Monday, June 7, 2021

The Choice to be Very Good


Proper 5 / Year B

With the easing of Covid restrictions we are learning again what it is like to live in a world with options… plenty of options.  Will I eat out or stay in?  Go to the movies or read a book?  Take in a baseball game or go for a walk?  The truth is we had plenty of options during the height of the restrictions, but with so many things being taken off the table at times it felt as if we had no choices at all.

I grew up in a faith tradition that flirted with the doctrine of Predestination: the notion God foreordains those who will receive the saving work of Christ and those who will reject it.  Taken to its extreme, this teaching implies free choice is merely an illusion.  God’s plan, set in motion from the beginning of time, is unalterable.  How unalterable?  I had a college professor who told the story of the time he tripped and fell down a flight of stairs in his home.  Bruised and dazed, he collected himself, stood up, and said, “Well, I am glad that is behind me!”  

The Creation stories in Genesis hint at something different.  They suggest God has woven options into the very fabric of all that has been made; options which are open and free possibilities which actually alter the course of history on micro and macro levels.  Recall how God entrusts Adam with the task of naming each animal.  The choices are completely out of God’s control and entirely Adam’s to make.  By including the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the serpent as elements of creation, God opens the world to be a place where God’s will is honored or ignored or misunderstood.  The Genesis stories tell us we live in a world where we have choices and that our choices have consequences.  We have some ability (but not complete ability) to determine how we will impact the world for good or for ill. 

This past week I read a commentary on the creation story of Adam and Eve whose author encourages readers to step back from a strictly literal interpretation of the text in order to see something more sweeping at work.  So rather than focusing on the Tree as a tree, the apple as an apple, and the serpent as a snake, let’s consider the bigger picture being portrayed by this story.  The commenter suggests we see in it a metaphor for the pattern of every person’s life. 

We are born into a world marked hopefully by nurture, safety, and care.  Childhood, for the most part for most of us, is an Eden-like experience – innocent, carefree, and cared for.  It does not last.  Our experience of the world changes with the onset of puberty and adolescence.  We become self-aware, which often is associated with a sense of shame and hiddenness (as we see in this morning’s first reading).  We rebel (sometimes in relatively inconsequential ways, other times in significant ways).  We gain new knowledge about good and evil, which, while positive and necessary, has the effect of shattering the innocence of childhood.  Like the curses meted out by God in today’s reading, we come to know limitations, frustrations, and humiliations.  The world becomes a more demanding place and our place in it becomes uncertain.   In adulthood we accept our responsibilities and the embrace the consequences of our decisions and our actions.  We experience the world as a place of both opportunity and challenge.  We learn no one gets through life unscathed.  Still, most of us manage to find happiness and purpose and a measure of peace.  This is the path walked by Adam and Eve.  In general terms, it is the path each of us is walking on.

As with the doctrine of Predestination, most church teachings refer to this morning’s Old Testament reading as story of “the Fall” – how the first humans lived in paradise, but lost it all through the act of tasting the fruit of a single, forbidden tree.  “The Fall” implies we are living in a world where all God intended is crashed and gone.  Adam’s sin is our sin.  Adam’s curse is our curse.  Adam’s loss is our reality.  Deal with it… unless you have been preordained to accept Jesus’ saving death on your behalf. 

One of the things I love about the Anglican tradition is how it understands the meaning of these first chapters of the bible.  Yes, we say, the world is not as God dreams it would be.  But no, we are not so completely depraved as to not be able to respond to God’s will and to follow God’s way.  We have the possibility, the ability, and the opportunity to make choices for better or for worse, for right or for wrong, for faithfulness or for falling into something less.   

At the completion of every stage of creation God looks at what has been accomplished and calls it “good.”  And when God speaks of the newly created humans, God calls them “very good.”  While it says something significant about our elevated place in the created order, recognize being created as “very good” is no where near as demanding as being created to be “perfect.”  If God had created us “perfect” than even the smallest slip would destroy our identity (just as a lone walk changes in baseball a perfect game to a no-hitter).  The calling to be “very good” implies striving and intentionality, while making room for coming up short now and again.

Which brings us back to our world of options and the choices we make.  And it brings us to Jesus.  In today’s reading we find him making a choice to conceive in a new way the notion of “family.”  He expands it from the old standards of kindred and clan to include anyone who strives to do the will of God.  Notice he does not restrict it only to those who are perfect.  Jesus welcomes into deep relationship everyone who is oriented toward God’s dream for this world.

Jesus uses this vision to incorporate an incredibly diverse group of men and woman into his fellowship.  They have different backgrounds, come from different communities, hold to a variety of religious traditions, agree not on the politics of the day.  Jesus does not disown his biological family, just the opposite.  His brother James becomes the leader of the Church in Jerusalem after Jesus ascends to the Father and it is from here a missionary zeal emerges to invite every person in the known world into the Jesus movement.  Jesus makes the consequential choice to embrace every person, not on the basis of perfection, but rather on each person’s stated intent to do God’s will.  “Very good” is his standard, not gender, nationality, or race.  It is not your political affiliation which determines if you are Jesus’ brother or sister.  It certainly is not your socio-economic level.  It definitely does not matter if you are a Hokie or a Hoo.  And whatever your position on the doctrine of Predestination, ultimately what matters to Jesus is how you attempt to do God’s will, to live into your “very goodness.” 

“Very Goodness”, goodness gracious, this can be a challenge, can’t it.  Unlike Adam and Eve, who received the initial commandment – “Don’t eat of that fruit” – yet receive little guidance and only sketchy commentary from the serpent, we are blessed to possess the Scriptures: the stories of God’s interaction with God’s people, the insights of the Psalmists, the words of the prophets, Jesus’s own teachings and example, and the wisdom of the early Church.  And we are blessed with the gift of God’s Holy Spirit who abides deep within us and directs us when we are open to hearing this Voice. 

Today, tomorrow, and every day hereafter we have choices to make.  God’s Spirit in our lives does not mean we will be (or will have to be) perfect.  Our aim always is to be faithful.  “Very good” is our benchmark and, high as it is, with God’s help, it is attainable.     

 


Monday, May 31, 2021

The Source from Above

 


John 3:1-17

Trinity Sunday / Year B

Jesus said to Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

I am a big fan of the Turner Classic Movie Network – TCM.  I record interesting movies and watch them at my leisure, but I have more recordings than I could possibly watch in a year.  The other night I watched the Robert Duvall film The Great Santini, first released in 1979.  I had not seen it before and enjoyed it very much.  In one scene, Ben, who has just turned 18, is reading a birthday note written by his mother.  It is her loving voiceover we hear as he reads:

Wherever you go and whatever you do you walk with my blessing and love.  I’ve had my regrets and many sadnesses but I will never regret the night you were born.  I thought I knew about love – the boundaries of love – until I raised you for these past 18 years.  I knew nothing about love.  This has been your gift to me.  Happy birthday.  Momma.

“I thought I knew about the boundaries of love…”  What a tremendous phrase! 

I was an uncle long before I was a father.  I am blessed to have six wonderful nephews and nieces, each of whom I got to hold as babies.  It was pleasant enough (as long as nothing inside them came out and onto me), but nothing life-changing.  However, when my first daughter was born, the very moment the nurse first handed to me I was overcome with a kind of love I never knew existed.  I was transformed in an instance.  I have had some pretty powerful moments in my life (multiple graduations, getting married, being ordained to diaconate then to the priesthood) but nothing compares to that moment.  Before this, I thought I knew about the boundaries of love, but I knew nothing about it at all.

I don’t remember too many sermons I heard while growing up, but I do recall my youth minister preaching on John 3:16.  He called it “The Greatest Verse in the Entire Bible.”  “For God” (the greatest Being) “so loved” (the greatest virtue) “the world” (the greatest entity) “the he gave” (the greatest act) “his only Son” (the greatest person) “that whosoever” (the greatest number possible) “believes in him” (the greatest sign of faith) “should not perish” (the greatest fear) “but have everlasting life” (the greatest gift).  Or something close to this.  I remember his sermon spoke to me about the boundlessness of God’s love.

John Henry Jowett was born in England in 1864 and went on to be ordained in the Congregational Church.  Before dying in 1923 he served in several prestigious positions and was known as “the greatest preacher in the English-speaking world.”  In one sermon titled The Boundless Love of God he begins by considering how we can become lost “in the overwhelming sense of the immeasurable.”  After exploring a few of possibilities Jowett says this:

There is something more majestic than the heavens, more wonderful than the far, mysterious vistas of time, more pervasive than human need, and more abounding than human sin. The biggest thing with which the mind can cope is the infinite love of God…   The biggest thing you and I will ever know is the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

He goes on to compare God’s love to a diamond devoid of any flaw or tint.  Of human love he says this:

Love can be deteriorated and degraded by the tint of jealousy.  It can be debased by the tint of envy.  It can be vulgarized by a strain of carnal passion.  These earthly elements may be mixed with the heavenly substance, and its spiritual value is reduced.

But, in Jowett’s mind, God’s love is different:

“In him is no darkness at all!”  How would that be as a description of a diamond?  “No darkness at all!”  Nothing sinful in His love!  But more than that.  Nothing shady in it, nothing questionable, nothing compromising or morally indifferent!

Jowett then compares God’s love to various properties of water.  One way is this: 

Water rises no higher than its source.  Water can lift no higher than its source.  It is even so with love.  Our love can never raise a loved one higher than the love itself.

If Jowett is correct in this than we might want to ponder the source of our love.  For some, the source of love is rooted in the romantic.  For others it is rooted in a philosophical ethic, such as do the most good you can while producing the least harm.  For a few it is a narcissistic transaction where what passes as love is offered only as long as the other makes you feel better about yourself.  Each of these and other sources generates a love with boundaries.   God’s boundless love offers to take us far higher than possible through any other source.

Jesus famously told Nicodemus you must be born again (or born from above) in order to see the kingdom of God.  It is an invitation to discover a new source by drinking from the font of God’s boundless love.  Doing so will expand the boundaries of your love and as this happens you will begin to see the kingdom of God more clearly, you will begin to experience the kingdom of God with more awareness, and you will begin to live out the kingdom of God with more fidelity.

The boundaries of love are evident every morning when I wake up my computer and check out the overnight headlines.  Mass shootings, political squabbling, racial tension, and downright awful behavior congregate on a near daily basis.  We live in a world far removed from God’s dream and not even close to the love I felt when I held my first child for the first time.  And yet every now and then we get a glimpse of what life can be like when the source of love comes from Above.

I was a Mike’s Meats yesterday picking out something yummy for tomorrow’s dinner.  It was crowded and the checkout line was long… and slow.  I noticed the woman in front of me already had her food in a bag and was holding a receipt.  Then her husband came in from outside and joined her in line.  Something, I thought, is up.  When it was their turn at the register I heard them explain the cashier had bagged but failed to ring up five items totaling about $25.  They came back into the store, stood in line (again!), and wanted to pay for the uncharged items.  Mike, now at the register, thanked them and charged them for only two of the five items.  “How are you doing?” he asked me as he finished the transaction with the couple.  “I am pretty amazed,” I responded.  “It is just wonderful to know there are good people in the world,” I said.  Then mentioned I am a preacher and would soon be sharing this story.  At this, Mike quoted a reference from the Letter of James, “The person who seeth the good and faileth to do it has not God’s love.”

What is the source of your love?  Have you been born from above?

 


Monday, May 24, 2021

God's Breath of Restoration

 


Psalm 104:25-37
Pentecost Sunday / Year B

You hide your face,
and your creatures are terrified; *
  you take away their breath,
  and they die and return to their dust.
You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; *
  and so you renew the face of the earth.

May 18, 1980 was a memorable day in the Pacific Northwest.  It was the day Mount St. Helens erupted, lowering its elevation by over 1,300 feet and creating a crater a mile wide and 2,000 feet deep.  The initial blast and subsequent fallout devastated hundreds of square miles, transforming a lush, mountain environment into little more than moonscape.  Everyone in the region remembers vividly where they were, what they heard, and what they felt during the eruption as well as how much ash fell on where they were.  Nothing could have survived its force and the chocking effect of being buried under several feet of dense power.  Or so it seemed…

Jerry Franklin, an ecologist, was on the first helicopter to land in the blast zone.  It was only a few weeks after May 18 and as he stepped out onto the ashy surface, he looked down and was stunned to see a green shoot poking up through the dust.  He recognized it immediately to be Chamaenerion angustifolium, commonly known as fireweed.  Franklin and other ecologists knew they had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe how nature recovers from devastation; a process known as ecological regeneration.

The U.S. Soil Conservation Service decided to reseed by air some 32 square miles of land, but with the creation of the Mount St. Helens National Monument in 1982 a significant tract of land was set aside to recover on its own.  I visited the park a few years ago.  It was a beautiful, sun-splashed day and the view of the mountain with its crater facing me and the surrounding panoramic landscape was impressive beyond description.  The reseeded land was readily apparent because after thirty-five years it had returned to forestland.  The areas left unattended had not advanced nearly as far, yet still showed remarkable and diverse recovery.  Its grand scale was mesmerizing and should you find yourself in this part of the country is well worth a visit.

This morning we hear a beautiful portion of the 104th Psalm, a poem which extols God’s role in creation.  More specifically, it describes how God’s Spirit (or breath – God’s ruach in Hebrew) creates, sustains, cleanses, and restores all living things.  Far from being the prime mover or the initial source, and nowhere near being the creative architect now disengaged from creation, the theology of the 104th Psalm holds God is intimately involved with each one of us and with all of creation.

How intimately?  Well, consider the use of breath as a metaphor.  The typical human being takes about 16 breaths per minute.  This means we breathe 960 times an hour and over 23,000 times in a day.  Each one of us takes something like 8.4 million breaths every year.  Given this, what does the image of God’s Spirit as breathe suggest to you?  It speaks to me of God’s continual, on-going relationship with us and with all of creation.  And it suggestions this connection is absolutely vital to our on-going life.

The vast majority of our 8.4 million breaths in 2021 will pass without our notice.  You will be aware of only a small percentage.  You may need to take a deep breath in order to calm down.  You may be working hard or exercising a become out of breath.  You may catch a chest cold and have difficulty breathing.  You might find yourself in a rose garden and take in a deep breath in order to enjoy the fragrance.  You may be taking a breath at the end of singing a line of your favorite hymn.  Whatever it is causing you to be aware of your breathing I suggest it is also a good time to remind yourself of the nearness of God’s Spirit, who presence always seems to come to our awareness when we need it the most.  As with the overwhelming majority of our breaths, most often we are not aware of God’s presence in our lives, but know this… God is with you… all the time… no matter where you are… no matter if you are aware of it or not.

We are hearing the psalm’s witness to God’s activity of creating, sustaining, cleansing, and restoring at a very interesting time.  As I wrote in the e-news, the speed with which Covid restrictions are being eased is only surpassed by the speed in which they were initially imposed.  I personally sense I need time to reacclimate to life as it was before.  Which is to say, I am relieved not to have to wear a mask, but I am not ready yet to engage in our Pentecost tradition of blowing up balloons, batting them around, popping them, and then pushing our way through throngs of people in order to pass the peace with a stranger.  Next year maybe.  Still, it feels like we are at the dawn of a new day when God’s Breath is going forth and renewing the face of the earth.

I would like to make a small confession to you.  I added a verse to the psalm reading.  The Lectionary calls for us to read verses 25-35 and verse 37, skipping over verse 36.  Whenever a verse is omitted by the Lectionary you should go right to your prayer book and find out what we are missing!  Here is verse 36:


Let sinners be consumed out of the earth, *
  and the wicked be no more.

Now I suspect the framers of the Lectionary decided to pass over it because its emphasis on sin, wickedness, judgement, and punishment feels out of character with the rest of the reading.  And I admit it seems to come out of leftfield.  But several commentators I read this week argued for its inclusion because as wonderful as God’s creation is it is still marred by brokenness.  We are at odds with ourselves, with one another, with other nations, and with creation itself.  There is much in need of cleansing and God’s restoration of creation is possible only after sin is confessed and wickedness is rejected.

If we were ready to sing this morning, perhaps we might use this hymn by Charles Gabriel, inspired by today’s psalm:

Thy Spirit, O Lord, makes life to abound;
The earth is renewed, and fruitful the ground;

To God ascribe glory and wisdom and might,
Let God in His creatures forever delight.

Before the Lord’s might earth trembles and quakes,
The mountains are rent, and smoke from them breaks;

The Lord I will worship through all of my days,
Yea, while I have being my God I will praise.

Rejoicing in God, my thought shall be sweet,
While sinners depart in ruin complete;

My soul, bless Jehovah, His name be adored,
Come, praise Him, ye people, and worship the Lord.

And in conclusion…

(which is always a dangerous thing to say in a sermon because if the conclusion doesn’t follow in short order the faithful just might find a way to turn their prayers books into pitchforks)…

in conclusion, either with you masks on if you opt for this, or with – Hallelujah! – no mask on for the first time in a long time…

take a moment to sit still…

breathe in…

breathe out…

bathe yourself in the beauty of this place…

breathe in…

breathe out…

look around and notice who is here with you this morning…

breathe in…

breathe out…

Repeat after me:

Thy Spirit, O Lord…

makes life to abound…

The earth is renewed…

and fruitful the ground…

The Lord I will worship…

through all of my days…

Yea, while I have being…

my God I will praise.

 

 

 

 


Monday, May 17, 2021

Joy and a Tomato-Red Convertible

 

John 17:6-19

Easter 7 / Year B

Jesus prayed, “May my followers have my joy made complete in themselves.”  St. John, in one of his letters, writes, “Whoever has the Son has life.”  Life and joy.  Although not fully attained until the life to come, abundant life and overflowing joy are two hallmarks of every believer’s present walk with Christ. 

One of the qualities I first found attractive about the Episcopal Church is our life-affirming ethos.  We know how to laugh, to eat, to drink, to travel, and to just plain have a good time.   We appreciate art, music, ballet, and theatre.  We embrace science and the fearless pursuit of knowledge at every level.  It is not like this with every Christian tradition.  Some have a deep distrust of pleasure and of the things of this world; supposing self-denial, suffering, skepticism, and separation are signs of one’s commitment to Jesus. 

One of the greatest lessons many of us struggle to learn in life is how to embrace life; finding a way to get the most out of every good gift God has woven into the fabric of God’s creation – a creation God deemed to be ‘good’ when God rested from the work of calling it into being.  There is a goodness to life easy to miss and to miss out on if over the years you have taught yourself being miserable or miserly is good enough.

Years ago I read for you my absolute favorite poem of all time, “Grandfather’s Cars” by Robert Phillips:


Every two years he traded them in 

(“As soon as the ashtrays get full,” he said with good humor);

always a sedate four-door sedan, always a Buick,

always dark as the inside of a tomb.


Then one spring Grandfather took off to trade,

returned, parked proudly in the driveway.

“Shave-and-a-haircut, two bits!” blared the horn.

Grandmother emerged from the kitchen into day-


light, couldn’t believe her eyes.  

Grandfather sat behind the wheel of a tomato-red Lincoln convertible, 

the top down.  “Shave-and-a-haircut, two bits!”  

“Roscoe, whatever are you thinking?”


she cried.  Back into the kitchen she flew.

No matter how many times he leaned on that horn,

she wouldn’t return.  So he went inside,

found her decapitating strawberries with scorn.


“Katie, what’s wrong with that automobile?

All my life I’ve wanted something sporty.”

He stood there wearing his Montgomery Ward

brown suit and saddle shoes.  His face was warty.


She wiped her hands along her apron,

said words that cut like a band saw:

“What ails you?  They’ll think you’ve turned fool!

All our friends are dying like flies-all!


You can’t drive that thing in a funeral procession.”

He knew she was right.  He gave her one baleful

look, left, and returned in possession

of a four-door Dodge, black, practical as nails.


Grandfather hated that car until the day he died.

Is there anything more critical and cutting to be said about a person than he or she is joyless?  Much better to live the way the short-story writer Katrina Mayer described one of her characters: “She found joy and wonder in every little thing.  And joy and wonder always found her.”

Maybe what will make your heart leap isn’t a tomato-red Lincoln with a vanity horn, maybe it isn’t even something you can purchase – and that is even better – but here are a few thoughts to ponder:


If you can’t embrace the life God offers in this world, what makes you think you will be drawn toward the life God offers in the next? 


What if affirming life in this world is training for accepting life in the next!

 

If you spend all your life in this life turning down and turning away from the life God has beautifully woven into the fabric of creation, how will you ever know how to say yes to the life to come?

Jesus wanted his followers to have the complete sense of joy he had.  Did you know all the fuddy-duddy, kill-joy religious types in Jesus’ day accused him of being a glutton and a drunkard?  It is right there in the bible.  Apparently Jesus just had a lot more fun than they thought was appropriate.  But, as our choir is fond of singing, Jesus was the Lord of the Dance and with him the dance went on.  He just kept honking his horn – “Shave-and-a-Haircut, Two Bits” – while the most learned and religious people of the day went on decapitating strawberries with scorn until they could nail him to a Cross.

No wonder Jesus, on the night before he is to die, prays his followers we might live differently than the ‘religious’ people of the day; that they might come to find joy in this life.  Having this life/this joy, according to the Apostle John, is a sure and certain sign you have Jesus. 

I believe joy is something we receive as a gift.  St. Paul says it is one of the fruits of the Spirit’s life within you.  Happiness comes from several sources: from special relationships (like being with your grandchildren), from enjoyable things (such as a tomato-red convertible), and from agreeable situations (perhaps relaxing on the beach while reading a good book).  If you are happy and I ask you why, chances are you can tell me specifically why.  Joy is different.  It is more inexplicable.  It just seems to well up within us, doesn’t it!  And it abides through thick and thin.  There will be times when grandchildren won’t go to bed, the sporty car springs a leak, and ocean winds blow sand in your eyes.  But you can be a single mother of five and scarcely getting by yet still be filled with joy because joy is not necessarily dependent on what is happening at the moment. 

Why do you think Jesus does not pray we might be happy, but rather prays his joy may be made complete in us?  If joy is not something we work to find, but rather receive as a gift, what implications does this hold for you?  Do you sense you live and move and have your being in this world filled with a sense of joy?  If so, why?  And if not, why not?


Monday, May 10, 2021

Deep Knowing

 


John 15:9-17

Easter 6 / Year B

Jesus said to his disciples, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” 

First century Palestine was anything but a loving place to live.  In fact, it was deeply divided in a number of different ways.  If you know your bible then you know Galileans were looked down on by others, so there were regional divides.  And there were ancestral divides.  Jews and Samaritans lived in close contact, yet refused even to speak to one another.  The religious establishment was divided into several different theological and liturgical camps and adherents of each group could barely tolerate adherents of others.  The region was divided up and ruled by various kings appointed by Rome.  These individuals neither liked nor trusted each other and they certainly did not like or trust the people under their rule.  The Jewish response to Roman occupation ranged from capitulation to outright rebellion.  Extremist zealots led something like a dozen different insurrections during Jesus’ lifetime alone.

These were huge divides because people were passionate about their positions – very passionate!  Tension, volatility, and hostility filled the air.  It might be an exaggeration to say everybody hated everybody, but without question everybody hated somebody.  We bristle at how our own country in our own time has become divided and embittered, well, Palestine was like us on hyper-drive. 

It is into this setting Jesus introduces his notion of the Kingdom of God.  In his dream the poor are exalted, the suffering find comfort, and the peacemakers are blessed.  It is a vision of a society not ruled by might or by the power of the purse.  It is the pure in heart who are welcomed into God’s presence.  In Jesus’ mind every person has value because every person is a child of God. 

In a 2019 speech at Brigham Young University, the New York Times columnist David Brooks made this observation:

Somehow we have entered an age of bad generalizations.  We don’t see each other well.  Liberals believe that.  Evangelicals believe that. Latter-day Saints believe that.  All groups, all stereotypes, all bad generalizations—we do not see the heart and soul of each person, only a bunch of bad labels.  To me, this is the core problem that our democratic character is faced with.  Many of our society’s great problems flow from people not feeling seen and known: Blacks feeling that their daily experience is not understood by whites.  Rural people not feeling seen by coastal elites.  Depressed young people not feeling understood by anyone.  People across the political divides getting angry with one another and feeling incomprehension.

Brooks suggests the thing we must get better at is “the trait of seeing each other deeply and being deeply seen.”  It is the trait, he says, that lies at the center of every healthy relationship, family, classroom, community, and nation.

And I think it is what Jesus invites his disciples to experience.  When he commands his followers to love one another as he has loved them, Jesus is not suggesting they merely grit their teeth, bite their tongue, and hold their peace every time another person pushes them to the limit (and you can be sure the disciples had a way of pushing each other’s buttons).  Jesus invites them to do exactly what he did: look past what is on the surface in order to see what is deep inside.  When he looked deep into the eyes of broken prostitute or a greedy tax-collector or a bedeviled demonic (to name a few) he saw a person fully known and fully loved by God.  Can Jesus’ followers see as he sees and then translate what they see into action – the action of love?

I suspect no one here has heard of Fr. Peter Scholtes, but chances are good if you attended a youth group in the 60’s or 70’s and someone had a guitar, you know a song he wrote:

We are one in the Spirit

   We are one in the Lord

And we pray that all unity

   May one day be restored…

We will walk with each other

   We will walk hand in hand

And together we’ll spread the news

   That God is in our land…

We will work with each other

   We will work side by side

And we’ll guard each man’s dignity

   And save each man’s pride…

…And they’ll know we are Christians

   By our love, by our love

Yes, they’ll know we are Christians

   By our love

Why is it important to Jesus his disciples love one another?  Because he knows no one is going to believe what he teaches if they can’t see it lived out in the flesh.  And when it is lived out, there is nothing on earth capable of outshining it.  This morning it is into this purpose and power we initiate Bellamy Johns through the sacrament of Baptism.  And it is to this purpose and power we recommit ourselves today through the act of renewing our own Baptismal Covenant.

Surely you are aware of trends in church membership and how the fastest growing group in our society is the ‘nones’ – those who do not associate with any particular religious tradition or expression of faith.  It is not that they have found something they like better, they have just stopped looking.  And over time the outcome of this disconnection is not going to be pretty.  Already we sense its toll as we see loneliness, anger, and anxiety increase.  We are welcoming Bellamy into the Christian faith and life at a moment in time when the world needs people capable of knowing and being known deeply.  We are welcoming her at a time when desperate people need to see Jesus’ dream realized in community.  The world needs to see the breathtaking beauty and transformative power of Jesus’ vision.  It needs to know we are Christians by our love.

 


Monday, May 3, 2021

The Doors are Open!

 

John 15:1-8

Easter 5 / Year B.

My Praise is of God in the great assembly; I will perform my vows in the presence of those who worship him. (Psalm 22:24)

What a wonderful verse from the Psalter for us to read on this morning when the doors of St. Paul’s finally are open for public worship.  Once again we can to praise God in the presence of those who worship God in this space we love!  Hallelujah! 

This morning we hear Jesus say, “I am the vine and my Father is the vinegrower...  Every branch that bears fruit is pruned so that it can bear more fruit.”  The last fourteen months have been a period of pruning, haven’t they.  Much of what we think of as fruitfulness has been cut off… in our lives, in our community, in our occupations, and here in our church – the worship services, the Christian formation activities, the opportunities for fellowship, the ministries we offer to the community.  We have been pruned indeed.  And yet, as Jesus says, we have figured out how to abide in him and remain connected to one another.  Although physically separated, God has granted us a spiritual path to maintain our sense of community.  Challenged?  Yes.  Blessed?  Beyond measure! 

And now the doors are open.  I like to say “the doors are open” because it sums up what is different today from last Sunday.  We made an intentional decision not to make too many changes prior to reopening.  Some churches are forming committees to plan their ‘reopening.’  These groups meet over and over and over again trying to nail down every detail and iron out every wrinkle before regathering.  There is a reason why Moses didn’t form an Exodus Committee to figure out all the things that needed to happen prior to leaving Egypt.  His lean instructions were these: “Grab what you can and let’s go.  The rest we will figured out on the way.”  And we will too. 

As I reflect on the last fourteen months, I realize we at St. Paul’s have established a pretty good track record of rising to challenges and seizing opportunities and I fully expect this to continue as we move forward.  We will figure it out as we go, facing every problem not as a reason to assign blame, but as an opportunity for innovating.  Like the pruned vine we now are, we will grow in the new and unexpected ways.  We will be fruitful once again, but perhaps not in some of the ways as before. 

In my sermon on Easter Sunday I mused on the difference between resuscitation and resurrection.  Resuscitation occurs when one person literally takes the life in him or her and forces it into another who is lifeless.  Resurrection is entirely God’s doing and we are the beneficiaries.  I am mindful of this distinction as we open the doors to St. Paul’s.  Regathering Committees, what with all their planning, are working at resuscitation, and many are finding it is a lot of work indeed.  My thinking is let’s just open the doors and see what happens!  Let’s see what God is going to do and then we’ll respond to it.  This, I hope, is a resurrection mindset.

So, one phrase I am using is “The Doors are Open.”  Here is another: “God is leading us into our future.”  It reminds me who is in charge – God.  It reminds me of what God is doing – leading us.  And it reminds me where we are going – into our future.  Because God is leading us, we do not initiate activity, but rather respond to opportunity.  And because God is leading us into our future, our focus is on what will be, not what once was.  Much of what we did before we will do again, but not everything.  And some of what we did before will happen in a new and different way.  And… things we never dreamed of before all the pruning we have been through will suddenly become a part of who we are.  Standing here before you this morning, I can’t tell you specifically what this will look like, only that we have established a pretty good track record of meeting challenges and seizing opportunities. 

The first step in all of this is opening the doors and inviting you in.  Let’s enjoy this moment, shall we.  Let’s get acclimated to being back together.  Let’s remember what it is like to stand and to kneel and to say out loud, “And also with you.” 

Somewhere in our future there will be singing.  Somewhere in our future there will be the Passing of the Peace.  Somewhere in our future there will be a pile of children pulling on the bell rope at the end of the service.  Somewhere in our future there will be coffee and cookies after church.   

But for now, isn’t it wonderful just to be back in our beautiful worship space, to hear the organ, to be bathed in the light of our stained glass windows, to receive communion in both kinds (albeit in a new way) and to see one another.  Isn’t it wonderful to have the doors open once again and to praise God in the midst of the great assembly!


Tuesday, April 27, 2021

When the Wolf Draws Near

 


John 10:11-18

Easter 4 / Year B

“O my, Grandma, what big teeth you have!”  Do you remember the next line?  How about this one: “If you don’t open the door, I’ll huff and I’ll puff…” What comes next?  Because we were raised on children’s stories we remember being taught to beware of wolves.  Never mind most of us grew up in urban or suburban surroundings and never saw even one wolf, these stories served an important function in our maturation. 

They taught us the world isn’t always as safe as the sheltered environment our parents created for us.  They let us know danger is always present… though not always seen.  They educated us about the cunning ways evil can feed off innocence and naiveté.  And, mercifully, they reinforced we are not completely alone and helpless in our struggle against these harmful forces.  Little Red Riding Hood is saved when her grandmother fetches the woodsman.  The three pigs are saved because one invests the time and energy necessary to construct a safe, sturdy, brick house.  These were important stories for us to hear as we grew up and as adults we remember them because, metaphorically speaking, wolves come after us throughout our life.

This Fourth Sunday of Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday.  The Collect sets the theme for the day and each of the readings builds on it.  The Gospel lesson calls us to reflect on the difference between the shepherd and the hired hand.  Drawing on imagery familiar to people employed in the herding trade, Jesus makes a simple, but important point: There is a significant difference between the shepherd who owns the sheep and the hired hands who are paid to help out.  When the wolf comes the hired hands run away, but the shepherd puts his life on the line to protect what matters most to him.

Jesus invites us to ponder a reality and a question.  Here is the reality: In life we will be tested.  The wolf will come at us in different times and in different ways and we will be tested again and again in these moments. 

Since this is our reality, here is the question: When you see the wolf coming, who or what can you count on?  Who or what will stand with you, even to the point of laying down life itself?  When sorrow comes, will the friends who want to play with you stay with you?  When weakness comes, will the possessions you have accumulated strengthen you?  When tomorrow’s failure comes, what of yesterday’s successes will remain to shelter you?  When death comes, who or what will stay with you to see you through?  Not your education.  Not your career.  Not your stock portfolio.  Not your winning personality and certainly not your good looks. 

Jesus said this to a handful of men and women: “When the wolf comes the hireling will flee; but I will not.  I am the Good Shepherd.  I will be there when you need me.”  The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church began when this small group of people discovered Jesus keeps his promise.

Scholars say it is no accident the beloved 23rd Psalm (“The Lord is my Shepherd”) is placed immediately after the 22nd Psalm (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).  The 22nd Psalm tells us about the dark, terrible testing in life, while the 23rd Psalm tells us about the Good Shepherd who leads us through these experiences to still waters and green pastures.

There will be times when we will be tested in the laboratory of calamity.  These moments teach us who and what we can and cannot count on.  With each testing our trust in the Good Shepherd grows deeper.  And as our trust deepens we begin to discover a life which pain and suffering cannot defeat, a joy which sin cannot dim, and a power from God which stands the test of living, as well as the test of dying.  All of this is possible because when the wolf comes the Good Shepherd does not flee from our side.

So today we reflect on the reality of testing and ask who or what will see us through.  I think today’s readings encourage also us to ask one more question: Who can count on you to be a shepherd when the wolf comes for them?  We all have relationships that are more like pleasant acquaintances.  In the moment of their need we may, in fact, be more like the hireling.  But each of us has a few precious relationships that stand through thick and thin. 

When a couple seeks God’s blessing on their marriage, we ask them to face one another, to join hands, and to promise to have and to hold for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health… until parted by death.  The wolf comes to every marriage.  Every couple is tested again and again.  This is why we do not ask them to sign on as a hireling in each other’s life.  We ask them to be shepherds who will lay down even life itself for the other.    

Parents also are called to be shepherds, not hirelings.  A parent will sacrifice everything for his or her children.  Each will put off personal needs to tend first to the needs of their children.  Their love is a bond that cannot be broken by any trouble.  When loving parents see the wolf coming they do not run away.  They do everything possible for their sheep, their children.

Some friends are shepherds, others are hirelings.  I learned this for the first time when my father died. My friends and I were still in our teens and death had never touched closely to any of us.  Some of my best friends were not able to stand by my side when that wolf was present.  They did not know what to say or do or how to make it better, so they stayed away.  Only a few friends stood with me in that awkward moment, but what friends they were!  They did not know what to say to make the pain more bearable.  They did not know what to do to slow the flow of tears.  So most times they stood by in silence, but their presence said more than any words of wisdom ever could.  We can’t be that kind of friend to everyone we know, but we all have friends who will know us to be shepherds in their hour of need.

We need to be realistic about this shepherding business.  There will be times of personal testing when those who should stand with us will fail us.  In our marriage, in our parenting, in our friendships, and even in our faith community, there will be times when we will look for a shepherd and find only hirelings.  And there will be times when those we love will need us and we will be little more than a hired hand who does not show up to do the job. 

As we rely on the grace of God to forgive us our sins, so we offer this grace to those who have sinned against us.  If we are to be shepherds, we will need to learn how to ask for forgiveness as well.  A hireling who screws up will run off and find another job.  But a shepherd who does not live up to the call will not run away and hide from the flock he or she loves.  A shepherd will return to gather the scattered, bind up the wounded, sooth the anxious, and begin the process of tending to the flock anew. 

In this life we can be sure we will be tested.  We can be sure the wolf will come.  Jesus tells us he is the Good Shepherd who will not disappoint us when everything else fails.  He asks us to help him watch over the flock of those who are closely connected to us.   He invites us to love one another as he loves us; to love as a shepherd.  In this love for one another we receive a glimpse of a kingdom yet to come.  It will be a kingdom of one flock under the love and protection of the one Great Shepherd.  Until that day when the wolf will be no more, we have a job to do.