On Friday evening, our daughter and her family came and stayed with us. Saturday morning, I drove them to the airport so they could board a plane to Texas. We will join them this evening, as we are all going to a family wedding in Corpus Christi. While we will see them soon, the parting is still sad. We seek ways to ease the pain of separation. One way is to remember when we will next be together. We also remind each other of the love that we share even when we are apart. I ask you to think about times when you have said good-bye. How do you maintain a relationship with a loved one who has gone somewhere else? In today’s gospel, Jesus knew that he would be leaving his followers soon. Jesus helped the apostles deal with the separation. He spoke about the Holy Spirit coming to be with them and to bring them truth. This was his way of dealing with the loss of a friend.
Today is Trinity Sunday. I find the Trinity to be our way of dealing with the fact that Jesus has gone to heaven. On Trinity Sunday, we celebrate all three Persons of God. Clergy usually consider this the most difficult sermon to give. The theology of the Trinity is complex and easily misunderstood. How do we make sense of one God and three Persons of God? I encourage you to do so by focusing on the unity of God, not the three individual Persons of God.
The early Christian church took a long time to clearly describe the concept of the Trinity. Debates raged in the early church and it was not until the first two councils of the church in 325 and 381 that our Trinitarian theology was clearly defined and recognized as the belief of the whole church.
The theology of the Trinity is not clearly stated in Scripture. But Scripture frequently mentions the three Persons. We recently discussed the many times we read about God’s Spirit, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures. As I said last week, it is called the breath of God as well. In today’s gospel, Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would come after he left. The Gospel of John mentions this coming of the Holy Spirit five different times, each one an offering from Jesus. I believe that Jesus was seeking a way for his apostles to deal with his departure. Reminding them that the Holy Spirit would come and be with them is his way of helping them to survive the loss of his presence. Many have experienced God’s presence in their lives but Jesus is not physically present today. So we all lean on the power of the Holy Spirit that we may know that God is present with us.
While our New Testament Scripture doesn’t refer to the Trinity specifically, we often have references to the three. Today’s reading from Romans is a good example. In just five short verses, it described God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Jesus brings us God’s peace and the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit. We also read about the Trinity in this passage from the Gospel of Matthew, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).
As humans, we look for ways to describe the Trinity. I have heard people use the analogy of the three-legged stool. There is only one stool but three legs. Saint Patrick taught the Irish about the Trinity by using the tiny shamrock plant. Three leaves but only one plant. I like to think about the elements found in the periodic table. Each element has a certain number of electrons or protons or neutrons. A carbon atom is only carbon when it has a certain number of each. God is only God when God has three persons completing all that it is in one.
I also like to think about how each one of us have several different personas. I am a father, a husband, a grandfather, a priest, a friend and several other things. My daughter calls me dad, Evelyn calls me grandpa, Jan calls me her husband, some of you call me father and my friends call me to play golf. I am all of those personas and only one person. That is the best explanation of the Trinity a human can offer.
Our readings describe several characteristics of God today. In proverbs, God is described as Wisdom. It even states that Wisdom existed as part of God forever. Wisdom is found in the Word of God. Jesus is the Word of God. In the Psalm God is called the Governor. God is the Creator, and the All Powerful One. In Romans, God is referred to as Peace, as well as the one who gives us grace and love. Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as the gift of truth. All of these attributes are part of one God and sometimes in our humanity we think of those attributes describing just one of the Three Persons of God.
But all of those descriptions fall short. For the Trinity is truly a mystery to us. It is something we wish to understand and cannot explain logically. For the Trinity is best understood when we think of the Trinity as our relationship with God.
I am blessed that people often share their own learnings about spirituality with me. This week, someone loaned me a book about the Trinity. It was written in 2013 by a lady named Cynthia Bourgeault. Talented theologians still seek to understand the Trinity. I think there is always more to learn. The book is titled the Holy Trinity and the Law of Three. I am not able to fully describe all that this book teaches us. I appreciate the potential femininity found in the Spirit. I learned that three is a powerful number. We usually put things in twos: night or day, male or female, yes or no. But three creates an opportunity for so much more. Three can create balance. A good example is the imbalance found in agreement or disagreement. But reconciliation can balance those two opposites. Three can create new energy. A seed is placed in the earth. But without the sun and water it will not grow. Flour and water are necessary but without heat they will not make bread. A plaintiff and a defendant can argue about who is right but a judge is needed to come to a decision.
Ms. Bourgeault encourages us to open our hearts to the possibility that we will be changed by the power of the Trinity, by the strength of three. Let us pray that we will be made alive in the strength, the love and the peace of God.
Scripture today tells us the Son is the eternal word. God the Father is the creator and the One who sent Jesus to be with us. And we experience God as the Holy Spirit, who opens our hearts and minds. I find that we do our best when we don’t try to explain exactly what the Trinity is or how the three Persons work together. I find it better to simply accept the mystery of the Trinity and allow the three Persons to work in our lives. We don’t need to explain that they are different and yet the same. We simply accept that the Three work together in all things, in perfect unity. We wish that we too will find unity and peace in ourselves.
A Presbyterian minister named William Dixon Gray wrote that “Rather than explaining the Trinity, let the Trinity explain us. We are always changing from what we are to what we are becoming. The Trinity does not allow things to be static. God is active and we must be too.”
So, rather than think about the Trinity, I suggest that we feel the Trinity working in our lives. I suggest that we don’t try to put the three Persons into one category or another. I, myself, have used the names Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier as a way to describe the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But I think that God is bigger than any names we place on any Member of the Trinity. Jesus is no longer physically here. But we still have the Trinity. I prefer to live in the words of Paul who said that we receive the power, the grace and the peace of God working as One. Amen.
I visit my spiritual advisor every three weeks. I appreciate the opportunity to talk to her about my spiritual life and to talk about the normal everyday things where I see God at work. It helps me find balance. Each time I go to see my spiritual director, we begin with an easy breathing exercise. When I focus on my breathing, it helps me to center myself on the issues of God. The breathing helps me turn aside the business of my day and all of the issues I must deal with in my life. We offer a prayer together, asking God to be present in our meeting. Breathing exercises are also used in Yoga. Breathing can help us pay attention to what is important and to block out those things which are unimportant.
As you know, the Hebrew word Ruah means breath or spirit. In Greek the word Pnuema was used to mean both breath and spirit. That Greek word is still the basis of things we have a sense of breath such as pneumonia or pnuematic.
So I ask you to join me in an easy group exercise. Would you please close your eyes and pay attention to your breathing? I ask you to breathe in and out slowly, perhaps counting to four on each inhale and exhale. As you do so, allow your mind to let go of the things of this earth that may be challenging you today. As you continue to breathe in and out slowly, allow your mind to focus on God, in particular the Holy Spirit.
As you continue to breathe in and out, I ask you to consider how the Holy Spirit has changed your life or perhaps, how is the Holy Spirit guiding you today. Let me offer a portion of the prayer said by people at the beginning of a Cursillo program.
“Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your spirit and they shall be created and You shall renew the face of the earth”.
Thanks, you can open your eyes now and breathe normally.
Pentecost is all about the Holy Spirit. Scripture has always referenced the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit is referred to in passages of the Hebrew Scripture such as in Judges chapter 15 when we learn that the Spirit of the Lord descended upon Samson and Samson became so strong that he destroyed his enemies. In the first chapter of Genesis we read that the breath from God swept over the face of the waters. When Peter spoke on that first Pentecost, he offered a quote from the 2nd chapter of Joel, God will “pour out God’s Spirit on all flesh”. In the New Testament, Jesus told his disciples that he would send an Advocate to guide them and watch over them. We have heard of the Spirit many times but Pentecost is by far the biggest event of the Holy Spirit in our Church year.
Today’s lessons begin in Genesis. The people of Babel built a huge tower to take them up to heaven. It is a story similar to the Garden of Eden. Humans wanted to cross the dividing line between humanity and divinity. They wanted to control their own destiny. In response, God divided the people. God scattered the people to all corners of the earth and God gave them many different languages. The people of the earth no longer understood each other.
If we jump forward to the story in Acts, God brings all of the people on earth back into unity once again. The people in Jerusalem understood what was being said despite their different languages. Everyone was united once more through the work of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit. We tried to recreate that experience as people read the passage in several different languages. Many people spoke but everyone clearly heard that Jesus is the Messiah. Peter proclaimed on that day “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” Those words are the basis of our faith now. The crowd was so moved that people immediately decided to turn their lives over to Jesus.
I experience the Holy Spirit in two ways. First, I think of the Holy Spirit as a presence. God is present with us. The Holy Spirit’s presence gives us encouragement to follow God’s path. The Holy Spirit’s presence gives us guidance and advice and the Holy Spirit’s presence helps us to communicate with God.
I also believe that the Holy Spirit is a power. In the Pentecost story found in Acts, the power of the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles. The Holy Spirit brought wind, the Holy Spirit placed tongues of fire on the heads of the apostles. I imagine that the Holy Spirit translated the words of the apostles so that everyone in Jerusalem that day understood what was said by Peter and his friends. It was a miracle of the Holy Spirit, similar to the miracles that Jesus performed while he was alive. The Spirit is a force.
Each week, I pray that the Holy Spirit will guide the words I share in the sermon. I pray that the Spirit will be with me as I give the sermon. And I know that the Spirit works in each of you because people hear different things in any sermon. The Spirit is helping us to hear what we need to hear.
The Psalm is a reminder of the glory of God’s creation and it includes a thanksgiving for the power of the Holy Spirit. We hear about the beauty of God’s creation and God’s wisdom that flows throughout the earth. We even hear of God’s humor for God created the great sea monster, the Leviathon. We know that God created such a creature just for the sport of it. If you listen carefully to the Psalm, you will realize that God, particularly the Spirit, is active in creation each and every day. The Spirit is sent forth and creates life once more and renews the face of the earth. In the Psalm the author suggested that the cycle of life and death is held in the hands of God’s Spirit.
The gospel for today is a flashback to a time well before the crucifixion. Jesus was talking to the apostles about what was to come. He told them that he would leave them but he shared with them that he would send a power to help them. We call that power the Holy Spirit. The presence of the Holy Spirit was with Jesus throughout his ministry beginning with his baptism when the Spirit descended like a dove. The Spirit went out into the wilderness with Jesus. The Spirit stayed with him every step of the way.
Some of the most powerful words of Scripture are found in today’s gospel. Jesus knew that his time was short. He knew that there was only a certain amount that he could finish before he left us. But he left us the power of the Holy Spirit. That power working in us does wonders. Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” Jesus did many wonderful things. Still he told us that if we accept him and accept the power of the Holy Spirit, we will do more than Jesus ever did. It is hard to believe isn’t it? But that is exactly what Jesus told us.
Let us not minimize what the Spirit can do. I have heard people say that they feel the Spirit in this place. We even sing about it. “There’s a sweet sweet spirit in this place and I know that it’s the Spirit of the Lord”. There are times when the Spirit is quiet. But there are also times when the Spirit is a powerful wind that blows everything to follow the will of God. That Spirit has the power to do mighty things. That Spirit helps us to do things greater than even Jesus did.
May you feel the breath of the Holy Spirit in your body. May that breath give you new life this week. May you find God’s power working in you and the presence of God guiding you and comforting you. Amen.
A few years ago, Jan and I traveled to Russia. As happens on all tours, we were taken to stores and kiosks offering local goods to purchase. Every store had a large display of matryoshka dolls. I call them nested dolls. You have seen them, haven’t you. You see one large doll and if you open it you will see the same doll in a slightly smaller size. The process can continue until you get to the smallest of dolls on the inside. I have seen seven dolls in a set of netted dolls. There is only one way to put them back together. You must start with the smallest and put it in the next larger doll until you once again have a complete set. I didn’t purchase a nested doll but our friends got one that looked like a member of the rock band KISS. I did purchase a replica of a Faberge egg. Faberge eggs were created for the czars of Russia to give to their wives and children. My knock off is an egg shaped case with a tiny egg inside.
We describe the smaller egg as being in the larger egg. We would never say that the larger egg is in the smaller egg. But that is exactly what we find in Scripture. It is another example of Jesus turning our world upside down. Jesus said that each of us is in Christ and he also told us that he (Jesus) is in us. The amazing thing is that we are both in Christ and also have Christ in us. How is it possible for both to happen at the same time?
Perhaps today you can imagine yourself as the egg enveloped by Jesus. Jesus is protecting you from harm. Or you may imagine that you are the outer covering and that Jesus is the glorious tiny egg inside of you. Jesus is like a beating heart inside of you carrying you along, inspiring you.
The gospel for today is the final portion of a prayer that Jesus offered called the high priestly prayer. The prayer takes up an entire chapter in John’s gospel. I encourage you to take a few minutes this week to read chapter 17 to let that prayer wash over you. The first portion is Jesus’ prayer to the Father before he was crucified. The second portion is a prayer for his immediate disciples. I think it is like a prayer a mother might offer for her children. It is a prayer that asks for protection when his disciples go out into the world. Interestingly, Jesus prayed for the disciples to go out into the world to convert people to be his followers and at the same time he prayed for their protection. Today’s portion of the prayer is offered for the far-flung ministries of the early church and a prayer for all of the believers and followers. It is the prayer that Jesus offered for you and me.
For us to be in Jesus is an individual and a communal designation. We describe the community of the church as the Body of Christ. We live together as Christ’s Body in the world. Jesus is the head of the church. As members of the Body of Christ we are offered the opportunity for salvation. We are given protection from evil and we are brought together to support one another.
We are also individually in Christ. We have committed ourselves to Jesus in our baptism and we renewed that commitment when we were confirmed. We stay in Christ when we confess our sins each week and are forgiven. We stay in Christ when we take communion. We stay in Christ when we take time to offer prayers and ask for God’s guidance. We remain in Christ as we try to live our lives as his followers. Jesus is in us as well. Jesus brings us into one with God. Jesus gives us strength to continue on the way. Jesus gives us guidance and is there to encourage us when we fall.
On Thursday, we celebrated the feast of the Ascension. We remember that Jesus was taken up to heaven bodily. The apostles witnessed the time when Jesus was lifted up to heaven bodily. The apostles were used to being with Jesus. They thought he was gone when he was crucified and they were amazed and excited when he rose from the dead. At the Ascension, they had to go through their loss one more time. I am sure they wondered what they would do without him.
I hope the message from our readings helps you to connect with the apostles. We are one with them and we are one with Jesus. We can imagine the pain that they must have experienced at this second loss of Jesus just as we have experienced pain at the loss of a trust friend.
We wish that Jesus was still with us in body. But if we listen to this prayer of Jesus, we know that he was still with the apostles and he is still with us. We are thankful that he is with us in spirit.
When we live in Jesus and Jesus lives in us then our lives are different. In the first lesson from Acts, Paul encountered a woman who was possessed with a demon and the demon gave her the power to tell fortunes. Sadly, she was being used by greedy men to make money and we know that still happens to people today. Paul commanded the demon to come out of the woman. Paul and his partner Silas are placed in prison for allowing the woman to live a life freed of demons and freed of her captors. During the night, an earthquake freed the prisoners from their bondage. But Paul and Silas did not leave. Their actions become an example for the jailer who becomes a Christian and is immediately baptized. Paul freed the jailer from his imprisonment to sin and brought him to the joy of Christ Jesus.
We may not be able to exorcise demons as Paul did and we may not experience an earthquake that frees us from prison. So, let’s focus on the fact that we are connected to Jesus just as Paul was. By our example, we are able to show others to Jesus. Just as Paul and Silas did not run to escape their captors, we too live our lives as examples of Christ in the world. Many of you have shared the blessings of God in your lives with others and in so doing, you have brought others to a life in Christ. Our example helps others to be changed by God.
We are also encouraged to pray for others just as Jesus did. There is a quote from an unknown author that suggests “There is nothing that makes us love other people so much as praying for them. Let’s keep praying then.” Gerard Manley Hopkins, a famous poet, wrote that when we lift our hands in prayer, we give God glory. But he also reminded us that when we do even the dirtiest of work in his name, we give glory to God. Hopkins wanted us to remember that prayer is important but so is living a life of grace.
Jesus prayed that the whole church may be one. This past week, I once again encountered divisions within the large community of Christ’s church. We find ways to argue with each other about exactly what Scripture teaches us. Some believe that their way is the only way that you can interpret Scripture. I find it sad that the wider church struggles to find unity in our beliefs and I ask for your prayers that Jesus may find ways to unite the church once more.
In the reading from Revelation, there is an invitation. Let us pray that God will “Let everyone who hears say, "Come.
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”
I hope that you will consider what it means for you that Jesus is in you and that you are in Jesus. I imagine the relationship between the three members of the Trinity is one of total unity. Jesus described his relationship with the Father as if they were one. May we also seek that same unity in Jesus. May we be totally connected to Jesus so that we are one with him and he is one with us, so that we are one with each other. Amen.
Our family took a trip to New Zealand when our daughter was a child. I still remember being told that 3 million people lived in New Zealand and there were 30 million sheep. Sheep outnumbered people ten to one. Well, times have changed. It seems that the population of New Zealand has grown to well over four million people while the number of sheep has grown only a little. Now there are only about 7 sheep for every person in New Zealand. There are lots of sheep in New Zealand. I also remember a time when our bus was stopped for about ten minutes as a herd of sheep gradually moved their way across the road. We got out of the bus and found lambs that looked like such cuddly little animals. I am not sure I saw a shepherd. The sheep in New Zealand seem to run in big herds and follow each other wherever they go.
I contrast that with my imagination of what shepherding is like in the Middle East. I picture much smaller flocks of sheep perhaps 20 and all of them are being led by one shepherd. I am sure they have a much closer relationship with the shepherd than the sheep in New Zealand.
The image of a single shepherd fits our lessons for today. We are told that the followers of Jesus hear his voice. Jesus knows them and they know Jesus. It is true whether the number of sheep is small or so large they cannot be counted.
I read a story this week about a young priest who was staying at the bishop’s house. The bishop had three dogs. When the bishop arrived home each day he would call out to the dogs and they would run to see him. The young priest decided to play a trick on the dogs. He learned to mimic the voice of the bishop. He came home just a few minutes before the bishop, called the dogs just as the bishop would do and they came running. Of course they were disappointed when they found out he was not the bishop. He tried this again and got the same result. But the third time he tried to trick the dogs, they did not respond. They had learned how to differentiate the voice of the bishop from the voice of the young priest. Animals are quite smart when it comes to whom they know and care for. It only took them a few times to realize the young priest was a fake.
Just as the dogs know the voice of the master and just as the sheep know the voice of the shepherd, so we know the voice of Jesus. We know Jesus because he loves us and because he teaches us and because he sacrificed himself for us. Perhaps most important, Jesus knows each of us by name. Those are the words we hear in the Collect for today and they come from the words of Jesus himself. He said to those who questioned him that he knows his sheep, his followers. Jesus is our personal shepherd and he walks alongside us on our path.
The image of Jesus as our shepherd follows a long tradition of referring to the powerful, especially kings and the Lord as our shepherd. There is no better example than we find in Psalm 23. It is one of the most beloved of Psalms for it gives great comfort. Psalm 23 begins with the words the Lord is my Shepherd. Jesus referred to God as his father and he said that he and the father are one. Just as God is our shepherd so Jesus, his son, is our shepherd.
The comforting image of the shepherd continues throughout Psalm 23. God will take care of all of our needs. God will give us rest when we are tired. God will guide us along the right paths. God will help us deal with our fear. God will provide refreshing water for us to drink and help us to restore our strength. God will see to it that we are given a banquet of food to nourish us. God will make sure that we are surrounded by goodness and mercy.
We have several references to God’s comforting presence in our lives. While no one can actually replace God in our lives, for most of us, our mother comes close. So many of us remember our mother as someone who loved and cared for us, who encouraged us when we were down and who helped us to achieve all that we accomplished. Perhaps your mother sacrificed something to make your life better in some way. Happy Mother’s Day to all of the ladies who are here with us today whether you were able to be a mother to a child or simply a help to someone who was close to you.
I find it interesting that this same Jesus who is our Shepherd is also referred to as the lamb. In the reading from Revelation, Jesus takes his rightful place on the throne. Jesus is worshipped and glorified by all those who are in heaven. And yet this Jesus is called the Lamb. We think of the Lamb as the weakest of creatures and yet here is the Lamb enthroned in the highest heaven. The same God who is the all powerful one, the Creator of heaven and earth, also chose to humble himself. It helps us to understand that God will do anything to save us. Even in this reading from Revelation, Jesus is referred to as both the Lamb and the Shepherd. We realize that power does not always come from strength. Power can also comes from sacrifice, and from loving one another.
In the gospel reading, Jesus is questioned by a group of non-believers. Somehow, they want him to prove that he is the Messiah. Jesus said I have already told you and shown you. He suggested to them that they remember all of the miracles that he had performed. But then he explained why they had a problem. They were not his sheep. They were not followers of his.
We follow Jesus in faith. These last few weeks, we have experienced a lot of Scripture references about faith. It seems that we are once more confronted with how so much of our spiritual lives begin in faith, begin in trust. The non-believers could not be swayed by the things they had seen. Somehow, they needed Jesus to satisfy their own personal curiosity, to answer their own particular question or to fit into their own specific understanding of how God works in this world.
But Jesus doesn’t always fit into the accepted understanding of God. He is the Shepherd who has become the Lamb. Jesus changed the way that we understood a Messiah. He showed us that truth and love and mercy can be given to us by the one who sacrificed himself for us.
I would suggest that we the believers see Jesus as Divine because we began our understanding of Scripture with faith. Our hearts were opened to see Jesus as he was and is. We know that people often begin with the opposite perspective. Someone with a preconceived idea of the truth finds it difficult to have their mind changed because new facts don’t fit their understanding of reality. The doubters who questioned Jesus must have been like that.
In our faith, we want to be guided by our Shepherd, Jesus. We want to be known by him and we want to know him. We reach out in our desire to have that close relationship with Jesus so that when he calls, we know it is him. We want to feel the comfort of being known by Jesus, to never be forgotten regardless of where we have been or what we have done. We want Jesus to come and find us when we are lost. We want Jesus to send all of our fears away.
This week, I encourage you to just let the words of Scripture sink in. If you walk away with nothing other than the one line that is found in the gospel you will be fine. Please hear these words, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. They will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand”. Our faith accepts this as truth. If you hear and accept those words today then you will understand why Jesus said. “Go your way, your faith has made you well.” For it is in faith that we become his sheep. It is in faith that we are known personally by Jesus. Amen.
Last Sunday we sang a hymn that has stuck with me all week. The first words were “We walk by faith and not be sight”. Our Christian journey is a walk of faith. We have faith in God. We believe that Jesus is our Lord and Savior. We trust that God will give us the strength we need to continue the journey. As we heard last week, Jesus blesses us on our walk of faith. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Our faith is a gift from God. We usually think of the gifts that God has given us as tangible things. We think of food and clothing and shelter and the beauty of nature. In addition to being thankful for those gifts, we are thankful that God has given us faith. Without faith, it would be difficult to maintain our relationship with God. It would be easy to veer away, to become self-centered.
Whenever Jesus healed someone, he spoke of their faith. Here is just one example, “‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’ Jesus told his apostles that God responds to those who ask in faith. “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.” The most famous line in Scripture speaks of the importance of faith, “‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Faith is a source of healing, God will respond to those who ask in faith, and faith is the source of eternal life.
Even in Paul’s letters we hear how important faith is, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Paul wrote that faith is more important than works. But in our lessons today we have at least three examples of good works all of which started through a call God made.
Christians have debated the importance of our works and our faith. Some would say that it is faith alone that saves us. There is nothing we can do to earn our salvation. Rather than think of works as earning our way into heaven, many think that we do good works out of thanksgiving for the gifts of grace and love that we received from God. I just find that explanation unfulfilling for me. The problem I have is that I believe that God is calling each of us to do God’s work in this world. I often say that it is our job to bring God’s kingdom here to this earth. I think there is a connection between faith and our call. Rather than separating faith and good works, trying to determine which is more important, let’s think about how we are called. I encourage you to think about your call from God and how it is a natural part of your faith and your journey here on earth?
The first reading is a good example of the connection of faith and following God’s call. The reading is about the conversion of Saul. Saul’s life changed in an instant. He became a faithful follower of Jesus and in faith he followed God’s call for him to bring the good news of Jesus to the Gentiles.
This conversion story is also about Ananias. Ananias was simply minding his own business when the Lord called out to him and asked him to go heal the eyesight of Paul. Ananias, just like many before him, was doubtful. Lord, do you really want me to go help this man who has been killing the followers of Jesus? I think my own life will be in danger. But the Lord told him it was going to be allright. Ananias was faithful. He trusted that God would take care of him and God did. Ananias also heeded God’s call for him. He would not have chosen this ministry on his own. Rather he trusted that God had made a good decision for him and thus he followed God’s wishes.
You see, I find this connection between faith and works. I find the connection between trusting in God and following God’s wishes for our lives. We are just like Ananias. Our call from God may not have been as clear as that of Ananias but I believe we do get called. We don’t know exactly when or how. We don’t know for whom God will need our help. But just like Ananias, I hope that we are ready to say yes to God’s call for us.
Our gospel lesson is also about faith and following God’s call. We know that Jesus commissioned his apostles to spread the good news to all people. In last week’s lesson, Jesus said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Specifically, Jesus sent them out to forgive the sins of the faithful, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The apostles needed to have their faith restored so they could heed God’s call for them.
We have another post resurrection appearance of Jesus with a few of his apostles. They were fishing in the sea of Galilee and Jesus came to share breakfast with them. He fed them just as he feeds us. Then, he gave Simon Peter a commission, he told Peter that he was called to feed the sheep, the followers of Jesus. He first reminded Peter of his faith. He asked, “Do you love me?’ Certainly if Peter loved Jesus he had faith in him. That is when Jesus asked him to feed the sheep. Of course, we hear this three times so it must have been important.
When Jesus asked Peter to feed the sheep it meant something figuratively. Peter was being asked to publicly proclaim Jesus as our Messiah. He was asked to lead all of the followers. He was told to help the followers with all of their spiritual needs. And just as Jesus had offered breakfast to them on that shore, Peter was being asked to literally feed the sheep, to give them the body and blood of Jesus through the blessed bread and wine. The early Christians lived in community so Peter was expected to provide for them as well.
Each person of faith receives their own call. It is something you need to determine with God and possibly in discussion with other humans. Some are called to volunteer at church, some are called to visit the sick, some are called to pray for others or support others on their spiritual path. Some of us are called to provide food for others. We do all we do because of our faith.
Despite the success of our economy, the number of people in need seems to be growing. According to a recent report, the number of homeless people in Phoenix has grown by over 20% in the last year. Maybe the problem is caused by drug or alcohol addiction or mental illness or bankruptcies caused by unpaid medical bills. It might be because of the apparent ease with which people can be evicted from homes. If you feel called to help with the feeding or housing of people in this community, you could join with others in this church who reach out through our million meals program, our chile farm, or join with other volunteers to staff a feeding program.
There is one other opportunity that has become a political hotbed and that is the issue of immigration including the large number of people seeking asylum. My interest today is not to discuss the political arguments about what we should do with immigration. It doesn’t matter whether you want the wall or not. It doesn’t matter if you think we should change our laws to make it more difficult for people to enter this country or not. The simple fact is that there has been little change in our laws for many years and it is unlikely that we will see new legislation. The mayor of Mesa, John Giles, recently said that the problem of migrants in our area is not a political issue. It is a humanitarian issue. The administration asked Congress this week for 4.5 billion in funding just to deal with the humanitarian issue. The government cannot handle the number of people entering the United States. The government drops people off at non-profit organizations and they are struggling to keep up. The vestry had a discussion about meeting the humanitarian needs of immigrants. Dea Podhajsky is looking into how we might get involved. Some of you may wish to join her.
Scripture tells us that people of faith are called by God. We read about Paul, Ananias and Peter but the list goes on. I think our scripture asks us to reflect on our call in faith. Each of us has a different call which must be discerned. You may be called to care for spiritual needs or you may be called to care for physical needs. I encourage you this week to pray that God will continue to guide you in your call, your faith, and that you will be able to respond through the mercy and grace of God. Amen.
I am sure that many of you have been involved in group development activities. One of the things you learn is to trust your teammates. The first time I went through a group exercise we practiced by doing a trust fall. You stand with your back to all of the other people, fold your arms and just fall backwards. You trust that your co-workers will catch you and not let you fall.
I was on another team building event and we were outdoors. Our teachers led us to a spider web made of ropes. It was several feet off of the ground. The spaces were of different sizes and heights off of the ground. Our team was required to pass everyone through the holes in the ropes. We could only use a space in the ropes one time. We were not allowed to touch the ropes. In order to complete the task, some team members had to be lifted off of the ground and passed through. This exercise required trust, a willingness to have your team members lift you and pass you through the ropes. I learned that it was best to ask the person about to be lifted if they were okay with what we planned to do. It was another example of trust.
Babies blindly trust their parents because they have no one else to turn to. Sometimes they don’t trust strangers. Adults learn through experience who they can trust. We know that we must trust some other people in order to live full and perfect lives. Sometimes we lose trust in people because of how they treat us.
In today’s gospel we hear Jesus say the words, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” We listen to those words and have hope and thanksgiving. We think those words are meant for us and they were. For we are the people who have not seen and yet we believe in Jesus. Jesus blesses us. It is just one more indication of how we are loved and appreciated by Jesus. May you feel blessed today.
Yes, I do think that Jesus wants us to believe in him. I do think that believing in the resurrection is important because it is a critical part of the Christian faith. As I said last week, if you don’t believe in the resurrection then the basis of our Christian faith is lost. Belief is an important part of our Christian life. Belief could also be called faith. We sometimes think of faith and belief as exactly the same thing. There are some aspects of faith that go beyond just believing to trust.
I have reached the conclusion that we struggle with the word belief in a religious context. I think that arguments among the various Christian denominations have caused us to be overly concerned about belief. Christian denominations since the Protestant revolution have tried to distinguish themselves by what they believe. Some would say that you can only be a part of our denomination if you believe a certain thing. They have suggested that others are wrong for not believing what they believe. They even suggest that if you are not a part of our denomination, if you don’t believe what we believe, then you will not be saved.
From that debate, we understand belief to be a very specific thing. There is no nuance to belief. You either believe exactly this way or you don’t believe. The Greek word that we sometimes translate as belief is pistos. A variation of that Greek word was translated today as belief. It is more generally thought of as faith. Faith has elements of belief and it also has elements of trust. That is why I think another word that may be helpful today is the word trust.
Another reason for my concern about the word belief comes from the way we treat Thomas. We call him doubting Thomas. He was wrong for not believing the words of the other apostles. We don’t want to be like him. Never mind that in John’s gospel, Peter didn’t seem to believe in the risen Jesus when he left the empty tomb. Never mind that in Luke’s gospel, the women come and tell the apostles that Jesus has risen. But Luke wrote about the apostles, “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them”. Why is it that we can accept the uncertainty of the other apostles but label Thomas as a Doubter? Are we willing to judge the belief of certain person more harshly than the belief of others?
Thomas probably struggled in ways that others struggled. They had no context in which they could understand Jesus’ resurrection. In previous situations, Thomas showed himself to be a firm follower of Jesus. I wonder if Thomas was grieving so much over the loss of Jesus that he couldn’t listen to what the apostles said. Once he saw Jesus then his hope was restored. All that Thomas had lived for was once more possible.
I like this quote from Marcus Borg, “You can believe all the right things and still be in bondage. You can believe all the right things and still be miserable. You can believe all the right things and still be relatively unchanged. Believing a set of claims to be true has very little transforming power.” I would say that trust in Jesus shows us the transforming power of the resurrection. We allow Jesus to transform our lives. In addition to believe, I think we should also have trust
Trust is a better word for me to describe the personal relationship that we seek in the resurrected Jesus. I trust that Jesus will be by my side on my spiritual adventure. I trust that Jesus will bring me to the place where I need to be. I trust that God will bring me to everlasting life.
I find the idea of trusting in God and inviting Jesus to be a part of our life in the reading from Revelation. The writer offered us grace and peace from God. That is what we ask for from the risen Lord Jesus. The writer described a God who was and who is and is to come. That last phrase could also be understood as saying, God who is coming”. In changing the phrase to the present tense, we have the sense that God is coming always. It is as if a rush of God is upon us in every moment of our lives. That is the risen Jesus who is always present with us. I like to think of the risen Jesus as a continuous gift to us. Jesus rose from the dead to be with his apostles and also to be available for us at all times.
When the writer referred to the seven spirits who also send grace and peace, he used the word which we often translate as breath. It is as if God is breathing life into every one of the people in the seven cities and also breathing life into you and I. The writer finished by speaking specifically of the grace and peace that comes to us from Jesus, the one who is risen from the dead. This is the God that I trust in, the God of grace and peace, the God who gives me breath. It is no longer so important what I believe but rather what I trust.
That grace and peace is mentioned in the gospel. Not once but three times we heard the words “Peace be with you.” There is a teaching which suggests that if you want someone to hear a particular message you should repeat it over and over again. I would say that our gospel writer, John, wanted us to be clear about the message of Jesus. Jesus wanted his followers to be at Peace. Of course, he most likely used the word Shalom which has many different meanings. Shalom means harmony and wholeness and completeness. Jesus wanted his followers to be at rest with their life. He wanted us to have that feeling of comfort, knowing that our lives are best lived when we follow our Lord. Jesus wanted us to feel that wholeness, knowing that we are surrounded by his grace and blessing. He wanted us to be certain that our lives are complete when we follow him.
Faith is a way for us to find that peace. For some, their faith is focused on belief. They find Peace in their belief. Let us all believe. I also think that the Peace of God is enhanced in our lives when we have trust. When we trust in God, then we can feel that completeness, that wholeness that only Jesus can give us. May we all feel the harmony, wholeness and completeness of peace in our lives today. Amen.
Happy Easter! This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. I hope that you feel the joy of Easter today at Transfiguration. I hope that you find joy in the rest of your life today. I hope that you will take this opportunity to be with family and friends. Jan and I are excited to drive to Flagstaff and join our family there, to be with our granddaughters and to share a lovely Easter meal.
I encourage you to remember wonderful Easters in your past life. Perhaps you might reach back into your childhood and recollect something special that happened to you on this day. Maybe it was a picnic in a beautiful setting. Maybe it was an Easter egg hunt at your church. Maybe it was a favorite food prepared by your grandmother. Maybe it was the games you played with your cousins. Maybe it was the chocolate bunny that you devoured in one setting.
For this is a day of great joy. It is the day that Jesus, our Savior, created for us. It is a day to celebrate Christ’s victory over sin and death. In the early church, this was the most important day of the year. It was a time when newly baptized Christians joined the rest of the faithful followers of Jesus. Easter was always more important than Christmas. In fact, the celebration of Christmas did not occur until the 4th century. The resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of our Christian faith.
The message found in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians may be the first writing ever offered about the resurrection. Paul stated it simply, by saying, “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” and Paul explained that the resurrection is the core of our belief. “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” In other words, if we as Christians don’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus then the entire construct of our faith falls down in a heap like some dynamited building. And yet, believing in the resurrection is not easy.
The Corinthians must have struggled with the concept or else why would Paul have spent so much effort explaining it to them in this letter. The issue of the resurrection has been debated often. How it happened we don’t know. What exactly happened we are uncertain. Still, the idea that Jesus was raised from the dead is something we firmly believe.
Paul wanted the people of Corinth to know that the resurrection of Jesus wasn’t just an historical event. It did happen along time ago. It is something that happens even now. For all of us will be made alive in Christ. Christ lives in us just as he lived in his followers long ago.
Our understanding of the resurrection of Jesus is informed by the stories we read in each of the four gospels. I find the stories to be simple and straightforward, almost like one friend speaking to another. While the four gospel stories of the resurrection are similar in nature, they differ in the details. In all four stories, one or more women go to the tomb and find it empty.
Today, the resurrection story is told by John. Mary Magdalene is the first one to arrive at the tomb. When she sees that the tomb is empty, she quickly runs to find Peter and the other disciple. They return and Peter is the first to enter the tomb followed by the other disciple. Are you surprised that the other disciple is the one who saw and believed. We read nothing about what Peter believed. It is also interesting that the two of them simply leave the empty tomb and go home. They do nothing. We are left uncertain what they thought.
It causes me to think about times when we are uncertain, not just about the resurrection but about other matters of faith. Perhaps our first encounter with the risen Jesus was an occasion when we didn’t know how to respond. The apostles would soon meet with Jesus in the locked room. Then, they would accept the glorious news that Jesus had risen from the dead. We have had many encounters with the risen Lord and now we know that Jesus did all he said he would do.
Mary remained behind. You may have noticed that three times in this story she says, “I do not know where they have taken him.” Her search for Jesus is a constant in this description. Mary’s grief must have been overwhelming. She was so despondent over the death of Jesus that she just wanted to anoint his body, to be with him once more. And yet, she was denied that opportunity because of the empty tomb. She thought someone had stolen the body. Only Jesus himself could help her through her grief. Are there times when we too search for Jesus and feel as if we are lost without him? I think we can relate to Mary and her search of Jesus.
Another interesting situation in this narrative is the fact that Mary did not recognize Jesus when she first saw him. She thought he was the gardener. We don’t know for sure why she didn’t know it was Jesus. It may have been her grief that caused her confusion. It may have been the unexpected surprise. Or perhaps it was that Jesus didn’t exactly look the same. On Wednesday, when we discussed this passage, it was suggested that the spiritual body of Jesus somehow looked different. Mary recognized Jesus when he spoke with her. Only then did she know the risen Lord. She ran back and proclaimed to everyone, “I have seen the Lord”. How do you experience the resurrected Jesus? What have you read, seen, felt, heard or prayed for that helps you to have faith in the resurrection?
I am sure that some people here can share an experience of seeing Jesus. But most of us have not. One way we all encounter Jesus is in an encounter with another human being, someone who shares God’s love with us in a special way. I saw this happen when we recreated the washing of the feet here in this church on Thursday. The care that was given in the washing of the feet was a reflection of the risen Jesus.
I find faith in the story itself. I don’t think the writer embellished the story in any way. After all, it was the women who found the tomb empty and first knew that Jesus was risen. Women were not given much credit at that time. It gives me faith in the accuracy of the story to know that the writers didn’t take all of the credit away from the women. I also appreciate the truth of the resurrection when we are told that Peter did not believe when he saw the empty tomb. If a writer would describe Peter in this way, it gives me hope and faith.
I also find faith in the change that came over the apostles after the resurrection. Yes, it was not until Pentecost that they proclaimed the good news so loudly. But their trust in God grew dramatically as they spent time with the risen Jesus.
My faith in Jesus also comes from my experiences. I have had several times when I felt God’s presence. I felt God protecting me and guiding me. I feel Jesus is walking beside me. And I experience the risen Jesus in the people I encounter, the people who show the presence of God in their lives. I find it in the faces of people who come to this church and share God’s spirit with others. I find it in the volunteers who help others in this church and in the community. I find it in the people whom I visit, who despite their ailments, are so thankful for God’s presence in their lives. C.S. Lewis said it well, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
I hope that the light of Christ shines brightly in your life today. The early Christian leader Clement said it this way, “All things have become light… This is a new creation.” Let’s celebrate God’s new creation in Jesus. The joy that we have today is not caused by the words I share with you but rather the witness of people who were there. The risen Lord Jesus is found today in the love shared by those around us. It is found in God’s spirit that guides us and cares for us. May you have a blessed and joyful Easter! Amen.
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.