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    • Sunday service - Holy Communion April 2, 2023 at 9:30 am – 11:00 am Grace Church 215 Pleasant Street, Sheldon, VT Website: www.gracechurchsheldon.orgTime:  09:30 AM Eastern Time (US and Canada)        Every week on Sun.Join Zoom Meetinghttps://us02web.zoom.us/j/83929911344?pwd=alZQTWZMN0ZkWFFPS1hmNjNkZkU2UT09Meeting ID: 839 2991 1344Password: Call for detailsOne tap mobile+13126266799,,83929911344#,,1#,816603# US (Chicago)+19294362866,,83929911344#,,1#,816603# US (New York)Dial by your location        +1 312 626 6799 US (Chicago)        +1 929 436 2866 US (New York)Meeting ID:…
    • Sunday service - Holy Communion April 9, 2023 at 9:30 am – 11:00 am Grace Church 215 Pleasant Street, Sheldon, VT Website: www.gracechurchsheldon.orgTime:  09:30 AM Eastern Time (US and Canada)        Every week on Sun.Join Zoom Meetinghttps://us02web.zoom.us/j/83929911344?pwd=alZQTWZMN0ZkWFFPS1hmNjNkZkU2UT09Meeting ID: 839 2991 1344Password: Call for detailsOne tap mobile+13126266799,,83929911344#,,1#,816603# US (Chicago)+19294362866,,83929911344#,,1#,816603# US (New York)Dial by your location        +1 312 626 6799 US (Chicago)        +1 929 436 2866 US (New York)Meeting ID:…
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Pentecost 6 Proper 10A July 12, 2020

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

In our opening reading, we have the continuation of the story of Abraham and Sarah. We discover that their only son, Isaac, was forty years old when he married Rebekah. Like her mother-in-law, Sarah, Rebekah was barren. Isaac prayed to God, and, at last, Rebekah became pregnant.

But there were two children within her and they struggled, so much that Rebekah wondered, if this was going to be such a struggle, why was she alive at all. When she asked God about this, she was told that there were two nations inside her, and that the older would serve the younger. Usually. the oldest son became the head of the family, so the idea of the older serving the younger was highly unusual.

When the two boys are born, Esau emerges first, but his brother Jacob is born holding onto his brother’s heel. As it turns out, Jacob definitely behaves like a heel. Esau grows up to be a hunter and a “man of the field,” while Jacob is quiet and lives in tents. These are the traits of the nations they represent. The Edomites were hunters and the Israelites were a people who live in tents. There is a further twist in the family dynamics: Isaac loves Esau because he likes game. And Rebekah loves Jacob best.

The boys are now grown up, and Esau comes in from hunting to find Jacob cooking a lentil stew. Esau is famished. He asks Jacob for a helping of stew. Most brothers would gladly share the meal, but not Jacob. Here’s where the heel aspect comes in. He demands that Esau sell him his birthright in exchange for the stew. 

This is no small matter. The son with the birthright becomes the leader of the family, and he also gets a double portion of the inheritance. We could say that Esau is a master of living in the moment, a skilled practitioner of mindfulness. Or we could say that he wasn’t exactly great at taking the long view or planning ahead. He answers Jacob, “I’m so hungry that I’m about to die, so who cares about a silly old birthright?” But Jacob the heel won’t give Esau the bowl of stew until Esau swears to him that he will keep this agreement. That’s the story of how two brothers struggled from the beginning and Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage.

But let us remind ourselves of that bumper sticker from some time ago: “Be patient with me—God isn’t finished with me yet.” These words could well apply to Jacob. He started out as a cheater and a scoundrel, but God kept working with him.

In our epistle for today, Paul offers us a contrast between life in the spirit and life on the human, worldly level. The world calls us to get to the top of the ladder as fast as we can, achieve power and prestige, accumulate money and possessions, compete with others and win, no matter how ruthless we have to be.

Life with God, life in the Spirit, calls us to love God and love others as we love ourselves. In Galatians 5:22, Paul lists the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Paul tells us that, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” Here the flesh means worldly, self-centered values. Paul tells us, “The Spirit of God dwells in you.” We are following Jesus, and following Jesus leads to life in a new dimension, life in the Spirit, fullness of life now.

In today’s gospel, Jesus tells the parable of the sower. Back in his time, you did not plow and harrow first; you scattered the seed over the field in an arcing motion. Some would fall on rocks, or thorns, some on the path, and others on good soil. In spite of these poor odds, Jesus says, there is a bountiful crop, a hundredfold, sixtyfold, thirtyfold. He is talking about his kingdom. No matter what challenges there are, the kingdom of God is growing. 

Scholars tell us that Jesus did not interpret his parables. The explanation was added by later writers. Matthew’s gospel was written about 70 years after the birth of Christ, in a time of persecution. The path, the rocky ground, and the thorns all describe things that could make people leave the community of faith. But the ultimate point is that, despite the obstacles, the harvest is huge. Scholars tell us that back in those days a sevenfold to tenfold harvest was average and here we have thirty to sixty to a hundredfold. (Cousar, Texts for Preaching, p. 404._ Our final hymn, “God is working his purpose out,” reminds us that the shalom of God is growing all the time.

In our Collect for today, we pray that we may “know and understand what things we ought to do,” and also “may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them.”

We look out upon a country where many states have opened up too quickly and now are having to go back several steps. We see infection and death rates skyrocketing in those areas. Meanwhile, Vermont is moving ahead, a quarter-turn at a time, and Governor Scott has consistently said that he is following medical advice and going slowly precisely to avoid having to go backward. We are learning new things about mini aerosols, tiny droplets that can stay in the air for days, far longer than the virus survives on paper goods. We are learning that masks definitely help to control the spread of the virus. Though our governor chose never to mandate masks, most Vermonters are wearing them as a matter of choice. Our food shelf volunteers continue to distribute food to those who need it.

We are called to follow the way of the Spirit. We are following Jesus, and, as we ask him for direction, he will lead us to do the things he calls us to do. I thank God that here in Vermont, we are remembering that we need to take care of and protect each other. May we continue to love God and love each other. We are nearing the two hundred and fourth birthday of Grace Church, and I thank God for the faithful, loving people who went before us. May we continue to follow Jesus and may we continue to help him to build his kingdom of peace. love, and harmony. Amen.

Epiphany 6A   February 16, 2020

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

Our readings today cover so much important spiritual territory that we could literally spend a week-long retreat praying and reflecting on them.

In our lesson from Deuteronomy, Moses has brought the people to the boundary of the promised land, but he is not going to be able to lead them into that land. He is trying to teach them everything they need to know in order to be faithful to God and to each other on the next part of their journey.

Moses tells the people, “I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.” Then he calls them to “Choose life.” Scholars tell us that when Moses, speaking for God, tells us that, if we follow God’s law to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves we will have life and prosperity, he does not mean material wealth, but rather a quality of life in a community based on love, respect for the dignity of every human being, compassion, and justice. When we choose life, we are choosing a way of life that makes it possible for everyone in the community to flourish.

In our epistle, Paul is once again trying to teach the congregation in Corinth to be a community like the one Moses is describing, a community where everyone loves God and each other, where every person’s gifts are celebrated and appreciated, a community that is one as Jesus and God and the Spirit are one.

Our gospel for today is a continuation of the Beatitudes. Jesus is elaborating on the meaning of the commandment to love God and each other. He is trying to help us understand not only the literal meaning but also the spiritual meaning of the commandments.

We all know we are not supposed to murder any one. But what about the kind of murder we can do with sharp and hurtful words, or gossip? We are called to love each other. If we are angry with someone, we are called to reconcile with them.

Then Jesus addresses the issue of adultery. Back then, a woman could be stoned for committing adultery. A man could divorce his wife for a trivial reason, such as, he didn’t like her cooking. She would be thrown out on the street, and, if she didn’t have a male relative to take care of her, she would be homeless. Jesus calls us not to look upon each other as objects, but to realize that every one of us is a child of God.

Then our Lord addresses the issue of swearing to tell the truth in formal circumstances such as taking an oath in court. He makes it clear that he is calling us to tell the truth all the time.

All of this reminds me of a wonderful book by one of my heroes, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I think he is probing one of your heroes as well. The book is called God Has a Dream. It was published in 2004, but it speaks to us just as eloquently sixteen years later as it did back then.

He writes, “When, according to the Christian faith, we had fallen into the clutches of the devil and were enslaved by sin, God chose Mary, a teenager in a small village, to be the mother of His Son. He sent an archangel to visit her. I envision it happening like this.

Knock knock.

‘Come in.’

‘Er, Mary?’


‘Mary, God would like you to be the mother of His Son’

“What? Me? In this village you can’t even scratch yourself without everybody knowing it. You want me to be an unmarried mother? I’m a decent girl, you know. Try next door.”

If she had said that, we would have been up a creek. Mercifully, marvelously, Mary said, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word,’ and the universe breathed a cosmic sigh of relief, because she made it possible for our Savior to be born.

“Mary was a poor teenage girl in Galilee and reminds us that transfiguration of our world comes from even the most unlikely places and people. You are the indispensable agent of change. You should not be daunted by the magnitude of the task before you. Your contribution can inspire others, embolden others who are timid, to stand up for the truth in the midst of a welter of distortion, propaganda, and deceit.”

Archbishop Tutu continues, “God calls us to be his partners to work for a new kind of society where people count, where people matter more than things, more than possessions; where human life is not just respected, but positively revered; where people will be secure and not suffer from the fear of hunger, from ignorance, from disease; where there will be more gentleness, more caring, more sharing, more compassion, more laughter; where there is peace and not war.

And he continues, “Our partnership with God comes from the fact that we are made in God’s image. Each and every human being is created in this same divine image. That is an incredible, a staggering assertion about human beings.” He goes on to say, “You don’t have to say, ‘Where is God?’ Every one around you—that is God.” (Tutu, God Has a Dream, pp. 61-63.)

Every one of us is made in the image of God. Every one of us is a beloved child of God. Every one of us is an alter Christus an “other Christ.”  Every one of us, every human being, is a spark of the divine fire of love and light. This awareness is at the heart of our call to follow Jesus and to create the kind of community and the kind of world he calls us to create.

We are made in God’s image, and we are human. We are frail and fallible. We need God’s help. That is why we gather to pray and to be with God and Jesus and the Spirit in a special way. Because we need to rely on God’s grace and guidance.

May we choose life, life rooted and grounded in the love of God. May we follow Jesus and live the Way of Love. May we be enlivened by the Holy Spirit, who energizes us to love others as God loves us. 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.

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 24 Proper 26C RCL October 30, 2016

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Psalm 119:137-144
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Luke 19:1-10

Our first reading is from another of the Minor Prophets, Habakkuk. We know very little about this prophet, but, from references in the text, we think that he was writing at the height of Babylonian power, but before the conquering of Jerusalem and the Exile.

Habakkuk could see the disaster that was about to come. Once again, the words of this prophet from twenty-five hundred years ago echo our own feelings. He writes, “Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.” He is pleading to God to correct these wrongs, but nothing is happening. So he goes to a watch post to stand and wait until God speaks.

And God answers. God tells Habakkuk to write the prophecy in large print so that a runner can see it as he speeds by. God says, “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.” Things will be set right, and we are called to wait in faith until that time.

In our second reading, Paul, Sylvanus and Timothy are writing to a church that is dealing with persecution. Even in the midst of this challenging time, the faith of the Thessalonians is growing, and the members of the community continue to love one another. Paul says that he and his assistants boast of the Thessalonians because their faith is so strong and steadfast.

And then Paul tells us that keeping the faith in times of trial, and continuing to love and serve others as our Lord called us to do glorifies the Name of Jesus.

This is something that I have noted in the history of Grace Church. In 1853, our ancestors found out that the foundation of the church building was crumbling. At the same time, the iron foundries had gone into decline, the local economy was in trouble, and membership was declining. The Rev. Albert Hopson Bailey was Rector then, and he rallied everyone together. In spite of the bad economy, they rose to the task and constructed a new building.

In more recent years, I can’t tell you how many people, having spent some time visiting here, have commented on the genuine love and caring which they see in this community. They feel that they have encountered a Christian community as it is meant to be. These kinds of things glorify the Name of Christ. Paul, Sylvanus, and Timothy could well have sent a letter to you.

In our gospel, we have the story of Jesus’ encounter with Zaccheus. Zaccheus is a tax collector and he is rich. As a tax collector, he is despised because tax collectors worked for the Roman occupiers. They were required to collect a certain amount for the Roman government, but they often collected an additional amount over and above that to line their own pockets. Zaccheus lives in a mansion in a very nice neighborhood, but he has no friends. He is very rich and very much alone.

In spite of all the strikes against him,, Zaccheus is in the middle of the crowd this day because he absolutely must see Jesus. He feels compelled to find out more about Jesus, even though people are sneering at him and directing all their hatred and scorn at him. On top of everything else, Zaccheus is short.

He is not tall enough to see over the crowds, so he runs ahead and climbs a sycamore tree so that he can see Jesus. Jesus arrives at the base of the tree and looks up at Zaccheus. And then Jesus says the most amazing thing. He tells Zaccheus to get down out of that tree because he, Jesus, is going to stay at his house! So Zaccheus clambers down and welcomes Jesus.

When Jesus sends us out two by two, he tells us to stay wherever folks extend hospitality to us. But here, he is choosing to stay in the house of this sinner, this tax collector hated by everyone. The crowd begins to grumble about this. It takes people a long time to realize that Jesus has come to turn the world upside down. Yes, he chooses to stay with sinners and eat with them. And, of course, we are all sinners.

But then Zaccheus says some amazing things to Jesus. He says that he is going to give to the poor half of everything he has. He also says that, if he has defrauded anyone, he will pay them back four times as much. This is very generous restitution.

Jesus has not even asked Zaccheus to share his wealth. Just by having this encounter with Jesus and seeing him in the flesh and sensing the love and healing and forgiveness flowing out of Jesus, Zaccheus sees what he needs to do. He needs to share with others and he needs to make restitution for the harm he has done. And that is exactly what he is going to do.

And Jesus tells those who are complaining that this hated tax collector is also one of us and that he, Jesus, has come to save the lost. We are all sinners. We are all lost in one way or another. And we can all be honest about it and ask our Lord for help.

In our first reading, God assures Habbakuk that God’s justice and mercy will prevail. In our second reading we remember the faith and endurance of the Thessalonians in trying times and we recall the enduring faith of our forbears who, working with God, created and sustained the Grace community. And in our gospel, we remember Zaccheus, the despised tax collector who threw decorum to the winds and climbed a tree to see Jesus. His life was transformed. And ours are being transformed even now as we meet our Lord this morning, and as we follow him day by day.


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.

Epiphany 7A RCL February 23, 2014

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Psalm 119:33-40
1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Matthew 5: 38-48

Our opening reading today is from the Book of Leviticus, a book of laws which, together with the Book of Deuteronomy, provides guidelines for how to live together in community. We are called to be holy. Holiness has to do with the way we lead our lives. Here in this reading,  we have some very clear values which we can use to shape our behavior.

When we are harvesting, we are to leave some of the crop for the poor and the alien. God’s law always carries a concern for those who are vulnerable. If some of the crop is left, they will have something to eat.

We are not to steal. We are to be honest. We are to treat the disabled with respect.  We are called to deal justly with others. We do not slander people. We are not to hate our neighbor, If we have a problem with someone, we are called to go and try to resolve the issue with our neighbor, not to let hatred fester until it boils up into something much worse.  In sum, we are called to love our neighbor. These are amazing thoughts when we realize that they date back thousands of years.

If we were to summarize these laws, we could say that they call us to have concern for the vulnerable, to be honest and fair, to respect others, to seek reconciliation and understanding, and to love our neighbors as God loves us.  These laws, written thousands of years ago, are good advice for us today.

In our epistle for today, Paul is switching his metaphors. Last week he was describing himself as a gardener or a farmer. Paul planted, Apollos watered, and God gave the growth. Now he is describing himself as a master builder. But the foundation must always be our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul wisely counsels us not to boast about human leaders, whether Peter or Paul or Apollos.  We are all one in Christ, and we all belong to Christ.

We can only imagine what might have happened if the people in Corinth who thought they were so wise had gotten on their knees and asked God for guidance. If they had listened, God would have led them to enter into a process of reconciliation with their brothers and sisters and to treat them with respect.

In today’s gospel, we are continuing with the Beatitudes.

Our reading begins with Jesus saying, “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth,” Jesus is referring to what is called the law of “retaliation in kind” as described in the books of Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus, which were written hundreds of years before Jesus was born.  Until these laws were written, if someone took out your eye, you would gather a group of people and go and kill the person and perhaps members of his family.  The law of an eye for an eye was designed to reduce the amount of violence.  So, if someone took out your eye, you could not simply go over and kill him. You could go to the judge and he would give a sentence allowing equal retribution.

Jesus’ call to love our enemies goes far beyond the law of retaliation in kind and far beyond out usual concepts of justice.  One note of caution: we need to keep in mind that this passage of scripture is not intended to deal with situations of abuse as we know them today. Jesus would never tell a battered woman to turn the other cheek. This passage does not apply to any situation of abuse. In those situations, our priority is to get the victim to a safe place and to make sure the perpetrator can no longer do harm to anyone.

Jesus calls us to be perfect.  But we need to define the word accurately. The Greek is teleios. Bishop Fred Borsch says, that teleios means “to come to the goal or purpose, that is, to become what one was created for, to reach full growth, potential, maturity. It is incredibly difficult to love our enemies, but this is what God made us to do. Bishop Borsch reminds us that Archbishop Desmond Tutu told white South African leader P. W. Botha that they are brothers and members of the same human family.  To be able to think and act in that way when one has been subjected to something like apartheid—that is what God is calling us to do.

Borsch writes, “Jesus tells of a different will of God and so a different way of life for those who would be children of this God and reflect their parent’s character.” (Proclamation 4, p. 52.)

The values reflected in our readings today are embodied in the promises we make in our baptismal vows. “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” This is what we were made for. This is what Christ’s kingdom is all about.  So these are the values of kingdom communities, of shalom communities. These are ways of living together which open the way to God’s shalom.

With God’s help, we try to live these promises. When we fail, we ask forgiveness and begin again. Why do we do this? Because this blueprint for life, these Beatitudes, are the only thing that makes sense to us. The new life in Christ means that we are becoming one with him and that we are called to become more and more like him. And slowly, slowly, it is happening.  We are being transformed.

We gather, we pray together, we study the word together, we share Eucharist, we are fed by him, our faith is nurtured. and we are becoming one with him and with each other.

That’s the kind of community Paul is talking about. Thanks be to God, we are being given the gift of that community.  We are becoming what we were created for, not through any effort of our own, but by God’s grace.  Amen.

Epiphany 6 February 16, 2014

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

In our first reading, Moses has led God’s people to the border of the promised land. He is not going to be able to go with them. The year is around 1200 B. C.,  over three thousand years ago. The people have been journeying through the wilderness for forty years, and now they are about to enter this new phase of their life together. This is the end of a long speech by Moses. He is trying to get across to the people everything that they will need to know in order to lead their lives, as individuals and as a community, in the way God wants them to live.

Moses says a dramatic thing. He says, “I have set before you today, life and prosperity, death and adversity, Choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God….” In the preceding chapters, Moses has outlined the framework within which God’s people are called to live. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann lists the main  values involved in loving God and our neighbors, values which have been discussed in Moses’ speech to the people: “sharing feasts with the hungry (Deut. 14:27-29; canceling debts that the poor cannot pay (15:1-11); organizing government to guard against excessive wealth ((17:14-20); sharing hospitality with runaway slaves (23:156-16); not charging interest in loans in the covenant community (23:19-20);  paying hired hands promptly what they earn (24:14-15); leaving the residue of harvest for the disadvantaged (24:19-22); and limiting punishment in order to protect human dignity (25:1-3).” I list these because they make clear that Moses and God are clearly spelling out how we are called to behave when we set out to love God and our neighbor.

When God promises life and prosperity to those who love God and neighbor, God is not talking about material prosperity and the accumulation of wealth, power, and possessions. God is talking about the spiritual prosperity of a community life based on compassion and concern for others and rooted in our awareness and experience of God’s love for us.

In our epistle, we continue with a reading of Paul’s letter to the strife-torn congregation in Corinth.  As we recall, some of the members of the community are extremely arrogant, saying that they have special knowledge that no one else has.  Paul speaks to them as a nursing mother, telling them that he fed them with milk because they were not mature enough for solid food. This must have been a shock to them. I think he said this in order to puncture the balloon of their arrogance.

Various factions are saying that they belong to Paul or to Apollos. But Paul weaves all of this divisiveness into a beautiful tapestry of faith and wisdom when he offers a metaphor of growth. Paul planted the seed, Apollos watered it, and God gave the growth. We all have a common purpose, Paul says, but it is God who gives the growth.

In our gospel, Jesus is continuing the Beatitudes. He is calling us to follow the spirit of the law rather than the letter. It’s safe to say that none of us has murdered anyone literally. But have we spoken harshly or sarcastically? Have we gotten to the end of our rope and said things we wish we could take back? Have we looked on others with contempt or called someone a fool? These are not literal murder, but we all know the damage that words can do. That old saw, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is simply not true.

Jesus calls us to be reconcilers. If we have a problem with someone, we need to go and try to work it out with them.

Then Jesus tackles the issue of adultery. But, once again, he goes to the spirit of the thing. If we look on other people as objects for our gratification, that is as bad as committing adultery. We are called to be completely and utterly faithful to our marriage commitments. We are called to treat each other with profound respect and caring.

We need to take Jesus’ words on divorce within the context of his culture. In Jesus’ time, a man could divorce his wife for a trivial reason, for example,  if he did not like her cooking. He could write up a certificate of divorce and she would be out in the street. Women and children in Jesus’ time were considered as property, possessions,  like a chair. The technical word for this is chattel. Women and children were things. So, if a man divorced a woman, and she was left alone to fend for herself, she had no means of support and no social status. She would have to go back to her family in disgrace and try to live under the protection of a male relative. If she could not do that, she would often have to resort to prostitution, a profession which is totally dependent on the objectification of persons.

Jesus says here that the only justification for divorce is adultery, but he is speaking here to men who commonly would divorce their wives for trivial reasons.  In Jesus’ culture, there was no awareness of such a thing as domestic violence or emotionally abusive behavior.  Abuse tears the fabric of a relationship. It destroys marriages.

Jesus is calling us to a higher level of commitment and behavior. He is calling us to the highest levels of compassion. He says that if our right eye causes us to sin, we should tear it out. This is one of those comments that we need to take in a spiritual sense. Jesus is not advising us to perform self-mutilation. But he is saying that, if there is something that gets in the way of our being compassionate, we need to deal with it. We need to ask God’s help and probably get professional help to work our way over it or through it so that it does not get in the way of our  spiritual growth.  We have to do whatever it takes to live lives of compassion, to love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

In all of our readings for today, we are being called to high standards of thought and behavior.  The Beatitudes are a blueprint for personal and cultural transformation. It’s hard work!

And it is a journey filled with joy and meaning.  Thank God that we are not alone on this journey. We have our loving God, and we have each other and the entire Communion of Saints.  May God lead us and guide us.  Amen.

Pentecost 4 Proper 10 July 10, 2011

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

Our first lesson this morning is a part of the story of Jacob and Esau. From the beginning, these twins struggle with each other. In this part of the story, Jacob manages to cheat Esau out of his birthright. Esau is famished and he sells his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. And even the Book of Genesis has family dynamics we can recognize. Isaac loves Esau and Rebekah favors Jacob, so we have a complicated situation here. By the end of today’s reading, Jacob has supplanted Esau. By purchasing the birthright at a bargain price, he now has the privileged place of an elder son. Not a very admirable or brotherly action on Jacob’s part, and, as we know, this is not the end of his scheming.

Paul is talking about the way in which our Lord Jesus has set us free from sin and welcomed us into a new kind of life. When Paul talks about life in the Spirit and life in the flesh,  scholars tell us that he is not talking so much about our individual inner struggles as he is talking about the fact that there are two ways of living. Life in the Spirit is a life centered in God’s will and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Life in the flesh is life centered in our own will. Jesus has already told us that the Spirit dwells within us. Now we are free to live in a whole new way on a whole new level that we would not have dreamed possible.

Our gospel for today is the familiar Parable of the Sower. Scholars tell us that the actual parable is the story Jesus tells..  A sower goes out to sow. Some of the seeds fall on the path and the birds come and eat them. Some fall on rocky ground and they spring up quickly, but there is not enough good soil to root them, so when the sun comes up, they are scorched and they wither away. Some fall among the thorns and the thorns grow up and choke them. Others fall on good soil and they bear grain, some thirty, some sixty, and some a hundredfold. The point is that there is a huge harvest.

The interpretation of the story comes later. Scholars tell us that Matthew’s community at a point in its history around 70 A. D. had lost some members. It was not easy to be a follower of Christ. People had left the community because of various challenges. Some may not have understood the new faith deeply enough and may have fallen away.  Some may have joined the community with great enthusiasm, but living a Christ-life in the middle of a  hostile culture was just too much, and they fell away. Some may have heard the word but the cares of the world and the powerful call of the world’s values of money, power, and prestige are too much, and they fall away. We should keep in mind that there was actual persecution happening in those times.

We know that Jesus just taught that wonderful and powerful message. No matter what poor soil the seeds hit, the total result is a huge harvest. No matter what challenges a community may face, no matter what challenges we as individuals may have to endure, the harvest is going to be abundant.  

Matthew’s community was living in a time of persecution. We are fortunate and blessed because we do not live in a nation where Christians are actually killed because of their faith. Some of our brothers and sisters do live in such places. Persecution is still going on. This is a very real thing. In El Salvador, shots were fired at Bishop Barahona and his driver as they went about their pastoral work.  Our Bishop in Harare, Zimbabwe is not allowed to enter the church building. We think he is still allowed to go into his own home, but we are not sure. Communications are not good.

Here in the United States, as Bishop Tom said, we probably won’t be killed because of our faith, but we may be seen as irrelevant. We need to be aware of that, but we also are called not to allow that to make us lose heart. Jesus says in this gospel, “Listen! A sower went out to sow.” In another place, he says, “Let anyone with ears listen!”

The important thing is that God is sowing God’s kingdom. Are we listening for God’s message? Are we letting God’s love go deeply into our hearts? Are we opening the arms of our hearts and minds and letting God come into our lives, not just superficially, but to the core of our being? Are we letting the seed of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus said is within us, bear fruit, and give us the gifts for ministry which we need? Are we taking God seriously in a joyful kind of way? Are we really listening?

Back in those days, they used to broadcast the seed, throw it all over the place and then plow. We pick out the best soil we can find, and prepare it in the best way we know how, and then plant that seed and nurture it and fertilize it and water it and pray for just the right amount of sun and rain. In other words, we try to up the odds for a good harvest. But God, at least God in the first century, generously throws the seeds of God’s shalom all over the place, and still there is a harvest that sets a new record.

One scholar says that maybe at one time in our life we may be the path; the seeds fall and the birds eat them. Some times we may be the rocky ground, all full of enthusiasm and then it just gets too hard to follow Jesus and we fall away. At another time we may be in that thorny situation and we may decide to put worldly values in the place of God. There is much truth in that. Still, the harvest is huge.Just for the record, I think that every one here is God’s wonderful dark loamy soil—the best!

I tend to return to that wonderful analogy which is used in a meditation book called Twenty-four Hours a Day. The author talks about being part of the stream of goodness in the world.  That is how the writer describes what we call the kingdom or the shalom of God.  The stream of goodness in the world. The meditation for July 8 ends with this prayer: “I pray that I may try to make God’s will my will. I pray that I may keep in the stream of goodness in the world.”

I think that is what Paul was taking about. That is what Isaac eventually did, but he traveled over quite a few different kinds of soil before he finally got the ears to hear. And I think it’s a good metaphor for what Jesus is saying today.

May we prepare the good soil of our spirits for a bountiful harvest. May we send our spiritual roots deep so that we can bear much fruit. May we be in the stream of goodness of the universe and may we bring forth a hundredfold for our Lord Jesus.