Sermons

April 11, 2021: Easter 2

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EASTER 2 April 11, 2021

Today is one of the few Sunday's when we read the same Gospel story year after year. Our story, from John's account, begins "when it was evening on that day". And what a day it has been. In the morning three women went to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. In John's Gospel they found... so they ran to tell the apostles. Peter and the one called the beloved disciple ran back to the tomb and found it as described. Mary Magdalen who had stayed behind encountered Jesus near the tomb and eventually comes to recognize the Risen Lord.

Now it is evening and Jesus comes and stands among the frightened, confused group and says "Peace be with you". He then breaths on them and says, "Receive the Holy Spirit".

The action of "breathing on them" looks back to a creation story at the beginning of the Bible. (Genesis 2) In that story God is pictured as a potter at the wheel, scooping down, taking clay from the earth and creating a human form. Then breathing into the clay the breath of life, making a living human being. Now, in that upper room life is renewed.

In John's vision, eternal life is present here and now. The life we share is eternal. But even more, the scene presents John's version of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is breathed into the community. The advocate, the helper, the encourager now dwells within us. What glorious news!

Thomas, is out and about and misses this most sacramental moment. When he returns and is told the glorious news, he is skeptical. "You mean to say that the one crucified on the cross, the one the women said was not found in the tomb was here in this room and breathed on you and said: "Receive the Holy Spirit!" Yes they assured him. He doesn't believe it. But he has good reason.

"If what you are telling me is true", Thomas might have said, "why are all of you still locked up in the room; why are you still hiding, bound by fear. Where are the signs of this new and abundant life? Where are the signs of the presence and power of the Spirit." It all looked the same to Thomas.

A few days earlier, when Jesus washed their feet, he said: "by this all shall know that you are my disciples, that you care for one another, that you love one another. Thomas recognizes that something is missing. Where are the marks of the Spirit; where is the power? He had the right to doubt the story.

Thomas hangs around this locked up group and the following week Jesus came again. He invited Thomas to check out the wounds in his hands and feet, the wound in his side. Without doing so, Thomas makes the most profound statement of faith in the Gospel: "My Lord and my God". Thomas is not the doubter, but the believer.

Then Jesus says something more startling. As one scholar has said, it is as if we have been the audience in the darkened theater watching the story of the Gospel unfold on the stage. Now, Jesus pauses and has the lights turned on so that we, the audience are visible. Jesus turns to look at us and assures us: "Blessed are you who come to believe even though you do not have the opportunity to see me."

We, too, are invited: Receive the Holy Spirit! We, too, are challenged how we will be signs of the presence and power of God's love in our lives, in our world, in our very being. In the first reading we see an early attempt to live in a community "of one heart and soul, everything owned in common, sharing all their goods." That didn't last. But we do want a community, as we have been reminded this past year. The "Beloved Community, as John Lewis said.

The lives of those disciples hiding in that upper room teach us that discipleship has a cost. Love your enemies; do good to those who persecute you; feed the hungry, cloth the naked; forgive; do justice, love compassion; have an active concern for the poor, outcast, the foreigner; take up your cross and follow; love one another. Clear, but not easy. Possible, perhaps with the support of the Beloved Community.

In John's Gospel, faith is a verb, presented as a process, something that grows. That is the lens through which we should look at Thomas in today's story. Faith is a verb, which means it changes, grows, faces new challenges. doubts, seeks, finds support, keeps us going. We need a community to keep us going.

The life of faith is expressed in the words of Samuel Beckett, the Irish playwright: Sometimes there is a torch in my head and I see all things clearly. But then the light goes out and I am left with images and analogies." So it is in a life of faith. So today we hear Jesus again, turn from the pages of our bible to look at us and assure us: blessed are you who have not seen and yet believe. Blessed are you when the torch burns bright; blessed are you when the light seems to have gone out. Know, always, that I am with you; know always that you will always have life in my name, always a place in my presence."

Thanks be to God. Amen

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Note 1: Friday was Holocaust Remembrance Day. I sent a note to Rabbi Bellows and the community of Congregation Beth Shalom in Chester that we will remember the cost in human lives of anti-Semitism and oppose it whenever and wherever. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Heschel: "Not all are guilty, but all are responsible." Let us respond.

Note 2: Where do we go from here? Having gathered outside at All Saints for Easter Worship, the question is, what next? We are discussing possibilities. At present, I think we return to Zoom until Pentecost (May 23). After that, I suggest we meet outside, on the lawn for Sunday Worship and move toward celebrating Holy Eucharist. People bring lawn chairs and we will provide for those who cannot. My understanding is that Connecticut is stuck at a rate of infection that gives me caution. Vestry will meet in two weeks to discuss the future. We welcome your input. Contact one of us.


April 4, 2021: Easter Sunday

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EASTER SUNDAY April 4, 2021

Easter is such a wonderful feast. Not only does the feast celebrate the mysteries at the heart of our faith but Easter arrives as Spring begins its magic. the changes we long for - Light, warmth, renewal of life all around us. It's a little bashful this year but it is here.

This Easter holds a special meaning. Winter's death-like appearance has been nothing compared to the hundreds of thousands of deaths in our Nation and the millions around the world. On this day, the story of Easter light casting out darkness, hope overcoming despair, life conquering death is best experienced through the eyes of faith.

More that ever, today's Easter story pulls us into a living drama. We have much in common with the three brave women who make their way to the tomb. Their hearts ache with tragedy, the death of their friend; their hopes have been crushed. It is a terrible time.

"Come follow me" was the invitation extended by Jesus of Nazareth a few earlier. They did, and heard wonderful words and saw wonderful deeds. The glory of God seemed about to burst into this world. Instead, disaster struck. Jesus was arrested, beaten, executed. All that remaind was to make sure their friend was properly buried with the ritual prescribed by their faith.

We, too, have learned that things do not always turn out as we had hoped. Relationships fail, dreams are often unfulfilled, hopes can be crushed, loved ones die. We share much with these women as we walk with them to the tomb.

Oh, but now another problem. The women remember the tomb has been sealed with a large stone. "Who will roll away the stone for us?", they ask one another. The stone would prevent the sacred rite of burial. Stones have been obstacled for us in life. Behavior, attitudes, prejudices - our own and others- have prevented us from becoming the persons God created us to be. Fears, wounds, grudges, illness have burdened us, kept us in a tomb. "Who will roll away these stones for us?"

But when the women arrrive they are amazed; the stone has already been rolled away. How? By whom? The Gospel does not say. It isn't by magic. We know that in our lives the "stones" that limit us don't just disappear. And yet, there is something more than just our effort at work. There is grace- God's transforming love is real and present. In his Letter to the people of Corinth, Paul tells them three times that God's grace, God's powerful presence, was essential to his growth, the power to become a disciple.

With the stone rolled away, the women enter the tomb. But Jesus is not there. Instead, they find a youth dressed in white who announces the Good News: " Do not be afraid! Jesus has been raised! Go tell his disciples and Peter. He is going before you.." But our passage ends with the women running from the tomb, in fear and trembling and they tell no one because they are afraid.

Something is wrong. If they told no one, how come we are here? Down through history the story has been told and finally told to us. How can this be?

Who has continued to proclaim what the youth in white announced to the women? Well who is this youth dressed in white? From the earliest days of the Church, and down through the centuries, on Easter morning there were many youths dressed in white. They were the newly baptized, fresh from the Vigil just concluded. The baptized are sent to proclaim the Resurrection. Mark has drawn us into the drama. We are given a most important role to play.

We are called to "be not afraid" ; called to proclaim that Jesus goes before us, travels with us, empowers us to live lives of hope and service, of compassion and healing, reconciliation and love. Our live are to proclaim the good news of Easter: Christ is risen! Alleluia.


The Renewal of Baptismal Vows

Celebrant Do you reaffirm your renunciation of evil and renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?

People I do.

Celebrant Do you believe in God the Father?

People I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

Celebrant Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?

People I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.

He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit

and born of the Virgin Mary.

He suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was crucified, died, and was buried.

He descended to the dead.

On the third day he rose again.

He ascended into heaven,

and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Celebrant Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?

People I believe in the Holy Spirit,

the holy catholic Church,

the communion of saints,

the forgiveness of sins,

the resurrection of the body,

and the life everlasting.

Celebrant Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?

People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

People I will, with God’s help.

The Celebrant concludes the Renewal of Vows as follows

May Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has given us a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, and bestowed upon us the forgiveness of sins, keep us in eternal life by his grace, in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.




April 2, 2021: Good Friday

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Good Friday 12 Noon

Order of worship

Opening Prayer

Hymn: What wondrous love is this 439

Solemn Collects

Reading 1 Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12

Psalm 22

Hymn: When I survey the wondrous cross 474

Reading 2 Hebrews 10: 16-25

Passion according to John

Reflection by Euan Cameron

Christ was condemned to death, and died, at what by any human standards seems a horribly premature time, at the height of his ministry of teaching and healing, and through the machinations of corrupt forces.

Why was this necessary? From the earliest years of the proclamation of Christ crucified and risen, Christians have tried to explain exactly what purpose the death of Jesus served.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews, probably writing under the shadow of the loss of the Temple, explained that Jesus had become the one sacrifice to end all sacrifice, the one who initiated a new relationship with God.

The letter to Colossians wrote that God through Christ [erased] “the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.”

So many explanations: none tells the full story; none can express the mind of God.

Suppose that we interpreted the suffering of Christ as the pattern for all our sufferings and those of the whole world?

Suffering is evil; it is not “redemptive”; it is not “worth it” even in the end.

However, it is the special gift of God to show both love and power through and in the midst of suffering

That is what the Psalms so often proclaim: that when life seems bleakest, the power of God is always closer than we can even imagine. We hear that message even in Psalm 22, the psalm of desolation that Jesus quoted on the cross.

God identifies with those who are downcast and humiliated, as in the suffering servant depicted in the poetry of the follower of the prophet Isaiah who wrote our first reading.

And that is what happens here: Christ went to Jerusalem because he could not teach and proclaim the kingdom of God in a corner; he could not minimize or silence the message.

And for whatever complex of bad reasons, enough people decided that he must be stopped.

But the love that forced him to keep on teaching, healing and witnessing would not allow that.

And in his painful torment and death, the loving power of God was revealed: God took what seemed to be a futile waste, and turned it into triumph through the Resurrection, which we shall celebrate in a few short days. God turned Jesus’s death into a unique proclamation, a message that could be read in so many ways … but however you interpret it, it speaks the power of God to save and the endless love of God for those who suffer.

From this point on, suffering whether individual or collective, whether great grief or private pain, is enfolded in the love of God. We are blessed with a saving, loving God who does not rejoice in triumphing over, or humiliating others. Our Christ made himself one with those who grieve, those who are humbled, those who live with affliction. In our care for all those near and far who experience suffering, let us bring the love of Christ to them, as it is brought to us.





March 28, 2021: Palm Sunday

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PALM SUNDAY March 28, 2021

Opening/Introduction

We begin the week we call Holy; the week we celebrate the mysteries at the heart of our faith - the Passion/Death/Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Shouts of praise will give way to shouts of ridicule, humiliation and condemnation. Palm branches vanish and the Cross appears.

We pause, however, to acknowledge that moment of triumph

Reading : Brendan

Blessing

Hymn: All Glory, Laud and Honor

Collect of the Day

Reading from Isaiah 50: 4-9 Mindy

Psalm 31: 9-16 Pat

Reading from Paul's Letter to the Church at Philippi chapter 2: 5-11 Pat

Intro: to Gospel Reading

The fact that we are here today reminds us that the story we are about to hear again does not end with death. Our presence at worship today is witness that life is stronger than death. Also, we are here not to celebrate suffering and defeat, but to proclaim the victory of love and life. We will read the Passion Story today, and on Friday. But in these stories of Jesus' death, the way he died, crucifixion, is never actually described. Typical is Mark's version read today where we are told: "Then they took him out and crucified him". The author did not wish to emphasize the terrible suffering of Jesus, but the love that accepted this suffering - a love without limit and without end. Let that be the drumbeat you hear throughout the Gospel reading and throughout this week, in all our life.

Dramatic Reading of the Passion of our Lord, Jesus Christ,

according to St. Mark

Following the reading there will be a period of quiet reflection

Hymn 458 My Song is Love Unknown

Prayers

Hymn 473 Lift High the Cross

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Please join us Good Friday via Zoom at 12 Noon for our Worship


Easter Worship will be via Zoom but also outside at All Saints at 10 AM . We will set up chairs properly distanced. Wear Mask. Service will be Morning Prayer.





March 21, 2021: Fifth Sunday of Lent

Today's Readings

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

Years ago an uncle of mine who was a pilot for an international airline told me on his journey to a foreign land he came upon a street vendor who offered to sell him an autographed picture of Jesus Christ. He passed up the deal. The Gospel does not say anything about the physical appearance of Jesus. And, I am sure the paintings by Italian or German or Dutch artists we have seen bear little resemblance to the Middle Eastern Semite named Jesus.

Even though the four Gospel accounts have no physical description of Jesus, they each present an "image" of Jesus, and they are different. This is not surprising when you consider that our Gospel accounts all existed in oral form, repeated in stories over many years in different communities, different nations and societies. Beginning 30 years after the death and Resurrection of Jesus, the first, Mark's Gospel, achieved the written form we have today, and the other three accounts were written down in different communities and circumstances over the following forty years.

On Palm Sunday we will read the Passion of Jesus from Mark's Gospel account, written down around the year 70 AD, possibly in Rome. Five days later, on Good Friday, we will read the Passion Story from John's Gospel, written down almost 30 years later, possibly in Ephesus, present day Turkey.

We find very different images of Jesus in these two Gospels. Simply stated Mark's account emphasizes the humanity of Jesus, while John's focus is on the divinity of Jesus.

In Mark's Gospel Jesus will say he doesn't know some things and when we find him in Gethsemane praying to the Father on the night of his arrest, he asks if the "hour might pass from him". In today's reading from John, Jesus refuses to pray that he be saved from "the hour", for that is the very reason he has come. The "hour" of his passion and death.

In Mark's account, Jesus prays that " God's will be done"; in John's account Jesus prays that God be glorified. In Mark's Gospel we see the human Jesus struggle with fear and uncertainty; in John's account Jesus seems to be in charge, even directing the events leading to " the hour".

What unifies all the Gospel accounts is that Jesus' passion and death are not the result of his being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but in the fact that Jesus saw his mission to reveal that God so loved the whole world with a love without limit and without end, even to the extent of laying down his life for us. So often we hear that God sent Jesus to die. Jesus came to reveal God's love for this human family. Humans chose How to react. Jesus is killed by human beings, not by God. We have done this other times to other people who proclaimed a similar message.

In today's reading Jesus paints a picture, demonstrating that life and death are joined together. Only a dying seed bears fruit. Our presence here today shows the truth in Jesus' statements: his death and resurrection have given birth to the Church. But there is a leap of faith required to go all the way with Jesus' words: that we must walk the same path. Those who love their life will lose it and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. "Hating one's life" means living in an unselfish way, deeply concerned for the well being of others, willing to give one's life for the life of another. If my whole life is lived only for me, how can my life nurture others?

Human suffering is the challenge. While the Gospels were written at different times and places they were all written in a crisis. Those who had come to faith and been baptized in the power of the Resurrection and filled with the Spirit still found themselves bearing the cross, even suffering death because of their faith in Christ. Where was the victory?

The unifying message of all the Gospel accounts is that in Jesus, God does not free us from suffering but joins us in the midst of human suffering. The promise is that God is present with us and will keep us to eternal life.

In this pandemic where would we be without the people risking their health their lives caring for the ill? Also, we witness people giving their lives doing justice and loving compassion in our world. Many lives do become grains of wheat dying but bearing much fruit.

Today is the first day of Spring. It's been a long winter, but the green shoots of daffodils and bright color of crocuses are visible . New life is returning. All this happens without our work. But mercy and kindness and healing and love, care for the suffering and dying, justice and hope and love can only exist if we plant them life. They exist in our world, in our society because of those who have lived the power of the Spirit and become the seeds of faith and love and hope for us. Easter calls us to live our lives, plant the seeds that will give life to those who come after us.

March 14, 2021: Fourth Sunday of Lent

Today's Readings

Old Testament: Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm: 107:1-3,17-22
Epistle: Ephesians 2:1-10
Gospel: John 3:14-21

Today is the fourth Sunday in Lent. For those who know the obscurer corners of the liturgical calendar, this is “Laetare Jerusalem” Sunday, or “rejoice Jerusalem”. It has been marked as the Sunday in Lent when the disciplines and abstinences of the Lenten season were eased up for a short while.

On this day, highly liturgical congregations still exchange the purple vestments of Lent for a rose colour. Deeply as we all yearn for the time when we can share the Eucharistic celebration together, let me confess that I am grateful that none of the parishes where I have served has so far chosen to use rose vestments. I’m sorry: I just do not believe that pink is my colour.

However, there is a serious point. The sober, even sombre tone of the Lenten season is not just there to help us feel gloomy, as though there were not already enough in the world for us to lament over. Sundays like this one serve to remind us that, in the Hebrew Scriptures and in our New Testament, lament always happens under the loving gaze of God: the God who stands by us in hard times, and passionately seeks our healing and our restoration. Lent is not just a preparation for Easter and the celebration of resurrection; it is an integral part of it.

The first verse of our Gospel passage today anticipates Christ’s crucifixion by likening it to what in Christian tradition was called a “foreshadowing”: the raising of the bronze serpent by Moses to heal those who had been bitten by snakes in the desert, described in our first lesson from Numbers 21.

This image of the serpent on a pole is enormously familiar, even to those who may not know where it comes from. It has become one of the most universal symbols of healing, whether in the form of two snakes twined round a pole (known as a Caduceus) or a single snake suspended from the top of a pole (sometimes called the rod of the Greek god of healing, Asclepius). You will undoubtedly have seen these emblems on the side of ambulances, on the logos of hospitals, or for that matter on the badges of members of the Army Medical Corps.

For such a widely used symbol, it is intriguing how uncertain the story of the serpent in the wilderness is. In the Second Book of Kings, chapter 18, we read that the reforming king Hezekiah “broke into pieces the copper serpent that Moses had made, for until that time the Israelites had been offering sacrifices to it; it was called Nehushtan”. The detailed story that we read in the Book of Numbers may have been elaborated from the legend that Moses had made the bronze serpent: though in truth serpent-gods were all over the world of the ancient Middle East, and it is possible, even somewhat likely, that the image that Hezekiah destroyed was derived from an Egyptian cult object.

Why, you might wonder, do we associate snakes, which we think of as harmful, with healing? We do not know for certain, but the association seems quite ancient. Possibly the snake’s shedding of its skin was taken as a symbol of new life; possibly the way that snakes, as cold-blooded animals, can regain energy with dramatic speed when the sun reaches them, was taken as a symbol of healing and recovery.

Healing, its wonders and its limitations, has been on our minds for the past year. God has brought healing to many in this terrible pandemic, through the skill of the medical and nursing professions, and through the prayerful support of families and friends, even when that could not be expressed face to face. In the last months, though the skill, determination and energy of the scientific community, God offers us the promise that vaccination will dramatically reduce the severity and the spread of the infection.

Yet not all are healed in body. Far too many lives have been cut short, an unimaginable over half a million in this country alone, and we cannot even know how many millions around the world. Moreover, the entirely justifiable focus on the pandemic has had a secondary impact, in that many people have found that treatment for other conditions has become more difficult. At the very least they have been deprived of the contact with family, friends, supporters, or indeed chaplains, which it is well known often plays an important role in healing.

The Israelites did not become immune to the bite of snakes in the desert. Though God loves us utterly, we still fall sick, because vulnerability to sickness, and mortality itself, are parts of the nature of which we are made.

Yet Jesus, in the account which we read from John chapter 3, says that through his ministry those who believe in him will have eternal life. When John wrote his Gospel, the communities who followed Jesus had been reflecting on the meaning of his death and resurrection for some seventy years. They believed that the loving power of God had been shown to be stronger than death itself: not because death was taken away, but because it did not have the last word.

The healing of which Jesus spoke was of a very special kind. It was a renewal of life even within life itself, which Jesus expressed as a new birth, as “being born of water and Spirit”. Our Gospel reading today comes from the long conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus was one of the sophisticated, cultured Jewish philosophers and believers of Jesus’s time. His name comes from the Greek language, which many learned Jews (including our Gospel writers) used as their natural means of expression.

Nicodemus, we learn, sought Jesus out at night, to escape the controversy and distraction which could follow from speaking to a teacher who stood outside the circles of privilege. By an elegant, literary paradox, Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, in the darkness, and so doing he enters into a greater light than his own learning and wisdom could ever give him.

As the 17th-century poet Henry Vaughan wrote about this encounter, in his poem “The Night”:

Wise Nicodemus saw such light

As made him know his God by night.

Most blest believer he!

Who in that land of darkness and blind eyes

Thy long-expected healing wings could see,

When Thou didst rise!

And, what can never more be done

Did at midnight speak with the Sun!

O who will tell me where

He found Thee at that dead and silent hour?

What hallowed solitary ground did bear

So rare a flower,

Within whose sacred leaves did lie

The fulness of the Deity?

The message that Jesus brought to Nicodemus was one of new life, of freedom from the futility and the condemnation that their own lack of direction and divine light had brought on the Israelites in the desert. From the passage from Numbers, one might conclude that the Israelites were punished for their quarrelsomeness and ingratitude to God. But the author of the letter to the Ephesians gives a psychologically more profound explanation. God “loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses”. The mortality of the soul, the impoverishment of spirit that alienates us from God and from each other, is its own judgment and its own punishment.

It is from that emptiness which ensues when people live only for themselves, that Jesus comes to free us and to heal us. The letter to the Ephesians makes clear that it is God who brings us to new life in Christ; “by grace [we] have been saved”. The healing of soul and spirit that comes through the Gospel is a pure gift. It is grace given to those who not only do not deserve it, but do not know to ask for it. In Jesus the meaning of our lives is both affirmed and transformed. It offers us the possibility of living our lives in this world without being overwhelmed. Most of all, the grace that heals us, also restores us for the service of others. We are, as the epistle says, “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand”.

Those who have gone before us are, I believe, safe in the love of God. We who remain, shall emerge from the present stresses and strains of the pandemic: that much is clear. But once we are able to be together, we must redouble our efforts to be present, in spirit and love, to each other in Christ’s name. There are many visible and tangible expressions of love and support for each other, with which we shall need to catch up when we can do so safely.

So, in God’s promises which cannot fail us, let us pray to become lights to the world and to each other.

Amen.

— Euan Cameron

March 7, 2021: Third Sunday of Lent

Today's Readings

Old Testament: Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm: 19
Epistle: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Gospel: John 2:13-22

When Jesus entered the Temple of Jerusalem and began driving out the animals for sacrifice and tipped over the tables of the money changers who helped people like his parents who came after his birth for many years, people were shocked. When he proclaimed: "destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up again", they were appalled.

They were in the most sacred place on earth, still under construction after 46 years. At its center was the room of the "holy of holies", God's dwelling place on earth. A place entered once a year by the High Priest. The temple guaranteed God's presence among the people. To declare its destruction was an attack on the faith, on the well-being of the nation.

This was not the first time something like this had happened. Almost 600 years earlier, the prophet Jeremiah stood in the temple and spoke of its destruction. At that time people grabbed Jeremiah and tried to kill him. The intervention of powerful friends saved his life. Jesus got off easy. At least it seemed at the moment.

Perhaps some who heard Jesus remembered Jeremiah. Maybe they remembered that a year after this event the Temple was completely destroyed by the Babylonian Army. The unthinkable had happened. A crisis of faith and survival followed.  They would not have known that it would happen again.  35 years after Jesus' warning, the Temple was destroyed by the Roman Army, along with the city. Again, a crisis of faith and survival followed. The words of this Gospel were written in that most difficult period.

The attack of September 11th on the US combined with the attack on the Capitol on January 6th could not have brought more pain to us than these events brought to the Jewish people. I think most of us are aware of what is called the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The wall is really remnants of the foundation of this Temple. We can see the reverence  displayed by Jews who gather there to pray, to remember, to weep. So Jesus' words were uttered at a place considered sacred even to this day. Certainly this was more than that,  a marketplace as Jesus called it. For many it was a "house of prayer. So what was the problem?

Jeremiah's condemnation of the Temple was a condemnation of what religion had come to mean for so many in his day. Religious leaders, said Jeremiah, emphasized elaborate and expensive sacrifice was important, even most essential to belief in God. At the same time, the poor were neglected, oppressed. Doing Justice and compassion were the foundations of worship in the eyes of the prophets. To replace these essential values of the Covenant with Temple worship was, said the Prophets, a counterfeit religion.

Jesus was reaffirming the condemnation proclaimed by Jeremiah. Calling into judgement institutional religion. But the context in which the words we read is important. Things were different.

When these words were written in John's Gospel, toward the end of the first century, the violent conflict between Israel and Roman occupation following the destruction of the Temple, was continuing. The survival of Jewish faith and Jewish identity was threatened. The Jewish faith had been very tolerant of differences in belief among its members. But in an attempt to secure survival, new rules were developed. Jews who proclaimed that Messiah had come were no longer considered members. Christian Jews were in a bind. At the same time, missionary work like that of Paul had brought many gentiles into faith in Christ. An implication in the words of Paul we see that he had argued successfully that such people could be Christian without becoming Jews.

Christianity was becoming a separate religion. Jerusalem was home to the last of the communities that was still predominantly Jewish in its Christian faith.  In this conflict between Christian Jews and the Jewish leadership, the Temple scene we read today was helpful to Christians. Faith in Jesus could live without Temple.

But there was a problem. No longer was this story a call to be careful of the limitations of institutional religion in general,  but on the limitations of the Jewish religion. Tragically, in history this scene would be used to feed anti-Semitic movements.

This helped get the institutional Christian Church off the hook. The warning in the scene was applied to Jews not to Christians, not to us. However at the time of the Reformation, this Gospel reading was popular among Reformers. Christ was not driving out money changers but sellers of indulgences. This text all but disappeared from Roman Catholic worship in those days.

What about today?  When I was a young theology student a question we were asked was :"Did Jesus intend to found a church?" We all had learned theories. After a while the teacher said that he thought the question was poorly phrased. "The  question is", he said, "are we the Church Jesus, through the power of the Spirit, intended?". A good question.

Our Gospel story from today is found in the other three accounts. In all three it is found just before the arrest of Jesus. In Mark's version, Jesus quotes the Prophet Isiah: "My house will be called a house of prayer for all people".

We live at a time when even before the pandemic, institutional churches were declining in membership. We know that. The experience of this year has reminded us how important it is to live in a community of believers, a house of the church. But I think some have learned how to live without the church as we know it. It will be interesting to see the future. It will be different, it will be a challenge.

To say that we will rebuild our "house of prayer for all people" may not be enough, but I think it a good place to begin again.

February 28, 2021: Second Sunday of Lent

Today's Readings

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

The Opening Prayer for today, the Collect as it is called in worship, asks God to lead us to "hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word." However, if we look back at the history of the Church, we recognize that the truth is unchangeable but our understanding and the words used to express it cannot be unchangeable.

Sacred Scripture may be the Word of God, but it is the Word of God in human words. Well expressed in the story of the great St. Agustine walking along the beach one morning trying to find the words to express the Trinity. He came upon a young boy who had dug a hole in the sand and was carrying buckets of water from the sea and pouring them into it. Agustine paused and after a while asked the lad,"What are you doing"."I'm putting the ocean into this hole", the boy replied. Agustin laughed and said, "Don't be foolish. You'll never fit the ocean into this hole". The lad replied: "Far easier to put the entire ocean into this hole than put the mystery of God into human words".

In Hebrew , "word" expresses something that is living, dynamic, not merely lines on a page. The same idea is present in the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews: "The word of God is living and active."(Hebrews 4:12). At the beginning of his Gospel, John  speaks of Jesus as "the Word", the Incomprehensible Mystery, alive, present, unfolding in new ways the unchangeable truth of God. At the end of John's Gospel Jesus tells us that the Spirit will be with us to teach us down through history the living, new understanding of the mystery of God.  "Easier to put the entire ocean in a hole than the mystery of God in human words''.

And so we are ready to read the living Word of God assigned for today.  We meet Abram, who will soon have his name changed to Abraham.  Three religions - Judaism, Islam and Christianity all trace their roots back to Abraham. Jews and Christians plant their family tree in Abraham through his son, Isaac, while Muslims do the same through Abraham's son Ismael. Some of the same Biblical stories are shared in all three traditions.

Abraham is the model of faith for these three traditions. These "Abrahamic" religions are united in that they profess one God. The story we read today presents Abraham as a man whose trust in God is unchangeable even when the words God is speaking make little sense to.

The promise was made a few chapters earlier in Genesis when God first called  Abraham to "go from your land and your kindred and from your father's house to the land I will show you, thus I will make you a great people and bless you, and I will make your name great, so YOU WILL BE A BLESSING TO OTHERS". The problem is that Abraham and Sarah are old and have no son, and they have no land.

We know the story. Sarah will give birth to Isaac and land will be found. Words fulfilled. But what about "Being a blessing to others? If we study the history of the interrelations of members of these three religions tracing a relation to Abraham, it doesn't seem that "being a blessing" has been understood as the unchangeable word of God. There is work to be done.

In our second reading, Paul uses the faith of Abraham to change what many early Christians considered unchangeable truth. Many believed that to be Christian one must be of the tribe of Abraham, must be Jewish. For Paul it is the faith of Abraham and not the blood of Abraham that is important. One is Christian by faith in Jesus, not by belonging to the family of Abraham. We might not appreciate what a change that was in what most thought was an unchangeable truth.

In our Gospel  we meet Peter fresh from his vision of Jesus in glory on the mountain when he heard the voice proclaim "this is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him.” Peter forgot that last part. When Jesus began to explain that being beloved Son, being Messiah would mean taking up the cross and suffering, he tries to correct Jesus. Jesus changes the understanding of the unchangeable truth expressed in the words traditionally used to explain the role of messiah.

And so the Spirit, as Jesus has foretold, done down the years; Challenged us to distinguish what is the unchangeable truth from the changeable meaning in human words and experience. The role of women, sexual orientation, our relation to the world about us are examples. Our understanding of God's faithfulness and justice, God's image present in all human beings and in the goodness of Creation extends far beyond our understanding, less than the Spirit teaches us. And when we learn anew we are called to act.

This is the last day of Black History Month. It is a time we witness a great divide between many who profess belief in the unchangeable truth of the word, Jesus Christ. White Evangelical communities have become the bulwark of White Supremacy while Black Evangelical Churches have nurtured and sustained the cause of Civil Rights and racial equality.

White Evangelical communities use scripture to justify slavery and segregation and White supremacy. This is a tradition handed down for hundreds of years. It is alive and well in our day. In fact it is more open and brazen at this time. But so is the Spirit, and the lie that scripture justifies racial injustice must be confronted. As Abraham Heschel has reminded us in situations like this "Some are guilty, but all are responsible."  White supremacy must not be allowed to hide in, or worse, justify itself in the words of our faith. The unchangeable truth that the Spirit is unfolding again, that all are created in the image of God cannot be limited or diminished. This is the unchangeable truth. Let us live it, let us proclaim it. Let us be a blessing to others.

February 21, 2021: First Sunday of Lent

Today's Readings

Old Testament: Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm: 25:1-9
Epistle: 1 Peter 3:18-22
Gospel: Mark 1:9-15

Lent, among other things, has always been a time of preparation for Baptism on Easter. The readings for each Sunday have been selected as a basis for teaching candidates the faith. Today's Gospel goes right to the source, telling the story of Jesus' baptism. A short but dramatic scene:  the "heavens were "torn apart"; the Spirit descended like a dove; a voice from heaven proclaims "You are my Son, the Beloved". Jesus is then driven into the wilderness, by the Spirit, and tempted by Satan. He returns, proclaiming "the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the Good news."

There is a lot of material in this short reading, but what strikes me is the question: what is the Good News? How would you express the Good News? What does it mean in our lives? What changes now that the kingdom has drawn near?

Jesus proclaims the "Good News" only after he has been tempted by Satan in the wilderness. Mark does not tell us what the temptation was, but Matthew and Luke list three temptations in which Satan invites Jesus to choose power rather than love as the means to live out his role as "Beloved Son". Jesus was tempted to be something other than the "beloved Son".

Thomas Merton's definition of sin is the refusal to be who God has created us to be. That is what Satan tempts Jesus. To not be the beloved Son God has called him to be.

Our first reading takes us back to the first book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis. Genesis begins with two creation stories. The first is a poem describing creation taking place through the power of God's word, in an orderly fashion presented as six days. All creation is good but on the sixth day God creates the masterpiece, human beings.

God created human beings in God's own image and God's own likeness, we are told. Male and female, equal in dignity. In the second story, in Genesis 2, God is pictured as a potter, working at the potter's wheel, scooping up clay from the earth and forming a human being then "breathing into the clay the very breath of God." Humans are of the earth but also the divine breath. In both stories human beings are of great dignity - created in the very image of God and enlivened by the divine breath.

So, the first two chapters of scripture affirm the dignity of every human being. Sin, if we use Merton's definition, is the refusal to be, to act as this image, or refuse to treat one another as made in God's image, animated by the divine breath of God.

That is good news of faith. That is the way Jesus lived as beloved son. Jesus sought out the very people we are tempted to avoid - the poor, the outcast, the powerless, the foreigner. The beloved son recognized the dignity of all, especially those in whom society saw very little. The good news to us is that we all share this image, we all have this dignity. To refuse to acknowledge it, refuse to live it would be sin.

Today's reading from Genesis focuses on Noah. The great act of Creation has dimed. The image of God is hidden, denied in human actions. People no longer live as God created them to be. Remember the story, the first human beings denied who they were and who the other was. In the story, Adam and Eve succumb to the temptation to not act as "children" made in the image of God but seduced by Satan tried to be "like God ''.

When the plan doesn't work Adam blames Eve, who, in turn blames the tempter. The process continues as Cain kills Abel, and the division grows to where the whole human family is alienated from one another, and from God. All is lost when human beings are not content being who God created them to be.

Most scholars today read Genesis, not as history but a story that reflects on the source and effects of sin and evil.  They come from human actions. Jesus refused to succumb to the temptation to choose power over love. We, however , can and do, and thereby refuse to be who we are created to be, refuse to treat each other as made in the image and likeness of God.

The Church has fostered this distortion over the years. Some seek personal salvation rather than the beloved community. Some claim to be God's chosen, no longer members of the human family, made in the image and likeness of God. Faith in God is used to build walls, separate us rather than unite us.

The result is that we are alienated from one another. Separated from one another. We refuse to be who we are, made in the image and likeness of God.

Lent reminds us who we are. Lent calls us to repent, believe the good news; believe we are children made in God's image and likeness; alive through the very breath of God. Believe the Good News. Amen

February 14, 2021: Last Sunday after the Epiphany

Today's Readings

Old Testament: 2 Kings 2: 1-12
Psalm: 50: 1-6
Epistle: 2 Corinthians 4: 3-6
Gospel: Mark 9: 2-9

For the past 3 weeks our Gospel reading has come from the 1st chapter of Mark's account. We have followed Jesus from his baptism, as he gathered disciples and began to teach and heal in small towns. Today we jump ahead 8 chapters to the story of the Transfiguration. Why?

Wednesday, we will begin our Lenten journey,  40 days and 40 nights...that lead to the Passion and death of Jesus. The Transfiguration occurs just before these events. The evangelist records this vision of Jesus' glory, to fortify the apostles as they are about to be challenged by the events of Holy Week. The Church does the same for us disciples. Reveals Jesus' glory to fortify our faith in him, less we grow weary, afraid, discouraged as we follow the way of the cross.

It is important to remember that the Evangelist was writing for us. He was not writing the history of Jesus, but wrote to nurture our faith in Jesus. When crunch time came for the apostles, Peter denied he knew Jesus and James and John disappeared. Crunch time comes for us, too, and Mark is counting on us to  "hear the word and do it", to take up our cross and follow, to believe and act out the Good News. This is all spelled out in the Collect for today:

O God, who before the passion of your only begotten Son
revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we,
beholding by faith the light of his countenance may
be strengthened to bear our cross...

We have all lived long enough to know faith needs to be nurtured, supported. That is why we have joined this small community. As the Irish poet, William Butler Yates wrote: "Sometimes there is a torch in my head and I see all things clearly. But then the light goes out, and I am left with images and analogies." There are times in life when things seem clear, make sense, are manageable. But there are times when the light dims, even goes out, and we grope in darkness. There are times we are confused, afraid; times  we need support from others.

In the Transfiguration scene Jesus is joined by Moses and Elijah. Two men who knew all too well  moments of light and assurance but also moments of darkness, doubt and fear.

Moses often complained to God when the people complained to him about the trials and tribulations of the desert. Elijah, whom we encountered in our first reading knew the same.  We have met him before. He lived about 800 years before Jesus, after Israel had divided by civil war into the Northern Kingdom called Israel and the southern kingdom, Judah.

In the north,  pagan worship was making a comeback. Elijah was one of the few prophets who remained faithful to Yahweh and he confronted the king who was leading Israel astray. You may remember a previous story in which we saw Elijah on the run, hunted by the king, feeling defeated, alone, without hope , disappointed in God. In the midst of this darkness he received the gift of light;  a "still small voice of God's presence". Elijah listened and received courage and hope and returned to the work of proclaiming the presence and power of God.

In today's reading, we are at the end of Elijah's life. His mission is being handed over to his disciple Elisha. The vision of Elijah taken to heaven in a fiery chariot inspired the Spiritual "Swing low sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home." which itself became a light for others seeking freedom.

So, here we have Elijah and Moses appearing in the brightness of God's glory "talking with Jesus". Moses, the foundation of the Law and Elijah, the greatest of the prophets, were talking, according to Luke, about Jesus' passing - the way of the cross. Again the voice proclaims: "This is my Son, the beloved, listen to him". Bidden or not, God is present.

In a way, that summarizes  Mark's Gospel message. The presence of God bidden or not bidden, seen or not seen, felt or not felt is with us - even in suffering.  As Paul proclaims to the Corinthians , "the Light shines in the darkness, shone our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ."

The English Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God;
it will flume out, like shining from shook foil;
it gathers to a greatness like the ooze of oil.

Our technical capabilities make it possible to recreate the brightness of that scene on the mountain. Also, the way we treat our world is not in search of the grandeur.

The Jewish theologian, Abrahm Heschel said that the surest way to undermine our ability to believe is to take things for granted. If we have learned anything this past year it is to not take things for granted.

When we have gathered for worship under what we call "normal circumstances" to celebrate the presence and power of the "Beloved Son" we use simple but very human signs and articles - telling the story of God's saving acts in history, sharing bread and wine in a meal of thanksgiving. In the Middle Ages Thomas Aquinas celebrated this mystery at the heart of our faith. Thomas' hymn is in our prayer book - 314. A poetic translation of this hymn was written by Gerard Manley Hopkins. In part, he writes:

Godhead here in hiding, who I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows, shapes and nothing more,
See Lord, at thy service, low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder, at the God thou art.

Lord, can we know the presence of the Beloved Son when darkness clouds the Light. Can we affirm the presence for one another even when we are weary, afraid, distraught; when the cross seems very real. Can we, Dear Lord, be lost, all lost in wonder, at the God thou art. Amen.

February 7, 2021: Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Today's Readings

Old Testament: Isaiah 40:21-31

Psalm: 147:1-12, 21c

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Gospel: Mark 1:29-39

"As the light lengthens, so the cold strengthens" is an ancient Celtic saying that describes these days in which daylight grows but so does the cold. For the ancient Celts, these first days of February began the season of Imbolc, the second quarter of the year (February, March, April). In Celtic lore, Spring's approach was heralded by the Goddess Brigid, not some groundhog. When Ireland became Christian, the Church "baptized" Brigid and she became St. Brigid of Kildare, the most popular protector of Ireland after Patrick. St. Brigid's cross, made from straw was hung over the house door as a protection from fire, and the well at Brigid's shrine was famous for healing.

Shrines for healing have been places of pilgrimage throughout human history and are found all over the world, and healing is the focus at the beginning of Jesus' ministry as recorded in Mark's Gospel account. But these healings are presented as exorcisms, the casting out of demons who the people of the day believed were the cause of illness or impairment. It was a common understanding of illness in Jesus's day.

Today's Gospel reading continues Jesus' first day ministry. Last week we saw the day begin in a synagogue in Capernaum with the healing of a man possessed by an evil spirit. Today it continues in Simon's house where his mother-in-law is healed of a fever. Later crowds appear at the door with the sick of the village. In these healings, again, the source of the illness is demonic possession. As was said last week, Jesus' healings are presented as signs that the power of evil is reduced to impotency. It seems to endure but its roots have been cut. Its power is dying.

The reaction to this power of Jesus is voiced by Simon: "everyone was searching for him". Simon states this after hunting down to a deserted place Jesus had found for prayer early the second day and found him in the deserted place Jesus sought for prayer early the second day; after the "whole city gathered around the door where he was staying". By Simons reckoning the good news was working. Jesus' popularity was rising. But why was Jesus seeking a quiet place to pray?

One of the lessons we will learn as we continue our journey through Mark's Gospel is that Jesus continually asks silence from people who are healed; from proclamations that he is Messiah. One reason seems to be that what people think Messiah will be is not whom Jesus sees as "beloved Son". Simon's joy that "everyone is searching for you" clashes with Jesus' desire to "get out of here and go to neighboring towns and proclaim the good news, for that is what I came to do".

What we have here is a problem of communication. It seems Jesus sought out prayer because he realized he was not the "beloved Son" those who wanted to proclaim him Messiah thought he would be. Even more, Jesus realized his Father was not the God we would prefer God to be. Let us pause with Jesus for a minute.

We are about to close out the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany cycle of our Church calendar. At the heart of this season we proclaimed: "the Word became flesh and lived as one of us". We will soon begin our Lenten journey that will lead to the way of the cross and we are reminded that the beloved Son has joined us in the very depths of human existence. In Jesus, God does not take us out of human suffering, but joins us, heals us, redeems us in the very midst of human suffering.

As we have learned, each of the Gospel accounts were written, not as biography or history but as a summary of faith for a community in crisis. Over a 35 year period, the four accounts we have were set down in writing for different communities in different places experiencing a crisis, usually persecution for faith in Jesus. Mark's account, the first written, was addressed to a community, perhaps in Rome, experiencing a fierce persecution. Why, some were asking, are we suffering? Where is the power of Jesus' life, death and resurrection? In short, in the Gospel Jesus calls us to "take up the cross and follow". The disciple is not removed from the human situation of suffering, but is joined, by Christ, in the midst of human life, even human suffering.

We might wish it was the reverse. In the Greek tragedies human beings often get themselves in dire, unsolvable, painful situations that have no solution. But then arrives as a "deus ex machina" , literally, "god in the machine". The solution arrives via a god literally descending from heaven "in a machine" to resolve the unsolvable situation. Our God, however, has chosen to "become flesh" and joined us in the midst of human joy and sorrow, hope and fear, a God who suffers with us.

At the end of our reading from Isaiah this morning we read: "Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint." It is a hope repeated elsewhere in Hebrew Scriptures, the assurance of God's saving power present in the midst of human life, especially at those times that seem unsolvable. Present not on some descending machine but within each of us. Present amidst our hopes and fears, our joys and sorrows; present in all our suffering and pain. For those among us most in need, may our God's presence not be subtle.

January 31, 2021: Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Today's Readings

Old Testament: Deuteronomy 18:15-20

Psalm: 111

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Gospel: Mark 1:21-28

The beloved Rabbi of a large synagogue addressed his congregation one Sabbath: "My dear people, Messiah has come among us." Eyes opened, jaws dropped. Someone objected: "Rabbi, peace and justice will break out with Messiah's arrival." Another added, "prisoners will be liberated, the oppressed freed." " The wolf and the lamb will sleep together, and the leopard with the goat, " added a third. " I know, I know", responded the Rabbi, " we are still working out the details".

Working out the details is the mission Jesus assigns to disciples in Mark's Gospel. Today we get the first reactions to Jesus' preaching the Good News. The crowd marveled at the authority, the power of Jesus' words. They found such power lacking in the other teachers of the day. However, as we proceed in the Gospel, we will find that this Gospel has very few words of Jesus' teaching when compared to the other Gospel accounts. And we will learn that the crowd really doesn't understand what Jesus is teaching.

The demons, however, seem to know very well who Jesus is and what his presence and power and teaching mean. "You are the Holy one of God'', they shout. And the demons know why Jesus has come." "Have you come to destroy Us?" The answer is yes, as this first miracle demonstrates.

In Biblical times, sickness was ascribed to evil spirits. Hence, many of Jesus' healings are described as exorcisms, casting out the demons responsible for the illness. The focus is not that Jesus is a universal vaccine, but that Jesus possesses power over evil spirits and uses that power to break the power of evil in our lives.

If we pull back the camera on this Gospel story, we can picture Jesus' actions as the cutting down of a giant tree; cut off at ground level. The power of the demons, the source of evil, is cut at the roots. But like a large tree, the branches and leaves still look alive for some time. Just as the tree still appears alive, so evil still seems to have power in our day. But its roots are severed and in time the leaves will fade and fall off, the branches decay and rot. The power of evil has been destroyed.

But this is a vision that is not obvious. It is the vision of the faith Jesus proclaims. Disciples are called to work out the details of such a vision in our daily lives. The Gospel proclaims that not only does the arc of history bend toward justice, but that the future belongs to justice and compassion, peace and truth, hope and love. But if the devil is in the details, evil, though defeated appears very real and very present.

Just ask Paul. Today we find him in Corinth, busy working out the details. This conservative Jew from a small town in Palestine finds himself in what was perhaps the most cosmopolitan city on earth. Corinth is built on a narrow piece of land that divides two seas - the Agean and the Adriatic. Hence, it had two sea ports. It was a shipbuilding center, a military and manufacturing hub. The sports center of the day with a population drawn from across the Roman Empire. Excavations have found 33 taverns. The goddess of the city was Aphrodite- goddess of love; Venus in Latin. And here we find Paul, working out the details of God's presence among us.

The topic of today's reading is food, but the real focus is on the concern believers are to have for one another. At the time much meat was purchased from markets near temples. Animals offered for sacrifice were not entirely burned. Often just a small portion. The rest was sold to support the priests. Often, then, when one ate meat it was meat that had been offered to pagan gods. Some Christians had no problem. These gods don't exist so I can eat. Others thought to do so was participating in worship of a pagan god. Paul agrees that the first are right but that he would eat no meat if it would be a burden to the faith of the second group. The issue is care and concern for others. Our love for others.

The Letter we are reading is best known from what Paul writes 5 chapters further on. "Love is patient and kind, slow to anger and quick to forgive.." His famous poetic words describing love as the greatest of gifts. Paul tells us that one who accepts the call to follow Christ can do so because she is first embraced by God's love. So embraced, the Christian is empowered to love others.

In his book, "The Art of Loving", Erich Fromm says love is not a feeling that sweeps over us but a disciplined decision to act in a certain way. The signs of the presence of love are care, respect, and a sense of responsibility for the other. Love, he says, is an active concern for the well being of the other, all others. Paul would agree.

We have been called to be disciples. We have realized that this is a gift and a great challenge. Words to describe the challenge are found in a love song by Billie Holiday. She sings: "the difficult I'll do right now; the impossible will take a little while".

And so it seems. Working out the details of God's presence is difficult, even impossible. And yet, that is what we are called to do. But this is not something we do alone. As we read the first words in Mark's Gospel. I am reminded of his last words in Matthew's: Know that I am with you always, even to the end."

I am with you as you work out the details. AMEN

January 24, 2021: Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Today's Readings

Old Testament: Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Psalm: 62:6-14

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Gospel: Mark 1:14-20

Today we are invited to think about how God “calls” followers to help spread God’s word. We began with Jonah’s mission to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. Jonah’s story is one of the most memorable of the stories of the prophets. Jonah is called to do something unimaginable, to preach against the misdeeds of a vast city of non-believers in the name of the Hebrew God. Predictably, he runs off in the opposite direction. After his traumatic experiences in the Mediterranean, he preaches as he is told to – finally. And he succeeds beyond imagination. He is so successful that he is embarrassed, because God relents of destroying the people of the city. Jonah then leaves in a huff and camps outside the city to grumble about the capriciousness of his employer. The book of Jonah is almost an extended comic tale. Everything is exaggerated and ridiculous, even the size of the city. What is the moral of the story? Don’t resist the call of God – but even when you accept it, you may end up looking absurd …

Then, in total contrast, we have the story of the call of the first disciples in Mark. John the Baptist has preached the coming of Jesus, and suddenly there he is. Jesus calls Andrew and Simon, and they follow at once. He then sees James and John, and he calls them. They leave their family, their work, their lives, and follow Jesus.

Let’s pause for just a moment (because Mark never does). The Gospel that we know as Mark is written, especially in the opening chapters, in a clipped, laconic style, as though Mark wants to write the absolute basics. Mark was written, we believe, either side of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, maybe a few years before or a few years after. In either case, it was a time of profound crisis for the Judaean people: it felt like the world, or at least the world they knew, was coming to an end. Time was very, very short.

In the past week, this country commemorated Martin Luther King. While reading Mark, I am constantly reminded of King’s famous expression about the “fierce urgency of now”.

King coined the phrase in his very controversial, sermon on the Vietnam War, preached at Riverside Church in New York City (just a few feet away from our seminary apartment) on 4 April 1967. King saw a choice between “nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation”. He went on: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late.”

That urgency, to get the message out as quickly as possible, is reflected in Mark’s style. One of his favourite words, especially in chapter 1, is the Greek word εὐθὺς (euthus). Mark uses this adverb no less than 11 times in the first chapter of the Gospel alone. It is used so often that translators of the Bible feel the need to use different translations to avoid repetition: in the King James Bible it is sometimes translated “straightway”, sometimes “forthwith”, sometimes “immediately”. For Mark, Jesus’s mission is invested with the same sense of deep urgency as Mark’s own re-telling of it. No-one pauses to think, no-one waits to consider alternative possibilities. No-one even waits to discuss and dispute, in a way that, then as now, came as naturally to Jewish religious thinkers as breathing itself.

We can understand why Mark tells the story in this way. But how can we benefit from, or even learn from, the extraordinarily abrupt way that the disciples are called, and begin their mission with Jesus?

One commentary that I read says rather grandly that “it is quite pointless to speculate, for example, on why the disciples responded without demur, or whether Jesus had met them beforehand. Mark is not interested in the psychology of the disciples or of their response”. Well, maybe not. But we may be interested; because, when we hear Scripture read and the Gospel preached, the disciples are us.

The disciples whom Jesus called were neither religious professionals, nor were they social outcasts with nothing to lose. They were ordinary people, men and women (we read elsewhere that both men and women travelled with Jesus) with lives to lead and business to do. There was nothing predictable about what Jesus was calling them to. In ancient Israel, travelling prophets typically went on their own or maybe with one pupil. Religious leaders taught their pupils in formal schools to study the Torah, as they still do. Maybe only John the Baptist before Jesus began the custom of calling multiple followers to go around with him and help him teach. So, the call to the disciples was to a completely new and rather terrifying vocation, something for which there was no direct precedent. That they responded so positively should be included among the miracles of the New Testament – and not the least.

There are two possibilities: either the disciples were so captivated by Jesus’s instant charisma that they obeyed his words, and followed him silently, like automata deprived of any agency or any control over their own movements. Or they made a decision to follow their teacher, just as any of us makes a decision, based on what and whom they knew, and where their values and hopes led them.

It does not sit well with the reality of faith to suppose that the apostles just moved, as though in a trance, unable to control their movements or make a conscious decision. Nor could they have confronted the enormous risks and challenges of their ministry without having embraced in their inmost selves the choice that they made. We know that the disciples considered the possibility of running out of money, because they kept a common purse. We know that they often muddled in their minds Jesus’s call with those of many “messiahs” who promised the restoration of a physical kingdom by insurrection.

No, I believe that the disciples responded in the same way that any of us responds to a call: consciously and intentionally, because they saw the path of their life and the urgency of their call in a new light, and responded to that call.

And who is to say that the wonderful power of God was not at work in every step in that process, as it brought the disciples to their moment of decision?

Earlier this week, I suspect that many of us watched at least some of the inauguration ceremony for the new President of the United States. In what seemed to me quite a fine speech, there was a good deal of the language of call: calls to the country to unite in order to address the health challenges, the social and economic challenges, and the challenges of deep political division that abound at the present time. The speech ended with a hope that the country would be seen, in future ages, to have answered “the call of history”.

The sentiments were good, and much needed. But we may never confuse calls to do the earthly business of improving our material world, with the call of God to build God’s kingdom. The call to build a community of mutual love and respect, for all our fellow human beings and all of God’s creation, is both intensely practical, and at the same time terrifying in its all-embracing ambition. God asks the impossible of us, calls us to repair the damage of centuries of fear, division, self-centredness, and exploitation, both of the earth and of each other.

Yet in the life of the disciples, we see that God does not call us, without at the same time giving us the means and the inspiration to respond. It was not easy for them. A hymn in our hymnal, which I briefly considered for today’s worship, speaks of how the first disciples were “contented, peaceful fishermen, before they ever knew / the peace of God that filled their hearts / brimful, and broke them too”. Yet I have no doubt that their response to Jesus felt like the most profound and essential thing that they could ever have imagined doing in their entire lives, even though it cost them so much.

We are all a bit like Jonah: we could so easily be tempted to run as far as possible in the opposite direction. But in every word that we utter, every ordinary interaction that we have with others, we can find ourselves building God’s kingdom. It is not a solo endeavour, but a shared work. Most of all, it is not humanity’s call, but God’s message, that makes the difference. The Spirit of God will know, and will tell us in due time, how to dispose our gifts in the best way. Let us be attentive, and when the call comes, as it does, be ready to respond obediently, with confidence and joy.

As our Collect says: Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

January 17, 2021: Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Today's Readings

Old Testament: 1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20)

Psalm: 139:1-5, 12-17

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

Gospel: John 1:43-51

"Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." This is the key sentence in the scene painted in our first reading. The one who makes this commitment is Samuel, one of the great figures of the Hebrew Scriptures. He lived around 1100 BC, a crucial time in the history of Israel. After entering into the land they considered "promised" to them, Israel found themselves in conflict with the tribes who already lived there. Israel had separated into tribal regions, which made them militarily weak. When attacked by other nations, the tribes would join together under a leader to deal with the threat. When the threat was thwarted they returned to their tribal areas. Hardly an efficient way to defend themselves. Many were calling for a more efficient government. A more centralized government - a king.

Some opposed the idea, saying that Yahweh was their king. Many opposed any centralization of power. Samuel was the figure who led Israel into this new age. He was the spiritual and political leader who convinced a reluctant people to establish a monarchy with David as "God's anointed", "messiah" in Hebrew.

The invitation in our Gospel to "Come and see" was uttered 1100 years later. David's throne had, for centuries, no longer been a political reality. We are now in a land under the heel of Roman domination. The arrival of a "messiah" to free Israel was a hope that united the Jewish people. The belief that a new leader, a new David, a new "messiah" would be raised up by God to liberate God's people. In today's reading we see Jesus, of the House of David, come to Galilee and begin to gather followers. One, Philip, joins the small band following the one whom Moses and the prophets wrote about, the hoped for messiah. Phillip immediately went to invite Nathaniel to "Come and see.". When Nathaniel came, he met this Jesus who showed he already knew him. Nathaniel is led to proclaim "you are the Son of God You are the King of Israel!"

We have all been invited to "Come and see". None of us was as clearly called as Samuel. But we were called. Both Samuel and Nathaniel learned that the journey was difficult. Samuel had anointed Saul as King first. Saul had failed to meet expectations and Samuel replaced him with David. Nathaniel will come to realize Jesus was not the messiah he expected. He joined the other disciples who abandoned this "Son of God, king of Israel."

Our journey has not been over a physical trail but a life lived. We have experienced moments of joy and beauty and awe, but we have lived long enough to know that life's journey has hills and valleys, disappointment, dry spells, doubts and feelings of being lost. A number of years ago I was at a lecture by a man who traveled up and down the trails of America. He said there were four rules that one must follow on the journey. 1) Never go alone; 2) Take only what you need; 3) expect difficulty; 4) Pause often to enjoy the beauty.

In these days of confinement to our homes the image of a journey is more inward. We have become aware of how important the companions are who journey with us. Zoom does not replace gathering around the table of the Lord. We don't want to travel alone. We have also learned what is essential and not. We all have a lot of "stuff"; much more than we need. We have been reminded again that life is difficult. We cannot protect loved ones from suffering, from illness, from death. And yet we have become more aware of the beauty around us. The beauty of love and friendship, the support of companions. We are grateful.

So, my dear companions on the journey, let the love we have for one another nurture you on the journey. You are not alone. We have much. Things are difficult, but let us not forget to be grateful for the beauty in nature, in each other, in oneself.

Another companion on the journey is Martin Luther King, Jr. At least we shared life on this earth at the same time. Tomorrow is the day dedicated to his memory. It is a fitting day, in these challenging days to pause and reflect on what he said, how he lived and how he asked other people to live. It is ironic, to put it mildly, that the FBI considered him the most dangerous person in his day. It is also said that at his death, only 35% of White Americans had a positive attitude toward him. I am reminded of what a seminary teacher said: "To live with the saints in heaven, Oh what glory. To live with a saint on earth - that's another story".

Dr. King was certainly a prophet in the Biblical sense. They were the "conscience of Israel", as one scholar describes them. Dr. King called each of us to live out the creed of our faith as well as the creed of our country. He showed a deep respect for our democratic institutions, Constitution, and human life even though he was a person denied so much of the justice these were to protect and preserve. I marvel at his insistence of non-violence. It is a demand so absent from our day. Included in this material I send is a link to one of his most famous writings, "A Letter from Birmingham Jail". It is long but I encourage you to read it. I also include some of his famous quotes. They have only grown in power and importance over the years. Today they offer hope, direction , faith and a path this nation can take to become more of the "beloved community" than the divided nation we have become.

"There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one's conscience tells one it is right."

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

"The ultimate measure of a person is not where one stands in normal times of comfort and convenience, but where one stands at times of challenge and controversy."

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

"We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope."

"Let no one pull you so low as to hate them."

"The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people, but the silence over that by the good people."

"We may have all come on different ships but we're in the same boat now."

"We must live together as sisters and brothers or perish together as fools."

"Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity."

"He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetuate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.

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[Included in this material is a link to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail. It is a long letter but well worth the time. Written on Good Friday in 1963 from the jail in Birmingham Alabama where Dr. King had come to assist local Black clergy in organizing a boycott of local businesses to shed light on segregation and oppression. Seven local White clergy wrote an open letter to the Black community asking them to disassociate themselves from Dr. King. The letter is Dr. King's response.]

https://www.gracepresbytery.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Letter-from-a-Birmingham-Jail-King.pdf

January 10, 2021: First Sunday after the Epiphany

Today's Readings

Old Testament: Genesis 1:1-5

Psalm: 29

Epistle: Acts 19:1-7

Gospel: Mark 1:4-11

Around the time of my second Christmas on earth, the poet W.H. Auden wrote:

So that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree, put the

decorations back into their cardboard boxes - We've eaten

too much - attempted to love all our relatives, and, in

general, grossly overestimated our powers.


Some of this is true, but this Christmas has been unlike any other. This year, taking down the decorations, especially the lights, seems, to me, a great loss. Why don't we leave them up till St. Patrick's Day. But even the Gospel pulls us away from Christmas. Another poet captures the reality:

When the song of the Angels is stilled,

when the star in the sky is gone,

when the kings and princes are home,

when the shepherds are back with their flocks,

the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost,

to heal the broken, to feed the hungry,

to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations,

to bring peace among sisters and brothers,

to make music in the heart, (Howard Thurman)


We should have known this was coming. For many weeks we have been reminded that every celebration in the Christmas Cycle proclaims the paschal mystery of the Lord's passion, death, resurrection and coming of the Spirit. Now that is the Easter proclamation, but the events in the Christmas cycle are rooted in the meaning of the events of the last days of Jesus' life. The events recorded in the story of Jesus' Passion are the foundation of our faith and the reason for our interest in Jesus' beginning.

Last week we were reminded that the first Christians' interest in Jesus' beginning did not focus on the birth. Epiphany, January 6th, was celebrated hundreds of years before December 25th, and the earliest focus of Epiphany was the Baptism of Jesus.

The baptism of Jesus manifests that Jesus entered into the depth of our human condition, shared our strength and weakness, joy and sorrow, success and failure. Also, in Christ we are all members of one body - neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but one in Christ.

Our first reading, the great poetic hymn of creation, paints a similar picture. The entire work of Creation presented in Genesis paints a picture of a loving God, who gives existence to a world that is good, sacred even. All creation is interrelated and interconnected.The vast expanse of the universe, the natural world, the beings with whom we share this earth are all related, all good. And we human beings are made in the very image and likeness of the Creator, and are all sister and brother equal in dignity, equally loved by the Creator.

It is a beautiful and challenging image and, in these days of pandemic and social and civil strife, an image we need to be reflected upon and acted upon. The great Jewish theologian, Abraham Heschel has said that the major responsibility of religion is a continual proclamation that life is sacred, that each human life is sacred.

In a way, the pandemic has affirmed the interconnectedness of all human life. The virus is not prejudiced. It attacks all of us. The behavior of one affects the health of all. Our genes tell us we are one human family.We have a responsibility for and to one another.

The civil life of our nation is experiencing challenges that strike at the foundations of our faith. If the major responsibility of religion is the continual proclamation that all life is sacred, there have been serious sins of neglect. If baptism declares that in Christ there is neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, then we have much work to do.

I have been thinking these days that in my life there have been two movements fueled to a great extent by Christians - the Civil Rights movement of the 1950's and 60's was nurtured by Black Churches, and the current Make America Great movement is strongly supported by White Evangelical Christians.

One movement was non-violent, demanding justice for all, seeking inclusion of all people in the rights proclaimed in the Constitution. The scriptural visions of the sacredness and interconnectedness of all life was proclaimed in this movement. Inclusion into the civil and political life of the nation was demanded through non-violent resistance. The building of a "beloved community" which includes the whole human family was its vision and its goal.

The other movement, which is largely supported by Christians claiming a literalallegience to the Gospel, has its roots, however, in the defense of slavery and segregation. A theme proclaimed is that divisions must be maintained. There is not one human family. God's favor belongs to some and with that favor they are privileged. People who believe differently from them, whether it is religion or politics are to be shunned, defeated, even oppressed. Only some life is sacred. Creation bears nothing of the "goodness" of the Creator. Jesus is the vaccine for the pandemic. On the feast of Epiphany, many in this group applauded an attack on the symbol of our Constitutional Government.

Abraham Heschel also said that true religion begins with the awareness that something is asked of us. We learned this at Baptism when we were "sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ's own". The work of Christmas is the work we accepted at baptism. We live in a world at a time that needs us to do this work.

So, let's do it.

I invite you, as we remember the baptism of Jesus, to renew our own Baptismal Vows. BCP 292