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.
A man stood in front of a judge arguing that he should be excused from a parking ticket. He had parked in a handicapped spot, despite not having a sticker or a visible handicap. The man claimed he’d meant to park for just a moment to go into a restaurant to bring his mother a glass of water (she was dehydrated, he explained). But when he was on his way out, he saw someone choking and felt obliged to administer the Heimlich maneuver. The only problem was when the judge asked him how one does the Heimlich maneuver, the man had not a clue. The judge told him to pay the fine. Sometimes the job of a judge is easy as in this case. It was clear that the man had not told the whole truth. Other times finding justice is difficult for a judge and for us. How might our lessons help us to find justice?
Our responsibility to seek justice for all people is clearly spelled out in the Bible. In Chapter 6 of the book of Micah, we are told, “and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” In Psalm 10, the psalmist calls out, “O Lord, you will strengthen their heart, to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed.” In the 23rd chapter of Matthew, Jesus admonished religious leaders, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”
In our own baptismal covenant, the question is asked, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” And our response is “I will with God’s help.” You see, doing justice is not really an option for Christians. The hard part is to figure out what is just. Sometimes it is easy, sometimes it is difficult. Sometimes it takes understanding and sometimes it takes work.
In our lessons for today, there is disagreement about justice. Remember, when the book of Amos was written, Israel had split into two kingdoms. The Kingdom of Israel was in the north and the kingdom of Judah was in the south. Amos was a farmer from the southern kingdom of Judah who went to the northern kingdom to denounce the morality of the leaders there. He especially sought justice for the poor and proclaimed that the elders “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth”. Pretty strong words, I would say. You can understand why the priest at Bethel told Amos to go back to his own country and prophesy there. Who was this foreigner who thought he could speak against the king? Yet, Amos insisted that he had been sent by God.
Amos and Amaziah clashed over a question of what is justice? It is easy to think of Amos as a lone individual seeking justice for the poor. And there is truth in that statement. Amaziah served an institution of religious worship in support of political institutions. Justice for him was to support the king. But Amos was part of an institution as well. The prophets were accepted as people with a specific vocation, people who followed God’s word. There are times when institutions clash over issues of justice. There are also times when each of us individually should remind institutions of their responsibilities to the poor and the oppressed. We should work for justice.
The gospel is another case of individuals speaking out. John the Baptist sought justice, he preached against Herod for marrying his brother’s wife. John was killed for speaking out. Now Herod is worried. Herod feared that Jesus was the resurrection of John. Jesus also preached justice. He preached in favor of the poor and the oppressed. He denounced the actions of leaders who were not caring for the needy. Jesus was also killed. There was good reason for Herod to fear the work of John and Jesus for they both sought justice and punishment for leaders who failed to care for the people.
There are many places where we should seek justice. I am thinking about the challenges of homeless people in the heat. Jan told me that it is very dangerous for people to be out in the weather when evening temperatures do not go down to 85 or less. It seems that people lose 2 liters of water during the night in these temperatures. We should always seek justice for the poor, the homeless, the underfed and others.
Another place where we struggle to know what is just is the issue of racism. The Episcopal Church has done a lot of work in this area. My intention is to share what is happening in this area and to let you know about things that are to come. I am well aware that the issue has significant political ramifications. We argue about critical race theory even as we don’t share a common understanding of what it means. We disagree about Black Lives Matter and defunding the police. The Episcopal Church is not asking anyone to take a particular position on these issues but rather inviting us to learn from history together and to share our own experiences and perspectives in an open forum with each other.
I would hope that all of us here today seek to accept all peoples, regardless of race. I think everyone here would say they are not racist. But racism can be a complex issue and I think we might find common ground through study and discussion.
The Episcopal Church has been working on issues of racism since 1988, long before our latest differences came about. In the 2020 Diocesan Convention, a policy was passed. Clergy and lay leaders are expected to take Anti-Racism training as part of their leadership roles. The Diocese of Arizona has nearly completed the training and they will begin to roll it out in the fall.
During this year, I learned about a program called Sacred Ground which was developed by the national church. Sacred Ground is meant to create a space for people of many different backgrounds to learn and to share perspectives on racism. It is non-judgmental. Sacred ground is a program that looks into the challenges faced by people of all kinds, whites, blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asians. About ten people have joined me in what has become a wonderful dialogue about the issues. It is so refreshing to find a group and a way to discuss topics like this. We discussed the harsh treatment of European immigrants when they arrived in this land and how they were forced to give up their traditions and accept common beliefs. We learned about the struggles that Native people faced soon after they welcomed Europeans to the northeastern part of the country. We studied the history of black people both as slaves and after the Civil War. We learned about the challenges faced by Hispanic or Latino cultures. All of these sessions have given our group the opportunity to share some of our own perspectives about race in a comfortable space without judgement from others. If any of you wish to learn more about Sacred ground, let me know.
The experience of Chinese people who came to the United States starting around 1840 in California was something I knew little about. We learned that Asians, especially Chinese, were subjected to so many oppressive laws that were later declared unconstitutional including a foreign miner’s tax which meant the Chinese paid nearly all the taxes charged to miners, and a Cubic Air Ordinance which limited the Chinese from gathering. We also read about how Asian Americans were treated after World War II. As the United States sought to be the leader of the free world and to court the favor of the Chinese, leaders in our country spoke positively about Asians. Asian people soon were accepted. We now understand Asians as educated and hardworking people. That comes in part because of things leaders said about them in the Fifties and Sixties. I better understand why I have held this belief that Asia people are hardworking and better educated for my entire life. That is why Chris Whitehead and other teachers have suggested to me several times how important it to search for our truth not relying on a single source for our information. I have only discussed two possible areas for us to consider as we seek justice. I am sure you could identify many more.
Scripture encourages us to seek justice for everyone. Yet, we often disagree about what constitutes justice. If we all saw justice in the same way, we wouldn’t need the courts to help us figure it out. We also know that some people, just like the man who tried to get out of the ticket for parking in a handicap spot, try to bend the scales of justices in their direction. I suggest that seeking justice means seeking God’s will for our world. As we struggle, let us turn to God, let us remember the gifts that Jesus has given us as told in the letter to the Ephesians. We are destined as God’s children through the work of Jesus. We have been redeemed through his blood and forgiven for our trespasses. We have received wisdom and understanding. As we seek justice let us remember the prayer from today’s collect, “O Lord, grant that we may know and understand the things we ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them”. Amen.
I have been thinking this week about heroes and heroines. A heroine is someone we admire or idealize for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. It seems to me that we have put aside many of the people we thought were heroes as we learned more about them. Where might we find a hero these days? I don’t think we would turn to politics as that is such a divisive place. Perhaps we could turn to sports. The Phoenix basketball team has given the people of this area something to root about and maybe we would find a hero there. As we look across other areas of interest such as religion or literature or art or music, perhaps you have some favorites, but I just find it difficult to name someone that everyone would say is a hero.
Instead, I find our heroes in the common folk, people whose names we may not even know. I think about the medical people who worked so hard when the pandemic was at full strength and hospitals were overcrowded. I think about teachers who found ways to help their students in spite of the challenges of remote learning. I think of the unnamed scientists who helped develop the vaccine. And I think of people, especially at food pantries, who helped provide food when the need was overwhelming.
Today in the gospel we learn about two people who made important choices. They are models to us, examples of how we might express our faith. They remind us to trust in God. They are important because their actions help us to learn about Jesus and his compassion, his love and his powerful healing presence. They may not be heroes in the traditional sense, but I think we should be thankful for their witness and the message that they have left for us.
We actually know the names of one of these characters. His name was Jairus, the leader of the synagogue. Other church leaders in Jesus’ time were opposed to his work and his teachings. Some thought he came from the devil. Jairus knew all of this but chose to express his faith in Jesus anyway. He came to Jesus while Jesus was in the midst of a crowd and asked for healing for his daughter. Jesus dropped whatever he was planning to do, took pity on Jairus.
It was a day for Jesus to be interrupted for just as he started to go see Jairus’ daughter, something happened. A woman, whose name we don’t know, touched his cloak and she was healed. The woman’s actions took great faith and courage. She was required by her faith tradition to stay away from other people. She was considered unclean. She was strictly forbidden from touching anyone. She tried to follow the rules but those rules had not helped her find a solution. No doctors could solve her problem. Was it her desperation, her willingness to try anything to find a cure for her problem? Or was it a faith in God and a faith in Jesus that caused her to turn to Jesus for healing?
Jesus knew that he had been touched and that some power went out from him. And when the woman confessed to what she had done, Jesus confirmed that it was her faith that allowed the healing to occur. Jesus then returned to the task of healing the leader’s daughter. People told him it was too late, but Jesus went anyway and he revived the girl.
We learn from these two miracles that the power of Jesus to heal had no boundaries. His healing was given to another person even though he did not make it happen consciously. His desire to heal did not require any specific action on his part. And we also learn in this passage that Jesus was able to heal someone whom everyone thought was dead.
Do these two stories help you to see more clearly the power of Jesus and the incredible faith of two people? We probably wouldn’t have chosen these two people out of a crowd to teach us about faith. And yet here they are giving us a chance to learn more about how Jesus expects us to use our faith and more about how faith can make a difference in our lives. Both were certainly willing to ask Jesus for help.
I also feel that we learn about Jesus’ willingness to help. He could have turned down Jairus because of his estranged relationship with Jewish leaders. Jesus could have said I have other things to do. But neither answer was ever the way that Jesus chose. He always wanted to help people. He always wanted people to feel God’s love and one of the most powerful ways for that to happen is through healing.
The reading from Lamentations reminds us of these characteristics of God.
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning.
Jesus lived that words of Lamentations always.
How might we respond to this lesson in Mark? The first thing we learn is to ask God for what we want. Each of the people in today’s passage chose to put their faith in God. In so doing they had to reject some accepted practices and teachings of their time. Neither was certain that Jesus was going to help them. But they asked anyway. And that is what we should do also. Ask God for help and do it over and over again. It may be for healing for ourselves and it may be healing for someone else. We could ask God for forgiveness or we could ask for reconciliation with another. As I said, we don’t know whether the exact request we make will be answered in the way we wish. But we can be certain that God hears our prayer. And we can trust in God to love us.
C. S. Lewis suggested that we consider the characteristics of God when we think about miracles, “Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.” Miracles occur because of who God is.
We know that God answers many prayers. It may be something simple like finding a parking place in a crowded lot. Or it could be a healing miracle. Many of us know people who have been healed when the human prognosis was glum. Even those can be miracles. But sometimes, healing defies our best explanation. I have a friend who has been dealing with pancreatic cancer for four and a half years. While we know he won’t live forever, we sure can say he has beaten the odds. Jan and I have a niece whose daughter survived a brain tumor even though the doctors thought she wouldn’t make it. I am sure that some of the people who survived the building collapse in Miami feel as if it was a miracle that they came out alive. Many of you have shared miracles that happened in your life. I believe that miracles do occur and I believe that God is a part of the miracle. I also know of situations where we have asked God for help and it doesn’t seem to happen. I don’t know how to explain the difference. It may seem arbitrary how God chooses one and doesn’t help another. I am only left with trusting what God decides. It is as the reading from Lamentations said today,
“Although he causes grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.”
Even the reading from 2nd Corinthians expresses the love of God. It was written this way, “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” Jesus always reached out with love and compassion.
There was a 20th century English writer named G. K. Chesterton who said this about miracles, “The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them.” Saint Augustine also wrote about miracles, “Miracles are not in contradiction to nature. They are only in contradiction with what we know of nature.” Perhaps someday we will understand the natural event that created any given miracle.
Wise and well-known people have expressed their belief in miracles. People have shared examples of miracles in books and movies. Normal people have told stories of miracles. All kinds of people ask God for help every day. I say that God listens to every prayer. Let us have total faith, trust and belief in God. Each one of us should feel comfortable praying in whatever way works for us and believing that God answers our prayers. We should seek solutions to our issues using our own logic and skilled professionals. But we can also turn to God in faith and trust asking God to help us discern the best actions we can take and asking God to heal us in every way. Amen.
Farmer Evans was driving his John Deere tractor along the road with a trailer load of fertilizer. Tim, a little boy of eight, was playing in his yard when he saw the farmer and asked, 'What've you got in your trailer?' 'Manure,' Farmer Evans replied. 'What are you going to do with it?' asked Tim. 'Put it on my strawberries,' answered the farmer. Tim replied, 'You ought to come and eat with us, we put ice-cream on our strawberries.’
I chose a story about a farmer today because there are several references to growing crops, plants and trees in our Scripture. Farmer Evans, the one in my story, was tending to his strawberries, trying to help them grow. While Farmer Evans was doing his part, he was relying on God’s creation which allowed the plant to grow as it interacted with the soil and rain to produce a fruitful harvest. Jesus told two parables about the Kingdom of God. He spoke about the growth of plants and the harvesting of food. We learn that God tends to all of the plants in this garden we call earth. I ask you to consider how God has tended to you, to think about your growth in God’s word and to contemplate your trust in God.
In Mark’s gospel when Jesus began his public ministry in Galilee his first words were ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.’ (Mark1:15). We often think about the Kingdom of God as something that happens at the end of the world. Do you think there are the signs of the Kingdom of God in the world today?
Ezekiel described God’s work. Ezekiel spoke of God taking a small sprig from the tall cedar and planting it in the mountains. That tree brought good things, fruit for one. Ezekiel also wrote about God’s protection. God would take care of the people of Israel.
In our time, we might imagine God providing the wisdom of the Giant sequoia tree. A sequoia in California called General Sherman is estimated to be around 2,500 years and it is 275 feet tall. What has that sequoia seen that could bring us good news? How majestic it is? How might that majesty remind us of God’s great goodness for us?
While the Kingdom of God will come at the end of time, I think that Jesus came to bring the Kingdom of God to earth then, and to us now. My image of the Kingdom of God is a place where there is no war, a place where people love each other and care for the poor and needy. It doesn’t fully exist yet. I wonder if even now God is bringing us to the place I imagine.
Jesus gave us some clues about what the Kingdom of God will be like. I am still left with questions. Jesus spoke first of a sower planting seeds and amazingly while the sower lived his normal life, this great garden grew and provided a fruitful harvest. Jesus spoke about the gift that God has given us. We receive all of the sustenance from the ground and yet we do little work to attain it. God is always working, always growing, always building. The Kingdom of God is about God’s work not so much about ours. God is always working to bring us closer, to teach us about God’s love and to share it with others. We come and sit in thanksgiving and appreciation as God builds the kingdom around us. As we listen and study God helps us to know what we should do, how we should live and gives us peace in the midst of it all.
In the second parable, Jesus referred to a tiny seed which when planted grew into a large bush, a mustard tree. The mustard tree doesn’t come to its full size immediately, so it may take time for God to grow God’s kingdom on earth. I always wish for the Kingdom to be here now. But God’s way is not my way.
Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador wrote about the Kingdom of God.
“It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us”.
Maybe we are not meant to fully understand the kingdom that God plans for us. The mustard tree became a place where the birds could go and live and survive and be cared for. That description was also in Ezekiel’s message today, the birds are one way Scriptures describe God’s love for those who follow God. For us who follow Jesus.
The TV personality, Fred Rogers, described this Kingdom of God, “I'm fairly convinced that the Kingdom of God is for the broken-hearted. You write of 'powerlessness.' Join the club, we are not in control. God is.” In a way all of us are broken hearted for we have been hurt and we struggle. Fred Rogers was telling us that we are comforted by God when we are in need. God is always there for us. Fred Rogers reminds us that God is the ruler of the universe and we are not. We have to give up the idea that we are in control of things. We may plant a seed but it is God who causes it grow. Our work matters only a little in the grand scheme of things.
As we ponder the mystery of the Kingdom of God, and the fact that God is the one leading and we are not, it is easy to fall into the trap of saying we should do nothing. After all God is in charge and we are not. God grows the Kingdom of God while we rest. Actually, the answer is that we seek to do God’s will in thanksgiving for what God has already given us. We want to bring God’s Kingdom here because of God’s love for us.
The passage in 2 Corinthians says it so well. “the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all… And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” We are urged on by the love and the actions of Jesus, by his very sacrifice for us. We know that our actions are only a part of what must be done and yet we do it anyway. We never know for sure what we should do and we often wish we could do more. We continue to try. Paul reminds us that we walk by faith and not by sight. We must trust that God will take care of things.
I return to the words of Oscar Romero. You may remember that during the civil war in El Salvador Oscar Romero decided to speak out against the government which he believed was committing atrocities, killing the people of their own country. After a particularly forceful sermon, he was killed. Oscar Romero’s words and actions did not end the fighting in his lifetime but the fighting eventually ended. Before his death, Oscar Romero wrote this,
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith…
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
There are times when I wonder, when I feel at a loss because I wish for the world to come together and live in love. But today we realize that we are not in charge, we are only to do our part. We are simply expected to do what we can and pray for the rest. It may be as simple as providing water to the homeless during the summer heat.
In our evening prayers there is a passage that speaks so clearly to this,
It is evening after a long day
What has been done has been done
what has not been done has not been done.
Let it be
We do our work and trust in God.
Mother Teresa worked with the poor in Calcutta for most of her life. She struggled and had dark days of her own. A reporter once reminded her that despite her best efforts she would never be able to take care of all the poor people in Calcutta. Mother Teresa responded, “I am not called to be successful, I am called to be faithful”
We don’t understand everything about the Kingdom of God. But we do know that God is in charge and we are not. Jesus told us that he came to bring God’s Kingdom to earth. Let us trust that God continues to make that happen. Let’s be willing to do our part. And when all is said and done, let us trust in God for what we have done has been done. The rest is up to God. Let it be in God’s loving arms. Amen.