When I was younger if I wished for something good to happen, I would cross my fingers. I am sure that most of you remember doing this. If you wanted something really important to happen, you might cross your fingers on both hands because that would make your desired outcome more likely. Some people would cross their fingers before a critical play in a sports event. I don’t think that made much of a difference.
The idea that you would cross your fingers has a long tradition. Some think it was started by Christians and that crossing your fingers was a reminder of the cross of Jesus. Certainly, asking Jesus to help us is a good idea. But over time, it has been used as just a lucky thought, a wish for things to occur that might not be important.
Over time, a new custom of crossing the fingers was established. People started to cross their fingers and hold them behind their back when they didn’t tell the truth. Some believed that it was OK to tell a lie if we crossed our fingers. Some people may have believed that crossing their fingers when they told a lie was a request for God to forgive us for what we had said or done. Of course, I don’t think it really works that way.
I remember the idea of crossing fingers as I reflect on the gospel for today. Crossing fingers was probably what the second son did when he was asked by his father to go work in the fields. The second son said he would work for his father but he did not. He obviously didn’t tell the truth. Perhaps he even hoped inside that God would forgive him for lying or being lazy.
Jesus told the story of the two sons as a way to show that the leaders of the Jewish people were not following God’s wishes. Jesus followed in the footsteps of the prophets of Israel as he proclaimed that the leaders were sinners. Neither our Jewish heritage nor our Christian faith indicate that simply proclaiming our faith is enough. We must do the work. As one commentator wrote, “The religious respectability of affirming the right thing not only will never get us to heaven, but stands in the way of an authentic response to God’s call.”
Jesus said the tax collectors and prostitutes were the ones who listened to John the Baptist’s call to repent. They had changed their ways and asked for God’s forgiveness. They took action to follow God’s will. The chief priests who questioned Jesus thought it was below their standard to go see John the Baptist. The chief priests were self-righteous. We may have to give up our sense of righteousness and do God’s work in the world.
This gospel story tells us that faith is about how we act and not what we say. It is not enough to say that we follow Jesus. We must also act on those statements. Action is not always easy. Every one of us has sinned in this world. We are not perfect. Our life can be a daily struggle to do good. That is why we put ourselves in the presence of God as often as we can. For being in God’s presence helps us to defeat the devil and to do good. We ask Jesus to be our guide and our strength.
On Friday, we had a memorial service celebrating the life of Larry Little. Larry’s sister, Connie, shared thoughts that Larry had shared with her. Larry’s advice to us is to do God’s good works in the world. He promised that he would be watching over us and encouraging us.
Bill Robinson spoke of Larry’s Christian actions. Larry worked in the Chile Garden to help feed the needy. The story of Jesus feeding the five thousand was important to Larry. Larry so appreciated the gift that Jesus offered on that day. In the gospel of John, we learn that the people came out to see Jesus because of what he had done. They were excited because he had performed signs or miracles and cured the sick. They came out into the desert, far away from the cities and villages because of what they had seen Jesus do. Larry saw this miracle as a sign that our actions matter.
Jesus’s work for us never ended. As we read today in Philippians, Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross.” Just as Jesus never stopped doing the work of God in this world, we seek to emulate his actions, even though we are humans who are not as perfect as Jesus was.
I think it can be difficult to determine the work of a Christian. Jesus often asked tough questions. The chief priests struggled and finally were unable or unwilling to answer the question about whether John was sent to the desert by God. When they refused to answer, they showed that the question they asked was a trick, a trap. By not responding to Jesus, they stayed in their comfort zone rather than digging deeply into their hearts to accept Jesus.
Sometimes we say that we are going to follow Jesus but we lose our way and we end up sinning. Other times, we may say we are going to follow Jesus but we intentionally choose to do something different. Sometimes we say we will follow Jesus but we don’t really understand what we must do and we mistakenly fall away.
In 1956, Gary Cooper starred in a movie called Friendly Persuasion. He was the husband and father of a Quaker family that faced ethical issues during the civil war. The Quakers were opposed to slavery but they also were pacifists, they were opposed to fighting in a war. The issue became personal when marauding southern soldiers invaded the area nearby. Should the Quaker men join the army or not? Quakers were also opposed to coercion, talking someone into taking a certain action. They believed in the importance of every person’s individual conscience. Thus, the question, should a father persuade his teen age son to remain out of the war or allow him to decide on this own? I am sure questions like this have haunted people in every generation and I think of conscientious objectors who chose to stay out of wars. It may not have been popular.
In our own time, we face questions that will test our understanding of what is ethically correct. We have ethical questions testing us right now and there is not an easy answer. Is it correct to stop illegal immigration because it is opposed to the law and threatens our well-being? Or is it more important to help the stranger and give every person an opportunity to live in safety? Should I focus on the concerns of minorities in America and encourage their right to protest? Or should I focus on looting and destruction of property and be more concerned about the safety of people and those who own property? Should I be more concerned about the actions of police or should I worry more about violence that is happening in poorer communities? I have Christian friends on both sides of each of these questions.
The reading from Philippians describes what our world would be like if we chose to imitate Jesus in all that we do. We would share a perspective that followed the compassion and sympathy of Jesus, that humbly regarded others as better than ourselves. It would be a place where everyone looked not out for their own interests but the interests of others.
In his book, The Drama of Christian Ethics, the Anglican priest, Samuel Wells, wrote that Jesus was so accepting of his people. By sending Jesus to live as a human, God demonstrated that he accepted us despite our faults. Throughout his ministry Jesus accepted people that were outcasts. In this gospel, Jesus points to the so-called sinners, the tax collectors and prostitutes who had repented as examples for each of us.
Thomas Paine, the famed writer during the revolutionary War, expressed it this way, “Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess.” Perhaps we can find that kind of a place in this small community.
Today is special, it is the first day that we have held services at the Church of the Transfiguration since March. During that six-month period, I have been amazed by the dedication of so many to their faith and this church. I am thankful for each person and each gift that has been given. I believe that our faith is stronger when we support each other. I believe that our faith grows every time that we come together and worship God, to ask for God’s forgiveness and to ask Jesus to help us make good choices. May this day be a time to commit ourselves once more. May we reject the actions of the two sons Jesus mentioned. Let us instead say yes to Jesus and live our lives acting on that yes. Amen.
Our country is in the midst of a huge debate over the actions of the police. I don’t have the answers to the issues. I struggle to understand why minor offenses escalate into terrible shootings, injuries and death. I saw a story this week about a mother who called 911 to get help for her 13-year-old autistic son. She had hoped that he would be taken to a psychiatric hospital. Instead he is in the hospital for gunshot wounds from the police. By the way this is a white child in Salt Lake City. As I said, I don’t understand why things escalate so quickly and so terribly.
As we struggle with this issue, I am reminded of two beautiful and amazing stories. The first happened in a courtroom just last October. An ex-police officer by the name of Amber Guyger had just been convicted of murder. The circumstances are so sad. Guyger thought she was entering her own apartment but instead she was one floor up and she entered the wrong apartment. She found a black man inside and shot Botham Jean to death. Two peoples lives were changed forever, in part because of a simple mistake and in part by a fear that too easily can overcome any of us.
In the penalty phase of the trial, the dead man’s brother, Brandt Jean, took the stand and forgave Guyger. Brandt Jean was only 18 years old at the time and he said that he loved his brother dearly and missed him so much. As I understand it, the young man told Amber Guyger that he forgave her, that he wanted only the best for her, and that he wanted her to give her life to Christ, something that he said Botham would have wanted as well. Then, Brandt asked the judge and was given permission to go and give a hug to the woman who killed his brother. They spent a moment together as Amber Guyger sobbed. What a wonderful example of what Jesus teaches us about forgiveness. My friends, this happened just last October it could be a shining light for all of us.
I heard of another wonderful story this week. A lady in Alabama had been arrested several times by policeman named Terrell Potter. Each arrest was for a crime she committed to support her opioid addiction. But she finally was able to beat the problem. She credited Officer Potter for saving her life. One day she saw on the internet that the officer needed a kidney. The lady immediately decided to help. Amazingly, their kidneys matched. She donated her kidney to Potter in July and now both are doing well. An example of forgiveness and reconciliation.
In the gospel, Peter thought he was being generous when he asked Jesus if seven times was enough times to forgive another. But Jesus was even more insistent. You should forgive seventy times seven, he said. In essence, Jesus told his followers that they should forgive others who sin against them always and forever. The spirit of forgiveness should be such an integral part of our lives that we just forget how many times we have forgiveness another person. When we seek to follow this direction, it has such an impact on our lives. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.” Brandt Jean had heard this direction many times in his life and had accepted it as part of being a Christian. It is a way of living that all of us aspire to.
We find examples of this perspective on forgiveness many times in the Gospels. Jesus offered many examples of forgiveness for when he healed other people he almost always offered forgiveness for their sins. One of my favorite passages is found in Matthew chapter 7, “‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? It is so easy for us to see the sins of others and not see our own sins.
The reading from Romans today seems so consistent with this idea. Paul was writing to the Christian community and asking them to not judge how others worshipped God. It seems that Paul believed there were many ways to be spiritual and reach out in prayer. We need to leave it up to each person to find that place where we find God. Why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister, Paul wrote. This passage leaves no room for pettiness about our Christian practices but rather encourages charity and sensitivity toward others.
Forgiveness is often a very difficult thing for us to do and yet it has benefits for both parties. It may not come quickly. We may have to work on it. There is no better reason to forgive than when we say the Lord’s prayer. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. When we forgive the sins of others, God will forgive our sins as well. In Matthew’s gospel this even becomes a warning about eternal life. If we don’t forgive others then God will not forgive us and we will be doomed to the fiery prison of hell. These are strong words.
The parable that is found in today’s gospel is a little unusual. It could not have been based on a real-life scenario as no one could possibly rack up a debt of 10,000 talents. That would be the equivalent of the daily wage for 60 million people. No one could afford to loan that much to a slave. That is why I concluded that the debt is about what we owe to God. Our debt to God is so large that there is no way that we could possibly repay it. And yet God forgives us. We remember the sacrifice that Jesus made for us. Jesus gave up his life so that our sins would be forgiven.
It is out of thanksgiving for God’s forgiveness that we forgive others. We are not like the slave in the parable who decided as soon as he had been forgiven for his own debt, he could mistreat others who owed money to him. We don’t know why he wouldn’t forgive the debt of others but it was certainly selfish and Jesus would never approve of someone being selfish.
A few years ago, we did a Lenten study on forgiveness. I learned that there are benefits to ourselves for forgiving others. The benefits can be physical and mental and emotional. Nelson Mandela spoke about the harm that is caused to ourselves when we are unable to forgive. He said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” The Mayo Clinic suggests that letting go of grudges and bitterness can improve our relationships, give us Improved mental health, lower our anxiety and blood pressure, improve heart health and self- esteem, and decrease the symptoms of depression.
Offering forgiveness is not something that means we are more vulnerable, it does not mean that we invite future harm to ourselves, nor does it necessarily change punishment for offenses. The policewoman Amber Guyger was sentenced to several years in prison for killing Botham Jean even though his brother forgave her.
Some of you will remember a book called The Shack in which a man must confront his anger for someone who killed his daughter. The author, William Young wrote this in the book,
“Forgiveness is not about forgetting. It is about letting go of another person's throat......Forgiveness does not create a relationship. Unless people speak the truth about what they have done and change their mind and behavior, a relationship of trust is not possible. When you forgive someone you certainly release them from judgment, but without true change, no real relationship can be established."
Jesus taught us that we are to forgive over and over again. Sometimes the harm that has been done to us is minor and forgiveness is not too hard. But when the hurt is significant, the words of Jesus are difficult. In fact, we often feel safer or self-satisfied by holding on to our anger or just feeling sorry for ourselves. Yet, deep down, we know that we can and should be better. Forgiveness makes us better and forgiveness creates the opportunity for change in the other person or even possibly reconciliation. If you are struggling with forgiveness of another person, I encourage you to turn to Jesus. For he understood the feelings himself and will help you with your feelings as well. Amen.
When I was in seminary, I helped at a church in downtown Columbus Ohio. It was right across the street from the state capital. The capital took up the entire square block. On Good Friday, I participated in a procession around the entire capital complex. We read the stations of the cross as we traveled. For part of the procession, I carried the heavy cross. It was quite a burden. It was an unusual experience to walk on a downtown street carrying a cross. People looked at us in all different ways. Some ignored us. I think some even joined us for a short time. I thought about how Jesus must have felt as he carried the cross to Calvary. It was an experience I will not forget.
When Jesus said “take up your cross and follow me” I don’t think he meant that every one of his followers needed to literally carry the cross. And yet many were persecuted and killed in the first centuries following his death and resurrection. And some are persecuted even today.
I also don’t think Jesus meant that everything we would do when we followed him was going to be a burden. Yet that seems to be a common thought. We have the expression, “that is my cross to bear”, as if some problem, some challenge we face or even some person we must get along with is what Jesus was talking about when he said take up your cross and follow me.
Some may realize that our burdens are not so bad. I found this story which was attributed to Debra Stitt. A man was struggling with many troubles and burdens. He prayed to God asking for help. Jesus came and asked the man about his problems and the man recounted all of the challenges he faced. Jesus told the man that he would help him and he took the man to a room filled with crosses. They were of all sizes, big and small even some that were huge. Jesus told him that these symbolized the various burdens people carried and asked the man to choose a cross, to choose a burden that he could deal with. The man found a very tiny cross over in the corner and said he would take that one. Jesus said, Are you sure and the man said yes. Jesus then said, "My child, you have chosen your own cross. It is the burden you already carry.” Taking up our cross may be difficult, we may have to do things we prefer not doing, but it is not always something that is truly a burden. In fact, taking up our cross may give us great joy. Helping others is a good example.
Arthur Pink was an Englishman who became an evangelical Christian. While I wouldn’t agree with all of his positions, I do agree with this quote, “Taking up my "cross" means a life voluntarily surrendered to God.” Taking up our cross is a choice we make. It is not forced upon us, like some problem dropped into our lap. Rather, we get to decide what we will do. It may be as simple as choosing between a life of sin and a life of holiness but it is always a choice.
Sometimes our choice is about a job we should do. Moses was given a choice. He didn’t know about the cross of Jesus but he was called by God to go help the Israelites. God had heard the cries of God’s people and asked Moses to help. Moses had lots of reasons why he was the wrong man for the job. I am not good enough, who should I say sent me, what if they don’t believe me, I can’t speak well enough. Moses didn’t think he was worthy of God’s call. God had an answer for every concern that Moses gave him. Other prophets struggled with God’s call. Isaiah and Jeremiah did as well.
Each of us has our own calling, the cross that we are to carry. It will certainly not be the same as one of the prophets from the Old Testament. It may not even be a full time occupation. Most of us will feel unworthy. But God will help us with our concerns and our limitations so that we can do the task we are given.
The apostle, Peter, gives us an example of the trouble that we can so easily fall into. Just a moment before this exchange, he had declared Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Peter was the hero. But Peter had a particular understanding of what it meant to be the Messiah. His human understanding was not God’s way. Peter was distraught when Jesus told the disciples he would die. In following the ways of humans and not listening to Jesus, Peter became like Satan. Jesus felt that Peter was trying to get him to turn from God’s plan. Jesus must have felt tempted to do so.
Taking up our cross means putting away our sins and doing as Jesus would want us to do. We must not fall victim to temptation. I don’t often speak of the temptation to sin as I prefer to focus on God’s blessings. But sin is aways there and the devil is always ready to encourage us to fall into his clutches. Our world is filled with people and opportunities to live a life of sin. Sometimes, the things we think are good can actually lead us to a bad place just as it did with Peter. Christians have often chosen sinful ways thinking that they were doing good.
In the 1970s, El Salvador was racked by a terrible civil war. Leaders thought they were doing the right thing to quash the rebellion. As the war dragged on, the country’s soldiers began to commit more and more atrocities against the people. Eventually, Archbishop Oscar Romero took up his cross and spoke out against the government, asking the soldiers to put down their guns. Before he was murdered by the government, he sought a way to counter this government violence. “The violence we preach is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.” He said further,
Peace is not the product of terror or fear.
Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.
Peace is not the silent result of violent repression.
Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all.
Peace is dynamism.
Peace is generosity.
It is right and it is duty.
Romero sought peace and reconciliation. Is it possible that we are called to do the same?
When people try to do good, others may take advantage. I am thinking about people who have chosen to peacefully protest against wrongs that have been committed against their fellow human beings in the United States. But others have turned these peaceful protests into violence. They have taken things too far.
Martin Luther King Junior spoke about this challenge many years ago. We should struggle with Christian methods, he said, “Never succumb to the temptation of being bitter. As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline… If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness. .. Let your oppressor know that you are only seeking justice for him or her as well as for yourself”. It seems that those words could have been spoken today. I am sure you can think of other examples in today’s world where Christian people have lost their way.
In our desire to do the right thing, to be followers of Jesus, Scripture gives us good advice like Paul’s encouragement in today’s passage from the Letter to the Romans. Paul wrote about how we live together in community. We are to love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. The list goes on.
My favorite expression this week is Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. It seems especially important at this time when it is difficult to see each other. Perhaps you might find a way to reach out to someone you know and either rejoice with the person or weep with that person. It doesn’t seem too difficult and yet Paul tells us that is part of taking up our cross.
Let us be encouraged with the knowledge that God cares about us, that Jesus is with us and the Holy Spirit will guide us. Let us accept the call God has offered to us, to take up our cross, whatever it may be. Let us not be shy or feel unworthy. Rather let us say, Here I am Lord, do with me as you will. Amen.
My younger granddaughter, Alyssa, is two years old. She loves to do things on her own. She is learning to be independent and that includes eating. She likes to cut her own food and refuses to have anyone help her eat anything. As it turns out, when she eats, some of the food ends up on the chair or the floor or even on her. I think of this as all part of growing up.
The dog, Lava, keeps a close eye on Alyssa. She hovers by her chair during mealtime and is always ready to scoop up any food that falls from the table. Lava’s actions are considered helpful. She is often called upon to clean the floors when there is a spill. But sometimes Lava’s actions are not appreciated. She will follow Alyssa around the room when Alyssa is carrying some food. Alyssa will hold her hand up high in the air to keep the food from Lava. But sometimes Lava is able to snatch food right from Alyssa’s hand. What I admire about the dog, Lava, is her persistence. She just never gives up getting some people food. And she continues to search for this kind of food even though she has been admonished.
Today’s gospel is the story of a woman whose daughter is healed through the woman’s persistence. This reading is quite difficult. The response of Jesus to her request seems surprising and uncomfortable even harsh. I always think of Jesus as compassionate but this story doesn’t lend itself to that understanding.
Jesus and his disciples first ignored the woman and her pleading. The disciples told Jesus to send her away. Then Jesus tells her outright that he didn’t come to help her kind of people. Jesus finally says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”. How do we understand the actions of Jesus? Did Jesus come only for the people of Israel?
We might want to explain away the harshness, the rejection of this woman by Jesus. He was testing her we might say or Jesus wanted her to show humility. I prefer to accept it as is and not try to explain it away. It certainly is one of the hard sayings of Jesus. One commentator even suggested this encounter with the woman caused Jesus to expand his ministry to the Gentiles. We all fall into the trap of thinking that the stranger, the foreigner, is not unworthy, certainly not acceptable, not good enough. Jesus listened and responded to the woman, the Gentile.
In her words and actions she showed that she believed that Jesus was the Messiah. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David;” she said. When she described him as the son of David, she was saying that he was the Messiah. She came and knelt before him another sign of her belief in his Kingship. But perhaps it was her quick-witted response to his words about the dogs that convinced him of her faith. Even the dogs deserve some scraps from the table. She may have first appeared to Jesus as a Canaanite woman but her words described her as a believer. She accepted Jesus as the Messiah when many of his own people did not.
Professor Willam Boyce summarized it this way, “this story offers that wondrously-strange and persistent faith that stands its ground against all opposition. This woman is not to be put off, and against all the signs of apparent hopelessness, doggedly stands her ground, persistently seeking the Lord's help, even if it is only to be in those meager crumbs that might fall from the "master's" table. And in the wonderful surprise that is the miracle of faith, she meets the gracious healing power of God.”
Theologian John Kavanaugh suggested that the Canaanite woman embodies the constant and universal quality that every human heart—Jew or Gentile, woman or man, slave or free—possesses. It was her and our own willingness to call out in faith. It is a power we have. Kavanaugh would say that we share a power with Sarah and Abraham with Mary and Joseph, from Romans to rabbis, Africans to Indians. Let us call upon God in faith. Our faith is a power that unites us with others and unites us with God.
Similar words can be found in the reading from Romans. Paul described himself as a follower of Jesus and yet he connected his faith to the faith of the Jewish people. God has not given up on the Jews, he wrote. After all, God promised that he would care for the Jewish people and he continues to do so even today.
Jesus often tested the Jewish rules and laws. He was clearly uncomfortable with the purification rites and rules for eating. Here is another time for testing boundaries. As New testament professor Carla Works writes, "Her words demonstrate that the boundary separating her from the house of Israel must be reconsidered. The encounter with the Canaanite woman prepares the reader for Jesus’ great commission to go and to make disciples of all the nations”.
I have been thinking recently about the plight of outsiders. We have many examples in our world today. I have been reflecting on the challenge faced by women as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of women receiving the vote in the United States. Some like to say women were given the right to vote but I think it more correct to say that they demanded the right to vote. It took 72 years of continual rejection and persistence before the vote was finally made in favor of women.
In a two-part PBS series, I learned actions started in 1848 when women first started to protest, to actively go into the streets for the right to vote. There were many difficult issues that the suffragettes had to face. How would they relate to the desire for black men and women to vote as well? Would their protests be calm and civil or radical and demanding? Should they start at the state level or request a constitutional amendment? As they worked, people said and wrote awful things about what would happen if women voted and about the women suffragettes. Progress for the women was painful and slow with many defeats. Near the end, women protested outside the White House and were arrested and struggled physically in jails. The outcome was never certain and did not occur until 3/4 of the states approved the amendment. Tennessee was the last chance for woman suffrage. The state approved and it passed by only one vote. The suffragette movement showed that persistence matters. The women never gave up. They were similar to the woman in our gospel who withstood rejection and just kept asking.
I appreciated the sermon given by Philip Stowell last week. He spoke about how you and I are not always heard and seen the way we intend to be heard and seen. How do you see yourself? How do you imagine that others see you? Do you sometimes want to say to people, “Oh, that is not what I meant at all! You do not understand what I am saying.” We are all different and we sometimes feel rejected, we can even sense that we are not good enough to be accepted by God. It is just those times that I ask you to have hope. I ask you to be persistent in faith, especially as you reach out to God.
Matthew gave us these words of Jesus. Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.
So let us pray to Jesus in faith and with persistence. Let us pray that Jesus will keep us safe and healthy from the Covid-19 virus. Let us pray that humans will be healed of their divisions and united as one family. Let us never stop asking God for what we need.
I encourage you to follow one of the prayers found in our prayer book called the prayer for quiet confidence.
O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength: By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Let us be persistent like the woman in today’s lesson. Sometimes a derogatory term used about a group of people becomes a source of pride. I suggest that we be proud of the fact that as Gentiles we were once referred to as dogs and realize that dogs like our own Lava can be persistent in a way that gets us some really good food. The Gentile dogs have become the ones who ask Jesus to feed us and he has responded over and over. May you be quietly confident that Jesus hears your prayers, that Jesus is thankful for your faith and will forever listen to your needs. Amen.
Eating out has become a real difficult task over the last four months. In the beginning, the restaurants were closed. Then, you could sometimes go and pick up take-out food. I am sorry, but take-out food is never as good as eating in a restaurant. Then, you could eat in a restaurant but the number of customers was limited and you worried about whether you might catch the virus. We still have concerns about eating out but at least now many more people wear masks as they enter and leave the restaurant.
Jan and I celebrated our 43rd wedding anniversary on July 22nd. We decided that we would spoil ourselves by going out for a nice dinner. We went to an expensive steakhouse in Scottsdale. We wore masks as we entered and left the restaurant just as everyone did. Thankfully, there were only six tables in the entire dining room that were occupied in the whole time we were there. The food was wonderful. The steaks melted in our mouths. The baked potato was glorious and we had spinach with mushrooms that I loved. We were given a lava cake with ice cream in honor of our anniversary. Given the small number of customers, we felt as if the food was prepared just for us. It was a special experience.
I ask you now to remember some wonderful meal that you have enjoyed. It could have been in a restaurant like I just mentioned. Or it could have been in someone’s home. Maybe it was a family gathering. Imagine that most wonderful meal as we reflect on the gifts we are given by God through Jesus.
Today’s gospel story is about the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. You know this story well. I remember hearing it as a child. One reason it is well known is that it is one of a very few stories found in all four gospels. I think it had great meaning to the early Christians. The oral history was quite consistent. For example, all our gospels report that there was so much food left over that it was gathered into twelve baskets. Unlike other stories, we don’t read about people who were telling everyone about the work of Jesus. It seems that this story was so touching to early Christians that they celebrated it for themselves. Given its storied history how might we relate to the miracle today?
Jesus left in a boat to find a quiet place. He had just heard that John the Baptist had been killed by Herod so he might have been looking for someplace safe. Maybe he just needed a little rest. But the crowds followed him. Despite his own concerns, Jesus had compassion for them. He first cured the sick and then he fed them food. I am remembering the time Jesus changed water into wine at the wedding in Cana. People said his wine tasted better than any other. I wonder if the food he gave to the crowd tasted better the any they had ever had before. I think that fits with the way Jesus did things. That compassion is given to us just as it was given to those who followed him that day. Jesus has compassion for all the troubles we face and asks us to have compassion for others.
I think Christians of Jesus time thought of the Eucharist whenever they heard this story and I do too. We hear that Jesus looked to heaven, blessed and broke the food and gave it to the disciples for them. That is part of our communion service. We know that Christians gathered together and shared food and fellowship. We know they also joined in the Eucharist, sharing in the food of Jesus. For Jesus came and gave them the Bread of Life. He provided the physical food and the spiritual food that strengthened them, his food gave them courage in their troubles and made them steadfast in their faith. Now as you remember the most wonderful meal that you ever experienced, as you recall special tastes and conversation, I hope you also remember that there is no better meal than the bread and the cup that come from Jesus.
It has been four months since our last church service with everyone present. We yearn to come together and share that Bread of Jesus. We are left with remembering the times in the past when we have shared that bread and wine with others. We are left with asking Jesus to send that bread to us in a spiritual way. We are left with coming to church on Wednesday and receiving that bread as I distribute it. I know some save that bread for Sunday as they watch the service online and seek to recreate as much as possible of the communion that we share. We wish for the bread of God and all that it means for us. I wish for that just as you do.
But I think there is more to this gospel story than just the Eucharist. There is more to the story than the gift of food that Jesus provided. For on that day, Jesus showed us how we fit into his miracles. I am thinking of the apostles. They told Jesus they didn’t know how to feed the people. That is why Jesus showed them. When Jesus had blessed the food and given it to them, it was the disciples that handed the food out to the groups of people. The disciples were a key part of the feeding. All of us are a part of the feeding that Jesus makes available to us.
Let us also remember the young boy. He was prepared and brought his own food. He may have worried about how he would eat but he gave all that he had to meet the needs of the others. I am reminded of poor people that I have met in various parts of the world who have been willing to give the little they had to feed other people. They were thankful for their bounty and shared it with those who were less fortunate than even they were. Perhaps the young boy can be our inspiration.
The poor will always be with us and we are always called to feed the hungry. We live in a time when many people have unexpectedly lost their job and suddenly need help, they need food. I think of several reasons why we might help. We sometimes feed the poor out of a sense of duty, or perhaps even a sense of guilt. We might feed the people to stay in God’s good favor. Proverbs 28.27 suggests that “Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing, but one who turns a blind eye will get many a curse.” We may feed the poor because we want a reward. That idea is found in Proverbs chapter 19 verse 17, “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord and will be repaid in full.”
Perhaps we feed the hungry out of a wish to bring people to God, an idea that we can evangelize others through food. Mahatma Gandhi said, “There are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread”. After they receive bread they may hear the words of God.
Maybe we feed others realizing the importance of our work as John Chrysostom said, “Feeding the hungry is greater work that raising the dead.” John Chrysostom also taught us that we find Jesus in others. He said, “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the chalice.”
Or finally, we may feed the hungry despite knowing that the job will never be done. As Mother Teresa once wrote, “If you cannot feed a hundred people then feed just one”.
I find strength in the actions of Jesus. He showed compassion to the people who followed him. Let us have compassion for others in need as well.
Motivations matter but are not so important as our actions. There are many examples of people in this church who followed the example of Jesus. Money has been contributed, food given, native Americans have been helped with seeds and food. Out of our little, much has been accomplished. What a blessing.
We are thankful for the compassion that Jesus showed to everyone. It is a compassion that is given to you. I read this week that the feeding of the five thousand reminds us of the sustaining and preserving the presence of God, even when resources seem miniscule in the light of the challenges we face. (Commentary for Proper 13). Even though you cannot be with me today, please remember the love and strength we receive in the body and blood of Jesus. May we be inspired to serve others with compassion as followers of Jesus. Amen.
When I was a child, my grandmother would occasionally come and stay with us. She was Irish and had a great sense of humor. I remember that she liked to drink a bottle of beer before she went to bed. As I get older, I have decided it helped her to sleep and that is why this story resonates with me.
98-year-old Mother Superior from Ireland was dying. The nuns gathered around her bed trying to make her last days comfortable. They tried giving her some warm milk to drink but she refused it. One of the nuns took the glass back to the kitchen and remembering a bottle of Irish whiskey received as a gift the previous Christmas. She opened it and poured a generous amount into the warm milk. Back at Mother Superior's bed, she held the glass to her lips. Mother drank a little, then a little more and before they knew it, she had drunk the whole glass down to the last drop.
"Mother," the nuns asked with earnest, "please give us some wisdom before you die.” She raised herself up in bed and said, "Don't sell that cow!” Now that is wisdom that all of us can use.
"A little girl was sitting on her grandfather’s lap as he read her a bedtime story. From time to time, she would take her eyes off the book and reach up to touch his wrinkled cheek. She was alternately stroking her own cheek, then his again. Finally she spoke up, Grandpa, did God make you? Yes, sweetheart, he answered, God made me a long time ago. Oh, she paused, grandpa, did God make me too? Yes, indeed, honey, he said, God made you just a little while ago. Feeling their respective faces again, she observed, God’s getting better at it, isn’t he? You see, wisdom comes from the little children doesn’t it?
Today we hear about wisdom and rest; both of them can be found in Jesus. Wisdom is one of those things that we search for all of our lives and often only know when we experience it. Scripture is a good source of wisdom. My study Bible says that “the fundamental goal of the Book of Proverbs is to teach the acquisition of wisdom and the avoidance of folly”. Proverbs speaks of wisdom as a female person and speaks as if she is searching each of us out. In chapter one “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. ‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?’”
Proverbs teaches us that wisdom provides order to chaos. In the Psalms we learn that wisdom grants us humility. (Psalm 11:12) and protects and guards us. (Psalm 4:6) Proverbs helps us to understand that wisdom comes from God.
For the Lord gives wisdom;
from his mouth comes knowledge and understanding;
he stores up sound wisdom for the upright;
he is a shield to those who walk blamelessly,
Then you will understand righteousness and justice
and equity, every good path;
for wisdom will come into your heart,
and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul;
So, when Jesus spoke about wisdom in today’s gospel lesson, he continued in the traditions of the Hebrew Scripture. The people of his time were missing what was right in front of them. People could not see the truth of John the Baptist and they judged Jesus based on the company he kept. Their perceptions of John and Jesus were clouded by what their faith leaders had taught them. Jesus wanted them to have wisdom to see through the veil of their previous understanding to realize that he was God. He wanted people to put aside their understanding of what the Messiah would do. Jesus came not to take political power but to help us find God in our everyday life. He wanted people to see that God may not do things the way we expect them to be done.
And Jesus said that God’s presence was hidden from the most intelligent, that it was the infants that could see God in Jesus. The words of Jesus are timeless. I think we can learn from the faith of children. Children often see things with an innocence that is difficult for adults. Children see things because their eyes are open to what is in front of them. Our intelligence can cause us to think we already know the answer. We may have become cynical or have too much pride to think we can learn more.
As Christians in today’s world, we seek an innocence that helps us find wisdom and truth in God. We pray that we will be guided by the Holy Spirit in our decisions. We ask God to help us follow God’s will. And we need God’s help.
Wisdom and truth are not synonyms but I think wisdom helps us find truth. Thomas Jefferson once wrote that “Honesty is the first chapter of the book wisdom.” Being honest with ourselves may help us find wisdom. I cannot forget the words exchanged by Jesus and Pilate just before Jesus was crucified. Jesus said, “for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
I have concluded that finding the truth is a difficult thing to do these days. I say that our preconceived opinions or our wish for a certain outcome causes us to seek messages that support our expectations of the truth. In our divided culture and in this world of social media, it is easy to find writing that meets our wishes for the truth. And if there is a blog connected to a version of the truth, I promise you that you will find comments in total support and comments in total rejection of whatever truth is espoused. We just don’t agree on the truth. It seems to me that we are just as challenged to find wisdom in our day as the people of Jesus were challenged. We need the wisdom and truth to deal with so many things we face today, in our faith and in the world.
If we are ever able to find God’s wisdom then perhaps we will understand the last few verses of the gospel for today. I find the words extremely comforting. Come to me all you who labor and I will give you rest. I read that often when we pray the evening service Compline. Whenever I hear those words, I am comforted. I feel as if I can keep at peace with the world.
But I ask myself how does this passage fit with other teachings of Jesus? for he also said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” In the last few weeks, we heard Jesus tell his disciples that preaching the gospel of Jesus would not be easy. They would be persecuted.
It seems to me that coming to Jesus will not save us from trials and tribulations. It won’t save us from rejection. We won’t be able to just rest in a chair and do nothing. Coming to Jesus is more about knowing that we are doing the right thing, finding peace with the things that are going on around us even those things challenge us. Coming to Jesus may mean that we have lots of work to do but the work will give us rest.
Eleanore Stump said, ‘when the person to whom you come is Christ himself, the vulnerability which openness brings with it is more than matched by the love Christ gives. In the gift of that love, everything that might be loss is turned into gift given and gift received, to be returned again in love.”
Sometimes rest is given to us through another person just as Isaac was comforted by Rebekah after his mother’s death. Paul wrote about our constant struggle in ourselves between good and evil. We do good knowing that evil is near. We realize that Jesus saves us from the death of sin. That is when we find rest.
Jesus said take my yoke upon you. A yoke brought a team of two oxen together to pull a load. When we take on the yoke of Jesus, we stay connected to him always. We pull together through the good and the bad. Sometimes, Jesus pulls the load for us. We live together with Jesus in love. Then, we will find rest. Jesus said that we will find rest for our souls.
Isn’t it interesting that when we find wisdom, we will come to Jesus and in the arms of Jesus we will find rest. Let us seek the wisdom of Jesus, let us take his yoke upon us, for when we are united with Jesus we will find rest and peace. Amen.
This week, I fell victim to the perils of a weekend warrior. I was playing tennis with my family and suddenly I felt a strange twinge, a feeling as if there was a rope in my leg that couldn’t turn. I had strained my calf muscle in my left leg. I was unable to walk on it then and even now I must step very gingerly. You have probably noticed. In the midst of my troubles, I received so much help. My daughter has a lot of medical expertise and she made sure that my injury was only a strain. People got ice for me and walked me to the car and later into the house where I sat without moving. My daughter wrapped my leg with an ace bandage.
I think it is hard to stay still and have everyone else wait on you. I want to get up and go. But this time I stayed and people ran little errands for me. Jan has been wonderful by the way, cooking, serving, driving, carrying and doing other errands. On Monday, Lynn Graff went out of her way and lent me her scooter to rest my bad leg on. I am pretty wild on that scooter.
My favorite experience was the concern and care given to me by my granddaughters. As I sat, they both stayed very close to me. It seemed the they wanted to comfort me with their presence. Four-year-old Evelyn gave me her small notebook in which she had drawn several pictures. She told me that she had made the book for people who were injured to enjoy while they recovered. I was touched.
So my experience minded me once again of how important it is for everyone to help others out, to be kind in a difficult world, to welcome others. Perhaps it is even more important to care for others in a time when it is so hard to do. The caring I received was out of a sense of giving. But I experienced it as a matter of responsibility. My two granddaughters as young as they are felt the responsibility to watch over me when I was hurt. Our readings for this Sunday speak to me about our duty as followers of Jesus. We have many responsibilities.
I find the reading about Abraham and Isaac to be brutal. Abraham was told by God to go and sacrifice his only son. How does that make sense especially in light of God’ promise that Abraham will be the father of all nations? Well, it doesn’t. God protected both Abraham and Isaac from sacrifice. In it though, I find the message that we are to follow God’s will and not our own. Abraham was obedient to the point of death for Isaac even as Jesus was obedient to the point of his actual death. I don’t think that our duty is to die or to kill someone else. But there are tough choices to make as Christians.
In Romans, Paul wrote that we have been freed from the law and from sin. We are no longer instruments of wickedness but through the grace of Jesus Christ we are now instruments of righteousness. While we have been freed we also have been given a responsibility. In Paul’s words, we are no longer slaves of sin but rather slaves to God. “We have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted”. I say it this way, we are obedient to the words and teaching of Jesus.
The gospel lesson is part of a larger story about the commissioning of the disciples. Jesus warned the disciples as he sent them off to proclaim God’s love. They would not be able to take any valuables with them. They would be rejected. They would be punished. They may have to separate themselves from family and friends for their belief in Jesus.
As Jesus ends this teaching, he gives them words of encouragement. He told the disciples that some people would welcome them. Those people would be blessed and sanctified just as the disciples would be for their preaching. I hear Jesus saying that we should be welcoming to others. It is a persistent message in scripture. But I also hear Jesus saying that we are to accept the welcome that we will receive.
What is our duty as Christians during our time? I would say that we are called to live our lives as examples to others. We are to welcome and care for others. We are to sin no more but rather to be righteous. But I think it is harder than that. How do we live Christian lives during a pandemic and as our culture deals with deep seated problems?
As I hear a consistent message about duty and responsibility throughout our lessons. I am reminded of the book called the Greatest Generation written by Tom Brokaw. He wrote about individuals who during World War two made such great sacrifices. They felt it was their duty to give up everything in their lives to protect our country. According to Brokaw, most did it without complaint. Many never spoke about their losses for their country even many years after the fact. They sacrificed their schooling, their careers and their loved ones. Many gave up their lives for our freedom.
I would now like to offer some personal perspectives about our duty in the world. You are welcome to disagree. I offer these perspectives as a way for all of us to consider what our role is in the world today.
We are struggling with the continued growth in the number of Covid-19 cases especially in Arizona. We have tough choices to make about how to keep working and provide for our families while we seek to stop the spread of the virus. Many people speak of their rights. We all have rights and I respect that. I feel sorry for the young people in our world today who have been forced to live with so many difficult situations. Still, I wish we would hear more from people about the responsibilities and the duties that we all have. What is our duty to help stop the spread of Covid-19? I consider it my duty to wear a mask when I am out in public? I don’t like wearing masks myself but I do it. How do we balance our wish to reopen the church with our duty to keep people safe? If someone has considered their duties and still concludes they don’t need to wear a mask then I will appreciate them more than when they only speak of their rights.
Another of our struggles is the challenge of racism and the concern about how police do their jobs, concerns about how people behave. These issues are very complex. I have heard lots of different perspectives on these two issues. Parishioners have shared writings about these issues with me. My wish is that we choose action. I am touched by people who have written to me about why police behavior is correct. I am also touched by Tim Scott, the Republican Senator from South Carolina who has proposed police reforms while also writing that he had been stopped 18 times in his life by police and was thankful he had never been injured or worse. I am also touched by the Phoenix police chief, Jeri Williams, who walked with protestors and sent police out to deal with people who turned violent during their protests. Can we find a way to support the wonderful work that police do and appreciate their willingness to put their life on the line for us and still look for ways they can do their job better? Can we find ways to deal with the issues of legitimate protesters and deal with people who loot or destroy public property? Can we help black people deal with racism and ask them to deal with problems like black on black violence? Let’s not excuse any behavior by saying the people on the other side are doing it so why can’t I do it. I am trying to change my ways so that I will be part of the solution, so that by my actions the world moves in the right direction. I hope that you will pick a problem that you care about and think how you might make a difference even if you just pray about it, even if you reach out again in kindness to others. I ask you to try and understand the position of people who disagree with you. I will pray that we find ways to talk about these things that allows people of different political persuasions to work on our problems together.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote that “Action Springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility”. He stood up for his faith beliefs and suffered the consequences. I ask myself how I can be ready for my responsibility. In today’s scripture, I hear consistent words about our responsibilities as Christians. Living a Christian life can give us difficult choices. May God guide us as we find our way in today’s complex world.
These last few weeks have been a time of sadness and a time of wondering about whether we will all get through this. I am sure that each of you has your own struggle with emotions at this time. I am tired of the constraints of the pandemic. I wish that we could open the church for services again like some others have done. But just as we seemed to be coming out, the number of people diagnosed with Covid-19 in Arizona has jumped dramatically and hospitalizations are up. And now, we clearly see other major problems in our country. I am saddened by the treatment of minorities. I am worried about the looting that has taken place. I am thankful for great police work like the way Scottsdale police have recovered so much of the goods stolen from Scottsdale Fashion Mall and charged the perpetrators. I have also seen videos of what I consider to be the use of unnecessary force by police. I am disheartened by the way both police and protesters have been treated. I believe that the problems can be solved. But I have been brought down by the tremendous divide that we have in public opinion in our country. Our divisions are deep seated and there is disagreement within families and with friends about who we are and what we should do. I have asked myself how are we going to get out of this mess?
In the midst of my worries, I watched a three-part mini-series on Ulysses S. Grant. We all know him as the Union General who eventually won the civil war and became the 18th president of the United States. I find him to be an interesting human being. He has been called a drunk, a butcher, and a corrupt politician. I think those views are overstated but he certainly had flaws. But he has also been called a brilliant military thinker, a person who sought healing after the civil war and someone who cared that everyone be treated with justice. His story reminded me that we have faced terrible times in the past and perhaps ours is not as bad. Perhaps we could be encouraged by Grant’s ability to overcome problems especially poverty. And I wish that his story would help all of us to realize that we all are flawed individually and as a community and to pray that God will help us overcome our weaknesses.
I was also inspired by what I call the steely eyed commitment that Grant had to see things through. He was a man who never gave up. I ask that I could have more of that bull dogged determination that if I just stick to it, things will end well.
Today’s scripture gives us words of wisdom for our time. Think for a moment about the story of Abraham and Sarah. We read today about the Lord coming to visit Abraham. The Lord told Abraham that he would have a son. Despite his faith, I think Abraham was uncertain. Sarah thought that would be impossible so she laughed at the mention of God’s plan. This story shows us that God creates life and provides us with grace even though we may have little faith. Their son Isaac was born despite their uncertainty about how this would happen.
In our time of uncertainty, let us not give up on the power of God to deal with the issues that we face. Yes, I worry about where this time will lead us. But I pray that I will have faith in God’s work. Abraham showed faith in God. Abraham is a great example for us to follow.
When we are worried about our future, let us turn to the letter to the Romans. Paul wants us to “boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”
Yes, Paul is encouraging us to have hope even when we are suffering, even when we are down. He wants us to remember that in our suffering we can become something better than we are. We can come closer to God during this time. Yes, his words feel like a pep talk from a coach. But those words are something I need now. I think we all still have a child inside us and we need our parent to help us reach for something that is better than we are today.
Paul reminds us that we don’t do this alone. God is always with us. Paul invokes the three persons of the Trinity is his message, helping us to see how each person in the Trinity aides us. Jesus Christ gave his life for us. We have received peace because of his sacrifice and we are given the gift of grace. As Paul wrote, it is through Jesus that we have obtained access to a special grace, a grace that brings us closer to God. Jesus died for us even though we are flawed, even though we have sinned, even though we at times are ungodly. And we constantly receive the love of God because the Holy Spirit is ever present with us. I think Paul’s words alone lift us up out of our doldrums. God gives us strength to carry on in difficult times.
It is Matthew’s gospel that reminds us of what Jesus did for others and what he still does today for us. Yes, Jesus went to all the cities and towns and proclaimed the good news about the kingdom of God. But I choose to focus on the next phase. Jesus cured every disease and sickness.
As this virus, this disease continues to haunt us, let us pray for Jesus to come once more and cure all of those of the disease. Let us pray that Jesus will come and bring his healing power in a way that will bring us together. Let us pray that he will heal us of anger towards those who disagree with us. May we be united as followers of Jesus. I love the words Matthew used to describe this. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
Jesus is full of compassion. These days, I feel as if we have been harassed by the virus and other things. I feel helpless because I am uncertain how to deal with some of the things that are going on and uncertain about where this is all leading us. Isn’t it good that Jesus is our shepherd?
Jesus did more than cure the sick himself. He sent his apostles and told them “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” Then he said, proclaim the good news that ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.”
I believe those words were meant for you and me. We are called to proclaim the good news of Jesus in our day. Perhaps the words and the healing of Jesus will help us find our way together.
I have always been touched by the words of Jesus found in John’s gospel. He told his followers that they will do more than he has done. The exact words are “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” With these words we should never doubt that he is sending us out to proclaim his word to all people. We should never doubt that we can accomplish wonderful things in his name.
Let us be strengthened by the power of God to do amazing things like giving Abraham and Sarah a child when they least expected it. Let us be thankful for the healing power of Jesus. Let us feel the hope that comes from God. Let us carry some of that steely eyed determination exemplified by Ulysses S Grant and others we know. May we be confident that God will help us overcome our struggles and may we be steadfast in our efforts to proclaim the good news to others.
I feel inspired by the words found in our collect today and wonder if you might appreciate hearing that prayer one more time.
“Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness and minister your justice with compassion.” What a great expression of today’s scripture. Amen.
There is a cartoon with an older figure standing beside a cake with a lot of candles on it. Another figure is standing behind trying to give encouragement. The line underneath says this is the Holy Spirit trying to cheer up God the Father on a birthday. The caption says, “Don’t feel down, they say that infinity is the new thirty”. I celebrated my birthday last week so I sure hope that the Holy Spirit comes to help me feel like I am really thirty.
Here is one more story that you have probably heard. A priest is walking through the jungle when he comes upon a hungry lion. Just as the lion goes to attack, the priest crosses himself and says, "Lord, if you can hear me, please instill the Holy Spirit in this beast's heart." The lion stops in his tracks as a bright light begins to glow around him. He looks to the sky, folds his paws in prayer, and says, "Thank you, Lord, for this meal.” They say the Spirit works in mysterious ways
Today, we reach the end of the Easter Season and the beginning of ordinary time. It is actually far from ordinary for the scriptures speak directly to us about how we live our lives. It is marked by the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was sent by Jesus to aid the apostles and other disciples as they carried on without him. We seek the Holy Spirit in our lives as well. The Holy Spirit becomes our guide along the path.
There is an interesting little difference about the coming of the Holy Spirit in two of our scriptures for today. We first heard the lector read the story of the coming of the Holy spirit on Pentecost, fifty days after Easter. It was not a calm and quiet event. The disciples were gathered in a room, probably praying together. Suddenly there was a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. It sounds like a tornado to me. Then divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. Fire can also be a violent event. It certainly would have gotten everyone’s attention. There was no mistaking that something big was happening. It might have been this big event that caused the disciples to go outside and declare the work of the Lord to all who were gathered on that day in Jerusalem. Maybe it was the wind and the flame that changed Peter. He went from the gentleman who denied Jesus to the one who proclaimed Jesus to all. Somehow, he became the man who could give a sermon seemingly without preparation. As Jesus once said, don’t worry about what you will say, the Holy Spirit will give you the words when you need them. Yes, it was the Spirit who changed things
Compare that story to the one found in today’s gospel from John. In John’s account, the Holy Spirit was given to the apostles when Jesus appeared to them after his resurrection. Jesus breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” In this case, the coming of the Holy Spirit feels so personal. The Spirit came from the breath of Jesus. It may have been forceful but it seems much quieter.
The result of either introduction of the Holy Spirit had the same impact. Either way, the disciples of Jesus were changed. They were empowered. They were given confidence that they could proclaim the good news of Jesus. And what is it that draws us to the Pentecost experience? I believe it is that wish to better understand what happened or perhaps it is that desire to experience God in a personal, concrete way, something that eliminates any doubt. Something that makes us sure in our faith.
Given our two lessons about the coming of the Holy Spirit, I ask you to consider the ways that the Spirit has helped you. Sometimes it might be the violent wind that shakes us out of our uncertainty. Sometime the power of the Spirit is like the quiet breath of Jesus giving us peace when we are anxious or afraid
I mentioned that the power of the Holy Spirit seemed to change Peter. But that same power changed many people that day. The power of the Holy Spirit healed some of the divisions found in the crowd that day. Many were skeptical at first but once the Holy Spirit had gripped them, they were united. The divisions that we find in their language were healed. And the division that was found in their belief was changed as well for many were baptized. The Holy Spirit was able to overcome the differences found in a crowd that had so many diverse backgrounds, languages and different customs to form a single belief in the teaching of Jesus.
We have so many different names and expressions to help us understand the Spirit. In Hebrew, the name given to the spirit was Ruach, the wind. In Greek the name used was Pneuma, or breath. I think of the spirit as a force and like the wind it cannot be tamed. The spirit will rush into a place with great strength. The Holy Spirit is our guide, our advocate, our Paraclete, our comforter. C. S. Lewis spoke of the Spirit as a force that is more shadowy, more vague than either God that we often call Father or Jesus. Lewis suggested that we are not usually looking for the Spirit. The Spirit is usually working in you and through you. The Spirit is both a force that causes things to happen and a sentiment that gives us comfort. We pray to God the Father, we know Jesus is at our side and we feel the Holy Spirit inside of us.
And we have a third view of the spirit when we listen to the words from 1st Corinthians. The spirit gives us special gifts all of which we are to use for the kingdom of God. Or as Paul writes, these gifts are for the manifestation of the spirit in our world. So whether it is speaking with wisdom or knowledge, increased faith, the gifts of healing, the gift of miracles, prophecy, the discernment of spirits, diverse kinds of tongues, or interpretation of tongues each of us has different gifts. I have learned that sometimes we know our own gifts and sometimes others see those gifts in us. We pray that the Spirit will help us to know and to use the gifts that we have received.
Sadly, people came to believe that some gifts were better than others. Paul originally wrote this letter because some believed that the ability to speak in tongues was more important than the other gifts. Paul asked them to remember that every gift has value. We have similar temptations to those that existed in Paul’s day. We run the risk of thinking that we are smarter or more spiritual or harder workers than others. We find it so often in Scripture and we find it in our community today. We each should care for another and listen for each other’s gifts.
I find it difficult to celebrate Pentecost with just a few people in the congregation. I wish that it was loud and boisterous instead of quiet and calm. I miss the custom we have of asking people to speak the words of Pentecost in many different languages just as the story tells us happened on that first Pentecost.
But I realize that the Holy Spirit came to the disciples when they needed help. I believe that the Spirit comes to us in our time of need. I am reminded once again that the spirit comes to us in many ways. Today, the spirit is being sent to us not in one single place, the church of the Transfiguration, but rather in each home that is participating in this service. We collectively have the spirit enter our souls even though we are distant from one another.
Just as the Spirit united peoples in Jerusalem, I pray that Spirit will unite us despite our differences. May the Spirit bring us together even though we are far apart and may the Spirit gives us the strength to deal with our challenges and to proclaim Jesus as our Lord and Savior. Amen.
There is the funny story of the raw army recruit standing at attention on the drill field. The drill instructor yells, “Forward, march!” And the entire ranks begin to move, all except this one raw recruit. He’s still standing there at attention so the drill instructor strolls over to him and yells in his right ear, “Is this thing working?” “Sir, yes, sir!” the recruit yells. Then the drill instructor walks around to the other ear and yells, “Is this thing working?” “Sir, yes, sir!” the soldier says. “Then why didn’t you march when I gave the order?” “Sir, I didn’t hear you call my name.”
Don’t all of us wish that we would hear God calling our name out individually so we would know exactly what God wants of each of us. I think today’s Gospel comes very close. I ask you to hear Jesus praying to God for you, personally, and all of us collectively. In this prayer, Jesus tells every one of us what to do. We are to know God and to know Jesus Christ. Then we will have eternal life.
Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension, the celebration of Jesus going up to heaven in a bodily form. Many of us probably didn’t even notice and we didn’t do anything special here at Transfiguration to celebrate the day. That is why we hear the reading of the Ascension from Acts. Ascension is always celebrated forty days after Easter. Forty days we didn’t have Easter services open to everyone and now we have gone another forty days. Forty is also used in the Bible as a sign of a long time. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness before he started his public ministry. The flood was caused by rain for forty days and nights. The Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years. Forty is both a long time period and a time of important change.
Did you notice the reaction of the apostles as Jesus ascended? The angels told them to stop looking up to heaven, Jesus will be back. They returned to Jerusalem and prayed, waiting. The Gospel of Luke also tells about the ascension. In that version, probably written by the same author as the person who wrote Acts, the apostles “worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” They were not sad that Jesus left, they were joyful. They were happy because Jesus was expected to return again soon, possibly because this confirmed that Jesus was the Messiah.
I was thinking about the ascension as I meditated on the gospel. For in the gospel Jesus is praying to God. As part of that prayer Jesus said, “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father.” Yes, Jesus was going to leave the disciples and go to be with God the Father in heaven.
Perhaps you think that Jesus offered this prayer when he went off by himself and spoke with his Father in heaven. Actually, Jesus said the prayer at the last dinner he shared, with his followers gathered around.
Can you imagine being there at the table with Jesus and hearing him offering this prayer for you? I feel strengthened when I experience prayers being said for me. How do you feel when you realize Jesus said this prayer for you? In a way, it is a teaching about a prayer that we might offer, a prayer asking God that we might believe and asking God to give us eternal life. It is a prayer that helps us to focus on our relationship with both Jesus and the Father.
Jesus prayed for his followers just before he was crucified and Jesus blessed his apostles just before he ascended. Today, I feel the connection of the three books of the Bible: Luke, John and Acts. They celebrate Jesus as our Lord and Savior and they all have prayers that Jesus offered for his followers just before he left them.
This prayer in today’s gospel was offered on our behalf just as it was offered for the apostles. We are followers of Jesus. We believe what he taught us and we believe in God. Jesus prayed that we would be protected and that we would be nourished. Perhaps the strongest words are offered by Jesus in the second verse of today’s reading. “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
John’s gospel often speaks of eternal life. 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.
Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”
Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.
What does eternal life means to you? I have heard so many different explanations. People who have had near death experiences say that they see a bright light. People describe heaven in many different ways. They speak of family members that they will see once again. Some talk of their dogs being part of heaven. I even heard someone describe heaven as a picnic, a time of happiness for us and all those that are with. I am sure that much of what people imagine heaven to be like will be true. But I ask you to come back to the words of Jesus. Eternal life is knowing God and knowing Jesus. Is it possible that you are experiencing eternal life now? It is as if we are part of this world but not part of this world. Jesus said eternal life is already here when we know God and Jesus Christ.
John’s gospel supports this idea of eternal life right now. In Chapter 3 we hear, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life”. in Chapter 5 we hear, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgement, but has passed from death to life. Knowing God gives us some glimpse of what we will experience after we die. We live in the protective arms of God now and cannot wait to have that experience even stronger later. There are so many mysteries about God. Will we have eternal life when we understand all of those mysteries about God? I sure hope so.
We are in a time of the church year that is an in between time. Jesus has given his life for us. Jesus has left the earth and the Holy Spirit has not yet come. We are in a kind of limbo. The forty days means that something big is happening. Jesus has left the earth and the Holy Spirit has not yet come.
We know all of what has happened. But I ask you to imagine that Jesus has left and yet the Holy Spirit, the power of God given to us all, has not yet come. Imagine still that Jesus has told us that if we believe then we have eternal life. And yet, we must live our lives without the presence of Jesus physically here on earth. We have no one else to turn to but the other believers that are with us. Isn’t that why Jesus prayed that we would all be one. He prayed “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
Let us pray together to God that the Holy Spirit will come one more time at Pentecost to guide us and to strengthen us. Imagine that you are with the other disciples. You have followed and believed in Jesus and you have been promised that the Holy Spirit will come. You go back to Jerusalem after the Ascension of Jesus and you are joyful. You remember the prayer of Jesus that we heard today in the Gospel and you pray that God will send that same Holy Spirit to be with you.
If you have some uncertainty in your life now, I ask you to look forward with hope, asking the Holy Spirit to be with you and knowing that God will protect you just as Jesus asked. May you be certain of eternal life because you have believed. Amen.