This week we learned that the owner of the New England Patriots, Robert Kraft, was going to auction off one of his Super Bowl rings for charity. I am sure that the ring has great value from a financial perspective but it means a lot to him for sentimental reasons. It is the ring from the Super Bowl when the Patriots overcame a huge deficit and defeated the Atlanta Falcons. Kraft said that it reminded him of the time we are in now, a time when we are collectively coming back from the pandemic that is impacting everyone. It is quite a gift for charity.
Kraft’s gift is part of an effort called the “All in Challenge” which was started by an executive named Michael Rubin who is the executive chairman of an online business called Fanatics. Rubin has challenged sports figures, musicians, business moguls, and celebrities to offer once in a lifetime opportunities for people. His goal is to raise money for Covid-19 relief. Specifically, the money will help feed those in need. Their website says that “Food insecurity is a mounting issue but never more important than during COVID-19 and the unprecedented shortage of food resources our nation is facing. The money collected will be given to Meals on Wheels, World Central Kitchen, and No Kid Hungry, Feeding America and America’s Food Fund.” So far the challenge has raised $40 million dollars. By the way, if you want to bid on the Super Bowl ring, the current bid is $775,000. I won’t be able to make a higher bid. Kraft’s net worth is estimated to be 6.9 billion dollars so the gift is significant but will probably not change his net worth.
I feel connected to this “All in Challenge” because our church has been concerned with and supported the issue of food for needy people for many years. I am thankful for all those who are helping provide food for needy people.
The need for rich people to give to others is directly connected to our gospel lesson. Jesus warned people about greed and many of us are at risk for letting greed take over our lives. Jesus told a parable about a rich man who decided to build new barns because he had been so successful in his farming business. But the end result was that those new barns didn’t help him because he died as soon as the barns were finished.
In our society it is a common teaching that we should continually seek to get more money and more things. We are taught to set aside money in order to tide us over when things go bad. We are taught to save up lots of money so we won’t run out when we are retired. We believe that it is wise and responsible to save for the future. But these messages can easily cause people to end up saving more money than they really need. We can easily become hoarders of all different kinds of things. Even in my own life, I realize that since we have owned our current house, we have many more things than when we first moved in. We all just collect things. One of my pet peeves is the number of storage facilities that we have in Arizona. They are just like barns used to store up the things that we probably don’t need.
The rich man in the parable was not wrong for saving for the future. He was wrong because he seemed to only care about himself. And he was wrong because he thought that wealth alone can secure his future. The rich farmer seems to only be talking with himself about what to do. “What should I do?”, he asks himself and later, “I know what I will do”. The man ends up being pleased with all of this work saying to himself, “And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry’”. The rich farmer gave no credit to others who worked on his farm. But most important, he didn’t give thanks to God for the gifts that God gave to him. The rich man in the parable did not talk to himself about sharing some of his wealth with others. It seemed that he wanted it all for himself even though he could not use it all.
I read a story this week about a man who owned an ice cream store. He was able to reopen his store in the last few days and people crowded into his store to get ice cream. They just wanted to get out and do something. There were so many people in the ice cream store that the workers couldn’t dish the ice cream fast enough. Some of the customers started to yell at a 17-year old girl because they were impatient. They said terrible things about her. She was so upset that she quit when her shift was over. She had been a faithful worker serving the people for over three years. As I think about that story I ask you to pray that we will all find a way to live with each other, that we will have patience and understanding because this is a time when things are not going the way we are used to nor are they going the way we want them to. We also hear stories about people arguing over whether they have to wear a mask or stand a certain distance away from others. There is good news as well. The owner set up a go fund me page for the 17-year old worker to pay for her college expenses and so far they have received over $30,000. Just as we understand that the rich man should have thought of others, let us pray that we will think of others as we come out of this isolation period.
As Jesus said in the parable, we never know when our time on earth will be over. We all feel that these days. The Covid-19 virus is the true silent killer. We have little clue about whether a person that we meet has the virus and we don’t know how our body will react if we get the disease. The end result is that we don’t know whether our time has come for God to call us home or not. The rich man in the parable never realized that he could not totally create security for himself. While the current virus has impacted more poor people than rich people, the rich are not saved from the virus. Every one of us, rich or poor, has the possibility to contract Covid-19 and to die from it.
As I read in one commentary today, “It is not that God doesn’t want us to save for retirement or future needs. It is not that God doesn’t want us to eat, drink, and be merry and enjoy what God has given us. We know from the Gospels that Jesus spent time eating and drinking with people and enjoying life. But he was also clear about where his true security lay.” Our security lies with God through Jesus Christ.
Jesus was asking the people of his time to realize that they could be so easily fooled into thinking that wealth, or fame, or being friends with the right people will give us the security that we need. When we are fooled like that we can easily fall into the trap of greed, of thinking that we just need a little more to take care of ourselves.
In this time of solitude, let us turn to God, for God is the one who gives us comfort. As the last line would suggest, let us be rich toward God. If our heart is with God, then we will know God’s comfort and peace.
As we begin to slowly leave our period of quarantine, let us focus on how we are part of the creation that God has established. Let us join God as creators in all we do. Let us help to bring food to others just as the All in Challenge is trying to do. We may not be able to provide as much money or feed as many people as the All in Challenge will do but we can still make a difference one person and one food bank at a time. Thank you for all that you do and let us thank God for all of our blessings. Amen.
I found a story that fits our readings but I am not sure if it is a true story. “India has many boy merchants, and for their use, as they journey, the charitable have placed rest-stones along the roads. A woman missionary once passed a weary little fellow as he reclined against one of these stones and quoted the Bible to him: "Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." The lad was invited to the mission school, and there he learned to love Jesus. His face lit up as he heard Psalm 18 and the verse which begins with, "The Lord is my rock." "That is better than any resting-stone," he said. "It keeps one rested all the time."
Those words, “Come unto me all who are heavy laden and I will give you rest” come from the gospel of Matthew. When I think of rest for our souls it gives me the sense of total relaxation and comfort. We will find rest in Jesus for our heart, our mind, our bodies, our will and our emotions. It is that sense of total rest that comes only from being in faith with Jesus. In fact, Jesus tells us that our rest comes from taking his yoke upon ourselves and learning from him. Perhaps the rest we get is not just the physical rest that comes from stopping our work, but the rest that comes from knowing that we have truth, that we no longer have to search for that certain something which causes us to be restless. It is that sense that we know we are in God’s hands.
I listen to the words, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls”. Our rest is important. But it is also important to turn our hearts to Jesus and take his yoke upon our shoulders.
We have the chance to hear about rest in today’s gospel. It is what led me to think about the passage in Matthew. Just before these verses begin, Jesus had sent his twelve apostles out into the world. He gave them authority over unclean spirits. They had been told to take nothing with them except the clothes on their backs. They were to proclaim that all should repent. They cast out demons and cured many of the sick when they anointed them with oils. Now, they had returned to Jesus and told him what had happened. It sounds like they were very successful. And Jesus tells them it is their time to rest. So, they jump in a boat and go across the sea of Galilee expecting to find some quiet time. They deserved their rest.
We have been forced into a time of quiet because of this pandemic. Jesus said, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” Let us take this time away from others to build up our strength and to prepare ourselves for what God is asking us to do next.
A week ago, we celebrated earth day, we have seen the improvement in air quality around the world. In places like Los Angeles and the eastern seaboard, we can see the improvement in air quality in photos that have been taken before and after. Other countries have seen this as well. I especially noticed the improvement in air quality in India. It is as if the earth has been given some time to rest to build up its strength and some time to prepare for what is to come next.
I wonder what you might be resting from and for. I hope that you are able to spend some of your time contemplating your faith life. Perhaps you might take advantage of this time to think about how you might learn from Jesus and find some true rest in his arms.
I find it difficult to rest for long periods of time. The quarantine we are under now seems to have lasted forever but we may decide later that it didn’t last long enough or that we didn’t take advantage of the time we had. Our time of rest may not last long. Look at what happened to the apostles. They tried getting away with Jesus for some quiet time but the crowds followed them and met them again when they finally pulled into shore.
The next events remind me that despite our efforts to learn from Jesus we remember that we will never understand everything about Jesus or about God. The apostles had just returned from doing great work proclaiming the word of Jesus. But soon they were taught that they have much more to learn. The crowds were all around them and the apostles first thought that they should send the crowds away for they had no food. Jesus told the apostles to feed the crowd. The apostles didn’t understand. We don’t have enough money to buy food for everyone. They didn’t know what Jesus had planned. Jesus used the small amount of food that one boy had brought. Everyone was fed from that small amount of food. It was an unexpected miracle, a mystery.
During this time of rest many are struggling. We might find a way in this time of restfulness to care for others. That is the way we take his yoke upon us. Simply staying in touch with others is a way to share God’s love. You also may wish to help others in need. Through the generosity of many, our million meals program last week sent money to help over 20 food banks in the valley continuing to provide food to those in need. Jesus taught us to care for others.
So we are encouraged by Jesus to find rest and we contemplate his marvelous works. We have one more reminder today and that is to be watchful. Just before today’s reading from 1st John, he shared that God forgives us and brings us into the light. But now, he shifts focus and warns us that false gods may come and lead us astray. The antichrist will come he said. We may not easily recognize the antichrist. The antichrist may not come as a devil figure who tries so obviously to lead us into sin but rather as someone who on the surface sounds like a follower of Jesus. We must be mindful of the ease by which we may lose our path. We turn to the teachings of Jesus himself and rely on them. The author of 1 John speaks of the Holy One, the Holy Spirit, who will keep us on the correct path. In John, we are told that we know the truth and if we listen carefully we will know the antichrist when we encounter him or her.
In our rest, we need to be watchful. One way to be vigilant is to pray the words that are found in our Psalm today. “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy Name”. Psalm 103 gives us a great list of God’s blessings. God forgives our sins. God heals us when we are sick. God shares mercy and loving kindness. God provides justice and righteousness. God is full of compassion and mercy.
Let us live in thanksgiving. For perhaps there isn’t much rest to be had after all. The apostles were not able to have rest because the crowds followed Jesus. We too may find that there is not much rest because the devil is always lurking.
Many of us, myself included, feel so constrained by the limitations placed on us from the pandemic. We wish that we could go out more, see friends, travel, and enjoy life the way we are used to doing. But we might consider this time as a time that Jesus has created for us. Jesus may have wished for us to have a time of quiet, a time to find a deserted place and rest a while. If that is so, then I think he would want us to rest physically. But I also think that Jesus would have wanted us to take the time to learn from him, to watch out for evil forces and to prepare ourselves for what is to come. May you find a way to rest in times of anxiety, may you actually rest even though you wish to be somewhere else or do something else. May you accept the yoke of Jesus for he said, my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Amen.
During World War II, Winston Church, the prime mister of Great Britain, would often flash a sign with two fingers that was meant to indicate V for victory. He was such a positive presence for his people and the V was his way to show defiance in the face of the constant bombing the British people were experiencing. Occasionally, he would make the sign with his palm facing inward. That was considered an insulting gesture, and when Churchill showed the sign that way he meant lets stick it to the Germans. His gesture is remembered as a sign of hope and determination (perhaps even resolution).
In the 1960’s, the V sign was used by people as a sign of peace by those who opposed the Vietnam War. In fact it was called the peace sign. President Richard Nixon began to use this as a sign of victory and a sign of peace. Nixon would often flash this sign with both hands. He even offered this sign as he was leaving the White House when he resigned from the presidency. Since then, the sign has been used in many ways. Some people, particularly the Japanese, use this sign in amateur photographs to indicate friendship and peace.
It is the V sign used as a sign of peace that I would ask you to consider today. In our gospel, Jesus appeared to his disciples in the upper locked room, after his resurrection. They were frightened and uncertain of what to do next. He said the words “Peace be with you”. As we continue to isolate ourselves because of the pandemic we are facing, we are unable to greet each other in person. I suggest that you consider flashing that old sign of peace, a sign which is not often used these days, as an indication that you are offering God’s peace to each other despite the separation we face and despite the hardships we encounter.
When Jesus said those words of peace to his apostles he most assuredly said to them Shalom alaichiem or very similar words in Aramaic. As you know, Shalom is a Hebrew word that means so many things. It can mean peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility. I am sure that it meant all of those things to the apostles. For they were totally lost. They grieved the death of their friend, leader, teacher and Messiah. They didn’t know what to do next. They were afraid. In his resurrection, Jesus changed everything for them. Jesus gave them a sense of wholeness, and a knowledge that life for them would be well. They came to know what he expected of them.
I feel that we need all of those things in our life today. I worry about the people in our congregation and I wonder what the future holds for us all. Yet even though I know God is here, I can still have questions. I can still wonder why God seems to be hidden from us. We might be like Thomas, looking for a sign.
I am reminded of a scene from the movie the two popes. In that movie, Jorge Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis, described a time when he was sent away to a small town in a distant state. We might think of it as his time of exile. In the movie, he gave a sermon to the local people in the small town. In the sermon, he said that parishioners would tell him that they prayed but they did not think that God responded to their prayers. These same people were certain that priests never had that problem. After all, priests always feel connected to God. But the future Pope disagreed. He had many times when he didn’t feel God’s presence in his life and it made him feel as if he was not qualified to give a sermon.
I have had those experiences myself and I remember my own experience as I read the gospel. For Thomas struggled to believe until he had some personal and physical evidence. Thomas said, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” So why does God remain hidden from us. I read a commentary about that this week. The author asked “Why doesn’t God reveal himself so concretely and physically that no one could doubt his existence? His answer came from Karl Rahner, a German priest and theologian. God isn’t hidden, he says, we just don’t have the eyes to see God because our eyes aren’t attuned to that kind of reality: “We are just discovering today that one cannot picture God to oneself in an image that has been carved out of the wood of the world. This experience is not the genesis of atheism, but the discovery that the world is not God.” You see, we are not weak because we don’t see God. We are only people of this world and God is not of this world. Our struggle is to understand something that is not of this world.
One of the keys to faith comes in the resurrection of Jesus and in the witness that has been given to us by the apostles. In today’s reading from 1st Peter, we hear again the witness of saints who have gone before us and their witness gives us hope. Jesus “has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead”. We are told in the book of Acts that these disciples were filled with so much hope that they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.
It is hard for me to imagine the excitement of those first believers. They ate together and were joyful. They weren’t worried about whether they were overeating, they didn’t worry about where their next meal would come from. They were so excited by the knowledge of the resurrection of Jesus that it filled their entire lives.
We may struggle with where God is on occasion but let us always live with hope because of his resurrection. As Paul told us in Corinthians, we live in the three virtues of faith, hope, and love (or charity). Hope is a virtue that we can choose. We are thankful and glad that we have hope in this life because of the resurrection of Jesus. We can be like the first disciples. Our hope allows us to have the patience that we will see God, that God will triumph. And it is in hope that we live with joy in the resurrection of Jesus.
So we come back to that night when Jesus came through the doors to see the apostles. Jesus said to them, “Peace be with you”. That first evening he said it not once but twice. Peace be with you. The next week, Jesus said it again. This time he also said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Those words are for each and every one of us. Jesus didn’t complain about the lack of faith that Thomas had. Jesus doesn’t complain about the wrongs we have done. He just reaches out to you and says, Peace be with you. These are words that can solve all of my worries. I ask you to hear Jesus say it to you over and over again. Peace be with you.
The Peace of Jesus is different than any other peace that we have been given. It is a peace which goes beyond our understanding. It is a peace that is available to us in our prayers or in our daily lives.
It is with faith and hope and joy and love that we offer God’s Peace to others. In this time of uncertainty, in this time when we cannot touch each other to offer a sign of peace in person, I ask you to lift your hands and show the sign of peace to each other. In that sign of peace, you can express a little bit of what Winston Churchill expressed. For God’s peace can be a sign of hope and a sign of determination that we will come through this together. And the sign of peace can be our certainty that Jesus is with us. It can be a sign of harmony and wholeness as well. And our sign of peace can be an expression of God’s love that we share with others. May God’s peace be with you. Amen.
Several weeks ago, our bishop sent out an announcement that the churches would be closed until at least April 20th. I remember at the time thinking to myself how can she close the churches for Easter and what will Easter be like without having our big service. It turns out she was right. Our world has been taken over by this pandemic. We spend our time alone in our own homes, away from others. Our news is consumed with sad stories. We listen to the rising count of people who have contracted the disease and the number of people who have died. We hear about shortages of medical supplies. Medical Professionals, emergency responders and police are catching this disease. The economy is not doing well. Scammers are taking advantage of others using the disease as a way to trick them. How can it be Easter with so much going on?
There is so much about Easter that we will not experience. There will be no Easter Egg Hunt. We won’t see others wearing bright pastel colors, colors which we connect with Easter. We will have to eat our Easter candy by ourselves. We won’t be wishing each other a Happy Easter in person. Most of us will miss having a big Easter dinner with all of our friends, family, and neighbors.
But in the midst of all of this there is good news as well. People are reaching out to others in ways that we have not seen before. The anger that many have for those who don’t agree with them has quieted down. People are helping others who are less fortunate. And medical workers are being cheered by those who care and are thankful. And I am personally thankful that I see so few political ads on TV.
Today is Easter. There is so much we miss. I am thankful for technology which has brought us together in a different way. But I get discouraged by the problems that we experience with technology in our services. I have been in online services where people have dropped off unexpectedly. I don’t like it when multiple people try to say prayers together but their words are not synced. I find my mind wandering when I watch a service online and I feel guilty. Technology is not as good for me as seeing each of you in church. But we don’t need to have all of those wonderful things that we enjoy. We only need to remember that today is Easter, the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. We still celebrate and say the words Jesus is risen. It has meaning to us despite the fact that we don’t share it in person with the rest of our church community. It is as if something wonderful has happened in our lives but we are not able to share it with others. We can be happy inside and just wait until we are able to see others to share our joy.
I have always felt a strong connection to the first followers of Jesus at Easter. They were just normal people trying to understand the amazing thing that had happened. Given our current situation, I am reminded that they didn’t have chocolate bunnies or Easter eggs or bright clothes. In fact, they didn’t call this day Easter. That didn’t come until much later. But they did spend time with other faithful people sharing a meal, praying and being thankful.
The oldest written words about the resurrection of Jesus that we still have come from Paul. Today we hear his thoughts. Through the resurrection of Jesus, we too have been raised up. We have been lifted out of the depths of sin. And we are encouraged to "Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
I find it helpful to consider the impact that the resurrection had on the apostles. Paul wrote about the disciples in his letter to the Corinthians. He said that Jesus appeared to the others as witnesses. Our first thought may be that these people were especially blessed, they were so fortunate that they got to see the resurrected Jesus. But with their gift, they also received a responsibility. For they received the job to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection. And as we know, the proclamation that Jesus was raised from the dead caused many of them to be killed. I find great encouragement from the experience of the apostles. It helps me when I have questions. These folks were afraid and doubtful yet came to realize the glory of God in the resurrection of Jesus. I hope that you reach that same place. Yes, we may be called to be witnesses as well.
On Tuesday, I attended a service called the renewal of vows. All the clergy in the diocese of Arizona joined. Of course, we did it remotely through Youtube. I was touched by the gospel reading which comes from John chapter 12. Jesus said “when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” Jesus thought of us throughout his ministry and I believe Jesus reaches out to us today.
In the reading from Acts today, we hear Peter proclaim the resurrection, himself. Each time that we encounter this miracle, this victory over sin and death, this love of God, we have the opportunity to experience something new. Peter proclaimed the story of the resurrection to Cornelius and to other Gentiles who were with him. And in that retelling, lives were changed. First, Peter’s life was changed for he finally understood and proclaimed that the gospel of Jesus was not just for Jews but for all people. God shows no partiality, he says. Later he adds, “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Cornelius, the centurion, was also changed, feeling part of this community of believers, knowing God’s love. Jesus is the Messiah for every nation and every person. We don’t have to wonder if God loves us.
I share these words from professor Matt Skinner, “Throughout the sermon Peter emphasizes God as the agent behind all aspects of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Because God was active through Jesus, Jesus' story attests God as welcoming of all, as refusing to make distinctions among people. Peter sees in Jesus' story evidence that confirms what he has come to learn about God." The resurrection of Jesus is for each of us.
Let’s reflect for a moment on the resurrection story. Mary Magdalene arrived first and when she saw the empty tomb she ran to get Peter and the other disciple. The two men see the empty tomb and even go inside but strangely they do not encounter Jesus.
If you find it difficult today to feel the joy and hope of the resurrection then you are not alone. Because someone as faithful and well known as Peter was uncertain as well. We don’t know how Peter felt. We are only told that he did not yet understand. I imagine that Peter struggled. Is it possible that he thought the authorities took the body of Jesus? Was he afraid that something would happen to him if he shouted excitedly about Jesus being raised from the dead? Was he like Thomas, waiting to see Jesus for himself before he came to a conclusion? We just don’t know. All that we are told is that the two men simply went home.
The story might have ended there but Mary stuck around. Mary encountered Jesus and she was the first to go out and proclaim that Jesus was resurrected. Every one of the gospel stories reports that it was the women who told what had happened. Doesn’t it help you to appreciate the role of the women followers? I know that the role of women was different in those days. They had the responsibility to go and anoint the body with oils. And I know that the women might have been able to move around more freely because the authorities would not have worried about what the women were going to do. Despite all of this, I would bring your attention to the fact that the women are the ones who go and tell everyone what had happened. They were the ones who got everyone excited. Without their witness, the story would have been different. It is one more example that the resurrection of Jesus is for everyone.
Today, we are joyful. Jesus defeated death and through his actions we have also been lifted up. But it is also a day for hope. Some have said that this is the lentiest Lent they have ever experienced. Let us hope that Easter will be the greatest Easter of our lives. Jesus told us that he is the resurrection and the life. He has gone before us to prepare a place for us. In these difficult times we hope for the resurrection, we hope for the return of Jesus and we hope that God will help us to put an end to this pandemic. Amen.
On Monday, our governor declared that everyone should stay home to protect ourselves during this pandemic. I agreed with his decision. Still, Tuesday was a difficult day for me. I am thankful that so many have volunteered to help this church stay together in spite of the isolation we are experiencing. Some are calling church members and if you haven’t received a call, let me know. We started recording the services and putting them on Youtube for everyone to see. We started to have Zoom services for morning prayer and compline. But the announcement from the governor changed things again. I was in a sad mood. How should our church respond to this latest decision and how will we continue to offer services and stay together?
Then as I prepared for this sermon, I was reminded that I am not in charge. God is in charge. In my reading I came across this observation, “Our very human instinct is to take over when we think God cannot adequately meet our expectations or when we assume that the protocols we have put in place are the only ways through which God can work.” So, I am doing my best to go with the flow and let God handle this because God will. In spite of all of my worries and all of my actions. Holy Week is not my responsibility. Holy Week will happen regardless of what I do. God will make sure of that.
And in this time of sickness and death, in this time of worry, I remembered all the wonderful things people are doing for others. Some in our church have responded to the need by giving more money to our Million Meals program and we are trying to find the appropriate places to share this gift. Other good things have happened. In times of great difficulty we get opportunities to learn. This week, I have gotten better at using Zoom. I have learned how to record a Zoom session and I have learned how to upload that recording to our Youtube channel. It is fun in some ways. Perhaps you have had some new experiences as well. Or maybe you have found the time to do a project that has been put off.
I share this to describe the ups and downs I have encountered, in a very short time span. On Thursday, I struggled with how we would do this service and then on Thursday evening, I spent time praying with about 15 people on Zoom and some people joined us for the first time on Zoom. It was good to see everyone’s faces. I was lifted up.
This next week will be unusual as well. I am so used to sharing the Holy Week services with others. Those services give us the chance to walk with Jesus together. We will not be doing that this year. I will have a Good Friday service available on Facebook and Youtube as well as our Easter Sunday service. That is all. So, I will join you and participate in a service online. Every year since I came to Arizona, I have renewed my priestly vows in a service at the Cathedral. This year, I will be renewing my priestly vows through a Zoom meeting. I will miss gathering with my clergy friends. I will miss being there personally.
The ups and downs of life are reflected in our two gospel readings for today. We first celebrate the procession which Jesus took through the streets of Jerusalem and we imagined the loud shouts of the people saying, “Hosanna in the Highest”.
For me, this celebration goes by too quickly. I want to be one of the people on the roadside, saying hosanna to our king. I wish that I could stay in the place and not have to go through the rest of the week. Ask yourself, “How would I have reacted to all of the things that happened that week”? We wish we could be certain that we would have stuck with Jesus for the entire ride. But none of us can be sure. We must remain humble and accept the uncertainty. All of us have had times when we were unfaithful to Jesus in our lives and we wish that we would not have been the ones later in the week to shout, “Crucify him!”
Just a little while later we listened to the entire story of the passion of Jesus and one again heard about Jesus death on the cross. We heard the story of Jesus giving up his life for us.
Today’s readings and the progression of things in Holy Week have so many ups and downs. It feels so much like my life these days. I would suggest that you choose this week to follow the path of Jesus. There is so much to learn and so many emotions that flow over us. Many people have chosen some way to remember the path of Jesus this week at their dinner table. For Jan and I, we have placed seven candles on the table in remembrance of the seven days of this Holy Week. We lit them this morning at breakfast and will do so at our meals. It is the best we can do in this difficult time.
One other suggestion I have is that you read the gospel of Mark this week. It is relatively short and you can read a portion each day. I would encourage you to start on the 11th chapter of Mark and read Mark’s description of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
- On Sunday, I suggest you read Mark 11:1-11. It is the story of the triumphal procession of Jesus into Jerusalem.
- On Monday, I suggest you read Mark 11:12-18. It is the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple, sending the money changers on their way.
- On Tuesday, please read Mark 11:20- 12:12. In this passage, Jesus debates his authority with the Pharisees and he tells a parable of the wicked tenant. I hope that you can feel the tension in the air as people in positions of authority test Jesus and try to trick him so that they can punish him.
- On Wednesday, I suggest you read Mark 12:18-44. In this passage you will find some of the most important teaching that we receive for Jesus. He answered difficult questions about how we live in society and live in God at the same time. We hear once more the greatest commandment and we hear the story about how one widow gave so much as she worshipped God.
- On Thursday read Mark 14:1-42. Imagine yourself joining the apostles for the Last Supper. It must have been a wonderful gathering amongst people who were so close. Yet, this meal also had tension in the air as Judas plans to betray Jesus and Jesus tells Peter that he will deny Jesus three times. The passage ends with Jesus praying in Gethsemane. Let us pray with Jesus as he prepares himself for the trial that is to come.
- Then, on Friday, You might watch the Good Friday service on our Youtube channel. If you prefer to just sit quietly, you may want to read a portion of the passion story. On Good Friday, we usually read the gospel of John 18:1-19:42.
- On Saturday, you could contemplate the fear and uncertainty facing the apostles.
I hope that by taking this path, walking this journey with Jesus, you will have a chance to experience the ups and downs that he and his followers experienced, that you will get a sense of the intense pressure and questioning that he was placed under and have a sense of how calmly he responded to the pressure.
As we go through this week we can ponder the wonderful gift that Jesus gave us. He gave everything he had to help us find our way, to feel connected to God in every step that we take and to know the forgiveness that Jesus has provided to us.
So much happened in this one week. We experience exuberant joy, sacred gifts, in fighting among the followers, rejection, denial, desperate prayer and deep sorrow. So much real life in just one week. I invite you this day and this week to consider how Jesus changed your life, not just by using your mind, the words you say or the things you hear. Let’s feel the things that Jesus and his disciples did. And I invite you to open your hearts to the emotions of this week. Allow sorrow and joy to enter you. We know Jesus experienced much and had many feelings that week. It gives me encouragement because I know that Jesus experienced many emotions during his life that I experience now. Let us be thankful for all that Jesus did for us and for his ever-present love. Amen.
I remember a scene from movies many years ago. When a new baby was born, the doctor would lift the baby up by its legs and spank the child lightly as it came out of its mother’s womb. The child would shriek, crying very loudly. The doctor then knew that the child could breathe on its own. I read that a baby should begin crying within the first 30 seconds to one minute of life. But doctors no longer perform that spanking technique. We have learned a better way. To get a baby to breathe, gentle stimulation is usually required and accomplished these days by rubbing the baby's back or gently stimulating its feet. Whichever way a baby starts breathing we know that baby has received God’s gift of life given through the breath of God.
Once again scripture speaks directly to us in times of crisis. I think about the breath of God. And I think about this disease we are fighting. For the disease kills people by taking away their breath. We are trying desperately to find enough ventilators to keep people alive. Let us pray that God will continue giving us breath, helping us physically today and protecting us forever.
I have been thinking a lot about God’s gift of life. In the second chapter of Genesis we read that human life began when God breathed life into Adam. “then the Lord God formed man from the dust on the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” Just as God’s breath gave life to Adam, God’s breath gives us life.
The breath of God is found throughout our scripture today. Ezekiel told about the gift of life. It was given to an entire valley of bones, dry bones. God told Ezekiel to preach to the bones and that God would cause breath to enter into those bones. Later in this same passage, God told Ezekiel to prophesy about the breath, to call on the breath from the four winds. Ezekiel “prophesied as God commanded, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”
While it is a story about physical life, it is also a message about the spiritual lives of the people of Israel. Ezekiel was speaking of the dry bones as the living people of Israel. The nation had sinned against God and individual people had sinned. Ezekiel said that God would breathe life into the people who had turned against God. The people had been scattered and Ezekiel prophesied that they would be brought together again.
In the letter to the Romans, Paul stressed that same idea. We are called to live our lives not in sin but rather in the Spirit. We know that God’s spirit is often referred to as breath, the breath of God. Paul makes the point that the Spirit is the one who gives us life and that we receive that life through the resurrection Jesus. It is clear in this verse, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” God gives us life. God takes us out of our sinful ways. God lives in us and makes us whole. We are encouraged to live our lives letting God lead us onward.
But the culmination of the life giving that we receive from God comes from Jesus himself. He didn’t breathe on Lazarus but he gave him life. Jesus told Martha that he is the resurrection and the life. It is yet another example of how Jesus changed things. Jesus didn’t focus on our sin but rather focused on his gift and our belief. The gift is about our life today and our eternal life. He said, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” We are given life on earth by God and we are given the gift of eternal life in Jesus. We are only asked to believe. It seems like such a small commitment for such a large gift.
A theologian named Eleonore Stump offered this perspective that I want to share in my own words. The two sisters, Mary and Martha, were devastated by the loss of their brother Lazarus. They felt as if Jesus had ignored them in their time of need. They felt as if they could never recover from the loss of their brother. Both of them said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But Jesus knew better what they needed. As Eleanore Stump wrote, “When Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, Mary has her brother, and is loved by Jesus in a way more deeply fulfilling to her and more glorious than the mere healing of her brother in his sickness would have been.” Jesus gave them a better gift than they had even expected.
We are in a difficult time. We think we know exactly what we need and we pray that God will respond to our requests. Sometimes I don’t understand how God has chosen to deal with us and I wonder how God’s plan fits with what is going today. But God knows best what we need and is giving it to us even though we don’t understand. This week my niece posted something on her Facebook page. I was surprised because I don’t often hear her speak about her faith. You may have seen this from another source. I am not suggesting what I am about to read is God’s current plan for us. But it does fit with the theme of turning from sin and turning to God as we heard in Ezekiel and Paul today. This is a part of what she wrote.
In three short months, just like He did with the plagues of Egypt, God has taken away everything we worship. God said, "you want to worship athletes, I will shut down the stadiums. You want to worship musicians, I will shut down Civic Centers. You want to worship actors, I will shut down theaters. You want to worship money, I will shut down the economy and collapse the stock market. You don't want to go to church and worship Me, I will make it where you can't go to church. If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land."
God’s breath gave us life when we were first born. God’s breath gives us new life when we are caught in the web of sin. God’s son, Jesus gave his last breath and rose from the dead again so that we can have eternal life. God’s breath is always there for us.
As I contemplate the breath of God, my mind turned to music for inspiration. I am touched by music, by the melodies and the words. I first thought of the hymn, Breathe on me breath of God. The words inspire us. God’s breath fills us with new life. Dear God, let me love what you love and do what you want me to do. Dear God, let your breath make my heart pure. Dear God breathe on me until my body glows with your divine fire. Dear God, breathe on me so that I may join you in eternal life.
I encourage you to keep this image of God’s breath giving you life this entire week. Let me suggest that while you are sitting at home you take some time to google different songs that speak of the breath of God. God’s breath has inspired many songs.
My favorite Youtube recording of breathe on me breath of God was performed by the Hasting College Choir.
If you like contemporary songs listen to “Holy Spirit, Living breath of God by Keith and Kristyn Getty.
Another choice would be Breath of God by EMU music from 2015.
When I was in college I sang a spiritual called Dem bones, Dem bones, Dem dry bones. It was about Ezekiel ’s story. This week, I enjoyed the Youtube video by the Cathedrals Quartet, Dry Bones.
Finally, I would suggest you listen to Amy Grant sing Breath of Heaven.
It is about Mary the mother of Jesus and it sounded like a Christmas story. But I think you will find comfort and hope in these words she offered, “breath of heaven, Hold me together.”
“breath of heaven, Lighten my darkness, pour over me your Holiness.
That is what I need today. I need God’s breath to hold me together.
You may want to keep these songs with you in the weeks ahead. I think our road is going to be much longer and more arduous than it has been already. I encourage you to keep these words on your heart, breath of heaven, Hold me Together. Amen.
Everything has changed and it happened so quickly. We have been changed in big ways. There are no large gatherings, all types of entertainment have been canceled, we cannot attend church together. And it can be found in the little changes that cause us to feel uncomfortable. We took our granddaughters to the neighborhood park which had signs saying “use at your own risk. This has not been sanitized since March 11th.” Here I am talking from the lectern which I never do. We cannot touch anyone. I find myself very anxious and concerned. I alternate between wanting to know the latest news about the coronavirus outbreak and being so depressed that I don’t want to follow the news at all anymore. I worry about what will happen to our society and how we will come out of this? How can I stay in touch with people and do the job I love to do?
I miss so much our coming together on Sunday. I miss seeing people and greeting them as they leave. I miss chatting with folks at the coffee hour. But most of all I miss sharing in the Eucharist together. I have always felt a spirit in our church. I always feel as if we are supporting each other in our lives and that God is with us in our worship.
I ask everyone to help us stay together. I plan to continue having a Sunday service available to you on Youtube that can be accessed directly or from Facebook. Please look for emails about other online events that we will offer. Please follow us on Facebook and other sites. The church office hours will be minimal. A group of volunteers will call all of our parishioners and check in with them. I ask each of you to reach out to people that you know in the church on a regular basis. I am most concerned for people who are unable to get around and the poor. If you have any concerns or questions, please call the office or call my cell phone. I also encourage you to go to the Diocesan Web site atwhere you can find a list of resources if you need them.
In these times we might ask where God has gone. We miss interacting with God at church. But the truth is that God is not located just in this church. God is everywhere and God is with us at all times. In last Sunday’s gospel, Jesus told the woman at the well that God will not be found on Mount Gerizim where the Samaritans worship and God will not be found in Jerusalem where the Jews worship. Rather we will worship God in spirit and truth. We find God all around us.
Throughout church history people asked if God left or wondered where God was in all of this mess. When Jerusalem was destroyed and many of the people were taken into exile, the Jewish people wondered. They believed that God was located in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple had been destroyed. If you read the beginning of Ezekiel we have an answer. God was lifted up out of the Temple by four living creatures with wings and four wheels. God flew to Ezekiel and to his people in Babylon. So it is with us today. God is not found only in the church of the Transfiguration. God is with each one of us. God is with you now.
I find such great comfort in the words from our reading of Psalm 23. It is as if that Psalm was chosen for us today. We speak the Psalm when we have a memorial service. It provides solace to those who are grieving. I believe it provides comfort to us in our current situation. I found this reflection, “Sheep are nervous creatures, easily stampeded. They are frightened by fast, flowing streams, and can drink freely only from water that appears still.” I am feeling like a sheep this week. I am easily worried about things that are changing so quickly. I am looking for the calm waters that seem to have disappeared. That is why I am comforted by Psalm 23. The Lord is my Shepherd. God will be with us always. God helps us to find our way when we are uncertain. God gives us food to nourish our souls. God is with me when it feels as if the world has darkened all around me. God is there to take away our fears, not so we can take foolish chances but rather to keep us on a safe path and to comfort us when we are anxious.
In the gospel Jesus heals a blind man. Jesus simply takes some saliva and mixes it with dirt, puts it on the man’s eyes and tells him to go wash. He returned able to see. Many people had questions. The disciples asked who caused this problem, was it the parents of the man or the man himself? But Jesus was focused not on what or who caused this problem but rather on the person and on healing. Francis MacNutt wrote about this, “Jesus came to save persons, not just souls. He came to help the suffering. Sickness of the body was part of the kingdom of Satan that he came to destroy.” We are thankful for Jesus who came to save us from all of our problems. We ask Jesus to come and be with us today, to heal us of any sickness, to give us peace.
Others were interested in the law not in the healing. The Pharisees were upset that he healed on the Sabbath. They decided to investigate, to figure out who caused the problem. They interviewed the man and his parents. In the end they decided to kick the man out of the church because he must have been a sinner.
Jesus came once more to do the healing that he can only perform. He invited the man to be his follower. Jesus accepted this man who had been rejected by others. Just as Ezekiel told the Jews that God was not contained within the Temple, Jesus told the man that God was there with him even though he had been kicked out of the church. The man followed Jesus and believed in him. Let us then follow Jesus and believe in him even when we are stuck at home unable to go anywhere, doing our best to keep ourselves and the entire community free from this virus.
The other lesson we learn today is to be cautious about our judgments. It will be easy to blame people for causing this virus to spread. It will be easy to blame someone who gets the virus to say that they did not follow the rules. Let us at least pause before we do so. It is possible that the person will have done nothing wrong. I believe that despite the ugliness of our situation, God has chosen to be with us and to carry us through this terrible time.
Perhaps the hardest part of all is that we don’t know what will happen next. We don’t know how bad things will be and we don’t know when things will get better. We don’t know how to plan. In these times, I have hope. For Jesus gives us hope. I hope that we will find the correct way to deal with this virus. I hope that this time will bring us closer together.
It seems certain that we will not be able to celebrate Holy Week or Easter Services together. But that does not mean that Easter will not come. Jesus was raised from the dead. Let us rejoice on that day even though we will not be together in person to celebrate.
Let us pray that everyone will be safe. Let us pray that people will follow the directions of the authorities as they try to contain the virus. Let us pray that the medical professionals will be cared for. Let us pray that God will bring us together in this time of need. Let us pray that the poor will not be overly burdened by this outbreak.
If you are afraid or anxious, if you are uncertain or confused, listen to the words of Jesus, “‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” May you feel God’s presence in your life, giving you comfort, strength, wisdom and peace. Amen.
I am sure that you figured out already that the theme for today is water. We listen to the story of Moses providing water to the Israelites. The Israelites were unhappy. They were thirsty for the water that keeps us alive. The Israelites quarreled with each other and with Moses. They tested God and Moses to see whether God would take care of them. Their quarreling and testing were so loud that they gave the names Massah and Meribah to the place where this happened. And God did provide. When Moses struck the rock water poured forth and the thirst of the people was satisfied.
Most specifically the theme is about the living water, the gift that Jesus gives us. Jesus gives us grace and love to nurture our spiritual thirst, to carry us through the tough times, to keep us steadfast in the Way of Truth and to bring us to everlasting life. Rather than stopping at this point and making this the shortest sermon you ever heard, I want to ask you to consider another theme about how we see we meet people we do not know. Consider this gospel story about Jesus and the woman at the well.
We begin by noticing that this woman was an outcast, someone whom society had swept aside. She was an outcast simply because she was a woman and we know that woman were considered second class citizens by many. The custom at the time was that she was not supposed to talk with Jesus without some escort being present. She was also an outcast because she was a Samaritan and the Jews and the Samaritans did not like each other. Jews and Samaritans did not talk to each other. We know that it was risky for Jewish people to travel through the land of Samaria. If Jews interacted with Samaritans, they would be contaminated and that is a bad word for us right now.
Finally, she was a pariah in her own community because in her life she had lived with five husbands. Even by today’s standards that is a lot of husbands. I wonder if she was ignored by the people of her village. Certainly, Jesus had every reason to ignore her, to not speak with her. If Jesus had decided to speak with her then he probably would have wanted to preach to her about her sins. Perhaps Jesus would offer her forgiveness and tell her to go and sin no more. Jesus did not do anything that we might have expected. He didn’t ignore her or mistreat her or look down on her. Rather, he asked her to give him some water. It was only after they had some discussions that he told her that he was the Messiah.
It caused me to think about how we treat outcasts in our society. Sometimes people are outcasts because they have done something that is against the norms of our society, like robbing a bank. We don’t wish to associate with those kinds of people. But sometimes people are outcasts because we don’t know who they are or simply because they have fallen into a bad situation in their lives.
On Thursday night, a group of about fifteen of us gathered to talk about the book Grace in Les Miserables. That night we focused on the difficult challenge that poverty presents to people. We talked about a character in the book named Fantine. She became an outcast. Her great sin was that she fell in love with a man who was not committed to her. Sadly, she ended up having a baby out of wedlock and the man she loved abandoned her. She was forced to find work. She left her baby in the care of a family that took advantage of her, her child and everyone else. Someone at her work found out about her situation and she was fired for unwed mothers were not accepted at that time. As her situation became more desperate she took desperate measures to protect her child and eventually died in the process.
She was an outcast who never found a way to survive. Most people treated her cruelly. The main character in the novel tried to help her but his help came too late to save her. He was only able to save and care for her child. People mistreated Fantine because she had done something wrong. We can label people who are poor with statements like, they caused their own problems or they don’t work hard enough, or they must be on drugs or drink too much. That may be true but there are also reasons why people become outcasts for nothing that they did.
On Thursday, we discussed how we can respond to the issues of poverty, racism, and sexism. There weren’t any easy answers. The problems are so large that we cannot solve them ourselves. After all, Jesus said that we would always have the poor with us. I mentioned how difficult it can be to know who we should help and how we should help. In my time as rector, I have helped some people who needed the help and I have been taken advantage of by others. I still must try. People who try to help often have the best intentions to do good but they make mistakes. I gave the example of people who took Native American children out of their homes, put them in boarding schools and taught them skills that others have used to be successful. But we now know these techniques were wrong. We haven’t had the same experiences as outcasts which make our decisions about how to help them difficult.
Jesus clearly told us that we should help the needy. In the 25th chapter of Matthew, Jesus told us that if we don’t help the poor, the hungry, the naked, the sick and those in prison we will not be given eternal life. It is not always easy to figure out how to meet this requirement.
But in the story of the woman at the well, we find some answers. Treat them wish respect. Don’t assume that you know the answers. It worked for Jesus and it may work for us. Jesus didn’t start by speaking to the woman at the well about his life giving water and he didn’t ever tell her that she must accept that water. He started by asking her to give him water. Sometimes it is through our own vulnerability that others are able to hear our words. Jesus needed her help and after she had helped him, Jesus offered to help the woman. It is after all about the water. Through the Living water, Jesus gives us grace. It changes everything about our spiritual life. It helps us to follow God’s will and it helps us to show love to others. When we understand the living water that Jesus gives us, we are not spiritually hungry anymore. Jesus words changed this woman’s life.
This woman, this outcast shared her experience with her community. They listened and she convinced them to come and meet Jesus. In the end, they said that they first believed in Jesus because of what she said but after being with him they knew he was the Messiah because of their own personal interaction with Jesus. Jesus accomplished the impossible. He brought Samaritans and Jews together through their faith. He used the woman’s strengths to create a new relationship. His disciples learned that some of the rules we follow need to be tested to see if people can be brought together in God’s love. The woman at the well was no longer an outcast. Perhaps we can learn something from what Jesus did.
I think that in some ways everyone of us has been treated as an outcast. There may have been some group of people that would not let us join them. I have occasionally felt like an outcast myself, not to the extent that I have been shunned by society but in smaller ways. If you have ever felt that you were being shunned, remember that Jesus reaches out to you.
The nation is focused on the coronavirus. We are anxious and afraid. Some say we are not doing enough and others say that we are overreacting. Many have chosen to be isolated. We choose to be isolated, separated from our fellow humans and for good reason. But today, you have bucked that trend. You have chosen to reach out to others. You must be feeling the living water of Jesus.
We may go into further isolation. My hope is that out of this terrible experience, we may find some new ways of coming together, of sharing the love of Jesus with each other. I hope that some of the anger that exists may go away in the love of Jesus. Let us just remember that Jesus gave us life giving water. Let us ask Jesus to keep us safe and to help us make good decisions. Let us pray that this time will pass and that we all join together in the love of Jesus and share God’s love with everyone we meet. Amen.
I found this short story from a book written by Anthony de Mello several years ago. “A man who took great pride in his lawn found himself with a large crop of dandelions. He tried every method he knew to get rid of them. Still they plagued him. Finally, he wrote to the department of agriculture. He enumerated all of the things he had tried and closed his letter with the question, “What shall I do now?” In due course the reply came: “We suggest you learn to love them””.
I share this story because one of the themes in our lessons for today is about God’s free gift to us. Got loves us and cares for us even though we have done nothing to deserve such love. It isn’t just a little stretch to imagine that God loves us just as we might love our dandelions which have done nothing to deserve our love.
There is another theme found in our lessons for today. It is about our lifetime journey with God. It is a journey where we seek to trust in God’s will and not our own. The idea that we are on a spiritual journey with God is something I think about often. We take many different paths as we go. Sometimes we take a break from our hectic life to contemplate our relationship with God and try to get a little closer. Sometimes we go off on a side trip that takes us away from the important things in our lives. I think we are always on a path in our spiritual life and I encourage you to take that spiritual path with Jesus by your side. I don’t think our spiritual journey is a straight path. It is not like getting on a four lane divided highway which goes straight from one place to another. Rather, I think our spiritual journey meanders along a trail that we might take us through the woods and meadows and past streams. I have been on paths that are clearly marked and I have been on trails that make me wonder where I should go next. I have taken walks that were more difficult than I wished they would be. Sometimes I see something that teaches me a great deal and other times it seems to be monotonous. On our spiritual journey, we hope that we are following the path that God has given us.
The lessons from Hebrew Scripture speak about journeys and also about having faith in God. Abram was called by God to leave his homeland and go to the land of Canaan. It was a long journey, about six hundred miles. He took a large caravan, his wife Sarai and Lot and probably herds and flocks of animals. It was an indication of the trust, the faith, that Abram had in God. His trip was long and dangerous. I compare it to my recent trip to Florida. It took me about 10 hours in total to get there and yet I complained about the length of my journey. Abram did so much more than I. Abram was obedient to God throughout his life. But that does not mean that Abram ’s journey was always a smooth one. There were times when Abram’s life was endangered as he visited various kingdoms during his travels and at least once Abram had his wife pose as his sister so that he would be safe.
Abraham took that journey and did many other things in his life because he trusted that God would take care of him. Abraham was willing to go where God would lead him certain that the promise God had made would never fail. Despite his advanced age, Abraham was made the father of nations. It would be easy to say that Abraham was rewarded for his faith, his trust and his obedience. But our passage today indicates that God chose Abraham before he had done anything. God’s blessing to Abraham was a gift. Later in Genesis we read that Abraham believed in the word and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. Abraham’s faith, not his actions, brought him to God. Abraham was also called to be a blessing to all peoples. God created a new relationship with humans through Abraham.
Psalm 121 is also about a journey. Pilgrims would sing this psalm as they climbed up to Jerusalem for the Passover or some other celebration. Climbing mountains was an arduous and dangerous adventure in that time. I read this week that climbing mountains did not become a sought-after pastime until a couple of centuries ago. Now we consider mountains beautiful places to go for a chance to experience nature and God. John Muir expressed the charm of the mountains this way, ““Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” The pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem may not have noticed the beauty of nature but they certainly received the Peace of God and felt God’s presence in their lives. Their Psalm described the continued presence of God, “Behold, he who keeps watch over Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep”. They also were thankful for God’s overwhelming grace, a grace that showered them with gifts as they sang, “The Lord shall preserve you from all evil; it is he who shall keep you safe.” May we feel God’s blessings always with us as well.
Our journeys may have times of wonderful peace and times when we feel estranged from God. Of course, it is not God who moves from us but we who move from God. These lessons connect with Lenten journey. Our Lenten activities are somewhat like a climb up the mountain, preparing us for the beauty of Easter. If we have challenges in our Lenten discipline, I encourage all of us to remember that God is present every day of every hour. Let us never forget that God is watching over us every minute of every hour of every day during this Lenten season.
Today’s lessons continue with themes that speak of our faith in God and the overwhelming gift of God’s love for us. In the letter to the Romans, we hear that faith in God is more important than the law. When we have faith in our hearts and as part of our faith we truly want to follow God, then we don’t really need the law to know what we need to do. We might say, let our conscience be our guide.
Paul said something more. Abraham’s gift was passed down to everyone. People do not have to be direct descendants of Abraham to participate in God’s gifts. They only have to believe in God as Abraham did and to act out that faith through obedience. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, wanted the gentiles to know that God’s gifts were for them as well. They just needed to have faith in God and faith in Jesus.
Before I speak of the free gift God has given us in John’s gospel, I want to deal with some controversy. What exactly did Jesus mean when he told Nicodemus that he had to be born again? Some would say that we need to make a personal commitment to Jesus as our Lord and Savior. Others would say that just as we had no decision to make when we were brought into this life, it is God’s actions, God’s mercy that saves us. I prefer to think that when Jesus spoke of being born in the water and the spirit, he was talking about our baptism. It still leaves room for various opinions.
I think Jesus was leading Nicodemus to understand that we are born again through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus said, “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.” It is a statement of God’s overwhelming love and grace. We didn’t do anything to deserve this gift from God. It wasn’t our faith that caused God to do this for us. It was God watching out for us every day. It was God knowing what we needed for us to be faithful to him. So, God gave it to us.
God showered blessings upon Abraham. As children of Abraham, we are blessed by the gifts that God has given us as well. We don’t earn God’s love by following the law. It is all the free gift that God has given to each of us. Our response to that gift is to have faith, to trust in God and to be obedient to his will.
As you continue on your Lenten journey, may you feel the presence of God in you journey, may it give you strength and may your faith be your way to respond to the glory of God’s gifts. Amen.
Every one of the readings for today speaks about temptation. Adam and Eve were temptedto eat the forbidden fruit. Jesus went to the desert and was tempted by the devil. He refused all three of the devil’s temptations. It would be most appropriate for my sermon to be about temptation. After all, we just started Lent. In Lent, we seek to free ourselves from temptation and bring ourselves closer to God. I am sorry if I let you down today. Perhaps I am just revolting a little today or being a contrarian. I think I will blame my choice on our Lenten study on Thursday which is about the book Les Miserable and has themes of revolution. Today, I feel called to talk about fear.
Fear and worry are found in scripture often. One example was last Sunday. As Jesus was being transfigured in front of the apostles and God spoke about Jesus, the apostles fell to the ground in fear. In another passage, the apostles were fearful when Jesus came walking across the water to their boat. It happened again when they were huddled in the upper room just before Jesus appeared to them on the first Easter Sunday
Ash Wednesday is a time when we reflect on our mortality. I started contemplating fear when I encountered someone who was afraid that a loved one would die. This past week, I started playing the game Lent Madness, sponsored by Forward Movement. On Ash Wednesday, the leaders of the game paused and posted a message about fear. On the blog, they said that “We live in a world that is gripped by fear and hatred.”
They wrote, “Now is the time for us to renounce fear, to reject hatred, and to take the more difficult high road. Now is the time to make space in our lives for prayer, study, and worship. Now is the time to look carefully at our lives and to open up our hearts to change. Thanks be to God, the church has given us an entire season to do just these things.” It seems I am to the only one focusing on fear.
What fears are you dealing with? It seems that the Coronavirus has gripped the nation with fear. So far there have only been a few cases of the new virus and just one person in the United States has died from the disease, but the threat is looming. The number of cases of this virus has grown significantly and countries outside of China are seeing a huge increase in the number of cases. We are fearful because about 2,800 people have died from the disease. The threat of coronavirus coming to the United States is real. It is something that we must be prepared for and be ready to take appropriate actions.
Another fear that some people have is that they will be killed in a mass shooting. We had another one of those this week in Wisconsin. It is a sad fact of American life and one I don’t understand. I just don’t see why people want to kill others before killing themselves.
You might ask why these two fears are so prevalent. After all, the chance of either happening is remote. In fact, more people have been killed by the common flu than by the coronavirus. Automobile accidents kill many more than mass shootings do. Our fears are not totally logical and we are frequently afraid of the unknown. For example, I have never dropped from the sky in a parachute so I am afraid of doing so.
Because fear is a feeling, we don’t think of fear as something we can control. It is a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, or pain, whether the threat is real or imagined. Fear is induced by perceived danger or threat, which causes physiological changes and ultimately behavioral changes, such as fleeing, hiding, or freezing from perceived traumatic events.
How can you change the feeling of fear that you have? I am not sure that you can. What I do believe is that you can choose how you react when you are fearful. I don’t like fear because it can take away hope. It can cause us to do something that doesn’t really help us, like choosing to stay in our house so that we will not be subject to a mass shooting. Fear can cause us to freeze and take no action at all. Our fears can cause us to do irrational things. In a recent poll, 38% of Americans said that they wouldn’t buy Corona beer because of the outbreak of the coronavirus. On the other hand, if the coronavirus becomes a pandemic, it will be a wise choice to stay in your home and avoid contact with others.
God doesn’t want us to live in fear. It is repeated over and over again in Scripture. I am not speaking of the expression fear the Lord which is mentioned many times in Scripture. The word fear in that case carries the meaning of respect, not the sense of being afraid.
A good example of God’s encouragement to us is found in the book of Isaiah, Chapter 43, “Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine.” That chapter of Isaiah was written to calm the people of Israel and to remind them that God chose them, they will not be forgotten. This verse is just one of the eighty times in Scripture when we are told to have no fear. An author named shared her perspective on fear this way. “I’m still in awe that God, who created the universe, cares about every detail of our lives. We belong to an all-powerful, all-knowing, victorious father who cares deeply about us. When we really meditate on this truth, it’s hard to remain fearful about the trials we face.” Is it possible that faith can win out over fear? Maybe we will still be fearful but our faith will give us the presence of mind to respond to our fears in a more rational way.
Jesus doesn’t want us to be fearful. When the apostles fell down in fear at the Transfiguration, Jesus said, “Get up and do not be afraid.” When Jesus walked across the water to the boat he said to the terrified apostles, “‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ When Jesus heard that a young girl had died while he was on his way to see her he said to her father, “Do not fear, only believe.” Jesus continued on his way and the girl was healed and she lived. When Jesus entered the room after his resurrection, he said to his apostles, ‘Peace be with you.’ Jesus said that people will be afraid when the end of the world is coming and that they will faint with fear. But he told his followers to stand up because their redemption is coming. Followers of Jesus have less reason to fear anything. Jesus came to calm our fears and to bring us peace.
Sometimes, we will fear the wrath of God. It is written in the Hebrew Scriptures and is also found in the Gospel of Matthew, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell”. (“Matthew 10.28) Let us use this time of Lent to come into God’s presence and make ourselves faithful. It will help some of our fear.
Fear is a common reaction in all humans. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.” Overcoming fear may take practice. Dale Carnegie suggested that it takes action to overcome fear. “If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” That is some good advice.
My suggestion is that we turn to God in our fear. We turn to God in prayer and contemplation, asking that God will help us make good choices, choosing to make thoughtful responses to our fear and not let our fear control our lives. Sometime you might do a google search to find out what people think is the opposite of fear. You will find many answers. The one I like the most is trust. Let us pray that God will help us find trust in God’s loving arms.
On Ash Wednesday I mentioned that for my Lenten discipline, I have chosen to reach out to some friends whom I have not connected with in a long time. I hope that some of you will have a Lenten discipline that brings you closer to God. One possibility is to seek peace and comfort in the arms of God, to pray that you will trust in God, knowing that God will always be with us even when we are fearful. I always find solace in the words of Psalm 23, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. May God give you peace and comfort. May God put to rest your fears so that you may live in hope. Amen.