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.
Everything has changed and it happened so quickly. We have been changed in big ways. There are no large gatherings, all types of entertainment have been canceled, we cannot attend church together. And it can be found in the little changes that cause us to feel uncomfortable. We took our granddaughters to the neighborhood park which had signs saying “use at your own risk. This has not been sanitized since March 11th.” Here I am talking from the lectern which I never do. We cannot touch anyone. I find myself very anxious and concerned. I alternate between wanting to know the latest news about the coronavirus outbreak and being so depressed that I don’t want to follow the news at all anymore. I worry about what will happen to our society and how we will come out of this? How can I stay in touch with people and do the job I love to do?
I miss so much our coming together on Sunday. I miss seeing people and greeting them as they leave. I miss chatting with folks at the coffee hour. But most of all I miss sharing in the Eucharist together. I have always felt a spirit in our church. I always feel as if we are supporting each other in our lives and that God is with us in our worship.
I ask everyone to help us stay together. I plan to continue having a Sunday service available to you on Youtube that can be accessed directly or from Facebook. Please look for emails about other online events that we will offer. Please follow us on Facebook and other sites. The church office hours will be minimal. A group of volunteers will call all of our parishioners and check in with them. I ask each of you to reach out to people that you know in the church on a regular basis. I am most concerned for people who are unable to get around and the poor. If you have any concerns or questions, please call the office or call my cell phone. I also encourage you to go to the Diocesan Web site atwhere you can find a list of resources if you need them.
In these times we might ask where God has gone. We miss interacting with God at church. But the truth is that God is not located just in this church. God is everywhere and God is with us at all times. In last Sunday’s gospel, Jesus told the woman at the well that God will not be found on Mount Gerizim where the Samaritans worship and God will not be found in Jerusalem where the Jews worship. Rather we will worship God in spirit and truth. We find God all around us.
Throughout church history people asked if God left or wondered where God was in all of this mess. When Jerusalem was destroyed and many of the people were taken into exile, the Jewish people wondered. They believed that God was located in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple had been destroyed. If you read the beginning of Ezekiel we have an answer. God was lifted up out of the Temple by four living creatures with wings and four wheels. God flew to Ezekiel and to his people in Babylon. So it is with us today. God is not found only in the church of the Transfiguration. God is with each one of us. God is with you now.
I find such great comfort in the words from our reading of Psalm 23. It is as if that Psalm was chosen for us today. We speak the Psalm when we have a memorial service. It provides solace to those who are grieving. I believe it provides comfort to us in our current situation. I found this reflection, “Sheep are nervous creatures, easily stampeded. They are frightened by fast, flowing streams, and can drink freely only from water that appears still.” I am feeling like a sheep this week. I am easily worried about things that are changing so quickly. I am looking for the calm waters that seem to have disappeared. That is why I am comforted by Psalm 23. The Lord is my Shepherd. God will be with us always. God helps us to find our way when we are uncertain. God gives us food to nourish our souls. God is with me when it feels as if the world has darkened all around me. God is there to take away our fears, not so we can take foolish chances but rather to keep us on a safe path and to comfort us when we are anxious.
In the gospel Jesus heals a blind man. Jesus simply takes some saliva and mixes it with dirt, puts it on the man’s eyes and tells him to go wash. He returned able to see. Many people had questions. The disciples asked who caused this problem, was it the parents of the man or the man himself? But Jesus was focused not on what or who caused this problem but rather on the person and on healing. Francis MacNutt wrote about this, “Jesus came to save persons, not just souls. He came to help the suffering. Sickness of the body was part of the kingdom of Satan that he came to destroy.” We are thankful for Jesus who came to save us from all of our problems. We ask Jesus to come and be with us today, to heal us of any sickness, to give us peace.
Others were interested in the law not in the healing. The Pharisees were upset that he healed on the Sabbath. They decided to investigate, to figure out who caused the problem. They interviewed the man and his parents. In the end they decided to kick the man out of the church because he must have been a sinner.
Jesus came once more to do the healing that he can only perform. He invited the man to be his follower. Jesus accepted this man who had been rejected by others. Just as Ezekiel told the Jews that God was not contained within the Temple, Jesus told the man that God was there with him even though he had been kicked out of the church. The man followed Jesus and believed in him. Let us then follow Jesus and believe in him even when we are stuck at home unable to go anywhere, doing our best to keep ourselves and the entire community free from this virus.
The other lesson we learn today is to be cautious about our judgments. It will be easy to blame people for causing this virus to spread. It will be easy to blame someone who gets the virus to say that they did not follow the rules. Let us at least pause before we do so. It is possible that the person will have done nothing wrong. I believe that despite the ugliness of our situation, God has chosen to be with us and to carry us through this terrible time.
Perhaps the hardest part of all is that we don’t know what will happen next. We don’t know how bad things will be and we don’t know when things will get better. We don’t know how to plan. In these times, I have hope. For Jesus gives us hope. I hope that we will find the correct way to deal with this virus. I hope that this time will bring us closer together.
It seems certain that we will not be able to celebrate Holy Week or Easter Services together. But that does not mean that Easter will not come. Jesus was raised from the dead. Let us rejoice on that day even though we will not be together in person to celebrate.
Let us pray that everyone will be safe. Let us pray that people will follow the directions of the authorities as they try to contain the virus. Let us pray that the medical professionals will be cared for. Let us pray that God will bring us together in this time of need. Let us pray that the poor will not be overly burdened by this outbreak.
If you are afraid or anxious, if you are uncertain or confused, listen to the words of Jesus, “‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 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.” May you feel God’s presence in your life, giving you comfort, strength, wisdom and peace. Amen.
I am sure that you figured out already that the theme for today is water. We listen to the story of Moses providing water to the Israelites. The Israelites were unhappy. They were thirsty for the water that keeps us alive. The Israelites quarreled with each other and with Moses. They tested God and Moses to see whether God would take care of them. Their quarreling and testing were so loud that they gave the names Massah and Meribah to the place where this happened. And God did provide. When Moses struck the rock water poured forth and the thirst of the people was satisfied.
Most specifically the theme is about the living water, the gift that Jesus gives us. Jesus gives us grace and love to nurture our spiritual thirst, to carry us through the tough times, to keep us steadfast in the Way of Truth and to bring us to everlasting life. Rather than stopping at this point and making this the shortest sermon you ever heard, I want to ask you to consider another theme about how we see we meet people we do not know. Consider this gospel story about Jesus and the woman at the well.
We begin by noticing that this woman was an outcast, someone whom society had swept aside. She was an outcast simply because she was a woman and we know that woman were considered second class citizens by many. The custom at the time was that she was not supposed to talk with Jesus without some escort being present. She was also an outcast because she was a Samaritan and the Jews and the Samaritans did not like each other. Jews and Samaritans did not talk to each other. We know that it was risky for Jewish people to travel through the land of Samaria. If Jews interacted with Samaritans, they would be contaminated and that is a bad word for us right now.
Finally, she was a pariah in her own community because in her life she had lived with five husbands. Even by today’s standards that is a lot of husbands. I wonder if she was ignored by the people of her village. Certainly, Jesus had every reason to ignore her, to not speak with her. If Jesus had decided to speak with her then he probably would have wanted to preach to her about her sins. Perhaps Jesus would offer her forgiveness and tell her to go and sin no more. Jesus did not do anything that we might have expected. He didn’t ignore her or mistreat her or look down on her. Rather, he asked her to give him some water. It was only after they had some discussions that he told her that he was the Messiah.
It caused me to think about how we treat outcasts in our society. Sometimes people are outcasts because they have done something that is against the norms of our society, like robbing a bank. We don’t wish to associate with those kinds of people. But sometimes people are outcasts because we don’t know who they are or simply because they have fallen into a bad situation in their lives.
On Thursday night, a group of about fifteen of us gathered to talk about the book Grace in Les Miserables. That night we focused on the difficult challenge that poverty presents to people. We talked about a character in the book named Fantine. She became an outcast. Her great sin was that she fell in love with a man who was not committed to her. Sadly, she ended up having a baby out of wedlock and the man she loved abandoned her. She was forced to find work. She left her baby in the care of a family that took advantage of her, her child and everyone else. Someone at her work found out about her situation and she was fired for unwed mothers were not accepted at that time. As her situation became more desperate she took desperate measures to protect her child and eventually died in the process.
She was an outcast who never found a way to survive. Most people treated her cruelly. The main character in the novel tried to help her but his help came too late to save her. He was only able to save and care for her child. People mistreated Fantine because she had done something wrong. We can label people who are poor with statements like, they caused their own problems or they don’t work hard enough, or they must be on drugs or drink too much. That may be true but there are also reasons why people become outcasts for nothing that they did.
On Thursday, we discussed how we can respond to the issues of poverty, racism, and sexism. There weren’t any easy answers. The problems are so large that we cannot solve them ourselves. After all, Jesus said that we would always have the poor with us. I mentioned how difficult it can be to know who we should help and how we should help. In my time as rector, I have helped some people who needed the help and I have been taken advantage of by others. I still must try. People who try to help often have the best intentions to do good but they make mistakes. I gave the example of people who took Native American children out of their homes, put them in boarding schools and taught them skills that others have used to be successful. But we now know these techniques were wrong. We haven’t had the same experiences as outcasts which make our decisions about how to help them difficult.
Jesus clearly told us that we should help the needy. In the 25th chapter of Matthew, Jesus told us that if we don’t help the poor, the hungry, the naked, the sick and those in prison we will not be given eternal life. It is not always easy to figure out how to meet this requirement.
But in the story of the woman at the well, we find some answers. Treat them wish respect. Don’t assume that you know the answers. It worked for Jesus and it may work for us. Jesus didn’t start by speaking to the woman at the well about his life giving water and he didn’t ever tell her that she must accept that water. He started by asking her to give him water. Sometimes it is through our own vulnerability that others are able to hear our words. Jesus needed her help and after she had helped him, Jesus offered to help the woman. It is after all about the water. Through the Living water, Jesus gives us grace. It changes everything about our spiritual life. It helps us to follow God’s will and it helps us to show love to others. When we understand the living water that Jesus gives us, we are not spiritually hungry anymore. Jesus words changed this woman’s life.
This woman, this outcast shared her experience with her community. They listened and she convinced them to come and meet Jesus. In the end, they said that they first believed in Jesus because of what she said but after being with him they knew he was the Messiah because of their own personal interaction with Jesus. Jesus accomplished the impossible. He brought Samaritans and Jews together through their faith. He used the woman’s strengths to create a new relationship. His disciples learned that some of the rules we follow need to be tested to see if people can be brought together in God’s love. The woman at the well was no longer an outcast. Perhaps we can learn something from what Jesus did.
I think that in some ways everyone of us has been treated as an outcast. There may have been some group of people that would not let us join them. I have occasionally felt like an outcast myself, not to the extent that I have been shunned by society but in smaller ways. If you have ever felt that you were being shunned, remember that Jesus reaches out to you.
The nation is focused on the coronavirus. We are anxious and afraid. Some say we are not doing enough and others say that we are overreacting. Many have chosen to be isolated. We choose to be isolated, separated from our fellow humans and for good reason. But today, you have bucked that trend. You have chosen to reach out to others. You must be feeling the living water of Jesus.
We may go into further isolation. My hope is that out of this terrible experience, we may find some new ways of coming together, of sharing the love of Jesus with each other. I hope that some of the anger that exists may go away in the love of Jesus. Let us just remember that Jesus gave us life giving water. Let us ask Jesus to keep us safe and to help us make good decisions. Let us pray that this time will pass and that we all join together in the love of Jesus and share God’s love with everyone we meet. Amen.
I found this short story from a book written by Anthony de Mello several years ago. “A man who took great pride in his lawn found himself with a large crop of dandelions. He tried every method he knew to get rid of them. Still they plagued him. Finally, he wrote to the department of agriculture. He enumerated all of the things he had tried and closed his letter with the question, “What shall I do now?” In due course the reply came: “We suggest you learn to love them””.
I share this story because one of the themes in our lessons for today is about God’s free gift to us. Got loves us and cares for us even though we have done nothing to deserve such love. It isn’t just a little stretch to imagine that God loves us just as we might love our dandelions which have done nothing to deserve our love.
There is another theme found in our lessons for today. It is about our lifetime journey with God. It is a journey where we seek to trust in God’s will and not our own. The idea that we are on a spiritual journey with God is something I think about often. We take many different paths as we go. Sometimes we take a break from our hectic life to contemplate our relationship with God and try to get a little closer. Sometimes we go off on a side trip that takes us away from the important things in our lives. I think we are always on a path in our spiritual life and I encourage you to take that spiritual path with Jesus by your side. I don’t think our spiritual journey is a straight path. It is not like getting on a four lane divided highway which goes straight from one place to another. Rather, I think our spiritual journey meanders along a trail that we might take us through the woods and meadows and past streams. I have been on paths that are clearly marked and I have been on trails that make me wonder where I should go next. I have taken walks that were more difficult than I wished they would be. Sometimes I see something that teaches me a great deal and other times it seems to be monotonous. On our spiritual journey, we hope that we are following the path that God has given us.
The lessons from Hebrew Scripture speak about journeys and also about having faith in God. Abram was called by God to leave his homeland and go to the land of Canaan. It was a long journey, about six hundred miles. He took a large caravan, his wife Sarai and Lot and probably herds and flocks of animals. It was an indication of the trust, the faith, that Abram had in God. His trip was long and dangerous. I compare it to my recent trip to Florida. It took me about 10 hours in total to get there and yet I complained about the length of my journey. Abram did so much more than I. Abram was obedient to God throughout his life. But that does not mean that Abram ’s journey was always a smooth one. There were times when Abram’s life was endangered as he visited various kingdoms during his travels and at least once Abram had his wife pose as his sister so that he would be safe.
Abraham took that journey and did many other things in his life because he trusted that God would take care of him. Abraham was willing to go where God would lead him certain that the promise God had made would never fail. Despite his advanced age, Abraham was made the father of nations. It would be easy to say that Abraham was rewarded for his faith, his trust and his obedience. But our passage today indicates that God chose Abraham before he had done anything. God’s blessing to Abraham was a gift. Later in Genesis we read that Abraham believed in the word and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. Abraham’s faith, not his actions, brought him to God. Abraham was also called to be a blessing to all peoples. God created a new relationship with humans through Abraham.
Psalm 121 is also about a journey. Pilgrims would sing this psalm as they climbed up to Jerusalem for the Passover or some other celebration. Climbing mountains was an arduous and dangerous adventure in that time. I read this week that climbing mountains did not become a sought-after pastime until a couple of centuries ago. Now we consider mountains beautiful places to go for a chance to experience nature and God. John Muir expressed the charm of the mountains this way, ““Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” The pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem may not have noticed the beauty of nature but they certainly received the Peace of God and felt God’s presence in their lives. Their Psalm described the continued presence of God, “Behold, he who keeps watch over Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep”. They also were thankful for God’s overwhelming grace, a grace that showered them with gifts as they sang, “The Lord shall preserve you from all evil; it is he who shall keep you safe.” May we feel God’s blessings always with us as well.
Our journeys may have times of wonderful peace and times when we feel estranged from God. Of course, it is not God who moves from us but we who move from God. These lessons connect with Lenten journey. Our Lenten activities are somewhat like a climb up the mountain, preparing us for the beauty of Easter. If we have challenges in our Lenten discipline, I encourage all of us to remember that God is present every day of every hour. Let us never forget that God is watching over us every minute of every hour of every day during this Lenten season.
Today’s lessons continue with themes that speak of our faith in God and the overwhelming gift of God’s love for us. In the letter to the Romans, we hear that faith in God is more important than the law. When we have faith in our hearts and as part of our faith we truly want to follow God, then we don’t really need the law to know what we need to do. We might say, let our conscience be our guide.
Paul said something more. Abraham’s gift was passed down to everyone. People do not have to be direct descendants of Abraham to participate in God’s gifts. They only have to believe in God as Abraham did and to act out that faith through obedience. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, wanted the gentiles to know that God’s gifts were for them as well. They just needed to have faith in God and faith in Jesus.
Before I speak of the free gift God has given us in John’s gospel, I want to deal with some controversy. What exactly did Jesus mean when he told Nicodemus that he had to be born again? Some would say that we need to make a personal commitment to Jesus as our Lord and Savior. Others would say that just as we had no decision to make when we were brought into this life, it is God’s actions, God’s mercy that saves us. I prefer to think that when Jesus spoke of being born in the water and the spirit, he was talking about our baptism. It still leaves room for various opinions.
I think Jesus was leading Nicodemus to understand that we are born again through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus said, “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.” It is a statement of God’s overwhelming love and grace. We didn’t do anything to deserve this gift from God. It wasn’t our faith that caused God to do this for us. It was God watching out for us every day. It was God knowing what we needed for us to be faithful to him. So, God gave it to us.
God showered blessings upon Abraham. As children of Abraham, we are blessed by the gifts that God has given us as well. We don’t earn God’s love by following the law. It is all the free gift that God has given to each of us. Our response to that gift is to have faith, to trust in God and to be obedient to his will.
As you continue on your Lenten journey, may you feel the presence of God in you journey, may it give you strength and may your faith be your way to respond to the glory of God’s gifts. Amen.
Every one of the readings for today speaks about temptation. Adam and Eve were temptedto eat the forbidden fruit. Jesus went to the desert and was tempted by the devil. He refused all three of the devil’s temptations. It would be most appropriate for my sermon to be about temptation. After all, we just started Lent. In Lent, we seek to free ourselves from temptation and bring ourselves closer to God. I am sorry if I let you down today. Perhaps I am just revolting a little today or being a contrarian. I think I will blame my choice on our Lenten study on Thursday which is about the book Les Miserable and has themes of revolution. Today, I feel called to talk about fear.
Fear and worry are found in scripture often. One example was last Sunday. As Jesus was being transfigured in front of the apostles and God spoke about Jesus, the apostles fell to the ground in fear. In another passage, the apostles were fearful when Jesus came walking across the water to their boat. It happened again when they were huddled in the upper room just before Jesus appeared to them on the first Easter Sunday
Ash Wednesday is a time when we reflect on our mortality. I started contemplating fear when I encountered someone who was afraid that a loved one would die. This past week, I started playing the game Lent Madness, sponsored by Forward Movement. On Ash Wednesday, the leaders of the game paused and posted a message about fear. On the blog, they said that “We live in a world that is gripped by fear and hatred.”
They wrote, “Now is the time for us to renounce fear, to reject hatred, and to take the more difficult high road. Now is the time to make space in our lives for prayer, study, and worship. Now is the time to look carefully at our lives and to open up our hearts to change. Thanks be to God, the church has given us an entire season to do just these things.” It seems I am to the only one focusing on fear.
What fears are you dealing with? It seems that the Coronavirus has gripped the nation with fear. So far there have only been a few cases of the new virus and just one person in the United States has died from the disease, but the threat is looming. The number of cases of this virus has grown significantly and countries outside of China are seeing a huge increase in the number of cases. We are fearful because about 2,800 people have died from the disease. The threat of coronavirus coming to the United States is real. It is something that we must be prepared for and be ready to take appropriate actions.
Another fear that some people have is that they will be killed in a mass shooting. We had another one of those this week in Wisconsin. It is a sad fact of American life and one I don’t understand. I just don’t see why people want to kill others before killing themselves.
You might ask why these two fears are so prevalent. After all, the chance of either happening is remote. In fact, more people have been killed by the common flu than by the coronavirus. Automobile accidents kill many more than mass shootings do. Our fears are not totally logical and we are frequently afraid of the unknown. For example, I have never dropped from the sky in a parachute so I am afraid of doing so.
Because fear is a feeling, we don’t think of fear as something we can control. It is a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, or pain, whether the threat is real or imagined. Fear is induced by perceived danger or threat, which causes physiological changes and ultimately behavioral changes, such as fleeing, hiding, or freezing from perceived traumatic events.
How can you change the feeling of fear that you have? I am not sure that you can. What I do believe is that you can choose how you react when you are fearful. I don’t like fear because it can take away hope. It can cause us to do something that doesn’t really help us, like choosing to stay in our house so that we will not be subject to a mass shooting. Fear can cause us to freeze and take no action at all. Our fears can cause us to do irrational things. In a recent poll, 38% of Americans said that they wouldn’t buy Corona beer because of the outbreak of the coronavirus. On the other hand, if the coronavirus becomes a pandemic, it will be a wise choice to stay in your home and avoid contact with others.
God doesn’t want us to live in fear. It is repeated over and over again in Scripture. I am not speaking of the expression fear the Lord which is mentioned many times in Scripture. The word fear in that case carries the meaning of respect, not the sense of being afraid.
A good example of God’s encouragement to us is found in the book of Isaiah, Chapter 43, “Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine.” That chapter of Isaiah was written to calm the people of Israel and to remind them that God chose them, they will not be forgotten. This verse is just one of the eighty times in Scripture when we are told to have no fear. An author named shared her perspective on fear this way. “I’m still in awe that God, who created the universe, cares about every detail of our lives. We belong to an all-powerful, all-knowing, victorious father who cares deeply about us. When we really meditate on this truth, it’s hard to remain fearful about the trials we face.” Is it possible that faith can win out over fear? Maybe we will still be fearful but our faith will give us the presence of mind to respond to our fears in a more rational way.
Jesus doesn’t want us to be fearful. When the apostles fell down in fear at the Transfiguration, Jesus said, “Get up and do not be afraid.” When Jesus walked across the water to the boat he said to the terrified apostles, “‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ When Jesus heard that a young girl had died while he was on his way to see her he said to her father, “Do not fear, only believe.” Jesus continued on his way and the girl was healed and she lived. When Jesus entered the room after his resurrection, he said to his apostles, ‘Peace be with you.’ Jesus said that people will be afraid when the end of the world is coming and that they will faint with fear. But he told his followers to stand up because their redemption is coming. Followers of Jesus have less reason to fear anything. Jesus came to calm our fears and to bring us peace.
Sometimes, we will fear the wrath of God. It is written in the Hebrew Scriptures and is also found in the Gospel of Matthew, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell”. (“Matthew 10.28) Let us use this time of Lent to come into God’s presence and make ourselves faithful. It will help some of our fear.
Fear is a common reaction in all humans. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.” Overcoming fear may take practice. Dale Carnegie suggested that it takes action to overcome fear. “If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” That is some good advice.
My suggestion is that we turn to God in our fear. We turn to God in prayer and contemplation, asking that God will help us make good choices, choosing to make thoughtful responses to our fear and not let our fear control our lives. Sometime you might do a google search to find out what people think is the opposite of fear. You will find many answers. The one I like the most is trust. Let us pray that God will help us find trust in God’s loving arms.
On Ash Wednesday I mentioned that for my Lenten discipline, I have chosen to reach out to some friends whom I have not connected with in a long time. I hope that some of you will have a Lenten discipline that brings you closer to God. One possibility is to seek peace and comfort in the arms of God, to pray that you will trust in God, knowing that God will always be with us even when we are fearful. I always find solace in the words of Psalm 23, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. May God give you peace and comfort. May God put to rest your fears so that you may live in hope. Amen.
In 2014, the television show sixty minutes told a story about a man named Nicholas Winton. Winton was a 29 year-old stockbroker living in England in 1938. He was planning a two-week vacation and thought he would go skiing in Switzerland. But he had heard stories about refugees in Czechoslovakia. He decided to go there instead. While there, he visited some of the refugee camps. He decided to rent a small office in Prague and invited people to come and tell the stories of their children, all Jewish. Armed with the names of children and their pictures, he returned to England. He decided to try to bring some of the children to England. Nicholas Winton had no special skill in diplomacy and no real contacts in government. He organized a small group of volunteers. He took some stationary from a non-profit agency and placed the heading children’s section on the page. He mailed out requests for people to host children, to adopt them. Winton was successful in bringing 669 children from Czechoslovakia to England. He is credited with saving their lives, keeping them from the horrors of the concentration camps.
Nicholas Winton was just an ordinary man with no special skills for the task he took on. He was an Anglican Christian, part of the worldwide community we belong to. One of the things that intrigued me about this man was his humility. He never spoke about what he had done. The work he did went unnoticed for fifty years. During the sixty minutes interview with Winton, he was asked, “How did you do this?” His answer was, “If something is not impossible, there must be a way to do it.” It seems to me that he lived the Christian life that Jesus taught us. Nicholas Winton didn’t stop helping others. He helped people who were mentally challenged. Then he decided to build homes for old people. He never stopped living the life of a Christian.
A constant theme during Epiphany is that Jesus is the light of the world. Jesus came and took us out of darkness and brought us into the light. Today, we hear something different. Jesus has turned the tables on us. We do not hear that Jesus was the light of the world but rather we hear from Jesus that we are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. What does this mean?
We take salt for granted today but it had tremendous value in the time of Jesus. Roman soldiers were given a ration of salt as part of their salary. Salt was used both as a preservative and as a seasoning. Salt was necessary because they had no other way to keep meat from going bad. It made sure the food was edible. We use salt to flavor meat but they used it to extend the life of the meat. Salt is also used to purify. When I bless the Holy Water that is found in the baptismal font, I use salt as part of the blessing.
I understand that some of the salt used in the time of Jesus came from the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is so salty that you can float in the water without really trying. The salt taken from the Dead Sea was not pure salt, it was mixed with other minerals. After they had used it for a while, all that was left was the minerals. That is what Jesus meant when he said that salt had lost its saltiness.
When Jesus said that we are the salt of the earth, he meant that his apostles were responsible for keeping life on the earth from decaying. The apostles were the ones who followed the law and helped others do the same. They were an example to others in how they should live their life with God.
Rosemond Anaba, a pastor in Ghana suggested that “Salt, no matter how small in quantity, has the ability to change the taste of food just as light also, no matter how small the flicker is, has the ability to overcome darkness.” It doesn’t take a lot of effort for people to see our light or to recognize our faith.
The message about light flows through all of our scripture today. We find similar words in Isaiah, “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.” It is our inner light that will shine, not God’s light. Or perhaps we might better say that God’s light shines through us. This is what we hear in the Psalm, “Light shines in the darkness for the upright.” When we open ourselves to God, God’s light shines on us. We have all experienced the presence of another person who shares the light of Christ. On Wednesday someone reminded me of the expression about certain people who light up a room when they enter.
When Jesus said that you are the salt of the earth and you are the light of the world, he was speaking about us in the same way he spoke to his apostles. Jesus didn’t actually require us to do anything specific in order to be salt or light. We are by the definition of Jesus both light and salt. Our very presence in the world as Christians means that we provide salt and light. We always worry about what we might need to do, but today Jesus doesn’t specifically ask us to do anything. We are light and salt. Just be yourself and you are salt and light.
Today’s passage comes as a part of the Sermon on the Mount. It follows immediately after Jesus provided a list of things that people are blessed for. I am saddened that we didn’t get to hear that list of blesseds. It is often a part of last week’s scripture passages but we instead chose to hear about the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. I think it is helpful to hear the two verses just before our passage begins. Just before the message about salt and light, Jesus changed from universal words such as “Blessed are the Peacemakers to words specifically meant for his followers. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Jesus was speaking to a regular group of people. There were no famous people among his followers, probably not many wealthy people, certainly not people in authority. Just a group of regular people many of whom were worried about where their next meal would come from. We should be normal people as well. We are not required to change the world like Nicholas Winton did by saving many children. We just need to be an example for those around us.
Jesus expected people to turn on his followers, to be cynical about faith or simply unimpressed. Jesus wanted his followers to remain strong despite the reception of others to the message of Jesus. Jesus didn’t want them to forgo their beliefs in order to be accepted by others. If they did that, they would lose their saltiness.
Mother Teresa wanted us to remain steadfast just as Jesus taught us. She said, “Words which do not give the light of Christ increase the darkness.” She asked us to always follow in the footsteps of Jesus. While Jesus did say that we are already salt and light, he is asking us to remain true to our faith. He is asking us to have faith that is stronger than the faith demonstrated by the scribes and pharisees. Paul wrote in 1st Corinthians, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” We don’t need to have words of great wisdom. We just should demonstrate the Spirit of God. Isaiah taught us that we don’t need to fast to show others how good we are. Rather than fast, we choose to show God’s love to other people, often people in need.
Martin Luther King Jr. suggested that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Jesus taught us to love one another. Jesus said that we are the salt and the light. It doesn’t require us to work harder or do something no one else has done. I believe it only requires us to be steadfast in our faith. As Jesus said, I have not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill it. Let us be persistent in our faith and allow God’s light to shine through us. Amen.
This past week I attended a clergy conference at Chapel Rock, the diocesan camp in Prescott. I had mixed feelings about going. I wasn’t looking forward to the cold weather and I struggled a little bit creating conversation with people I barely know. But the conference turned out to be special because of a presentation we heard on dementia.
Tracey Lind was the dean of the cathedral in Cleveland, Ohio and served on the board of the Church Pension Group. She started to have memory problems and eventually learned that she had early onset dementia. Her doctor told her that she needed to go home and get her affairs in order. Tracey decided that she needed to take early retirement from her career as a priest. She also decided her life was not yet over. She and her partner, Emily, decided that they would share information with others about how to deal with issues of dementia. That is how they came to speak at the clergy retreat.
Tracey is an amazing person. She offered personal details about what it is like to live with dementia. Some people may wish to hide their dementia issues from others, perhaps because they are ashamed. But not Tracey. She has great courage. She talked about the things you would expect. She told us things that she can no longer remember. She talked about the difficult issues a family must face when dementia rears its ugly head. She spoke about how she tried to plan for the worsening of her dementia, all the while not knowing exactly what it would be like.
I was not surprised to hear about how people try to be normal with others, to hide their disease. I was not surprised to learn about the frustration one feels when they don’t know the right words to say. I haven’t thought as much about how hard it can be to go out in public. For example, Tracey struggles when she travels on airplanes. She struggles in unfamiliar places and it has a physical effect on her. Her partner, Emily, has learned that she should go ask for early boarding, to minimize the fear and trembling, all the while worrying about how others will judge them when they don’t look like they have some disability. Tracey told us that she now watches TV because it allows her social interaction without the need for her to talk. I was amazed by the huge toll that this disease has on both of them emotionally. I learned that the care partner often dies before the person with dementia because of the stress.
Dementia is probably more prevalent than we realize. We may have 8 to 10 people in this congregation dealing with dementia. I have made some copies of the handouts they provided and left some at the back of the church. The package includes tips for dealing with a person with dementia, a list of helpful books as well as a link to their blog site. I hope you find something helpful if you are dealing with dementia in some way. If you wish to learn more, you may want to record the 60 minutes program this evening which I am told has a story on Tracey and Emily. I know you will be watching the Super Bowl when 60 minutes is on.
Today, we celebrate the feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. I will make a connection between the issue of dementia and the gospel but first let me share a little of the theology in the gospel. As faithful Jewish people, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the temple. The tradition was for Mary and Jesus to come to the Temple forty days after the birth of Jesus. He was presented as the first-born male. He was offered to God and in return was made holy. That tradition started in the book of Exodus.
One of the things that happened in the temple was the offering of a sacrifice. Once Jesus came along, we no longer needed to offer some bird or animal in sacrifice because Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice for us. In fact, Simeon recognized Jesus as the Messiah and spoke of the sacrifice Jesus would offer many years later. He said, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. He told Mary that a sword will pierce your own soul too." Simeon’s words are about the sacrifice that Jesus would die on the cross for our salvation. His sacrifice is a gift that we received, a gift that we did not earn. It came from the grace and love that God has for us.
Our reading from Hebrews further described the gift Jesus gave us. Jesus became human and joined with all of us who are children of God. Jesus destroyed the power that sin has over us. In Hebrews it says, “through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we are no longer held in the power of sin, we are free to live a life as God asked us to do. We no longer fear that we will die because we know that Jesus has created a way for us to go to heaven. Jesus is our merciful and faithful high priest, serving God and serving all of us. The reading from Malachi suggested that we must cleanse ourselves before we can stand in the presence of the Lord. Jesus offers that cleansing to God for us.
This feast of the Presentation offers many spiritual insights to Christians. It has been a day to bless candles representing the light of Jesus. It is a day to celebrate the humility of Mary, the mother of Jesus. I focus on the sacrifice that Jesus gave for us. Thus it is a day to remember all of the people who have entered into humble service, to offer their gifts to help others. Some are here with us today. I am thankful and I dedicate this service to their honor and to encourage them to continue their humble service.
Simeon was not the only one who recognized Jesus as the Messiah. Anna was also a prophet and she confirmed that Jesus was Israel’s Redeemer. She demonstrated that the Holy Spirit works though the community of all faithful people.
While I appreciate the theological meaning of the Presentation of Jesus, I choose to focus on the word Presentation or presence. Jesus came and presented himself to the priests in the Temple. But more important, he presented himself to God. His parents made the commitment that he would be a follower of God’s will, that he would do God’s work in this world. In the Temple, Jesus was consecrated to that service.
As followers of Jesus, we are thankful for his presence in our lives and thankful for his gift of salvation. In thankfulness, we follow the example of Jesus. We come each week to present ourselves to God. We ask God to consecrate our lives and we commit ourselves once again to do God’s work in the world. We also present Jesus to other people. We do so when we help another person who is poor or needy, when we comfort someone who is sad or sit with someone who is lonely.
This brings me back to the story about dementia. Tracey has dementia and spoke at length about how we might treat people who have this disease. She asked us to have compassion. It means that we must be patient, that is we need to give the person with dementia time to gather themselves before they are ready to speak. We need to find a way to offer help while still giving the person a choice. You might say, “I could read a book to you if you like but not I have answered your question many times, you need to listen more closely. It sounds like good advice for how we might treat people in everything that we do. It is the way we present Jesus to other people.
Gerald Darring wrote, “How do we present Jesus Christ to others? Do we present Jesus to others on such a pedestal that people can dismiss his example as unreasonable expectation, or is he “like his brothers in every way,” one of us, a brother human whose love of justice and peace can and should be imitated? Is the Jesus we present to others an indictment of them, or is he God’s “saving deed displayed for all the peoples to see,” the Messiah who rescues us from our personal and social sinfulness?
I hope that today you are lifted up by the gift of Jesus and the commitment that he made for us. I hope that you are thankful and ready to commit yourself to sharing the love of Jesus. May God’s presence be with you always. Amen.
This past week, I visited a church member who was recovering in a rehabilitation facility. After we had talked for a while I asked if he would like to pray with me. As is my custom, I asked him what he would like to pray for. I have done this many times and I have heard his response before. While people who are sick or recovering do want prayer for themselves, that is not the first request I usually hear. People often request prayer for their loved ones, they want to care for other people. In this case, the man asked for prayers for our country. He was worried about the divisiveness that exists in our country today and he asked for prayers that we would be unified, that we would work toward some common goal and not fight with each other so much. He wanted to pray for a peace that he said did not exist right now in this country. We prayed together for peace, for unity and for healing.
Another friend of mine mentioned his concern in a similar manner. He lamented the fact that we are no longer able to talk with each other. We wished together that the old saying about never discussing religion or politics could be put aside and that we would at least listen to each other’s views.
A third friend told me that he was unsure whether our country will be able to recover from the spite and anger and terrible words that are spoken by people that we are supposed to look up to as our leaders. It is difficult to find examples of good behavior. This friend is worried that our culture has changed in a way that it will not be repaired.
Some of you may not feel the discomfort of the world today. Some may say that it has been worse many times in history. While I am concerned, I also see some wonderful things that are going on in this country. I am thankful for this church because it is a place where people with many different views come and worship together. We find common ground in worshipping God together, to support each other in good and bad times, and to help people who are needy.
I am sure that some of you are wondering what this has to do with Scripture for today. Well, Jesus lived in a time that wasn’t so good either. The gospel begins with Jesus in Nazareth. You will remember that in Luke’s gospel, Jesus made some bold proclamations in the synagogue and was chased out of town. Today’ scripture says that Jesus heard about John the Baptist being arrested for speaking out against the immorality of the Herod. Jesus withdrew and went to Galilee. The use of the word withdraw is pretty mild. One commentator wrote that the Greek word suggested that Jesus was fleeing. The message that Jesus proclaimed was similar to what John had said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” We know that the message Jesus shared was good news for the people, sometimes not meant to be good news for the leaders. Jesus left Nazareth because he feared for his safety. Jesus message was radical, that we should love one another and take care of one another. It was not generally the case in Jesus’ time.
But Jesus did not abandon ministry. Matthew borrowed from the proclamation found in Isaiah. Jesus came to the people who sat in darkness. In Jesus they saw a great light, “and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” When Jesus arrived in Capernaum, he began his ministry by calling disciples to help him accomplish his work. In addition to calling followers, Matthew told us that Jesus went about “teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” I would say that Jesus came to cure not just physical ills but also to bring us together in unity and peace, to cure us of our other ills. In Luke’s gospel Jesus proclaimed that he was anointed to bring good news to the poor. I believe that is part of the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed.
If you are one who is uncomfortable or perhaps worried, even afraid of what is to come, we turn to Jesus, the light of the world and we ask Jesus to help us. We start with prayer. We should never doubt the power of prayer. People who have been ill and recovered have said that they felt the power of so many people praying for them. The theologian Karl Barth wrote, “To clasp hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”. Max Lucado, a current day theologian wrote “"Our prayers may be awkward. Our attempts may be feeble. But since the power of prayer is in the one who hears it and not in the one who says it, our prayers do make a difference.” We pray for peace and unity.
We are thankful for God’s grace and we are thankful for our faith. In grace and faith, we pray that Jesus will help us continue his work. Jesus was and is a light that shines in the darkness. We wish to be inspired by his actions and strengthened to do God’s work by his grace and love. Just as Jesus started God’s ministry in the small town of Capernaum, far away from the big city, we wish to continue his ministry in this part of the world.
The most important thing we do at Transfiguration is to worship God in community. We praise God for God’s creation. We thank God for blessings. We ask God for forgiveness. We ask God to help us. And we seek to create a place where everyone is welcome, where we support each other whether something good is happening or something difficult is happening. I have been told that some who come here feel God’s love and the love of others in this church. Some say they appreciate the support they receive. I hope that we can make it that way for every person that comes here. May all of us continue to find God in this place.
Jesus brought good news to the poor. We have many ministries to needy people through our outreach programs. You may find updates about all of our outreach programs in the Peg Wier’s information in the Annual Report. This last year we continued all of our existing outreach programs, serving the hungry, providing clothing to the needy. We started two new outreach efforts in 2019. The first is the Caps 4 Kids. We collect plastic bottle caps and send them to collection points in Mexico. The caps are turned into art and other objects. The proceeds from the caps are used to provide cancer treatments for needy children. It is a program that has taken off not just in our congregation but among other friends we know.
You may not know much about a group called RIP Medical Debt. They use contributions to pay off the medical debt of poor people. In 2019, we identified this organization as a group we wanted to support with 10% of our Capital Campaign contributions. Medical debt is a big problem. RIP Medical Debt has identified over $40 million of medical debt that people in Mesa cannot pay. It seems like such a big number. We were fortunate in 2019 that our income exceeded our expenses. The vestry decided to use some of the excess to pay $7,000 to RIP Medical Debt and we have been promised that our contribution will eliminate $700,000 in Medical Debt for people in this area. A report on the results will be available in March.
In 2019, volunteers refurbished an office and we opened a nursery during the second service. I am thankful that Catherine Walecki is currently taking care of children on Sunday. We hope that more people will take advantage of this service.
On a sad note, our Children’s Sunday school program has seen a significant drop off in attendance and we have not had children attend on most Sundays. Our volunteer teachers are ready every Sunday to teach children that come to the church.
I wish to thank Linda Ostmeyer our office manager and Gary Quamme our organist and music director for their service. I also want to thank all of our volunteers who help this church. Without them, we would not be able to do what we do. I also want to thank my wife, Jan, for her dedicated volunteering. She is such a wonderful helper to me and to everyone in this place.
I am fortunate to be a part of this community. I believe that this church is a place where we try to live out our calling as followers of Jesus. In today’s gospel, Jesus told everyone that they were to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Let us pray that we will do what we can to live out that command. Let us pray that God’s spirit will always be in this place. Let us pray that we will never forget God’s calling to share his love with others. Let us seek to bring peace and unity to this world even if it is just to a small part of God’s creation. Amen.
I have never served on a jury. But I have imagined that I would listen intently to any eyewitness testimony. When someone tells me exactly what they saw, then I tend to believe them. However, studies have shown that eyewitness testimony is subject to unconscious memory distortions and biases. In fact, eyewitness testimony can be remarkably accurate or remarkably inaccurate. People can report different perspectives even if they see the same event. I can understand then that the gospels of John and Matthew may differ a little in what they report. It is remarkable to me that the themes of these two gospels are the same and the understanding of whom Jesus is matches exactly.
Last Sunday, we heard the story of the baptism of Jesus from the gospel of Matthew. Jesus went from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John the Baptist. After Jesus was baptized, the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Then Jesus returned to Galilee to begin his ministry.
Today, we hear a slightly different version of the interaction between John the Baptist and Jesus. This time the reading comes from the gospel of John. In John’s gospel, John and Jesus meet in the town of Bethany which is near Jerusalem. The baptism itself isn’t described but John states that he saw the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus and remain there. It is interesting that John the Baptist introduced Jesus to Andrew and Simon, two men who became his apostles. In Matthew’s gospel Peter and Andrew meet Jesus for the first time in the area of Galilee and Jesus calls them himself. The two gospels differ on where things happened but they do not differ on what the events mean to us.
In John’s gospel Jesus is asked where he is staying and he answers “Come and see. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus sees Simon and Andrew and calls to them saying, “Come follow me”. The invitation is the same. Come and see what you can learn and what you can become if you are with me. It was an invitation for the apostles and I hear it as an invitation for every one of us. We are all invited to learn about Jesus, the savior of the world.
Our Scripture is the message of Jesus from the eyewitnesses of his time including the authors of the gospels of John and Matthew. We are also eyewitnesses to the story of Jesus and each of us understands scripture just a little differently even though we may have the same belief that Jesus is our Lord and Savior.
We begin by listening to the message of the servant in Isaiah. Today’s reading is the second of four passages in Isaiah that are called servant songs. Last week we read the first of the servant songs. In that passage, God spoke and chose a person to be his servant. This time, we hear the servant speak. The servant described God’s call to him (or Her), I was chosen before I was born. The servant stated that God called him to bring the people back to God. And the servant is unsure of whether he is worthy of such a call. I think Isaiah intentionally kept the identity of the servant vague. At one point in time, the entire community of Israel is mentioned. Whether Isaiah meant this as a reference to Jesus or not, we believe in Jesus as the servant of all of us, the one who gave his life for us, the lamb of God.
How many of us have heard God’s call and wondered whether we were worthy of such an important adventure. Yet, God calls us. We may think we are weak, we may think we are sinful, we may think we do not have the right skills and yet God calls us. Perhaps we are called as a community to be the servant just as Israel was called. We are called to be the eyes and ears of Jesus on earth or more importantly his hands and feet. We are called to work together for a better world.
God’s call for the people to return to God was not just for the nation of Israel. Isaiah said that the servant was to reach far beyond the community of Israel. The servant was to go to every community, “to be a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth”. Jesus fulfilled that call.
Our calling is first to be in a covenant relationship with God. Covenant is a promise between two parties that we will be consistent in our actions with one another. God always lives up to the promise that God has made. God will always watch over us and care for us. God will forgive us and provide comfort and peace for us. We sometimes struggle with our part of the covenant. We do not always follow the commandments which were given to us. We also do not always care for one another as God expects us to do.
The Jewish people often forgot about their part of the covenant. Prophets reminded them each time they failed in their promises. Isaiah presents to us a servant of God, someone who will always follow God’s covenant and who will lead us into our covenant. The servant gives everything of himself or herself to see that we remain in covenant with God.
We all struggle to keep our commitments, our promises, to God. We all fall into temptation, finding ourselves all by ourselves, far away from God’s presence. But we are all strengthened by Jesus. I love the words we find in today’s Psalm, “He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay; he set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing sure.”
Each of us has our own desolate pit that we fall into. I sometimes want to stay in that pit, feeling sorry for myself. It is selfish when we allow ourselves to be mired into a pit of sin or a place of self-serving actions. And we use many excuses to stay there. We blame others for our problems or like to say that we cannot help ourselves. But the Lord is always there for us. All we have to do is open our hearts to Jesus and God will lift us out of the pit of self-despair. Our Psalm gives us the encouragement we need, “Happy are they who trust in the Lord”.
Psalm 46 reminds us that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” We are lifted up by the words of Isaiah found in chapter 41, “do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand. May we all hear those words of promise and turn to God. Just as Jesus called us to follow him, we turn to Jesus and ask him to lift us up, to bring us out of the pit, to bring us peace.
During this Epiphany season, we hear several consistent themes from Scripture. Jesus is the light of the world or the light of all nations. Jesus came to earth to save us from our sins. Jesus became a servant to show us all how we should care for others in the world. Jesus invited us to join him in creating the kingdom of God on earth. You will find each of those themes in our lessons today.
I am moved by the simple invitation that Jesus gave to his future apostles. He simply said “come and see”. We have the word from so many witnesses about Jesus. John the Baptist called him the lamb of God. John also told everyone that the Holy Spirit had come down and proclaimed Jesus as the Son of God. When they first met Jesus, Simon and Andrew called Jesus “Teacher” and later they referred to him as the “Anointed One”. It was not until much later that Peter said to Jesus, ‘You are the Messiah,the Son of the living God.’
Let us all accept that same invitation. Let us Come and See. Let us follow Jesus and see where that takes us. We know from all that we have been taught that Jesus will take us out of the Pit and bring us to the high places. We know that Jesus will give us the Peace which passes all understanding. We know that our lives will be changed. Hallelujah! Amen.