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Pentecost 21 Proper 23    October 14, 2018

Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Psalm 22: 1-15
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31

In our opening reading from the book of Job, several months have passed, and Job has continued to suffer. Job wants to plead his case before God. He feels that God would consider the matter carefully and fairly, and he would like to hear God’s response to him.

The tragic thing is that Job cannot find God. No matter where he turns, God is not there. Our psalm describes this situation of feeling abandoned by God. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is the cry of our Lord as he suffered on the cross.

Job says, “God has made my heart faint. If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face.” He wants to disappear.

All of us go through such times. St. John of the Cross called this the “dark night of the soul.” In such times, God seems very far away. When we are going though one of those dark night experiences, we can recall times when God was so close we could feel God’s presence, but those times seem far away. Nothing we do seems to help. All we can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other, keep trying to follow our Lord, keep praying, and keep hoping.

Our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” Scholars tell us that the word of God in this context means the scriptures and especially the gospels. If we think about what we know of God from the prophets, such as Isaiah and Amos, God’s word is indeed living and active.

At the same time, the Holy One who will be our judge is someone who understands our weakness. He understands what it means to be human. He has compassion on us, and he will give us the grace to get back on the path and persevere on the journey.

In our gospel for today, a rich young man kneels before Jesus and asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus reviews the commandments with him. The rich young man has followed those all his life. And then Jesus looks deeply into this man’s spirit with great love and sees, as Fred Craddock notes, that this young man’s wealth defines him, and he is not going to be able redefine himself as a follower of Jesus unless he sells everything and gives the money to the poor.  Craddock writes, “Here stands a person whose life has been defined by wealth, and. sadly, he will not accept a new definition of himself.” (Craddock, Preaching through the Christian Year, Year B, p.441.)

Privilege is an insidious thing. If we have wealth and privilege, it becomes easy to think that we have all this wealth and all these things because of our own strength. It is so difficult for us to remember that everything that we have is a gift from God. We can think that we have worked hard for all these things, and we have earned them and that is true. But God has given us the gifts and the health and the energy to do that work. all good things from God.

Furthermore, people who have wealth and privilege are treated differently. Other defer to them and wait on them. With all the trappings that go along with wealth and privilege, it is easy to fall into feeling self-important, and it is extremely difficult to keep in mind that we are all totally dependent on God and that we are all frail and fallible human beings.

For this particular individual, Jesus tells him to sell everything, give the money to the poor, and come back and follow him. The man cannot do it. Jesus tells the man to do this because he sees that the wealth is going to prevent this man from trusting completely in God and opening himself to God’s grace in order to follow Jesus and carry out his ministry.

The disciples, who have left everything to follow Jesus, wonder aloud, “Then who can be saved?” This is because they have the belief, which was common at that time, that wealth is a sign of God’s favor. So, they reason, if this very wealthy young man cannot be saved, who can?

Our Lord is telling us that wealth and power can get in the way of answering God’s call and building God’s kingdom. Is Jesus saying that everyone has to sell all they have? No, but he is saying that we, as privileged people compared to all the other folks on this planet, have to be very careful to remember to thank God for all God’s many gifts, to share those gifts with others, and to continually seek and do God’s will.

What are these readings telling us? Sometimes, God may seem far away. That happened to Job and to our Lord, so we are in good company. In such times in our lives, we are called to keep on keeping on, keep asking God for help, stay on the path, and the day will come when God is once again as close as our breath.

The scriptures and the life of our Lord speak to all kinds of situations in our lives. They speak clearly and incisively. Always, however, there is the compassion of our Lord, who has walked the way before us.

We need to give up the things that get in the way between us and our Lord. We need to depend totally on him. Even when we cannot feel his presence, he is with us, and he is helping us to get through those difficult times, and he is giving us the three greatest gifts: faith, hope, and love.   Amen.

 

Easter 5B RCL  April 29, 2018

Acts 8: 26-40
Psalm 22:24-30
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

In our first reading today, we meet two extraordinary people.The first is Philip. Philip has been called to serve as one of the first seven deacons in the Church. The new community of Jesus’ followers has been growing, and the apostles need help in taking care of those in need.

Very soon, one of those deacons, Stephen, becomes the first martyr, and the Church in Jerusalem faces persecution. Philip goes to Samaria. As our story opens, an angel tells Philip to go south to the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. Without question, Philip goes.  A wilderness road is a dangerous place. One can encounter robbers or wild animals. But Philip goes anyway. He is constantly seeking the will of God and faithfully responding to God’s call.

Our second character is an Ethiopian eunuch. He is the treasurer for the Queen of Ethiopia. He holds a position of great honor and prestige. Not only does the queen entrust the financial affairs of the kingdom to this man. She is also allowing him to make his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He has come to Jerusalem to worship. As an Ethiopian and a eunuch, he is considered unclean on two counts, so he would not be able to go into the temple to worship. But he is a seeker who is trying to grow closer to God.  He is also wealthy. We know this because he is riding in a chariot and he has a scroll. These are extremely expensive items. Scholars tell us that, given the state of travel in those days, the Ethiopian eunuch has traveled five months on this pilgrimage. He is reading the prophet Isaiah, chapter 53, on the suffering servant.

The angel tells Philip to go over to the chariot. Without hesitation, Philip obeys that call. Philip asks the Ethiopian official, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian gentleman is well educated. He is reading Hebrew. He is also deeply intelligent, eager to learn, and searching for God. He responds with profound insight: “How can I learn, if I don’t have a guide?”  What wisdom this seeker shows in that statement. We cannot be formed in our faith alone. We need community. We need teachers and guides. We need God and each other.

Philip hops into the chariot and opens the scripture to this man.

Then the man asks Philip who this suffering servant, this messiah is, and Philip tells him about Jesus. Philip has watched Stephen being stoned to death and asking God to forgive the people who are killing him, so he is well qualified to speak about the suffering servant. When they come to some water, the man asks to be baptized. They go down to the water, and Philip baptizes him. Then the Spirit snatches Philip away. But the man goes on rejoicing.

Here is a man looking for genuine faith. In some ways, he is wealthy and powerful. In other ways, he is excluded. There are many obstacles in his way, but he does not let those stop him.

Here is Philip, a person of profound faith. He has watched Stephen die; he has probably watched Jesus die. He leaves Jerusalem to avoid persecution, but he faithfully goes where the Spirit tells him to go and responds to every opportunity to spread the Good News.

Scholars tell us that Ethiopia was considered to be “the ends of the earth.”This is truly a story of how the good news is spread to the ends of the earth. This story shows us that the good news of Christ is for everyone. No one is to be excluded.

Jesus is the vine. We are the branches. We cannot bear fruit without him. We need him and we need each other. We are all a part of each other. John uses the word “abide.” This word means more than simply resting in Christ. It is an active connection with our Lord. Commentator Nancy Blakely points out that, in his translation of the Bible called The Message, Eugene H. Petersen “uses the words, ‘Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you.’” (Blakely, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol 2, p. 474. Living in Christ and allowing him to live in us is a dynamic relationship. To abide with Christ is to live in active, loving relationship with our Lord. That is the kind of relationship Philip had with Jesus, and he shared the aliveness of Christ with the Ethiopian eunuch.

The encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is one of the most inspiring dialogues in the Bible. They are both so real and so committed to the journey of faith. The Ethiopian gentleman has no hesitation in asking for help. Philip, trusting in the Spirit, guides this courageous seeker into the truth about Jesus, and the Ethiopian is baptized. He has a long journey home, but it will be a joyful one.

Our epistle for today expands on the theme of love. I encourage you to read this over during the week and meditate on it. It is a beautiful theological statement, almost a hymn of praise. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. …We love because he first loved us.”

Our readings for today invite us to explore the depth and breadth of God’s love for us.

Blessed Lord, you are the way, the truth, and the life. May we find our home in you. May you find your home in us. May we be as eager to learn about you as the Ethiopian eunuch. May we be as faithful in sharing the good news of your love as your deacon Philip was all those centuries ago. Amen.

Pentecost 20 Proper 23B RCL October 11, 2015

Job 23:1-9. 16-17
Psalm 22:1-15
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31

In our first reading, we meet Job once again. When the story began, Job was wealthy. He had 7,000 sheep, 1,000 oxen, 500 donkeys, and 3,000 camels. Best of all, he had seven sons and three daughters. In ancient times, a person’s children were his or her future. But things have changed. Raiders have come and taken away all his livestock and killed his servants. A terrible wind has come up and leveled the house where all his children and their families were gathered. His skin is covered with boils from his head to his toes. Once, he was respected. Now, people avoid him.

Except for three so-called friends, who are now telling him that he must have done something awful to deserve all this suffering. They subscribe to the belief common at that time that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.  So, if bad things are happening, you must have done something bad.

Job does an honest and searching self-examination. He has always tried to be faithful to God and compassionate to his fellow humans, and, with God’s help, he has pretty much succeeded. It really hurts that his friends dream up a theory that he has been especially mean to poor people who can’t defend themselves. This is simply not true.

Job really wants to talk to God about this, but he cannot find God. Today’s psalm captures the situation perfectly. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When everything is going wrong, we sometimes feel that God has deserted us. Of course, God is right beside us, but, in the dark night of the soul we don’t realize that God is with us. When he cannot find God, Job wants to be swallowed up by the darkness. Most of us know exactly how that feels. Our life is unraveling, and we think that God has abandoned us.

In our gospel, Jesus is setting off on a journey. He is going to Jerusalem. He is going to the cross. A man runs up, kneels before Jesus, and asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Scholars tell us that in ancient times, if you flattered someone and he accepted the flattery, that created an obligation. He had to do something for you. Jesus does not accept the flattery. He points out that none is good except God. Jesus goes on to tell the man that he knows all the commandments, and Jesus enumerates them, but he adds one. “You shall not defraud.”

The man said he has kept those commandments all his life. Now, this man has asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. When we inherit something, the inheritance is a gift. There is nothing we can do to earn the gift of God’s love and grace. Perhaps what he is really asking is, what must he do to become a follower of Jesus?

Jesus looks into this man’s eyes and sees right into his heart and soul, as he does with all of us. This man has great wealth, and that wealth has become his identity. The wealth has gotten to the place where it is going to get in the way of his following Jesus. But without the wealth, the man feels he is a nobody. And so Jesus tells the man that he is going to have to sell everything and give the money to the poor.

The man can’t do it. He walks away grieving.

Is our Lord telling you and me that we must sell everything and give the money to the poor? In my opinion, no. When Jesus gives this guidance to this man, that advice is tailored to that man and his situation.

For us, the question is, what is getting between me and Jesus? What is keeping me from giving my whole life to him? If there is something in the way, we need to ask his help in moving it out of the way.

It is true that, compared to the rest of the world, we are wealthy. So many people do not have a place to live; they do not have enough food and water. They do not have clothing. We all know this, and this is why Grace Church recently gave $778.00 to Episcopal Relief and Development. Thank you for your generosity. We are so blessed. We have so much. And we know that we are called to share God’s blessings with others.

Jesus makes it clear that wealth and power can throw us off the track very quickly. He says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Why is he saying this?

We need to remember the context of this gospel passage. Just before this part of the gospel, he took children into his arms and he told us that we need to become like children. We need to trust God. We need to be open to God’s love grace, and guidance.

When we humans accumulate great wealth and power, it is easy for us to forget about God. It is easy for us to think that we are God. After all, I can do this and buy this.  With huge amounts of money, humans get a great deal of power in this culture, and it is easy to forget God. With great wealth, it is difficult to trust in God as a little child.

We have all had times in our lives when we really needed God’s help, and sometimes we may have felt that God has left us. I hope those times are few and far between for you. Jesus knows how that feels. He felt that on the cross. We have a great high priest who knows how that feels, He knows how everything feels. He is one of us. He understands. Knowing that, knowing that he has walked every step of the way before us, we can throw ourselves into his loving arms and ask him to help us. We can even ask him to carry us.

And he will.    Amen.

Good Friday April 3, 2015

Isaiah 52:13;53:12
Psalm 22
Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
John 18:1-19:42

Jesus came among us to assure us of God’s unconditional love for every human being and for all the creation. Everything he did and everything he said breathed out the Spirit of God’s love, forgiveness, and healing. But some of us, especially those in power, could not stand to hear this good news, and it all led to a Cross.

Jesus did the best he could, and it led to a horrific instrument of torture and death reserved for criminals. There are many things he could have done, but he died on that cross.

On Palm Sunday, I said that I think we can see the cross as the ultimate example of what it means to “Let go and let God.” Jesus had done the very best job he could do. There was nothing more he could do. On the cross, he placed his complete trust in God. He took into himself all the rage and hate and evil of the world, and he and God and the Spirit transformed all of it into life and hope.

When we have been facing a situation full of darkness and brokenness and we have done our best, with God’s help, one of the most creative and loving things we can do is to Let go and let God.

We place ourselves, our will and intentions, and the entire situation in God’s loving hands, and we let go of it. Now it is in God’s care. We pray for God’s help for us and for any other people involved, and we leave it in God’s hands. And God takes the situation, with all its darkness and brokenness and transforms it into new life. We will never be able to understand this because we are frail and fallible human beings, but we do not have to understand. We know it because our Lord has lived it and done it. That is why this Cross is at the center of our faith. We can trust God in everything.

Amen.

Lent 2 Year B RCL March 1, 2015

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Psalm 22:22-30
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38

In our opening reading, we meet Abram and Sarai. Abram is ninety-nine years old. They have already come a long way. Back when Abram was a mere seventy-five, God called him to leave everything and move to the land of Canaan. In faith, Abram answered that call.

Now God is again telling Abram that he and Sarai are going to be the parents to a multitude of nations, including kings. God even gives Abram and Sarai new names. Abram means “exalted ancestor” and Abraham means “ancestor of a multitude.” Sarah means “Princess,” which is appropriate, since she will be the ancestor of future royalty.

Following the passage we have read, both Abraham and Sarah burst into gales of laughter over this covenant with God. They are very old. The whole thing is preposterous. And yet….

In our epistle, Paul tells us that Abraham and Sarah hoped against hope that this promise would come true. Here they were, way beyond the age of starting a family, and yet it happened. In the time of Abraham and Sarah, children meant more than having a family. They were the sign of the possibility of having a future; they were the source of hope. Without children there would be no future and no hope.

So, when God promised Abraham and Sarah that they would indeed have a multitude of children, they laughed, and at the same time they believed that God’s promise that they would have descendants as numerous as the stars would come true. And it did.

In today’s gospel, Jesus begins to make it clear that the whole journey is going to lead to suffering. Peter is the one who has said that Jesus is the Messiah. Some people believed that the messiah would lead a revolution and expel the Romans. Many scholars think that Judas Iscariot was a Zealot, a member of a group that saw the messiah as a military hero. Perhaps Peter had this view of our Lord.

But now Jesus is letting his followers know that he is the suffering servant, and Peter can’t bear to hear this. Things have been going well. More and more people are flocking to hear Jesus. Surely this new movement will be successful. That is what Jesus means when he talks about Peter thinking in human terms.

On a personal level, Peter loves Jesus like a brother. Jesus has changed Peter’s life. The idea of losing Jesus is devastating for Peter.

And Jesus has such personal power. Surely Jesus is wrong about all this doom and gloom. Surely he can convince the chief priests, and the scribes, and the elders. Surely he can bring them around.

So Peter takes Jesus aside, and says, “God forbid, Lord, that something like this could happen!”

Jesus is shocked. Peter is the one who has seen that Jesus is the Savior. Now Peter is falling apart. Peter is losing his focus and starting to think in human terms instead of divine terms. But worst of all, he is making things more difficult for Jesus. Jesus does not want to die. Later, in the garden, he will sweat blood over this. He will ask God to take this cup from him. In a sense, Peter is weakening Jesus’ resolve. So Jesus says the thing that will be like a slap in the face to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” That must have hurt Peter. What a moment that was in their relationship. Peter could have left. Jesus could have wavered. Neither thing happened. Peter stayed in the group. He was the rock. He was the leader. But he still denied Jesus. He wasn’t perfect.

And that is a great help to us, because we are not perfect either. But we are still following Jesus, and we are walking the Way of the Cross.

Jesus tells Peter that he is setting his mind on human things, and, of course, we do that, too. The idea of our Lord suffering this most horrible form of humiliation and death is beyond comprehension. We know that it happened, and we wish there had been another way.

So we are Abraham and Sarah and we have been on a long journey, and the future is looking pretty bleak. Actually, it is looking non- existent. God comes to us and makes a promise that changes everything. It gives us a future, hope. It gives us everything that makes life worthwhile. On the human level, this is ridiculous, and, if we are Abraham and Sarah, we burst out laughing. But then we stop and think and pray and we realize that God has never broken a promise. God has led us this far. God has always been faithful to us. And that gives us reason to be faithful to God. So we get down to business and put one foot in front of the other and try to be as faithful and loyal to God as we can and go about our daily lives seeking God’s will and doing God’s will. And just believing that it is going to happen.

As we walk the way of the cross with our Lord, we are not going to be able to manipulate this awful situation or control it or make it come out the way we think it should. That is human thinking.

We are walking with a God who loves us so much that he is willing to hang on an instrument of torture and death that is reserved for the worst criminals and die. God does not lash out. God does not kill us.

God forgives. God takes all that death and hatred and works with it and transforms it into new life.

As we walk with him, we can begin to be aware that this is what he is doing. At this point in the journey, our hope may be wavering, and yet our Lord reminds us that there is always reason to hope against hope. There is always new life. It isn’t easy. There are labor pangs. There is struggle. Underneath it all and in all of it is love, the love of God.

There is always reason to hope against hope. There is always reason for faith. Blessed Lord, give us grace to follow you and to be faithful to you.  Amen.

Lent 2 Year B RCL March 4, 2012

 Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16
Psalm 22: 22-30
Mark 8: 31-38 

This morning we start out with the great man of faith, Abram. He is 99 years old. God appears to him and tells him that he is going to be the “ancestor of a multitude of nations.” The only problem with this is that Abram and his wife have not been able to have any children. But God tells Abram that they will have a son. God also says that Abram’s name will become Abraham and Sarai’s name will become Sarah. There will be a change of identity for each of them.

 In our epistle for today, Paul builds on this image of Abraham as the major example of the faithful person. Paul tells us that, “hoping against hope,” Abraham did not doubt God’s word to him. And we all know what happened. God was faithful.

I want to focus on today’s gospel because it has so much in it. Jesus has alluded to it before, but now he is trying to help the disciples to understand the nature of his ministry. He spells it right out for them: he is going to be rejected by all the important authorities and he is going to be killed.

Peter can’t stand this. He takes Jesus aside and begins to scold him for saying such awful things. I think he does this for several reasons. The first is that he loves Jesus and he doesn’t want Jesus to die. The other is that he has the idea of a messiah as a liberating king who comes in and sets up his reign by force. It’s going to take a long time before Peter gets this idea out of his head. The idea of the suffering servant as presented by Isaiah and other prophets was not as popular and easy as the idea of the conquering hero, but that’s the messiah God was sending.

But then we have this painful, dramatic moment. Jesus snarls to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Ouch! How this must have stung Peter. How it must have shocked him to have Jesus call him this name. Satan is the ultimate tempter, and Jesus is calling Peter this terrible name.

I believe that Jesus uses this wording because he is indeed tempted. He doesn’t want to suffer. Later in the garden he asks that, if this cup may pass from his lips, let it happen, but, if not, he will go through with it. I wonder if Jesus was shocked after saying these words. I wonder if he wanted to take them back. But there they were, hanging in the air.

Then Jesus gathers the crowd along with the disciples and he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

What does this mean? On the most simple level, it means that, if we are focused only on ourselves, on what we need and what we want, we are going to miss the point of life. In Twelve Step programs, there is a saying that EGO means Ease God Out. There is much truth in that. On the other hand, Jesus is not calling us to destroy ourselves by taking on too much or to sacrifice ourselves by taking care of others and never taking care of our own needs. We are called to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. In order to do this, we need to realize that God loves us and we need to love ourselves. So, there is a fine balance here.

I believe that Jesus is calling us to make our major commitment to him   and to his shalom. He is calling us to give ourselves to something larger than ourselves which will give meaning to our lives and will bring us true joy. But life in him is not trouble free. We may have to make difficult sacrifices, hard choices.  Some folks seem to believe that if we follow Jesus, our lives will be all peaches and cream; we will be protected from all pain and problems, and we will live happily ever after. All we have to do is to look at the lives of a few saints to realize that that is not true. When we look at the life of Jesus, we know it isn’t true.

On Ash Wednesday we said that Jesus is calling us to take up our cross and he also said that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. We talked about each yoke for each individual ox was carved specifically to match every bump and lump on that ox’s neck and shoulders. To take up our cross is to walk our Lenten journey knowing that our yoke is  especially fitted to us. There is a certain lightness of being associated with taking the focus off self and throwing ourselves in with the work of God’s shalom.

One of my favorite followers of Jesus, Barbara Brown Taylor, talks about taking up our cross in terms of facing our worst fear. She says that the reason Peter said what he said was that, when Jesus told them he was going to die, that raised the specter of Peter’s worst fear: death. Peter had to face the fact that Jesus was going to die and he, Peter was going to die.

Whatever our worst fear may be, she says, we need to look it in the face. It may be fear of a diagnosis of some dread disease, or it may be fear of not measuring up, or it may be fear of death. But, whatever it is, that fear holds us in bondage. That fear is running our lives.

Taylor writes, “Whatever it is that scares you to death, so that you start offering to do anything, anything at all, if it will just go away, that is your cross, and, if you leave it lying there, it will kill you. If you turn away from it, (God forbid it, Lord!) with the excuse that this should never have happened to you, then you deny God the chance to show you the greatest mystery of all: that there, right there in the dark fist of your worst fear, is the door to abundant life.

Taylor continues. “I cannot say more than that. I don’t dare, or God might test me on it, but Jesus does dare. Stop running from your cross, he says. Reach down and pick it up. It isn’t nearly as scary once you get your hands on it, and no one is asking you to handle it alone. All you have to do is believe in God more than you believe in your fear. Then pick it up, come on with me, and I will show you the way to the door.”

May we walk the way of the cross. May we pick up the cross of our worst fear and let our Lord transform it into new life.  Amen.