December 29, 2013, Pope Francis said, “And today, the gospel presents to us the Holy Family on the sorrowful road of exile, seeking refuge in Egypt. Joseph, Mary and Jesus experienced the tragic fate of refugees, which is marked by fear, uncertainty and unease.” In his address for the 106th World Day of Migrants and Refugees on September 27, 2020,  Pope Francis called us to respond to the suffering of the many people who are becoming displaced persons and refugees as a result of the Covid pandemic.

In our Collect, we call on our loving God, who has “wonderfully created and yet more wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature.” We ask God to “Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity.” 

In our reading from Ephesians, Paul writes, “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may come to know the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, “God has a big family,” and our own Presiding Bishop Michael Curry calls us to walk the Way of Love.

In his sermon on December 29, 2013, Pope Francis said, “Jesus wanted to belong to a family  who experienced these hardships, so that no one would feel excluded from the loving closeness of God.”

As we walk with the Holy Family today, experiencing with them the terror of having to escape from a despot who is trying to kill their child, may we commit ourselves to helping displaced people and refugees know the loving presence of God. May we work for a world in which no one has to be a migrant or a homeless person or a refugee.

When God came among us as a baby, Jesus and his mother and foster father suffered homelessness, and were forced to flee as migrants and refugees. Yet, at every crisis and point of decision, Mary and Joseph asked for God’s guidance and followed God’s will. As we look out on our country and our world, can we see our homeless people and migrant people as the Holy Family? Can we see these people through God’s eyes? Can we have the faith and hope to tackle issues of race, class, and income inequality so that we can help God restore the dignity of every human being?

Borrowing from Paul, with “the eyes of our hearts enlightened,” may we know the hope to which you have called us, O Lord, the hope of your shalom, and may we use the power of your grace to see others with your eyes and help you restore the dignity of every human being. Amen.

Christmas 2   January 5, 2020

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 84:1-8
Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a
Matthew 2:1-12

Our opening reading from the prophet Jeremiah describes the exiles coming home from the north.  Everyone is returning home—not only those who are healthy and strong, but also the blind, the lame, those who are pregnant, even those who are giving birth. God is calling the people home, and there is great rejoicing. The text tells us that the life of the people will become “Like a watered garden,” a life of safety and peace and growth and plenty.

Psalm 84 was sung by pilgrims going into the temple in Jerusalem. It is a song about our desire for union with God. 

Our reading from the Letter to the Ephesians tells us that God loved us before the world was formed. Before time, God loved us and called us to be God’s children. We will spend our entire lives trying to grasp the depth of God’s love for us.

Our gospel for today is the story of the wise men coming to “pay homage” to Jesus. The text does not say that there were three wise men. Tradition has developed that part of the story. There are many theories about the star that guided these men on their journey. Some say that it was a conjunction of planets; others say it was Halley’s comet. Scholars think these men were astrologers and priests from Persia, people who observed the stars very carefully. Translating them into more modern terms, I see them as deeply spiritual scientists, astronomers or astrophysicists. They were people who were respected and taken very seriously. And they saw something in the sky that they knew had great meaning. They saw that star and they had to follow that star no matter what. Their sole purpose was to “pay homage” to this new king.

When they finally reached Judea, they followed protocol and went to King Herod and asked where the child was, and we know that this news of a new king terrified Herod, who so insincerely asked the wise men to let him know where the child was so that he, too, could go and “pay him homage.” What he really wanted to do was to kill the infant who was a threat to his power.

Biblical scholar Thomas Troeger tells us that the Greek word translated “pay homage” is proskyneo.  Troeger writes, “Because ‘journey’ is a primal metaphor for the life of faith, [we] might explore how the [journey of the wise men] begins with their need to give themselves utterly and completely to the only one who is worthy of worship. This implication is clear in the Greek, since proskyneo was commonly used  to describe the custom of prostrating oneself at the feet of a king. The physical posture dramatically expresses the idea of giving not just gifts, but our entire selves to Christ.”

Troeger points out that, when Herod says that he, too would like to pay homage to the new king, the irony of his statement is striking. Troeger writes, “The irony is that Herod unknowingly states what in truth he needs to do. The despot who rules by violence and fear needs to prostrate himself before the power of compassion and justice, needs to give himself entirely to the grace that is incarnate in the child whom the magi are seeking.”

Troeger reminds us that, when they finally reach the house, not a stable or a cave because their journey has taken at least a year, the wise men go into the house, see Mary and Jesus, and “pay homage.”

He concludes, “Only after this act of worship, only after giving themselves completely to Christ, do they present their material gifts.”

May we also give ourselves completely to Christ.  Amen.

Pentecost 19 Proper 24

Jeremiah 31:27-34
Psalm 119:97-104
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

In our first reading today, the prophet Jeremiah has been imprisoned  by the king for saying that the Babylonians would conquer his people. The Exile is now happening. The leaders and many of the people have been taken to Babylon. It is a time of despair and hopelessness, one of the most tragic times in the history of God’s people.

The word of God comes to the prophet Jeremiah. God is going to bring the people back and they will build and plant. Everyone will have the opportunity to be responsible for his or her own life. God will make a new covenant with the people, even more amazing than the covenant in which God led them out of their slavery in Egypt.

God is going to put God’s law of love and mercy and justice into the very hearts of God’s people. Each person will know God. Each person will be profoundly aware of God’s love and forgiveness. In this text, God says this will be a “new covenant.” As Christians, we are reminded of the life and ministry of Jesus, God walking the face of the earth, Jesus, the One who embodies and expresses the love, healing, forgiveness, mercy, and justice of God in a human life. Jesus is calling us to be a people of hope.

In our reading from the Second Letter to Timothy, Paul begins by reminding Timothy of the people who have taught him the faith—his grandmother, Lois, and his mother, Eunice, and, of course, Paul, his mentor and teacher. Each of us can be grateful for the people who have formed us in our faith—parents, Sunday School teachers, Godparents, people we have met along the way who have taught us, strengthened our faith, and helped us through challenging times. 

Then we read, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction,  and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, some people began to teach that every word of scripture was dictated by God to a divine secretary, who wrote the Bible word for word, and that the Bible should be interpreted literally.

Through careful scholarship, we know that the Bible was written by many persons over many centuries. We also know that the Bible contains many passages which contradict each other. So, when we say that the Bible was “inspired by God,” we mean that the people who wrote this library of books contained within the Bible were indeed inspired by God to record the events in the history of the people of God, and that the Bible conveys deep truths to us, but it is not meant to be a factual, historical or scientific document. What is important is the depth of spiritual insight conveyed in the Bible. Just to know that God spoke to Jeremiah in a terrible time and reassured Jeremiah and the people that they would return and rebuild gives us hope all these centuries later.

Like Paul, Timothy is called to share the good news of Christ’s love and to be faithful in that ministry.

In our gospel, Jesus is telling the disciples and us a parable about “the need to pray always and not to lose heart.” This parable has two unforgettable characters— a judge who “neither fears God nor has respect for people,” and a very persistent widow. In Jesus’ time, widows and orphans were extremely vulnerable. They had no one to give them financial support or protection. The judge is in a position of great power. The widow is powerless. 

The widow is looking for justice. The judge is not doing his job. Judges were supposed to be people who carried out God’s justice on behalf of the people, but this particular judge is a poor example of his profession.  The woman is unstoppable. She hounds the judge until he at last grants her justice. 

The point of the parable is that God is nothing like this judge. God loves us and wants to hear our prayers and wants to help us. God is on the side of justice; justice is an essential part of God’s kingdom. If this persistent woman can get justice from this judge who is completely devoid of human sympathy and unwilling to do his job, we should be just as energetic and disciplined in our prayers to God as this courageous and faithful widow was in her quest for justice. The parable closes with our Lord asking, “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

As we look around our world, we see a huge gap between how things are operating here on earth and how God and Jesus and the Spirit would have things done. Isaiah and the prophets and our Lord himself have given us a clear picture of the kingdom, the shalom of God. Looking around, it would be easy to give up hope. It would be easy to stop praying.

But then we think of Jeremiah in prison, his country conquered by a powerful foreign empire. proclaiming God’s promise that the people will return and rebuild. We read a message from Paul, also in prison, telling us that the good news is not chained, encouraging Timothy and each of us to share the good news, to love and feed and clothe and welcome people. And Luke, writing fifty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, writing to a  community of faith that was undergoing persecution, calling them and us to be as persistent in prayer as that feisty, faithful widow was because God is a God of Love and of justice. God is listening to each and every prayer. And God will give us the grace to build God’s shalom.  Amen.

Lent 5B March 18, 2018

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-13
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

In our opening reading, which dates back to 587 B.C., over twenty-five hundred years ago, God tells the people that God is going to make a “new covenant” with them. Scholars tell us that this is the first time the term “new covenant” is used in the Scriptures.

God speaks these words from a position of deep intimacy. God says that God is the husband of the people. This gives us some sense of the love God has always had for us. And God says something that is almost too difficult to grasp—that God is going to put God’s law within God’s people, within us. God is going to write the law on our hearts.

Webster’s dictionary tells us that a covenant is a “solemn agreement between two parties.” When Moses brought the law down from Mount Sinai, that was a sign of the covenant between God and the people. The law was the glue that bound the people together and bound together God and the people.

For us as Christians, the New Covenant is expressed in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. His life speaks to us. Everything he says and does means something to us. His words and actions, his attitudes and thoughts are like lighthouses guiding us to safety on a stormy sea. They are like springs of water giving us new, fresh lives.

Today, Jesus tells us one of the most important things he has ever said to us. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain: but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” We could meditate on this for the rest of our lives, and, in a sense, that is what we do as Christians. Last Sunday, we were talking a bit about the writer Elizabeth Goudge. Her characters think about this statement of Jesus in many ways and in great depth.

Let’s imagine for a moment. Each of us is like a grain of wheat. Each of us is a little seed, enclosed in our protective capsule, our hard little shell. Imagine each of us, a little, self-enclosed seed wrapped in our secure little shell. Each of us is on a big rock. Far below is God’s fertile, loamy earth.

We’re sitting on our rock, but if we stay here, we will always be alone. We will never be part of anything bigger. On one level, it’s great to be on our rock. We are in total control of our little world up here. We can make our decisions and run things the way we want to. But staying up here is not what we were designed for.

We are being called to give up our control. We are called to jump into the earth. And it’s scary. Very scary. Will we disappear? What will happen to us? There’s something big we are called to do, but we’re going to lose control and give ourselves to something much bigger.

Finally, we take the leap of faith. We jump into God’s wonderful earth and bury ourselves in that good, warm soil and let the sun shine on us and warm us and let the rain come down so that we can sprout, and put down our roots, and reach up toward the sun and break through the earth and reach up and up and up to God and to the sun and grow until we are a part of a beautiful field of wheat.

We look around and see all this golden wheat, waving in the wind. And it is beautiful. This wheat will be gathered and made into bread, perhaps Communion bread. In the words of Richardson Wright, “We make, O Lord, our glorious exchanges: what Thou hast given us, we offer,  that we may, in turn, receive Thyself.”

As followers of Christ, we are called to jump into the fertile loam of God’s love. We are called to jump into the stream of goodness in the universe. We are called to take the risk of giving up what we think is so important—our thoughts and plans and theories—and jump into the loving arms of God and grow into the persons God calls us to be.

When we do this, we enter a process of transformation. We are caterpillars that turn into butterflies. We are little grains of wheat that become part of something very, very big and very, very good. We become part of God. We become one with God. The grain of wheat falls into the earth and it bears fruit. That grain has died to self and now lives to God.

The cross was a horrible instrument of torture designed to make people suffer untold pain and cruelty and to humiliate them. And to fill them with fear of the power of the Roman Empire. It was a form of death reserved for the lowest of the low. When Jesus breathed his last on that horrible cross, he was propelled into the arms of God. He fell into the good earth of God’s love. The Apostles’ Creed says that he descended to the dead. He went there to share God’s love with those in the underworld.

Nothing in this universe is untouched by God’s love, not even Hell.

If we are going to bear fruit, we have to give up our little islands of isolation and jump into God’s love.

And then we will bear fruit. The fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  It’s a lifelong journey, and we’re on that journey.

May we continue to take those leaps of faith.  Amen.

 

Pentecost 22 Proper 24C RCL October 16, 2016

Jeremiah 31:27-34
Psalm 119:97-104
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

Our first reading, from the prophet Jeremiah, is an amazing statement. We have watched the disintegration of Judah. The king and other leaders have grown more corrupt. They have not led the people in loving God, living ethical lives, and sharing the wealth with those who are less fortunate. The powerful Babylonian Empire has invaded and leveled Jerusalem. The leaders and many of the people have been deported.

Last Sunday Jeremiah encouraged the exiles to build houses and raise families in Babylon. This week, we hear the word of God, and it is a word of restoration and hope. God tells the people that God will sow the seed of humans and animals. God will sow. This is an image of spring, an image of growth. At the darkest moment comes the light of hope.

God is going to make a new covenant with God’s people. “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people….they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” God and the people are going to have a relationship that is even closer than the one they had before. Everyone, from the least to the greatest, will be a part of this loving community.

We are living in very difficult times. There is a huge toll of death, injury, and destruction from Hurricane Matthew stretching across the Caribbean into our southern states, and especially North Carolina. Violence of all kinds seems to be striking everywhere. People are starving and suffering in Aleppo. Our presidential election campaign is reaching new lows.

This reading reminds us that God is always with us. There is hope. If we adhere to our own most faithful understanding of God’s will and God’s values and God’s vision for the creation, God will guide us.

In Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy, Paul continues his guidance to the young minister. This passage contains the famous passage, “All scripture is inspired by God….” As Christians, we believe that the Holy Spirit has inspired all the people who have written the scriptures. The Fundamentalist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century interprets this passage to mean that the Bible was actually dictated by God word for word to a sort of divine secretary, and there are many people today who believe this.

In fact, the Bible is really a library, a collection of books written between 950 B.C. and about 200 A.D. Scholars can examine the book of Genesis, for example, and find that there are four distinct writers, J, the Jahwist writer, who worked around 950 B.C., E, the Elohist writer, who dates back to about 750 B.C., D, the Deuteronomist writer, dating to about 620 B.C., and P, the Priestly writer, dating to 450 B.C. In the New Testament, we have four gospels, each written at different times by different people. Mark is the earliest, John the latest. If we look at the epistles, we know who wrote some of them, and we are not sure who wrote others of them.

The Bible contains all kinds of wonderful wisdom, but it also contains some things that are not very edifying. For example, there are chapters and chapters of begats that would interest only the most dedicated historian. As one of my mentors, the Rev. Al Smith, who served for many years at St. James, Essex Junction, used to say, “The Bible contains all things necessary to salvation, and a lot of things that aren’t.” If we read passages in context, with guidance from the Christian community through the work of learned scholars and teachers, we can learn a great deal and gain much inspiration. But it is not responsible to pick passages out of context, and it simply is not true that God dictated the Bible word for word.

Paul encourages Timothy to remember the strong foundation of faith given him by his mother and grandmother and to “…proclaim the message: be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.”

Like Timothy, we can always proclaim God’s message of love, hope, and faith.

In our gospel, Jesus tells us about a woman who is persistent. She is a widow, which means that she is the least of the least. But she does not give up, and finally the judge, who is not the most sterling example of his profession, grants her justice.

God is very different from this judge. Our gospel reinforces our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures. God is faithful; God is always listening. We are called to be persistent in our prayers and in our pursuit of justice.

As I have said, these are challenging times. It would be easy to give up all hope. It would be easy to become cynical. But our readings today are all calling us to remember who God is: God is a God of justice, love, hope, and healing. God cares about everybody, especially those at the margins. Any responsible reading of the scriptures makes this clear.

As we consider the decisions we have to make, we are called to keep in mind our understanding of God and of God’s vision of shalom, in which everyone is respected, loved, and cared for.

As Christians, we can look at the life of our Lord Jesus and we can see the values of God expressed in a human life. We can use his life as a model for our lives, and we can feel him among us. He is with us now, calling us to his vision of shalom. In a few moments, he will be feeding us with the energy of his very self so that we can go out into the world and live and proclaim his message of love and hope.

Loving and gracious Lord, may we be like this faithful and feisty widow. May we persist in hope, prayer, and the pursuit of justice for everyone. May we follow where you lead.    Amen.

Lent 5B RCL March 22, 2015

Jeremiah 31: 31-34
Psalm 51:1-13
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

Our first reading, which dates back to 587 B.C. E., over 2,500 years ago, is the first mention of the term “new covenant” and the only mention of that term in the Hebrew scriptures.

Although he lived all those centuries ago, the prophet Jeremiah had a life that could be made into a miniseries. He was the son of Hilkiah, a priest who lived in Anathoth, two miles outside of Jerusalem. Scholars tell us that living just that short distance outside the center of power made Jeremiah an outsider. When God called Jeremiah to be a prophet, God said, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” This is true of all of us. God has known us from the beginning, and God has called us.

Jeremiah is young, and he tells God that he does not feel that he should be a prophet because he is only a boy. But God says, “I have put my words in your mouth.”

As I thought about this sermon, I began to realize that Jeremiah, like so many of the prophets, reminds me of our Lord. Jeremiah’s ministry was anything but easy. During much of his ministry, the king, the priests, and the official prophets were corrupt. Jeremiah tried to call them back to God;s ways, but they just strayed farther and farther from God.

Jeremiah also had the extremely difficult job of telling those in power that they were going to be conquered by the Babylonian Empire. For that, he was placed under arrest.

Our reading for today is God’s revolutionary proclamation through Jeremiah of a new covenant. This happens after the Babylonian Empire has conquered Judah, leveled the temple in Jerusalem and deported the people to Babylon. It happens in the midst of the deepest possible pain and defeat and suffering, a time when the worst possible disaster has occurred.

It is clear that the people have fallen away from God. but that does not stop God from reaching out in love and mercy. Some of the most significant moments in the life of God’s people and in our lives happen in the midst of crisis and suffering.

God is going to write this new covenant on their—and our—hearts. Everyone is going to have the opportunity to be close to God. Barriers such as social status, occupation, and education, melt away. Everyone will be equal in the sight of God. There will be no need for experts or teachers. Everyone will be able to be as close to God as we are to each other right now. This is the covenant that God offered to God’s people 2,500 years ago. They had erred and strayed like lost sheep. yet God was ready to forgive all of it and begin anew.

God was saying that the spiritual life is not a matter of following rules. It is about interior transformation which leads to changed attitudes and behaviors. In our hearts, we finally realize how much God loves us, and that love touches and transforms us and our lives.

The great Episcopal theologian Urban Holmes talks about how many people still believe that the spiritual journey is about following rules. If we follow the ten commandments and do everything right, our lives will be happy and we will avoid suffering. But that is not what our faith teaches.

Following Jesus does not make us successful in the world’s terms. Following Jesus does not protect us from suffering and disaster and heartbreak and brokenness. In fact, as we see from his own life and the lives of many saints, following Jesus often takes us to a cross of one sort or another.

Sometimes you and I have to undergo suffering. It is not something that God sends upon us. It is part of living in a fallen creation. This world is not as God would want it to be. There is much brokenness that would not be God’s intention. God’s vision for the creation is a vision of wholeness and harmony. But we are not there yet.

The suffering that comes into our lives may be a family situation which is tragic and complicated. We struggle through it with God’s help. We can’t fix it; It is way too complicated, but we ask God’s help and we do the best we can one day at a time.

It may be a point of decision in our own lives. We agonize over it and seek God’s guidance, but nothing is coming clear. It may be a diagnosis that changes our lives. It may be a setback to ourselves or someone dear to us. Sometimes we may grieve deeply and cry. Sometimes we may be angry about it and have to ask God’s help to deal with that. As we look around our world and see the suffering of so many people, we suffer with them.

We are following our Lord to the cross. Our Lord is the embodiment of the new covenant. Life in Christ is not a matter of following the rules as a matter of duty. The love of Christ is engraved in the center of our being. Christ is in us and we are in him.

In 1373, Julian of Norwich, in an England ravaged by plague and war, had fifteen visions of Our Lord on the cross. She wrote, “Do you want to understand the Lord’s meaning in this experience? Understand it well. Love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love. …Thus it was that I learned that Love was our Lord’s meaning.”

That Love has come into our hearts and into our lives. He has suffered the worst. He is with us in our sufferings, and, because we know how much he loves us, we can fall into his loving arms as a seed falls into the ground. Then wholeness comes out of brokenness. Life comes out of death. Because he has suffered and won the victory, we no longer have to fear suffering. We no longer have to fear death. We no longer have to live in fear of any kind. Instead, we can live in faith.

Amen.

Christmas II Year B RCL January 4, 2015

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 84
Ephesians 1: 3-6, 15-19a
Luke 2:41-52

Our opening reading from the prophet Jeremiah is from the so-called “Consolation” portion of Jeremiah’s book. Much of Jeremiah’s ministry took place during troubled times. There were all kinds of international intrigues and alliances, wars, corrupted leadership, and all kinds of problems.

In this passage, Jeremiah is telling the people that God is going to bring them home from exile. God is going to make the journey easy for them. Jeremiah says that the life of the people is going to become “like a watered garden,” lush and full of growth. And when they get home, there is going to be a party. The young women will dance; the men will be merry. Mourning will turn into joy.

Jeremiah begins the passage with the command to “Sing aloud with gladness.” He calls the people to celebrate their return with praise to God.  In an age when so many people are in exile or are refugees, we are blessed to be already at home. But this reading makes an important point. There is much value and grace in praising God. Maybe this is why we all love to sing.

In our epistle, Paul touches upon a theme which we heard in our epistle last Sunday—that, because of Christ, we have become children of God. Paul prays that God may give the Ephesians and us “a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know him, so that, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, [we] may know what is the hope to which he has called [us], what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.” As “the eyes of our hearts are enlightened,” we grow in faith and hope; we gain a deeper sense of God’s many gifts to us; and we grow into a more profound sense of God’s power to help us in every event and part of our lives. No matter how challenging or distressing a situation may be, God has the power to guide us through it.

On this Second Sunday after Christmas, our lectionary gives us three choices for our gospel. One is the story of the Wise Men coming to worship Jesus. Another is the story of the Flight into Egypt, when the angel warns Joseph to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt to keep the baby Jesus safe from King Herod. At various times over the past several years, we have looked at both those gospels.

The third choice is from Luke, which we have just heard. All of us who are parents, and most of us who are not literal biological parents, are well aware that, with any child, you have to do your best, try to be a good example, work hard to train them up in the way they should go and grow, and then, at one point or another, they are going to make their own choices. Sometimes they are good and healthy choices and sometimes they are not. When our children make not so great choices, and when they have to go through pain as a result of those choices, we as parents go through agony.

This gospel is not about Jesus making a bad choice. It is about Jesus being who he truly is. Mary and Joseph were faithful in the observance of their religion. They have gone to Jerusalem for the Passover. In those days, when you went to Jerusalem for a festival, you went with your extended family. Whenever you traveled, you went with a large group because it was dangerous to travel alone. There were robbers and other dangers along the way.

So it takes  time before Mary and Joseph realize that Jesus is not in the large family traveling party. He’s twelve years old. He probably likes to walk with Uncle Zechariah, who can tell one great story after another, or Aunt Rachel, who carries  the best snacks to munch as you walk along. So, they gave gone a day’s journey before Mary and Joseph realize that Jesus is not there. This is not bad parenting. It’s just that there was a big crowd of relatives among other big crowds of relatives traveling home from the Passover.

Now Mary and Joseph both know that Jesus is the Son of God. But it’s one thing to know on a theoretical level and another thing to know on this experiential level. They look for him among the crowd of relatives and friends. Then they rush back to Jerusalem, worried sick.

They search for three days. Can you imagine your twelve year old child being lost for three days? This is a parent’s nightmare. Finally, they find him in the temple learning from the teachers there. And he asks them, “Don’t you know that I must be in my father’s house?”  What a shock for them!” He does go home with them and is obedient to them. But now they know that, at any moment, he may go off to serve his heavenly Father. The text says, “His mother treasured these things in her heart.” Did she have any idea where this would lead? Did she have any idea how much strength she would have to have in order to go through life with her extraordinary son?

Jesus was fully human and fully divine. We know this. But sometimes it is good to contemplate what this meant to Mary and Joseph. What faith and grace it took for them to be such good parents to Jesus. Joseph was such a fine role model for all fathers. When God chose Mary for her amazing and challenging ministry as God-bearer, this put  Mary and Joseph in an awkward position. Joseph rose to the occasion, marrying Mary and protecting Mary and Jesus. We need a lot more fathers like Joseph on this planet. As I have said before, we have several in this congregation.

As Jesus grew, I think  both Mary and Joseph began to have some idea of how difficult things were going to get. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Jesus was a different kind of King, a king  who wasn’t going to use his divine power to hurt others in order to save or defend himself. I think the shadow of the Cross fell upon their lives quite early on. Yet they persevered.

I think that we can safely say that the eyes of their hearts were enlightened. They were able to face every situation with faith and hope. May we follow their example.  Amen.

Christmas 2 January 5, 2014

Jeremiah 31: 7-14
Psalm 84:1-8
Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a
Matthew 2:1-12

Our opening reading for today is a beautiful and powerful passage about the return of all the exiles from the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah.  They had been conquered by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians, and the people had been deported to foreign lands.

They had spent years studying the law and deepening their commitment to God and their faith. They had also learned in this time of desolation to cherish their homeland.  Now they will be returning.

God is going to gather them from the ends of the earth–the blind and the lame,  those with child and those in labor. The text says, “Their life shall become like a watered garden.” The people will live in peace and abundance. This is the vision of God’s shalom.

Psalm 84 expresses the joy of being in God’s house, the joy of returning home after a long exile.  Even though we have not been in exile in Babylon or elsewhere, we can still identify with this feeling of joy at being in God’s house and being in God’s presence.

Our epistle, from the Letter to the Ephesians, once again emphasizes that God has made us heirs of God’s kingdom. God has come close to us. God has adopted us, made us sons and daughters of God. We are able to call God Daddy or Mom. Paul gives thanks for the people of God and prays that we may receive a “spirit of wisdom as we come to know [God], so that, with the eyes of [our] hearts enlightened, we may know what is the hope to which he has called us, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.”

What does this mean? First, we have had “the eyes of our hearts enlightened” because the light of the world, Jesus, has come to live in our world, in our hearts, and in our lives. We are not alone. He is always with us. He is constantly bringing light into our hearts and minds, constantly leading us into new truths and teaching us new things. And the most important thing is how deeply he loves us.

Therefore, we have a deep hope, no matter how many challenges we may face, no matter how many tragedies we may hear about on the news, no matter how much suffering we may see around us and within our own lives and families at times. Christ is with us and with all people. Wholeness will come out of brokenness. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

So, we believe in the power of God to bring light out of darkness and to make wholeness out of brokenness.  We have the gift of faith, and it is a great gift indeed.

In our gospel for today, we read again the story of the Wise Men. They were highly respected, probably Zoroastrian priests, a combination of scientists, scholars, and spiritual leaders. They had noticed that something important was happening in the solar system. There was a star, and they had to follow it. They felt that a new king was going to be born. So they packed up gifts, made ready for a long journey and set out to follow that star.

Following the highest diplomatic protocols, they met with King Herod, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that he did not want their report on the new king for good purposes. They went on to Bethlehem, and when they got there, finding this little baby who was going to be the greatest king the world has ever known, but not in earthly terms, they fell on their knees and worshipped him. Many a scientist has done the same thing. We try to plumb the mysteries of creation and are led to the ultimate mystery of the Creator of all things. They gave him gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

A dream confirmed that it would be a big mistake to go back and visit King Herod. So they went home by another way.

Many people have been inspired by the story of the wise men. T. S. Eliot wrote about what a life changing experience it was for these journeyers to meet Jesus. Life was never the same after that.  All of the old points of reference were gone. A new landscape, a new world, had come.

James Taylor wrote a song called “Home by Another Way “ which explores the corrupting nature of Herod’s power and tells us to “keep a weather eye on the chart on high and go home another way.”

We have spent this Advent and Christmas moving closer and closer to the stable in Bethlehem and finally meeting our Lord Jesus as a tiny baby.   We will grow with him as he matures and carries out his ministry.

We have met Jesus and he has changed our lives forever, and is continuing to change and transform us.

May we always follow that star.  May we always follow him.

Amen.