Sermon for March 29, 2020

 

I remember a scene from movies many years ago.   When a new baby was born, the doctor would lift the baby up by its legs and spank the child lightly as it came out of its mother’s womb.  The child would shriek, crying very loudly.  The doctor then knew that the child could breathe on its own.  I read that a baby should begin crying within the first 30 seconds to one minute of life. But doctors no longer perform that spanking technique.  We have learned a better way.  To get a baby to breathe, gentle stimulation is usually required and accomplished these days by rubbing the baby's back or gently stimulating its feet. Whichever way a baby starts breathing we know that baby has received God’s gift of life given through the breath of God. 

Once again scripture speaks directly to us in times of crisis.  I think about the breath of God.  And I think about this disease we are fighting.  For the disease kills people by taking away their breath.  We are trying desperately to find enough ventilators to keep people alive.  Let us pray that God will continue giving us breath, helping us physically today and protecting us forever.

I have been thinking a lot about God’s gift of life.  In the second chapter of Genesis we read that human life began when God breathed life into Adam.  “then the Lord God formed man from the dust on the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”  Just as God’s breath gave life to Adam, God’s breath gives us life.

The breath of God is found throughout our scripture today.  Ezekiel told about the gift of life.  It was given to an entire valley of bones, dry bones.  God told Ezekiel to preach to the bones and that God would cause breath to enter into those bones.  Later in this same passage, God told Ezekiel to prophesy about the breath, to call on the breath from the four winds. Ezekiel “prophesied as God commanded, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.” 

While it is a story about physical life, it is also a message about the spiritual lives of the people of Israel.  Ezekiel was speaking of the dry bones as the living people of Israel.  The nation had sinned against God and individual people had sinned.  Ezekiel said that God would breathe life into the people who had turned against God.  The people had been scattered and Ezekiel prophesied that they would be brought together again. 

In the letter to the Romans, Paul stressed that same idea.  We are called to live our lives not in sin but rather in the Spirit.  We know that God’s spirit is often referred to as breath, the breath of God.  Paul makes the point that the Spirit is the one who gives us life and that we receive that life through the resurrection Jesus.  It is clear in this verse, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”  God gives us life.  God takes us out of our sinful ways.  God lives in us and makes us whole.  We are encouraged to live our lives letting God lead us onward. 

But the culmination of the life giving that we receive from God comes from Jesus himself.  He didn’t breathe on Lazarus but he gave him life.  Jesus told Martha that he is the resurrection and the life.  It is yet another example of how Jesus changed things.  Jesus didn’t focus on our sin but rather focused on his gift and our belief.  The gift is about our life today and our eternal life.  He said, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”  We are given life on earth by God and we are given the gift of eternal life in Jesus.  We are only asked to believe.  It seems like such a small commitment for such a large gift. 

A theologian named Eleonore Stump offered this perspective that I want to share in my own words.  The two sisters, Mary and Martha, were devastated by the loss of their brother Lazarus.  They felt as if Jesus had ignored them in their time of need.  They felt as if they could never recover from the loss of their brother.  Both of them said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  But Jesus knew better what they needed.  As Eleanore Stump wrote, “When Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, Mary has her brother, and is loved by Jesus in a way more deeply fulfilling to her and more glorious than the mere healing of her brother in his sickness would have been.”  Jesus gave them a better gift than they had even expected. 

We are in a difficult time.  We think we know exactly what we need and we pray that God will respond to our requests.  Sometimes I don’t understand how God has chosen to deal with us and I wonder how God’s plan fits with what is going today.   But God knows best what we need and is giving it to us even though we don’t understand.   This week my niece posted something on her Facebook page.  I was surprised because I don’t often hear her speak about her faith.  You may have seen this from another source.  I am not suggesting what I am about to read is God’s current plan for us.  But it does fit with the theme of turning from sin and turning to God as we heard in Ezekiel and Paul today.  This is a part of what she wrote.

In three short months, just like He did with the plagues of Egypt, God has taken away everything we worship. God said, "you want to worship athletes, I will shut down the stadiums. You want to worship musicians, I will shut down Civic Centers. You want to worship actors, I will shut down theaters. You want to worship money, I will shut down the economy and collapse the stock market. You don't want to go to church and worship Me, I will make it where you can't go to church.  If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land." 

God’s breath gave us life when we were first born.  God’s breath gives us new life when we are caught in the web of sin.  God’s son, Jesus gave his last breath and rose from the dead again so that we can have eternal life.  God’s breath is always there for us.

As I contemplate the breath of God, my mind turned to music for inspiration.  I am touched by music, by the melodies and the words.  I first thought of the hymn, Breathe on me breath of God.  The words inspire us.  God’s breath fills us with new life.  Dear God, let me love what you love and do what you want me to do.  Dear God, let your breath make my heart pure.  Dear God breathe on me until my body glows with your divine fire.  Dear God, breathe on me so that I may join you in eternal life.  

I encourage you to keep this image of God’s breath giving you life this entire week.  Let me suggest that while you are sitting at home you take some time to google different songs that speak of the breath of God.  God’s breath has inspired many songs. 

My favorite Youtube recording of breathe on me breath of God was performed by the Hasting College Choir.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8avdudzdpQ

If you like contemporary songs listen to “Holy Spirit, Living breath of God by Keith and Kristyn Getty.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8FKZIz97AU

Another choice would be Breath of God by EMU music from 2015.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bIP1PusCcQY

When I was in college I sang a spiritual called Dem bones, Dem bones, Dem dry bones.  It was about Ezekiel ’s story.  This week, I enjoyed the Youtube video by the Cathedrals Quartet, Dry Bones.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLg-v4CS4nQ

Finally, I would suggest you listen to Amy Grant sing Breath of Heaven. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8_475FKJWQ

It is about Mary the mother of Jesus and it sounded like a Christmas story.  But I think you will find comfort and hope in these words she offered, “breath of heaven, Hold me together.”

“breath of heaven, Lighten my darkness, pour over me your Holiness. 

That is what I need today.  I need God’s breath to hold me together.

You may want to keep these songs with you in the weeks ahead.  I think our road is going to be much longer and more arduous than it has been already.  I encourage you to keep these words on your heart, breath of heaven, Hold me Together.  Amen.    

 

 

Sermon for March 22, 2020

Everything has changed and it happened so quickly.  We have been changed in big ways. There are no large gatherings, all types of entertainment have been canceled, we cannot attend church together.  And it can be found in the little changes that cause us to feel uncomfortable.  We took our granddaughters to the neighborhood park which had signs saying “use at your own risk.  This has not been sanitized since March 11th.”  Here I am talking from the lectern which I never do.  We cannot touch anyone.  I find myself very anxious and concerned.  I alternate between wanting to know the latest news about the coronavirus outbreak and being so depressed that I don’t want to follow the news at all anymore.  I worry about what will happen to our society and how we will come out of this?  How can I stay in touch with people and do the job I love to do?  

I miss so much our coming together on Sunday.  I miss seeing people and greeting them as they leave.  I miss chatting with folks at the coffee hour.  But most of all I miss sharing in the Eucharist together.  I have always felt a spirit in our church. I always feel as if we are supporting each other in our lives and that God is with us in our worship.

I ask everyone to help us stay together.  I plan to continue having a Sunday service available to you on Youtube that can be accessed directly or from Facebook.  Please look for emails about other online events that we will offer.  Please follow us on Facebook and other sites.  The church office hours will be minimal.  A group of volunteers will call all of our parishioners and check in with them.  I ask each of you to reach out to people that you know in the church on a regular basis.  I am most concerned for people who are unable to get around and the poor.  If you have any concerns or questions, please call the office or call my cell phone.  I also encourage you to go to the Diocesan Web site at azdiocese.org where you can find a list of resources if you need them.

In these times we might ask where God has gone.  We miss interacting with God at church. But the truth is that God is not located just in this church.  God is everywhere and God is with us at all times.  In last Sunday’s gospel, Jesus told the woman at the well that God will not be found on Mount Gerizim where the Samaritans worship and God will not be found in Jerusalem where the Jews worship.  Rather we will worship God in spirit and truth. We find God all around us. 

Throughout church history people asked if God left or wondered where God was in all of this mess.   When Jerusalem was destroyed and many of the people were taken into exile, the Jewish people wondered.  They believed that God was located in the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Temple had been destroyed.  If you read the beginning of Ezekiel we have an answer.  God was lifted up out of the Temple by four living creatures with wings and four wheels.  God flew to Ezekiel and to his people in Babylon.  So it is with us today.  God is not found only in the church of the Transfiguration. God is with each one of us.  God is with you now. 

I find such great comfort in the words from our reading of Psalm 23.  It is as if that Psalm was chosen for us today.  We speak the Psalm when we have a memorial service.  It provides solace to those who are grieving.   I believe it provides comfort to us in our current situation. I found this reflection, “Sheep are nervous creatures, easily stampeded.  They are frightened by fast, flowing streams, and can drink freely only from water that appears still.”  I am feeling like a sheep this week.  I am easily worried about things that are changing so quickly.  I am looking for the calm waters that seem to have disappeared.  That is why I am comforted by Psalm 23.  The Lord is my Shepherd.  God will be with us always.  God helps us to find our way when we are uncertain.  God gives us food to nourish our souls.  God is with me when it feels as if the world has darkened all around me.  God is there to take away our fears, not so we can take foolish chances but rather to keep us on a safe path and to comfort us when we are anxious. 

In the gospel Jesus heals a blind man.  Jesus simply takes some saliva and mixes it with dirt, puts it on the man’s eyes and tells him to go wash.  He returned able to see.  Many people had questions. The disciples asked who caused this problem, was it the parents of the man or the man himself?   But Jesus was focused not on what or who caused this problem but rather on the person and on healing.  Francis MacNutt wrote about this, “Jesus came to save persons, not just souls.  He came to help the suffering.  Sickness of the body was part of the kingdom of Satan that he came to destroy.”  We are thankful for Jesus who came to save us from all of our problems.  We ask Jesus to come and be with us today, to heal us of any sickness, to give us peace.  

Others were interested in the law not in the healing.  The Pharisees were upset that he healed on the Sabbath.  They decided to investigate, to figure out who caused the problem.  They interviewed the man and his parents.  In the end they decided to kick the man out of the church because he must have been a sinner. 

Jesus came once more to do the healing that he can only perform.  He invited the man to be his follower.  Jesus accepted this man who had been rejected by others.  Just as Ezekiel told the Jews that God was not contained within the Temple, Jesus told the man that God was there with him even though he had been kicked out of the church.  The man followed Jesus and believed in him.  Let us then follow Jesus and believe in him even when we are stuck at home unable to go anywhere, doing our best to keep ourselves and the entire community free from this virus. 

The other lesson we learn today is to be cautious about our judgments.  It will be easy to blame people for causing this virus to spread.  It will be easy to blame someone who gets the virus to say that they did not follow the rules.  Let us at least pause before we do so.  It is possible that the person will have done nothing wrong. I believe that despite the ugliness of our situation, God has chosen to be with us and to carry us through this terrible time.

Perhaps the hardest part of all is that we don’t know what will happen next.  We don’t know how bad things will be and we don’t know when things will get better.  We don’t know how to plan.   In these times, I have hope.  For Jesus gives us hope.  I hope that we will find the correct way to deal with this virus.  I hope that this time will bring us closer together. 

It seems certain that we will not be able to celebrate Holy Week or Easter Services together.  But that does not mean that Easter will not come.  Jesus was raised from the dead.  Let us rejoice on that day even though we will not be together in person to celebrate.

Let us pray that everyone will be safe.  Let us pray that people will follow the directions of the authorities as they try to contain the virus.  Let us pray that the medical professionals will be cared for.  Let us pray that God will bring us together in this time of need.  Let us pray that the poor will not be overly burdened by this outbreak. 

If you are afraid or anxious, if you are uncertain or confused, listen to the words of Jesus, “‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”  May you feel God’s presence in your life, giving you comfort, strength, wisdom and peace.  Amen.  

 

Sermon for March 15, 2020

I am sure that you figured out already that the theme for today is water.  We listen to the story of Moses providing water to the Israelites.  The Israelites were unhappy.  They were thirsty for the water that keeps us alive.  The Israelites quarreled with each other and with Moses.  They tested God and Moses to see whether God would take care of them.  Their quarreling and testing were so loud that they gave the names Massah and Meribah to the place where this happened.  And God did provide.  When Moses struck the rock water poured forth and the thirst of the people was satisfied.

 

Most specifically the theme is about the living water, the gift that Jesus gives us.  Jesus gives us grace and love to nurture our spiritual thirst, to carry us through the tough times, to keep us steadfast in the Way of Truth and to bring us to everlasting life.  Rather than stopping at this point and making this the shortest sermon you ever heard, I want to ask you to consider another theme about how we see we meet people we do not know. Consider this gospel story about Jesus and the woman at the well.   

We begin by noticing that this woman was an outcast, someone whom society had swept aside.  She was an outcast simply because she was a woman and we know that woman were considered second class citizens by many.  The custom at the time was that she was not supposed to talk with Jesus without some escort being present.  She was also an outcast because she was a Samaritan and the Jews and the Samaritans did not like each other.  Jews and Samaritans did not talk to each other.  We know that it was risky for Jewish people to travel through the land of Samaria.  If Jews interacted with Samaritans, they would be contaminated and that is a bad word for us right now. 

Finally, she was a pariah in her own community because in her life she had lived with five husbands.  Even by today’s standards that is a lot of husbands.   I wonder if she was ignored by the people of her village.  Certainly, Jesus had every reason to ignore her, to not speak with her.  If Jesus had decided to speak with her then he probably would have wanted to preach to her about her sins.  Perhaps Jesus would offer her forgiveness and tell her to go and sin no more.  Jesus did not do anything that we might have expected.  He didn’t ignore her or mistreat her or look down on her.  Rather, he asked her to give him some water.  It was only after they had some discussions that he told her that he was the Messiah.

It caused me to think about how we treat outcasts in our society.  Sometimes people are outcasts because they have done something that is against the norms of our society, like robbing a bank.  We don’t wish to associate with those kinds of people.  But sometimes people are outcasts because we don’t know who they are or simply because they have fallen into a bad situation in their lives.

On Thursday night, a group of about fifteen of us gathered to talk about the book Grace in Les Miserables.  That night we focused on the difficult challenge that poverty presents to people.  We talked about a character in the book named Fantine.  She became an outcast.  Her great sin was that she fell in love with a man who was not committed to her.  Sadly, she ended up having a baby out of wedlock and the man she loved abandoned her.  She was forced to find work.  She left her baby in the care of a family that took advantage of her, her child and everyone else.  Someone at her work found out about her situation and she was fired for unwed mothers were not accepted at that time.  As her situation became more desperate she took desperate measures to protect her child and eventually died in the process. 

She was an outcast who never found a way to survive.  Most people treated her cruelly.  The main character in the novel tried to help her but his help came too late to save her.  He was only able to save and care for her child.  People mistreated Fantine because she had done something wrong.  We can label people who are poor with statements like, they caused their own problems or they don’t work hard enough, or they must be on drugs or drink too much.  That may be true but there are also reasons why people become outcasts for nothing that they did.

On Thursday, we discussed how we can respond to the issues of poverty, racism, and sexism.  There weren’t any easy answers. The problems are so large that we cannot solve them ourselves.  After all, Jesus said that we would always have the poor with us.  I mentioned how difficult it can be to know who we should help and how we should help.  In my time as rector, I have helped some people who needed the help and I have been taken advantage of by others.  I still must try.  People who try to help often have the best intentions to do good but they make mistakes.  I gave the example of people who took Native American children out of their homes, put them in boarding schools and taught them skills that others have used to be successful.  But we now know these techniques were wrong.  We haven’t had the same experiences as outcasts which make our decisions about how to help them difficult.

Jesus clearly told us that we should help the needy.  In the 25th chapter of Matthew, Jesus told us that if we don’t help the poor, the hungry, the naked, the sick and those in prison we will not be given eternal life.  It is not always easy to figure out how to meet this requirement.

But in the story of the woman at the well, we find some answers.  Treat them wish respect.  Don’t assume that you know the answers.  It worked for Jesus and it may work for us.  Jesus didn’t start by speaking to the woman at the well about his life giving water and he didn’t ever tell her that she must accept that water.  He started by asking her to give him water.  Sometimes it is through our own vulnerability that others are able to hear our words.  Jesus needed her help and after she had helped him, Jesus offered to help the woman.  It is after all about the water.  Through the Living water, Jesus gives us grace.  It changes everything about our spiritual life.  It helps us to follow God’s will and it helps us to show love to others.  When we understand the living water that Jesus gives us, we are not spiritually hungry anymore.  Jesus words changed this woman’s life. 

This woman, this outcast shared her experience with her community.  They listened and she convinced them to come and meet Jesus.  In the end, they said that they first believed in Jesus because of what she said but after being with him they knew he was the Messiah because of their own personal interaction with Jesus. Jesus accomplished the impossible.  He brought Samaritans and Jews together through their faith.  He used the woman’s strengths to create a new relationship.  His disciples learned that some of the rules we follow need to be tested to see if people can be brought together in God’s love.  The woman at the well was no longer an outcast.  Perhaps we can learn something from what Jesus did.

I think that in some ways everyone of us has been treated as an outcast.  There may have been some group of people that would not let us join them.  I have occasionally felt like an outcast myself, not to the extent that I have been shunned by society but in smaller ways.  If you have ever felt that you were being shunned, remember that Jesus reaches out to you. 

The nation is focused on the coronavirus.  We are anxious and afraid.  Some say we are not doing enough and others say that we are overreacting.  Many have chosen to be isolated. We choose to be isolated, separated from our fellow humans and for good reason.  But today, you have bucked that trend.  You have chosen to reach out to others.  You must be feeling the living water of Jesus. 

We may go into further isolation.  My hope is that out of this terrible experience, we may find some new ways of coming together, of sharing the love of Jesus with each other.  I hope that some of the anger that exists may go away in the love of Jesus.  Let us just remember that Jesus gave us life giving water.  Let us ask Jesus to keep us safe and to help us make good decisions.  Let us pray that this time will pass and that we all join together in the love of Jesus and share God’s love with everyone we meet.  Amen.