A couple of years ago, there was a preacher whose car gave out on him, and who found it necessary to look for a new car. He went to a nearby dealership, and picked out one that he thought was attractive and apparently would serve him well. He asked the salesman the price, and the man told him the car would cost fifteen thousand dollars. The preacher said, “My goodness! fifteen thousand dollars! I cannot afford that much. I am just a poor preacher.” “I know you are,” the salesman replied; “I have been to your church and heard you preach.”You and I are not always heard and seen the way we intend to be heard and seen. How do you see yourself? How do you imagine that others see you? Do you sometimes want to say to people, “Oh, that is not what I meant at all! You do not understand what I am saying.” A situation similar to that, I believe, is recorded for us in St. Luke’s Gospel. Last Thursday, the Church observed on its liturgical calendar the Feast of the Transfiguration as it does every August 6th, which this year, by the way, also marked the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. If you are fortunate enough to be in a parish on that day where the eucharist is celebrated, you would hear the wonderful gospel account of that event. Otherwise, the only other time you hear it is on the Sunday before Lent begins every year. The Transfiguration also has a special place in my heart, since this is The Church of the Transfiguration, which I have called home for the last few years with the exception of a sojourn of two and one-half years as Vicar of St. Michael’s Church in Coolidge.But to recount the story. Jesus takes three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John, with him up to the top of a high mountain, and there, while He is praying, He is transformed. We are told that His countenance is changed, and his clothing becomes dazzling white. Moses, representing the Law of the Jews, and Elijah, representing the prophets, appear alongside of Him, and together they converse about the future. Luke describes the whole thing as a vision. The disciples are confronted with this vision, this transfiguration and, in time, they, too, are transformed. Peter, in his anxiety, in his awe, in his usual headstrong, reactive way, says, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter attempts to trap the experience, to reduce it to something he can understand or do. But before he is able to, the vision is completed, a cloud overshadows them, and the disciples feel within themselves the very voice of God saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” If Jesus could have said something here, it might have been, “Peter, you do not understand. You have missed the point of what I am trying to say to you in this experience.” So briefly, then, this morning, I would like to reflect with you, in the context of the story of the Transfiguration, upon how we see ourselves, upon how we see others, and upon how we are transformed by God.Those of you who remember your Greek mythology will recall the story of the handsome youth Narcissus. The goddess Nemesis, who measured out happiness and misery to mortals, one day decided to cause Narcissus to see his own image reflected in a fountain. He became so enamored of it, that eventually nothing else in life mattered to him, or had any value. A woodland nymph by the name of Echo fell in love with Narcissus, but he was unable to return her love, so taken was he with himself. Eventually Echo pined away in grief, until there was nothing left of her except her voice. One of the great dangers of this mortal existence of ours is that we, too, face the possibility of garnering all the resources at our disposal for no greater purpose than the adornment of our own image. We are easy prey to the narcissistic trap of reducing every relationship in life to nothing more than an echo – a voice that resounds by our own doing, our own wanting, our own image, our own ideas.Best-selling author and rabbi, Harold Kushner, whom I have quoted on a number of occasions, says that one of the first things we need to do in our search to discover God is to deal with the necessity for humility in our lives. By that he means not letting ourselves be overcome by our own achievements, imagined or real, but rather recognizing our limitations. All too often, people think that worshiping idols means setting up statues and bowing down before them. But in reality, worshiping idols is when we become enamored with our accomplishments in life. We, however, are called to a condition of humility.Sigmund Freud believed that over the years science has helped us to eliminate some of our narcissistic tendencies. He cites three examples. The first is Galileo, who deprived us of the luxury of believing that we are the physical center of all God’s creation, of everything. The second is Charles Darwin, who helped us to see that, despite the majesty of our capabilities, we are still a part of the unfolding process, the evolution, if you will, of God’s creation. And finally, Freud saw himself as enabling us to look upon life and to say that there is something more to life than that which we can see, or which we may refer to as consciousness. With the help of breakthroughs in these three areas of science, then, namely, the cosmological, the biological, and the psychological, Freud believed that our narcissistic tendencies had been diminished. But, was that enough?I am reminded of a wonderful story about an instance when our Sixth Fleet was maneuvering in the Atlantic Ocean, on its way to assuming its duties in the Mediterranean. On the Destroyer Danforth, the Captain, in the midst of those maneuvers, was surrounded by his junior officers. At the conclusion of the maneuvers, there was a message sent from the Flagship to the Danforth. The flagman on duty took the message and brought it to the bridge. He said to the Captain, “Sir, we have a message from the Flag.” The Captain asked him to read it. He said, “Sir, perhaps you would like to read it by yourself in the chart room.” With impatience, the Captain turned and said, “Young man, read the message.” The message said, “From Flag to Destroyer Danforth. Your maneuvering in these last exercises was absolutely deplorable. It ill-befits any vessel of the United States Navy to be so commanded. It looked very much as if your vessel was commanded by a boatman’s mate third class.” The Captain turned to the flagman and said, “Very well, young man, take it below and have it decoded.” It is extremely difficult for each and every one of us to accept our failures and other agonizing experiences, and not to defend ourselves unduly. But this is precisely what Rabbi Kushner was talking about. It is only when you and I are able to recognize our limitations in life, and live out of a condition of humility, that we can, with reverence, welcome the Spirit of God into our lives.St. Luke tells us in his account of the Transfiguration that on top of the mountain, Jesus was transfigured in the sight of his disciples. “The appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” He became translucent, we might say. He had an aura about him. The disciples saw him in a new and totally different light. They had a religious experience as they gazed upon him, one which in fact lifted them up, in and through His transfiguration. They could look back to Moses and the prophets, and they could look forward to eternity. How do we look at other people? With what eyes do we see them? What do we see in and through them?Quite a few years ago, when our son Andrew was about five years old, I spent what seemed like an eternity building and putting together a small HO scale model railroad layout in our basement. It was really one of those birthday or Christmas gifts that you give to your kids knowing that you will get as much, if not more, enjoyment out of it than they will. The project involved a lot of sawing, stapling, gluing, drilling, wiring, and assembling, and the end result was fairly functional. Andrew was fascinated by the whole ordeal, and when it was completed he remarked, “You’re a Dad who can fix anything.” Oh, how I wished that statement of his were true all the time. But it was just one way in which a little five-year old looked through his eyes at his Dad.A little while ago in the New York Times, there appeared an article about a woman who did something that was rather courageous and commendable, given her position in city government. It was not unique, because it had been tried by other people in other times and places. But for 23 days, Barbara Sabol, the head of New York City’s Human Resources Administration, posed as a welfare recipient to experience firsthand the huge bureaucracy that she administered. She wanted to look at the system, which serves more than one million poor New Yorkers, through the eyes of one of its recipients, to see how it could be made more effective, more humane, less degrading. How did Mrs. Sabol see others who sought to help her? By her own account, she suffered numerous indignities. She had personal documents lost by a caseworker; several times she was sent to the wrong office; she waited in long and often fruitless lines. She sat in seedy waiting rooms with broken chairs, cockroaches, and telephones that didn’t work. She was yelled at, scolded, but worst of all, Mrs. Sabol was made to feel, as she put it, “depersonalized.” “Instead of asking for my name,” she said, “they asked, ‘What is your Zip Code?’”When you and I see other people, we, like the disciples, are called to see them in a certain kind of light. We gather together in this place, week after week, in the conviction that God’s presence, His power, His love, His healing, is something we experience in the company of one another. We see, or rather we ought to see, other people in our lives, not as men and women to lean upon, not as men and women to control, but as equal partners in this human enterprise in which we are all engaged. We experience and come to know God in the company of other people. We recall the words of the Lord’s Christ, when he said, “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” As we meet our brothers and sisters in their joy, in their opulence, in their pain, in their privation, in their difficulty, we know that in and through them we find the living Christ.Peter, James, and John, on the mountain top, in the company of one another, and in the presence of the transfigured Christ, were transformed. They were given a new way of looking at things, a new reason for living.They looked at Jesus and they saw all the history of the Jews, Moses and Elijah, the law and the prophets, past, present, future. From the finite they were lifted to the infinite. They were given hope. You and I are also transformed, when, like the disciples, we are lifted from the finite to the infinite, when we are given hope for the future. One thinks of the great 17th century composer, George Fredeic Handel who, upon completing his masterful oratorio Messiah, in the record space of 23 days, is said to have exclaimed, “I did think I did see all of Heaven before me, and the great God himself.” We can all recall those moments in our lives, flashes in a millisecond, in which, confronted with the infinite, confronted with the immortal, we soar. These are moments of transformation for us.While the disciples are still on their knees with their faces to the ground, overcome with fear, Jesus comes and touches them and in effect says, “Get up and do not be afraid. You now must live in hope. You have seen the vision. Your lives are forever changed.”Norman Cousins, in his book, Head First: The Biology of Hope, tells the story of a California physician who wrote to him and described the emotional devastation experienced by his 17-year old son following surgery for cancer. The day after the operation, the surgeon came into the recovery room and in the presence of the patient, told the boy’s father that he should expect his son’s death in a matter of days, perhaps a week. The father was outraged. He wrote: “I followed the surgeon out of the room and, as a fellow physician, berated him for his reprehensible conduct. He defended himself by saying that doctors had to be honest and that patients should not be deceived.” The father continued, “I went back into the room and told my son that I had just chewed out the surgeon, and that I had known too many patients who had made surprising comebacks to justify the kind of verdict the surgeon had delivered. I told my son to disregard what the surgeon had said, and that we would work together in proving him wrong. My son believed me. He sailed through the first week after the surgery and has been in remission ever since. That was 4 years ago, and my son has been living a normal life in every way since then.” When we are given a new reason for living, when we are given hope for the future, we are transformed. Once we have seen the vision, our lives are forever changed. The God who transforms us, is the God of hope.So, as we recall once again the story of our Lord’s Transfiguration, let us remember that in our search to discover the Christ in our lives we must first come to terms with our own limitations, and see ourselves as living within the boundaries of an honest humility. We must learn to see others as the means whereby God is made known to us in and through our communion with them. And finally, our transformation is achieved when those very people are able to lift us from the finite to the infinite, and to give us hope for the future in victorious and faithful living. Then, the Lord’s Christ will say to us, “Get up and do not be afraid any more. You have seen the vision. Your lives are forever changed.” Amen.The Rev. Philip W. Stowell
There’s a legendary story about a fisherman from Louisiana, who was famous for the number of fish that he could catch. One day a stranger came to his cabin on the bayou and asked him if he would take him fishing. As they got into the boat, the stranger noticed that the famous fisherman had no rod or reel– just an old rusty tackle box and a net. After a while, they came into an isolated cove surrounded by tall, massive oak trees draped with Spanish moss. The stranger watched with interest as the fisherman reached down into his tackle box, pulled out a stick of dynamite, lit the fuse, and threw it into the water. There was a muffled explosion followed by the surfacing of a number of dead fish, which the fisherman proceeded to scoop up into his net. Whereupon the stranger pulled out a big badge and announced, “I caught you. I’m the game warden. You know that it’s illegal to blow up fish!” The notorious fisherman didn’t bat an eyelash. He calmly reached down into his tackle box, pulled out another stick of dynamite, lit the fuse, handed it to the game warden, and said to him, “Are you going to fish, or are you just going to sit there?”
Whenever I hear that story, I am reminded of the Kingdom of God. Throughout his entire ministry, Jesus attempted to teach his followers about the Kingdom of God. He was forever describing it through the use of simile, metaphor, and parable. The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field; it is like a householder who brings out of his treasure that which is new and what is old; it is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; it is like a net which is thrown into the sea, and gathers fish of every kind; the good are put into baskets but the bad are thrown away. In this morning’s gospel, St. Matthew has Jesus say that at the end of the age, angels will come and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. There is a warning here. It is as if God has given us a lighted stick of dynamite and has said, “Are you going to respond to the kingdom, or are you just going to sit there?” So, briefly this morning, I would like to reflect with you upon the Kingdom of God: its location, its demands, and our response to it.
There’s a wonderful story about an old forester, who was said to be the only person who knew the way to the Enchanted Forest. In the forest, according to legend, beauty was in every rock and tree and stream; the deer approached human beings without fear; sun and shadow, earth and sky, the sounds and stillness of the forest all combined to give the visitor a sense of exaltation and clear vision. Every year people visited the old man to ask the way to the forest, but he answered them in what seemed to be irrelevancies. To some he said, “I’ll teach you the ways of the birds and wild animals,” but that didn’t satisfy them. To others he said, “I’ll teach you how to live off the land, to find water where no one else can, to find shelter from the cold, to find food,” but that didn’t interest them either. Sometimes he said, “I’ll teach you the ways of the nature person: patience, endurance, seeing, listening, being a part of nature.” His offers satisfied no one. When the old forester died, his daughter married a young man who knew the whole area well, and one day he said to her, “Isn’t it true that there is no Enchanted Forest?” “Not as a place on the map,” she said. “Why didn’t your father tell his visitors that?” “Because he was stubborn,” she said. “If they had let him teach them the ways of God, they would have discovered the only enchanted forest there is. It has many locations, but few discoverers.”
The Enchanted Forest, the Kingdom of God, is within us. The truth of God is already in you and me. The best that any man or woman can do is to inspire it, to give it form, to give it expression, to give it consciousness, and in this way to pull it out. Jesus knew this, when he said, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” He knew that the Kingdom was a matter of the heart, not of conspicuous consumption. Your treasure, my treasure, is God’s truth, firmly implanted within us. Karl Rahner, one of the most brilliant and insightful theologians of the Roman Catholic church, who died in 1984, once said: “The task of our century is not to stuff the truth into people, but to pull it out.” God put the truth there. Our task is to pull it out. As all good teachers know, the true task of education - educatio – is to inform, to inspire, to bring out of their students the truth.
Those of you who are conscious of repetition in the world around you will readily recall that I have a favorite prayer that I like to say before I begin my sermon. I used it this morning. It is always the same prayer – it never changes. At least the sermon is different. Although, the first rector I ever worked for once told me that he used to preach the same sermon 52 weeks a year; it was only the illustrations that he changed. The prayer that I use before the sermon is one that used to be used by the late Theodore Parker Ferris, who for thirty years was rector of Trinity Church, Boston, and one of the great preachers of our times. The prayer begins: “Help us, O Lord, to be masters of ourselves that we may become the servants of others.” I like the prayer because it speaks to us of one of the fundamental characteristics, indeed, one of the primary demands of God’s kingdom – namely, that of servanthood. It reminds us of our servant calling.
For centuries, and even to this very day, the Pope in Rome has often been referred to by his Latin title of servus servorum Dei - “the servant of the servants of God.” I came across an article a little while ago that sought to extend that definition on down the ranks. A Bishop became the servant of the servant of the servants of God; a Priest became the servant of the servant of the servant of the servants of God; a Deacon became the servant of the servant of the servant of the servant of the servants of God. And finally, a lay person was simply a rich man with servant problems. That is not the kind of servanthood which characterizes the Kingdom of God. Help us to be masters of ourselves, that we may become the servants of others.
It was the last year of our war in the Pacific; it was the winter of 1945. The Japanese empire was contracting, and they were having one of those horrid and celebrated death marches from one concentration camp to another. There was an elderly missionary in this group, and as they trudged along the road in the cold rain, the young guard would yell at these prisoners, “Walk on.” The elderly missionary said to the guard, “I beg of you, please let me leave the line and die in peace.” The guard would yell at him again, “Walk on.” Again, the missionary asked him if he might just go and fall into the ditch, and there die by himself. And again he was heralded by the unfeeling command, “Walk on.” Thrice he asked the young guard if he might die in peace. The third time, the guard did not answer him, but drew near to him and whispered, “We are coming close to my grandmother’s house.” In puzzlement the missionary stumbled on, and when they came to the house, the guard disappeared momentarily into this humble little dwelling. He came out with something in his hand. He went over to the old gentleman and said to him, “Give me your hand.” He put a warm potato into his hand and said, “Take. Eat.” And then he yelled again, “Walk on!” The master becomes the servant. Is there something, do you suppose, vaguely reminiscent in that story of yet another master who became a slave, and who, on the night before he suffered and died, broke bread with his friends, and said, “Take. Eat. Do this in remembrance of me?” In another place and at another time, Jesus said, “whoever among you wants to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the willing slave of all.” We become the willing slaves of others in remembrance of Him. That is our calling. That is a demand of God’s kingdom. That, too, is our treasure.
The late John Coburn was the bishop of Massachusetts from 1976 to 1986. Back in 1967, the year I entered seminary, he was the Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Later he went on to teach in one of the street academies of NYC, and then became rector of St. James’ Church, Madison Avenue. John was always a very quiet and soft-spoken man, and frequently dressed in a three-piece suit with a gold watch chain dangling from his vest. It probably held his Phi Beta Kappa key. I remember one fall afternoon during my first year in seminary, I was in my third-floor dormitory room, when all of a sudden there was a peculiar odor in the hallway. I went to the stairwell to see what was going on, and was met by large clouds of billowing yellow smoke. The fire alarm soon sounded and we all evacuated the building. What had happened was that two men from the oil company were cleaning the furnace in the basement. One of them dropped his work light, and it quickly ignited the cleaning fluid which they were using, causing a loud explosion and fire to occur. The man who had dropped the work light came running up the basement stairs and out onto the front lawn, his clothing totally engulfed in flames. Those who were standing nearby attempted to roll him around on the grass in order to smother the flames. Soon the Rescue Truck arrived along with the fire engines, and the first thing the paramedics did was to strip the burning clothes off the man, and wrap him in clean white sheets. They loaded him into the rescue truck, and just as they began to head off toward the hospital, a most astonishing thing occurred. Dean Coburn came running out of his ivy-covered office building in his three-piece suit, dashed across the lawn, and climbed aboard the moving rescue truck to ride with the burned man on his way to the hospital. Unfortunately, the man never recovered from his burns and died six days later.
We are called to act out of unconditional love. That is our response to God’s kingdom. It is the same unconditional love with which God loves you and me. We cannot earn it---not you, not me, not any man or woman who has ever walked the face of this planet. We do not deserve it. We can only learn to accept it. God loves us in spite of ourselves. His love is unconditional, unearned, eternal. There are no strings attached. That love is the hallmark of God’s kingdom, and he has chosen to give it to us. Our task is to share it with others.
Bernie Siegel, that remarkable surgeon from Yale University, in his best-selling book, Love, Medicine, and Miracles, from which I have quoted before, tells an amazing account of a doctor from California, Jerry Jampolsky. As part of his training, Dr. Jampolsky was sent to a tuberculosis sanitarium. He feared that he would contract the disease but decided that he could take a deep breath when he got there and hold it for three months. One night he was called out to see a woman with active tuberculosis, who had had a massive pulmonary hemorrhage and cardiac arrest. Dr. Jampolsky gave her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and afterwards the nurses told him, “How could you do that? Now you’re going to get tuberculosis.” He never did, and he realized that he was not vulnerable while he was doing something for someone out of love. Commenting on the incident, Dr. Siegel said, “His realization strengthened mine, and now I’ve come to understand why it is that Mother Teresa and dedicated nurses can work among hundreds of sick, infected people every day without becoming ill.” Dr. Siegel continued, “I am convinced that unconditional love is the most powerful known stimulant of the immune system. If I told patients to raise their blood levels of immune globulins or killer T-cells, no one would know how. But if I can teach them to love themselves and others fully, the same changes happen automatically. The truth is: love heals.”
The Kingdom of God is within us. The time for responding to that kingdom, for bringing it out of us and giving it form and expression, for exercising our servant calling, for acting out of unconditional love – is now! The fuse is already lighted; we dare not wait any longer. The time of preparation for God’s kingdom is upon us. We need to be about our tasks of forgiving, healing, loving – ourselves, our neighbors, our enemies.
So when we hear again those words from the Gospel: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” let us claim that kingdom; let us rejoice in it; let us respond to it. Let us share it. It is our calling; it is our task; it is our treasure. AMEN.
I realized after preaching this sermon that some of you might think that I am advocating when it comes to COVID-19, that you do something similar to what Dr. Jampolsky did in my example. We must remember that every disease is different and what worked for Dr. Jampolsky with tuberculosis might not work with COVID-19. Unconditional love, it is true, is powerful, but we must also use it in combination with common sense and our advanced scientific knowledge of microbiology and epidemiology. Love does heal, but that healing many times comes about by God working through the loving hands and expertise of trained doctors, nurses, hospital staff, and first responders. It is not always a sure thing, but whenever it manifests itself it is truly a miracle.
The Rev. Philip W. Stowell
Help us, O Lord, to be masters of ourselves that we may become the servants of others. Take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them, and take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen.
There once was a Mafia Godfather who found out that his bookkeeper had stolen ten million dollars from him. This bookkeeper was deaf, and it was considered an occupational benefit. The man got the job in the first place, since it was assumed that a deaf bookkeeper would not be able to hear anything that he'd ever have to testify about in court. When the Godfather went to shakedown the bookkeeper about his missing $10 million dollars, he brought along his attorney, who knew sign language. The Godfather asked the bookkeeper: "Where is the 10 million bucks you embezzled from me?" The attorney, using sign language, asked the bookkeeper where the 10 million dollars was hidden. The bookkeeper signed back: "I don't know what you are talking about." The attorney told the Godfather: "He says he doesn't know what you're talking about." That's when the Godfather pulled out a 9 mm pistol, put it to the bookkeeper's temple, cocked it, and said: "Ask him again!" The attorney signed to the underling: "He'll kill you for sure if you don't tell him!" The bookkeeper signed back: "OK! You win! The money is in a brown briefcase, buried behind the shed in my cousin Enzo's backyard in Queens!" The Godfather asked the attorney: "Well, what did he say?" The attorney replied: "He says you don't have the guts to pull the trigger.”
Because you and I are choosing creatures, we have many choices to make in life. We are free to choose to be truly ourselves, to be the people God intended for us to be --- independent, creative, responsible individuals. Yet, with that personal freedom, there is always a cost involved. In this morning’s gospel, Jesus spells out for his followers what it will cost if they choose to become one of his disciples. What he says, in effect, is that if you choose to follow me, your children will rise up against you, and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Yet, over and over again, Jesus says: “Have no fear of them;” “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” And so we struggle: do we stay the safe and easy course, or do we run the risk of discipleship and all that it entails? It is costly to choose, it is costly to be a disciple of the Lord Christ in any age. You and I, however, are called to follow, we are called to be his disciples, we are called to bear the cost. For that reason, I would like to reflect with you briefly this morning, in the context of our gospel, upon our struggle, upon our self-worth, and upon the cost.
One of the great figures in psychological circles in the last century was the late Frances Wickes. In the late 1920s she wrote a volume entitled The Inner World of Children, which soon became a classic in its field. Then, when she was 87 years old, this brilliant woman wrote another book with the title, The Inner World of Change. In this work, she describes how you and I simultaneously have two psychological pulls. On the one hand, we have a yearning, a dream, to become ourselves. On the other, we have an archetypal yearning to somehow return to a union with nature, with what she refers to as the "undemanding life of the unconscious."
If you look at the story of Adam and Eve in the very first book of our Holy Scriptures, you will quickly realize that it is a story about becoming conscious. Once Adam and Eve became conscious, they became self-conscious. They said, "We are naked." The Lord God went looking for them in the cool of the day, in this new estate, but they had lost that sense of oneness with nature, and they were hiding. And so husband and wife were thrown out of the Garden of Eden, and God put angels with swords of fire in front of the Garden so that they could not return. Ever since that time, you and I, and countless others along with us, have experienced that inner pull in opposite directions. We want to remain in that choosing, conscious state, and become who we were meant to be as completely as possible. Yet, there is a part of us that wants to return to that primordial condition, to that Garden state, where we are one with nature, where there is no turmoil. And so we are torn. Because we are conscious human beings, we are faced with countless choices in life, some far more costly than others. We are the choosing animals, and there are choices we must make every day. If we do not, we run the risk of falling back into the undemanding life of the unconscious. That is our struggle.
The Lord's Christ comes to us and calls us to be choice-makers in life; He inspires us to become the people we were meant to be as completely as possible. Sometimes, though, we wonder, when all is said and done, do our lives really count? How can you and I tell if our lives count to our society, to our generation, to our God? In other words, do we have some small measure of self-worth?
Bishop Wayne K. Clymer of the United Methodist Church tells of spending a summer in a clinical pastoral education program in a prestigious New England hospital. The program was much the same as the one in which I participated over 40 years ago in a state psychiatric institution in Connecticut as a chaplain intern. There was a clearly marked pecking order in the institution which ranged from the medical department heads, through the interns, registered nurses, nurses’ aides, to the cleaning women. One day Clymer and another chaplain intern in the program were standing in the hallway being introduced to staff members. They met a doctor, a nurse, and a nurses’ aide. Just inside the doorway was a girl washing dishes. No one bothered to introduce her. Clymer remembers turning toward her and saying, “I don’t believe I got your name.” She looked up through her thick glasses somewhat startled, but with a broad smile, and said, “Well, I guess I am somebody, too.” We all have moments like that when we wonder, does my life really matter? And if it does, who cares? Our self-worth quickly drops.
In this morning’s gospel, Jesus says to his disciples: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. Even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” In other words, he is saying that sometimes the value of what we do and who we are in life is known only to God. The material rewards that we too often expect for our blood, sweat, and tears, for our sacrifices, do not always appear. We do not necessarily receive a quid pro quo for all the things we accomplish in life. We need to remember, at times like these, that our self-worth comes not from what we or others can
see or touch. It comes instead from those attributes which are cultivated in the human heart and are known often only to God – attributes such as love, forgiveness, gentleness, patience, goodness, and mercy.
I remember being marooned many years ago one Sunday afternoon in a small north Jersey town as I waited for a train. With nothing to do except wander around the village, I walked into the only building that was open, which happened to be the lobby of the local post office. On its bulletin board was the familiar art gallery that decorates post office lobbies — pictures of people wanted for robbing the mails. Rewards were offered for their capture: five hundred dollars for some, a thousand dollars for others, and for one (evidently a grand duke of the profession), five thousand dollars. Each person had a price on his or her head. It struck me suddenly as I walked around that those pictures were a crude but real suggestion of the heart of the Christian gospel. Every person has a price on his or her head, a divine price tag, an infinite worth in the sight of God. But being decision-makers, having self-worth, also entails risk. Jesus said, “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in law.” Is that the kind of risk that you and I are willing to bear in order to follow in His footsteps? Author Scott Peck defines full maturity in a Christian context as being totally available - totally available to others and to God, and that, he says, is costly.
A story appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer a number of years ago about a young, 26-year old man from Northeast Philadelphia by the name of Justin Healy. Most days, Justin Healy is minimally conscious, and even his one good eye appears glazed. He does not speak. He gives few indications that he is aware of what is going on around him. A year and a half earlier, Justin fell from a roof he was repairing, breaking his skull and bruising his brain. Doctors are not sure whether he’ll ever be much better. That, however, does not matter to Justin’s fiancee, Megan Lester. Almost every day, Megan sits by Justin’s side at the Moss Rehabilitation Center gazing at his face, telling him stories, making sure his hair is combed and his mustache trimmed. Often she kisses his cheek, and rubs his arms. Rarely does the smile leave her face. Justin had one other previous accident a few years prior to this one, when he crashed his motorcycle and spent months in rehabilitation therapy. Megan said, “We were finally digging ourselves out of the hole the first accident had created for us, and were planning to get married, when it happened again.” When people act astonished at her decision to stay with Justin she replies "This is what you do for someone you love. He would do it for me.” To Justin, Megan says, “I know that you have far to go in your recovery, but I will be by your side every step of the way, and then for a long time after that.” Megan Lester lives the kind of commitment that Christian discipleship is all about. It is being totally available to someone else. It is risky; it is costly. But that is precisely what it takes to follow in the footsteps of the Lord's Christ.
So, this morning, as we struggle with that inner pull either to become ourselves as completely as possible, or to return to that primordial Garden of unconsciousness, we are reminded that we are the choosing people. It is our freedom of choice which allows us to become disciples of the Lord’s Christ.
Our sense of self-worth in this life comes about not through the material rewards we accumulate for ourselves or the achievements we earn, but rather through the attributes of life implanted deep within our hearts, attributes such as patience, love, kindness and forgiveness. Our lives do count, we are of value, in God's sight, always.
And finally, that sense of accomplishment, of worth, is never achieved without some cost, without some struggle. To be truly committed followers of this Jesus, the Christ, means that we must be totally available to others, and that is risky. As He himself comes to us as One who is totally available, so, too, must we become totally available to those who surround us in life and love, and to God. Then, and only then, will the Lord's Christ also say of us, "I will be by your side every step of the way, and then for a long time after that.” Amen.
Sermon by: The Rev. Philip W. Stowell
When my brother, Roland, endured throat cancer and had half his neck cut away, my sister, Cathy, suggested he pray. His response was, “I don’t know how”. My brother, a cowboy, had never been to church. He’s found communion in nature and working with horses. But cancer had thrown him out of his element, and I guess you could say, brought him to his knees.I took my brother some prayers I thought might be helpful, by Thomas Murton and such, tucked into the cover of a Bible, along with an afghan made by our Prayer Sisters here at Transfiguration. But the idea of prayer did not come up. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. So, I left it there wondering how to relate how I pray and asking myself what others had done to connect with Our Father. I did put a bookmark into the page where we find the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11: 2-4 for him to find should he crack open the Good Book.
God is waiting. God is listening. Just as soon as we get off our high horse. I’m pretty sure God humiliates us on purpose and strips us bare to bring us to a state of receptivity. He loves us and seemingly allows crushing experiences to happen as a tool to humble us, to a place where we are empty, naked and out of pride.
I hear over and over, “there’s no wrong way to pray.” I mean, you have to start somewhere. Bring your baggage. Hell-o -here I am full of remorse, guilt, grief, disappointment, and I’m tired. Show me the way---now you’ve opened the door. Dig deep, find your feelings. Be honest.
Teresa of Avila has some ideas on bringing the living Waters promised to us:
- First you dig a well -get deep inside and haul that water up bucket by bucket to the light. Shine some light on all that was hid
- Then you can start an irrigation system to spread it around to where it is needed. You have to dig some more, trenches that lead somewhere. You’ll see some progress. Things are growing. You are growing
- Haul your cross up that hill you’ve so admired, slogging, aching till you see the fountain gushing forth, like a gift. You’ve been given Grace and it’s forthcoming. your faith is coming back to you. God has faith in you
- Then it begins to rain. It comes freely. God’s love is all around. All he asks is “Love your neighbor, as I have loved you”
And reach out. Ask for guidance. Prayer is a relationship which starts in conversation and develops over time, with some initial effort on our part until we recognize a Presence. We pray with people for the experience of relationship. We are one body
There is an Episcopal church just down the hill from where Roland lives. He asked me if it was as neat on the inside as it looks on the outside. I said, “Neater. “There are people inside”. I can now suggest to him that he walk down and enter the doors. The people will show him what to do next. He can read the prayers along with the others. They are very welcoming. Then he can go home and take his horse for a ride, with God at his side
On this day we commemorate the last meal that Jesus shared with his disciples. In today’s gospel, St. John recalls how Jesus told those who sat at table with him:“I give you a new commandment: that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” In fact that new commandment, that mandatum novum, is what gives this day its name, Maundy Thursday.
The love about which Jesus spoke is rooted and grounded in humility, a humility which he demonstrated for his disciples just moments before by washing their feet. After which he said to them: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” Therefore, I want to reflect with you briefly today on that greatest of all virtues, humility, of which someone once said:“Those who think they have it, don’t, and those who think they don’t have it, often do.” There was also the Dominican monk who once said that, “The Jesuits are known for their learning, and the Franciscans for their piety and good works, but when it comes to humility, we’re tops!” You and I are called to exercise that humility in the love that we show toward other people, following the commandment our Lord gave to us. True humility allows us to do what we have to do without recognition, to put our trust in God, and to be grateful for the things we have. It is on these three aspects of humility that I wish to focus today.
There was an interesting article in Life magazine sometime back. It was about Dan Dyer, a maintenance man for Roper Hospital in Charleston, SC. Until 1989 Dan had been responsible for the hospital heating and air conditioning system for eight years and yet the hospital staff for the most part were oblivious to Dan’s existence. Dan was usually out of sight in the boiler room or some such place, and his contribution to the healing of sick and hurting people just wasn’t all that obvious. In September of 1989, though, Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston. Electricity went out all over town. Roper Hospital was reduced to a system of backup generators, and for some reason the diesel pump for the generators was not pumping the needed fuel to them. That threatened to leave a large hospital and its intensive care unit, where patients depend on life-support systems, with no electricity. It was in the midst of that crisis that Dan Dyer made five trips out into a hurricane to hand-pump diesel fuel back to the small tank that fueled the generator. Every trip through the high-velocity winds, water, and crashing debris was a risk of his life to safeguard the lives of the patients in the hospital. After that night, nurses, the hospital administrator, and even the governor of the state knew who Dan was. Dan Dyer became a bit of a celebrity and was recognized from that point on as the man who keeps Roper Hospital running. Isn’t it somewhat ironic that for eight years Dan Dyer worked faithfully behinds the scenes without any thought of recognition for himself, and only when a crisis occurred was he thrust into the limelight?
Another mark of the humility that underlies the love which our Lord asks us to share with one another, is our trust that God is with us and behind us in all that we do. After Sundar Singh, an Indian Christian missionary who died in 1929, had completed a tour around the world, people asked him, Doesn’t it do harm, your getting so much honor?” The ascetic holy man’s answer was: “No.” He went on to say, “ [On that first Palm Sunday] the donkey went into Jerusalem, and they put garments on the ground before him. He was not proud. He knew that it was not done to honor him, but that it was for Jesus, who was sitting on his back. Likewise, when people honor me, I know that it is not me, but the Lord, who does the job.” When Communist forces invaded Vietnam in the 1950s, Hien Pham, like many Vietnamese Christians, was arrested and jailed for his beliefs. After his release from prison, Pham made plans to escape Vietnam. He secretly began building a boat. Fifty-three fellow Vietnamese made plans to escape with him One day, four Vietcong soldiers came to Pham’s house and confronted him. They heard he was planning an escape. Was it true? Of course, Hien Pham lied to them. If he had told the truth, the Vietcong might have killed him and arrested the other fifty-three participants. But after the soldiers left, Pham felt uneasy. Had God really wanted him to lie? Didn’t he trust that God would provide for him under any circumstances? Even though it made no logical sense, Pham believed that God wanted him to tell the truth, even at the risk of his own life. So, Pham resolved that if the Vietcong returned, he would trust God, he would confess his escape plans. Well, Pham finished building his boat, and his friends made the final plans for their daring escape. To their horror, the Vietcong soldiers returned and demanded to know if the escape rumors were true. Hoping against hope, Hien Pham confessed his plans to escape. Imagine Pham’s surprise when the soldiers replied, “Take us with you!” That evening, Hien Pham, his fifty-three friends, and four Vietcong soldiers made a daring escape under cover of night on a homemade boat. But that is not the end of the story! They sailed straight into a violent storm. Pham reports that they surely would have been lost, if not for the expert sailing skills of the four Vietcong soldiers. The escapees landed safely in Thailand. Eventually, Hien Pham emigrated to the United States, where he made a new life for himself. Hien Pham, in his humility, trusted in God, fully convinced that God is able to do what God has promised.
A final attribute of that humility to which Jesus calls us is a deep gratitude for all that we have been given. The famous American concert impresario, Sol Hurok, liked to say that Marian Anderson had not simply grown great, she had grown great simply. He said: “A number of years ago a reporter interviewed Marian and asked her to name the greatest moment in her life. I was in her dressing room at the time and was curious to hear the answer. I knew that she had many big moments to choose from. There was the night Toscanini told her that hers was the finest voice of the century. There was the private concert she gave at the White House for the Roosevelts and the King and Queen of England. She had received the $10,000 Bok Award as the person who had done the most for her home town of Philadelphia. To top it all, there was that Easter Day in Washington, D.,C. when she stood beneath the Lincoln Memorial and sang for a crowd of 75,000, which included Cabinet members, Supreme Court Justices, and most members of Congress.” Which of those big moments did she choose? “None of them,” said Hurok. “Miss Anderson told the reporter that the greatest moment of her life was the day she went home and told her mother she wouldn’t have to take in washing anymore.” We need to be grateful to God for all that we have been given, however small or insignificant that may seem.
In another place and at another time Jesus said, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Humility is the defining characteristic of the love which Jesus charged his disciples to share with one another when he said to them at the Last Supper: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” That commandment applies no less to us today than it did to those first disciples so long ago. We, therefore, need to express our humility: by doing whatever we do without any thought of attention or recognition; by trusting that God is with us and supporting us in all our undertakings and accomplishments; and finally by giving thanks to God for all that we have been given. The Lord’s Christ reminds us that if we truly show forth our love in this way, then everyone will know that we are his disciples. Amen.
From: Rev. Philip Stowell
The hymn “Sweet, Sweet Spirit” describes what it felt like at the convention. Thepresence of God was very palpable! The Bishop and all of her staff and aides worked hard to make sure the convention moved along smoothly. Everything seemed to be well coordinated.
The first section of the meeting had discussion groups made up of representatives of all of the churches participating in the convention. Each attendee was assigneda specific table and group. That allowed the delegates an opportunity to mix and learn more about what other churches in the diocese are doing in areas such as outreach. There are many interesting and wonderful things being done to serve shut ins and others in need.
The main speaker from Forward Day By Day, Steve Gunn, was fantastic! He encouraged us to study the Bible, learn about faith and go out and be disciples. He especially stressed studying the Bible. That is the base of our faith. The Canon to the Ordinary gave a very moving sermon. It too was focused on us being disciples and going out to spread God’s Word to the people by words and actions. It was so uplifting and brilliant that all of the attendees stood up and applauded.
There were many opportunities to mix with other “disciples” and learn from each other. It was a good experience. Bishop Reddall presented an excellent first convention!
This was my first convention. The two days were comprised of the spiritual, the motivational, the self affirming, business and for me a sense of pride in the Episcopal church and our diocese.
The three speaker, not only had thought provoking messages; but also were gifted public speakers and charismatic leaders. The table discussions, where we were grouped with convention goers from other congregations, were well organized and productive. Interesting ideas on how our diverse parishes implemented the theme of Walking with Jesus were discussed. The resolutions passed on the church’s relationship to the Native people of Arizona are closely aligned with our Chile Garden and its work with Native agriculture. The other resolution on establishing a designated day for gifts to Camp Genesis also has a tie to Transfiguration as the funds from our book ministry are designated for scholarships to Camp Genesis.I was impressed with the exhibits because I found people and organizations there that share my social justice passions and with whom I will connect in the future.
The direction of he diocese as articulated by Bishop Reddall made me proud to be a part of the Episcopal Community. The themes for the next three conventions Caring for God’s Creation, Evangelism, and Systemic Racism should be exciting. I encourage those of you who have never been to a convention to consider running as a delegate in the future.
The convention theme, Walk in Love, was certainly evident throughout the event: from resolutions for acknowledging how Native Americans have been treated and for recognizing them with prayer to the wonderful enthusiasm shown for two missions as they achieved parish status. I was impressed by the diversity of the diocese including Navajo, Hispanic, and Sudanese, and many female clergy. During our round table discussions I heard of many diverse outreach programs from churches of all sizes. For resolutions and canon changes all comments and discussions were positive. I was pleased to see how harmonious this group was.
Our new bishop, Jennifer Reddall, is very enthusiastic in leading a meeting and keeping things moving along, and she is bi-lingual speaking both English and Spanish.
But, I was most impressed with the Eucharist on Saturday morning. In a ballroom full of hundreds of people and with two large screens so that we could follow the service it was very impressive. Canon Anita Braden delivered an entertaining and moving sermon. We had prayers and music in Navajo Dine, Sudanese, Spanish, and English. With recorded music and hundreds of voices it was a great way to start our day.
I was blessed with the opportunity to experience this event.
Two workshops were held: Canons, Resolutions & Budget and Candidates Forum. Since I didn’t have a lot of notice, I wanted more info on voting items. I’m glad I went because there was not much discussion on the floor at the time of approval.
Basically, the discussions of Canons and Resolutions mirrored the material in the Episcopalian. A change to Canon 3 redefined the composition of the Standing Committee to take Deacons off the Lay side and put them in the Clergy side. This would allow for more Lay representation. Article 5 changed the description “priestly” ministry to ‘regular” ministry to clarify the previous canon change regarding Deacons. Both changes would put our Diocese more in line with the national church as well as other dioceses. Resolutions covered: Acknowledging and Praying for the People of the Land (per Native American Program Group) with an appendix suggesting prayers to be added to the standard forms in the prayer book, Camp Genesis Sunday on the 3rd Sunday in September, and Creating a task force on Parental Leave to apply to Diocesan Employees.
The Budget discussion was more interesting in that there was a major change in the line item regarding the Bishop’s compensation. Since we are dealing with two bishops this year, this item now reflects compensation only for Bishop Reddall. Also, 2 positions were added for Border Ministry and Creation Care. There was no longer a need for transition expenses so this was cut. I don’t remember details of other items enough to comment. This budget is balanced. We were also told that as of the Convention that Diocesan revenue is ahead of last year’s budget. After this session I got carried away in the exhibit hall so didn’t make it to the Candidate Forum.
Friday Business Meeting including Keynote and small group discussions.
Our speaker was the Rev. Scott Gunn, executive director of the Forward Movement who gave an excellent speech which covered: stages of spiritual growth, catalysts for this growth, and creating a culture of discipleship. He has another claim to fame as co-founder of Lent Madness in the Spring on Facebook. Every year a collection of saints and other notables are put together from Holy Women, Holy Men, the more obscure the better. Two candidates are voted on every day, with the winner announced at the end of Lent. I’ve tried to play but tend to fall behind after a few days because I don’t always see the posts (got to fix my feed I guess).
Table discussions: All attendees including visitors were assigned to groups of 8-10 people per table, with everyone from a different parish. Each table had a moderator who presented us with a set of questions (most of whom I don’t’ remember). The person who started each question would then pick the next person to speak until everyone had a chance to answer. First we introduced ourselves by name, parish, role, and principal languages used. One member of my table was from St Mark’s, another was one of the Lost Boys of Sudan whose language was Dinka. Others were from all over the state, mostly the Tucson area. We were asked to categorize our parish by environment. I said that Transfig was an ex-urb parish, more urban than rural, but otherwise just a “bedroom” community. We were asked what our parish did to reach out to the general community. I mentioned “A million meals for our neighbors” as well as the Chile farm and suggested that the attendees visit Bill’s booth in the exhibit hall. I wasn’t the only delegate to promote the Chile Farm. Bill said he was inundated after the discussions were over.
Saturday Eucharist and business meeting
The Eucharist was excellent; I was very impressed by the “preacher” our Canon to the Ordinary, the Rev. Canon Anita Braden, whose style could only be described as interactive, a style I really haven’t experienced in my own church experience.
Afterwards, the business meeting was started, very standard, except that Bishop Reddall really kept it moving. For voting items, we were given colored cards to vote yea or nay, much more clear than just raising hands. There was not much discussion on the items which had been covered in the pre-convention workshops, also saving a lot of time. All the changes, the resolutions and the budget were passed speedily. For the elections, a number of candidates were nominated from the floor because of the Standing Committee changes. Nominations were also made to the next General Convention. We voted, finished the morning business and went out to the patio for a sack lunch. We covered a few more business items after lunch and received the election results. Just a few more items, then we were dismissed. The next convention will be held at a nice resort outside of Tucson. Don’t remember the name.
I think the only rough patch was when Bishop Reddall was trying to get our attention, and I say this with amusement, no disrespect intended. At one point, she even tried a loud wolf whistle. In this diocese, the standard “The Lord be with you” works the best.
In conclusion, it was a wonderful experience, given that the socializing was the highlight. I know that this is one reason I go. Very tiring tho.
Canon Ray Dugan
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. These words from today’s Epistle to the Hebrews were originally attributed to Saint Paul; however, recent scholars attribute them to an unknown author, probably in Rome, at around the turn of the first Century. This author was telling us that despite the troubles of our present time, which as in every age of human existence, always appear greater than anything we have seen in the past, will be set right by a loving God in due time. However, Jesus tells his disciples and we are his disciples in this troubled age, that we are not to be afraid, but to be prepared for what comes with our lamps lit and ready for action no matter the hour of the day.
We marveled to hear of the courage of the security guard in Dayton who having gathered hundreds in the bar whose door he was securing, locked the door and courageously stood off the shooter facing him defying him to enter the premises. His defiant action in defense of the frightened victims he had accepted to protect was a marvelous example of what Jesus asks us all to be prepared to do.
We have all been shocked at the acts of violence and killing that seems to be accelerating at a frightening pace. Whether the cause is a consequence of increased calls for opposition to thousands seeking asylum from violence in their homelands of Central American and Africa, or neglect of mental health treatment of those suffering from drug misuse and mental illness or the lack of a more equitable level of pay for low income workers, our elected officials need to hear from us in calls for action to make this a better word and find political solution to the issues of our age. Be Ready!
Another issue that has served to alienate many seniors in our society from younger generations is the rapid pace of change in our world. We are doing a poor job of keeping up with and adjusting to these changes. Seniors must learn to respond to younger impatient drivers going 20 or so miles over the speed limit in cars that offer quick response time with voice commands and new control aids that didn’t exist when we got our learner’s permits. Younger drivers must also be ready to respond to slow drivers in the high-speed lanes or careless left-turning seniors. Blessed are the drivers whom the highway patrol finds alert when they come upon them Be Ready!
When I am asked my race, I sometimes respond that I am a member of the human race. When I am asked what my church is, I sometimes reply that I am an ecumaniac. I define an ecumaniac as one who loves all denominations and religions better than their own. I still prefer being an Episcopalian as long as the Episcopal, Church continues to expand our faith, belief and definitions of the Creator Master of the Universe in such a fashion as to be one who loves all of his (or her) creations. You know the Bible includes definitions of God that go beyond describing God as a male. Why can’t we, the human race, learn to be more inclusive? I simply hope that when the owner of the universe comes for me to take me to my heavenly home I will be ready to acknowledge God as my heavenly parent and won’t be too surprised to meet those who have preceded me into the after-life we describe as heaven.
I was reminded last week of the rapid pace with which our modern society has had to adjust to changes in our knowledge of the universe. I viewed a program in the Nova series on Channel 8. I was reminded that just two or three centuries ago, scientists believed that the earth was the center of a two-dimensional universe around which the sun, moon and planets orbited covered by a canopy of stars fixed in a dome above us. Just within the past century we have learned that our galaxy is only one of thousands of galaxies expanding from a central core that erupted in a big bang 13.8 billion years ago. The knowledge of an expanding universe is a consequence of vastly improved telescopes and space travel which has expanded our knowledge of the moon, Mars, the rings of Saturn and even passing comets.
Cosmology has had to make radical changes in the way we have come to think about not just our earth and the planets but our place in the universe that we as Christians believe God created. Astrophysicists have had to make radical changes in the way they think of things. We, theologians with Bachelor of Science degrees like I have, have likewise had to make radical changes in the ways in which we think and teach our children about God. I believe I have accommodated my faith in God to those changes. My knowledge and faith in God have expanded along with the universe. I always thought of God as an awesome God to have created the world in which we live. Now, I am called on to believe in God as a universal God that created this vast universe in which he has dwelled for over 13 billion years and yet who responds to every sparrow’s fall on this insignificant speck of dust we call our home. Wow! Can we be ready to respond to our heavenly Father who created the vast universe 13.8 billion years ago when we are called to respond to our summons to join our Lord and our loved one who have preceded us into that galaxy far away we call heaven? I believe I am so ready and will be happy to be welcomed by friends and loved one who are already members of that heavenly kingdom.
Do I believe that heaven is only populated with Episcopalians? Or are there also former creatures of other planets orbiting other stars in our Milky Way galaxy who have been visited by our Lord? I can imagine that in this vast universe in which our planet earth is but a mere speck of dust there may well be other creatures who have evolved sufficiently within the past 13 billion years to have recognized and acknowledged the presence of God in their midst? We are told in our scriptures that God loves his creation and cares for every living creature. I can hardly wait to see God’s heavenly Kingdom!
When I am asked what I think about the acts of violence that are occurring in our world today I answer that we must respond with acts of love and compassion to those in a world that hurts for them. If someone hits me on my cheek I am told by our Lord that we are to turn the other cheek. We are to love God, who sent his only begotten Son in order that all who live in God’s creation are to respect it, learning to love it as our Lord does, and to love others as God loves us.
Returning to our Epistle to the Hebrews, we are told: “By faith we understand that the worlds are prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.” The author of Hebrews was, of course, not aware of the extent of “the worlds” that were prepared by the word of God. The extent of the visible universe in the 21st Century is clearly far more vast than he imagined. Are we prepared to recognize God’s presence in our world today and accept the commission that our Lord has given to us? Jesus is calling his disciples, that includes you and me, to be prepared to spread God’s love for his creation to a troubled world. We are to offer solace. Where there is confusion and blindness, we must provide clarity and vision. All the while we have available the tools at hand to repair a broken world. As St. Paul put it, we have faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. Love one another.
During the years 1976-1993 ABC carried the tv show Family Feud. This was a busy time in my life. I was the priest of a large parish in Davenport, Iowa and had little time to watch tv. But I did hear about the show and even watched a few episodes. The “Feud” pitted two families against each other to see who could name the most popular responses to a battery of survey questions that ABC had given to its tv audience. The goal of the game was to win cash prizes. There was nothing personal. However, when family feuds do get personal, people are often hurt, humbled and alienated.
I remember a disagreement I had with my grandpa, Pastor T.A. Holmes. Pastor Holmes did not like to be challenged by anyone much less a kid who was all of 10 years old. One day my father, Grandpa Holmes, my younger brother and I were riding together in a car in Houtzdale, Pennsylvania. A handsome Lincoln Continental passed us on the road. I made a comment about the Lincoln company that manufactured the car. Grandpa emphatically told me the Continental was not manufactured by Lincoln but by Ford. I disagreed. We drove past the Ford dealer and Grandpa commanded my father to “Stop!” He then proceeded to run into the show room and triumphantly returned saying, “It’s a Ford product, not a Lincoln product.” He was not going to lose an argument to his ten -year-old grandson. Yes, Grandpa was right. Lincoln was a division of Ford motors. But I was hurt by his triumphant attitude. That was over 66 years ago, and I’ve not forgotten.
Family feuds take center stage in all three of our lessons for this morning. Each has a different focus. I will look at each and share some examples of related family feuds that did not always end well. I’ll start with our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures from Genesis Chapter 45 when father and sons carry things too far but first an example from my life.
My dad was a very successful pastor with a parish of 1,500 parishioners. One day when my brother Paul and I along with our families were visiting him we engaged in a theological discussion. My brother and I are both ordained pastors, we got into a discussion with our dad centered on the issue of whether the Bible should be viewed as a metaphor or taken literally. My father believed the Bible to be factual including the story of Jonah being eaten by the whale. Paul and I disagreed. We began to vociferously advocate our positions. Our voices became more and more heated causing my mother to storm into the room saying, “Will you three please stop it. Quit this now and settle down!” I’m not sure where our discussion aka feud would have taken us. In truth the three of us were relishing our argument but to placate our mother we calmed down with no winner or loser.
Jacob, the father of all the tribes of Israel, so loved his youngest son Joseph that Joseph’s older siblings grew to hate him. Joseph was the kid with the coat of many colors if you remember. We all know the story. The elder brothers faked Joseph’s death and packed him off to Egypt as a slave. After years of ups and downs, Joseph became the most powerful man in Egypt after the Pharaoh himself. Drought and famine hit the world and Jacob sent his sons to Egypt to try and obtain food. The Egyptians under his leadership had stored food and their warehouses were full. When the brothers came to ask for food, Joseph recognized them immediately although they did not recognize him. Joseph could have taken vengeance on his brothers for what they had done to him. Joseph reveals himself and instead of anger he embraces all of his brothers. The wounds are healed. Joseph forgave his brother. Yes forgave.
Forgiveness is often the hardest thing to do when one is wronged. Joseph did not wait for his brothers to say “We are sorry.” Forgiveness, true forgiveness, does not expect another to grovel or even say, “I’m sorry.” Forgiveness has no caveats, no exceptions. Remember the words from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” And also these words from scripture, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Forgive and move on.
The second story of a Family Feud is in Paul’s fist letter to the Corinthians when he speaks about Adam and Eve. Recall the tension that took place between these two when God came and calls after they had eaten the forbidden fruit. The following story might illustrate the conundrum the Divine faced at that moment. Years ago I held a wedding for a young couple. During one of our pre-nuptial sessions the bride and groom told me that the bride’s mom disapproved of their marriage and would not be in attendance for their nuptials. The wedding was scheduled to start at 4:30. The bride was beautiful; the groom was nervous; the one hundred guests were seated. At 4:20, ten minutes before the bride was to walk down the aisle, the phone rang in the church office. I answered. It was the bride’s mother. She had changed her mind. She wanted to come to the wedding. I asked the bride and groom, “Do we wait?” We all agreed yes. The mother of the bride was 10 to 20 minutes away from the church. I went to my wife, the organist, and said, “Keep playing!” She would know when to start playing the Wedding Processional when the mother walked down the aisle. The wedding began at 4:45. Mercy and compassion had prevailed. So, back to the Garden of Eden. God could have struck both Adam and Eve dead and started over. But instead he saved them.
In many of our corporate prayers the congregation responds with “Have mercy upon us.” Oh, how we depend on that mercy as descendants of Adam and Eve. It’s why Jesus was sent to Earth 2,000 years ago to create a pathway to eternal life thru him. It is his compassion, his mercy that saves us. Nothing we can do to deserve it. It is a gift to all humankind.
Quickly, I’ll move on to the gospel lesson. In Luke Chapter 6 Jesus talks bout the power and efficacy of love. I had my seminary year of internship in Bridgeport, Connecticut back in 1966-67. One of the most active members of this congregation of over 1,000 renounced his daughter and cut all ties with her when she married an African-American man. The mother continued to stay in contact with the newly weds but he would have none of the biracial marriage. For two years the family feud continued but then the first grandchild was born. His own flesh and blood. His wife shared with him all the stuff the new Grandma could about the child. Soon this angry and distraught father/grandfather relented and went to see the new baby. Guess what? He picked up his biracial grand baby and fell in love with him. He could not resist this adorable child. Reconciliation occurred. He was present at the baptism. Love can conquer all. That’s why Jesus said, “Love your enemies. Bless those who persecute you. Do good to those who hate you. Do not judge. Do not condemn. The measure you give will be the measure you get back.” A family feud such as that one I described disintegrated though the power of love.
A song I learned decades ago and have passed on to 50 years of Sunday School children is called, Love, Love, Love. Many of you may know it. It goes like this.
Love, love, love, that’s what it’s all about.
‘Cause God loves us as we love each other.
Mother, Father, Sister, Brother
Everybody sing and shout
‘cause that’s what it’s all about.
It’s about love, love, love.
It’s about love, love, love.
Yes, it’s all about love and mercy and forgiveness too. Family feuds? They will arise but we need to meet them with mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. It’s remarkable what that combination can do.
Sermon by Rev. Mark Holmer
Our guest preacher, Laura Adelia, has a blog. Her sermon is available there. https://thewanderingpriest.blog/
From your faces, I can see that you folks are as happy to be here as I am. Aren’t we all so blessed to be part of God’s creation? We know God’s GOT us. God’s got our backs, and God does everything RIGHT. And along with that, we have each other. We could, and maybe SHOULD, be dancing in the aisles! We’d like to hug the Lord our God, but we’ll just settle for hugging one another. The Holy Spirit hangs out in Churches, as well as in all creation, but I’m pretty sure -
Transfiguration is on the “A” list.
Did you catch that Collect? We pray that, “With God as our ruler and guide, we may so live our lives that as we pass through this life, we will not lose our lives in the world to come.” Is that amazing, or what? Not only does God so ordain creation that we are intended for eternal life, God provides us with the help we need to get TO that life. With God, it’s win-win for us, for all creation, if we just say YES to God.
Think that’s what we’re doing when we say ”AMEN”
Then, when we’re beginning to realize what a wonderful deal, if you will, God’s got going for us, we hear the Hebrew Scripture from Second Kings. What a story! We got Elisha the prophet, successor to Elijah, prophet extraordinaire, along with Elisha’s servant, and the fella’s are hanging out in Gilgal, a place in Ephraim, where there is a famine, taking a little break from the rather chancy business of prophesy, when one of the faithful from Baal-shalishah comes along, as he ought to do, in accordance with God’s command, dragging “food from the first fruits to the man of God.” Now Elisha’s a proper shepherd of God’s flock, and he tells his servant to “set the food before the people, and let THEM eat.”
Naturally there’s a crowd hanging out, just in case something glorious falls out of Elisha’s mouth, which WE know will happen, because that’s what God recruits prophets for, and all that waiting and listening has made the folks hungry, and this God knows, and has already solved that problem. God’s GOT this. But the servant is all, “How can I set this before the people; what ARE you thinking, this is a severe deficit in the necessary amount of food.” So Elisha repeats himself, “Give it to the people and let Them eat.” Then Elisha provides the irrefutable rationale: “for thus says the LORD, ‘they shall eat and have some left.’” Oh, yeah! Elisha knows, God’s GOT this! God’s not only gonna do what God’s gonna do, GOD IS GOING TO DO WHAT GOD SAYS GOD IS GOING TO DO. Just like the Psalm says, “…You give them their food in due season. You open wide Your hand and satisfy the needs of EVERY living creature. The LORD IS indeed righteous and loving in all His ways.” We’re not arguing with that, but sometimes we lose sight of what that means, for us, AND for the rest of creation.
Fortunately, GOD never loses sight of anything!
And our old friend Paul is well aware of this. Most of Paul’s writing is engaged equally in PRAISING God, and helping the early Christians understand what it means to be followers of Christ. The obvious thing is that Paul never shifts his focus from God as manifest in Christ. It becomes clear to us that our faithful focus on Chris t, is a recipe for the best kind of human life. In today’s Epistle, Paul prays that God will “strengthen our ‘inner being, our souls, our spirits, with power from the Holy Spirit, that we may ‘comprehend the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.’ Now, as we know “comprehend” can mean ‘understand.’ And it can also mean “include,”or” encompass.”
We want it both ways! Paul prays that we may both understand and encompass Christ’s Love. Now THERE’S equipping for ministry! With Christ’s love for creation, and our faithfulness to Christ, Paul states that God will accomplish ‘far more than we can ask or imagine.’ And we WANT to be a part of this! Of course we do.
In today’s Epistle, the passage from Ephesians, Paul urges us not to wait until WE feel strong and competent, but to start praying and jump in, because God’s GOT this, and God is willing to use us, too. All RIGHT!
Then there’s that wonderful Gospel story, parallel to the passage in Second Kings. Jesus is dealing with Elisha’s situation. Here’s the large, hungry crowd, eager to hear what Jesus has to say to them. We are THERE, we want to hear Jesus, too. And Philip, Jesus’ follower, plays the part of Elisha’s servant – complete with the momentary lapse in recollection of God’s promises. So, Jesus says to Philip, ’Bro, how are we going to buy food to feed this crew??’ That’s Philip’s cue. ‘ Six month’s wages wouldn’t buy that much food.’ But God has GOT this. Andrew says, ‘ There’s a little boy with 5 barley loaves and two fish – but how’s that going to help?’ Andrew and Philip’re like all of us, a little slow on the uptake. ‘Make them sit down,’ says Jesus; Who then asks a blessing on the food. Now Jesus is NOT into wasting food, so, when everyone is full and content, the left-overs are gathered, and an extra twelve baskets are available. Seeing this, needless to say, everyone gets excited, decides that Jesus is clearly the longed-for Messiah, and their job is to make Our Lord king, an objective with which Jesus wants no part. So Jesus makes Himself scarce, and the disciples hop in the boat and head to Capernaum. Evidently, a monsoon arises; we imagine the Holy Spirit saying, “So, Jesus, Buddy, Your homies are getting a wee mite nervous out there on the lake, due to a brief lapse in their realization of WHO they’re dealing with; and shortly, the poor terrified disciples are delighted to see Jesus strolling across the Sea of Galilee toward them. Jesus says, ‘Chill, guys, it’s Me,’ at which point everyone finds themselves safe on the land toward which they had been rowing.
See, with God, there really IS a happy ending.
Don’t we just love Scripture!?! When we can lay aside our awareness of cultural, historical, and linguistic differences, and HEAR what the Lord our God is saying to the people of God, and know that all the differences we concern ourselves over are truly irrelevant to the blessing inherent in the message for the people of God, then we realize that these ancient people are US; and that Scripture is OUR history, OUR story of God’s love and care for us, and God’s involvement with us.
We can live our lives knowing, and depending upon, the realization that God’s GOT this!
THANKS BE TO GOD! Written by Susan Smith-Allen