This past week, I watched a movie called Breakthrough. It is the real life story of a fifteen year-old boy, John Smith, who fell through the ice. He was under water for more than 15 minutes when the paramedics finally found him. The paramedics didn’t feel a heartbeat the entire time he was on his way to the hospital. The emergency room doctor tried to start his heart and get a pulse but was unable to do so for 40 minutes. When his mother arrived at the hospital, the doctors had given up. The mother stood over the boy and prayed that God would save her son and suddenly his heart started beating. The danger was far from over. The doctors didn’t think he would survive the night. But somehow he did. The doctors thought he would have permanent brain damage. But, amazingly enough, the boy revived totally and ended up as normal as anyone could possibly be. The doctors had no explanation for how the boy survived and returned to normal. It is a beautiful story of a prayer that was answered. Sometimes, I find movies like this a little too dramatic for my taste. As I read about the true story, I found that the important parts of the story are exactly as they are shown in the movie but that some things were staged differently than they actually happened. The mother’s prayer was heard and the boy was healed. It fits with the words we hear in today’s gospel, “Ask and you shall receive, knock and the door shall be opened for you”.
Our prayer life is not always so successful, is it? I appreciated a question that came up in the movie about why God saves certain people and not others. It turns out that no one knows. After the boy returned to health, people struggled to deal with what had happened. Classmates in school didn’t know what to say to him. A teacher asked why he was saved and her husband had died of cancer not long before. His best friends kidded him about how special he was. The boy didn’t know what to say or do. He thought he was just a normal person and wanted to be treated that way. He had no answer for why he survived.
I think that is the way for many of us. We don’t know why God hears certain prayers while others appear to go unanswered. We continually ask God for what we want, knowing that we are really praying that God will do what is God’s will. We live in the mystery of how God works in this world. I wonder if we don’t measure the success of a prayer on the “big” requests and pass by how God may have responded or how many of our prayers are clearly answered. The result of some prayers encourages us to continue asking God. I always find the outcome of prayer to be one of peace. I know that I have done everything I could and then I turn it over to God. I find peace in God’s presence.
The movie Breakthrough is inspirational but it brings up some tough questions. The readings we have for today are also inspirational but they have some difficult pieces to them. Today’s Scriptural readings are about praying to God. I actually smile when I think about how Abraham negotiated with God in the first reading. His prayer is just like a discussion. I think Abraham was praying to save his nephew, Lot, from the destruction of the entire city for he continued to ask God if he would save any person who is faithful and true. Abraham was persistent and determined to ask God for what he wanted. And we must say that Abraham was always respectful, asking God to do what God might wish to do on his own. It reminds us that we can just talk with God, we don’t have to use some form of a fixed prayer.
Abraham diplomatically questions the justice of God in allowing the innocent to be punished with the guilty. God answered the prayer but not in the way Abraham asked. God took Lot out of the city before it was destroyed.
Prayer takes so many forms. The Psalm is a prayer of thanksgiving. “I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with my whole heart; we are thankful because, When I called, you answered me; you increased my strength within me and though I walk in the midst of trouble, you keep me safe” Another example of a prayer answered.
In the gospel, the disciples asked Jesus how to pray. He responded by teaching them the Our Father. The version of the Our Father that we hear in Luke is a little shorter than the one we find in the gospel of Matthew. But rather than spend time on the prayer which we know by heart, let’s instead focus on the encouragement Jesus gave us about prayer.
In Luke’s parable about prayer, a man has some unexpected visitors who arrive at his house late at night. He has no food to give them so he bangs on his neighbor’s door asking for help. The message Jesus seems to give us is that we should be persistent and demanding in our prayers to God. We should knock on the door at all times, realizing that God pays attention to the squeaky wheel. That God will finally succumb under the constant pressure of our prayers. It seems to fit with something Benjamin Franklin wrote many years ago, “Work as if you were to live 100 years, pray as if you were to die tomorrow”.
Certainly, we should pray without ceasing. I just don’t think that God responds because we complain. Consider how Jesus prayed. He often went away from the crowds and prayed to the one he called Father. But when we read about Jesus praying to God, it doesn’t seem as if he demanded an answer. The prayers of Jesus seemed to be intimate, to be familial, to be conversational. I find the Our Father to be a good example of a prayer to someone who is close to us, someone whom we love intimately. Even when Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, just before his death, Jesus asked God to take away his cross but he also prayed that he would do the will of God. It doesn’t sound like Jesus demanded God to help him.
My perspective is that God is always open to our prayers; that God is waiting for us to pray. Why then does Jesus express this opinion, one that seems consistent with the prayer offered by Abraham that we have to negotiate with God or that we must be like hard headed children who just want our own way and that we should demand it from God? One answer is that ask and it shall be given to you doesn’t say that God will give us exactly what we ask for. No, it says we will receive. God will answer our prayers.
One explanation can be found in the difficulty translators have finding an English word to describe exactly what Jesus said. In verse 8 we read “at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs”. Instead of persistence, it has been translated as audacity, shamelessness and even a word we don’t use any more, importunity. When we think of the requestor as shameless in his prayers, then we realize that the sleeping man answered his prayer in a way that brought honor to both of them. He honored the situation by responding to his need.
Many of us have been awakened in the night by a phone call. I have received wrong number calls but if it is someone we know and it is important, we would never reject the request. We wouldn’t say “don’t bother me”. We would help. In the Mid Eastern culture the request for food was an important part of hospitality. God honors our prayer requests regardless of how we pray. God honors prayers when we bargain with God, when we act selfishly or when we demand that God does what we ask.
In the Book of Common Prayer, we learn that prayer is a response to God. That is, God is waiting for us to call upon Him in prayer. I like to say that God is patiently persistent. God is always there for us. Yes, God is the persistent one, more persistent than we can possibly be. I believe that God accepts our prayers any way that they come. So, God listens to our prayers whether they are offered quietly or as a demand. I believe God treats us honorable however we pray.
I think that our prayer with God is a reflection of our understanding of how God works in the world and is impacted by the situation that we find ourselves in. So, I encourage you to pray to God in a way that feels best for you. However you pray, I am certain that God listens and responds. Let us then pray without ceasing because we always want to experience God’s love in our lives. Amen.
This coming Saturday, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first man landing on the moon. The various documentaries on the early space program reminded me of how perilous and dangerous it was. I recently read an autobiography about astronaut Eugene Cernan. He was almost killed twice as he trained. I remember the story of Apollo 13. The three astronauts on that mission survived the loss of an oxygen tank and other problems. They only survived because of the dedicated work of people on earth. Similar to the story of the Good Samaritan, friends and coworkers cared for the astronauts even though they were many miles away. They devised a plan and provided instructions so the astronauts could deal with the situation and safely pilot the spacecraft back to earth. Our journeys through life often require the help of other people, Good Samaritans.
Today, we imagine walking from Jerusalem to Jericho. It was a perilous journey during the time of Jesus. It was only 18 miles but you descended some 3300 feet in elevation. Thieves preyed on the unsuspecting travelers as they walked. It was known as the Way of Blood because of the number of people who were attacked. As you take this imaginary journey, you already have an opinion of the meaning of this parable. Let’s revisit it once more and see if we find fresh meaning, some new understanding. I was encouraged by the writings of scriptural commentators Eleanore Stump and Dennis Hamm.
The term the Good Samaritan has become synonymous with a person who cares for another. Good Samaritan has been used as the name of many hospitals in the United States. There was a hospital named Good Samaritan in Phoenix until its name was changed in 2015. There is a nursing home in Mesa called Good Samaritan. We have come to believe that the Good Samaritan is a positive message. But Samaritans were not considered good by the Jewish people of Jesus’s time, in fact they were enemies. You may remember just two weeks ago we read about Jesus traveling through the territory of the Samaritans and they refused to let him stay in their village. James and John were so angry that they wanted to have God reign fire down upon those terrible people. Just a few verses away, the Samaritan is used as an indication of a caring, loving neighbor.
We can easily imagine a Samaritan as the hero of the story, but the people listening to Jesus may have understood the issues faced by the Priest and the Levite better than we do. If Jesus were telling the story to us today, instead of calling him a Samaritan, he might have referred to the person as a member of the Taliban, a member of the Iranian revolutionary guard or perhaps a member of a Mexican drug cartel. Only when we put it into our current day situation do we understand how radical the parable was. It is actually amazing that the lawyer responded with such a calm answer stating the one who cared for the man was his neighbor. How would you have responded if you were a faithful Jewish person back then?
It is interesting to note that the lawyer asked the questioned, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He was only interested in the minimum amount of work that he could do to reach heaven. He didn’t ask the question, “what should I do to live my life with God’s love and grace”? The lawyer wanted to join God in heaven but lost sight of the fact that we want to be in heaven so as to live in God’s grace and love. We should want to do that here on earth as well as in heaven. Let’s all strive to live life at its fullest, not its least.
When the lawyer thought back to his question and Jesus’ answer, he learned that the minimum is actually the maximum. He may have thought that only a few people fill the role of neighbor but he learned he was wrong. Everyone is our neighbor and we must love and care for everyone. It is no simple task and I for one fail on a regular basis.Sometimes I think there is value in trying to place ourselves into a story. Is it possible that today we can imagine ourselves in the very different roles found in this story?
Have you ever felt as if you were the one who was injured and need the support of other people? Have you found people who have loved and cared for you? Has a stranger ever been the person who stopped to help?Have you ever been in the situation of the priest or Levite? Is it possible to imagine that you felt you were following the laws of your religious belief and felt that you could not help because helping would be a sin? Or have you ever thought that helping would put you in some danger or that you would be taken advantage of? I believe that people have tried to take advantage of the assistance that I have provided. I think people have tried to trick me into believing that their problem was worse than what it really was. It has caused me to question the motives of the people who ask for help. I have become skeptical, not always trusting that people who come here for my help will tell the true story of their situation.
I am sure that sometime in your life, you were the person who stopped and helped a stranger, you were the one who cared for someone you did not know. I am certain that you felt better for what you did. This week, I heard a story about a lady who was down on her luck. She had taken out a payday loan and because she was unable to pay off the loan, she lost her car. She was trying to make ends meet but was struggling. I am uncertain how it happened but she ended up telling her story to a policeman. He asked her how much she needed to get back on track and she told him six hundred dollars. He went to his police car and came back with six hundred dollars. She was overwhelmed. She said she wished she could do something for him but the only thing she said she could offer him was prayer. Given the difficult job that the police face in today’s world, I am sure that he could use the prayers. I wonder if you might search for a story of how someone helped a stranger in need. I think it would make you feel better about the world this week.
As I said, it can be difficult to help people knowing that some are just trying to take advantage of your good will. That is why we turn to God and ask for God’s guidance. The letter to the Colossians gives us some good advice. First, Paul is thankful that the word of truth, the gospel, is bearing fruit among the faithful. Then, Paul offers this prayer, "that you may be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord.”
Our collect offers a similar prayer, “grant, O Lord, that we may know and understand what things we ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them”. I plan to take that prayer with me wherever I go this week and I hope you will do the same.
Dag Hammarskjold was Secretary General of the United Nations. He rephrased the commandment this way, “Goodness is something simple, always to live for others, never to seek one’s own advantage”. That’s so easy to say, so hard to live. The famous poet John Donne spoke of Jesus as our inspiration. He wrote this, “Love is strong as death, but nothing else is as strong as either, and both, love and death, met in Jesus Christ.”
Perhaps the best guidance in our Scripture today, comes from the Psalm. It may not be readily apparent. The Psalm is based on the beliefs of ancient times for it suggests that there are many gods in heaven but the Lord our God rules over all and brings judgment, saying that the other gods have been unjust, they have favored the wicked. It asks that never ending question, why does God allow bad things to happen? But the ending is the core of the message and the place I bring you back to today,
“Arise, O God, and rule the earth, for you shall take all nations for your own”. Let us seek the guidance and grace of God, for without God’s help, we cannot keep this commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. Amen.
I have been watching a documentary called Sacred Journeys. Sacred Journeys is a series about pilgrimages. This week, I watched a journey to the Shrine at Lourdes, France. My interest in Lourdes had been raised because someone mentioned to me that his trip to Lourdes had been very meaningful. I hope someday my friend will share the details of his journey to Lourdes.
Each spring, tens of thousands of soldiers from all over the world come to Lourdes seeking peace and reconciliation. The video showcased forty American soldiers who had been injured in either the Iraq War or the War in Afghanistan. The injuries caused them physical problems but they spoke of mental and emotional problems as well. Many had lost fellow soldiers in the same incident that they were injured. They missed their companions.
The reasons the soldiers gave for taking a pilgrimage to Lourdes were many. Some were hopeful that they would have physical healing. Some were looking for solace in the deaths of their fellow soldiers. Some were looking for the strength to deal with their injury. Some could not express exactly why they were there. Many were not Catholic. They sought companionship from soldiers who had experienced the horrors of war. They seek seek some kind of healing.
I remember that one man had been blinded by a bomb. It was his second trip to Lourdes. His eyesight had not been restored but he did say that he better accepted the injury he sustained. He seemed more at peace. Near the end of the journey most of the soldiers were bathed in the waters of Lourdes and most of them said they were changed, everyone in a different way.
The narrator interviewed a doctor who was in charge of following up on healings that happened at Lourdes. He never said that a miracle had occurred but his team carefully studies and documents the results of what people claimed was a healing and it seems to me that several of the cases demonstrated that something beyond human medical skills caused the healing. The documentary about the soldiers going to Lourdes fits well with our Scripture lessons today and it fits with the theme of pilgrimage that I introduced last week.
All of us are on a pilgrimage, a journey through life. I hope that this Pentecost season you will take some time to reflect on how God might help you with a particular issue. Our lessons focus on physical healing, but God can heal us in many ways.
In the first lesson, Naaman took a pilgrimage from Syria to Israel. He was the commander of a powerful army but he suffered from leprosy, some kind of permanent skin condition. A young slave girl from Israel suggested that Naaman take the journey. Based on her recommendation, Naaman went carrying a boatload of treasure to pay for his healing. Naaman first asked the king if he could be cured. The king thought his request was a trick. Elisha stepped in and the king sent Naaman to Elisha. When Naaman came to Elisha’s house, Elisha didn’t come out to see him but sent a message that Naaman should go wash in the Jordan seven times. Naaman got angry. Naaman felt entitled to better treatment. He thought his powerful position earned him more than he received from Elisha. He thought money could buy the work of a prophet. He didn’t understand the concept of being humble that is found throughout Hebrew Scripture. Naaman thought His god was as good as the God of Israel. Naaman thought the cure was too simple to be effective. Despite his reservations and at the urging of his servants, Naaman took the chance and was healed. He was humbled and thankful. His pilgrimage changed him, healing his leprosy and his heart. He declared the God of Israel to be the one true God.
Is there anything that keeps you from the healing power of God’s love? For Naaman, it was his pride and power and his feeling that he could do anything that almost kept him from being healed. The things that keep us from God’s healing power may be different. They may even keep us from starting a pilgrimage. One that comes up frequently is our sense that we alone make things happen. Or we may rely on the science of humankind to find our cure. Naaman desperately wanted to be healed. Do we need to be in desperate conditions to go on our pilgrimage? I don’t think so.
The theme of God’s love for us and God’s healing for us is found in the Psalm as well. “ O Lord my God, I cried out to you, and you restored me to health. You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead; you restored my life as I was going down to the grave”. Let us never be afraid to ask God to restore us, to bring us back to life.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It began with the statement that he set his face towards Jerusalem. As he continued on that journey, he decided to send his disciples out to share the good news and to offer healing. They were to go out and prepare villages for a visit from Jesus. And they were being prepared for the time when he would no longer be there.
There seems to be a sense of urgency about this commission and a sense of simplicity. They were to go without money to buy themselves a room. They were not to greet strangers on the road. They were to go to the same house and immediately declare “Peace to this House”. There were no conditions upon which the disciples were to offer this peace. Peace was given whether the occupant was a Jew or a Gentile, whether the persons living there were faithful or not, regardless of their social position. They were to eat whatever was set before them. It did not matter if the food was prepared in a kosher way. It did not matter how it tasted. When the disciple offered peace to a given house, we are told that if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.”
Did you notice that Jesus said, if anyone shares in peace then your peace will rest on that person? I am certain it means God’s peace. But it also means that once we have been given the Peace of God, then we carry that peace with us, we share it with others. Yes, it is God’s peace but others experience God’s peace through the peace that they see in us. We should be careful because when the disciples told Jesus they had been successful, he reminded them that they were not to take credit for what they had done. Rather, they were to be thankful that God had given them his grace and that they were certain of their own place in God’s heavenly kingdom. Just as Naaman struggled with his sense of importance in the world, the disciples also risked the possibility that they too would lose their heads over the healing that Jesus offered people through them.
There are many messages to be found in these readings. I suggest we focus on two of them. The first is that God’s healing is available to everyone. It doesn’t matter what position we hold or how faithful we have been in the past. It matters that we accept God’s peace when it is offered to us. So, if you are on a journey I hope that you listen and look for God’s presence, for you never know where and when you will be offered God’s peace and you certainly don’t know from whom that peace will come. When we set out on a pilgrimage, we try to eliminate all of the barriers that keep us from experiencing God’s peace. We focus on living and being and listening on our own daily adventures.
The second message is connected to the first, it is all about faith. Naaman had faith in Israel’s God after he was healed of his leprosy. The villagers who were visited by the disciples had faith when they were given God’s peace by the disciples. In each case, the one who was healed had a choice. Naaman decided to believe in God. The villagers indicate their faith by offering peace in return.
When we have experienced the presence of God, we are encouraged to share it with others just as the disciples of Jesus did. We often struggle with how to encourage others to come to Jesus. Maybe it really is as simple as saying Peace be to this house, just as the disciples did.
God’s gift of healing for us may come in a way that we least expect it. Many of the visitors to Lourdes express the sense that they have received healing but find it difficult to describe exactly what that is. That may happen to us or maybe it has already happened to us. It is one of the reasons that we offer thanks to God for all that we have been given.
As you continue on your pilgrimage or journey, may I suggest that you be open to God’s healing power in your life. I believe that you will receive healing is God’s way even though it may not be your way. Amen.
Fr. Bob Saik
Audio Link https://youtu.be/a08Zd5_haI8
Humans are always looking for the new challenge, a new frontier to conquer. Mount Everest was first scaled in 1953 and now it is commonplace for people to ascend the mountain. In our generation, space became the great interest and on July 20th, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first landing of a man on the moon.
In the early 1900s, the frontier that called out to adventurers was the Antarctic. Ernest Shackleton was obsessed by a desire to get to the South Pole. In 1901, he joined with another adventurer on the trek but was turned back when he became seriously ill. In 1907, he tried again but was unable to reach his goal coming up 97 miles short. In August of 1914, Shackleton took off on the ship Endurance to make another try. His ship became trapped in ice in January 1915. He and his men had to abandon the ship. In April of 1916 they realized no relief was in sight so they took three small boats and made it to an uninhabited Elephant Island. From there, Shackleton took a small group of men on a lifeboat to South Georgia island. He returned to rescue the remaining men in August of 1916. Every man on that expedition survived the harrowing adventure which lasted almost 500 days. Ernest Shackleton is an example of dedication, heroism and leadership. Sadly, Shackleton died on another effort to go to the Antarctic in 1922. Shackleton once said that “Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all”.
We admire humans who are so driven to their goal. Today, we read about how committed Jesus was to his calling. In the first verse of our gospel is says, “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Can you imagine what the face of Jesus looked like when he set his face to go to Jerusalem? We know that he would not waiver from the choice that he made, from the quest that God set before him.
Jesus spent the first part of his ministry in Galilee. His base was in Capernaum. If that is where Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem it was about 125 miles way. Google maps would suggest that you could drive it today in about 2 hours and 15 minutes. But for Jesus it would have taken perhaps two weeks of steady walking. And he would need to go through dangerous territory and climb a mountain to Jerusalem. It wasn’t a casual effort.
I would say that Jesus was on a pilgrimage. His disciples accompanied him on that journey. I think we are invited by Jesus to consider our own pilgrimage. Where are you being called to go? What pilgrimage are you on? How might we find Jesus on our own pilgrimage or think of our journey as joining with Jesus on his?
Jesus and his disciples decided to go through the area controlled by the Samaritans. The Samaritans refused to allow him to stay there. They believed Mount Gerizim was the holy place, not Jerusalem so why would they help Jesus on his path. James and John thought that God should punish the Samaritans for their inhospitality. But Jesus said, let it be. It is the first lesson Jesus gives us about a pilgrimage. It is easy to be diverted on your path. People on his journey made it harder for him to accomplish his goal. But he was telling James and John don’t let the Samaritans deter us from our goal. Jesus didn’t allow some grievance, petty or serious, to keep him from what he was called to do. It is also an example of Jesus’s commitment to non violence. Jesus told his disciples to forget about the inhospitality, it wasn’t important. Perhaps he even forgave the Samaritans for their actions, he understood why they rejected him.
Soon after Jesus asked James and John to let go of their anger, Jesus encountered three possible disciples. He invites each one to follow him. But for various reasons, these three are never able to make the commitment to follow Jesus. For the first, Jesus responds that when he follows Jesus, he will have no home, there is no safe place of refuge. The second person tells Jesus that he must first go and bury his father, then he will follow Jesus. The third man said he wanted to say good bye to his family. I was struck by the harshness of Jesus reply. Did Jesus not have any understanding?
Our parents and our families are important parts of our lives and doesn’t Jesus want us to care for our families? I would say yes, Jesus is committed to families. The author of a commentary I read suggested that the man’s father had not yet died. The man’s father was actually healthy. The man just wasn’t ready to follow Jesus until all of his prior understandings of God had passed on. He was just giving excuses for why he couldn’t follow Jesus immediately.
The third man may have given one of those wait a second excuses that is really meant to be a permanent excuse. If the man goes to say good-bye to his family, he may never return. I think we have all made excuses like that. Once you decide to be a follower of Jesus, there is no turning back. It reminds me of the song, I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.
Jesus wanted his followers to understand how difficult it can be to follow him. Following Jesus may separate us from close friends. It may keep us from accomplishing other objectives in our lives. It may require us to do things for others that create stress in our lives. Jesus did it all and he expected every one of his followers to do the same. Choosing to follow Jesus may cause us to make hard choices.
In this Pentecost season, we will read the Gospel of Luke. We will follow the story of Jesus from the time he set his face towards Jerusalem until he arrived in that city. I invite you to join with me as we follow the path that Jesus took.
Let’s think of Pentecost as a pilgrimage. There are many places that people choose to make their pilgrimage in life. For some, it is a trip to the Holy land: walking the streets of Jerusalem, seeing the path Jesus took on his way to Calvary, going to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus is thought to have been buried. All these have meaning to people. If you cannot make this journey in person, you might consider watching a PBS series called Sacred Journeys by Bruce Feiler.
Some Christians have walked the Camino de Santiago through northern Spain. It is also called the Way of Saint James who is believed to be buried in the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. The actor Martin Sheen made a movie about the walk. Martin Sheen’s character walked in memory of a son who died. He learned how to deal with his loss on that walk.
This year, our pilgrimage may not physically take us to the Holy Land. We may not be able to step on the places where Jesus did his ministry. But just as our walking group has figuratively walked to see friends who are gone for the summer, our summer pilgrimage can still be just as real.
Each of our pilgrimages is different. Today, I ask you to consider your walk with God. Is there a particular loss that weighs heavily on your soul? Is there a friendship that has been lost? Is there something you have done in your past that you cannot forgive yourself for? Is there a particular sin that you want God to help you with? Or maybe you just wish that you could be closer to God and follow his will in all that you do. This year, I am asking God to help me to forgive myself for things I have wished I did differently.
Whatever pilgrimage you choose or have already started, I ask you to invite Jesus to go along with you. Jesus has already taken a pilgrimage and is certainly willing to join you on yours. I am sure that he can help you find your way whatever you need to experience.
Ernest Shackleton dedicated his life to exploring the regions of the Antarctic. Our journey doesn’t have to be as physically demanding as his was. But it may require sacrifice and it may be a journey of emotional up and downs with questions and soul searching. May your journey be filled with God’s grace. Amen.
On Friday evening, our daughter and her family came and stayed with us. Saturday morning, I drove them to the airport so they could board a plane to Texas. We will join them this evening, as we are all going to a family wedding in Corpus Christi. While we will see them soon, the parting is still sad. We seek ways to ease the pain of separation. One way is to remember when we will next be together. We also remind each other of the love that we share even when we are apart. I ask you to think about times when you have said good-bye. How do you maintain a relationship with a loved one who has gone somewhere else? In today’s gospel, Jesus knew that he would be leaving his followers soon. Jesus helped the apostles deal with the separation. He spoke about the Holy Spirit coming to be with them and to bring them truth. This was his way of dealing with the loss of a friend.
Today is Trinity Sunday. I find the Trinity to be our way of dealing with the fact that Jesus has gone to heaven. On Trinity Sunday, we celebrate all three Persons of God. Clergy usually consider this the most difficult sermon to give. The theology of the Trinity is complex and easily misunderstood. How do we make sense of one God and three Persons of God? I encourage you to do so by focusing on the unity of God, not the three individual Persons of God.
The early Christian church took a long time to clearly describe the concept of the Trinity. Debates raged in the early church and it was not until the first two councils of the church in 325 and 381 that our Trinitarian theology was clearly defined and recognized as the belief of the whole church.
The theology of the Trinity is not clearly stated in Scripture. But Scripture frequently mentions the three Persons. We recently discussed the many times we read about God’s Spirit, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures. As I said last week, it is called the breath of God as well. In today’s gospel, Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would come after he left. The Gospel of John mentions this coming of the Holy Spirit five different times, each one an offering from Jesus. I believe that Jesus was seeking a way for his apostles to deal with his departure. Reminding them that the Holy Spirit would come and be with them is his way of helping them to survive the loss of his presence. Many have experienced God’s presence in their lives but Jesus is not physically present today. So we all lean on the power of the Holy Spirit that we may know that God is present with us.
While our New Testament Scripture doesn’t refer to the Trinity specifically, we often have references to the three. Today’s reading from Romans is a good example. In just five short verses, it described God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Jesus brings us God’s peace and the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit. We also read about the Trinity in this passage from the Gospel of Matthew, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).
As humans, we look for ways to describe the Trinity. I have heard people use the analogy of the three-legged stool. There is only one stool but three legs. Saint Patrick taught the Irish about the Trinity by using the tiny shamrock plant. Three leaves but only one plant. I like to think about the elements found in the periodic table. Each element has a certain number of electrons or protons or neutrons. A carbon atom is only carbon when it has a certain number of each. God is only God when God has three persons completing all that it is in one.
I also like to think about how each one of us have several different personas. I am a father, a husband, a grandfather, a priest, a friend and several other things. My daughter calls me dad, Evelyn calls me grandpa, Jan calls me her husband, some of you call me father and my friends call me to play golf. I am all of those personas and only one person. That is the best explanation of the Trinity a human can offer.
Our readings describe several characteristics of God today. In proverbs, God is described as Wisdom. It even states that Wisdom existed as part of God forever. Wisdom is found in the Word of God. Jesus is the Word of God. In the Psalm God is called the Governor. God is the Creator, and the All Powerful One. In Romans, God is referred to as Peace, as well as the one who gives us grace and love. Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as the gift of truth. All of these attributes are part of one God and sometimes in our humanity we think of those attributes describing just one of the Three Persons of God.
But all of those descriptions fall short. For the Trinity is truly a mystery to us. It is something we wish to understand and cannot explain logically. For the Trinity is best understood when we think of the Trinity as our relationship with God.
I am blessed that people often share their own learnings about spirituality with me. This week, someone loaned me a book about the Trinity. It was written in 2013 by a lady named Cynthia Bourgeault. Talented theologians still seek to understand the Trinity. I think there is always more to learn. The book is titled the Holy Trinity and the Law of Three. I am not able to fully describe all that this book teaches us. I appreciate the potential femininity found in the Spirit. I learned that three is a powerful number. We usually put things in twos: night or day, male or female, yes or no. But three creates an opportunity for so much more. Three can create balance. A good example is the imbalance found in agreement or disagreement. But reconciliation can balance those two opposites. Three can create new energy. A seed is placed in the earth. But without the sun and water it will not grow. Flour and water are necessary but without heat they will not make bread. A plaintiff and a defendant can argue about who is right but a judge is needed to come to a decision.
Ms. Bourgeault encourages us to open our hearts to the possibility that we will be changed by the power of the Trinity, by the strength of three. Let us pray that we will be made alive in the strength, the love and the peace of God.
Scripture today tells us the Son is the eternal word. God the Father is the creator and the One who sent Jesus to be with us. And we experience God as the Holy Spirit, who opens our hearts and minds. I find that we do our best when we don’t try to explain exactly what the Trinity is or how the three Persons work together. I find it better to simply accept the mystery of the Trinity and allow the three Persons to work in our lives. We don’t need to explain that they are different and yet the same. We simply accept that the Three work together in all things, in perfect unity. We wish that we too will find unity and peace in ourselves.
A Presbyterian minister named William Dixon Gray wrote that “Rather than explaining the Trinity, let the Trinity explain us. We are always changing from what we are to what we are becoming. The Trinity does not allow things to be static. God is active and we must be too.”
So, rather than think about the Trinity, I suggest that we feel the Trinity working in our lives. I suggest that we don’t try to put the three Persons into one category or another. I, myself, have used the names Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier as a way to describe the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But I think that God is bigger than any names we place on any Member of the Trinity. Jesus is no longer physically here. But we still have the Trinity. I prefer to live in the words of Paul who said that we receive the power, the grace and the peace of God working as One. Amen.
I visit my spiritual advisor every three weeks. I appreciate the opportunity to talk to her about my spiritual life and to talk about the normal everyday things where I see God at work. It helps me find balance. Each time I go to see my spiritual director, we begin with an easy breathing exercise. When I focus on my breathing, it helps me to center myself on the issues of God. The breathing helps me turn aside the business of my day and all of the issues I must deal with in my life. We offer a prayer together, asking God to be present in our meeting. Breathing exercises are also used in Yoga. Breathing can help us pay attention to what is important and to block out those things which are unimportant.
As you know, the Hebrew word Ruah means breath or spirit. In Greek the word Pnuema was used to mean both breath and spirit. That Greek word is still the basis of things we have a sense of breath such as pneumonia or pnuematic.
So I ask you to join me in an easy group exercise. Would you please close your eyes and pay attention to your breathing? I ask you to breathe in and out slowly, perhaps counting to four on each inhale and exhale. As you do so, allow your mind to let go of the things of this earth that may be challenging you today. As you continue to breathe in and out slowly, allow your mind to focus on God, in particular the Holy Spirit.
As you continue to breathe in and out, I ask you to consider how the Holy Spirit has changed your life or perhaps, how is the Holy Spirit guiding you today. Let me offer a portion of the prayer said by people at the beginning of a Cursillo program.
“Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your spirit and they shall be created and You shall renew the face of the earth”.
Thanks, you can open your eyes now and breathe normally.
Pentecost is all about the Holy Spirit. Scripture has always referenced the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit is referred to in passages of the Hebrew Scripture such as in Judges chapter 15 when we learn that the Spirit of the Lord descended upon Samson and Samson became so strong that he destroyed his enemies. In the first chapter of Genesis we read that the breath from God swept over the face of the waters. When Peter spoke on that first Pentecost, he offered a quote from the 2nd chapter of Joel, God will “pour out God’s Spirit on all flesh”. In the New Testament, Jesus told his disciples that he would send an Advocate to guide them and watch over them. We have heard of the Spirit many times but Pentecost is by far the biggest event of the Holy Spirit in our Church year.
Today’s lessons begin in Genesis. The people of Babel built a huge tower to take them up to heaven. It is a story similar to the Garden of Eden. Humans wanted to cross the dividing line between humanity and divinity. They wanted to control their own destiny. In response, God divided the people. God scattered the people to all corners of the earth and God gave them many different languages. The people of the earth no longer understood each other.
If we jump forward to the story in Acts, God brings all of the people on earth back into unity once again. The people in Jerusalem understood what was being said despite their different languages. Everyone was united once more through the work of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit. We tried to recreate that experience as people read the passage in several different languages. Many people spoke but everyone clearly heard that Jesus is the Messiah. Peter proclaimed on that day “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” Those words are the basis of our faith now. The crowd was so moved that people immediately decided to turn their lives over to Jesus.
I experience the Holy Spirit in two ways. First, I think of the Holy Spirit as a presence. God is present with us. The Holy Spirit’s presence gives us encouragement to follow God’s path. The Holy Spirit’s presence gives us guidance and advice and the Holy Spirit’s presence helps us to communicate with God.
I also believe that the Holy Spirit is a power. In the Pentecost story found in Acts, the power of the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles. The Holy Spirit brought wind, the Holy Spirit placed tongues of fire on the heads of the apostles. I imagine that the Holy Spirit translated the words of the apostles so that everyone in Jerusalem that day understood what was said by Peter and his friends. It was a miracle of the Holy Spirit, similar to the miracles that Jesus performed while he was alive. The Spirit is a force.
Each week, I pray that the Holy Spirit will guide the words I share in the sermon. I pray that the Spirit will be with me as I give the sermon. And I know that the Spirit works in each of you because people hear different things in any sermon. The Spirit is helping us to hear what we need to hear.
The Psalm is a reminder of the glory of God’s creation and it includes a thanksgiving for the power of the Holy Spirit. We hear about the beauty of God’s creation and God’s wisdom that flows throughout the earth. We even hear of God’s humor for God created the great sea monster, the Leviathon. We know that God created such a creature just for the sport of it. If you listen carefully to the Psalm, you will realize that God, particularly the Spirit, is active in creation each and every day. The Spirit is sent forth and creates life once more and renews the face of the earth. In the Psalm the author suggested that the cycle of life and death is held in the hands of God’s Spirit.
The gospel for today is a flashback to a time well before the crucifixion. Jesus was talking to the apostles about what was to come. He told them that he would leave them but he shared with them that he would send a power to help them. We call that power the Holy Spirit. The presence of the Holy Spirit was with Jesus throughout his ministry beginning with his baptism when the Spirit descended like a dove. The Spirit went out into the wilderness with Jesus. The Spirit stayed with him every step of the way.
Some of the most powerful words of Scripture are found in today’s gospel. Jesus knew that his time was short. He knew that there was only a certain amount that he could finish before he left us. But he left us the power of the Holy Spirit. That power working in us does wonders. Jesus said, “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.” Jesus did many wonderful things. Still he told us that if we accept him and accept the power of the Holy Spirit, we will do more than Jesus ever did. It is hard to believe isn’t it? But that is exactly what Jesus told us.
Let us not minimize what the Spirit can do. I have heard people say that they feel the Spirit in this place. We even sing about it. “There’s a sweet sweet spirit in this place and I know that it’s the Spirit of the Lord”. There are times when the Spirit is quiet. But there are also times when the Spirit is a powerful wind that blows everything to follow the will of God. That Spirit has the power to do mighty things. That Spirit helps us to do things greater than even Jesus did.
May you feel the breath of the Holy Spirit in your body. May that breath give you new life this week. May you find God’s power working in you and the presence of God guiding you and comforting you. Amen.
A few years ago, Jan and I traveled to Russia. As happens on all tours, we were taken to stores and kiosks offering local goods to purchase. Every store had a large display of matryoshka dolls. I call them nested dolls. You have seen them, haven’t you. You see one large doll and if you open it you will see the same doll in a slightly smaller size. The process can continue until you get to the smallest of dolls on the inside. I have seen seven dolls in a set of netted dolls. There is only one way to put them back together. You must start with the smallest and put it in the next larger doll until you once again have a complete set. I didn’t purchase a nested doll but our friends got one that looked like a member of the rock band KISS. I did purchase a replica of a Faberge egg. Faberge eggs were created for the czars of Russia to give to their wives and children. My knock off is an egg shaped case with a tiny egg inside.
We describe the smaller egg as being in the larger egg. We would never say that the larger egg is in the smaller egg. But that is exactly what we find in Scripture. It is another example of Jesus turning our world upside down. Jesus said that each of us is in Christ and he also told us that he (Jesus) is in us. The amazing thing is that we are both in Christ and also have Christ in us. How is it possible for both to happen at the same time?
Perhaps today you can imagine yourself as the egg enveloped by Jesus. Jesus is protecting you from harm. Or you may imagine that you are the outer covering and that Jesus is the glorious tiny egg inside of you. Jesus is like a beating heart inside of you carrying you along, inspiring you.
The gospel for today is the final portion of a prayer that Jesus offered called the high priestly prayer. The prayer takes up an entire chapter in John’s gospel. I encourage you to take a few minutes this week to read chapter 17 to let that prayer wash over you. The first portion is Jesus’ prayer to the Father before he was crucified. The second portion is a prayer for his immediate disciples. I think it is like a prayer a mother might offer for her children. It is a prayer that asks for protection when his disciples go out into the world. Interestingly, Jesus prayed for the disciples to go out into the world to convert people to be his followers and at the same time he prayed for their protection. Today’s portion of the prayer is offered for the far-flung ministries of the early church and a prayer for all of the believers and followers. It is the prayer that Jesus offered for you and me.
For us to be in Jesus is an individual and a communal designation. We describe the community of the church as the Body of Christ. We live together as Christ’s Body in the world. Jesus is the head of the church. As members of the Body of Christ we are offered the opportunity for salvation. We are given protection from evil and we are brought together to support one another.
We are also individually in Christ. We have committed ourselves to Jesus in our baptism and we renewed that commitment when we were confirmed. We stay in Christ when we confess our sins each week and are forgiven. We stay in Christ when we take communion. We stay in Christ when we take time to offer prayers and ask for God’s guidance. We remain in Christ as we try to live our lives as his followers. Jesus is in us as well. Jesus brings us into one with God. Jesus gives us strength to continue on the way. Jesus gives us guidance and is there to encourage us when we fall.
On Thursday, we celebrated the feast of the Ascension. We remember that Jesus was taken up to heaven bodily. The apostles witnessed the time when Jesus was lifted up to heaven bodily. The apostles were used to being with Jesus. They thought he was gone when he was crucified and they were amazed and excited when he rose from the dead. At the Ascension, they had to go through their loss one more time. I am sure they wondered what they would do without him.
I hope the message from our readings helps you to connect with the apostles. We are one with them and we are one with Jesus. We can imagine the pain that they must have experienced at this second loss of Jesus just as we have experienced pain at the loss of a trust friend.
We wish that Jesus was still with us in body. But if we listen to this prayer of Jesus, we know that he was still with the apostles and he is still with us. We are thankful that he is with us in spirit.
When we live in Jesus and Jesus lives in us then our lives are different. In the first lesson from Acts, Paul encountered a woman who was possessed with a demon and the demon gave her the power to tell fortunes. Sadly, she was being used by greedy men to make money and we know that still happens to people today. Paul commanded the demon to come out of the woman. Paul and his partner Silas are placed in prison for allowing the woman to live a life freed of demons and freed of her captors. During the night, an earthquake freed the prisoners from their bondage. But Paul and Silas did not leave. Their actions become an example for the jailer who becomes a Christian and is immediately baptized. Paul freed the jailer from his imprisonment to sin and brought him to the joy of Christ Jesus.
We may not be able to exorcise demons as Paul did and we may not experience an earthquake that frees us from prison. So, let’s focus on the fact that we are connected to Jesus just as Paul was. By our example, we are able to show others to Jesus. Just as Paul and Silas did not run to escape their captors, we too live our lives as examples of Christ in the world. Many of you have shared the blessings of God in your lives with others and in so doing, you have brought others to a life in Christ. Our example helps others to be changed by God.
We are also encouraged to pray for others just as Jesus did. There is a quote from an unknown author that suggests “There is nothing that makes us love other people so much as praying for them. Let’s keep praying then.” Gerard Manley Hopkins, a famous poet, wrote that when we lift our hands in prayer, we give God glory. But he also reminded us that when we do even the dirtiest of work in his name, we give glory to God. Hopkins wanted us to remember that prayer is important but so is living a life of grace.
Jesus prayed that the whole church may be one. This past week, I once again encountered divisions within the large community of Christ’s church. We find ways to argue with each other about exactly what Scripture teaches us. Some believe that their way is the only way that you can interpret Scripture. I find it sad that the wider church struggles to find unity in our beliefs and I ask for your prayers that Jesus may find ways to unite the church once more.
In the reading from Revelation, there is an invitation. Let us pray that God will “Let everyone who hears say, "Come.
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”
I hope that you will consider what it means for you that Jesus is in you and that you are in Jesus. I imagine the relationship between the three members of the Trinity is one of total unity. Jesus described his relationship with the Father as if they were one. May we also seek that same unity in Jesus. May we be totally connected to Jesus so that we are one with him and he is one with us, so that we are one with each other. Amen.
Our family took a trip to New Zealand when our daughter was a child. I still remember being told that 3 million people lived in New Zealand and there were 30 million sheep. Sheep outnumbered people ten to one. Well, times have changed. It seems that the population of New Zealand has grown to well over four million people while the number of sheep has grown only a little. Now there are only about 7 sheep for every person in New Zealand. There are lots of sheep in New Zealand. I also remember a time when our bus was stopped for about ten minutes as a herd of sheep gradually moved their way across the road. We got out of the bus and found lambs that looked like such cuddly little animals. I am not sure I saw a shepherd. The sheep in New Zealand seem to run in big herds and follow each other wherever they go.
I contrast that with my imagination of what shepherding is like in the Middle East. I picture much smaller flocks of sheep perhaps 20 and all of them are being led by one shepherd. I am sure they have a much closer relationship with the shepherd than the sheep in New Zealand.
The image of a single shepherd fits our lessons for today. We are told that the followers of Jesus hear his voice. Jesus knows them and they know Jesus. It is true whether the number of sheep is small or so large they cannot be counted.
I read a story this week about a young priest who was staying at the bishop’s house. The bishop had three dogs. When the bishop arrived home each day he would call out to the dogs and they would run to see him. The young priest decided to play a trick on the dogs. He learned to mimic the voice of the bishop. He came home just a few minutes before the bishop, called the dogs just as the bishop would do and they came running. Of course they were disappointed when they found out he was not the bishop. He tried this again and got the same result. But the third time he tried to trick the dogs, they did not respond. They had learned how to differentiate the voice of the bishop from the voice of the young priest. Animals are quite smart when it comes to whom they know and care for. It only took them a few times to realize the young priest was a fake.
Just as the dogs know the voice of the master and just as the sheep know the voice of the shepherd, so we know the voice of Jesus. We know Jesus because he loves us and because he teaches us and because he sacrificed himself for us. Perhaps most important, Jesus knows each of us by name. Those are the words we hear in the Collect for today and they come from the words of Jesus himself. He said to those who questioned him that he knows his sheep, his followers. Jesus is our personal shepherd and he walks alongside us on our path.
The image of Jesus as our shepherd follows a long tradition of referring to the powerful, especially kings and the Lord as our shepherd. There is no better example than we find in Psalm 23. It is one of the most beloved of Psalms for it gives great comfort. Psalm 23 begins with the words the Lord is my Shepherd. Jesus referred to God as his father and he said that he and the father are one. Just as God is our shepherd so Jesus, his son, is our shepherd.
The comforting image of the shepherd continues throughout Psalm 23. God will take care of all of our needs. God will give us rest when we are tired. God will guide us along the right paths. God will help us deal with our fear. God will provide refreshing water for us to drink and help us to restore our strength. God will see to it that we are given a banquet of food to nourish us. God will make sure that we are surrounded by goodness and mercy.
We have several references to God’s comforting presence in our lives. While no one can actually replace God in our lives, for most of us, our mother comes close. So many of us remember our mother as someone who loved and cared for us, who encouraged us when we were down and who helped us to achieve all that we accomplished. Perhaps your mother sacrificed something to make your life better in some way. Happy Mother’s Day to all of the ladies who are here with us today whether you were able to be a mother to a child or simply a help to someone who was close to you.
I find it interesting that this same Jesus who is our Shepherd is also referred to as the lamb. In the reading from Revelation, Jesus takes his rightful place on the throne. Jesus is worshipped and glorified by all those who are in heaven. And yet this Jesus is called the Lamb. We think of the Lamb as the weakest of creatures and yet here is the Lamb enthroned in the highest heaven. The same God who is the all powerful one, the Creator of heaven and earth, also chose to humble himself. It helps us to understand that God will do anything to save us. Even in this reading from Revelation, Jesus is referred to as both the Lamb and the Shepherd. We realize that power does not always come from strength. Power can also comes from sacrifice, and from loving one another.
In the gospel reading, Jesus is questioned by a group of non-believers. Somehow, they want him to prove that he is the Messiah. Jesus said I have already told you and shown you. He suggested to them that they remember all of the miracles that he had performed. But then he explained why they had a problem. They were not his sheep. They were not followers of his.
We follow Jesus in faith. These last few weeks, we have experienced a lot of Scripture references about faith. It seems that we are once more confronted with how so much of our spiritual lives begin in faith, begin in trust. The non-believers could not be swayed by the things they had seen. Somehow, they needed Jesus to satisfy their own personal curiosity, to answer their own particular question or to fit into their own specific understanding of how God works in this world.
But Jesus doesn’t always fit into the accepted understanding of God. He is the Shepherd who has become the Lamb. Jesus changed the way that we understood a Messiah. He showed us that truth and love and mercy can be given to us by the one who sacrificed himself for us.
I would suggest that we the believers see Jesus as Divine because we began our understanding of Scripture with faith. Our hearts were opened to see Jesus as he was and is. We know that people often begin with the opposite perspective. Someone with a preconceived idea of the truth finds it difficult to have their mind changed because new facts don’t fit their understanding of reality. The doubters who questioned Jesus must have been like that.
In our faith, we want to be guided by our Shepherd, Jesus. We want to be known by him and we want to know him. We reach out in our desire to have that close relationship with Jesus so that when he calls, we know it is him. We want to feel the comfort of being known by Jesus, to never be forgotten regardless of where we have been or what we have done. We want Jesus to come and find us when we are lost. We want Jesus to send all of our fears away.
This week, I encourage you to just let the words of Scripture sink in. If you walk away with nothing other than the one line that is found in the gospel you will be fine. Please hear these words, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. They will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand”. Our faith accepts this as truth. If you hear and accept those words today then you will understand why Jesus said. “Go your way, your faith has made you well.” For it is in faith that we become his sheep. It is in faith that we are known personally by Jesus. Amen.
Last Sunday we sang a hymn that has stuck with me all week. The first words were “We walk by faith and not be sight”. Our Christian journey is a walk of faith. We have faith in God. We believe that Jesus is our Lord and Savior. We trust that God will give us the strength we need to continue the journey. As we heard last week, Jesus blesses us on our walk of faith. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Our faith is a gift from God. We usually think of the gifts that God has given us as tangible things. We think of food and clothing and shelter and the beauty of nature. In addition to being thankful for those gifts, we are thankful that God has given us faith. Without faith, it would be difficult to maintain our relationship with God. It would be easy to veer away, to become self-centered.
Whenever Jesus healed someone, he spoke of their faith. Here is just one example, “‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’ Jesus told his apostles that God responds to those who ask in faith. “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.” The most famous line in Scripture speaks of the importance of faith, “‘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.” Faith is a source of healing, God will respond to those who ask in faith, and faith is the source of eternal life.
Even in Paul’s letters we hear how important faith is, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Paul wrote that faith is more important than works. But in our lessons today we have at least three examples of good works all of which started through a call God made.
Christians have debated the importance of our works and our faith. Some would say that it is faith alone that saves us. There is nothing we can do to earn our salvation. Rather than think of works as earning our way into heaven, many think that we do good works out of thanksgiving for the gifts of grace and love that we received from God. I just find that explanation unfulfilling for me. The problem I have is that I believe that God is calling each of us to do God’s work in this world. I often say that it is our job to bring God’s kingdom here to this earth. I think there is a connection between faith and our call. Rather than separating faith and good works, trying to determine which is more important, let’s think about how we are called. I encourage you to think about your call from God and how it is a natural part of your faith and your journey here on earth?
The first reading is a good example of the connection of faith and following God’s call. The reading is about the conversion of Saul. Saul’s life changed in an instant. He became a faithful follower of Jesus and in faith he followed God’s call for him to bring the good news of Jesus to the Gentiles.
This conversion story is also about Ananias. Ananias was simply minding his own business when the Lord called out to him and asked him to go heal the eyesight of Paul. Ananias, just like many before him, was doubtful. Lord, do you really want me to go help this man who has been killing the followers of Jesus? I think my own life will be in danger. But the Lord told him it was going to be allright. Ananias was faithful. He trusted that God would take care of him and God did. Ananias also heeded God’s call for him. He would not have chosen this ministry on his own. Rather he trusted that God had made a good decision for him and thus he followed God’s wishes.
You see, I find this connection between faith and works. I find the connection between trusting in God and following God’s wishes for our lives. We are just like Ananias. Our call from God may not have been as clear as that of Ananias but I believe we do get called. We don’t know exactly when or how. We don’t know for whom God will need our help. But just like Ananias, I hope that we are ready to say yes to God’s call for us.
Our gospel lesson is also about faith and following God’s call. We know that Jesus commissioned his apostles to spread the good news to all people. In last week’s lesson, Jesus said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Specifically, Jesus sent them out to forgive the sins of the faithful, “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.” The apostles needed to have their faith restored so they could heed God’s call for them.
We have another post resurrection appearance of Jesus with a few of his apostles. They were fishing in the sea of Galilee and Jesus came to share breakfast with them. He fed them just as he feeds us. Then, he gave Simon Peter a commission, he told Peter that he was called to feed the sheep, the followers of Jesus. He first reminded Peter of his faith. He asked, “Do you love me?’ Certainly if Peter loved Jesus he had faith in him. That is when Jesus asked him to feed the sheep. Of course, we hear this three times so it must have been important.
When Jesus asked Peter to feed the sheep it meant something figuratively. Peter was being asked to publicly proclaim Jesus as our Messiah. He was asked to lead all of the followers. He was told to help the followers with all of their spiritual needs. And just as Jesus had offered breakfast to them on that shore, Peter was being asked to literally feed the sheep, to give them the body and blood of Jesus through the blessed bread and wine. The early Christians lived in community so Peter was expected to provide for them as well.
Each person of faith receives their own call. It is something you need to determine with God and possibly in discussion with other humans. Some are called to volunteer at church, some are called to visit the sick, some are called to pray for others or support others on their spiritual path. Some of us are called to provide food for others. We do all we do because of our faith.
Despite the success of our economy, the number of people in need seems to be growing. According to a recent report, the number of homeless people in Phoenix has grown by over 20% in the last year. Maybe the problem is caused by drug or alcohol addiction or mental illness or bankruptcies caused by unpaid medical bills. It might be because of the apparent ease with which people can be evicted from homes. If you feel called to help with the feeding or housing of people in this community, you could join with others in this church who reach out through our million meals program, our chile farm, or join with other volunteers to staff a feeding program.
There is one other opportunity that has become a political hotbed and that is the issue of immigration including the large number of people seeking asylum. My interest today is not to discuss the political arguments about what we should do with immigration. It doesn’t matter whether you want the wall or not. It doesn’t matter if you think we should change our laws to make it more difficult for people to enter this country or not. The simple fact is that there has been little change in our laws for many years and it is unlikely that we will see new legislation. The mayor of Mesa, John Giles, recently said that the problem of migrants in our area is not a political issue. It is a humanitarian issue. The administration asked Congress this week for 4.5 billion in funding just to deal with the humanitarian issue. The government cannot handle the number of people entering the United States. The government drops people off at non-profit organizations and they are struggling to keep up. The vestry had a discussion about meeting the humanitarian needs of immigrants. Dea Podhajsky is looking into how we might get involved. Some of you may wish to join her.
Scripture tells us that people of faith are called by God. We read about Paul, Ananias and Peter but the list goes on. I think our scripture asks us to reflect on our call in faith. Each of us has a different call which must be discerned. You may be called to care for spiritual needs or you may be called to care for physical needs. I encourage you this week to pray that God will continue to guide you in your call, your faith, and that you will be able to respond through the mercy and grace of God. Amen.
I am sure that many of you have been involved in group development activities. One of the things you learn is to trust your teammates. The first time I went through a group exercise we practiced by doing a trust fall. You stand with your back to all of the other people, fold your arms and just fall backwards. You trust that your co-workers will catch you and not let you fall.
I was on another team building event and we were outdoors. Our teachers led us to a spider web made of ropes. It was several feet off of the ground. The spaces were of different sizes and heights off of the ground. Our team was required to pass everyone through the holes in the ropes. We could only use a space in the ropes one time. We were not allowed to touch the ropes. In order to complete the task, some team members had to be lifted off of the ground and passed through. This exercise required trust, a willingness to have your team members lift you and pass you through the ropes. I learned that it was best to ask the person about to be lifted if they were okay with what we planned to do. It was another example of trust.
Babies blindly trust their parents because they have no one else to turn to. Sometimes they don’t trust strangers. Adults learn through experience who they can trust. We know that we must trust some other people in order to live full and perfect lives. Sometimes we lose trust in people because of how they treat us.
In today’s gospel we hear Jesus say the words, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” We listen to those words and have hope and thanksgiving. We think those words are meant for us and they were. For we are the people who have not seen and yet we believe in Jesus. Jesus blesses us. It is just one more indication of how we are loved and appreciated by Jesus. May you feel blessed today.
Yes, I do think that Jesus wants us to believe in him. I do think that believing in the resurrection is important because it is a critical part of the Christian faith. As I said last week, if you don’t believe in the resurrection then the basis of our Christian faith is lost. Belief is an important part of our Christian life. Belief could also be called faith. We sometimes think of faith and belief as exactly the same thing. There are some aspects of faith that go beyond just believing to trust.
I have reached the conclusion that we struggle with the word belief in a religious context. I think that arguments among the various Christian denominations have caused us to be overly concerned about belief. Christian denominations since the Protestant revolution have tried to distinguish themselves by what they believe. Some would say that you can only be a part of our denomination if you believe a certain thing. They have suggested that others are wrong for not believing what they believe. They even suggest that if you are not a part of our denomination, if you don’t believe what we believe, then you will not be saved.
From that debate, we understand belief to be a very specific thing. There is no nuance to belief. You either believe exactly this way or you don’t believe. The Greek word that we sometimes translate as belief is pistos. A variation of that Greek word was translated today as belief. It is more generally thought of as faith. Faith has elements of belief and it also has elements of trust. That is why I think another word that may be helpful today is the word trust.
Another reason for my concern about the word belief comes from the way we treat Thomas. We call him doubting Thomas. He was wrong for not believing the words of the other apostles. We don’t want to be like him. Never mind that in John’s gospel, Peter didn’t seem to believe in the risen Jesus when he left the empty tomb. Never mind that in Luke’s gospel, the women come and tell the apostles that Jesus has risen. But Luke wrote about the apostles, “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them”. Why is it that we can accept the uncertainty of the other apostles but label Thomas as a Doubter? Are we willing to judge the belief of certain person more harshly than the belief of others?
Thomas probably struggled in ways that others struggled. They had no context in which they could understand Jesus’ resurrection. In previous situations, Thomas showed himself to be a firm follower of Jesus. I wonder if Thomas was grieving so much over the loss of Jesus that he couldn’t listen to what the apostles said. Once he saw Jesus then his hope was restored. All that Thomas had lived for was once more possible.
I like this quote from Marcus Borg, “You can believe all the right things and still be in bondage. You can believe all the right things and still be miserable. You can believe all the right things and still be relatively unchanged. Believing a set of claims to be true has very little transforming power.” I would say that trust in Jesus shows us the transforming power of the resurrection. We allow Jesus to transform our lives. In addition to believe, I think we should also have trust
Trust is a better word for me to describe the personal relationship that we seek in the resurrected Jesus. I trust that Jesus will be by my side on my spiritual adventure. I trust that Jesus will bring me to the place where I need to be. I trust that God will bring me to everlasting life.
I find the idea of trusting in God and inviting Jesus to be a part of our life in the reading from Revelation. The writer offered us grace and peace from God. That is what we ask for from the risen Lord Jesus. The writer described a God who was and who is and is to come. That last phrase could also be understood as saying, God who is coming”. In changing the phrase to the present tense, we have the sense that God is coming always. It is as if a rush of God is upon us in every moment of our lives. That is the risen Jesus who is always present with us. I like to think of the risen Jesus as a continuous gift to us. Jesus rose from the dead to be with his apostles and also to be available for us at all times.
When the writer referred to the seven spirits who also send grace and peace, he used the word which we often translate as breath. It is as if God is breathing life into every one of the people in the seven cities and also breathing life into you and I. The writer finished by speaking specifically of the grace and peace that comes to us from Jesus, the one who is risen from the dead. This is the God that I trust in, the God of grace and peace, the God who gives me breath. It is no longer so important what I believe but rather what I trust.
That grace and peace is mentioned in the gospel. Not once but three times we heard the words “Peace be with you.” There is a teaching which suggests that if you want someone to hear a particular message you should repeat it over and over again. I would say that our gospel writer, John, wanted us to be clear about the message of Jesus. Jesus wanted his followers to be at Peace. Of course, he most likely used the word Shalom which has many different meanings. Shalom means harmony and wholeness and completeness. Jesus wanted his followers to be at rest with their life. He wanted us to have that feeling of comfort, knowing that our lives are best lived when we follow our Lord. Jesus wanted us to feel that wholeness, knowing that we are surrounded by his grace and blessing. He wanted us to be certain that our lives are complete when we follow him.
Faith is a way for us to find that peace. For some, their faith is focused on belief. They find Peace in their belief. Let us all believe. I also think that the Peace of God is enhanced in our lives when we have trust. When we trust in God, then we can feel that completeness, that wholeness that only Jesus can give us. May we all feel the harmony, wholeness and completeness of peace in our lives today. Amen.