All of us have lived through the ups and downs of life. We have lived with the joy of love and happiness and we have been struck with a sudden illness or accident that brings our life into a new perspective. We have been to the mountaintop and we have fallen into the depths of Death Valley. We have lived with dramatic changes moving from success to failure or vice versa.
We are not alone. Many famous people have tragically lost loved ones. Keanu Reeves's girlfriend, Jennifer Syme, gave birth to a stillborn daughter, Ava Archer Syme-Reeves, in 1999. Then Syme died in a car crash 18 months later. Joe Biden’s first wife and daughter were killed in an automobile accident while they were out Christmas shopping. Many years later, Joe Biden’s son, Beau, died from brain cancer. Neither fame nor success keeps anyone from suffering tragedies.
There are many stories of very successful people who suffered greatly. Albert Einstein didn't have the best childhood. He never spoke for the first three years of his life, and throughout elementary school, many of his teachers thought he was lazy and wouldn't make anything of himself. His childhood must have been unhappy. Vincent Van Gogh is considered one of the greatest artists of all time, yet he only sold one painting the entire time he was alive. Van Gogh was a prolific painter who created almost 900 oil paintings. But he suffered from mental illness and poverty. Stephen King’s first novel was rejected 30 times. Yet now, King's books have sold over 350 million copies and have been made into countless major motion pictures. The rich and the poor, the well known and the unknown have all experienced the ups and downs of life.
In today’s liturgy, we experience ups and downs in just one service. I often ask you in my sermons to mediate on a theme or to consider and contemplate a particular point from Scripture. Today, I ask you not to think or contemplate but rather to feel Scripture. I want you to allow the emotions both happy and sad to fill your heart. I hope that you will join with Jesus and his followers as they deal with great joy and tremendous sadness. In the end, I hope that your feelings will help you to better appreciate and accept the love that Jesus has for you. For Jesus understands all those highs and lows.
Our experience today is one of polar opposites. We began the day with the procession of Palms. We walked around the parking lot recreating and celebrating the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Then later, we felt the defeat as Jesus is condemned to death on the cross. The crowd shouted out “crucify him”. In these two texts, we find the summary of Holy Week. Let us walk this difficult week with Jesus.
It began with the joyous procession with palms. It was a time to celebrate our Lord, Jesus. The entry into Jerusalem was clearly meant to be a royal entry. Luke mentioned the colt that Jesus rode in the procession. It is hard for us to imagine anyone taking a colt that is tethered by the roadside without their being some confrontation. As someone reminded us this week, horse stealing caused many to lose their lives in the Old West. The ease with which the apostles borrowed the colt shows that Jesus was well known in Jerusalem. It indicates how important his ministry was for so many people. Luke made the point that Jesus came to Jerusalem as a king. Jesus himself said, “If the people did not cry out in jubilation then the creation itself would make noise”. In fact, this entry may have been a statement of resistance to the authorities. During the Passover, the numbers of people in Jerusalem swelled greatly. The Roman authorities would bring soldiers riding into the city to make sure that there were no uprisings. Jesus entered just like a royal might choose to enter the city, on horseback, with pomp and cheering from the crowds. Throwing their cloaks on the road, the crowds sent another signal that Jesus is our king.
For me, this celebration goes by too quickly. I want to be one of the people on the roadside, saying hosanna to our king. I wish that I could stay in the place and not have to go through the rest of the week. Ask yourself, “How would I have reacted to all of the things that happened that week”. We wish we could be certain that we would have stuck with Jesus for the entire ride. But none of us can be sure. We must remain humble and accept the uncertainty. All of us have had times when we were unfaithful to Jesus in our lives and we wish that we would not have been the ones later in the week to shout, “Crucify him!”
We leave the excitement of the procession and enter into the sadness of Holy Week. We begin with the sacredness of the Last Supper, just wishing that we could have been there. We feel the words of Jesus when he told his followers that the bread they eat is his body. The wine they drink is the blood of Jesus. We relive that experience each and every time that we enter into the Eucharist and share in the communion of Christ. In that communion we receive the gift of Jesus’ love given for all time. The feeling is sacred, being in God’s presence.
During the Last Supper, we listen to the debate that rose about which one of the apostles was the greatest. The argument reminds us that even though we bask in the love of Jesus, there are times when we misuse that love and cry out for the things that we want, especially recognition in front of all of our peers.
We hear Peter say that he will never deny Jesus but we already know that he will. We feel guilty for all of the times that we have denied Jesus most especially when we have not stood up for Jesus with people that we don’t know.
We join Jesus on the Mount of Olives as he prayed that God would take away this task. We feel the pain he experienced. We remember that we have turned to God in our own desperation asking for God to help us through our times of trouble. We feel the tiredness of the disciples and know how hard it can be to keep watch when things go wrong. We have had times when we too have been so worn out that we can no longer deal with all of our own trauma.
We watch from afar as Jesus is rejected by all of the people in power. We know that we have been laughed at or times when people have treated us poorly. The memories make us sad for the way that humans sometimes treat each other. We all have felt worthless.
And we see Jesus is crucified. We know what it is like to have no hope when a situation is so overwhelming that there is nothing we can do to change it. Perhaps we reflect on a time when we have lost a family member and our grief is overwhelming and we do not know where to turn.
We do all of this to connect to the things that happened when Jesus, the Son of God, came to earth. We recreate something that happened in the past, the reality of Jesus and his disciples going through the week that changed our lives. But it is not just about the past. It is also about the present. It is about the way that Jesus comes into our lives today, for I believe that he joins us on all of our individual emotional journeys. Jesus is with us in our suffering and sadness as well as in our joy. This week is also about the future. For Christians believe that Jesus died and rose again. He promised that he would go and make a place for us. We prepare ourselves for the future this week.
Exuberant joy, sacred gifts, in fighting among the followers, rejection, denial, desperate prayer and deep sorrow: So much real life in just one week. I invite you this day and this week to consider how Jesus changed your life, not just by using your mind, the words you say or the things you hear. Let’s feel the things that Jesus and his disciples did. And I invite you to open your hearts to the emotions of this week. Allow sorrow and joy to enter you. We know Jesus experienced much and had many feelings that week. I hope you accept that Jesus understands what you go through and accept that Jesus walks with you. I hope you are thankful for all that Jesus did for us and for his ever-present love. Amen.
We use the word dream to mean two different things. This past week, I awoke early in the morning and then I went back to sleep. In that last sleep, I had a dream which I have not forgotten. I dreamed that I was back in seminary and I had to take a test. But I was really struggling because I didn’t understand any of the questions and I certainly didn’t know any of the answers. I kept looking at the questions and had no idea what to write. According to Craig Hamilton-Parker, author of The Hidden Meaning of Dreams, taking an exam in your dreams might reveal an underlying fear of failure. I am not so sure. All I know is that I was glad when I finally woke up and realized it wasn’t a real life experience.
My dream was about something that happened in my sleep. But we also dream when we are awake. Sometimes we imagine what our future will be like and we hope that something special will happen. When it comes to those kinds of dreams we have been taught to never give up on our dreams or told that we should keep our dreams alive. What dream do you have for what God will do in your life? What is your dream for your relationship with God? As we come together, we thank God for what God has done and we ask God that our dream of everlasting life will be fulfilled.
I believe that our four Scriptural readings for today were carefully constructed. We realize that God provides a path of new life for us. Each story builds on the last one and brings us to a place where we understand that God blesses us on our path, that we should look forward to our future life in Christ, and that we should offer thanks to God for where God leads us.
Let’s begin with the reading from Isaiah. God provided a path out of Egypt for the Hebrew people. God sent them on dry land through the red Sea and kept the Egyptians from following them. As a desert people, we hear words of hope in this passage. “God will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert”. God gives us a new path.
The Psalm expresses that same sentiment. “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream”. God helped them to realize their dreams, to live into their hopes. The Psalm continues, “Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy”. God took the people out of their troubles and brought them to a new place of joy.
In Paul’s writing, we are encouraged to look forward not backward. Before Paul found Jesus, he thought he was on the right road and that he was a faithful follower of God. He carefully followed all of the rules. He wrote about pressing on toward the goal of reaching the resurrection from the dead. After he found Christ, Paul said of himself “I choose to forget what I have left behind and press on toward the goal because of the call of God that I find in Jesus Christ our Lord”. Paul realized that Jesus Christ was his savior and that Jesus was the one who brought him closer to God. It was only through faith in Jesus that he was able to attain a righteous life, not by following all of the rules he had been given.
God makes it possible for us to leave behind what we have been and to move toward our future. Paul credited Jesus with changing his life and giving him the strength to move forward on a new path. That is how I feel about the dream I had as I slept. I know that there is no need for me to look backwards. I passed all of my classes in seminary and I have my Masters of Divinity degree. I only have to look forward from here.
The message that God provides the path forward is brought to fruition in the gospel reading. In order to make full sense of it, we must take a step back. The story of Lazarus being raised from the dead is told in the eleventh chapter of John’s gospel, immediately before this latest story. You may remember that Martha and Mary sent a message to Jesus that Lazarus was ill. By the time Jesus finally arrived Lazarus was dead. Martha came out to meet Jesus. She told Jesus that if he had been there Lazarus would not have died. Jesus told Martha that Lazarus would rise again and Martha misunderstood thinking that Jesus was talking about his resurrection on the last day. We know that Jesus was referring to the miracle he was about to perform. And then, Martha returned to her home and sent Mary out to meet Jesus. Mary repeated the words of Martha saying that if Jesus had been there, Lazarus would not have died. That is when Jesus goes to the tomb and raises Lazarus from the dead.
Can you imagine what it must have been like for all of them? Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead and now they have returned to their house. Lazarus is there with them alive and well. Martha was so jubilant, so thankful that her brother was alive that she took the perfume and anointed Jesus.
Each of our scripture lessons speaks of God giving us a new way forward. Jesus demonstrated the gift of new life in raising Lazarus from the dead. Martha gave thanks for all that Jesus had done and proclaimed that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Let us put away our old ways and live into the new ways. Let us be joyful that God listens to our dreams.
This gospel made me think about the humanity of Jesus. For example, when Jesus came face to face with those who wept over the death of Lazarus, he too wept. When Martha anointed Jesus with perfume Judas complained and Jesus responded by saying, you will not always have me with you. Jesus knew that he was going to Jerusalem and that he would be killed. While he was committed to going through with God’s call, we know that Jesus felt great trepidation. He wished it were not so. I see Martha’s action as a way of blessing the human Jesus, letting Jesus know that despite what would happen people believed in him and I believe that the anointing of his feet offered Jesus strength for the journey that was to come.
Our journey this Lenten season has offered us Scriptures that remind us of the need to repent. We turn from evil ways and turn to God. Some have chosen a path of study, seeking to learn more about God and in so doing trying to bring themselves closer to God. Some have chosen abstinence as a way of bringing their mind and heart closer to God. Others have reached out to people trying to make their lives of others better. It is a fulfilling journey and it continues. Today, our Scripture points us toward the result of turning to God. I feel the coming of Easter in these passages. God gives us new life. Jesus leads us through the resurrection into God’s glory. While our trip never ends, we experience the strength of God’s blessing.
One of the steps on the Way of Love that we are considering this Lent is Bless. God does bless us. In return, we reach out and seek to bless others. Just as Martha offered a blessing to Jesus, we may ask how can we bless Jesus on this day in thanks for all that we have received. We do so by offering God’s blessing to other people.
I have always been touched by the washing of the feet liturgy on Maundy Thursday. I consider it a time for us to share our human vulnerability. We allow others to see our warts when we let them wash our feet. We show that we are vulnerable. When we wash the feet of others, we admit that we are not perfect, that we are flawed, that we are not able to go through life on our own and thus we wash the feet of others to show our weakness.
There are so many ways that our thanks to God can be reflected in the blessings we offer to others. Jesus gave us one way when he said the poor will always be with you. May you find a way to reach out and bless the life of someone this week. May you connect to the work of Martha and may you sense the new life that is given to you in Christ Jesus. Amen.
I distinctly remember a one day retreat I attended about the story of the Prodigal Son. It was led by my spiral director and he used a book that was written by Henri Nouwen. Nouwen based his book on a painting by the famous artist Rembrandt. In the painting, the prodigal son is seen kneeling in front of his father. His clothes are ragged, one shoe has fallen off his foot and the other is barely hanging on. The son is leaning his head onto the chest of his father, overwhelmed that his father has accepted him back. The father is standing over the son with his arms gently holding his son as if to say, “all is well, don’t worry”. During the retreat I felt God’s loving presence.
The Prodigal Son story is about temptation, repentance, and forgiveness. Those three themes have been in many of our readings this Lenten season. The younger son demanded his inheritance, left home and lived a life of sin. Only later, when he was down and out did he return home to ask for his father’s forgiveness. And the beauty of the story is that the father is overjoyed to have his son back. The father was so excited that he called for a celebration.
Jesus told the parable in response to the complaints of the Pharisees and the scribes. They did not think it appropriate for Jesus to eat with sinners. But Jesus told them through this parable that if God welcomes sinners back then we should welcome sinners as well. More importantly, God will welcome us back if we turn from our sinful ways and return to the Lord. We once again hear the message that we should turn back to God.
Asking for God’s forgiveness is a message found in our other readings as well. In the Psalm for today we hear, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord” followed by the knowledge that God will forgive. “Then God forgave me the guilt of my sin.”
The reading from second Corinthians mirrors the message. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” The New Testament emphasizes the reconciling work of Jesus, the one who brings us to God and who demonstrated through his suffering that God will do all to bring us home.
A part of our Lenten discipline is to reflect on our lives. The tale of the prodigal son should help us as we think about our relationship with God. We consider times that we have been like the younger son. Have we ever acted as if we deserved some special treatment from God, asking that God give us our due even though we have done nothing to earn it? Have we ever left God and sought to lead our life according to our own rules? Who among us has not squandered the love we have been given?
The parable suggests that we must realize our mistake, and return to our home, in the arms of a loving God. Haven’t we all felt the love of God whenever we have changed our ways? Haven’t we all felt the joy of knowing that God not only forgives us but is jubilant upon our return?
The story is beautiful. It brings us hope. We have heard the story many times and we know what it means. We like things to be simple, straightforward and easy. We like stories about the good guys and the bad guys. There is no confusion, the good guys wear the white hats. We like love stories where we know that the couple is going to get together from the very beginning.
But there are sometimes when we are surprised by a different story. I experienced that when I went to Hawaii in February. Hawaii is so beautiful. I always have appreciated lovely accommodations on broad sandy beaches. I remember being excited when Hawaii became a state in 1960. I was vaguely aware that native Hawaiians were not always happy about the use of the land for hotels and other commercial ventures but I didn’t think about that a lot. This time, I learned more as we visited the Iolani Palace in Honolulu.
The Hawaiian Islands were consolidated by King Kamehameha in 1795. Over the next nearly 100 years, life in the islands changed significantly with an influx of traders, missionaries and wealthy investors from Europe and the United States. Disagreements grew about how to rule the islands. In 1875, a small group of wealthy and influential people forced the king into signing a new constitution through the force of a militia. The new constitution favored landowners and those who could read and write. When the king’s sister ascended to the throne, she tried to wrest control back from this group. On Jan. 17, 1893, Hawaii’s monarchy was overthrown when a group of businessmen and sugar planters forced Queen Liliuokalani to abdicate using the power of 162 US Marines and Navy personnel. The queen was imprisoned in the Iolana Palace and no longer able to communicate with her people. Two years later, the monarchy was absolved and the islands became a territory of the United States. On our visit to Iolana Palace we saw the quilt made by the queen and a few of her helpers. The quilt describes the sadness of the queen and her followers. Some Hawaiians feel that these islands were taken illegally. My visit helped me to see a different side of the place we call paradise.
The parable of the prodigal son is so familiar. We all know what it means. But I ask you to think about the parable from two other points of view. Let us today look at the story as if we were the older brother. In the painting by Rembrandt, the older brother is shown as a ghostly imagine looking unhappy as the father embraced the younger son. The older brother resented the fact that his father had forgiven the younger brother. He felt as if his own loyalty had not been valued. Have we ever had a similar feeling as the older brother? Have we ever judged whether others can be forgiven by God? Have we ever felt that we were more deserving of God’s love than some other person? Have we refused to accept another person because they have sinned even though they have clearly asked God for forgiveness. Who among us has not felt the bitter sting of insecurity and fear at being left out? I think it may be more difficult to see our faults when we have lived a life of goodness. It can be difficult to see the times that we have excluded others from our love or from God’s love.
Another name for the gospel is The Parable of the Father’s Love. Some of us can relate to the father in the Prodigal Son story. We have tried to forgive someone who has hurt us. Perhaps we have forgiven one of our children only to have the experience that another child felt as if they had been mistreated. Maybe we have tried to love another person but our love has never been returned. Or perhaps we have experienced the joy when a long lost family member has come back into our lives and we just want to celebrate. If that has happened to you then you understand how pleased God is when we turn back to be in God's presence.
I can say that I have been the younger son, the older son and the father at different times in my life. I believe that Jesus reaches out to us whichever position we find ourselves in. He wants us to know that God is always with us. Sometimes our sins are so obvious that we feel guilty even as we are committing them. Other times our sins are much more subtle. And other times we seek to find love knowing that it is difficult. God is always there.
I would suggest that we use one of the steps found in Bishop Michael Curry’s Rule of Love. Through regular worship of God, we find stability, comfort and joy. Worship is our time to come together in community, It helps us to see Christ in one another and to love one another. During worship, we thank, praise and dwell with God. I especially like that part of dwelling with God. For I know that even if I have strayed a little bit, I can turn back and God will welcome me once again. Amen.
Everyone of us has had experience with promises. We have had times when promises made to us have been kept and times when the promise has not been kept. It is easy to make fun of the promises that are made by politicians. Bernard Baruch offered this suggestion “Vote for the man who promises least; he'll be the least disappointing.” I sometimes think that politicians really want to keep the promises that they make but the realities of office make it very difficult for them to keep some promises. Other times, I think they make promises just to get elected.
The impact of some broken promises can be significant. The Native American people share stories of broken promises that were made by the US government as settlers moved west. Red Cloud once said “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.” And Chief Joseph shared a similar view, “It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and the broken promises.”
I think about how determined we must be to keep some promises. Robert Frost wrote about this in a poem, “the woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep”. For me, that’s a verse about how dedicated we must be to our promises. It is also a reminder of how easily we can be led stray from keeping a promise. We are lured in by the beauty of nature or by any other temptation. I found many quotes about broken promises when I looked online and none about promises kept. Perhaps the broken promises are the ones we remember the best.
But we can trust in the promises made by God. Isaac Watts offered this perspective, “I believe the promises of God enough to venture an eternity on them.” God’s promises are mentioned often in Scripture. In Genesis 28:15 God said to Isaac, “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” God lived up to that promise and God kept all of the promises. I ask you to consider this verse from 1 John (2:25), “And this is what he has promised us, eternal life.” It is through the work of Jesus that we have the opportunity for eternal life. It is a promise that Jesus made to his disciples and one that carries over to us. I go to prepare a place for you he said. We anxiously await the time when we will receive the gift of that promise.
Today’s reading from Genesis is a good example of the promise of God. In this short passage, God promised that Abram will receive two gifts. One was the promise that he will have a child and the other is that he will receive land for himself and his descendants. The dialogue in the midst of these two promises from God is interesting. In each case, Abram counters the promise with a concern, a question or some doubt. After God told Abram that his reward would be great, Abram skeptically responds, but God, I don’t have any children. It is as if he doesn’t really believe that God will do what God said. Where was his faith? God reassured Abram by telling his that his descendants would outnumber the stars. The same sequence of promise, concern or objection and reassurance happened again. God said, I will give you this land to possess. But Abram is once more uncertain. He questioned God saying, ““O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” And God reassures him again using the sign of a covenant as found in the sacrifice of animals.
From our perspective, it seems that God has given everything to Abram. And yet Abram was uncertain. We know that God kept the promises because we know the rest of the story. Sarah bore Abram’s child Isaac and Abram lived on the land that we now call Israel. And many of us relate to Abram’s doubts.
We refer to our relationship with God as a covenant. We enter into an agreement with God. Each party makes a promise. Sadly, we are the ones who often fail to live up to our commitment to God. For some of us there is a certainty about God’s presence in our lives. They live in the first portion of Psalm 27, “The Lord is my light and my salvation” or “the Lord is the strength of my life”. For you, there is no question about what God has given you. But there are others who struggle with uncertainty. You reach out to God constantly. You believe that God is with you always. But you have questions. Maybe it is the condition of the world we live in where it seems that there is evil all around us and that bad people get ahead. Or perhaps you question how it is possible for a God who loves us so much and promises that God will take care of us, still lets bad things happen. You live in the second part of Psalm 27, “Hide not your face from me, nor turn away your servant in displeasure. You have been my helper; cast me not away.”
And for some, you live in both of these worlds. There are times for you when you are confident and times when you question. The first time I read Psalm 27, I thought to myself, how strange. It isn’t consistent throughout. But then, I realized that so many of us are just like that. One minute we live in the knowledge that God is with us, that God cares for us. In the next moment we wonder where God is, we wonder whether God will be there in time of need. Many of us are just like Abram, we need God to reassure us.
If you have questions or doubts, I believe that you can find comfort in this gospel. You may not hear that in the first reading of the gospel. After all, what we hear is Jesus berating Herod. What we learn is that Jesus is lamenting the lack of faith in the people of Jerusalem. I encourage you to listen instead to the determination that Jesus demonstrated. Jesus knew that he was going to Jerusalem to be killed, to be hung on the cross. But he was determined to go. Jesus demonstrated the fulfilling of God’s promise. Jesus came to earth as our God and our Savior. He came to show us that we can always count on God. Jesus chose the difficult way, the way of the cross, to lift all of us up. Jesus chose the way of pain and suffering to show us that God is with us and to lead us to salvation. He came to show us that he can defeat death through his resurrection.
We are only part way through Lent. It is a time to reflect on our temptations, a time to turn from sin and turn to God. It may even be a time to deal with our doubts. I would suggest that Lent is also a time to feel God’s consistency. God always lives into the promise that we have been given. God will love and care for us and if we are willing, lift us up to eternal life.
The second step of the way of love is prayer. Let us pray that God will help us to deal with our temptations. Let us pray that Jesus will help us in our times of doubt. Let us pray that Jesus will help us to follow his way. That means help us to be determined, that nothing will keep us from loving God. It means we know God’s presence in our lives and feel it as well. The third step of the way of love is to learn. We listen to Scripture and learn about God’s never-failing love for us.
Many years ago Dionne Warwick sang about promises. It is about a person who trusted in the promises of another human. It begins with the words, “Promises, promises. I'm all through with promises.” Later, she sang, “Oh, promises, their kind of promises, can just destroy a life. Oh, promises, those kind of promises, take all the joy from life”
We can be hurt by the promises that people make but don’t keep. The good news is that God always keeps the promise, God aways gives us joy. May you live in the knowledge of God’s love and may you commit yourself once more to live in covenant with God. May this Lent be a time when you are determined to always live in that promise. Amen.
I love my snacks. I like just about anything that has salt in it. I like crackers and pretzels and salted popcorn and nuts. I like to go to the pantry and look for my snacks and I do that often during the day. Jan and I laugh about our differences. Jan doesn’t care for all the salt. She prefers the sweet things especially desserts. For me the snacks are one of my guilty pleasures. Or you might say one of my weaknesses. I am easily tempted by any snack near by. The best way for me to avoid snacks is to keep them out of the house. I am trying to change my ways by not eating between meals during Lent
In today’s gospel we read about the temptation of Jesus. Three times the devil asked Jesus to sin and three times Jesus refused. We begin Lent with this reading because Lent is a time when we focus on our sinful nature. We confront our sins. We ask God to forgive us and we commit to living a Godly life. We use the example of Jesus to encourage us. We borrow from a famous saying, “Just say no to sin”.
As I reflected on various temptations this week, I thought about how we often fall victim to the need for recognition. We want to be treated in a special way for what we do and who we are. When our desire for recognition is too strong it is called the sin of vanity. Vanity is defined as excessive pride in or admiration of one's own appearance or achievements. There is a verse in Ecclesiastes that warns us of the sin of vanity, Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher;* all is vanity.” (“Ecclesiastes 12.8) It means that we chase after vanity but it has no value. We get nothing when we do get recognized.
It was just yesterday when I found myself feeling as if I wasn’t appreciated. In the midst of the glorious consecration of our new bishop, I started to fuss. I was standing with two former priests of this parish, Canon Ray Dugan and Canon Harry Way. We were having a nice chat when someone I didn’t know walked up and asked, “Is this the old man’s group?” Now I realize that I qualify as one of the old men but I would prefer that when I meet someone new they try to learn something about me before they put some label on me. I wish that I might have been labeled as a priest, for example. Have you ever been upset when people you know don’t remember your name? Did you think how can they forget me when I have done so much for them? Or have you ever been jealous of the recognition other people get? Have you ever thought what about me? Our desire for recognition can be caused by our own vulnerability, our feelings of not being good enough. Vulnerability makes us susceptible to sin. By the way, I feel very loved and accepted by the people of this congregation and feel quite comfortable with the things we have done together. So please don’t think that because I talked about this issue that I want anyone to come up and speak to me about my time here at this church.
I have spoken about just one example of things that can make it easier for us to fall into sin. I encourage you to reflect on sins that you might be susceptible to during Lent this year. When I go a little deeper into the gospel, I find myself thinking about vulnerability. Jesus had been in the desert for forty days. During that time, he hadn’t eaten. The Bible says he was famished. Jesus was vulnerable to the enticements of the devil. I think Jesus would have been especially vulnerable to the devil’s offer of food. Despite his physical weakness from not eating Jesus remained strong, he did not give in to the devil. Jesus is a good example for us.
What causes you to be vulnerable to sin and the ploys of the devil? We are all different in this respect. The apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.” (2 Cor 12:7-11) What is your thorn in the flesh?
Paul also gave us two keys for fighting temptation. The first is to not present yourself to temptation. Stay away from situations that can get you in trouble. It is like our advice to young people. Choose carefully the people that you associate with for they might determine what you will do and lead you down the wrong path. And the second is to present yourselves to God. Being in the presence of God makes temptation less likely. The times when we are vulnerable can lead us into sin. But the truth is, we must be vulnerable in order to have healthy relationships with others and to be healthy in our own lives.
I learned that last part on a TED talk this week on vulnerability. A researcher named Brene Brown was convinced that the only answers came from facts. Over several years of research and contrary to her nature, she learned this, “I know that vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness but it appears it is also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging and of love.” We don’t wish to be vulnerable because it opens us up to being hurt. Brene Brown learned that we cannot selectively numb emotions. If you numb fear and shame and vulnerability then you numb joy and gratitude and happiness.
I believe the answer is right in front of us. When we have trouble with our vulnerability, let us turn to God. Let us turn to Jesus, the one who was human just like you and I. He made himself vulnerable. He was hurt and he felt joy. Let us ask Jesus to help us deal with temptation and help us find joy. Let us turn to Jesus for love and to learn how to love.
This Lent, I invite you to join with me in following a way of life called the way of love. Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, speaks about God’s love for us and our need to love God and each other. Based on several sermons, Bishop Curry created a program called “The Way of Love.” It is something like a Rule of Life, a set of things we commit to do all the time. The Way of Love as described by Bishop Curry has seven components. The seven categories are Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, and Rest
Each week in Lent, I plan to include some thought about the Way of Love. In the Way of Love the first category is turn, pause, listen and choose to follow Jesus.
In John’s gospel, we hear this,
“Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
In John’s gospel, Jesus said to his apostles at the Last Supper, John 13.34:
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” And then Jesus showed us his love for us in his willingness to be crucified.
Dietrich Bonhoffer suggested that we cannot be successful if we try to create a new law of love. Love doesn’t work that way. We can only love each other if we throw ourselves into the arms of God.
This Lent, let us pause and choose Jesus.
When we are ashamed and fearful, let us turn to Jesus.
In our vulnerability let us turn to Jesus
In our joy, let us turn to Jesus.
Listen to how Jesus leads us to love.
“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” (“John 15.10)
What better way for us to begin Lent than to search our hearts and admit to those times when we have failed Jesus. We promise to follow the way of Jesus. As we do so, we follow the way of love. May this Lenten season be a fruitful time for you. Amen.
How often have you seen people try to hide their face from others? Last night I saw a motorcycle rider with a bandana over his face. It reminded me of cowboy shows from my youth. I wish it had been a helmet. Or how about someone who goes to a mascaraed party wearing a mask over their eyes. I think of characters like Batman and Robin or Spiderman who wear masks to keep their identity a secret. Bankrobbers often wear a disguise of some sort even wearing panty hose. People get dressed up in costumes to project an image of a famous person or a cartoon character. How many of you got dressed up for Halloween?
In today’s reading from Exodus, Moses came down from the mountain and his face shown because he had been in God’s presence. I was drawn to the discussion of the veil that Moses wore in the presence of the Israelites. The people were afraid of Moses because his face glowed. When you read the passage of Moses visiting the burning bush, you are reminded that people were afraid if the looked directly upon God that they would die. It seems that the Israelites were so afraid of seeing God that they could not look upon the face of Moses. Moses, for his part, was willing to cover his face to help lessen the fear. Isn’t it interesting that the veil did not change the word of God that Moses shared with them. It only changed his appearance. What were they really afraid of?
In Paul’s letter, he referred to the veil that Moses wore. He contrasted that veil with the Transfiguration of Jesus who was not veiled. The truth of Jesus. the power of Jesus, the love of Jesus is not veiled. It is available to all of us. We live in hope that we will be changed by allowing Jesus into our lives. Paul encouraged us to be bold, to seek Jesus in all that we do. Paul wanted us to look for Jesus with unveiled faces, “seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror”. Paul believed that when we saw Jesus we would be changed. It would be as if when we looked in a mirror, we would see Jesus. Other people would see Jesus in us.
I have been thinking about masks and veils and facial coverings both real and imaginary. I think all of us have been guilty at one time or another of hiding our feelings. How often have you felt sick and when someone asks “How are you today?”, your answer is “I am fine”. What is it we are afraid of? Do we just not want to talk about how we feel? Are we worried that we will look weak if we tell someone we are not feeling well? Do we just not want to take the time to explain why we have problems?
Would you reflect on times when you may have hidden a part of you from another person? Most especially, I ask you to think about when you have hidden your faith from others or possibly when you tried to hide from God. It is a common experience.
In Luke’s gospel we hear the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. His clothes were turned a dazzling white. God said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” The Transfiguration of Jesus and the change that came over Moses in the presence of God are invitations to us. It is an invitation to come into God’s presence. We are invited to be changed by the presence of Jesus in our life. What keeps you from entering into the presence of God today? Do you have a mask over your face concealing something that you are afraid to show to God? If so, I ask you to pray that God will help you to remove that mask. Let us all come today into the presence of God. May each of us be changed by Jesus, be transformed, be transfigured by his presence.
Many people have experienced the presence of God. Thomas Aquinas believed that the presence of God has more of an impact than all of his writings combined. He said that the presence of God, “made all of his writing like straw.” A Presbyterian minister and writer named Frederick Buechner suggested that more of us have experienced God’s presence than we realize. He wrote, “Most people have also seen such things. Through some moment of beauty or pain, some sudden turning of their lives, they have caught glimmers .. . But, unlike the saints, they tend to go on through life as if nothing has happened.”
The older I get, the less likely I am to believe in coincidence. Last week, while I was on vacation, I received a call from a gentlemen who wished to have an Episcopal priest officiate at the wedding of his daughter in Gold Canyon. Interestingly enough, he was calling me from Hawaii. And there I was in Hawaii. We just happened to be on the same island and we met and chatted about all of life’s experiences that we shared. I don’t think it was a coincidence. I think it was an experience when God brought two people together who did not know of each other before that day. In a similar way, God’s presence is not a coincidence, it is real.
God is with us always. But sometimes, we are able to experience God in a special way, in a way that changes us. I believe that if we allow God to enter into our lives when those special things happen that we will have a glow about us. The face of Moses may have shown so bright that people were afraid. I think if we allow God to enter into our hearts, then our faces will shine as well, perhaps not as brightly as the face of Moses. But I do believe that people can see the presence of God in us if we let them. I hope that you have that experience someday and share it with others.
This is our special day, when the gospel is about our name. Our mission is to live into our name. That is, we wish to be changed by the presence of God. I like to say that we wish to be transformed by Jesus. And I wish that our transformations would be as visible as that of Moses or Jesus.
Today, we celebrate the baptisms of Tansy and Ian. We are so thankful for their presence in our lives. It is the smile and the happiness of these two children that light up the room. Today, we ask God to come and bless these children, to enter into their lives, to lift them up as God’s children and to begin that transformation that we all seek. And we reach out to them and remember our own baptism, the gift we were given and the life in Jesus Christ that we wish to fulfill.
In Luke’s version of the Transfiguration of Jesus, we learn that Moses and Elijah joined with Jesus “They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” That word departure could also be translated as Exodus. Just as Moses led the people of Israel on their Exodus from Egypt to the promised land, so too we are led by Jesus into our own Exodus, our way of following God through Jesus. I love the message that Jesus would accomplish so much in Jerusalem. Not that Jesus would suffer. No, what he would accomplish. It is because of the crucifixion of Jesus that we are able to experience his resurrection. It was a step on the way to a glorious event.
In today’s collect, we pray that we may be strengthened to bear our cross. So often we think of our cross as something we must suffer with, our burden to bear. But if we are able to live with Jesus, we know that our lives can be joyful and exciting and as if we have reached the mountaintop. For being in the presence of God gives us comfort and strength and courage. It makes us hope and we shine with the glory of God. Bearing the cross can be joyful as well as difficult
We are so fortunate that we attend the church of the Transfiguration. For we are constantly reminded that we are here to experience the beauty and glory of God. We are here to feel God’s love and mercy. We are here to be changed into God’s glory. Alleluia. Amen.
Can you picture in your mind a statue of an angel. The angel is sitting down with its wings spread out behind. The angel has its left elbow on its left knee and is holding its hand over its eyes as if the angel is thinking or possibly exasperated. Here is the caption, “I have a feeling that my guardian angel often looks like this”. Have you ever wondered what your guardian angel is going to do with such a sinner? Whoever wrote the caption must have been ashamed of something or maybe had feelings of being worthless. All of those feelings come when we don’t think we are good enough or smart enough or caring enough or whatever.
Robin Williams once said, “All it takes is a beautiful fake smile to hide an injured soul and they will never notice how broken you really are.” We know that Robin Williams suffered from depression. His feelings of sadness or perhaps uselessness were so overwhelming that he could not cope with it.
In today’s lessons, three famous Scriptural figures describe their individual encounters with God. They are overcome with their faults and their sense of unworthiness. I ask you to think about how you feel when you are in God’s presence. As you do so, let us hear how God responded to each of them and consider how God responds to you.
Isaiah described an encounter with God. “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne”. In response to being in God’s presence, Isaiah was penitent. The glory of God brought to mind his sinfulness. He was convinced that he could not do God’s will. Isaiah wrote that he was a man of unclean lips. Woe is me. Isaiah expected that God would punish him forever because of his sin. Isaiah thought that he was worthless in God’s eyes. But God had other plans. God offered forgiveness to Isaiah in the form of live coals, something I hope I don’t have to endure. Then, God proclaimed that Isaiah would be a prophet and called him to do God’s work.
Paul also described the feeling of being unworthy. He wrote that he was unfit to proclaim the gospel because he had persecuted the followers of Jesus. Paul was present when some followers were killed. This is another case of God’s forgiveness and call to action. Paul described being visited personally by Jesus Christ. We often think of Paul’s conversion as a strike of lightning. Did Jesus come to Paul in bodily form or did Jesus appear as a bright light? We do not know the specifics but Paul indicates that Jesus was present with him. That is what caused Paul to accept Jesus as his God. Paul articulated the basis of our faith. Paul had turned from worthless to one of the most important voices of Christianity.
In the gospel for today, Jesus goes out on a boat with the fishermen. Jesus tells them to go out and catch some fish. Peter knew that the fish are on the surface in the nighttime and wondered how this carpenter could know that fish were nearby. Surprisingly, they bring in a load of fish so big that their nets were breaking. Peter realized that Jesus was the holy one and he said, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Peter must have felt that he was not worthy of being in the Lord’s presence because of his sins. Jesus never responded to the concerns of Peter about his sinful nature. Instead, Jesus told Peter that instead of catching fish he would be catching people. Jesus took a flawed person and created something special, the leader of the church.
So, we have three important men of Scripture who state publicly that they are sinners and they are not worthy of God’s love. It is certainly encouragement for the rest of us. We can see ourselves in the stories of Isaiah and Paul and Peter. And what is the response that God gave in each case? Acceptance, forgiveness and a call to use some of the gifts that had been given to them.
Have you ever said that you are not worthy of all that God has given to you? It is true that God has given us so much that we haven’t earned, so much that has been given to us. In the Rite I service at 8:00 we say the words, “I am not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table”. While it speaks specifically of worthiness, perhaps it is a sense of humility, making sure that our place is below that of God.
Have any of you reached the point were you feel useless, that you are worthless to God? I hope not for that is quite contrary to the basic tenets of Christianity. Our belief is that we are made in God’s image and that God loves us. Rather than say that we are worthless, I would encourage you to say that we are not worthy. It suggests that we are good but not good enough. We work but we haven’t worked enough to receive all that God gives us.
I am sure that you know of someone who fits the description of Peter. I am thinking of my friend Rose Anne. Rose Anne was a successful nurse and later went out and helped medical facilities to meet their required standards. She was a quiet but effective person. I know that she would say that she was not worthy. And yet, God chose Rose Anne to go to seminary. She is now a priest in northern Ohio.
The experience of being in God’s presence should give us peace and forgiveness and joy. Being in the presence of God should not give us a sense of shame. Why then did Isaiah and Paul and Peter respond to the presence of God in their lives by suggesting that they were not worthy? The only conclusion I reached is that their sense of humility overwhelmed them. They realized that they were less than God and they were thankful because God cared for them in spite of their limitations.
Here is a passage I read this week, “The Experience of God let them understand that they are far, far less than God. This is not bad, it is good. Our own elegance (our prideful self) cannot make us holy but God can. We can be proud to be unworthy if reception of God’s love is the result”.
We can say, Lord, you are the one who always shows us mercy. We do so with confidence. If we ever feel shame in the presence of God, we know that God does not say in return, “I reject you,” but “I love you dearly. Come be with me, you fine human being.”
When you come into the presence of God, it is appropriate to humble yourself. We remember that we are failed human beings who do not deserve what we have been given. We even offer our words of contrition in the service. We ask for God’s forgiveness.
Do not forget today’s Scripture. Don’t forget that God forgives and chooses each of us to do something special. Don’t forget that God will give you the gifts you need.
This is a day to feel the peace of God, it is a day to bask in the joy of God’s love. We pray fervently that God will forgive our sins. But we also live in the certainty that God not only forgives but also endows us with gifts to share with others. It is a day to remember these words from an unknown author, “Imagine someone who loves you so much, they make you love yourself.”
There is a modern day Christian piece of music called, “Here I am, Lord”. The words are taken from the passage we read in Isaiah today. The song suggests that we also are called by God and that our response, like Isaiah’s should be, “Here I am, send me”. Our response to God’s call is not possible until we first hear the words of forgiveness that God gives to all of us. It is not possible until we feel that love of God and know that he will be with us as we proclaim God’s word.
I hope that you are inspired by the word of God today, that you will experience God’s presence in your life, that you will know God’s never failing love, that you are certain of God’s acceptance and forgiveness. May the presence of God give you the strength to respond, Here I am Lord, send me. Amen.
On November 19, 1863, a crowd gathered in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to dedicate a battlefield cemetery to the men who had died in battle several months before. Edward Everett, a well know and well liked orator, spoke for two hours at the memorial. I am sure that what he said was meaningful. Few of us remember Mister Everett. What we do remember is the two=minute speech that was given by Abraham Lincoln. His words are inscribed on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC and known by heart by many people in this congregation. Lincoln spoke about how the sacrifice of so many soldiers impacted the equality, freedom, and national unity of the United States.
I thought of the comparison between Lincoln and Everett’s speeches in Gettysburg as I read two passages from Scripture. It was around 440 BC when the community gathered to celebrate the completion of the rebuilding of Jerusalem, especially the just completed walls of the city. Ezra stood up and read the law of Moses from a portion of the Bible. Ezra and others spoke for hours to the people of Israel. At that celebration, they all rededicated themselves to follow the Jewish laws. The way this story is presented suggests that Scripture was being opened up to all people, no longer held tightly by the priests. As with Edward Everett’s speech at Gettysburg, we have no record of what was said. We only know that the people were moved by the words of Scripture.
In comparison, we hear the words Jesus read from the Bible several hundred years later. He offered just a few short verses to a small group of people gathered in a synagogue in Nazareth. But those words still have meaning to us today. He proclaimed that he came to care for the poor and the oppressed, for the blind and the captives. Jesus is there for everyone.
Both Ezra and Jesus asked everyone to turn to the Bible for direction. When we hear these passages, we turn our hearts to Scripture to find the uplifting message from God. How might we keep Scripture alive in our church today? We also hear the words that Jesus is God’s chosen one, our Lord and Savior, the one we are to follow.
As followers of Jesus Christ, we find advice and comfort in the letter to the Corinthians today. It is a well known passage and one that can get us back on the right track when we stray. I hear several messages.
First, we are one in the body of Christ. Being one doesn’t mean we are all the same, that we think alike or that we have the same gifts. Being one means that we all believe in Jesus and that we seek to follow his words despite our differences and our faults. But the reading tells us that we need all of the gifts to follow Jesus. We must use all of the gifts found in our church community to make our lives full of the Spirit of God and to share that Spirit with everyone we meet. From last week, we know that some have the gift of knowledge or wisdom or discernment or healing or interpretation. Let us use all of those and other gifts to keep us alive in Jesus Christ.
Part of using everyone’s gifts is to remember that no one is an outsider to our community. We welcome the wisest person in our midst, the wealthiest, the most beautiful and the most physically fit. We also welcome the poorest, the sickest, the physical, emotional or mentally challenged. We welcome those who sing well and those who sing off key. We welcome Republicans and Democrats and Independents. We welcome those who are uncertain in their faith and those who have assurance that they know how God works in their life.
We believe that Jesus Christ is the head of the church, the head of Christianity. I think that is true. But if we consider the analogy found in today’s lesson, I think we must be careful to assume that Jesus is always the brains of the operation. I like to think that sometime Jesus acts as the eyes and ears helping us to see or hear what we might otherwise miss. Sometimes Jesus is the heart and soul that helps us to feel what is most important in our lives, to experience the other.
I know that some of you are unable or will choose not to join us for the annual meeting. That is why I want to share some of my perspectives about our life together in this community, how we live as the Body of Christ in this place.
Our most important activity is the time we come together and worship God. We support each other when we come together, helping everyone to live in the Lord. We praise God, we ask for God’s forgiveness and we share in the communion with Jesus. It is a special time.
I find this congregation to be welcoming and caring for each other. I think that the Holy Spirit can be felt in this place. Visitors sometimes tell me they appreciate the welcome they have received. But we must remember that every situation is different and each new person deserves our welcome. And we should also be watchful that when we welcome other people to our church we encourage them to participate in any way that makes them feel comfortable. I also wish that we seek to avoid forming cliques that cause separation rather than inclusion.
There are many indications that this is a healthy congregation of followers of Jesus. I am most thankful that so many volunteers have stepped up to offer activities for the church. Most recently, we have a group that has started the Lord’s Kitchen, making soup for those who need it. Many others are active, offering programs like a book club, and a walking group. Our Harvest Festival took place for the third year in a row and so many volunteered to help. We held seminars in caring for the elderly, avoiding substance abuse and a new opportunity called Spirituality for the second half of life.
There are other positive signs for this congregation. The number of people attending our Sunday services has increased. The number of people that we consider to be part of this congregation has grown as well. We miss those who have left our congregation whether it be because of a move, or a sickness or for any other reason. During the 2018 year, we completed the move of the offices to the Parish house. Several improvements to the house have been completed as a part of the move including lighting enhancements. I am pleased that we have chosen one of the rooms to be a chapel. There have also been improvements made to the kitchen in the Parish Hall including new countertops and a new freezer. A group of volunteers has begun to change one of the former offices into a nursery.
It is always difficult to speak about money but we have good news in that space as well. If you look at our financial reports, you would see that our income exceeded our expense by about $1,000. It was not a lot but good to see. In other good financial news, our budget for 2019 indicates that our income will barely exceed our expenses in 2019 as well. Thanks for your generosity.
So many have given their time and money in the past to support this church. In 2012, this church created an Improvement fund that has helped us to maintain our church buildings and grounds. Last year, I suggested that we start an effort to build up this fund once again. There are several projects that could use our support. Perhaps you have some project ideas that would improve our church life. In the near future, you will be asked for your own wish list and we will ask for your help as we move forward.
Numbers are not the most important way to measure our communal progress. What I most appreciate is that we come together and share hospitality with each other. I have often heard from others about what delicious meals we serve here and I am thankful.
We are called by Jesus and we were called by Paul to care for one another. I am so thankful for the outreach activities that this church is involved in. We help to feed the hungry, to care for those who have been abused, we help children in this community and in the world. Once again, we gave money to the children of El Hogar, a school in Honduras. Our Chili garden team has started a new ministry to grow seeds for Native American communities to reintroduce native plants in their communities.
Today, I am thankful for everyone of the people in this church who make it a special place. It is always risky to identify people by name. However, I wish to thank Linda Ostmeyer, our office manager, and Gary Quamme, our organist. I wish to thank our senior warden, Miriam Waddington, and our junior warden, Pat Mack, for their wonderful work. Thanks to all of our vestry members and most especially thanks to my wife for her love and support.
As members of the Body of Christ, let us keep Jesus as the center of our life, as the center of our worship and his teaching as the guide to our actions. Let us share God’s love with everyone in this church, to those in this community and to all of the world. Amen.
After she woke up, a woman told her husband, "I just dreamed that you gave me a pearl necklace for our anniversary. What do you think it means?” "You'll know tonight," he said. That evening, the man came home with a small package and gave it to his wife. Delighted, she opened it to find a book entitled "The Meaning of Dreams.”
Now here’s a joke for the ladies. What do you call a man with half a brain? Gifted.
As you can tell our theme today is about gifts. A gift is something one person gives to another, a picture, some flowers or a bottle of wine. Gifts usually have great meaning to the person who receives it, even if it doesn’t have great value. The thought is what counts we say. In my lifetime, it seems that women are better at remembering and giving gifts. On Wednesday, a group of women met for lunch at the church. The women had agreed to be secret sisters to each other. An unknown person would send a note or a card to one of the other ladies just to let that person know she was being thought of and prayed for. On Wednesday the ladies revealed who their secret sister was. And as you might have expected many of the women gave a gift to their secret sister. I was fortunate to be invited for the luncheon. As I mentioned already, the offering of a gift has great meaning to the one who receives it and on Wednesday there were several examples of that.
A gift sometimes can also refer to a unique ability or talent. You have a gift for music. Or, you have the gift of discernment. When we speak of a talent as a gift, we mean that God has given that person an ability and that is why we call it a gift. Today’s lessons offer us examples of gifts of many kinds. It is a good day to be thankful for the gifts we have been given by friends, the gifts we have been given by God and to consider how we might share our gifts with others. Let’s first listen to some gifts that are given by God. In Isaiah, we hear that God will call us by name, actually we will be given a new name. We have heard this theme on a regular basis over the past month. God knows us individually by name and God knows us collectively as God’s people. Isaiah wrote about the Jewish people who had just returned from exile to the promised land. Isaiah wrote that the land of Zion will no longer be desolate but will now be God’s Delight. The people of Israel will be married to God.
In the King James version of the Bible, instead of referring to the land as married, the bible refers to the land as Beulah land. It is the Hebrew word for married. Over the centuries Beulah Land has come to have a special connotation. Beulah is a special and beautiful place. The slaves probably thought of Beulah land as a place of freedom. Others consider Beulah land to be a description of heaven. Some hymns speak of Beulah land meaning that God will show us into heaven, a beautiful and glorious place.
Just as God was able to change the people of Israel from the Forsaken into God’s Delight, so too was Jesus able to change the water into wine. Jesus’ first miracle is described in our Gospel lesson for today as his coming out, the start of his public ministry. It is the gift of Mary who encouraged her son to help people in need. What does the gift of wine mean to you? On Wednesday in our Bible study, someone suggested that it was a precursor, a preparation for us to receive the blood of Jesus in his crucifixion. What a wonderful gift. John Foley thinks the wine is a gift of abundance. He wrote that when Mary said to Jesus “They have no wine” it symbolically meant that the human race had no real life left in it. Water turned into wine is an image for anyone who is fresh out of hope and needs to drink of the promise that Jesus offers to us. “The full rich wine of life that we need is the love of God. That love was given to us in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus and is shown to us in the wine of Cana”.
Lindsey Trozzo, from the Princeton Theological Seminary, suggested that the miracle of the wine was a sign of our shared hospitality. Rather than taking the lack of wine as something the family shouldn’t have let happen, Trozzo suggests it was a community issue. She believes that guests usually brought the wine as a part of their wedding gift. Running out of wine was an indication that the community was unable to support this family during the wedding celebration. When Jesus offered the gift of wine, he lifted up the entire community. Changing the water into wine becomes a precursor of the abundant things we will receive from God. Trozzo wrote that “Jesus’ mission was to continue God’s work in the world that provides hospitality and a space of belonging despite the norms of society. Jesus heals our souls when we are in pain due to something expected of us by our societal norms today. In our thankfulness for God’s gifts, we are asked to consider the gifts that God has given to us individually.
The reading from Corinthians reminds us that our gifts come from God, specifically given to us by the Holy Spirit. No person’s gifts are better than another. We need the gifts of the entire community to bring God’s kingdom to earth. Many passages in the book of Isaiah come to fruition in our Gospels and Scriptural Letters. Isaiah spoke abut our gifts as well. In chapter 11 we read, “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.”
If we consider the spirit of counsel to be similar to the gift of prophecy, then four of the gifts mentioned in Isaiah are repeated in the letter to the Corinthians. Paul also listed healing and performing miracles, speaking in tongues and interpreting tongues. The sad situation in Corinth was that people were comparing their gifts as if there was a rivalry between them. There was an opinion that some gifts were better than others. The point that Paul was making is that our gifts should not divide us but rather unite us. For the gifts we have been given are for the common good, not for us to hold back and use only for ourselves.
Paul’s letter speaks of how the three persons of the Trinity work together. Each of the gifts mentioned comes from the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit and the one we call God the Father are united in this gift giving. And the Spirit is connected to Jesus. For no one who has a gift of the Spirit will say something against Jesus. The Trinity is united in all things. No gift is better than any other because the Trinity has given each person special talents and loves each one of us. Just as the Spirit of God has given us gifts, we turn and pray to the Spirit that we may be guided in what we should do, that we may allow God’s will in this place.
The people of this church have received many talents or gifts. We need the gifts of every person. Two years ago, we had a class led by Cathy Black from the diocesan office. It was a chance for us to consider our gifts and to identify our gifts for this place. We have so many gifts but I will always remember that we only had a few people who felt that their gift was leadership. In other words we have a lot of people willing to do the work but only a few who believe that they have a gift to lead a church project. We pray that we will find a few more leaders to help us finish the projects we are called to perform.
I ask you to consider the gifts that God has given to you individually and to us collectively. Let us be thankful for all of God’s gifts, especially that God has chosen us and loves us. Let us reflect on the gifts that God has given us and how we might together use all of our gifts to do God’s work in the world. For this church is a wonderful place and we ask God to help us grow together spiritually and to share God’s love with everyone we meet. Amen.
There is a cartoon showing Moses up on top of the mountain holding the Ten Commandments etched in stone. He is looking up to the heavens and asks God this question, “I am sure that they will believe me but will you sign them just in case?” It is a cute saying but a meaningful one as well. The Ten Commandments are an agreement between God and God’s people. It was not an agreement with Moses and the Israelites.
The Ten Commandments are an example of a covenant, an agreement between two parties. In Biblical terms we use the word Covenant to describe an agreement between God and God’s people. It is a word not often used in current day language. We usually speak of a contract between two parties or a promise made by two people to each other. Still, a covenant is an accurate description of what we seek with God. Covenant has a sense of sacredness for me.
Today we remember the baptism of Jesus and today we celebrate the baptism of Cory Rutledge. Cory was baptized at the 8:00 service this morning. Baptism is the creation of a covenant. Every person who is baptized makes a commitment and in return receives grace, love and other benefits from God.
I am so excited that Cory was baptized today. Cory has been such a blessing to this church. I appreciate his enthusiasm. During the peace, Cory often runs around from person to person in the church, greeting them with such a positive smile. I know that Cory often draws pictures during the service and I have been the thankful recipient of his work. I like the fact that Cory is willing to interact with adults. He has come to our adult education several times and talked with us about important and not so important issues. His spirit is infectious and a good lesson for some of us who are less enthusiastic about our lives. Cory, we thank you for being present in our lives and pray that you will always know how much you mean to the people of this church.
I believe that Cory feels welcome and safe in this place. That is something sacred that we are called to do. For in Cory’s attendance at church and in his baptism today, we make a commitment, all of us commit to supporting him as a Christian. It is our responsibility to help him on what is both an exciting and yet sometimes difficult journey of following Christ.
There have been many covenants in our religious history. God made a covenant with Noah. Soon after the flood, God said to Noah, “I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. (Genesis 9:11-13).
God entered into a covenant with Abraham as well. God said, “this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” Genesis 17:3-5 In the book of Jeremiah, God’s covenant was made with all of the people of Israel, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people. Jeremiah 31:1
As Christians, we are thankful for these covenants but we focus on the new covenant based on the coming of Jesus Christ. Each time we experience a communion service the priest lifts the chalice and says, “This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus brings us into a new relationship with God and offers us forgiveness for the sins we have committed.
In addition to forgiveness God promised other benefits some of which are mentioned in Isaiah today. First, God called us by name to be God’s people. Second, we are told to give up our fear for God has redeemed us. God promised to be with us when we enter treacherous waters. God is with us even when we go through the trial of fire. The water and the fire will not overwhelm us. It sounds like baptism. We are told that Jesus will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and fire. Perhaps it is a fire of enthusiasm and courage just like that which Cory shows to us on Sunday.
In today’s world we think of the covenant that is reached when two people come together in marriage. They agree to live together in good times and bad, supporting each other for whatever comes. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, offered this perspective marriage, “Marriage has a unique place because it speaks of an absolute faithfulness, a covenant between radically different persons, male and female; and so it echoes the absolute covenant of God with his chosen, a covenant between radically different partners.”
Today, as we listen to the story of Jesus’ baptism and experience the baptism of Cory, I ask you to reflect on your relationship with God. Is it one of absolute faithfulness? Do you remember our promise to accept Jesus Christ as your Savior? Are you committed to put your whole trust in his grace and love? Are you ready to renew that commitment again?
Commitment is a hard thing and we know of many examples of people who have struggled with it. I am trying to get my swimming pool control unit fixed. I was promised a visit by a pool company this past week but it never happened. I am sure that you have your own stories of commitments made but not completed.
As a priest, I receive commitments from people all of the time. Some say they are going to attend church here but never show up. I have become jaded by talk without action, no longer expecting people to do what they say. But I trust in God. We understand that the commitment we make to follow Jesus is a hard one to live up to all of the time. That is why we come together in community. We seek to support each other as followers of Christ, hoping that our joint efforts will make it easier to stick to our commitment.
But today is much more about the glory of the gifts we have been given. In the water of baptism, we are cleansed from all of our sins, we are washed in the glory of Jesus and we become one with him. But it is not just Jesus that we unite with in baptism.
Both the gospel and the Epistle speak of the presence of the Holy Spirit in baptism. For the people in Samaria, they had been baptized with water but it wasn’t until Peter and John showed up that they received the Holy Spirit. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit came to be with Jesus when he was baptized. And so, the same is true for each of us. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own for ever. It is as if we have received a tattoo with the Holy Spirit. Something we carry with us for the rest of our lives.
Baptism is an experience of all the senses. But it is not just water that we use in baptism. We offer a candle to Cory and his family, a sign of the light of Christ in his life. We also sign Cory with oil. It is our way of indicating that he has been ordained by God to be a part of this congregation, a part of the community of Christians. It is a sign that he has received the Holy Spirit.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he wrote, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God”. This morning, we have welcomed Cory as a new member of the body of Christ, a child of God. We welcome his spirit and his testimony and we are excited that while he is still a child he has joined all of us as an equal amongst the children of God in this community.
Today, we remember our covenant with God. We promise to follow Jesus. Let us be thankful for all that God gives to us in this covenant relationship. We receive God’s grace and love. We are forgiven for our sins. And we have Jesus and the Holy Spirit to guide and comfort us on our journey. Joseph Prince, a pastor from Singapore said “God doesn't want us to have rigid rituals with Him. In the new covenant, God is more interested in having a relationship with us.” May we seek God in everything we do. May we be energized by our baptism, a time when we receive the grace of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Amen.