There is a cartoon with an older figure standing beside a cake with a lot of candles on it. Another figure is standing behind trying to give encouragement. The line underneath says this is the Holy Spirit trying to cheer up God the Father on a birthday. The caption says, “Don’t feel down, they say that infinity is the new thirty”. I celebrated my birthday last week so I sure hope that the Holy Spirit comes to help me feel like I am really thirty.
Here is one more story that you have probably heard. A priest is walking through the jungle when he comes upon a hungry lion. Just as the lion goes to attack, the priest crosses himself and says, "Lord, if you can hear me, please instill the Holy Spirit in this beast's heart." The lion stops in his tracks as a bright light begins to glow around him. He looks to the sky, folds his paws in prayer, and says, "Thank you, Lord, for this meal.” They say the Spirit works in mysterious ways
Today, we reach the end of the Easter Season and the beginning of ordinary time. It is actually far from ordinary for the scriptures speak directly to us about how we live our lives. It is marked by the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was sent by Jesus to aid the apostles and other disciples as they carried on without him. We seek the Holy Spirit in our lives as well. The Holy Spirit becomes our guide along the path.
There is an interesting little difference about the coming of the Holy Spirit in two of our scriptures for today. We first heard the lector read the story of the coming of the Holy spirit on Pentecost, fifty days after Easter. It was not a calm and quiet event. The disciples were gathered in a room, probably praying together. Suddenly there was a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. It sounds like a tornado to me. Then divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. Fire can also be a violent event. It certainly would have gotten everyone’s attention. There was no mistaking that something big was happening. It might have been this big event that caused the disciples to go outside and declare the work of the Lord to all who were gathered on that day in Jerusalem. Maybe it was the wind and the flame that changed Peter. He went from the gentleman who denied Jesus to the one who proclaimed Jesus to all. Somehow, he became the man who could give a sermon seemingly without preparation. As Jesus once said, don’t worry about what you will say, the Holy Spirit will give you the words when you need them. Yes, it was the Spirit who changed things
Compare that story to the one found in today’s gospel from John. In John’s account, the Holy Spirit was given to the apostles when Jesus appeared to them after his resurrection. Jesus breathed on them and said to them, “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.” In this case, the coming of the Holy Spirit feels so personal. The Spirit came from the breath of Jesus. It may have been forceful but it seems much quieter.
The result of either introduction of the Holy Spirit had the same impact. Either way, the disciples of Jesus were changed. They were empowered. They were given confidence that they could proclaim the good news of Jesus. And what is it that draws us to the Pentecost experience? I believe it is that wish to better understand what happened or perhaps it is that desire to experience God in a personal, concrete way, something that eliminates any doubt. Something that makes us sure in our faith.
Given our two lessons about the coming of the Holy Spirit, I ask you to consider the ways that the Spirit has helped you. Sometimes it might be the violent wind that shakes us out of our uncertainty. Sometime the power of the Spirit is like the quiet breath of Jesus giving us peace when we are anxious or afraid
I mentioned that the power of the Holy Spirit seemed to change Peter. But that same power changed many people that day. The power of the Holy Spirit healed some of the divisions found in the crowd that day. Many were skeptical at first but once the Holy Spirit had gripped them, they were united. The divisions that we find in their language were healed. And the division that was found in their belief was changed as well for many were baptized. The Holy Spirit was able to overcome the differences found in a crowd that had so many diverse backgrounds, languages and different customs to form a single belief in the teaching of Jesus.
We have so many different names and expressions to help us understand the Spirit. In Hebrew, the name given to the spirit was Ruach, the wind. In Greek the name used was Pneuma, or breath. I think of the spirit as a force and like the wind it cannot be tamed. The spirit will rush into a place with great strength. The Holy Spirit is our guide, our advocate, our Paraclete, our comforter. C. S. Lewis spoke of the Spirit as a force that is more shadowy, more vague than either God that we often call Father or Jesus. Lewis suggested that we are not usually looking for the Spirit. The Spirit is usually working in you and through you. The Spirit is both a force that causes things to happen and a sentiment that gives us comfort. We pray to God the Father, we know Jesus is at our side and we feel the Holy Spirit inside of us.
And we have a third view of the spirit when we listen to the words from 1st Corinthians. The spirit gives us special gifts all of which we are to use for the kingdom of God. Or as Paul writes, these gifts are for the manifestation of the spirit in our world. So whether it is speaking with wisdom or knowledge, increased faith, the gifts of healing, the gift of miracles, prophecy, the discernment of spirits, diverse kinds of tongues, or interpretation of tongues each of us has different gifts. I have learned that sometimes we know our own gifts and sometimes others see those gifts in us. We pray that the Spirit will help us to know and to use the gifts that we have received.
Sadly, people came to believe that some gifts were better than others. Paul originally wrote this letter because some believed that the ability to speak in tongues was more important than the other gifts. Paul asked them to remember that every gift has value. We have similar temptations to those that existed in Paul’s day. We run the risk of thinking that we are smarter or more spiritual or harder workers than others. We find it so often in Scripture and we find it in our community today. We each should care for another and listen for each other’s gifts.
I find it difficult to celebrate Pentecost with just a few people in the congregation. I wish that it was loud and boisterous instead of quiet and calm. I miss the custom we have of asking people to speak the words of Pentecost in many different languages just as the story tells us happened on that first Pentecost.
But I realize that the Holy Spirit came to the disciples when they needed help. I believe that the Spirit comes to us in our time of need. I am reminded once again that the spirit comes to us in many ways. Today, the spirit is being sent to us not in one single place, the church of the Transfiguration, but rather in each home that is participating in this service. We collectively have the spirit enter our souls even though we are distant from one another.
Just as the Spirit united peoples in Jerusalem, I pray that Spirit will unite us despite our differences. May the Spirit bring us together even though we are far apart and may the Spirit gives us the strength to deal with our challenges and to proclaim Jesus as our Lord and Savior. Amen.
There is the funny story of the raw army recruit standing at attention on the drill field. The drill instructor yells, “Forward, march!” And the entire ranks begin to move, all except this one raw recruit. He’s still standing there at attention so the drill instructor strolls over to him and yells in his right ear, “Is this thing working?” “Sir, yes, sir!” the recruit yells. Then the drill instructor walks around to the other ear and yells, “Is this thing working?” “Sir, yes, sir!” the soldier says. “Then why didn’t you march when I gave the order?” “Sir, I didn’t hear you call my name.”
Don’t all of us wish that we would hear God calling our name out individually so we would know exactly what God wants of each of us. I think today’s Gospel comes very close. I ask you to hear Jesus praying to God for you, personally, and all of us collectively. In this prayer, Jesus tells every one of us what to do. We are to know God and to know Jesus Christ. Then we will have eternal life.
Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension, the celebration of Jesus going up to heaven in a bodily form. Many of us probably didn’t even notice and we didn’t do anything special here at Transfiguration to celebrate the day. That is why we hear the reading of the Ascension from Acts. Ascension is always celebrated forty days after Easter. Forty days we didn’t have Easter services open to everyone and now we have gone another forty days. Forty is also used in the Bible as a sign of a long time. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness before he started his public ministry. The flood was caused by rain for forty days and nights. The Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years. Forty is both a long time period and a time of important change.
Did you notice the reaction of the apostles as Jesus ascended? The angels told them to stop looking up to heaven, Jesus will be back. They returned to Jerusalem and prayed, waiting. The Gospel of Luke also tells about the ascension. In that version, probably written by the same author as the person who wrote Acts, the apostles “worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” They were not sad that Jesus left, they were joyful. They were happy because Jesus was expected to return again soon, possibly because this confirmed that Jesus was the Messiah.
I was thinking about the ascension as I meditated on the gospel. For in the gospel Jesus is praying to God. As part of that prayer Jesus said, “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father.” Yes, Jesus was going to leave the disciples and go to be with God the Father in heaven.
Perhaps you think that Jesus offered this prayer when he went off by himself and spoke with his Father in heaven. Actually, Jesus said the prayer at the last dinner he shared, with his followers gathered around.
Can you imagine being there at the table with Jesus and hearing him offering this prayer for you? I feel strengthened when I experience prayers being said for me. How do you feel when you realize Jesus said this prayer for you? In a way, it is a teaching about a prayer that we might offer, a prayer asking God that we might believe and asking God to give us eternal life. It is a prayer that helps us to focus on our relationship with both Jesus and the Father.
Jesus prayed for his followers just before he was crucified and Jesus blessed his apostles just before he ascended. Today, I feel the connection of the three books of the Bible: Luke, John and Acts. They celebrate Jesus as our Lord and Savior and they all have prayers that Jesus offered for his followers just before he left them.
This prayer in today’s gospel was offered on our behalf just as it was offered for the apostles. We are followers of Jesus. We believe what he taught us and we believe in God. Jesus prayed that we would be protected and that we would be nourished. Perhaps the strongest words are offered by Jesus in the second verse of today’s reading. “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
John’s gospel often speaks of eternal life. 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.
Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”
Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.
What does eternal life means to you? I have heard so many different explanations. People who have had near death experiences say that they see a bright light. People describe heaven in many different ways. They speak of family members that they will see once again. Some talk of their dogs being part of heaven. I even heard someone describe heaven as a picnic, a time of happiness for us and all those that are with. I am sure that much of what people imagine heaven to be like will be true. But I ask you to come back to the words of Jesus. Eternal life is knowing God and knowing Jesus. Is it possible that you are experiencing eternal life now? It is as if we are part of this world but not part of this world. Jesus said eternal life is already here when we know God and Jesus Christ.
John’s gospel supports this idea of eternal life right now. In Chapter 3 we hear, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life”. in Chapter 5 we hear, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgement, but has passed from death to life. Knowing God gives us some glimpse of what we will experience after we die. We live in the protective arms of God now and cannot wait to have that experience even stronger later. There are so many mysteries about God. Will we have eternal life when we understand all of those mysteries about God? I sure hope so.
We are in a time of the church year that is an in between time. Jesus has given his life for us. Jesus has left the earth and the Holy Spirit has not yet come. We are in a kind of limbo. The forty days means that something big is happening. Jesus has left the earth and the Holy Spirit has not yet come.
We know all of what has happened. But I ask you to imagine that Jesus has left and yet the Holy Spirit, the power of God given to us all, has not yet come. Imagine still that Jesus has told us that if we believe then we have eternal life. And yet, we must live our lives without the presence of Jesus physically here on earth. We have no one else to turn to but the other believers that are with us. Isn’t that why Jesus prayed that we would all be one. He prayed “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
Let us pray together to God that the Holy Spirit will come one more time at Pentecost to guide us and to strengthen us. Imagine that you are with the other disciples. You have followed and believed in Jesus and you have been promised that the Holy Spirit will come. You go back to Jerusalem after the Ascension of Jesus and you are joyful. You remember the prayer of Jesus that we heard today in the Gospel and you pray that God will send that same Holy Spirit to be with you.
If you have some uncertainty in your life now, I ask you to look forward with hope, asking the Holy Spirit to be with you and knowing that God will protect you just as Jesus asked. May you be certain of eternal life because you have believed. Amen.
This week we learned that the owner of the New England Patriots, Robert Kraft, was going to auction off one of his Super Bowl rings for charity. I am sure that the ring has great value from a financial perspective but it means a lot to him for sentimental reasons. It is the ring from the Super Bowl when the Patriots overcame a huge deficit and defeated the Atlanta Falcons. Kraft said that it reminded him of the time we are in now, a time when we are collectively coming back from the pandemic that is impacting everyone. It is quite a gift for charity.
Kraft’s gift is part of an effort called the “All in Challenge” which was started by an executive named Michael Rubin who is the executive chairman of an online business called Fanatics. Rubin has challenged sports figures, musicians, business moguls, and celebrities to offer once in a lifetime opportunities for people. His goal is to raise money for Covid-19 relief. Specifically, the money will help feed those in need. Their website says that “Food insecurity is a mounting issue but never more important than during COVID-19 and the unprecedented shortage of food resources our nation is facing. The money collected will be given to Meals on Wheels, World Central Kitchen, and No Kid Hungry, Feeding America and America’s Food Fund.” So far the challenge has raised $40 million dollars. By the way, if you want to bid on the Super Bowl ring, the current bid is $775,000. I won’t be able to make a higher bid. Kraft’s net worth is estimated to be 6.9 billion dollars so the gift is significant but will probably not change his net worth.
I feel connected to this “All in Challenge” because our church has been concerned with and supported the issue of food for needy people for many years. I am thankful for all those who are helping provide food for needy people.
The need for rich people to give to others is directly connected to our gospel lesson. Jesus warned people about greed and many of us are at risk for letting greed take over our lives. Jesus told a parable about a rich man who decided to build new barns because he had been so successful in his farming business. But the end result was that those new barns didn’t help him because he died as soon as the barns were finished.
In our society it is a common teaching that we should continually seek to get more money and more things. We are taught to set aside money in order to tide us over when things go bad. We are taught to save up lots of money so we won’t run out when we are retired. We believe that it is wise and responsible to save for the future. But these messages can easily cause people to end up saving more money than they really need. We can easily become hoarders of all different kinds of things. Even in my own life, I realize that since we have owned our current house, we have many more things than when we first moved in. We all just collect things. One of my pet peeves is the number of storage facilities that we have in Arizona. They are just like barns used to store up the things that we probably don’t need.
The rich man in the parable was not wrong for saving for the future. He was wrong because he seemed to only care about himself. And he was wrong because he thought that wealth alone can secure his future. The rich farmer seems to only be talking with himself about what to do. “What should I do?”, he asks himself and later, “I know what I will do”. The man ends up being pleased with all of this work saying to himself, “And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry’”. The rich farmer gave no credit to others who worked on his farm. But most important, he didn’t give thanks to God for the gifts that God gave to him. The rich man in the parable did not talk to himself about sharing some of his wealth with others. It seemed that he wanted it all for himself even though he could not use it all.
I read a story this week about a man who owned an ice cream store. He was able to reopen his store in the last few days and people crowded into his store to get ice cream. They just wanted to get out and do something. There were so many people in the ice cream store that the workers couldn’t dish the ice cream fast enough. Some of the customers started to yell at a 17-year old girl because they were impatient. They said terrible things about her. She was so upset that she quit when her shift was over. She had been a faithful worker serving the people for over three years. As I think about that story I ask you to pray that we will all find a way to live with each other, that we will have patience and understanding because this is a time when things are not going the way we are used to nor are they going the way we want them to. We also hear stories about people arguing over whether they have to wear a mask or stand a certain distance away from others. There is good news as well. The owner set up a go fund me page for the 17-year old worker to pay for her college expenses and so far they have received over $30,000. Just as we understand that the rich man should have thought of others, let us pray that we will think of others as we come out of this isolation period.
As Jesus said in the parable, we never know when our time on earth will be over. We all feel that these days. The Covid-19 virus is the true silent killer. We have little clue about whether a person that we meet has the virus and we don’t know how our body will react if we get the disease. The end result is that we don’t know whether our time has come for God to call us home or not. The rich man in the parable never realized that he could not totally create security for himself. While the current virus has impacted more poor people than rich people, the rich are not saved from the virus. Every one of us, rich or poor, has the possibility to contract Covid-19 and to die from it.
As I read in one commentary today, “It is not that God doesn’t want us to save for retirement or future needs. It is not that God doesn’t want us to eat, drink, and be merry and enjoy what God has given us. We know from the Gospels that Jesus spent time eating and drinking with people and enjoying life. But he was also clear about where his true security lay.” Our security lies with God through Jesus Christ.
Jesus was asking the people of his time to realize that they could be so easily fooled into thinking that wealth, or fame, or being friends with the right people will give us the security that we need. When we are fooled like that we can easily fall into the trap of greed, of thinking that we just need a little more to take care of ourselves.
In this time of solitude, let us turn to God, for God is the one who gives us comfort. As the last line would suggest, let us be rich toward God. If our heart is with God, then we will know God’s comfort and peace.
As we begin to slowly leave our period of quarantine, let us focus on how we are part of the creation that God has established. Let us join God as creators in all we do. Let us help to bring food to others just as the All in Challenge is trying to do. We may not be able to provide as much money or feed as many people as the All in Challenge will do but we can still make a difference one person and one food bank at a time. Thank you for all that you do and let us thank God for all of our blessings. Amen.
I found a story that fits our readings but I am not sure if it is a true story. “India has many boy merchants, and for their use, as they journey, the charitable have placed rest-stones along the roads. A woman missionary once passed a weary little fellow as he reclined against one of these stones and quoted the Bible to him: "Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." The lad was invited to the mission school, and there he learned to love Jesus. His face lit up as he heard Psalm 18 and the verse which begins with, "The Lord is my rock." "That is better than any resting-stone," he said. "It keeps one rested all the time."
Those words, “Come unto me all who are heavy laden and I will give you rest” come from the gospel of Matthew. When I think of rest for our souls it gives me the sense of total relaxation and comfort. We will find rest in Jesus for our heart, our mind, our bodies, our will and our emotions. It is that sense of total rest that comes only from being in faith with Jesus. In fact, Jesus tells us that our rest comes from taking his yoke upon ourselves and learning from him. Perhaps the rest we get is not just the physical rest that comes from stopping our work, but the rest that comes from knowing that we have truth, that we no longer have to search for that certain something which causes us to be restless. It is that sense that we know we are in God’s hands.
I listen to the words, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls”. Our rest is important. But it is also important to turn our hearts to Jesus and take his yoke upon our shoulders.
We have the chance to hear about rest in today’s gospel. It is what led me to think about the passage in Matthew. Just before these verses begin, Jesus had sent his twelve apostles out into the world. He gave them authority over unclean spirits. They had been told to take nothing with them except the clothes on their backs. They were to proclaim that all should repent. They cast out demons and cured many of the sick when they anointed them with oils. Now, they had returned to Jesus and told him what had happened. It sounds like they were very successful. And Jesus tells them it is their time to rest. So, they jump in a boat and go across the sea of Galilee expecting to find some quiet time. They deserved their rest.
We have been forced into a time of quiet because of this pandemic. Jesus said, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” Let us take this time away from others to build up our strength and to prepare ourselves for what God is asking us to do next.
A week ago, we celebrated earth day, we have seen the improvement in air quality around the world. In places like Los Angeles and the eastern seaboard, we can see the improvement in air quality in photos that have been taken before and after. Other countries have seen this as well. I especially noticed the improvement in air quality in India. It is as if the earth has been given some time to rest to build up its strength and some time to prepare for what is to come next.
I wonder what you might be resting from and for. I hope that you are able to spend some of your time contemplating your faith life. Perhaps you might take advantage of this time to think about how you might learn from Jesus and find some true rest in his arms.
I find it difficult to rest for long periods of time. The quarantine we are under now seems to have lasted forever but we may decide later that it didn’t last long enough or that we didn’t take advantage of the time we had. Our time of rest may not last long. Look at what happened to the apostles. They tried getting away with Jesus for some quiet time but the crowds followed them and met them again when they finally pulled into shore.
The next events remind me that despite our efforts to learn from Jesus we remember that we will never understand everything about Jesus or about God. The apostles had just returned from doing great work proclaiming the word of Jesus. But soon they were taught that they have much more to learn. The crowds were all around them and the apostles first thought that they should send the crowds away for they had no food. Jesus told the apostles to feed the crowd. The apostles didn’t understand. We don’t have enough money to buy food for everyone. They didn’t know what Jesus had planned. Jesus used the small amount of food that one boy had brought. Everyone was fed from that small amount of food. It was an unexpected miracle, a mystery.
During this time of rest many are struggling. We might find a way in this time of restfulness to care for others. That is the way we take his yoke upon us. Simply staying in touch with others is a way to share God’s love. You also may wish to help others in need. Through the generosity of many, our million meals program last week sent money to help over 20 food banks in the valley continuing to provide food to those in need. Jesus taught us to care for others.
So we are encouraged by Jesus to find rest and we contemplate his marvelous works. We have one more reminder today and that is to be watchful. Just before today’s reading from 1st John, he shared that God forgives us and brings us into the light. But now, he shifts focus and warns us that false gods may come and lead us astray. The antichrist will come he said. We may not easily recognize the antichrist. The antichrist may not come as a devil figure who tries so obviously to lead us into sin but rather as someone who on the surface sounds like a follower of Jesus. We must be mindful of the ease by which we may lose our path. We turn to the teachings of Jesus himself and rely on them. The author of 1 John speaks of the Holy One, the Holy Spirit, who will keep us on the correct path. In John, we are told that we know the truth and if we listen carefully we will know the antichrist when we encounter him or her.
In our rest, we need to be watchful. One way to be vigilant is to pray the words that are found in our Psalm today. “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy Name”. Psalm 103 gives us a great list of God’s blessings. God forgives our sins. God heals us when we are sick. God shares mercy and loving kindness. God provides justice and righteousness. God is full of compassion and mercy.
Let us live in thanksgiving. For perhaps there isn’t much rest to be had after all. The apostles were not able to have rest because the crowds followed Jesus. We too may find that there is not much rest because the devil is always lurking.
Many of us, myself included, feel so constrained by the limitations placed on us from the pandemic. We wish that we could go out more, see friends, travel, and enjoy life the way we are used to doing. But we might consider this time as a time that Jesus has created for us. Jesus may have wished for us to have a time of quiet, a time to find a deserted place and rest a while. If that is so, then I think he would want us to rest physically. But I also think that Jesus would have wanted us to take the time to learn from him, to watch out for evil forces and to prepare ourselves for what is to come. May you find a way to rest in times of anxiety, may you actually rest even though you wish to be somewhere else or do something else. May you accept the yoke of Jesus for he said, my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Amen.
To the glory of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
After I, much to the surprise of many, graduated from Seminary, I served two churches in California. While serving at St. Stephens, the Rector and music director decided to research buying a new electronic organ. So one morning the three of us set out to Mission Delores in San Francisco, a wonderful place to visit. Shortly after stepping into the sanctuary I realized the whole place was full of angels. I was so delighted I laughed aloud.
Now these were not Angels one could see. I have many such angels of that type in my home because I have always loved the concept of angels and it delights my heart to see those little man-made constructs I have all around my place, but the angels at Mission Delores were very real, just not visible, but nonetheless quite tangible.
Ultimately, as I recall, the decision was made to purchase the new organ. But my whole mind was full of the contemplation of those angels that had made their presence felt, if not seen, and I have even as a child been sure that whenever creation gathers to worship the Creator there are always Angels present, for God created angels for the glory of God. The amazing thing about that is God created us for the very same thing - to glorify God. The difference, of course, is we have free will and we don't always use it to the glory of God. But we COULD! We could.
Another event occurred during those years in California: the 15th anniversary of the election of the Right Reverend Bill Swing as Bishop of the Diocese of California. The commemoration extended over a fairly long period of time and gave me an opportunity to learn of the truly amazing ways in which his grace had chosen to glorify the Lord our God.
The parishes of the diocese were thriving and involved in Outreach Ministry, as is Transfiguration. The diocese had become, both as individuals and corporately, deeply involved in ministry to the poor, the outcast and the disenfranchised. One day in conversation with the bishop, I said to him “You have done amazing things in this diocese in the way you have expanded Outreach among those for whom our Lord Christ has special concern.”
And I have not nor will I ever forget his response. He looked at me, smiled and said “I have not done anything. I'm just the cheerleader.” That's how one Bishop heard and responded to our universal call in creation to glorify the Lord our God.
We can all choose to be such cheerleaders, and thereby glorify our Lord! Scripture, as you know, speaks of the “priesthood of all believers” and it is indeed that to which all we are called. We glorify God as we minister to one another, and to all of those we encounter in our lives. In fact, I am certain that it is the one-on-one individual ministry that is most effective against the injustice, deprivation and oppression that plagues so many of our own brothers and sisters.
It is a glorious and righteous thing when we provide well over a million meals to our hungry neighbors, but truly it's not about the numbers or the scope of program. But rather it's about the depth of our love for the Lord, Our God, and for one another. We cannot truly love, except that God helps us to do so. Just as truly we cannot glorify our beloved Lord unless God gives to us the grace, the wisdom and the courage to do that.
As Jesus prepared himself to face his crucifixion he tells his disciples that he has a new commandment to give them: They were to “love one another as he, the Incarnation of the Living God, had loved them.” And those disciples were to learn all too soon just exactly what Jesus meant by loving.
And it is that command that we love one another with the depth of love Christ has for all creation that resounds throughout eternity. It is that love which we, as the priesthood of all believers, are called in our creation so that we may live our lives to the glory of God as our Lord has created us to do. A command not new but eternal.
Both of the Psalms in today's readings begin and end with hallelujah! Praise to God! And that is indeed a fine place to start and end our worship and our lives. The two psalms called for God's praise in song with a great variety of instruments and to praise God with dance. The rector will lead that!
All living creatures are called to praise God and to praise joyfully in our homes, and publicly and in private. Most of all the Psalms imply that we will praise God in the synagogue, temple, church, mosque or wherever we gather to worship. And right now, we, like much of the world, cannot do that. So we improvise, our hearts longing for our accustomed worship and for the companionship of our beloved Parish family. And yet our God not only understands, God still assists us to love, to have our faith and to live our worship of our Lord.
Some folks will tell you that God has sent this horrible pandemic to chasen and chastise us. But though the song speaks of vengeance I don't think God does vengeance but calls to us still, sometimes with persuasion, sometimes with consequences.
Perhaps we know we are being called to acknowledge that God's commands are not those of an arbitrary and autocratic ruler, but rather the guidance and teaching of a loving creator. Perhaps we are being reminded by our Lord God that we are called to be stewards of creation rather than abusers. Perhaps as members of the priesthood of believers we are called to be faithful in our understanding that all people and creatures are God's own beloved, as are we! Perhaps we need to hold that faithful understanding and learn to treat each other accordingly! Truly no matter what transpires for us our God still loves all creation including us and God will never leave us. We have Christ's own promise on that.
So now I want to tell you my newest favorite story about seeing our beloved Lord God as viewed by some of God's own. My son Philip shared this with me yesterday. It seemed he had an errand to run and he took with him six-year-old Benjamin and four-year-old Brynleigh on the way into town. They passed a cemetery.
The children, being full of questions, wanted to stop and walk around and look. So on the way home they stopped. Philip endeavors to answer all questions in ways that would be relevant to the children. And, thus, the explanations, as they walked along included the names of some relatives and their titles. Some were living and some had gone to glory such as grandma so-and-so, uncle this, aunt that, cousin whatever. You get the idea.
Finally, Benjamin wanted to confirm his understanding of what his dad had said which is his usual practice. Daddy says when people die then God collects them. I love that God collects them and takes them to heaven. What do they do then? Come on Phillip. We're waiting for that answer. Philip still being relevant for the kids says well then son people get to hang out with God and each other.
Now Benjamin gives that some thought. Then he says well Daddy, do we all have to wear clothes? Phillip suggested that he could probably wear his favorite John Deere shirt. Now I confess to you my friends I have no idea whatsoever about the Heavenly dress code. But whatever it is I know that God still loves us and no matter what pandemics, heavenly people collections, improvised worship and/or paper shortages, the Lord Our God has got this and so we all are fine.
Thanks be to God.
Sermon given by Rev. Susan Smith-Allen
During World War II, Winston Church, the prime mister of Great Britain, would often flash a sign with two fingers that was meant to indicate V for victory. He was such a positive presence for his people and the V was his way to show defiance in the face of the constant bombing the British people were experiencing. Occasionally, he would make the sign with his palm facing inward. That was considered an insulting gesture, and when Churchill showed the sign that way he meant lets stick it to the Germans. His gesture is remembered as a sign of hope and determination (perhaps even resolution).
In the 1960’s, the V sign was used by people as a sign of peace by those who opposed the Vietnam War. In fact it was called the peace sign. President Richard Nixon began to use this as a sign of victory and a sign of peace. Nixon would often flash this sign with both hands. He even offered this sign as he was leaving the White House when he resigned from the presidency. Since then, the sign has been used in many ways. Some people, particularly the Japanese, use this sign in amateur photographs to indicate friendship and peace.
It is the V sign used as a sign of peace that I would ask you to consider today. In our gospel, Jesus appeared to his disciples in the upper locked room, after his resurrection. They were frightened and uncertain of what to do next. He said the words “Peace be with you”. As we continue to isolate ourselves because of the pandemic we are facing, we are unable to greet each other in person. I suggest that you consider flashing that old sign of peace, a sign which is not often used these days, as an indication that you are offering God’s peace to each other despite the separation we face and despite the hardships we encounter.
When Jesus said those words of peace to his apostles he most assuredly said to them Shalom alaichiem or very similar words in Aramaic. As you know, Shalom is a Hebrew word that means so many things. It can mean peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility. I am sure that it meant all of those things to the apostles. For they were totally lost. They grieved the death of their friend, leader, teacher and Messiah. They didn’t know what to do next. They were afraid. In his resurrection, Jesus changed everything for them. Jesus gave them a sense of wholeness, and a knowledge that life for them would be well. They came to know what he expected of them.
I feel that we need all of those things in our life today. I worry about the people in our congregation and I wonder what the future holds for us all. Yet even though I know God is here, I can still have questions. I can still wonder why God seems to be hidden from us. We might be like Thomas, looking for a sign.
I am reminded of a scene from the movie the two popes. In that movie, Jorge Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis, described a time when he was sent away to a small town in a distant state. We might think of it as his time of exile. In the movie, he gave a sermon to the local people in the small town. In the sermon, he said that parishioners would tell him that they prayed but they did not think that God responded to their prayers. These same people were certain that priests never had that problem. After all, priests always feel connected to God. But the future Pope disagreed. He had many times when he didn’t feel God’s presence in his life and it made him feel as if he was not qualified to give a sermon.
I have had those experiences myself and I remember my own experience as I read the gospel. For Thomas struggled to believe until he had some personal and physical evidence. Thomas said, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” So why does God remain hidden from us. I read a commentary about that this week. The author asked “Why doesn’t God reveal himself so concretely and physically that no one could doubt his existence? His answer came from Karl Rahner, a German priest and theologian. God isn’t hidden, he says, we just don’t have the eyes to see God because our eyes aren’t attuned to that kind of reality: “We are just discovering today that one cannot picture God to oneself in an image that has been carved out of the wood of the world. This experience is not the genesis of atheism, but the discovery that the world is not God.” You see, we are not weak because we don’t see God. We are only people of this world and God is not of this world. Our struggle is to understand something that is not of this world.
One of the keys to faith comes in the resurrection of Jesus and in the witness that has been given to us by the apostles. In today’s reading from 1st Peter, we hear again the witness of saints who have gone before us and their witness gives us hope. Jesus “has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead”. We are told in the book of Acts that these disciples were filled with so much hope that they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.
It is hard for me to imagine the excitement of those first believers. They ate together and were joyful. They weren’t worried about whether they were overeating, they didn’t worry about where their next meal would come from. They were so excited by the knowledge of the resurrection of Jesus that it filled their entire lives.
We may struggle with where God is on occasion but let us always live with hope because of his resurrection. As Paul told us in Corinthians, we live in the three virtues of faith, hope, and love (or charity). Hope is a virtue that we can choose. We are thankful and glad that we have hope in this life because of the resurrection of Jesus. We can be like the first disciples. Our hope allows us to have the patience that we will see God, that God will triumph. And it is in hope that we live with joy in the resurrection of Jesus.
So we come back to that night when Jesus came through the doors to see the apostles. Jesus said to them, “Peace be with you”. That first evening he said it not once but twice. Peace be with you. The next week, Jesus said it again. This time he also said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Those words are for each and every one of us. Jesus didn’t complain about the lack of faith that Thomas had. Jesus doesn’t complain about the wrongs we have done. He just reaches out to you and says, Peace be with you. These are words that can solve all of my worries. I ask you to hear Jesus say it to you over and over again. Peace be with you.
The Peace of Jesus is different than any other peace that we have been given. It is a peace which goes beyond our understanding. It is a peace that is available to us in our prayers or in our daily lives.
It is with faith and hope and joy and love that we offer God’s Peace to others. In this time of uncertainty, in this time when we cannot touch each other to offer a sign of peace in person, I ask you to lift your hands and show the sign of peace to each other. In that sign of peace, you can express a little bit of what Winston Churchill expressed. For God’s peace can be a sign of hope and a sign of determination that we will come through this together. And the sign of peace can be our certainty that Jesus is with us. It can be a sign of harmony and wholeness as well. And our sign of peace can be an expression of God’s love that we share with others. May God’s peace be with you. Amen.
Several weeks ago, our bishop sent out an announcement that the churches would be closed until at least April 20th. I remember at the time thinking to myself how can she close the churches for Easter and what will Easter be like without having our big service. It turns out she was right. Our world has been taken over by this pandemic. We spend our time alone in our own homes, away from others. Our news is consumed with sad stories. We listen to the rising count of people who have contracted the disease and the number of people who have died. We hear about shortages of medical supplies. Medical Professionals, emergency responders and police are catching this disease. The economy is not doing well. Scammers are taking advantage of others using the disease as a way to trick them. How can it be Easter with so much going on?
There is so much about Easter that we will not experience. There will be no Easter Egg Hunt. We won’t see others wearing bright pastel colors, colors which we connect with Easter. We will have to eat our Easter candy by ourselves. We won’t be wishing each other a Happy Easter in person. Most of us will miss having a big Easter dinner with all of our friends, family, and neighbors.
But in the midst of all of this there is good news as well. People are reaching out to others in ways that we have not seen before. The anger that many have for those who don’t agree with them has quieted down. People are helping others who are less fortunate. And medical workers are being cheered by those who care and are thankful. And I am personally thankful that I see so few political ads on TV.
Today is Easter. There is so much we miss. I am thankful for technology which has brought us together in a different way. But I get discouraged by the problems that we experience with technology in our services. I have been in online services where people have dropped off unexpectedly. I don’t like it when multiple people try to say prayers together but their words are not synced. I find my mind wandering when I watch a service online and I feel guilty. Technology is not as good for me as seeing each of you in church. But we don’t need to have all of those wonderful things that we enjoy. We only need to remember that today is Easter, the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. We still celebrate and say the words Jesus is risen. It has meaning to us despite the fact that we don’t share it in person with the rest of our church community. It is as if something wonderful has happened in our lives but we are not able to share it with others. We can be happy inside and just wait until we are able to see others to share our joy.
I have always felt a strong connection to the first followers of Jesus at Easter. They were just normal people trying to understand the amazing thing that had happened. Given our current situation, I am reminded that they didn’t have chocolate bunnies or Easter eggs or bright clothes. In fact, they didn’t call this day Easter. That didn’t come until much later. But they did spend time with other faithful people sharing a meal, praying and being thankful.
The oldest written words about the resurrection of Jesus that we still have come from Paul. Today we hear his thoughts. Through the resurrection of Jesus, we too have been raised up. We have been lifted out of the depths of sin. And we are encouraged to "Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
I find it helpful to consider the impact that the resurrection had on the apostles. Paul wrote about the disciples in his letter to the Corinthians. He said that Jesus appeared to the others as witnesses. Our first thought may be that these people were especially blessed, they were so fortunate that they got to see the resurrected Jesus. But with their gift, they also received a responsibility. For they received the job to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection. And as we know, the proclamation that Jesus was raised from the dead caused many of them to be killed. I find great encouragement from the experience of the apostles. It helps me when I have questions. These folks were afraid and doubtful yet came to realize the glory of God in the resurrection of Jesus. I hope that you reach that same place. Yes, we may be called to be witnesses as well.
On Tuesday, I attended a service called the renewal of vows. All the clergy in the diocese of Arizona joined. Of course, we did it remotely through Youtube. I was touched by the gospel reading which comes from John chapter 12. Jesus said “when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” Jesus thought of us throughout his ministry and I believe Jesus reaches out to us today.
In the reading from Acts today, we hear Peter proclaim the resurrection, himself. Each time that we encounter this miracle, this victory over sin and death, this love of God, we have the opportunity to experience something new. Peter proclaimed the story of the resurrection to Cornelius and to other Gentiles who were with him. And in that retelling, lives were changed. First, Peter’s life was changed for he finally understood and proclaimed that the gospel of Jesus was not just for Jews but for all people. God shows no partiality, he says. Later he adds, “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Cornelius, the centurion, was also changed, feeling part of this community of believers, knowing God’s love. Jesus is the Messiah for every nation and every person. We don’t have to wonder if God loves us.
I share these words from professor Matt Skinner, “Throughout the sermon Peter emphasizes God as the agent behind all aspects of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Because God was active through Jesus, Jesus' story attests God as welcoming of all, as refusing to make distinctions among people. Peter sees in Jesus' story evidence that confirms what he has come to learn about God." The resurrection of Jesus is for each of us.
Let’s reflect for a moment on the resurrection story. Mary Magdalene arrived first and when she saw the empty tomb she ran to get Peter and the other disciple. The two men see the empty tomb and even go inside but strangely they do not encounter Jesus.
If you find it difficult today to feel the joy and hope of the resurrection then you are not alone. Because someone as faithful and well known as Peter was uncertain as well. We don’t know how Peter felt. We are only told that he did not yet understand. I imagine that Peter struggled. Is it possible that he thought the authorities took the body of Jesus? Was he afraid that something would happen to him if he shouted excitedly about Jesus being raised from the dead? Was he like Thomas, waiting to see Jesus for himself before he came to a conclusion? We just don’t know. All that we are told is that the two men simply went home.
The story might have ended there but Mary stuck around. Mary encountered Jesus and she was the first to go out and proclaim that Jesus was resurrected. Every one of the gospel stories reports that it was the women who told what had happened. Doesn’t it help you to appreciate the role of the women followers? I know that the role of women was different in those days. They had the responsibility to go and anoint the body with oils. And I know that the women might have been able to move around more freely because the authorities would not have worried about what the women were going to do. Despite all of this, I would bring your attention to the fact that the women are the ones who go and tell everyone what had happened. They were the ones who got everyone excited. Without their witness, the story would have been different. It is one more example that the resurrection of Jesus is for everyone.
Today, we are joyful. Jesus defeated death and through his actions we have also been lifted up. But it is also a day for hope. Some have said that this is the lentiest Lent they have ever experienced. Let us hope that Easter will be the greatest Easter of our lives. Jesus told us that he is the resurrection and the life. He has gone before us to prepare a place for us. In these difficult times we hope for the resurrection, we hope for the return of Jesus and we hope that God will help us to put an end to this pandemic. Amen.
On this day we commemorate the last meal that Jesus shared with his disciples. In today’s gospel, St. John recalls how Jesus told those who sat at table with him:“I give you a new commandment: that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” In fact that new commandment, that mandatum novum, is what gives this day its name, Maundy Thursday.
The love about which Jesus spoke is rooted and grounded in humility, a humility which he demonstrated for his disciples just moments before by washing their feet. After which he said to them: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” Therefore, I want to reflect with you briefly today on that greatest of all virtues, humility, of which someone once said:“Those who think they have it, don’t, and those who think they don’t have it, often do.” There was also the Dominican monk who once said that, “The Jesuits are known for their learning, and the Franciscans for their piety and good works, but when it comes to humility, we’re tops!” You and I are called to exercise that humility in the love that we show toward other people, following the commandment our Lord gave to us. True humility allows us to do what we have to do without recognition, to put our trust in God, and to be grateful for the things we have. It is on these three aspects of humility that I wish to focus today.
There was an interesting article in Life magazine sometime back. It was about Dan Dyer, a maintenance man for Roper Hospital in Charleston, SC. Until 1989 Dan had been responsible for the hospital heating and air conditioning system for eight years and yet the hospital staff for the most part were oblivious to Dan’s existence. Dan was usually out of sight in the boiler room or some such place, and his contribution to the healing of sick and hurting people just wasn’t all that obvious. In September of 1989, though, Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston. Electricity went out all over town. Roper Hospital was reduced to a system of backup generators, and for some reason the diesel pump for the generators was not pumping the needed fuel to them. That threatened to leave a large hospital and its intensive care unit, where patients depend on life-support systems, with no electricity. It was in the midst of that crisis that Dan Dyer made five trips out into a hurricane to hand-pump diesel fuel back to the small tank that fueled the generator. Every trip through the high-velocity winds, water, and crashing debris was a risk of his life to safeguard the lives of the patients in the hospital. After that night, nurses, the hospital administrator, and even the governor of the state knew who Dan was. Dan Dyer became a bit of a celebrity and was recognized from that point on as the man who keeps Roper Hospital running. Isn’t it somewhat ironic that for eight years Dan Dyer worked faithfully behinds the scenes without any thought of recognition for himself, and only when a crisis occurred was he thrust into the limelight?
Another mark of the humility that underlies the love which our Lord asks us to share with one another, is our trust that God is with us and behind us in all that we do. After Sundar Singh, an Indian Christian missionary who died in 1929, had completed a tour around the world, people asked him, Doesn’t it do harm, your getting so much honor?” The ascetic holy man’s answer was: “No.” He went on to say, “ [On that first Palm Sunday] the donkey went into Jerusalem, and they put garments on the ground before him. He was not proud. He knew that it was not done to honor him, but that it was for Jesus, who was sitting on his back. Likewise, when people honor me, I know that it is not me, but the Lord, who does the job.” When Communist forces invaded Vietnam in the 1950s, Hien Pham, like many Vietnamese Christians, was arrested and jailed for his beliefs. After his release from prison, Pham made plans to escape Vietnam. He secretly began building a boat. Fifty-three fellow Vietnamese made plans to escape with him One day, four Vietcong soldiers came to Pham’s house and confronted him. They heard he was planning an escape. Was it true? Of course, Hien Pham lied to them. If he had told the truth, the Vietcong might have killed him and arrested the other fifty-three participants. But after the soldiers left, Pham felt uneasy. Had God really wanted him to lie? Didn’t he trust that God would provide for him under any circumstances? Even though it made no logical sense, Pham believed that God wanted him to tell the truth, even at the risk of his own life. So, Pham resolved that if the Vietcong returned, he would trust God, he would confess his escape plans. Well, Pham finished building his boat, and his friends made the final plans for their daring escape. To their horror, the Vietcong soldiers returned and demanded to know if the escape rumors were true. Hoping against hope, Hien Pham confessed his plans to escape. Imagine Pham’s surprise when the soldiers replied, “Take us with you!” That evening, Hien Pham, his fifty-three friends, and four Vietcong soldiers made a daring escape under cover of night on a homemade boat. But that is not the end of the story! They sailed straight into a violent storm. Pham reports that they surely would have been lost, if not for the expert sailing skills of the four Vietcong soldiers. The escapees landed safely in Thailand. Eventually, Hien Pham emigrated to the United States, where he made a new life for himself. Hien Pham, in his humility, trusted in God, fully convinced that God is able to do what God has promised.
A final attribute of that humility to which Jesus calls us is a deep gratitude for all that we have been given. The famous American concert impresario, Sol Hurok, liked to say that Marian Anderson had not simply grown great, she had grown great simply. He said: “A number of years ago a reporter interviewed Marian and asked her to name the greatest moment in her life. I was in her dressing room at the time and was curious to hear the answer. I knew that she had many big moments to choose from. There was the night Toscanini told her that hers was the finest voice of the century. There was the private concert she gave at the White House for the Roosevelts and the King and Queen of England. She had received the $10,000 Bok Award as the person who had done the most for her home town of Philadelphia. To top it all, there was that Easter Day in Washington, D.,C. when she stood beneath the Lincoln Memorial and sang for a crowd of 75,000, which included Cabinet members, Supreme Court Justices, and most members of Congress.” Which of those big moments did she choose? “None of them,” said Hurok. “Miss Anderson told the reporter that the greatest moment of her life was the day she went home and told her mother she wouldn’t have to take in washing anymore.” We need to be grateful to God for all that we have been given, however small or insignificant that may seem.
In another place and at another time Jesus said, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Humility is the defining characteristic of the love which Jesus charged his disciples to share with one another when he said to them at the Last Supper: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” That commandment applies no less to us today than it did to those first disciples so long ago. We, therefore, need to express our humility: by doing whatever we do without any thought of attention or recognition; by trusting that God is with us and supporting us in all our undertakings and accomplishments; and finally by giving thanks to God for all that we have been given. The Lord’s Christ reminds us that if we truly show forth our love in this way, then everyone will know that we are his disciples. Amen.
From: Rev. Philip Stowell
On Monday, our governor declared that everyone should stay home to protect ourselves during this pandemic. I agreed with his decision. Still, Tuesday was a difficult day for me. I am thankful that so many have volunteered to help this church stay together in spite of the isolation we are experiencing. Some are calling church members and if you haven’t received a call, let me know. We started recording the services and putting them on Youtube for everyone to see. We started to have Zoom services for morning prayer and compline. But the announcement from the governor changed things again. I was in a sad mood. How should our church respond to this latest decision and how will we continue to offer services and stay together?
Then as I prepared for this sermon, I was reminded that I am not in charge. God is in charge. In my reading I came across this observation, “Our very human instinct is to take over when we think God cannot adequately meet our expectations or when we assume that the protocols we have put in place are the only ways through which God can work.” So, I am doing my best to go with the flow and let God handle this because God will. In spite of all of my worries and all of my actions. Holy Week is not my responsibility. Holy Week will happen regardless of what I do. God will make sure of that.
And in this time of sickness and death, in this time of worry, I remembered all the wonderful things people are doing for others. Some in our church have responded to the need by giving more money to our Million Meals program and we are trying to find the appropriate places to share this gift. Other good things have happened. In times of great difficulty we get opportunities to learn. This week, I have gotten better at using Zoom. I have learned how to record a Zoom session and I have learned how to upload that recording to our Youtube channel. It is fun in some ways. Perhaps you have had some new experiences as well. Or maybe you have found the time to do a project that has been put off.
I share this to describe the ups and downs I have encountered, in a very short time span. On Thursday, I struggled with how we would do this service and then on Thursday evening, I spent time praying with about 15 people on Zoom and some people joined us for the first time on Zoom. It was good to see everyone’s faces. I was lifted up.
This next week will be unusual as well. I am so used to sharing the Holy Week services with others. Those services give us the chance to walk with Jesus together. We will not be doing that this year. I will have a Good Friday service available on Facebook and Youtube as well as our Easter Sunday service. That is all. So, I will join you and participate in a service online. Every year since I came to Arizona, I have renewed my priestly vows in a service at the Cathedral. This year, I will be renewing my priestly vows through a Zoom meeting. I will miss gathering with my clergy friends. I will miss being there personally.
The ups and downs of life are reflected in our two gospel readings for today. We first celebrate the procession which Jesus took through the streets of Jerusalem and we imagined the loud shouts of the people saying, “Hosanna in the Highest”.
For me, this celebration goes by too quickly. I want to be one of the people on the roadside, saying hosanna to our king. I wish that I could stay in the place and not have to go through the rest of the week. Ask yourself, “How would I have reacted to all of the things that happened that week”? We wish we could be certain that we would have stuck with Jesus for the entire ride. But none of us can be sure. We must remain humble and accept the uncertainty. All of us have had times when we were unfaithful to Jesus in our lives and we wish that we would not have been the ones later in the week to shout, “Crucify him!”
Just a little while later we listened to the entire story of the passion of Jesus and one again heard about Jesus death on the cross. We heard the story of Jesus giving up his life for us.
Today’s readings and the progression of things in Holy Week have so many ups and downs. It feels so much like my life these days. I would suggest that you choose this week to follow the path of Jesus. There is so much to learn and so many emotions that flow over us. Many people have chosen some way to remember the path of Jesus this week at their dinner table. For Jan and I, we have placed seven candles on the table in remembrance of the seven days of this Holy Week. We lit them this morning at breakfast and will do so at our meals. It is the best we can do in this difficult time.
One other suggestion I have is that you read the gospel of Mark this week. It is relatively short and you can read a portion each day. I would encourage you to start on the 11th chapter of Mark and read Mark’s description of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
- On Sunday, I suggest you read Mark 11:1-11. It is the story of the triumphal procession of Jesus into Jerusalem.
- On Monday, I suggest you read Mark 11:12-18. It is the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple, sending the money changers on their way.
- On Tuesday, please read Mark 11:20- 12:12. In this passage, Jesus debates his authority with the Pharisees and he tells a parable of the wicked tenant. I hope that you can feel the tension in the air as people in positions of authority test Jesus and try to trick him so that they can punish him.
- On Wednesday, I suggest you read Mark 12:18-44. In this passage you will find some of the most important teaching that we receive for Jesus. He answered difficult questions about how we live in society and live in God at the same time. We hear once more the greatest commandment and we hear the story about how one widow gave so much as she worshipped God.
- On Thursday read Mark 14:1-42. Imagine yourself joining the apostles for the Last Supper. It must have been a wonderful gathering amongst people who were so close. Yet, this meal also had tension in the air as Judas plans to betray Jesus and Jesus tells Peter that he will deny Jesus three times. The passage ends with Jesus praying in Gethsemane. Let us pray with Jesus as he prepares himself for the trial that is to come.
- Then, on Friday, You might watch the Good Friday service on our Youtube channel. If you prefer to just sit quietly, you may want to read a portion of the passion story. On Good Friday, we usually read the gospel of John 18:1-19:42.
- On Saturday, you could contemplate the fear and uncertainty facing the apostles.
I hope that by taking this path, walking this journey with Jesus, you will have a chance to experience the ups and downs that he and his followers experienced, that you will get a sense of the intense pressure and questioning that he was placed under and have a sense of how calmly he responded to the pressure.
As we go through this week we can ponder the wonderful gift that Jesus gave us. He gave everything he had to help us find our way, to feel connected to God in every step that we take and to know the forgiveness that Jesus has provided to us.
So much happened in this one week. We experience exuberant joy, sacred gifts, in fighting among the followers, rejection, denial, desperate prayer and deep sorrow. So much real life in just one week. I invite you this day and this week to consider how Jesus changed your life, not just by using your mind, the words you say or the things you hear. Let’s feel the things that Jesus and his disciples did. And I invite you to open your hearts to the emotions of this week. Allow sorrow and joy to enter you. We know Jesus experienced much and had many feelings that week. It gives me encouragement because I know that Jesus experienced many emotions during his life that I experience now. Let us be thankful for all that Jesus did for us and for his ever-present love. Amen.
I remember a scene from movies many years ago. When a new baby was born, the doctor would lift the baby up by its legs and spank the child lightly as it came out of its mother’s womb. The child would shriek, crying very loudly. The doctor then knew that the child could breathe on its own. I read that a baby should begin crying within the first 30 seconds to one minute of life. But doctors no longer perform that spanking technique. We have learned a better way. To get a baby to breathe, gentle stimulation is usually required and accomplished these days by rubbing the baby's back or gently stimulating its feet. Whichever way a baby starts breathing we know that baby has received God’s gift of life given through the breath of God.
Once again scripture speaks directly to us in times of crisis. I think about the breath of God. And I think about this disease we are fighting. For the disease kills people by taking away their breath. We are trying desperately to find enough ventilators to keep people alive. Let us pray that God will continue giving us breath, helping us physically today and protecting us forever.
I have been thinking a lot about God’s gift of life. In the second chapter of Genesis we read that human life began when God breathed life into Adam. “then the Lord God formed man from the dust on the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” Just as God’s breath gave life to Adam, God’s breath gives us life.
The breath of God is found throughout our scripture today. Ezekiel told about the gift of life. It was given to an entire valley of bones, dry bones. God told Ezekiel to preach to the bones and that God would cause breath to enter into those bones. Later in this same passage, God told Ezekiel to prophesy about the breath, to call on the breath from the four winds. Ezekiel “prophesied as God commanded, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”
While it is a story about physical life, it is also a message about the spiritual lives of the people of Israel. Ezekiel was speaking of the dry bones as the living people of Israel. The nation had sinned against God and individual people had sinned. Ezekiel said that God would breathe life into the people who had turned against God. The people had been scattered and Ezekiel prophesied that they would be brought together again.
In the letter to the Romans, Paul stressed that same idea. We are called to live our lives not in sin but rather in the Spirit. We know that God’s spirit is often referred to as breath, the breath of God. Paul makes the point that the Spirit is the one who gives us life and that we receive that life through the resurrection Jesus. It is clear in this verse, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” God gives us life. God takes us out of our sinful ways. God lives in us and makes us whole. We are encouraged to live our lives letting God lead us onward.
But the culmination of the life giving that we receive from God comes from Jesus himself. He didn’t breathe on Lazarus but he gave him life. Jesus told Martha that he is the resurrection and the life. It is yet another example of how Jesus changed things. Jesus didn’t focus on our sin but rather focused on his gift and our belief. The gift is about our life today and our eternal life. He said, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” We are given life on earth by God and we are given the gift of eternal life in Jesus. We are only asked to believe. It seems like such a small commitment for such a large gift.
A theologian named Eleonore Stump offered this perspective that I want to share in my own words. The two sisters, Mary and Martha, were devastated by the loss of their brother Lazarus. They felt as if Jesus had ignored them in their time of need. They felt as if they could never recover from the loss of their brother. Both of them said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But Jesus knew better what they needed. As Eleanore Stump wrote, “When Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, Mary has her brother, and is loved by Jesus in a way more deeply fulfilling to her and more glorious than the mere healing of her brother in his sickness would have been.” Jesus gave them a better gift than they had even expected.
We are in a difficult time. We think we know exactly what we need and we pray that God will respond to our requests. Sometimes I don’t understand how God has chosen to deal with us and I wonder how God’s plan fits with what is going today. But God knows best what we need and is giving it to us even though we don’t understand. This week my niece posted something on her Facebook page. I was surprised because I don’t often hear her speak about her faith. You may have seen this from another source. I am not suggesting what I am about to read is God’s current plan for us. But it does fit with the theme of turning from sin and turning to God as we heard in Ezekiel and Paul today. This is a part of what she wrote.
In three short months, just like He did with the plagues of Egypt, God has taken away everything we worship. God said, "you want to worship athletes, I will shut down the stadiums. You want to worship musicians, I will shut down Civic Centers. You want to worship actors, I will shut down theaters. You want to worship money, I will shut down the economy and collapse the stock market. You don't want to go to church and worship Me, I will make it where you can't go to church. If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land."
God’s breath gave us life when we were first born. God’s breath gives us new life when we are caught in the web of sin. God’s son, Jesus gave his last breath and rose from the dead again so that we can have eternal life. God’s breath is always there for us.
As I contemplate the breath of God, my mind turned to music for inspiration. I am touched by music, by the melodies and the words. I first thought of the hymn, Breathe on me breath of God. The words inspire us. God’s breath fills us with new life. Dear God, let me love what you love and do what you want me to do. Dear God, let your breath make my heart pure. Dear God breathe on me until my body glows with your divine fire. Dear God, breathe on me so that I may join you in eternal life.
I encourage you to keep this image of God’s breath giving you life this entire week. Let me suggest that while you are sitting at home you take some time to google different songs that speak of the breath of God. God’s breath has inspired many songs.
My favorite Youtube recording of breathe on me breath of God was performed by the Hasting College Choir.
If you like contemporary songs listen to “Holy Spirit, Living breath of God by Keith and Kristyn Getty.
Another choice would be Breath of God by EMU music from 2015.
When I was in college I sang a spiritual called Dem bones, Dem bones, Dem dry bones. It was about Ezekiel ’s story. This week, I enjoyed the Youtube video by the Cathedrals Quartet, Dry Bones.
Finally, I would suggest you listen to Amy Grant sing Breath of Heaven.
It is about Mary the mother of Jesus and it sounded like a Christmas story. But I think you will find comfort and hope in these words she offered, “breath of heaven, Hold me together.”
“breath of heaven, Lighten my darkness, pour over me your Holiness.
That is what I need today. I need God’s breath to hold me together.
You may want to keep these songs with you in the weeks ahead. I think our road is going to be much longer and more arduous than it has been already. I encourage you to keep these words on your heart, breath of heaven, Hold me Together. Amen.