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Sermons (122)

Sermon April 2 2020

Eating out has become a real difficult task over the last four months.  In the beginning, the restaurants were closed. Then, you could sometimes go and pick up take-out food.  I am sorry, but take-out food is never as good as eating in a restaurant.  Then, you could eat in a restaurant but the number of customers was limited and you worried about whether you might catch the virus. We still have concerns about eating out but at least now many more people wear masks as they enter and leave the restaurant. 

Jan and I celebrated our 43rd wedding anniversary on July 22nd. We decided that we would spoil ourselves by going out for a nice dinner.  We went to an expensive steakhouse in Scottsdale.  We wore masks as we entered and left the restaurant just as everyone did.  Thankfully, there were only six tables in the entire dining room that were occupied in the whole time we were there. The food was wonderful.  The steaks melted in our mouths.  The baked potato was glorious and we had spinach with mushrooms that I loved.  We were given a lava cake with ice cream in honor of our anniversary.  Given the small number of customers, we felt as if the food was prepared just for us.  It was a special experience. 

I ask you now to remember some wonderful meal that you have enjoyed.  It could have been in a restaurant like I just mentioned.  Or it could have been in someone’s home.  Maybe it was a family gathering.  Imagine that most wonderful meal as we reflect on the gifts we are given by God through Jesus.  

Today’s gospel story is about the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand.  You know this story well.  I remember hearing it as a child.  One reason it is well known is that it is one of a very few stories found in all four gospels.  I think it had great meaning to the early Christians. The oral history was quite consistent.  For example, all our gospels report that there was so much food left over that it was gathered into twelve baskets. Unlike other stories, we don’t read about people who were telling everyone about the work of Jesus. It seems that this story was so touching to early Christians that they celebrated it for themselves.   Given its storied history how might we relate to the miracle today?

Jesus left in a boat to find a quiet place.  He had just heard that John the Baptist had been killed by Herod so he might have been looking for someplace safe. Maybe he just needed a little rest.  But the crowds followed him.  Despite his own concerns, Jesus had compassion for them.  He first cured the sick and then he fed them food.  I am remembering the time Jesus changed water into wine at the wedding in Cana.  People said his wine tasted better than any other.  I wonder if the food he gave to the crowd tasted better the any they had ever had before.  I think that fits with the way Jesus did things.  That compassion is given to us just as it was given to those who followed him that day.  Jesus has compassion for all the troubles we face and asks us to have compassion for others. 

I think Christians of Jesus time thought of the Eucharist whenever they heard this story and I do too.  We hear that Jesus looked to heaven, blessed and broke the food and gave it to the disciples for them.  That is part of our communion service.  We know that Christians gathered together and shared food and fellowship.  We know they also joined in the Eucharist, sharing in the food of Jesus.   For Jesus came and gave them the Bread of Life.  He provided the physical food and the spiritual food that strengthened them, his food gave them courage in their troubles and made them steadfast in their faith. Now as you remember the most wonderful meal that you ever experienced, as you recall special tastes and conversation, I hope you also remember that there is no better meal than the bread and the cup that come from Jesus.  

It has been four months since our last church service with everyone present.  We yearn to come together and share that Bread of Jesus.  We are left with remembering the times in the past when we have shared that bread and wine with others.  We are left with asking Jesus to send that bread to us in a spiritual way.  We are left with coming to church on Wednesday and receiving that bread as I distribute it. I know some save that bread for Sunday as they watch the service online and seek to recreate as much as possible of the communion that we share.  We wish for the bread of God and all that it means for us.  I wish for that just as you do. 

But I think there is more to this gospel story than just the Eucharist.  There is more to the story than the gift of food that Jesus provided.  For on that day, Jesus showed us how we fit into his miracles.  I am thinking of the apostles.  They told Jesus they didn’t know how to feed the people.  That is why Jesus showed them.   When Jesus had blessed the food and given it to them, it was the disciples that handed the food out to the groups of people.  The disciples were a key part of the feeding.  All of us are a part of the feeding that Jesus makes available to us. 

Let us also remember the young boy.  He was prepared and brought his own food.  He may have worried about how he would eat but he gave all that he had to meet the needs of the others.  I am reminded of poor people that I have met in various parts of the world who have been willing to give the little they had to feed other people.  They were thankful for their bounty and shared it with those who were less fortunate than even they were.  Perhaps the young boy can be our inspiration.  

The poor will always be with us and we are always called to feed the hungry.  We live in a time when many people have unexpectedly lost their job and suddenly need help, they need food.  I think of several reasons why we might help.  We sometimes feed the poor out of a sense of duty, or perhaps even a sense of guilt.  We might feed the people to stay in God’s good favor.  Proverbs 28.27 suggests that “Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing, but one who turns a blind eye will get many a curse.”  We may feed the poor because we want a reward.  That idea is found in Proverbs chapter 19 verse 17, “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord and will be repaid in full.” 

Perhaps we feed the hungry out of a wish to bring people to God, an idea that we can evangelize others through food.  Mahatma Gandhi said, “There are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread”.  After they receive bread they may hear the words of God. 

Maybe we feed others realizing the importance of our work as John Chrysostom said, “Feeding the hungry is greater work that raising the dead.”  John Chrysostom also taught us that we find Jesus in others.  He said, “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the chalice.”

Or finally, we may feed the hungry despite knowing that the job will never be done.  As Mother Teresa once wrote, “If you cannot feed a hundred people then feed just one”. 

I find strength in the actions of Jesus.  He showed compassion to the people who followed him.  Let us have compassion for others in need as well. 

Motivations matter but are not so important as our actions.  There are many examples of people in this church who followed the example of Jesus.  Money has been contributed, food given, native Americans have been helped with seeds and food.  Out of our little, much has been accomplished.  What a blessing.  

We are thankful for the compassion that Jesus showed to everyone.  It is a compassion that is given to you.  I read this week that the feeding of the five thousand reminds us of the sustaining and preserving the presence of God, even when resources seem miniscule in the light of the challenges we face.  (Commentary for Proper 13).  Even though you cannot be with me today, please remember the love and strength we receive in the body and blood of Jesus.  May we be inspired to serve others with compassion as followers of Jesus.  Amen. 

 

 

 

There’s a legendary story about a fisherman from Louisiana, who was famous for the number of fish that he could catch.  One day a stranger came to his cabin on the bayou and asked him if he would take him fishing. As they got into the boat, the stranger noticed that the famous fisherman had no rod or reel– just an old rusty tackle box and a net. After a while, they came into an isolated cove surrounded by tall, massive oak trees draped with Spanish moss. The stranger watched with interest as the fisherman reached down into his tackle box, pulled out a stick of dynamite, lit the fuse, and threw it into the water. There was a muffled explosion followed by the surfacing of a number of dead fish, which the fisherman proceeded to scoop up into his net.  Whereupon the stranger pulled out a big badge and announced, “I caught you.  I’m the game warden.  You know that it’s illegal to blow up fish!”  The notorious fisherman didn’t bat an eyelash.  He calmly reached down into his tackle box, pulled out another stick of dynamite, lit the fuse, handed it to the game warden, and said to him, “Are you going to fish, or are you just going to sit there?” 

Whenever I hear that story, I am reminded of the Kingdom of God. Throughout his entire ministry, Jesus attempted to teach his followers about the Kingdom of God. He was forever describing it through the use of simile, metaphor, and parable. The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field; it is like a householder who brings out of his treasure that which is new and what is old; it is like a merchant in search of fine pearls;  it is like a net which is thrown into the sea, and gathers fish of every kind; the good are put into baskets but the bad are thrown away. In this morning’s gospel, St. Matthew has Jesus say that at the end of the age, angels will come and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. There is a warning here. It is as if God has given us a lighted stick of dynamite and has said, “Are you going to respond to the kingdom, or are you just going to sit there?”  So, briefly this morning, I would like to reflect with you upon the Kingdom of God: its location, its demands, and our response to it.

There’s a wonderful story about an old forester, who was said to be the only person who knew the way to the Enchanted Forest. In the forest, according to legend, beauty was in every rock and tree and stream; the deer approached human beings without fear; sun and shadow, earth and sky, the sounds and stillness of the forest all combined to give the visitor a sense of exaltation and clear vision.  Every year people visited the old man to ask the way to the forest, but he answered them in what seemed to be irrelevancies. To some he said, “I’ll teach you the ways of the birds and wild animals,” but that didn’t satisfy them. To others he said, “I’ll teach you how to live off the land, to find water where no one else can, to find shelter from the cold, to find food,” but that didn’t interest them either. Sometimes he said, “I’ll teach you the ways of the nature person: patience, endurance, seeing, listening, being a part of nature.”  His offers satisfied no one. When the old forester died, his daughter married a young man who knew the whole area well, and one day he said to her, “Isn’t it true that there is no Enchanted Forest?” “Not as a place on the map,” she said. “Why didn’t your father tell his visitors that?” “Because he was stubborn,” she said.  “If they had let him teach them the ways of God, they would have discovered the only enchanted forest there is.  It has many locations, but few discoverers.”

The Enchanted Forest, the Kingdom of God, is within us. The truth of God is already in you and me.  The best that any man or woman can do is to inspire it, to give it form, to give it expression, to give it consciousness, and in this way to pull it out. Jesus knew this, when he said, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” He knew that the Kingdom was a matter of the heart, not of conspicuous consumption. Your treasure, my treasure, is God’s truth, firmly implanted within us.  Karl Rahner, one of the most brilliant and insightful theologians of the Roman Catholic church, who died in 1984, once said: “The task of our century is not to stuff the truth into people, but to pull it out.”  God put the truth there.  Our task is to pull it out. As all good teachers know, the true task of education - educatio – is to inform, to inspire, to bring out of their students the truth.

Those of you who are conscious of repetition in the world around you will readily recall that I have a favorite prayer that I like to say before I begin my sermon. I used it this morning. It is always the same prayer – it never changes.  At least the sermon is different.  Although, the first rector I ever worked for once told me that he used to preach the same sermon 52 weeks a year; it was only the illustrations that he changed. The prayer that I use before the sermon is one that used to be used by the late Theodore Parker Ferris, who for thirty years was rector of Trinity Church, Boston, and one of the great preachers of our times.  The prayer begins: “Help us, O Lord, to be masters of ourselves that we may become the servants of others.”  I like the prayer because it speaks to us of one of the fundamental characteristics, indeed, one of the primary demands of God’s kingdom – namely, that of servanthood. It reminds us of our servant calling.

For centuries, and even to this very day, the Pope in Rome has often been referred to by his Latin title of servus servorum Dei - “the servant of the servants of God.”  I came across an article a little while ago that sought to extend that definition on down the ranks.  A Bishop became the servant of the servant of the servants of God; a Priest became the servant of the servant of the servant of the servants of God; a Deacon became the servant of the servant of the servant of the servant of the servants of God. And finally, a lay person was simply a rich man with servant problems. That is not the kind of servanthood which characterizes the Kingdom of God.  Help us to be masters of ourselves, that we may become the servants of others.

It was the last year of our war in the Pacific; it was the winter of 1945. The Japanese empire was contracting, and they were having one of those horrid and celebrated death marches from one concentration camp to another. There was an elderly missionary in this group, and as they trudged along the road in the cold rain, the young guard would yell at these prisoners, “Walk on.” The elderly missionary said to the guard, “I beg of you, please let me leave the line and die in peace.”  The guard would yell at him again, “Walk on.”  Again, the missionary asked him if he might just go and fall into the ditch, and there die by himself.  And again he was heralded by the unfeeling command, “Walk on.”  Thrice he asked the young guard if he might die in peace. The third time, the guard did not answer him, but drew near to him and whispered, “We are coming close to my grandmother’s house.”  In puzzlement the missionary stumbled on, and when they came to the house, the guard disappeared momentarily into this humble little dwelling. He came out with something in his hand.  He went over to the old gentleman and said to him, “Give me your hand.” He put a warm potato into his hand and said, “Take. Eat.”  And then he yelled again, “Walk on!” The master becomes the servant.  Is there something, do you suppose, vaguely reminiscent in that story of yet another master who became a slave, and who, on the night before he suffered and died, broke bread with his friends, and said, “Take. Eat.  Do this in remembrance of me?”  In another place and at another time, Jesus said, “whoever among you wants to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the willing slave of all.” We become the willing slaves of others in remembrance of Him. That is our calling.  That is a demand of God’s kingdom.  That, too, is our treasure.

The late John Coburn was the bishop of Massachusetts from 1976 to 1986.  Back in 1967, the year I entered seminary, he was the Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Later he went on to teach in one of the street academies of NYC, and then became rector of St. James’ Church, Madison Avenue.  John was always a very quiet and soft-spoken man, and frequently dressed in a three-piece suit with a gold watch chain dangling from his vest. It probably held his Phi Beta Kappa key. I remember one fall afternoon during my first year in seminary, I was in my third-floor dormitory room, when all of a sudden there was a peculiar odor in the hallway.  I went to the stairwell to see what was going on, and was met by large clouds of billowing yellow smoke. The fire alarm soon sounded and we all evacuated the building. What had happened was that two men from the oil company were cleaning the furnace in the basement. One of them dropped his work light, and it quickly ignited the cleaning fluid which they were using, causing a loud explosion and fire to occur. The man who had dropped the work light came running up the basement stairs and out onto the front lawn, his clothing totally engulfed in flames. Those who were standing nearby attempted to roll him around on the grass in order to smother the flames. Soon the Rescue Truck arrived along with the fire engines, and the first thing the paramedics did was to strip the burning clothes off the man, and wrap him in clean white sheets.  They loaded him into the rescue truck, and just as they began to head off toward the hospital, a most astonishing thing occurred.  Dean Coburn came running out of his ivy-covered office building in his three-piece suit, dashed across the lawn, and climbed aboard the moving rescue truck to ride with the burned man on his way to the hospital.  Unfortunately, the man never recovered from his burns and died six days later.

We are called to act out of unconditional love.  That is our response to God’s kingdom. It is the same unconditional love with which God loves you and me. We cannot earn it---not you, not me, not any man or woman who has ever walked the face of this planet. We do not deserve it.  We can only learn to accept it. God loves us in spite of ourselves.  His love is unconditional, unearned, eternal.  There are no strings attached. That love is the hallmark of God’s kingdom, and he has chosen to give it to us.  Our task is to share it with others.

Bernie Siegel, that remarkable surgeon from Yale University, in his best-selling book, Love,  Medicine, and Miracles,  from which I have quoted before, tells an amazing account of a doctor from California, Jerry Jampolsky. As part of his training, Dr. Jampolsky was sent to a tuberculosis sanitarium.  He feared that he would contract the disease but decided that he could take a deep breath when he got there and hold it for three months. One night he was called out to see a woman with active tuberculosis, who had had a massive pulmonary hemorrhage and cardiac arrest. Dr. Jampolsky gave her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and afterwards the nurses told him, “How could you do that?  Now you’re going to get tuberculosis.”  He never did, and he realized that he was not vulnerable while he was doing something for someone out of love.  Commenting on the incident, Dr. Siegel said, “His realization strengthened mine, and now I’ve come to understand why it is that Mother Teresa and dedicated nurses can work among hundreds of sick, infected people every day without becoming ill.” Dr. Siegel continued, “I am convinced that unconditional love is the most powerful known stimulant of the immune system.  If I told patients to raise their blood levels of immune globulins or killer T-cells, no one would know how.  But if I can teach them to love themselves and others fully, the same changes happen automatically. The truth is: love heals.”

The Kingdom of God is within us. The time for responding to that kingdom, for bringing it out of us and giving it form and expression, for exercising our servant calling, for acting out of unconditional love – is now! The fuse is already lighted; we dare not wait any longer. The time of preparation for God’s kingdom is upon us.  We need to be about our tasks of forgiving, healing, loving – ourselves, our neighbors, our enemies.   

So when we hear again those words from the Gospel: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,”  let us claim that kingdom; let us rejoice in it;  let us respond to it.  Let us share it.  It is our calling; it is our task; it is our treasure.                                                                                           AMEN.

 Addendum

     I realized after preaching this sermon that some of you might think that I am advocating when it comes to COVID-19, that you do something similar to what Dr. Jampolsky did in my example. We must remember that every disease is different and what worked for Dr. Jampolsky with tuberculosis might not work with COVID-19. Unconditional love, it is true, is powerful, but we must also use it in combination with common sense and our advanced scientific knowledge of microbiology and epidemiology. Love does heal, but that healing many times comes about by God working through the loving hands and expertise of trained doctors, nurses, hospital staff, and first responders. It is not always a sure thing, but whenever it manifests itself it is truly a miracle.                                                                       

The Rev. Philip W. Stowell

 

 

When I was a child, my grandmother would occasionally come and stay with us.  She was Irish and had a great sense of humor. I remember that she liked to drink a bottle of beer before she went to bed.  As I get older, I have decided it helped her to sleep and that is why this story resonates with me. 

98-year-old Mother Superior from Ireland was dying. The nuns gathered around her bed trying to make her last days comfortable. They tried giving her some warm milk to drink but she refused it.  One of the nuns took the glass back to the kitchen and remembering a bottle of Irish whiskey received as a gift the previous Christmas.  She opened it and poured a generous amount into the warm milk.  Back at Mother Superior's bed, she held the glass to her lips.  Mother drank a little, then a little more and before they knew it, she had drunk the whole glass down to the last drop.

"Mother," the nuns asked with earnest, "please give us some wisdom before you die.” She raised herself up in bed and said, "Don't sell that cow!”  Now that is wisdom that all of us can use.

"A little girl was sitting on her grandfather’s lap as he read her a bedtime story.  From time to time, she would take her eyes off the book and reach up to touch his wrinkled cheek. She was alternately stroking her own cheek, then his again.  Finally she spoke up, Grandpa, did God make you?  Yes, sweetheart, he answered, God made me a long time ago.  Oh, she paused, grandpa, did God make me too?  Yes, indeed, honey, he said, God made you just a little while ago. Feeling their respective faces again, she observed, God’s getting better at it, isn’t he?  You see, wisdom comes from the little children doesn’t it? 

Today we hear about wisdom and rest; both of them can be found in Jesus.   Wisdom is one of those things that we search for all of our lives and often only know when we experience it. Scripture is a good source of wisdom.   My study Bible says that “the fundamental goal of the Book of Proverbs is to teach the acquisition of wisdom and the avoidance of folly”.  Proverbs speaks of wisdom as a female person and speaks as if she is searching each of us out.  In chapter one “Wisdom cries out in the street;  in the squares she raises her voice.  ‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?’”

Proverbs teaches us that wisdom provides order to chaos. In the Psalms we learn that wisdom grants us humility. (Psalm 11:12) and protects and guards us. (Psalm 4:6) Proverbs helps us to understand that wisdom comes from God. 

For the Lord gives wisdom;

   from his mouth comes knowledge and understanding;

he stores up sound wisdom for the upright;

   he is a shield to those who walk blamelessly,

Then you will understand righteousness and justice

   and equity, every good path;

for wisdom will come into your heart,

   and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul;

So, when Jesus spoke about wisdom in today’s gospel lesson, he continued in the traditions of the Hebrew Scripture.  The people of his time were missing what was right in front of them. People could not see the truth of John the Baptist and they judged Jesus based on the company he kept.  Their perceptions of John and Jesus were clouded by what their faith leaders had taught them.    Jesus wanted them to have wisdom to see through the veil of their previous understanding to realize that he was God.  He wanted people to put aside their understanding of what the Messiah would do.  Jesus came not to take political power but to help us find God in our everyday life. He wanted people to see that God may not do things the way we expect them to be done.

And Jesus said that God’s presence was hidden from the most intelligent, that it was the infants that could see God in Jesus.  The words of Jesus are timeless.  I think we can learn from the faith of children.  Children often see things with an innocence that is difficult for adults.  Children see things because their eyes are open to what is in front of them.  Our intelligence can cause us to think we already know the answer.  We may have become cynical or have too much pride to think we can learn more. 

As Christians in today’s world, we seek an innocence that helps us find wisdom and truth in God.  We pray that we will be guided by the Holy Spirit in our decisions.  We ask God to help us follow God’s will.  And we need God’s help.   

 

Wisdom and truth are not synonyms but I think wisdom helps us find truth.  Thomas Jefferson once wrote that “Honesty is the first chapter of the book wisdom.”  Being honest with ourselves may help us find wisdom.  I cannot forget the words exchanged by Jesus and Pilate just before Jesus was crucified.  Jesus said, “for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

I have concluded that finding the truth is a difficult thing to do these days.  I say that our preconceived opinions or our wish for a certain outcome causes us to seek messages that support our expectations of the truth.  In our divided culture and in this world of social media, it is easy to find writing that meets our wishes for the truth.  And if there is a blog connected to a version of the truth, I promise you that you will find comments in total support and comments in total rejection of whatever truth is espoused.  We just don’t agree on the truth.  It seems to me that we are just as challenged to find wisdom in our day as the people of Jesus were challenged. We need the wisdom and truth to deal with so many things we face today, in our faith and in the world. 

If we are ever able to find God’s wisdom then perhaps we will understand the last few verses of the gospel for today.  I find the words extremely comforting.  Come to me all you who labor and I will give you rest.   I read that often when we pray the evening service Compline.  Whenever I hear those words, I am comforted.  I feel as if I can keep at peace with the world.  

But I ask myself how does this passage fit with other teachings of Jesus? for he also said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  In the last few weeks, we heard Jesus tell his disciples that preaching the gospel of Jesus would not be easy.  They would be persecuted. 

It seems to me that coming to Jesus will not save us from trials and tribulations.  It won’t save us from rejection.  We won’t be able to just rest in a chair and do nothing.  Coming to Jesus is more about knowing that we are doing the right thing, finding peace with the things that are going on around us even those things challenge us.  Coming to Jesus may mean that we have lots of work to do but the work will give us rest. 

Eleanore Stump said, ‘when the person to whom you come is Christ himself, the vulnerability which openness brings with it is more than matched by the love Christ gives. In the gift of that love, everything that might be loss is turned into gift given and gift received, to be returned again in love.”

Sometimes rest is given to us through another person just as Isaac was comforted by Rebekah after his mother’s death. Paul wrote about our constant struggle in ourselves between good and evil.  We do good knowing that evil is near.  We realize that Jesus saves us from the death of sin.  That is when we find rest. 

Jesus said take my yoke upon you.  A yoke brought a team of two oxen together to pull a load. When we take on the yoke of Jesus, we stay connected to him always.  We pull together through the good and the bad.  Sometimes, Jesus pulls the load for us.  We live together with Jesus in love.  Then, we will find rest.   Jesus said that we will find rest for our souls.

Isn’t it interesting that when we find wisdom, we will come to Jesus and in the arms of Jesus we will find rest.  Let us seek the wisdom of Jesus, let us take his yoke upon us, for when we are united with Jesus we will find rest and peace.  Amen. 

 

 This week, I fell victim to the perils of a weekend warrior.  I was playing tennis with my family and suddenly I felt a strange twinge, a feeling as if there was a rope in my leg that couldn’t turn.  I had strained my calf muscle in my left leg.  I was unable to walk on it then and even now I must step very gingerly.  You have probably noticed.  In the midst of my troubles, I received so much help.  My daughter has a lot of medical expertise and she made sure that my injury was only a strain.  People got ice for me and walked me to the car and later into the house where I sat without moving.  My daughter wrapped my leg with an ace bandage. 

I think it is hard to stay still and have everyone else wait on you.  I want to get up and go.  But this time I stayed and people ran little errands for me.  Jan has been wonderful by the way, cooking, serving, driving, carrying and doing other errands.  On Monday, Lynn Graff went out of her way and lent me her scooter to rest my bad leg on.  I am pretty wild on that scooter.

My favorite experience was the concern and care given to me by my granddaughters.  As I sat, they both stayed very close to me.  It seemed the they wanted to comfort me with their presence.  Four-year-old Evelyn gave me her small notebook in which she had drawn several pictures.  She told me that she had made the book for people who were injured to enjoy while they recovered.  I was touched. 

So my experience minded me once again of how important it is for everyone to help others out, to be kind in a difficult world, to welcome others. Perhaps it is even more important to care for others in a time when it is so hard to do.  The caring I received was out of a sense of giving.  But I experienced it as a matter of responsibility. My two granddaughters as young as they are felt the responsibility to watch over me when I was hurt. Our readings for this Sunday speak to me about our duty as followers of Jesus.  We have many responsibilities.

I find the reading about Abraham and Isaac to be brutal.   Abraham was told by God to go and sacrifice his only son.  How does that make sense especially in light of God’ promise that Abraham will be the father of all nations?  Well, it doesn’t.  God protected both Abraham and Isaac from sacrifice.  In it though, I find the message that we are to follow God’s will and not our own. Abraham was obedient to the point of death for Isaac even as Jesus was obedient to the point of his actual death.  I don’t think that our duty is to die or to kill someone else.  But there are tough choices to make as Christians.

In Romans, Paul wrote that we have been freed from the law and from sin.  We are no longer instruments of wickedness but through the grace of Jesus Christ we are now instruments of righteousness.  While we have been freed we also have been given a responsibility. In Paul’s words, we are no longer slaves of sin but rather slaves to God.   “We have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted”.  I say it this way, we are obedient to the words and teaching of Jesus. 

The gospel lesson is part of a larger story about the commissioning of the disciples.  Jesus warned the disciples as he sent them off to proclaim God’s love.  They would not be able to take any valuables with them.  They would be rejected.  They would be punished.  They may have to separate themselves from family and friends for their belief in Jesus. 

As Jesus ends this teaching, he gives them words of encouragement.  He told the disciples that some people would welcome them.  Those people would be blessed and sanctified just as the disciples would be for their preaching.  I hear Jesus saying that we should be welcoming to others. It is a persistent message in scripture.  But I also hear Jesus saying that we are to accept the welcome that we will receive.  

What is our duty as Christians during our time?  I would say that we are called to live our lives as examples to others.  We are to welcome and care for others.  We are to sin no more but rather to be righteous.  But I think it is harder than that.  How do we live Christian lives during a pandemic and as our culture deals with deep seated problems?

As I hear a consistent message about duty and responsibility throughout our lessons. I am reminded of the book called the Greatest Generation written by Tom Brokaw.  He wrote about individuals who during World War two made such great sacrifices.  They felt it was their duty to give up everything in their lives to protect our country.  According to Brokaw, most did it without complaint.  Many never spoke about their losses for their country even many years after the fact.  They sacrificed their schooling, their careers and their loved ones.  Many gave up their lives for our freedom.

I would now like to offer some personal perspectives about our duty in the world.  You are welcome to disagree.  I offer these perspectives as a way for all of us to consider what our role is in the world today.

We are struggling with the continued growth in the number of Covid-19 cases especially in Arizona.   We have tough choices to make about how to keep working and provide for our families while we seek to stop the spread of the virus.  Many people speak of their rights.  We all have rights and I respect that.  I feel sorry for the young people in our world today who have been forced to live with so many difficult situations.  Still, I wish we would hear more from people about the responsibilities and the duties that we all have.  What is our duty to help stop the spread of Covid-19?  I consider it my duty to wear a mask when I am out in public?  I don’t like wearing masks myself but I do it.  How do we balance our wish to reopen the church with our duty to keep people safe?  If someone has considered their duties and still concludes they don’t need to wear a mask then I will appreciate them more than when they only speak of their rights.  

Another of our struggles is the challenge of racism and the concern about how police do their jobs, concerns about how people behave.  These issues are very complex.  I have heard lots of different perspectives on these two issues.  Parishioners have shared writings about these issues with me.  My wish is that we choose action.  I am touched by people who have written to me about why police behavior is correct.  I am also touched by Tim Scott, the Republican Senator from South Carolina who has proposed police reforms while also writing that he had been stopped 18 times in his life by police and was thankful he had never been injured or worse. I am also touched by the Phoenix police chief, Jeri Williams, who walked with protestors and sent police out to deal with people who turned violent during their protests.   Can we find a way to support the wonderful work that police do and appreciate their willingness to put their life on the line for us and still look for ways they can do their job better?  Can we find ways to deal with the issues of legitimate protesters and deal with people who loot or destroy public property?  Can we help black people deal with racism and ask them to deal with problems like black on black violence?    Let’s not excuse any behavior by saying the people on the other side are doing it so why can’t I do it.  I am trying to change my ways so that I will be part of the solution, so that by my actions the world moves in the right direction.  I hope that you will pick a problem that you care about and think how you might make a difference even if you just pray about it, even if you reach out again in kindness to others.  I ask you to try and understand the position of people who disagree with you.  I will pray that we find ways to talk about these things that allows people of different political persuasions to work on our problems together.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote that “Action Springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility”.  He stood up for his faith beliefs and suffered the consequences.  I ask myself how I can be ready for my responsibility.  In today’s scripture, I hear consistent words about our responsibilities as Christians.  Living a Christian life can give us difficult choices.  May God guide us as we find our way in today’s complex world. 

 

 

Help us, O Lord, to be masters of ourselves that we may become the servants of others. Take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them, and take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen.

     There once was a Mafia Godfather who found out that his bookkeeper had stolen ten million dollars from him. This bookkeeper was deaf, and it was considered an occupational benefit. The man got the job in the first place, since it was assumed that a deaf bookkeeper would not be able to hear anything that he'd ever have to testify about in court. When the Godfather went to shakedown the bookkeeper about his missing $10 million dollars, he brought along his attorney, who knew sign language. The Godfather asked the bookkeeper:  "Where is the 10 million bucks you embezzled from me?"  The attorney, using sign language, asked the bookkeeper where the 10 million dollars was hidden. The bookkeeper signed back:  "I don't know what you are talking about."  The attorney told the Godfather: "He says he doesn't know what you're talking about." That's when the Godfather pulled out a 9 mm pistol, put it to the bookkeeper's temple, cocked it, and said: "Ask him again!" The attorney signed to the underling:  "He'll kill you for sure if you don't tell him!" The bookkeeper signed back:  "OK!  You win!  The money is in a brown briefcase, buried behind the shed in my cousin Enzo's backyard in Queens!" The Godfather asked the attorney:  "Well, what did he say?"  The attorney replied: "He says you don't have the guts to pull the trigger.”

     Because you and I are choosing creatures, we have many choices to make in life.  We are free to choose to be truly ourselves, to be the people God intended for us to be ---   independent, creative, responsible individuals. Yet, with that personal freedom, there is always a cost involved. In this morning’s gospel, Jesus spells out for his followers what it will cost if they choose to become one of his disciples. What he says, in effect, is that if you choose to follow me, your children will rise up against you, and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Yet, over and over again, Jesus says: “Have no fear of them;” “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” And so we struggle: do we stay the safe and easy course, or do we run the risk of discipleship and all that it entails? It is costly to choose, it is costly to be a disciple of the Lord Christ in any age. You and I, however, are called to follow, we are called to be his disciples, we are called to bear the cost. For that reason, I would like to reflect with you briefly this morning, in the context of our gospel, upon our struggle, upon our self-worth, and upon the cost.

    One of the great figures in psychological circles in the last century was the late Frances Wickes. In the late 1920s she wrote a volume entitled The Inner World of Children, which soon became a classic in its field. Then, when she was 87 years old, this brilliant woman wrote another book with the title, The Inner World of Change. In this work, she describes how you and I simultaneously have two psychological pulls. On the one hand, we have a yearning, a dream, to become ourselves. On the other, we have an archetypal yearning to somehow return to a union with nature, with what she refers to as the "undemanding life of the unconscious."

      If you look at the story of Adam and Eve in the very first book of our Holy Scriptures, you will quickly realize that it is a story about becoming conscious. Once Adam and Eve became conscious, they became self-conscious. They said, "We are naked." The Lord God went looking for them in the cool of the day, in this new estate, but they had lost that sense of oneness with nature, and they were hiding. And so husband and wife were thrown out of the Garden of Eden, and God put angels with swords of fire in front of the Garden so that they could not return. Ever since that time, you and I, and countless others along with us, have experienced that inner pull in opposite directions. We want to remain in that choosing, conscious state, and become who we were meant to be as completely as possible. Yet, there is a part of us that wants to return to that primordial condition, to that Garden state, where we are one with nature, where there is no turmoil.  And so we are torn.  Because we are conscious human beings, we are faced with countless choices in life, some far more costly than others. We are the choosing animals, and there are choices we must make every day. If we do not, we run the risk of falling back into the undemanding life of the unconscious. That is our struggle.

    The Lord's Christ comes to us and calls us to be choice-makers in life; He inspires us to become the people we were meant to be as completely as possible. Sometimes, though, we wonder, when all is said and done, do our lives really count? How can you and I tell if our lives count to our society, to our generation, to our God? In other words, do we have some small measure of self-worth?

      Bishop Wayne K. Clymer of the United Methodist Church tells of spending a summer in a clinical pastoral education program in a prestigious New England hospital. The program was much the same as the one in which I participated over 40 years ago in a state psychiatric institution in Connecticut as a chaplain intern. There was a clearly marked pecking order in the institution which ranged from the medical department heads, through the interns, registered nurses, nurses’ aides, to the cleaning women. One day Clymer and another chaplain intern in the program were standing in the hallway being introduced to staff members. They met a doctor, a nurse, and a nurses’ aide. Just inside the doorway was a girl washing dishes. No one bothered to introduce her. Clymer remembers turning toward her and saying, “I don’t believe I got your name.” She looked up through her thick glasses somewhat startled, but with a broad smile, and said, “Well, I guess I am somebody, too.” We all have moments like that when we wonder, does my life really matter? And if it does, who cares? Our self-worth quickly drops.

     In this morning’s gospel, Jesus says to his disciples: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. Even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” In other words, he is saying that sometimes the value of what we do and who we are in life is known only to God. The material rewards that we too often expect for our blood, sweat, and tears, for our sacrifices, do not always appear. We do not necessarily receive a quid pro quo for all the things we accomplish in life. We need to remember, at times like these, that our self-worth comes not from what we or others can

see or touch. It comes instead from those attributes which are cultivated in the human heart and are known often only to God – attributes such as love, forgiveness, gentleness, patience, goodness, and mercy.

     I remember being marooned many years ago one Sunday afternoon in a small north Jersey town as I waited for a train. With nothing to do except wander around the village, I walked into the only building that was open, which happened to be the lobby of the local post office. On its bulletin board was the familiar art gallery that decorates post office lobbies — pictures of people wanted for robbing the mails. Rewards were offered for their capture: five hundred dollars for some, a thousand dollars for others, and for one (evidently a grand duke of the profession), five thousand dollars. Each person had a price on his or her head. It struck me suddenly as I walked around that those pictures were a crude but real suggestion of the heart of the Christian gospel. Every person has a price on his or her head, a divine price tag, an infinite worth in the sight of God.   But being decision-makers, having self-worth, also entails risk. Jesus said, “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in law.” Is that the kind of risk that you and I are willing to bear in order to follow in His footsteps? Author Scott Peck defines full maturity in a Christian context as being totally available - totally available to others and to God, and that, he says, is costly. 

     A story appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer a number of years ago about a young, 26-year old man from Northeast Philadelphia by the name of Justin Healy. Most days, Justin Healy is minimally conscious, and even his one good eye appears glazed. He does not speak. He gives few indications that he is aware of what is going on around him. A year and a half earlier, Justin fell from a roof he was repairing, breaking his skull and bruising his brain. Doctors are not sure whether he’ll ever be much better. That, however, does not matter to Justin’s fiancee, Megan Lester. Almost every day, Megan sits by Justin’s side at the Moss Rehabilitation Center gazing at his face, telling him stories, making sure his hair is combed and his mustache trimmed. Often she kisses his cheek, and rubs his arms. Rarely does the smile leave her face. Justin had one other previous accident a few years prior to this one, when he crashed his motorcycle and spent months in rehabilitation therapy.  Megan said, “We were finally digging ourselves out of the hole the first accident had created for us, and were planning to get married, when it happened again.” When people act astonished at her decision to stay with Justin she replies "This is what you do for someone you love. He would do it for me.” To Justin, Megan says, “I know that you have far to go in your recovery, but I will be by your side every step of the way, and then for a long time after that.” Megan Lester lives the kind of commitment that Christian discipleship is all about. It is being totally available to someone else. It is risky; it is costly. But that is precisely what it takes to follow in the footsteps of the Lord's Christ.

     So, this morning, as we struggle with that inner pull either to become ourselves as completely as possible, or to return to that primordial Garden of unconsciousness, we are reminded that we are the choosing people. It is our freedom of choice which allows us to become disciples of the Lord’s Christ.

     Our sense of self-worth in this life comes about not through the material rewards we accumulate for ourselves or the achievements we earn, but rather through the attributes of life implanted deep within our hearts, attributes such as patience, love, kindness and forgiveness.  Our lives do count, we are of value, in God's sight, always.

    And finally, that sense of accomplishment, of worth, is never achieved without some cost, without some struggle. To be truly committed followers of this Jesus, the Christ, means that we must be totally available to others, and that is risky. As He himself comes to us as One who is totally available, so, too, must we become totally available to those who surround us in life and love, and to God. Then, and only then, will the Lord's Christ also say of us, "I will be by your side every step of the way, and then for a long time after that.”                                                                    Amen.

Sermon by:  The Rev. Philip W. Stowell 

These last few weeks have been a time of sadness and a time of wondering about whether we will all get through this.  I am sure that each of you has your own struggle with emotions at this time. I am tired of the constraints of the pandemic.  I wish that we could open the church for services again like some others have done.  But just as we seemed to be coming out, the number of people diagnosed with Covid-19 in Arizona has jumped dramatically and hospitalizations are up.  And now, we clearly see other major problems in our country.  I am saddened by the treatment of minorities.  I am worried about the looting that has taken place.  I am thankful for great police work like the way Scottsdale police have recovered so much of the goods stolen from Scottsdale Fashion Mall and charged the perpetrators.  I have also seen videos of what I consider to be the use of unnecessary force by police.  I am disheartened by the way both police and protesters have been treated.  I believe that the problems can be solved.  But I have been brought down by the tremendous divide that we have in public opinion in our country.  Our divisions are deep seated and there is disagreement within families and with friends about who we are and what we should do.  I have asked myself how are we going to get out of this mess? 

In the midst of my worries, I watched a three-part mini-series on Ulysses S. Grant.  We all know him as the Union General who eventually won the civil war and became the 18th president of the United States.  I find him to be an interesting human being.  He has been called a drunk, a butcher, and a corrupt politician.  I think those views are overstated but he certainly had flaws.  But he has also been called a brilliant military thinker, a person who sought healing after the civil war and someone who cared that everyone be treated with justice.   His story reminded me that we have faced terrible times in the past and perhaps ours is not as bad.  Perhaps we could be encouraged by Grant’s ability to overcome problems especially poverty.  And I wish that his story would help all of us to realize that we all are flawed individually and as a community and to pray that God will help us overcome our weaknesses. 

I was also inspired by what I call the steely eyed commitment that Grant had to see things through.  He was a man who never gave up.  I ask that I could have more of that bull dogged determination that if I just stick to it, things will end well. 

Today’s scripture gives us words of wisdom for our time.  Think for a moment about the story of Abraham and Sarah.  We read today about the Lord coming to visit Abraham. The Lord told Abraham that he would have a son.  Despite his faith, I think Abraham was uncertain.  Sarah thought that would be impossible so she laughed at the mention of God’s plan.  This story shows us that God creates life and provides us with grace even though we may have little faith.  Their son Isaac was born despite their uncertainty about how this would happen. 

In our time of uncertainty, let us not give up on the power of God to deal with the issues that we face.  Yes, I worry about where this time will lead us.  But I pray that I will have faith in God’s work.  Abraham showed faith in God.  Abraham is a great example for us to follow. 

When we are worried about our future, let us turn to the letter to the Romans.  Paul wants us to “boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”

Yes, Paul is encouraging us to have hope even when we are suffering, even when we are down.  He wants us to remember that in our suffering we can become something better than we are.  We can come closer to God during this time.  Yes, his words feel like a pep talk from a coach.  But those words are something I need now.  I think we all still have a child inside us and we need our parent to help us reach for something that is better than we are today. 

Paul reminds us that we don’t do this alone.   God is always with us.  Paul invokes the three persons of the Trinity is his message, helping us to see how each person in the Trinity aides us.  Jesus Christ gave his life for us.  We have received peace because of his sacrifice and we are given the gift of grace.  As Paul wrote, it is through Jesus that we have obtained access to a special grace, a grace that brings us closer to God.  Jesus died for us even though we are flawed, even though we have sinned, even though we at times are ungodly.  And we constantly receive the love of God because the Holy Spirit is ever present with us.  I think Paul’s words alone lift us up out of our doldrums.  God gives us strength to carry on in difficult times.

It is Matthew’s gospel that reminds us of what Jesus did for others and what he still does today for us.  Yes, Jesus went to all the cities and towns and proclaimed the good news about the kingdom of God.  But I choose to focus on the next phase.  Jesus cured every disease and sickness. 

As this virus, this disease continues to haunt us, let us pray for Jesus to come once more and cure all of those of the disease.  Let us pray that Jesus will come and bring his healing power in a way that will bring us together.  Let us pray that he will heal us of anger towards those who disagree with us.  May we be united as followers of Jesus. I love the words Matthew used to describe this. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 

Jesus is full of compassion.  These days, I feel as if we have been harassed by the virus and other things.  I feel helpless because I am uncertain how to deal with some of the things that are going on and uncertain about where this is all leading us.  Isn’t it good that Jesus is our shepherd? 

Jesus did more than cure the sick himself.  He sent his apostles and told them “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”  Then he said, proclaim the good news that ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.”

I believe those words were meant for you and me.  We are called to proclaim the good news of Jesus in our day.  Perhaps the words and the healing of Jesus will help us find our way together. 

I have always been touched by the words of Jesus found in John’s gospel.  He told his followers that they will do more than he has done.  The exact words are “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”  With these words we should never doubt that he is sending us out to proclaim his word to all people.  We should never doubt that we can accomplish wonderful things in his name. 

Let us be strengthened by the power of God to do amazing things like giving Abraham and Sarah a child when they least expected it.  Let us be thankful for the healing power of Jesus.  Let us feel the hope that comes from God.  Let us carry some of that steely eyed determination exemplified by Ulysses S Grant and others we know.  May we be confident that God will help us overcome our struggles and may we be steadfast in our efforts to proclaim the good news to others. 

I feel inspired by the words found in our collect today and wonder if you might appreciate hearing that prayer one more time. 

“Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness and minister your justice with compassion.”  What a great expression of today’s scripture.  Amen.

 

       The story in Scripture describing Creation divides our Lord’s process into 7 stages, designated as ‘days,’ in the narrative.   The marvelous thing is that as each stage, with it’s own amazing changes and additions to what was brought forth previously, EACH is considered, and affirmed by God, as “GOOD.”  That’s of course, good news for us, because somewhere during what is designated “the sixth day, our God spoke forth OUR antecedents, and in the incomprehensible LOVE and HOPE of our Creator, God affirmed creation as “… indeed, VERY GOOD!”   I think that’s why God is so   strongly present at the birth of a child – because God always has so very much hope for each and every one of us!  And we all experience the magnitude of God’s love in the manifold blessings we recognize in each of OUR lives, even in the midst of sad and troubling times.

       We now experience, each of us, in some ways, or perhaps, in many ways, grief, pain, fear of the violence and destruction of which we hear;  illness, death, deprivation, mild or severe, and perhaps MOST difficult, a sense of painful separation:  from one another, from those closest and most beloved; from our accustomed practices, certainly from our parish family and the active and beloved worship, study, interaction, AND the projects we so happily undertake in service to God and to one another.  Our beloved CHURCH is VERY much how we live our lives!  And we desperately MISS that, and long for the rapid return of “LIFE AS WE KNEW IT, before the covid 19 virus.  We fear for our children, and all those whom we love.  We applaud the integrity, the bravery, and the courage of those people whose daily life and livelihood expose them routinely to disease and danger.  We are AMAZED  at their steadfast faithfulness.   Truly, all these heroic souls MUST have internalized Christ’s promise in today’s Gospel to be with us ALWAYS! 

       And we, too, ought to hold that promise close to OUR hearts.  Consider the Creation story:  God examines every aspect of Creation and deems it good.  God is pleased – probably not necessarily with ALL that we do, but clearly with the potential, and the possibilities, with which God has endowed each one of us.  Think of the joy we have in each child  - not only in our own, but in each little one with whom we are associated.  If WE have such joy, how great, then, is God’s joy in each one of us, God’s own children?  God did NOT call forth Creation in order to condemn it! 

     When we contemplate the Creation in which we live, the infinite complexity, the immeasurable and incomprehensible creation of which we are a tiny part, how could we imagine that our Lord, who brought forth all this, infinite in detail and design, did so, simply to destroy?  Did not our Lord Christ remind us that in the Temple, two tiny birds of small size and insignificant value, perhaps two for a penny, were known infinitely and intimately by our Creator.  Would such a Creator create only to destroy?   

     Our problems, our troubles, do not stem from God.  Creation has long endured war, disease, famine, destruction and disaster.  Much of human grief comes from humanity.  Jesus warned us of this, and indeed, Jesus suffered from it. We are horrified by the reports of violence and death humans inflict upon one another. And we grieve for both victim and also for those whose brokenness leads them to violence.   And yet, millennia after millennia, creation endures, by the grace of God, despite humanity. I always learn from my parishioners.  One young man came up after a service and said, “Pastor, the whole trouble is ‘that free-will thing, isn’t it?”  “Looks like it to me, buddy.”  Then in another parish, a sweet, gentle soul, whom I later learned was in her mid-late 80’s, stopped after the service, and said, “Pastor Susan, I think all the troubles we have come down to human greed, don’t you think?”  “Yes, Ma’am. I do believe so.” 

     God did not build destruction into creation, God built amazing love, joy, beauty, substance, goodness, grace and plenty for all creation. “Lo, I am with you, even to the end of the world,” says Jesus.  That’s really all we need to know.  That alone will allow us to set aside fear, and to recall that Jesus gave us marching orders.  “Go, people, teach every one you encounter ALL that I have taught you. Baptize them, send them out also, and remind them that I am with each one of you always and forever. 

     Last week the readings for morning prayer included a passage from Matthew’s Gospel as well.   In that passage Jesus has encountered a pair of demoniacs, who have terrorized the country side, and people could not come near them.  But the resident contingent of demons instantly recognized Christ, and first complained that Jesus’ presence was earlier than originally scheduled.  The demons evidently thought they therefore had leverage, so they asked that they be cast into a herd of swine, as opposed to being cast into outer darkness.  Jesus obliged, and the swine and tag-along demons went off into the deep water and were drowned. Teaching moment: Gotta watch what ya ask for.  Next, the swine-herders, run into the nearby town, tell the story, and the entire village comes out to run Jesus off!  This passage has always STUNNED me!  Let’s see, now.  So the Lord and Creator of all that is, was, and is yet to be, has just run off a whole gang of truly dangerous wicked, evil critters.  Thanks to Jesus, these bad-actors are well and truly GONE! So, where is the band?  Where is the cheering crowd and the ubiquitous ticker-tape parade?  What are WE to conclude from this?  Could this entire village actually prefer the demons they know, to the hitherto unseen Holy One?  The Most High? Okay, so they don’t know that Jesus has come to redeem creation, some of which knows full well it’s need of redemption, some of which clearly failed to grasp the concept.  But it appears these folks are choosing a known evil over God’s call to abundantlife in GOD’S constant presence.  Sometimes I think, as a species, we’re ALL wacked. 

       BUT Our Creator calls us GOOD, and calls all creation GOOD. A Creator of LOVE, HOPE, and BLESSING, NOT destruction! A Creator to see us through Covid-19, through all the grief, pain, hunger, AND our longing for the restoration of our parish family life.  {although I still believe that if we would outfit the whole parish family in hazmat suits, we could resume our joyous parish family interaction.}  Our God LOVES us, folks!  GOD thinks we’re worthwhile!  And God will get us through WHATEVER comes up.  We KNOW GOD WINS!  And when God wins, so do we!  THANKS BE TO GOD!

 

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.