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Epiphany 1 The Baptism of Christ January 9, 2022

Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

This past Thursday, on January 6, the Church celebrated the feast of the Epiphany. Wise men come from far away to bring gifts to this new king. The feast of the Epiphany proclaims that this new faith is for all people from all over the world. It is a feast of God’s love, light, and inclusiveness.

Today, we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our first reading is from the prophet we call the Second Isaiah. God is telling God’s people in exile in Babylon and is also telling us not to fear, for God has redeemed us. God has called us by name. We belong to God. When we passed through the waters of the Red sea to freedom, God was there. God will be with us through all our challenges and trials. We are precious in God’s sight. God will gather all the exiles from all over the world and bring them home.

Our second reading is from the Book of Acts. So much is happening. Just a little before this passage, the new faith has been growing so fast that the apostles find they cannot do the work of preaching, teaching, praying, and at the same time make sure that the widows and orphans and others in need are taken care of. The apostles call together this new and growing community of Jesus’ followers and ask them to choose “seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit, and  of wisdom,” to minister to the needs of the people at the margins.  These seven men, the first deacons, were Stephen, Phillip, Prochorus, Nicanor,  Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus of Antioch. The apostles pray and lay their hands on them. This is how the first deacons were chosen and ordained.

Soon after this, Stephen becomes the first Christian martyr. An angry crowd stones him to death. Saul, who will later become the apostle Paul, looks on and approves this murder. A severe persecution begins against the church in Jerusalem.

In the midst of all of this, God calls Philip to go to the city of Samaria, home of the Samaritans, who were despised by the Israelites because the Israelites felt the Samaritans had departed from the true faith. Philip shares the good news with the Samaritans and they want to become followers of Jesus. So Philip baptizes them. Word reaches the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem that many people in Samaria are flocking to the new faith. They have been baptized but they have not yet received the Holy Spirit.

The persecution that is going on does not stop the church in Jerusalem from sending Peter and John to Samaria to reach out to these new converts and support them. Peter and John lay their hands on these people and they receive the Holy Spirit. The church in Samaria could have been seen as different from and inferior to the church in Jerusalem. But this did not happen. God guided the Jerusalem church to reach out and welcome these new followers of Jesus in Samaria into full membership in this new community of faith and love.

We remember how Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, who, after two respected religious leaders walk by on the other side of the road, goes to help the man who has been robbed and beaten and left at the side of the road, bleeding and half dead. In those days, Samaritans were looked upon as the worst of the worst, and Jesus tells us this is the one who is the good neighbor.

When Peter and John go to Samaria, they do not treat the new Samaritan followers of Jesus as the worst of the worst. They put all of that sad history behind them. We can imagine them recalling Jesus’ parable and reminding themselves that all people are beloved children of God. When Peter and John arrive in Samaria, they treat these new followers of Christ with love and respect and welcome them into the fold. As followers of Christ, we are called to heal divisions, to be “restorers of the breach,” as Isaiah said. We are called to turn brokenness into wholeness, division into unity.

In our gospel, Jesus is baptized. He is praying.  The heavens are opened and the Holy Spirit descends upon our Lord in the form of a dove, the sign of peace. And a voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, the beloved: with you I am well pleased.”

In this scene, Jesus, the Son of God; Jesus, God walking the face of the earth, is beginning his formal ministry among us. As we read the gospels, we will be absorbing everything he says and does so that we can follow him more and more faithfully.

Our readings today have some powerful themes. Isaiah reminds us that God brings us out of exile, all kinds of exile. The exile of illness. The exile of addiction. The exile of depression. The exile of pandemic. God brings us together to form Beloved Community. God loves us. God is with us in everything.

Our reading from the Book of Acts inspires us with the reality that, even in the face of persecution, the church in Jerusalem sees God at work in the midst of a formerly hated group of people in Samaria and sends Peter and John to lay hands upon them so that they, too can receive the Holy Spirit and be full members of the new community of faith. Division and brokenness are transformed into unity and strength.

In our gospel, Jesus begins his formal ministry here on earth.

Nothing, not even persecution, can stop God’s love. God loves us so much that God has come among us to be one of us. The season of Epiphany is a season of light and mission. We spread the light and love of Christ as we reach out to help those who need God’s love and care.

May we follow Jesus. May we walk the way of love and light, May we share his love and light with everyone we meet. Amen.

Easter 5B May 2, 2021

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

Before we look more deeply at our reading from the Book of Acts, let us look at the context of this passage. Back in Chapter 6, the apostles realized that they could not preach and teach and also take care of the widows and orphans. Guided by the Holy Spirit, they chose seven men as the first deacons. Philip was one of those men.

In today’s passage, Philip is in Samaria. An angel of the Lord tells him to go to the road that runs from Jerusalem to Gaza. On that road is an Ethiopian eunuch. Under the law, this man would be considered unclean on two counts. He was a foreigner, from  Ethiopia, and he was a eunuch. This man— we do not know his name and this is the only time he appears in the Bible—has made a long journey to pray in the temple in Jerusalem. He is on his way home and is reading from the prophet Isaiah.

This man has a position of huge responsibility and honor in his home country of Ethiopia. He is a member of the queen’s court. He is in charge of her entire treasury. The Spirit tells Philip to go over and join the man. 

Philip runs over and realizes the man is reading from Isaiah. He asks the man if he understands what he is reading. When Philip asks that question, the man responds with wonderful openness. “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” And he invites Philip into the chariot to do just that. The passage is about the suffering servant. As Christians, we believe that our Lord is described in that passage. The Ethiopian man wants to know more. Philip shows him the relationship between the suffering servant and Christ. This man is so open to the presence of the Holy Spirit that, when they reach some water, he asks to be baptized. When they come up out of the water, the man goes on his way rejoicing. The Spirit carries Philip to Azotus, and he proclaims the good news all the way up the coast to Caesarea, some 58 miles.

In this passage we see the power of the Holy Spirit and God’s  love at work. The Ethiopian man is so eager to learn more about God, so open to guidance from Philip. And Philip is so full of the energy of the Holy Spirit, flowing over with the love of God. Because of God’s love, this man is baptized into the faith.

Our epistle for today is also filled with the love of God. “God is love,” this passage proclaims. We are called to abide in God’s love. We love others because God first loved us, and the most powerful expression of that love is the life and ministry of our Lord.

Our gospel for today is one of my favorite passage in the Bible. Jesus tells us, “I am the vine, you are the branches. “

This is another image for the Body of Christ. We are literally connected with each other and with our Lord. Branches are connected with the vine. Parts of a body are connected with each other and with the head who is Christ. We are called to stay connected with our Lord and to bear much fruit. This makes me think of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

“I am the vine; you are the branches,” Jesus says. And he calls us to abide in him. This is part of what scholars call his Last Discourse, the portion toward the end of John’s gospel in which our Lord tells us everything he can think of to help us be faithful followers through thick and thin.

If he is the vine and we are the branches, this means that we are connected very closely with him and with each other. We are dependent on him and on each other. His love is the life energy of the vine. His love, coursing through all of us, is the energy enabling us to do what Philip did—reach out to people we meet and extend the love of Christ.

The word “abide” in Greek can mean “to stay in place,” “to endure,”and we all know that followers of Jesus have had to hang in there through all kinds of trials. But to abide in this context also means to stay connected with each other and with our Lord. We stay connected but it is an active kind of connection. We are always ready to share his love with others. And we are actively nourishing ourselves with his word, with the scriptures, with prayer and meditation, staying in touch with our Lord.

In his  contemporary version of the Bible, called The Message, Eugene H. Peterson describes the relationship between us and Jesus as “intimate and organic,” and he has Jesus inviting us to “make [our] home” with Jesus. That is a wonderful translation of “abide.” 

Lord Jesus, help us to make our home with you. May we live in you and you in us. May your love fill us to overflowing, and may we share that love with everyone we meet. In Your holy Name. Amen.

Advent 4A December 22, 2019

Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

In our first reading today, it is 732 B.C. E. King Ahaz of Judah is in a tough situation. The Assyrian Empire is growing in power. The King’s other northern neighbors, Syria, with its capital Damascus, and  Israel, with its capital Samaria, want him to join them in an alliance against the Assyrians.

The prophet Isaiah is calling Ahaz to have trust in God and to remain neutral in this conflict. Ahaz is only twenty years old, but he really does not want to hear what Isaiah has to say. Biblical scholar Robert Kysar says that Ahaz is telling Isaiah, “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts.” (Kysar, New Proclamation Series A, 1998-1999, p. 25.)

King Ahaz has decided that the best thing to do is to make an alliance with the Assyrians. This will result in disaster as Judah will lose its independence and fall under the control of the powerful Assyrian Empire.

But God never gives up on us, and Isaiah tells the young king that God will send a child born of a young woman, and he shall be called Emmanuel, God with us.

In our gospel, we read about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. Joseph and Mary are engaged. They have made solemn vows that they will be married and they will be faithful to each other. We enter the story after Mary has told Joseph that she is pregnant. Now Joseph is in an agonizing situation. To all earthly and human appearances, the woman he loves has been unfaithful to him. This astounds Joseph beyond all measure since he has always felt that Mary is as faithful as anyone can be. Looking in on this scene, with two thousand years of hindsight, we know that she is an icon of faith. Later, she will follow Jesus every step of the way and stand at the foot of that horrible cross until every bit of his life has drained out of him.

One thing that always strikes me when we read these lessons is the enormous difference between King Ahaz and Joseph. The text tells us that Joseph is a righteous man. Righteous does not mean someone who thinks he or she knows everything, someone who has rigid beliefs and you have to agree with them. Righteous means having a right relationship with God. It means being open to God’s guidance at all times. As a righteous man, Joseph makes the painful decision to divorce Mary quietly and save her reputation.

Unlike King Ahaz, Joseph is open to God’s leading even in his sleep. In his dream, an angel of the Lord tells him the truth about Mary’s pregnancy. God is bringing a new life into the world. God is coming into the world to bring new life to everyone just as Isaiah had said.

When Joseph wakes from his dream, he does something entirely different from what he had planned and dreaded to do. He marries Mary. And when the baby is born, Joseph follows the angel’s directions and names him Jesus.

Joseph is one of the shining examples in the scriptures. He is a person of deep prayer who listens for the voice of God in everything he does. He takes Mary to Bethlehem, the City of David, and protects her all along the way. Later, when King Herod starts killing little boys so no one can seize his throne, Joseph takes Mary and Jesus to Egypt.

Scholars remind us that Jesus was born under the cloud of illegitimacy. His parents were married after he was conceived. And then the holy family became refugees fleeing from a tyrant who was full of hate and fear. All along the way Joseph listens for the guidance of God and follows that guidance. Joseph is a wonderful example of a foster father. Like him, may we listen for the voice of God. May we have the depth of faith that Joseph had.

The light is shining in the darkness. The days have been getting shorter and shorter, and the light shines ever more brightly. The light is shining in the darkness ad the darkness has not overcome that light.

May we make room for Jesus in the inn of our hearts. As Master Eckhardt centuries ago called us to do, may we give birth to Jesus in our lives. As our collect says, “May he find in us a mansion prepared for himself.” Amen.

Pentecost 4 Proper 9C RCL July 7, 2019

2 Kings 5:1-14
Psalm 30
Galatians 6: (1-6), 7-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Our opening reading introduces us to Naaman, a military commander, a man of great courage who has earned military victories for his king. Naaman has everything he could want, success, fame, and fortune, but there is one problem. He has leprosy.

Here we must stop and realize that this does not mean that he has the terrible Hansen’s disease, the affliction we know as leprosy. In biblical times, any disease of the skin was called leprosy. Still, though it wasn’t fatal, this malady was a source of great distress to Naaman.

As it happens, the army of Naaman has taken captive a young woman from the land of Israel. This perceptive young woman has become the maid to Naaman’s wife, and she tells her mistress that the great general should go to see the prophet in Samaria. The young woman assures Naaman’s wife that this prophet, who is none other than Elisha, can cure Naaman’s illness.

Naaman gets a letter of introduction from the king, packs up a great deal of money, and a wardrobe full of clothes, and goes to the king of Israel. The king is confused by the letter, since he is not able to heal people, and he thinks Naaman is trying to start a war with him.

Elisha, the prophet, hears that the king of Israel has torn his clothes in distress and sends him a message indicating that he can offer help. Naaman shows up at Elisha’s house with all his horses and chariots, but he is deeply offended because Elisha does not come out and meet him. Instead, Elisha sends a message telling Naaman to go and wash in the Jordan seven times and he will be healed.

But poor Naaman has been slighted, and he works himself up into a rage. Once again, the little people, the servants, bring wisdom and compassion into the situation. If the prophet had told the hero to do something very difficult, they reason, something that demanded a great deal of courage, Naaman would have done it in an instant. So why not just try this simple thing? Naaman washes in the Jordan and is healed. In two instances, it is the simple, everyday ordinary people, the servants, who offer wisdom to the great commander.

So often, it is ordinary good folks who are the heroes. I think of our remembrance this year of the 75th anniversary of D Day and of our gratitude to the people Tom Brokaw has called  The Greatest Generation. They saved us from the horror of Nazism.

In our gospel, Jesus sends out seventy disciples to teach and heal and preach the good news. They go out into a hostile world, like lambs among wolves. They travel light. They go to the first house where they are welcomed and eat what is offered them. They share God’s shalom with the people. They spread the Kingdom of God. 

This is the model for how we share the shalom of Christ. We go out two by two, We minister in community. We support each other.

In our reading from Galatians, Paul tells us how to restore someone who has gone astray.  He tells us to be gentle and to bear each other’s burdens. We do this all the time when we share problems and ask each other to pray for us. This means that we never have to deal with any burden alone. We help each other to carry burdens. There is great power and love in this one truth.

Then Paul goes on to say that what goes around comes around. If we spread love and joy and healing, those things will come back to us. When a community is centered in the fruits and gifts of the Spirit, those gifts grow in the community and they are there to share with others outside the community.

Paul also addresses a problem that is plaguing the community. Some people are still saying that, in order to be a Christian, people have to be circumcised. Paul is reminding them and us that becoming one with Christ is a spiritual matter, not a physical matter. If people want to join the new faith, they do not have to follow the dietary laws, nor do they have to be circumcised. We are called to follow the law of love.  Love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength and love our neighbor as ourselves. Our neighbor is everyone, because everyone is a child of God.

What are our readings telling us today? First, the story of Naaman reminds us of the importance of everyday people. I think most of us feel that we are ordinary folks. We aren’t kings or queens or generals. God loves ordinary folks like us every bit as much as God loves people like Queen Elizabeth, Colin Powell, or Pope Francis. In the story of Naaman, the little people save the day.

Secondly, we do ministry together. Community is everything. We go out two by two or in a group. That way we can support each other in ministry.

Thirdly, how important is the quality of gentleness, gentleness with each other when we stumble or when someone makes an error. And what a great gift it is to bear each others’ burdens. By sharing and praying and helping each other, we can lead and guide each other through things that would swamp us individually.

There are many other things to glean from these readings, but a fourth one is that, as Paul says, our Lord has brought in a “new creation,” and the key to that creation is love. No one is beyond God’s love. God has created a big family, a family in which we respect the dignity of every person. These readings remind us that any person can be a source of healing and wisdom.  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.