Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Philip W. Stowell
Sept. 19, 2021
There once was a young woman who asked for an appointment with her pastor to talk to him about a besetting sin about which she was worried. When she saw him, she said, “Pastor, I have become aware of a sin in my life which I cannot control. Every time I am at church I begin to look around at the other women, and I realize that I am the prettiest one in the whole congregation. None of the others can compare with my beauty. What can I do about this sin?”The pastor replied, “Mary, that’s not a sin, why that’s just a mistake!”
There have been times like that in all of our lives. There have been times when we realize how full of ourselves, how egotistical, we really are; when our bubble is pricked and we come back down to reality. Willard Scott of The Today Show, who died just two weeks ago, remembers his radio days when he received his all-time favorite letter from a fan. It began: “Dear Mr. Scott: I think that you are the best disk jockey in Washington. You play the best music and have the nicest voice of anyone on the air. P.S. Please excuse the crayon---they won’t let us have anything sharp in here.”
What makes us, though, so vain and self-inflated? How do we become that way? I would suggest to you this morning that that is how we deal with our anxieties and our fears. In times of great stress, when we fear that we have somehow lost control of our lives, our world, our friends, our relationships, we retreat behind the masks of hubris and self-importance. In this morning’s gospel, St. Mark tells us that Jesus’ disciples “did not understand what he was saying, and they were afraid to ask him.” This man, whom they had learned to trust and love over the course of his three-year ministry with them, had just told them that he would be delivered into the hands of unfriendly people; that he would be put on trial; that he would be killed; that he would be separated from them. For the disciples, this was a time of extraordinary stress and anxiety. Every aspect of their lives was threatened; painful change was at hand. And so, quite naturally, they retreated into this competition among themselves as to who was the greatest. Therefore, I would like to reflect with you briefly this morning upon stress, upon greatness, and upon servanthood.
A number of years ago, our son Andrew, who at that time was an ICU nurse at Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, was showing us his stethoscope. He decided that he wanted to listen to my heart, and after doing so he said, “Dad, did you know that your heart skips a beat every so often?” Even though I said that I was unaware of that, he suggested that I get an EKG from our primary care physician, which I did a few days later. The skip did not turn up in the doctor’s office, but my doctor asked if I had ever had a stress test, and when I replied that I had not, he suggested that it might be a good idea to have one. So two weeks later I went to the Virtua Cardiology Group in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, and had my first echocardiogram and stress test. Talk about stress and anxiety! Well, I flunked my stress test because no one told me that I had to get my heart rate up to a certain level while I was on the tread mill. I had been on the tread mill for about 6 minutes, when the nurse asked me how I felt. I replied that I was a getting a little tired. So she told me to stop and get off. I was then told that I had not gotten my heart rate up to the desired level and that I would have to come back in one week for a four-hour nuclear medicine stress test. A nuclear test is when you don’t have to go on the tread mill, but instead they inject you with some kind of drug that opens your blood vessels and then they take pictures of your heart at 45 minute intervals. I had more stress from having flunked the initial test, and from worrying about my upcoming tests than I had had in a long time. But I didn’t feel the need to be full of pride and self-importance. All the stress finally disappeared when the whole ordeal came to an end a week or so later, and all test results came back normal.
Social scientists tell us that at times of extreme stress in our lives, it behooves us to remove ourselves from an unfriendly environment, surround ourselves with friendly, optimistic people, and to concentrate not on that which we perceive to have lost, but rather to concentrate upon what remains. Quite a few years ago, Manny Lawton wrote a story about the survivors of the famous death march from Bataan in World War II. The story was entitled Some Survived. In it he told about how he and others in their group consciously sought out among those surviving troops, men who were optimists, men who had a sense of humor. Looking back on the experience, he realized that, in large measure, this company contributed richly to their survival.
In this morning’s gospel, once Jesus got his disciples into a house, away from the crowds, he sat them down together and asked them, “what were you arguing about on the way?” They were silent because they had argued about who among them was the greatest. Jesus then said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” He was calling them to discover who they really were in terms of humility and servanthood. Too often, though, we tend to think of ourselves not as last, but rather as first in order of importance.
There’s a little-known story about the late Joe Louis, professional boxer and World Heavyweight champion, that illustrates the self-control that is a mark of true greatness. He and the late comedian, Harvey Stone, were on tour entertaining the troops during the Second World War, and in their uniforms they often went unnoticed by civilians. In New York City one day they were rushing to a performance when the Brown Bomber, as Lewis was known, accidentally sideswiped a cab. The irate cab driver made tracks to Joe’s open window and began hurling abuse on him that covered every racial slur in the book. As the heavyweight champ of the world took it all in, the driver challenged him to a fight, uniform or no uniform. But Joe kept his cool and soon the frustrated cabbie drove off. Stone was flabbergasted. “Joe, why didn’t you take at least one tiny swing at him for all that maligning?” Joe replied, “If someone insulted the famous tenor Enrico Caruso, would he have sung him an aria?”
St. Mark then tells us that Jesus next proceeded to take a little child in his arms, and said “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” To understand this gesture, you must realize that in Jesus’ culture, children were essentially non- persons. They were left with the women, who themselves were considered subservient to the men, but children were even further down the social ladder. Only slaves were lower in social standing than children. Therefore, to say that the followers of Jesus could welcome him by welcoming a child was an earth-shaking suggestion. But Jesus wanted them to understand how God viewed greatness. It came not from being high on society’s status ladder, but by welcoming those on the bottom rungs or those who didn’t have a place on the ladder at all. Someone once said that true greatness is not how far we rise above others in status or fame or achievement, but in how far we are willing to go in including and caring for the least and the lowly in his name. Jesus called his disciples then, as he calls us now, to a radically different kind of greatness in and through servanthood.
James Citrin and Richard A. Smith head up an international executive search firm. Their job puts them in contact with some of the most successful CEOs in the business world. Citrin and Smith have studied the patterns of the great leaders, and out of their research comes one surprising finding: the best leaders are the ones who promote others’ success. Only 4% of top leaders were judged to be self-centered in their career goals. At least 90% of the top leaders Citrin and Smith studied made it a priority to help their subordinates succeed at their jobs. This is the key to success.
John Kenneth Galbraith, in his autobiography, A Life in Our Times, illustrated the devotion of Emily Gloria Wilson, his family’s housekeeper. He wrote:. It had been a wearying day, and I asked Emily to hold all telephone calls while I had a nap. Shortly thereafter the phone rang. Lyndon Johnson was calling from the White House. “Get me Ken Galbraith. This is Lyndon Johnson.” “He is sleeping, Mr. President,” said Emily. “He said not to disturb him.” “Well, wake him up. I want to talk to him.” “No, Mr. President,” Emily said. “I work for him, not you.” Galbraith concluded, “When I called the President back, he could scarcely control his pleasure. He said, ‘Tell that woman I want her here to work in the White House.’” Jesus defined true servanthood when he said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
This coming November 8 marks the 124th anniversary of the birth of Dorothy Day, uncanonized saint of the homeless. She was also one of America’s most inspired complainers. For most of her life she kept saying things aren’t the way they should be, and that it would be a far less cruel world if those who go to church cared for the poor half as well as they take care of their Bibles. For six years Dorothy looked for a way to connect her social conscience with her religious conversion, a search that gave birth to the Catholic Worker movement in May of 1933. Originally it was just a newspaper, but within weeks of the papers’ publication, the first house of hospitality -- her apartment -- came into being. It happened simply because Dorothy couldn’t turn away a homeless woman who had seen the paper and came asking for help. Today there are nearly 175 Catholic Worker houses of hospitality, not to mention the many more places of welcome that wouldn’t exist had it not been for Dorothy Day’s struggle to live the gospel with directness and simplicity. At the core of her life was her experience of ultimate beauty -- Christ’s face hidden in the faces of America’s human cast-offs. She used to say “Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor, are atheists indeed.” Albert Schweitzer once said that there are two kinds of people. There are the helpers, and the non-helpers. The happiest and most successful people are those who understand that life is not about being served, but about serving. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
So on this morning, when you and I face the loss of control, of relationships, of old ways of doing things in our lives, let us not resort to fear and anxiety and the stress that leads us to feelings of self-importance, superiority, and vain pretensions. Let us instead seek out optimistic people and friendly surroundings, and concentrate not on what we have lost, but rather on what we have left. Let us also see ourselves in the light of God’s greatness, as those who, in the spirit of the Lord’s Christ, include and care for the least and the lowly in our world. And finally, may we find success and fulfillment in the exercise of the servanthood to which Jesus calls us, as he called the disciples of old, so that in being helpers in this mortal life of ours, we may prove to the rest of the world that “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Amen.The Rev. Philip W. Stowell
A Sermon Preached By The Rev. Philip W. Stowell
The Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost
September 12, 2021
There once was a man who opened a new sporting goods store in town. On his first day of business, he received an anonymous bouquet of flowers. He became puzzled when he read the enclosed card, which expressed deep sympathy. While he was thinking over the message on the card, his telephone rang. The florist was on the line, and apologized for having sent the wrong card with the flowers. “Oh, that's all right,” said the storekeeper. “I’m a businessman and I understand how these things can happen.” “Unfortunately,” added the florist, “I sent your card to a funeral reception.” “Well, what did it say?” asked the storekeeper. “It said, ‘Congratulations on your new location.’”
How often in life do you consider that you have failed? Has it been in the way you conduct your business, or in interpersonal relationships, in goals you have set for yourself, or in investment decisions you have made?. Social scientists tell us that in large measure most of us consider that we have failed on some level in life at one time or another. It should, therefore, come as no surprise to us to hear the story that St. Mark relates for us in this morning’s gospel. Jesus is traveling with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi, when Peter makes his now famous confession and says to Jesus, “You are the Messiah.” But then when Jesus tells them, referring to himself, that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, rejection, be killed and then rise again after three days, Peter gets upset and rebukes Jesus. Jesus, however, turns to Peter and gives it right back to him. He says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on earthly things.” Jesus, you see, saw in Peter’s words a continuation of Satan’s temptation, when he showed him all the kingdoms of the world and said to him, “all these I will give you if you will fall down and worship me.” Suffering was not a part of Peter’s plan of worldly power for Jesus. “Get behind me, Satan.” With a words like that, Peter must surely have felt like an immense failure! With this story in mind, I would like to reflect with you then for a few moments this morning upon failure, upon belief, and upon sacrifice.
An article appeared in the New York Times a while ago, which shed some light on how young people today view small-town living. The article’s dateline was Broken Bow, Nebraska, and it told how high school students in remote pockets of all parts of our country have always gotten the message that “rural” translates to backward, or something to be hidden or overcome. For example, at Broken Bow High School, all but 5 of 75 graduating seniors are going off to college or military service. The school’s principal estimates that no more than 1 out of 10 will ever return to put down roots in that community. “The failure of places like Broken Bow,” the article goes on to say, “to retain their young people has traditionally been explained by a shortage of jobs, especially among the highly educated.” As a result, the exodus of young people has hastened the decline of hundreds of little towns across the Great Plains. A Chamber of Commerce secretary is quoted as saying, “Too often, you are considered a loser, a failure, if you don't leave. If these small towns are going to survive, we have got to change that way of thinking.” Many times what is regarded as failure is often a matter of one person’s perception, and may have nothing to do with the reality of the situation.
I have had a number of moments of failure in my life, from which I have learned something, and one of those occurred several years ago. Susan was having trouble starting our lawnmower, and I thought that she just didn’t have the necessary strength when pulling the starting cord. However, after Andrew and I both tried pulling the cord and not getting anywhere, I realized that there really was a problem. I took the lawnmower to a local lawnmower repair place, and after a day or so they had repaired it and called me to come and pick it up. When I asked what the problem had been, the man said, “You know, a lawnmower needs oil in its crankcase to be able to run, and yours was bone dry.” I said, “It ran well for the first five years,” and he said, “I’m surprised that it lasted that long!” As it turned out, too much damage had already been done, and after two more mowings, the lawnmower gave up the ghost, and we had to buy a new one! I felt like a total failure. But now I know that a lawnmower needs oil as well as gas.
At an IBM awards recognition ceremony a number of years ago, the keynote speaker stood up and said: “We have learned nothing from our successes. We want to believe that we learn from our successes, but our failures are, in fact, our tutors.” Many a world-renowned scientist in our century has testified to the reality that science is predicated upon testing and learning from failure. And so it is with us.
After Jesus’ rebuke of Peter, he turns to his disciples and says, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” In other words, Jesus is saying if you want to change your lives, and that is what will happen if you follow me, then here is what you must do. Trust me. You must deny yourselves and take up your cross. At this point, Jesus is not talking about a question of doctrine, or dogma, or a matter of intellectual subscription. He is talking about something much more far reaching, much more fundamental than that. He, in effect, is saying, “Do you believe that God can change your life?” Then follow me. It is a matter of interpersonal trust and relationship. He is saying, “Do you dare to lower the boundaries of your life and let God in?” For that is what believing, that is what trust, is all about.
At this time of year, when school traditionally has begun for many children, but this year COVID has changed all of that, it is appropriate to recall what E.B. White, the famous Kansas newspaper editor and children’s author, is reported to have said. He was speaking at a convention of teachers, and said, “Folks often ask me where I went to school. They think I will tell them Stanford University or Columbia, or some place like that. But I usually say, ‘I went to school to Miss Georgia Brown at Caney, Kansas.’” White continued: “I was blessed with a number of great teachers along the way, but none had such influence with me as this simple Kansas woman, born in Montgomery County, Kansas, the same as I was. She taught us arithmetic and reading, and she made us learn them. But she inspired us. She made us look beyond the narrow confines of our little town and up toward the stars. She said in later years that she had never judged a student by the address on his enrollment card. She used to say to me: ‘You are growing tall, but are you thinking tall?’” Miss Brown used to say, ‘Do you know that there is a ladder that goes right up through the roof of this school house? And you can climb upon it just as high as you want to go? The base of the ladder is in this school. This is where you get on it. This school is your passport to anywhere you want to go. Don’t ever look at this school as something you like to get out of -- get down on your knees every night in this world, boy, and thank God you have this school to get in to!’” White concluded, “As I think back over the wonderful things Miss Brown did for me, I realize that her genius was in her boundless faith in the fundamental goodness of the human race.” Miss Brown believed that life could change. As Jesus once said, “All things are possible to one who believes.” And it is God who makes it all possible. Miss Brown said, “Thank God that you have this school to get in to!” It is the belief that you and I have in life, in the fundamental goodness of the human race, that is our center, too. It is a matter of interpersonal trust and relationship. It is our power from God.
After Jesus says “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” he goes on to say, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” What he is annunciating here is the fundamental principle of sacrifice. Jesus demonstrated it on the cross; we practice it in our daily dealings with each other. How often do you and I have the opportunity to see people who sacrifice who they are and what they have, what they possess, for others? By sacrifice we are linked, we are connected, to one another and to God in the life of His kingdom.
An article appeared in the Los Angeles Times about the time that a certain incident took place during the L.A. riots in May of 1992. It happened at the burning corner of Florence and Normandie Avenues in South Central Los Angeles. It was there that Fidel Lopez met the Rev. Bennie Newton for the first time. In the frenzied initial hours of the riots, Lopez, a Latino man, had been one of the victims of the mob cruelty, jerked from his truck and beaten senseless. Newton, a black minister of The Light of Love Church, covered Lopez’ body with his own, screaming at the mob, “Kill him, and you will have to kill me, too!” After placing his body across Lopez’s, Newton waited for Lopez to regain consciousness. Then he managed to get the battered and bleeding man into his car, and took him to his home. When the minister could not summon an ambulance, he drove the injured victim to Daniel Freeman Hospital, where Lopez was treated and released the next morning. A few days later, the two men were re-united outside a house in Torrance, Calif., where they hugged each other and cried. The 47-year old Lopez, wiping his eyes, said to Bennie Newton, “I passed through a bad moment. I thank you. You saved my life.” Newton told Lopez that members of his church, the Light of Love Church, in South Central L.A., had started collecting a special fund to help replace the nearly $3,000 that had been stolen from Lopez that afternoon. Lopez’s boss had given him the money to buy dry wall and insulation for a construction project the next day. Newton said to Lopez, “Out of tragedy, good will come. The storm is over.” You and I are connected, we are linked, by lives of sacrifice, to God and to one another. That is what our faith, that is what our religion, is all about. It is in the holding of life together, that we find our strength and hope, that we discover that all things are possible to one who believes.
As we come together this morning once again, as the family of God that we are, let us see our failures in this life as opportunities for learning. When we hear Jesus say, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” let us remember that our belief, our faith, is based not on some intellectual subscription, but on a personal trust and relationship. We need to lower the boundaries of our lives to let God in, to follow him, so that God can change our lives. And finally, we know that that change can take place when we are connected to God and one another through selfless acts of sacrifice. Let us remember that we find our strength and our power for living in the knowledge that we are linked, that we are connected, in God’s kingdom, and that indeed “All things are possible to one who believes.”
The Rev. Philip W. Stowell
A Sermon Preached By The Rev. Philip W. Stowell
The Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
September 5, 2021
There once were several businessmen who decided to go bear hunting in Alaska. After they unloaded their gear in a mountain cabin, their guide advised them on which rifles to use and how to bag a bear safely. A businessman from Texas, however, spoke up and said, “Never mind all that. Just show me the way to the grizzlies!” The guide pointed to the north and warned, “If you go out there without a gun, you are a dead man.” The Texan ignored the warning, and strolled out the cabin door unarmed. A few minutes later, the rest of the group looked out the cabin window and saw the Texan running back toward the cabin at top speed with a ferocious bear in hot pursuit behind him. When the Texan reached the cabin door, he flung it open, and jumped to one side. The huge bear, unable to stop, hurtled right into the cabin. Then the Texan yelled to his colleagues, as he slammed the front door, “You men skin that one – I’m going after a couple more.”
What kind of risks are you willing to take in life? What kinds of things do you consider to be risky business today? Our gospel this morning is really a story about risk. The people who lived in the region of the Decapolis, brought to Jesus for healing a man who was both deaf and unable to speak. It was a group effort, but it was also a risk. The people had no idea if Jesus could accomplish such a miracle. The man himself had no idea if he could be healed. For him, too, it was a risk. Jesus took a risk also, because he did not know how the man or his friends would respond to such a healing. To risk something is always to take a chance. It is usually to do something that we ordinarily would not do. Yet many times, the only way we find out if we are capable of doing something , is to take the risk and do it. And so, St. Mark tells us, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears, spat, touched his tongue, and said, “Ephphatha,” which means, “Be opened.” Immediately, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. The miracle was accomplished, and the risk was worth it. For that reason, I would like to reflect with you briefly this morning upon risk, upon community, and upon openness.
Psychologist Rollo May in his book The Nature of Will, writes, “There is an enhancement and stimulation given by risk. It often brings a feeling of intense aliveness and clarity and can create a true expansion of consciousness and even an ecstatic state. Such experiences have been described by some mountain climbers, parachutists, deep-sea divers, and astronauts. Courageous risk-taking,” he concludes, “is justified and appropriate when it has a well-thought-out purpose and value, but is not primarily an end in itself.”
Some twenty years ago when we were vacationing down in Florida, Susan, and I and our son Andrew, did some courageous risk-taking, I think. In retrospect, I am not sure that there was any well-thought-out value to it. Andrew and I rented a jet-ski one morning in a little bay off the Gulf of Mexico, and we had such a great experience doing it, that we wanted to share it with Susan. We convinced her that she would not get wet, and at the most she would feel only a little salt-water spray on her face. So, the three of us set out on one jet-ski, and what a sight we must have been! Andrew was up in front steering the craft, then me, and finally Susan bringing up the rear. Things seemed a bit more wobbly than usual, but we proceeded out into the open water and were quite excited when a pair of dolphins swam by us. We had slowed down, which was a fatal mistake, and were gradually turning to get a better look at the dolphins, when all of a sudden we started tilting to one side. Before we knew it, all three of us were falling off the jet-ski into the water. As we bobbed around with our life jackets on, another jet-skier, who was leading a jet-ski tour in the area, came to our rescue, and instructed me how to grab our capsized craft and turn it right-side up in the water. Then Susan helped push me back up on the seat, and before long we were all riding the jet-ski slowly back to the dock, with our heads hanging low in embarrassment. Our learning from this harrowing little adventure was: God does not approve of jet-skis polluting his creation, and Jet-skis were not made for three people.
Oceanographers tell us that a lobster grows by shedding its shell at regular intervals. The body of the lobster begins to feel pretty cramped inside a three-pound shell, so the lobster tries to find a reasonably safe spot in which to rest while the hard shell comes off. The new pink membrane just inside the hard shell then becomes the next shell, which will be big enough for a four-pound lobster to live in. But there is risk involved. No matter where a lobster goes for this shedding process, it is in danger and very vulnerable. It can get tossed against a coral reef or eaten by a fish. But in order to grow, a lobster has to risk its life. The truth of the matter is that you and I, like a lobster, must take risks in order to grow. There are risks in many fields, which we are likely to make almost daily. Nor are most of these occasions for risk large or dramatic ones. Many of them are, indeed, quite commonplace. Yet each of these contains within it, the possibility of success, or the danger of disappointment or failure. The Lord’s Christ calls each of us to this kind of risk-taking in life, to grow, to break out of our shells, to trade the safeguards of our existence for the vulnerability of the Gospel.
We celebrate the community we share here at The Church of the Transfiguration every time we come together as the family of God in this little corner of Mesa. For it is here that we worship God, hear and proclaim the Gospel, celebrate the sacraments, renew old friendships, make new ones, and pray for those in need. We recall our good times and our bad times, our successes and our failures. It is especially important that we do this now during this time in between rectors. We had a magnificent farewell last week for our rector of 8 years, Bob Saik, and we recalled all that he and Jan have done for us and the ministry that we shared during that time. We continue to ask God’s blessing on their family and the continuation of their life’s journey together. We don’t call that “retirement,” and I speak from experience, but simply a new phase in the ministry which is theirs, wherever that may lead them. The process is now underway of searching for Bob’s successor. There will be an interim priest until that successor is found, along with a dedicated number of lay leaders from this parish, one of whom you heard from a little while ago, Lynn Graff, who will hold things together and carry on the work of the church. I have let it be known that I am only a “supply priest,” who fills in when someone is sick or on vacation or just in need of some time off. We look forward in anticipation to the completion of that search with God’s help. In the meantime, remember that we are far from perfect, and that there is much unfinished work for us to complete. We remember, as Thomas Aquinas once said, that we are more a hospital for sinners, than a museum for saints.
Along these lines, I am reminded of a newcomer in town, who was once approached by a church evangelism committee. Said the newcomer, “I don’t believe in organized religion.” To which the church committee replied, “Good. Then, you’ll love our church! We’ve been trying to get things organized for the last 25 years, and it hasn’t happened yet.”
Harvey Cox, who retired in 2009 from the Harvard Divinity School, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, wrote a book a little while ago entitled Turning East. The book documents the increasing impact of Eastern religions on American life, and especially student life. At the end of his volume, Cox concludes that the strength of Christianity lies in its congregational organization. He confesses: “To grow spiritually, one must apprentice himself to a struggling little church in my neighborhood, a place where I must contend with younger and older people, some of whose views I appreciate and others whose ideas I find intolerable. The music is sometimes stirring, sometimes off key. The preaching is uneven. There is never enough money to pay for the utilities, despite numerous pot-luck suppers. How often I have been tempted to jettison this all-too-human freckle on the Body of Christ and stay home on Sunday mornings with better music on my stereo, and better theology on my bookshelf. But I do not. A voice within me keeps reminding me that I need these fallible human confreres, whose petty complaints never quite overshadow the love and concern underneath. This precious little local church is where the Word becomes flesh. I do not believe any modern Christian can survive without such grounding in a local congregation.” You and I are that local congregation to which Cox refers.
Perhaps Mother Teresa, who died in 1997 at the age of 87, summed it up best, when she said: “We ourselves [may] feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But if that drop were not in the ocean, I think that the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”
The collective experience of the people in this morning’s gospel was to bring this deaf man to Jesus. It may have seemed like a fairly insignificant act, a drop in the ocean, but it was a very important drop that had far-reaching consequences. St. Mark tells us, “They begged him to lay his hand on him.” Jesus then took the man aside, away from the crowd, and responded to him as an individual, privately. “He put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then he looked up to heaven and said to him, 'Ephphatha' – 'be opened.'" In doing so, he showed the man that he cared. He made him feel that he was important. He gave him worth. He gave him value as a human being.
When Jesus Christ comes to any person, and touches his or her life, and empowers that person, a great awakening occurs, an opening takes place. When you and I are touched by this Jesus, the Christ, the portals of our lives are opened. We, in turn, are empowered to bring others to that same openness and hope, to that same promise.
Helen Keller once remarked that “if it had not been for Anne Sullivan, the name of Helen Keller would have remained unknown.” While most of us know the story of Helen Keller, few of us know the background of Anne Sullivan. As a young girl, Anne Sullivan was known as “Little Annie.” She was diagnosed as being hopelessly insane and was locked in the basement of a mental institution outside of Boston. Little Annie would on occasion violently attack anyone who came near her. At other times she would completely ignore them. An elderly nurse believed that there was hope for the child and felt that she could communicate love and hope to her. The nurse daily visited Little Annie, but for a long time Little Annie gave no indication that she was aware of her presence. The elderly nurse persisted and repeatedly brought cookies and left them in her room. Soon the doctors in the institution noticed a change. After a period of time, they moved Little Annie upstairs. Finally the day came when this seemingly “hopeless case” was released. Filled with compassion for others because of her experience, Annie Sullivan wanted to help others. Because Anne Sullivan’s life had been miraculously opened, she, in turn, was able to open the life of Helen Keller, just as Jesus had opened the life of the deaf man.
So, as we gather this morning as a family of God, to worship Him, to hear and proclaim the Gospel, to celebrate the sacraments, to renew old friendships and to make new ones, and to pray for those in need, let us remember that you and I are called to a certain amount of risk-taking in this human existence of ours. Taking risks is a part of the life to which God calls us, because that is how we grow and develop in our faith, and in our understanding of the call of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As a community and as individuals, God calls us to a ministry that has as its goal the healing and the making whole of others. When the Lord’s Christ touches our lives and opens them to God’s love, we, in turn, are empowered to bring openness and new life to those who share this life with us. We are called to give them worth and value as human beings, to say to them, as He has said to us, “Ephphatha” — be opened!
Sermon for August 29, 2021
Pentecost Proper 17B
Have you ever encountered a rule that was unfair, a rule you thought didn’t make any sense? Rules were things to be tested when we were younger but may test us even now. Some people have found creative ways to avoid a rule. If you were ever like that, you may enjoy these two stories.
A student’s school decided to ban jackets. Maybe they did that so students wouldn’t show the name of a gang they belonged to. One student was cold and decided to wear his jacket to the lunch room. The Vice Principle came up to him and told him to take it off. The student tried to argue. He pulled out the student handbook and asked where it says that you can’t wear a jacket. The Vice Principal looked through the handbook and finally picked the all inclusive answer which said “Or anything the administration seems to be disruptive.” While the student thought this was a little bit of a stretch, he took off the jacket. The next day, the student came to the school wearing the exact same tweed sports coat that the Vice Principal wore every day to school. I guess the Vice Principal had no complaint about his choice.
Rules can lead to outcomes that are not what was desired. In fact, they can cause bigger problems. "In French Indochina, well before the nation became Vietnam, there was a major problem with rodents eating supplies and bringing disease. Given the plentiful supply of cheap unemployed workers, the colonial authorities thought they could be used to kill the rats and bring their numbers down. The French had a somewhat racially prejudiced view of the work ethic of the locals, so they decided to pay them per rat killed rather than per hour worked. Each was compensated for every dead rat they handed over. A year or so later, the colonial authorities discovered the peasants had set up rat-breeding farms in the jungle.” That is a creative way to make money. The peasants used the rules to their own advantage.
Today’s scripture readings are about rules. I actually believe we should follow rules. But rules can be difficult. All of us now will follow a rule that means I cannot talk with the people of this church for a year. We understand the rule is meant to help the new priest but it is not one we like. We have rules for our behavior that have been given to us in Scripture. Jesus was questioned about a particular “rule”. Why didn’t his disciples follow that rule he was asked. Jesus responded that this particular rule took their minds and hearts away from what was really important.
In the passage from Deuteronomy, Moses gave a sermon on the importance of following the law. He said, “give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe.” Their response was crucial. They must follow the law in order that they “may live to enter and occupy the land”. We most often think of an eternal reward for following God’s law. But the Israelites were required to follow God’s law to obtain an earthly goal, the ability to enter and occupy the promised land. Have you ever felt that you must follow the rules to obtain some earthly goal? This wasn’t an individual activity. Everyone was expected to obey the commandments so that together they could be rewarded. Furthermore, the obedience of God’s people would generate obedience from the people who occupied the promised land. The wisdom and discernment of the Israelite people will change the behavior of others. Our behavior is always watched by other people and does have an effect on them. How often do we think of our sins as keeping the community from achieving what is desired? And yet it happens.
The letter from James continues this theme of following the commandments. You are to “ rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls”. And furthermore it is about what we do, not just about what we hear. We are to obey through our actions not just our intentions.
And then, we come to the gospel. It sounds a little different doesn’t it. It may seem that Jesus is not following the laws that have been passed down. But a close look reveals that these “laws” were actually traditions that had been established in the Hebrew culture. They were not actually laws. Jesus supported the laws that came from the scripture but not always the traditions.
The washing of the hands they did was probably a lot like the ritual I perform at the offertory. I wash my hands symbolically and ask God to help my hands do God’s work in the world. But Jesus does’t want the washing of the hands to be the main focus. He said that rituals can keep us from dealing with the words we say to others and the feelings that they harbored in their hearts. Our evil intentions may come because of things other people do to us. But Jesus spoke strongly about the evil that people had in their hearts. Jesus wanted each of us to look deep into our hearts and deal with whatever evil intentions we find there. I have found lately that I can be easily upset by the behaviors of people I encounter. It comes from a lack of patience with things that are happening in this world and frustration over how things have been changed by this pandemic. My frustration, the evil that is inside of me, isn’t really caused by others but rather by my reaction to our situation.
While Jesus talked about the evil intentions that can lurk in our hearts, he spoke at other times of the good that can come from people’s hearts. One of the beatitudes says, Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. He encouraged people to take heart, for your faith has saved you. We have so many expressions about the heart. We speak of people who have an honest and a good heart, people with a contrite heart, people whose heart is full of love, people who have a broken heart, people who have a thankful heart. Inside of each of us and inside of me there are many good intentions. We all just need to focus on the good and let the frustrations and evil go to some place outside of our bodies, away from our hearts.
Today should be more about the goodness of our hearts. I want to share some feelings that are on my heart. Today, my heart is sad because I will be leaving this community. You might even say that I have a heavy heart.
I have been so blessed to be your rector, your priest. I want you to know how thankful I am that I came to be in this place. I believe that God brought me here, guided me to this specific church. Some people think it was hard for me, that I worked too much or that I gave too much. I actually believe that I was fortunate to be here. You invited me into your hearts and gave me so much love. I was welcomed in times of great joy like a wedding, in times of sorrow, such as a funeral, in times of prayer and worship, in times when we all felt God’s presence among us. I felt your generosity for this church and for those in need. I remember all those people who have volunteered to make this a special place, a place of love and a place where the spirit fills our hearts. I have a thankful heart.
We do all these things because we receive the love of God in our lives and we wish to share God’s love with everyone around us. We know that Jesus loves us with all of his heart. Remember, this is what Jesus said to us, “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.” The heart of Jesus will be our place of rest.
Transfiguration will now enter into a time of change. With change comes some uncertainty. I say that now more than ever is the time to share God’s love with each other. Rather than stand back and wait for what will happen, I ask you to reach out in love to each other. For Jesus will give us the strength to deal with whatever comes next. It is Psalm 124 that reminds us “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Jesus will be our help.
I will be praying for all of you and each of you as you go through this time. As Christians, we live in hope. On that first Pentecost, the apostles spoke confidently of their hope. They knew that Jesus was their Savior and that he had conquered death. They shared that news with everyone. Peter spoke of Jesus using the words of King David, "therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover, my flesh will live in hope.”
This is a sad day for Jan and me and for many of us. While we may be sad, I ask you to live with gladness and live in hope. For I believe good things are coming for this church and for Jan and I. Let us live in the hope and love of Jesus. As Jesus said many times, “Take heart your faith has saved you.” May all of us feel God’s presence every day.
I was looking for a funny story to begin my sermon but I found this instead. Once upon a time two friends were walking through the desert. During some point in the journey, the two had an argument and one friend slapped the other in the face. The one who got slapped was hurt, but without saying anything he wrote in the sand: Today my best friend slapped me in the face. They kept walking until they found an oasis where they decided to take a bath. The one who had been slapped in the face got stuck in the mire beneath the water’s surface and started drowning, but the friend saved him.
After he recovered from the near drowning, he wrote on a stone: Today my best friend saved my life. The friend who had slapped and saved his best friend asked him, “After I hurt you you wrote in the sand and now you write in the stone. Why?” The other friend replied, “When someone hurts us we should write it down in sand where winds of forgiveness can erase it away. But when someone does something good for us, we must engrave it in stone where no wind can ever erase it” Let us write our hurts in the sand and to carve our benefits in stone. For Life is too short to waste time hating anyone.
There are two passages that speak about our commitment to God. In Hebrew Scripture, Joshua called on all the people of Israel, “revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord”. Those words could be said to us today. We wouldn’t choose to worship the Canaanite god Baal or the Egyptian sun god Ra. Our gods are more earthbound than that. We might be led astray by the desire for money or fame or acceptance by others. It is so easy to be fooled by the so called gods of today’s society, thinking that happiness and peace come from the things of this earth. But deep down inside, we know that true happiness is found in the love God gives us and in the love that we give to others.
The gospel offers a teaching from Jesus that many struggled with and some left Jesus because of it. We hear again today that Jesus is the living bread. His detailed description caused some to doubt. They decided to follow the teaching of someone else. So many disciples left Jesus that he asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter gave the words that speak for us, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
We know that other food we eat will give us sustenance for a short period of time but Jesus gives us bread that brings eternal life. We receive the gift of spirit and life from the words of Jesus, his love and his sacrifice. It is a kind of life that many seek and are unable find it because they are looking in the wrong place. We do believe in the words of Jesus and we commit ourselves to following his teaching. We dedicate ourselves to serve the Lord. Clare of Assisi, a contemporary of Francis said it well, "Love God, serve God; everything is in that.” We serve because we are thankful for all that we have been given.
I wonder if the contemporary Christian leader Rick Warren was speaking to me when he wrote, “Faithful servants never retire. You can retire from your career, but you will never retire from serving God.” Our service to God and to God’s people does not really end. Our chance to serve God often comes in the small things we do every day. Saint Francis de Sales said, “Great occasions for serving God come seldom, but little ones surround us daily.
Yesterday, I participated in a Zoom meeting with folks who support the Cursillo movement throughout the United States. We had over 300 people on the Zoom session. I wish that it had happened in person but it was a joyous occasion nonetheless. Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, gave an introductory message. He reminded all of us that Jesus called his followers into action. When he first met Peter he said, “follow me”. Later he said of those who were unsure to come and see. Much later, he asked his apostles to go and proclaim the good news. I say that serving God is an action. For some time I have been thinking about forgiveness as a way to serve God. Jesus gave us three messages that help us come closer to God and to other people. Jesus called us to repent, to forgive and to reconcile. Repentance brings us closer to God, forgiveness heals our souls and reconciliation brings us closer to our neighbor.
From the earliest parts of his public ministry, Jesus encouraged people to “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.” In Luke’s gospel Jesus invited a tax collector named Levi to join his group of followers. Then he came to dinner hosted by Levi with other tax collectors. The religious leaders complained that Jesus spent time with sinners. Jesus said, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.” These are words that speak to me. For I am a sinner and many of us have times when we sin It is good news that Jesus came to call us to repentance, to be with us even when we have erred. God is always waiting for us to turn from sin and welcome God into our life. Repentance includes sorrow and regret but it also means we turn from sin to God and that we surrender ourselves to God as our Lord.
If we are sinners who seek God’s forgiveness and if we love our neighbors, it seems like a natural next step to forgive those who have wronged us. Forgiveness can be a difficult thing to deal with. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting and it does not mean that we should put ourselves in harms way. Forgiveness to me is more about realizing that people do wrong things and they can change their ways. There have been times when I have not done everything right and offering forgiveness to another creates an opportunity for me to change my own ways. Forgiveness means letting go of things that have happened. It can help us to heal from bad experiences. We need to get rid of the anger, the desire for revenge and maybe even the sense of self righteousness, for when we harbor those feelings we won’t find a way to move on. Those feelings can keep us from finding peace in our lives. And forgiveness is something Jesus expected of his followers. In Matthew, chapter 6 we read about the message Jesus gave, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”.
Forgiveness is something we do as individuals but it can also be something we do as a society. What a person has done in the past is often an indication of what they do now. But sometimes I think our society judges people on things a person has done a long time ago without considering whether they have repented for their wrongdoing or asked for forgiveness or sought to change their ways.
I also have thought lately about our view of the penal system in the United States. We incarcerate a larger percent of the population in the US than another other country. I am not sure that our system has made us safer than other countries. And the way we treat people in prison has not led to a significant reduction in the possibility that they will not commit another crime in the future. There are other ways that have been shown to help a convicted person find repentance and to help that person become a productive member of society.
The final step in repairing relationships is reconciliation. Reconciliation is the concept of finding a way to resolve our differences, to be united again with a person with whom we have had some sort of falling out. Jesus called us to reconcile in some pretty straightforward terms. Jesus said, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister* has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” Our relationship with God is dependent on having a good relationship with our fellow humans.
Jesus taught us things that are not always easy. We accept Jesus as the living bread. It is a calling to bring the peoples of the world together. We seek to reconcile with those we have disagreed with. We make progress when we let the winds of forgiveness work in our lives and we remember the good that others have done for us. We work to bring people together, to find forgiveness and reconciliation for all. It is possible because of the love that God has given us and the love we have for each other. May God bless us all and help us live our lives in peace and unity. Amen.
There was a couple who were both 85 years old and they had been married for sixty years. They were not wealthy but they managed to get by. They were both in good health, mostly because the wife had insisted they eat healthy foods and exercise. She had especially pushed healthy eating and daily workouts for their health during the last ten years.
They saved enough money to take a vacation. On their way to their dream destination, their plane crashed and they both died. When they reached the pearly gates of heaven, Saint Peter escorted them inside. He took them to a beautiful mansion and said, “this is your new home”. The man was nervous and asked how much it would cost. Saint Peter said they owed nothing. “Remember, this is your reward in Heaven.”
Right next to the mansion was a beautiful championship golf course.
“What are the greens fees?” grumbled the old man.
Saint Peter responded that he could play for free every day.
Next they went to the clubhouse and saw the lavish buffet lunch, with delicious foods laid out before them.
“Don’t even ask,” said St. Peter to the man. “This is Heaven, it is all free for you to enjoy.
The old man looked around and glanced nervously at his wife.
“Well, where are the low fat and low cholesterol foods and the decaffeinated tea?” he asked.
“That’s the best part,” St. Peter replied, “You can eat and drink as much as you like of whatever you like and you will never get fat or sick. This is Heaven!” You don’t even have to exercise.
The old man glared at his wife and said, “You and your blasted Bran Flakes. We could have been here ten years ago!”
I shared this story because it was cute. Contrary to the punch line, we should all eat healthy foods and take care of ourselves physically. Scripture encourages us to take care of every part of our selves, our body, our mind, our heart and our soul. I also believe that we have a wonderful gift from God that is given to us while we are here on earth. There are many different theological perspectives about communion. That gift is the bread and wine that we receive at communion. I believe the bread and wine to be the body and blood of Jesus. I also know that many would say that we receive the bread and wine in remembrance of the time when Jesus first shared it with his disciples Either way, communion can be a time of refreshment, reinvigoration and joy. It may give us a feeling of fulfillment or a sense of connection. It might help us to rededicate ourselves to following the ways of Jesus.
We read about the bread of God in each of the lessons. In the reading from Proverbs, Wisdom invites us to “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” The bread and wine of Wisdom would provide great insight. One of the Psalm verses quietly mentions the importance of food and describes how we are fed by God, “The young lions lack and suffer hunger, but those who seek the Lord lack nothing that is good.” Let us seek the Lord for the Lord will give us nourishment.
In the gospel, we hear directly from Jesus. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Once again we hear about the importance of God’s nourishment for our souls. If we choose to take this message literally, we might think Jesus was telling his followers to eat from his body. No wonder it was such a difficult message for the people to hear. We certainly want the life that comes to us from Jesus. Still, we might struggle with this passage.
The theologian Rolf Jacobsen would suggest, “In essence, Jesus is saying, “Bread is life—eating bread sustains life … mortal life. For eternal life, for abundant life, you are going to need something beyond mortal bread. You are going to need living bread. I am that living bread come down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”
Rather than spending a great deal of time discussing the theology around the words Jesus said in today’s gospel, I prefer to spend my time experiencing this living bread than trying to explain it. Let us come to the table and allow the love of Jesus to lift our spirits and revive our souls. Let us abide in Jesus and allow Jesus to abide in us. It is through the bread and wine that we express a trust in Jesus which does not waver and needs no other sign of reassurance.
As I listened to this reading from John my thoughts turn to the words Jesus shared at the Last Supper. We find this in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. These words are from Matthew, “While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” I believe that in the blessing of the bread and the wine, in the offering of these gifts to God and in the sharing of it with each other, the bread and wine then become the body and blood of Jesus for us. It nourishes us.
In the bread and wine, our spirits are fed. It is in the coming together of our Christian community that we find a spirit of togetherness. Paul wrote about this in his letter to the Ephesians. “Be filled with the Spirit” as you worship together. We receive the spirit as we partake of the bread and the wine. And each of us helps to create that spirit in the way we approach our worship life together. Paul wanted the community to “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” together. Paul wanted them to sing to the Lord in their hearts. Paul asked them to be thankful to God at all times and to remember that everything is done in the name of Jesus. In other words, Paul wanted us to reach out, to seek God in our life together.
The reading from Proverbs tells us we should seek wisdom. We come to the house of Wisdom and avoid the landmines of sin and foolishness. In Ephesians, we are told to be wise and to seek the will of God. In both we want it, we have to work for it. Let us then seek God in our wisdom, let us yearn for God, let us wish that Jesus would be present in our lives and fill our souls.
Our search for God begins in our hearts. Henri Nouwen once wrote that “community is first of all a quality of the heart. It grows from the spiritual knowledge that we are alive not for ourselves but for one another. Community is the fruit of our capacity to make the interests of others more important than our own. The question, therefore, is not ‘How can we make community?’ but, ‘How can we develop and nurture giving hearts?’.
Let’s choose Wisdom and open our hearts to God, that together we will find joy. We need joy more today than ever. The pandemic has caused people to struggle. Many are in a state of depression. Some may find it hard to share communal space with others because they have been alone for so long. Still others are angry and their anger is touched off by even the slightest provocation. Our communal life as a church is broken up because people cannot come to church as they used to do. We try our best to create community with those who are here and with those who follow us on social media. We accept everyone who comes to this place knowing that each of us is imperfect. Each of us needs the spirit of God in our hearts. That is why I think it is especially important to prepare our hearts. It all begins with our desire to be with God.
There is a book written in the fourteenth century called the Cloud of Unknowing. It offers many insights including this one about our desire for God.
“For I tell you this: one loving, blind desire for God alone is more valuable in itself, more pleasing to God and to the saints, more beneficial to your own growth, and more helpful to your friends, both living and dead, than anything else you could do.”
May we open our heart and invite God’s spirit in. May we yearn for God in our individual lives and in our communal lives. Let us come together and share God’s spirit among us and lift our hearts and voice to praise God. Let us feel the presence of the spirit in this place. May it be a spirit of love and thanksgiving for God who nourishes us. Amen.
A preacher named Mark Hostetter told the story of a boy who came home from Sunday School. The Bible story for the day was about Moses parting the Red Sea. His mother asked the boy what he had learned. The boy told this incredible story of how fighter planes swooped down from the sky, dropped inflatable pontoons into the sea and the Israelites were able to escape the Egyptian soldiers as they floated over the water. The mother asked the boy if that was what he really heard. And the boy responded, “No . . . but if I told you the story that the teacher told us today, there is no way you would ever believe me.”
The stories of God’s work for God’s people are truly amazing and often a little mysterious. We read from the book of Exodus this morning. Moses went up to the top of the mountain to learn God’s will for God’s people. When he came down his face was shining from being in the presence of God. We understand the shining face of Moses to be caused by the glory of God. His face shone so brightly that people were afraid to look at him. God was so powerful that just being in God’s presence would change anyone. This shining face was a sign to the people that the words of Moses came from God.
I have seen people’s faces to shine in my own time. Today, I am thinking of some of the Olympic competitors. Occasionally they are so happy that they have completed their dreams and won a medal that their faces shine. I have seen the faces of my grandchildren shine when something special happens in their lives. This week, my older granddaughter, Evelyn, had a big smile and a shiny face as she started her first day of kindergarten. And sometimes, we see people’s faces shine from the love of God.
Today, we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration. The Feast Day is actually scheduled for August 6. We are allowed to move it to the nearest Sunday because our church is named after this event. Our church has two different reminders of the Transfiguration. The first is the icon which hangs on the cross behind the altar. That icon was written by our own Bill Robinson. The second remembrance of the Transfiguration is found in the stained glass windows at the back of the church. There are individual windows for the three apostles, Peter, James and John. There are windows for Moses and Elijah and there is a window for Jesus. We live the Transfiguration every Sunday. I think it is a wonderful blessing to be reminded every Sunday of the glory of God and the marvelous saving work of Jesus.
The Transfiguration in Luke’s gospel gives us a picture that would have felt like an out of body experience. The face of Jesus was changed, his clothes became a dazzling white. Moses and Elijah suddenly appeared. A voice came out of the cloud and spoke. The voice sounded a lot like the voice that spoke when Jesus was baptized. In both cases, Jesus is described as the Son of God. This passage gives us theological insights into the relationship between Jesus and the other members of the Trinity. It all begins with the realization that this is about the glory of God. We celebrate the majesty of God. We come together to proclaim the glory of God and give thanks for God’s marvelous works.
The glory of God as displayed in Jesus can challenge our understanding. How is it possible that we view the glory of Jesus on the mountain and then later experience his suffering and death on the cross? I think all things are possible through God’s saving acts. Rather than worry about whether they happened exactly as described, I choose to reflect on what this passage means to us. I want to share with you a perspective about the Transfiguration that may be a little different. A Hispanic theologian named Cláudio Carvalhaes sees all three persons of the Trinity in the Transfiguration and a way that the Transfiguration can encourage us in community. He wrote that the Transfiguration was a “glory that is shared, that illuminates each other, that strengthens each other’s lives, and gives meaning to the past and future events”. He said that “the glory of God is only possible if lived together, in community. Nobody, not even Jesus, could shine alone! The work of the trinity shows that only when we are together can God’s radiance light each other’s lives.” It is a glory that we look forward to when we go to heaven. Let us bask in the glory that comes from God and let us give glory to God in all we do.
The Transfiguration is also about the connection of past and present. Moses represents the law and Elijah represents the prophets. We believe that Jesus brought together both the law and the prophets. Jesus freed us from sin, helped us to understand God’s work in the world, and filled our hearts with love.
This lesson speaks very directly to the theology of Jesus as God. Jesus was physically changed. Even today we use a Greek word to describe this, metamorphoses. In our vernacular, we say that Jesus morphed from one thing into another. It was a radical change. It certainly changed the lives of Peter, James and John, the three apostles who were with Jesus on that mountain. Peter even suggested that they build three dwellings to commemorate the event. How might you have responded if you had been there? Would you have wanted to create some memorial to what happened? Would you have thought to yourself, “how will others ever understand what happened here”?
Afterward, the disciples chose not to speak about the Transfiguration. In Mark’s gospel, it is Jesus who instructed them to tell no one what happened. I might have had difficulty keeping this information from the other apostles. It might have been hard for the apostles to understand why Jesus had to go through the agony of the crucifixion knowing that Jesus was God. But it might have helped them to better understand the resurrection that followed.
So, we wish for that transformational experience. We want to go to the top of the mountain and see God in all of God’s splendor. We want to be transformed, to be certain that we are headed in the right direction and to better understand God’s will for us. Being transformed may help us to know what to do.
Jesus and the apostles came down from the mountain and found that the lives of others had not changed. Jesus didn’t need everyone to see his transformation. He went right back to his work of healing, teaching, and bringing God’s kingdom to earth. Jesus didn’t live in the glory that happened up on the mountain. He lived as a Savior of the people. When we are changed by the love of Jesus we also must confront a world that may not see it as we do. The Transfiguration gave direction and certainty to the lives of the apostles but it didn’t make their lives easy. In the case of the apostles, they knew that they were called to bring the good news of Jesus to the rest of the world. Many times that calling meant rejection, imprisonment and death. But it also was rewarding in the sense that they were certain that their lives had been forever changed and they knew that Jesus was with them on their journey. They would have remembered that Jesus had been rejected in the same way.
Our path will not be like that of the apostles. We live in a time and a place where the word of Jesus does not put our lives at risk. But the number of people who regularly attend church services is down dramatically. Many do not believe. So, we live in two different worlds. One foot is in the kingdom of God, a place where we have experienced the joy of believing. One foot lives in the kingdom of the world, where people may not follow the teaching that they are to love one another. May the power of Jesus and the beauty of the Transfiguration help us to live in these two worlds.
Desmond Tutu, the famous South African Anglican bishop, believed that the Transfiguration was more specifically about action we are to take in this world. He thought we are called to transform the world. He once wrote, “God places us in the world as his fellow workers-agents of transfiguration. We work with God so that injustice is transfigured into justice, so there will be more compassion and caring, that there will be more laughter and joy, that there will be more togetherness in God's world”.
The Transfiguration of Jesus helps us to see God in a special way. However we choose to respond may be up to how we are called by God. I ask you to remember that the glory of God shone the brightest in the community of the Trinity. Let us find our light together. Let us together experience the the glory of God in Jesus and allow Jesus to transform us. Amen.
I am sure that many you have enjoyed watching the Olympics, just as I have. The competition is intense and I admire the talent and dedication of the athletes and their stories. This week, I was moved by the story of Billy Mills, a long-distance runner who competed in the Tokyo Olympic games in 1964. Billy had to overcome some significant obstacles. He became an orphan. His mother had died when we was eight and his father died when he was twelve. Billy had hypoglycemia, which caused him to be weak, it was difficult to race when he didn’t have enough sugar in his bloodstream. Billy Mills was raised on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota, the son of a woman who was 3/4 white and a father who was 3/4 Lakota Sioux. During his career in running, there were times when he was asked to step out of the team picture because of his native heritage. After college, Mills joined the US Marine Corps. But the biggest obstacle Mill’s faced in the 10,000-meter race in Tokyo was his past performance. The favorite, Ron Clarke from Australia, held the world record of 28 minutes, 15 seconds while Mill’s best time was over 29 minutes. Mills was not thought to be a serious contender. Near the end of the race, Mills found himself near the lead. As they neared the finish line, Billy Mills found an extra burst of speed and won. His winning time of 28:24.4 was almost 50 seconds faster than he had run before. Mill’s gives credit even now to his father’s encouragement. As the eight-year-old Billy mourned his mother’s death. his father shared some words, saying he had broken wings but someday he would have the wings of an eagle and encouraged him to look beyond the hurt, the hate, the jealousy, and the self-pity. Mills remembers the race vividly. With 80 meters to go, he was in third place, yards behind the two leaders. Mills passed a runner and out of the corner of his eye saw an eagle on the runner’s jersey. He remembered his father’s words and they gave him the strength to make a final push and win the race. Later, he found the runner and the man’s jersey had no eagle.
Mills had been inspired by his father’s words and a vision. We can be inspired by an individual in our lives as well. This morning, we realize that our inspiration comes from Jesus. Jesus told us that he is the bread of life. The bread that nourishes us and helps us. We receive many gifts from God. Those gifts come to us over and over again. Let us take a few moments to reflect on God’s gifts, God’s inspiration and God’s vision for our lives together.
God’s gifts come to people even when they are complaining and unhappy. In the first reading, the people complained about Moses and Aaron. There was no food in the desert. They were better off in Egypt, they said. God heard their complaints and provided meat and bread for the people to eat.
Haven’t we all had times when we felt that we were out in the desert. Our faith was being tested and we questioned whether God was present with us. In my own life, there have been times when I felt separated from God. Each time, I came to realize that God was always with me. God gave me nourishment to help me find my way out of the desert, to see where my path should go.
It seems that God intended the forty years the Israelites spent in the desert as their learning experience. In Deuteronomy, it is written, “He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, … in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord”. Now, some people chose fasting as a way to listen to God’s word.
The Psalm celebrates God’s benevolence toward the people. I especially liked the last verse of the Psalm, “So they ate and were well filled, for he gave them what they craved.” They wanted food to eat and God gave it to them. We may not need food to eat but God will give us what we need.
The gospel story takes us beyond the feeding that is done for our bodily needs to help us understand how God feeds us in other ways. After Jesus fed the entire crowd with the bread and the fish, he and the disciples left and went by boat to another town. The crowd pursued them. They wanted some more of that bread to feed their stomachs. Jesus told them he came to offer something much more important. He would provide food for their souls. “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” It was hard for many to her those words. They either didn’t understand what he was saying or didn’t believe it was possible or didn’t think it was important. Jesus gave them the words they needed to hear but for many their minds were closed. They were unable to grasp what he meant.
As we read those words now, we have a better understanding of what Jesus was talking about. Jesus told us that he is the bread of life. Each Sunday that we come to church for a service, we have the opportunity to experience the feeding of our souls again, we open ourselves to let God change our lives again. Jesus gives us the inspiration, the strength, and the grace to live our lives now and to prepare us for an eternal life in heaven. It is a gift that carries us through when times are good and when times are bad. We know that God cares for us every day and always.
One saint said it this way, “Just as earthly bread sustains the fragile substance of the flesh and prevents it from falling into decay, so Christ quickens the soul through the power of the Spirit and also preserves even the body for immortality” Just as the crowd came to Jesus and begged for bread, we also come and give thanks and ask Jesus to feed us the bread of eternal life. The bread of life comes to us in so many ways, sometimes through the words of a friend or family member.
One of the gifts we receive is the opportunity to learn from Jesus. He taught about how to live together as his people. Jesus brought people together, everyone was welcome. His apostles followed the leadership of Jesus and created communities of love and sharing. We then are encouraged to continue to raise up the people of God. In the letter to the Ephesians, we are told it starts with the gift of grace. We know God’s grace is the freely given, unmerited favor and love of God. It is through this grace that we are strengthened and renewed. It is this grace that changes our hearts and souls.
The people in Ephesus were exhorted, encouraged to use this grace to build up the community of faith. They were reminded that each of them had a special gift and that they were to use their own gift for the good of everyone in the community.
I think it is a message that speaks to us here today. We have many gifts in this congregation. There are prophets and evangelists and teachers. But we also have people with gifts like hospitality, being an usher or a person who welcomes others. We have people who sing and others who read the lessons and still others who serve at the altar. We have people with technical skill who help us communicate with each other through social media. And we have people who come and through their presence speak of the importance of community. And there are more skills that I haven’t mentioned. Together, we are to building up the body of Christ. We are one body and one Spirit, we have one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all.
This church is a loving and caring community. I have always felt the Spirit of God working in this church. In a few weeks you will enter into a new time for soon, I will be retiring. It is sad for me to say goodbye. I will miss each and every one of you. This church was a loving community before I came and it will be after I leave. It is just a time for each of you to offer your talents to maintain the spirit of God in this place.
My wish is that each of you will take a small step to hold this place together and that you will be so strong together that the next rector will feel just as I did, loved and cared for. He or she will say that there is a lot of love in this place.
We do these things not because we have to. No, we do these things because we are thankful. We are thankful that Jesus is the bread of life. We’re thankful that the bread gives us the strength to create a loving community of believers. Let us take the energy, the love and the knowledge that we receive from God’s grace, God’s living bread and God’s mercy to share God’s love with each other. Amen.
I remember as a child being friends with a boy named Chris. Chris came from a family of 11 children. I knew that Chris and his family were not wealthy. As I remember, Chris’s dad worked as a janitor, an important profession but not one that paid a lot of money. One day, Chris invited me over to dinner. I remember sitting at a very large table with lots of children and having a good time. What I most remember that evening is that we ate sloppy joes on a hamburger bun. Each child was given one sloppy joe. I also remember that there was one extra sloppy joe left and it was offered to me. I think even to this day how others in the family probably needed the last sloppy joe more than I did but I thought it was such a generous gift to give it to me, their guest. A small gesture but very meaningful.
Many years later, Jan and I went to Honduras to visit an Episcopal boarding school in the capital city of Tegucigalpa. While we were there our group hosted a few selected students for a meal out on the town. We went to McDonald’s. One of the students sat across from us. After eating a few bites of his sandwich, he wrapped it back in the package and put it to the side. I asked him why he wasn’t eating the rest and he said that he was saving it for his brother who was not able to come on our trip. He was so thoughtful to give a part of his lunch to his brother. It was a small gesture but I remember it even today.
In the gospel from John we hear the story of the feeding of the five thousand. You and I have heard this story many times. It is one of the few gospel stories that I remember reading in church when I was a child. This story is the only miracle performed by Jesus that is found in all four gospels. It must have been one of the most important stories told by the followers of Jesus. I am sure it was told in every oral tradition passed down by his followers.
The Feeding of the Five Thousand speaks about the blessings that Jesus heaped upon the people who came to him. He had compassion for all. It is a sign of how God cares for us. We know that God is all powerful. We know that the miraculous intervention of God is not only possible, but it is something that the people of that time expected. They were not surprised. It is similar to the passage from 2 Kings when Elisha was able to feed so many with the help of God.
It is a good day to offer praise to God. Psalm 145 offers a series of testimonies about the wonders of God and all that God does for us. The Lord is faithful, The Lord is righteous and loving, The Lord upholds all those who fall; he lifts up those who are bowed down. The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord, and you give them their food in due season. The Psalm, 2 Kings, and the gospel are both about the glory of God. Since we all know this story so well, let’s consider some other messages beyond just the glory of God. How does Jesus use our gifts? Let’s focus on the young boy and consider how the boy’s gift of two fish and five loaves of bread made everything else possible. What expectations did this day create for the people there and how might we understand their reaction?
In the lesson, Jesus asked a question for which he already had the answer, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” I think Jesus wanted the apostles to feel the responsibility for caring for all the followers of Jesus. Andrew tried to help, there is a boy with some food. It is almost as if Andrew is reaching out for an answer to Jesus. I hear Andrew saying, “We only have a little, will it help?” The magic of this miracle is that with only a little, Jesus performed miracles. The young boy gave all that he had to Jesus. Did he wonder if he would get any food for himself? He did it willingly. and Jesus did so much with what Andrew found and the boy gave,
Pope Francis offered these thoughts about miracles a couple of years ago. “What do you think God is more likely to do, miraculously drop food where there is starvation or inspire people to help their neighbors solve their problems? I like to think that both are possible. But if you choose the latter, how can we help (through the Holy Spirit) in all the places that we touch: our parks, our cities, our church, and more? Let us give what we can. We may think it is not much. Let us give anyway. Perhaps our gift will be matched by another. Maybe our gift will encourage another to give. Together our gift is a lot. God will do great things with our gifts.
We know that the need for food is significant. The United Food Bank has posted on its website that there are 470,000 hungry children. That may be the number of hungry children in the area that the United Food Bank serves. They also post that they hand out 75,000 meals per day. So many in this congregation have been generous when it comes to feeding the hungry. Thank you.
Let’s take a few minutes to think about how the people responded to the compassion of Jesus and his feeding of so many. They were amazed by what Jesus had done, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus was there for them when they needed it. But they wanted more than a prophet, didn’t they. The crowd wanted to make him king we are told. So much did they want Jesus to be their king that Jesus had to go and hide, to stay away from everyone. We know that Jesus didn’t come to be the king of any country on earth. He is the king of heaven. Jesus never fit into the perfect mold that people wanted him to be and we should be careful not to put him into our mold either.
Jesus does so much for us. I think of a quote from the Narnia books by C. S. Lewis. Listen to what the lion Aslan does for the people Narnia. “Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight, At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more. When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death, And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.” So, Jesus is our Lord and Savior. He comforts us, strengthens us, heals us and gives us peace.
As I said let’s not make Jesus into something he is not nor should we want Jesus to be something just because it makes us more comfortable. Jesus did not come to fix every problem we have in the world. Jesus is about bringing us closer to God. Jesus is about expecting us to step away from sin and step to God. Jesus is about expecting us to love our neighbors. He is about expecting us to forgive people. He is about asking us to visit the sick, those in prison and taking care of the needy. One of the commentators I read this week pointed out that the boy brought loaves of barley. Barley rather than wheat was thought to be a food for the poor. Jesus was feeding everyone but he had a special place for the poor. You see, Jesus doesn’t make our lives easy.
I am reminded of another note that C. S. Lewis wrote about Aslan, the lion in the Narnia series. “He's wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.” Jesus didn’t do everything the way people expected him to do. He spoke about the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Our Presiding Bishop is fond of talking about how Jesus turned the world upside down. He encourages us to do the same. I like this thought from Bishop Curry, “Our mission is not only to change the world, but to share in God’s work of turning the world upside down, transforming and transfiguring it from the nightmare it can be into the dream God destines it to be.”
Today’s gospel is a beautiful story of the miraculous power of Jesus. It is a reminder that God cares for us and loves us. What might this message be saying to you? It may be asking you to think about how you love your neighbor. I hope you also remember that Jesus doesn’t always fit in to the box that we wish him to be in. He may give us comfort, but he also challenges us to be something much bigger. He encourages us to reach and to dream big and to help him make this a world where God lives in all people. Amen.
This story comes from a mother. I want to share it in her own words. Years ago, when our daughters were very young, we'd drop them off at our church's Children's Chapel on Sundays before the service. One Sunday, just as I was about to open the door to the small chapel, the priest came rushing up in full vestments. He said he had an emergency and asked if I'd speak to the children at their story time. He said the subject was the Twenty-third Psalm. But just as I was about to get up from the back row and talk about the good shepherd, the priest burst into the room and signaled to me that he would be able to do the story time after all.
He told the children about sheep, that they weren't smart and needed lots of guidance, and that a shepherd's job was to stay close to the sheep, protect them from wild animals and keep them from wandering off and doing dumb things that would get them hurt or killed. He pointed to the little children in the room and said that they were the sheep and needed lots of guidance.
Then the minister put his hands out to the side, palms up in a dramatic gesture, and with raised eyebrows said to the children, "If you are the sheep then who is the shepherd?" He was obviously indicating himself.
A silence of a few seconds followed. Then a young visitor said, " Jesus, Jesus is the shepherd." The young priest, obviously caught by surprise, said to the boy, "Well, then, who am I?" The little boy frowned thoughtfully and then said with a shrug, "I guess you must be a sheep dog.”
Children often teach us important lessons, don’t they? Perhaps the priest in the story needed a little humility. He certainly received it from the young boy. It is a reminder that all things come from God. We should never take our eyes off the blessings we receive from Jesus.
Scripture is filled with references to shepherds. Psalm 23 begins with the words, “The Lord is my Shepherd”. God was the shepherd of the people of Israel. In the New Testament, Jesus spoke in parables about the role of the shepherd. We all seek the good shepherd even in the leadership of humans. I ask you to reflect with me on the leaders who are called to be good shepherds, to God’s presence with us on our journey and to the comfort that only God can give.
Jeremiah stood with a long line of prophets who spoke out against the political leaders of their time. Woe to those shepherds who scatter the flock, he wrote. Matt Skinner, a professor of New Testament shared some examples of leaders who were disparaged in the Bible.
- The idolatrous pretense of Pharaoh and his imitators
- The final verse of the book of Judges expresses despair over the lack of a good king.
- Micah and Amos are other prophets who joined Jeremiah in complaints about leaders.
- Political figures exposed by apocalyptic seers such as Daniel who showed them to be fools and monsters
- The Gospels’ depictions of Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, and Pontius Pilate as cunning and ruthless in their authority to decide life and death”
- Jesus himself often despaired the religious leaders especially the scribes and the pharisees.
What were the scripture writers looking for in a leader? Matt Skinner wrote “Among the many factors that contribute to the Bible’s criticisms of leadership is a deep concern about the danger that festers when a people—whether a nation, a community, a congregation, or a family—have no shared vision, no commitment to common values, no concern for neighbors, no basis for trusting others.
I wonder if Jesus were around today if he would choose to speak out against the leaders in our society. Scripture writers might have found their own reasons to complain about current day leaders. We know our job is not to complain but to reconcile. Ephesians says “in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Perhaps we should focus on breaking down the walls.
Jesus is our example of the good leader, the good shepherd. Before today’s lesson, Jesus had sent out his apostles to preach the good news to others. He gave them a clear mission and clear direction. They were to take nothing with them and if they were not welcome they should just shake the dust off of their sandals and continue.
I wonder what it was like for the apostles when they first preached. Maybe they felt a sense of accomplishment for a job well done. They may have been hungry and tired from traveling and talking. They must have felt rejection and possibly fear that they would be physically harmed. Upon their return, they shared their experiences with Jesus. Then, Jesus invited them to go to a quiet place where they can rest.
Just as Jesus called his disciples to lead, we are all called to help foster a community with a common faith and commitment to our fellow worshippers, places where we care for our neighbors. Some people actively evangelize, inviting others to join us in our spiritual community. Others may simply show by example how a Christian should live. It can be hard work to create loving communities.
It doesn’t require a lot of people to build great places of faith. As I was reminded recently, Jesus picked twelve apostles to build a community of followers. Now there are billions of people who follow Jesus. Our community of faith may be small or large but every step we take makes a difference.
Psalm 23 expresses the words of God’s presence on our journey, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me.” The followers of Jesus referred to themselves as people of the way, people of the journey. We know the journey of the Israelites. They found freedom from the Pharaoh but thy walked in the desert for forty years. One commentator described it as “Israel’s national journey of deliverance, wilderness, and emergence in the land”. Their arrival in Israel did not end their journeys. Many years later, Jeremiah was upset about the kings of Israel who did not protect the people from the invasion of powerful armies. Jeremiah was also upset about the invading kings who took the people from their homeland into exile in Babylon. Jeremiah offered words of encouragement. He promised that God would bring the people of Israel back together. God would help the people of Israel to be fruitful and multiply. God would find leaders to care for them. God did not forget them, God helped them on their journey.
What has your journey been like? Has it been filled with joy and gladness? Or has it been sorrowful and a place of struggle? God is with us on our individual journeys and with us on journeys that we take as a community. Saint Teresa of Avila expressed it so simply, “The feeling remains that God is on the journey too”. We are not alone.
Psalm 23 does speak of God’s presence. It reminds us of God’s comfort “your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” God’s comfort comes to us many times and in many ways. In Isaiah 40 God expects leaders to bring comfort to God’s people. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” God will see to it that the people find comfort. Listen to this from 2 Corinthians, “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” God lifts us up.
I know that we always need God’s comfort, but I so appreciate it now. We have come through so much and there is still uncertainty about what is to come. I need God’s comfort more than ever.
The companion word for me in the Gospel is rest. Jesus told the apostles they had done their work, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” When our work is done for the day, when the difficult task is complete, let us go and find our rest with Jesus.
Psalm 37 encourages us to rest in the Lord. It can be translated as be still in the Lord, wait patiently for the Lord. My favorite verse about rest comes from the Gospel of Matthew, “‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
Jesus called us to build loving communities. Jesus is present with us as we do God’s work. And Jesus calls us to find rest in his loving arms. The rest is needed. Often it doesn’t last long. Jesus took his apostles out to find some rest, but the needs of the people continued. They found Jesus and asked him to heal the sick. Our journey is a lifelong one and may have only moments of rest. That is why we should enjoy the times of rest. We may once again be called to care for others and to proclaim God’s glory. We will almost certainly enter into a new time of stress or struggle. Our journey, our search for God, is never over. Let us be thankful that Jesus is our shepherd. Let us be thankful for his presence with us. Let us be thankful that God give us comfort and peace and rest. Amen.