There was a lady lawyer from California whose name was Scharlette Goldman. Her legal practice consisted of defending inmates who were on death row. She was defending an inmate whom she believed was legally insane. (He was schizophrenic with an IQ of 58 and very much out of touch with reality.) She had to prove his insanity to the court to save this man’s life because it’s illegal to execute someone who is unable to understand why he is being executed. The state of California didn’t agree with Scharlette’s interpretation of the defendant and had him medically assessed. The psychiatrist testified that she believed the defendant was able to understand his fate because he’d played tic-tac-toe against her and won. Scharlette believed that one’s ability to win at tic-tac-toe did not indicate the ability to appreciate the finer points of execution. But the court agreed with the psychiatrist.
The lawyer struggled with her defense. She racked her brain trying to find a solution. Then suddenly she had an ah ha moment. She remembered visiting the fair when she was young and seeing chickens that could play and win at tic-tac-toe. She searched for and found an upstanding chicken to prove that one doesn’t need a high IQ to win at tic-tac-toe. Can you imagine a chicken being called to testify in court? Well, Goldman’s challenge was successful.
In the gospel, Nathaniel has one of those Ah ha moments. When Philip first told Nathaniel that he had found Jesus, the Messiah, Nathaniel responded with doubt, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” He didn’t think it was possible for Jesus to be the Messiah. Then Nathaniel met Jesus and Jesus told Nathaniel that he knew him before they met. Suddenly, Nathaniel’s heart was changed and he declared “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
Do you remember some Ah ha moment in your life? It is a moment of sudden realization, inspiration, recognition or comprehension. Sometimes we say that a light bulb goes off in our head. I say that light bulb might come from the light of Christ.
Have you ever had a sudden realization about God or about Jesus? I remember once feeling the presence of Jesus beside me. It was a sudden realization. I have felt the crucifixion of Jesus as a personal gift to me.
I also think about times when a passage of scripture hit me suddenly and I found new inspiration. I remember questioning the legitimacy of Jesus speaking about the lilies of the field. He said why do you worry? God takes care of the lilies and God takes care of the birds. My thoughts had been negative because I felt that God hasn’t stopped hunger in this world. My moment was when I chose to consider the words about fear. Jesus told us not to fear because God was always with us. Of course, I later concluded that part of the message is the expectation by Jesus that people who have should help those who don’t. It changed my entire perspective about the passage.
Sometimes our moments of new-found inspiration come from another person. Philip shared his understanding with Nathaniel that Jesus was the Messiah. Without Philip’s witness, Nathaniel would not have seen Jesus as God. Our witness is important.
In Hebrew Scripture, we hear about the words of God that were given to Samuel. God spoke three times before Samuel heard it and it took the help of his mentor Eli for Samuel to understand that it was God speaking to him. We may miss God’s message to us if we don’t listen.
In Epiphany, we focus on Jesus as the light of the world. Our lessons for today point to Jesus bringing us the light of knowledge and truth. We use the teachings of Jesus to understand God’s wishes for us.
The light of Christ, Jesus reaches out for us, seeking to bring us out of our darkness. Let me share some thoughts from a commentary I read. John’s account of the calling of his disciples reveals the concern that Jesus has for every individual. Jesus can see the true nature of each person and offers himself in a unique way to each. Jesus approached Philip, and before this Andrew and Simon, one way. He approached Nathaniel differently. Jesus referred to Nathaniel as an Israelite in whom there is no deceit. Nathaniel was being honest in his creation and Jesus accepted and helped him to see the light. And Jesus told Nathaniel that there were more ah ha moments to come. Nathaniel would see the heavens opened.
A person’s epiphany is often unique and not something that is easily understood by others. As a child I remember the story of Archimedes. The king had a problem because people were making things out of silver, making it look like gold and charging him as if it were gold. Archimedes looked for the answer. While sitting in the bathtub, he thought about how his body displaced water. He suddenly realized that silver would displace more water than gold because it is less dense. Archimedes jumped out of the bath and ran to the king yelling Eureka, I have found it. How many people laughed with scorn when watching Archimedes run? I am sure people thought he was crazy.
And we might react in the same way to what Nathaniel experienced. What made his exchange with Jesus a moment when lights flashed in front of his eyes? It is not clear to me. I think even Jesus was a little taken back by Nathaniel. Jesus gave him a little kidding joke something like, “what did I say that got you so excited? Stick around and you will see more than that.” Jesus recognized Nathaniel as he sat under the fig tree and said some nice things about him. That doesn’t seem so special to me. It is helpful to know that some religious texts of the time would say that a person is gathering figs when what they really meant was they were seeking God, studying the Torah. Jesus was probably saying that Nathaniel was a genuine person, a sincere follower of God. Nathaniel thought the words of Jesus were special, insightful, something that could only be seen by the Son of God.
As Jesus continued to share with Nathaniel, his words seem to be directed to all believers not just one. We are followers who search for God and who proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. And Jesus responds to our efforts, proclaiming that we will experience magnificent things, that the gates of heaven will be open to us.
I believe that God is always reaching out to us, trying to touch us in our own unique place. And our response may be unique to us. I am reminded of that line from amazing grace “I once was lost but now am found”. John Newton who wrote the words Amazing Grace was found by God. Newton was at the helm of his ship ashamed of his sins when Got came to him. Newton would later write, “On that day the Lord sent from on high and delivered me out of deep waters.” It was his ah ha moment.
Not all of us will hear the voice of God speaking to us as Samuel did. None of us will have the chance to speak with Jesus during his time on earth. Some people never hear a message from God directed to them. But all of us have the opportunity to open ourselves to the power of Jesus’ words. We can all learn from the steps that Jesus took while he lived on earth. Let us search for Jesus just as he searches for us every day. Let us look for the light of Christ in our lives.
Paul wrote this so clearly in 2nd Corinthians, For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
An unknown author wrote, Let us not ask of the Lord deceitful riches, nor the good things of this world, nor transitory honors; but let us ask for light. With the light of Christ and with knowledge and strength, we become witnesses just like Philip was a witness to Nathaniel. It doesn’t take some brilliant oratory or some long discourse to be a witness. For Philip it was a few short words. We too can be witnesses. If we just let our own light shine, people will see that we love Jesus.
I believe in the power of prayer. Over and over people tell me how important it was that people prayed for them. Pray is especially important given our situation today. We struggle with peace in our country and we struggle to survive during the pandemic. Prayer will make a difference. Our collect today mentions our belief that Jesus is the light of the world. Let us pray again that God will illumine our lives through the Word and Sacraments. Let us pray again that our hearts will shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth. Amen.
When I was in college many years ago, I sang in a men’s glee club. There are about fifty men’s voices in the group. We loved to sing all kinds of music but the songs that were our favorites and the ones most remembered by the alumni were powerful and strong songs with an important message. I am sure there was a sense of masculine pride coming out in our wish to sing in a controlled and blended but louder voice. One of the songs we sang was called “The Creation”. The first words of Genesis were put to music. It began quietly and grew in volume. The song ended with the verse, And God said, Let there be light and there was light. The last word “Light” was sung with the full force of everyone in the group.
I often reflect on the personal relationship that I have with God and with Jesus because it is such an important part of our spiritual life. But in so doing, I leave out some of the other attributes of God such as Omnipresent (always with us) and Omniscient (all knowing). Today I ask you to consider another attribute of God which is omnipotent or all powerful. Our all-powerful God gave us light in a physical sense, made life possible and gave us light through the presence of Jesus, our Savior.
Our first reading takes us back to the beginning, as we read the first words in Scripture. I love the images we are given in the Bible and I ask you to close your eyes and imagine that you were there when God created the heavens and the earth. In our translation it says that the earth was a formless void, a mass of uncertain dimensions. And on the surface of this strange mass was a darkness. One translation indicates that the earth was covered by a raging ocean that kept everything in total darkness. And God decided it was time for life on earth. God said Let there be light and boom, there was light over the earth. Can you feel and maybe see in your mind’s eye the power of God’s mighty hand creating Light? Forty years ago, Mount Saint Helens exploded. The explosion leveled millions of trees, killed 57 people and impacted people hundreds of miles away. If that explosion was impactful, it is hard for me to imagine what the creation was like, how powerful it was.
As someone who believes that evolution took many years, that things didn’t happened suddenly I have wondered if God’s creation may not have been so immediate. But in the last few years, astronomers have given us amazing pictures of things going on in the Universe, like a massive black hole swallowing a star. Incredible things can happen quickly. Perhaps God’s light came all at once onto the earth. All through the power of God.
This is the God I ask you to consider today. God created light. God created order out of chaos. God’s light shines and all things make sense. God’s light creates order.
The power of God continues in our readings today. Let’s go forward to the gospel. John the Baptist is out in the wilderness with the locusts and the wild bushes and walking around in a strange outfit. God chose the wilderness as the place for Jesus to be baptized. It was another case of God bringing order to the wildness of the earth. It wasn’t just a quiet little event either. We may think that the dove descending upon Jesus was a quiet event but that is not what Scripture says. It says that the heavens were torn apart. God may come to us in the stillness of a quiet sunset, but God can also come to us in the majesty of the mountain or the power of an earthquake. God is present in powerful ways.
How quickly we have moved from the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. The baptism of Jesus occurred when he was an adult and is one of the early stories of his public ministry. Jesus’ baptism was a declaration, God jolts us into the importance of Jesus’ life on earth. Jesus declares that he is one with God, that he will bring God’s kingdom to earth. It is a time to remember our own baptism and what it means to our life.
My own baptism happened when I was still a baby. I have seen pictures, but I remember nothing. At a baptism the child is usually dressed in white and everyone else has smiles. The water usually is sprinkled on the baby’s head. All those nice surroundings may cause us to miss the point. For baptism is our commitment to God. We enter into a covenant, an agreement to be one of God’s children. Some faith traditions actually have a baptism with full immersion in the water. The idea is that all of our sins are washed away. I like the significance of the physical act of immersion. Everything about us is making a commitment to God. It is powerful just like the baptism of Jesus. Perhaps you can imagine putting your entire body including your head under water and coming out into the light of Christ, being changed by God’s awesome power and grace and love.
When we were baptized, we were changed, I like to say we were transformed. Because we opened our hearts to God, we allowed the light of Christ to enter into us. God is with us and in us. However your baptism occurred, whether you remember it or not, I ask you today to reaffirm your covenantal relationship with Jesus. We will once more make those promises again right after this sermon.
Scripture is filled with stories about God’s covenantal relationship with humans. As Christians, we are thankful for the covenants between God and Noah, Abraham and Moses, but we focus on the new covenant based on the coming of Jesus Christ. Each time we experience a communion service the priest lifts the chalice and says, “This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus brings us into a new relationship with God and offers us forgiveness for the sins we have committed.
In today’s world we think of the covenant that is reached when two people come together in marriage. They agree to live together in good times and bad, supporting each other for whatever comes. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, offered this perspective of marriage, “Marriage has a unique place because it speaks of an absolute faithfulness, a covenant between radically different persons, male and female; and so it echoes the absolute covenant of God with his chosen, a covenant between radically different partners.”
Today, as we listen to the story of Jesus’ baptism and remember our own baptism, I ask you to reflect on your relationship with God. Is it one of absolute faithfulness? Do you remember our promise to accept Jesus Christ as your Savior? Are you committed to put your whole trust in his grace and love? Are you ready to renew that commitment again?
The other day, a group of us were speaking about the three most important virtues of faith, hope and love. This individual said that love and hope have been inconsistent experiences in life, but faith has always been present. It is the rock of that person’s relationship with God.
Commitment is a hard thing and we know of many examples of people who have struggled with it. I think of times when a repair person has promised to show up at a certain time but doesn’t. I am sure that you have your own stories of commitments made but not completed. As a priest, I receive commitments from people all of the time. Some say they are going to attend church here but never show up. I have become jaded by talk without action, no longer expecting people to do what they say.
But I trust in God. We understand that the commitment we make to follow Jesus is a hard one to live up to all of the time. That is why we come together in community. We seek to support each other as followers of Christ, hoping that our joint efforts will make it easier to stick to our commitment.
In a covenant relationship, each party gives something to the other. Our baptism is not just about what we commit to but about the promise that God makes to each of us. In the water of baptism, we are cleansed from all of our sins, we are washed in the glory of Jesus and we become one with him. We receive God’s grace, and God’s love and yes, even God’s power and might.
The theme for Epiphany is the light of Christ. It is a statement about the coming of Jesus, for he brought God’s light into our world. During the season of Epiphany, I will ask you in many different ways how that light has impacted you. But today, I wish that you would remember that at the creation, God brought light to bring order to chaos. God’s light calmed the violent waters of the world.
In our baptism, Jesus and the Holy Spirit bring order to our life. Our lives are grounded, they give us guidance and help us to find our way. It is not the same cataclysmic event as that described in Genesis, but it is a dramatic shift in our lives. May you feel the presence of God transforming you and may the light of Christ keep you on the path of peace. Amen.
There was a man who had worked all his life, had saved all of his money, and was a real "miser" when it came to his money. You might say that he was the ultimate hoarder. Just before he died, he said to his wife..."When I die, I want you to take all my money and put it in the casket with me. I want to take my money to the afterlife with me." And so he got his wife to promise him, with all of her heart, that when he died, she would put all of the money into the casket with him.
Well, he died. He was stretched out in the casket, his wife was sitting there - dressed in black, and her friend was sitting next to her. When they finished the ceremony, and just before the undertakers got ready to close the casket, the wife said, "Wait just a moment!" She had a small metal box with her; she came over with the box and put it in the casket. Then the undertakers locked the casket down and they rolled it away. So her friend said, “I know you were not fool enough to put all that money in there with your husband." The loyal wife replied, "Listen, I cannot go back on my word. I promised him that I was going to put that money into the casket with him." You mean to tell me you put that money in the casket with him!?!?!?" "I sure did," said the wife. "I got it all together, put it into my account, and wrote him a check.... If he can cash it, then he can spend it.” I suppose you could say that the wife fulfilled her promise and obeyed her husband’s request, but perhaps not exactly the way that he meant for her to do so.
In today’s Scripture, we are reminded of God’s faithfulness. God has and will keep the promise to be with us always. God will love each and every one of us. In response, we are faithful to God. We choose to obey God’s wishes. The story about David in the book of 2 Samuel is an example of faith and trust. God lived up to the promise to watch over the Hebrew people. God cared for David, took him out of the farm, helped him to become king, provided a country and a house for David. We know that King David made many mistakes and sinned. But he always was faithful to God. As a faithful servant, David wanted to provide a permanent house for the Ark of the Covenant. But God was not looking for a physical space. God wanted the people to offer praise and glory, to follow his commands. So, King David listened to the prophet Nathan and did not build a shrine to God. The Ark remained in the tent. David was God’s obedient servant.David wanted a house for God. God wanted a home for God’s people. It reminds me of the Christmas song, I’ll be home for Christmas” The singer did not want to arrive at a particular place but rather wanted to see some special people. Everyone is important to God. God welcomes us home when we respond to his faithfulness with our own faith in God.
The psalm also relates the story of God’s promise, “I am persuaded that your love is established for ever; you have set your faithfulness firmly in the heavens.” The words may have been written originally about the reign of King David, but they speak to us as well. As we wait for the coming of Jesus one more time, let us not forget that God is always with us. We have reached the point where we cannot wait for the vaccine to be distributed to all people. Let us be comforted as we wait by the presence of God in our lives. God is faithful to us, let us be faithful to God. Let us respond with the words of the Psalm, “My faithfulness and love shall be with him”.
Today, I am thankful for the gospel of Luke. For Luke told stories about what happened before Jesus was born. In the telling of these stories we hear of God’s gifts to the people and incredible journeys of faith and trust and obedience to God’s wishes. Luke told us about Elizabeth and Zechariah. They were both faithful to God. Zechariah was surprised when an angel appeared and told him that he would have a son. He was so surprised that at first he did not believe. The angel told him he would be unable to speak because of his doubt. Later, after his son was born and they brought him to be circumcised, the couple planned to name the child Zechariah after his father, but Elizabeth said he would be called John. When Zechariah wrote that his name was John, he received his voice back. That is when Luke shared the proclamation of Zechariah, praising God, predicting the birth of a mighty savior and foretelling that John would be the prophet of the most high. Trust in God brought a son. Elizabeth’s faith gave the child the name John and Zechariah demonstrated obedience.
Luke also tells us about the visit of the Angel Gabriel to tell Mary that she will bear a son. At first, Mary is afraid that she has received such a visit and she is uncertain how it is possible that she will bear a son. But after all is explained to her she accepts the word of God that has been given to her. “Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” I think about so many important figures in Scripture who responded to God’s call with statements like I am not good enough or I couldn’t do that. Not Mary. How quickly she accepted. Her faith was strong. Her trust was complete. Her obedience was total. This is not a half-hearted statement. It doesn’t come out like OK if you say so. No, it is a positive acceptance. Yes, I am ready and I will do what you have asked.
A group of us are using a book called “Come Thou Long expected Jesus” as our Advent study. We talk about our yearning for Jesus to come. This week, as we reflected on the angel’s visit, we were reminded that Mary had a choice. God gave Mary free will and God will respect human freedom. The author of our book wrote about the universal desire for God to come. “All creation groaned for this moment and now awaits the virgin’s response” he wrote. When Mary said yes, great joy broke out. Even now, we are thankful that Jesus will come.
This passage about Mary is also about God. “God is here portrayed as a God of grace and power.” Grace fills the story because God is sending a gift to the world. Gift is the correct word because all of the conditions of human action and achievement are absent. We remember the Scripture passage, “This is the Lord’s doing”. We realize just as Mary stated, “Nothing is impossible with God.
Some think about faith as a set of beliefs or a group understanding about how we experience God. But our book study group spoke about faith as personal and intimate. It is about our own individual relationship with God. When faith is a personal thing, we realize that trust in God is not just about the big things. Obedience to God is not about letting go of the so called “Big” sins. It is about what we do every day. Each day we have the chance to show our obedience.
Today, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we lit the candle of Love. We anticipate the coming of Jesus. It is so close. We have waited for a while now. We know that Jesus came to be among us as a sign of God’s love. And Jesus loved us and gave himself for us. God is faithful to us. God has given us grace and mercy. And God can be relied on to be with us always. It is out of this love from God that we are able to respond with faith and trust and obedience. It is in response to God’s faithfulness that we are faithful.
C.S.Lewis said it this way, “The Christian does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us; just as the roof of a sunhouse does not attract the sun because it is bright, but becomes bright because the sun shines on it.” We have only a few days before Christmas. On Christmas day, we remember that God fulfilled a promise and sent his son, the Messiah, to earth. It was and is a gift of love. Let us be thankful for that gift and prepare ourselves for his coming with our faith and obedience. Amen.
The early days of World War II were very difficult for the people of Great Britain. Bombs were falling on their cities and the people were unsure of what the future would be like. They turned to Winston Churchill for strength. Churchill was committed and persistent. He would say, “we will never, never, never give in. Others looked to God for strength. A gentleman named James Dillet Freeman wrote a prayer that was intended to be used by people who were threatened by the conflict. His final product is called a prayer for protection. Now Freeman was not a part of an organized religion but his Christian faith comes through in this short prayer. He wrote,
The light of God surrounds us;
The love of God enfolds us;
The power of God protects us;
The presence of God watches over us;
Wherever we are, God is!
What I especially like about this prayer is the image that the light of God is like a cloak that is all around us, giving us protection.
Light is a key image of our scripture for today. In the gospel we are told that John the Baptist came to testify to the light so that all might believe through him. This is the second week in a row that we read the story of John the Baptist. Last week we heard the story from the Gospel of Mark. Today we hear the story from the Gospel of John. There are similarities in the proclamation that we are to repent and prepare for the coming of Jesus and the importance of Baptism. But this passage also focuses on the role that John played and especially in John’s understanding of what he was called to do. Today, let us consider our calling to live in the light and also about what God might be calling us to do this year.
The call to live in the light comes from John and others. Jesus, himself said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” We follow the light of Jesus because Jesus himself offered it to us.
We also find our call in the 2nd letter to the Corinthians. “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” We learn about God through Jesus.
Peter Abelard, the twelfth century theologian, said it this way, “I think that the purpose and cause of the Incarnation was that God might illuminate the world by his wisdom and excite it to the love of God”. With light comes an understanding of God’s love.
What does it mean to be in the light of Christ? Light can be different from one day to the next, it changes what we see. I always look at the Superstition mountains each day. In the early morning when the sun is just coming up, the Superstitions look so dark, foreboding and so rough. In the evening when the sun shines on them we see the details with the mountains looking bright and inviting. Sometimes, the mountains stand out as the sun seems to shine just on them while the surrounding valley is cloaked in darkness.
The different kinds of light change and light affects us in different ways as we encounter it. Watching a candle flame is an interesting experience. The light flickers and you can see different colors. The wick and the wax are constantly interacting in fascinating ways.
Just as light changes things around us change. The Light of Jesus Christ may impact us in different ways as well.
- The light of Christ brings us a knowledge of God that we cannot have without Jesus.
- The light of Christ helps us to be humble and to live in better relationship with each other.
- The light of Christ helps us to see the needs of others and to reach out to help.
- The light of Christ helps us to find peace.
- The light of Christ helps us to accept the forgiveness that Jesus offers and to help us forgive others.
- We often see the light of Christ exhibited by others and it help us to live a life in the light.
John the Baptist must have been a very charismatic person. Many people came out into the desert to listen to his words and to follow his encouragement. He must have been well known throughout the Jewish community. So much so that priests and Levites came out to see him, presumably at the direction of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. I wonder if they were trying to trick him. Their questions suggested that some people wanted him to be something that he wasn’t. I am not the Messiah, I am not Elijah, I am not a prophet. Well then, who are you? They asked. I am just a voice calling people to prepare for the coming of the Lord. I baptize people with water as a sign of their repentance and their commitment to God. But someone will come who baptizes people in the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist was very clear about what he was called to be. He came to testify to the light.
Today, we heard the words of the Magnificat, Mary’s prayer of reflection when she visited Elizabeth. It comes soon after the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that she would bear a son, Jesus. Her response at that time was, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ The Magnificat continues Mary’s commitment to God’s call. She said I am blessed by God. God has done great things for me. I believe that God will do great things for us and I will be part of that.
Each of us has his or her own call and each call is different. Our call is not as well known or public as the calls that John the Baptist and Mary received. We may not know our call so clearly. God may call and we may not listen. Perhaps we do not expect the Lord to be concerned with us. Or we may refuse to recognize the call that we have is from God. But each call is important. John the Baptist was a witness to the light of Christ. We too can be witnesses. Being a witness can be difficult. We believe in Jesus and sometimes when you believe in something so deeply it makes it even more difficult to find the words to share with other people. I wonder if we sometimes put too much pressure on ourselves to say the right thing. Maybe it is just as simple as saying, I believe that Jesus is the Light of the World. Please come and see what you think.
Our call may be as simple as letting the light of Christ shine through us and sharing it with others. We find that message in the Acts of the Apostles, “For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, “‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.” Acts 13:47 We have the light of Christ in us and we should share it with others. The Light of Christ can penetrate even the places where people are mean to each other or fight with each other. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about how the light of Christ can change. He said,
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Mother Teresa spoke about why we are to bring the light of Christ to this world,
“We need to give Christ a chance to make use of us, to be His word and His work, to share His food and His clothing in the world today. If we do not radiate the light of Christ around us, the sins of the darkness that prevails in the world will increase”.
Now, more than ever there is a feeling of darkness that has descended upon us. It is a time of fear and uncertainty. Many people find it difficult to be joyful, to be positive when there is so much sickness all around us. I have entered into that space at times as well. This week has been a struggle for Jan and I. We lost our brother-in-law to Covid-19 and we know of others that are sick. I struggle with how I can keep the doors of the church open when there are so many cases in our state. That is why we are called to bring light to the world. If we can just bring a sense of peace and comfort, a sense of hope, then we are giving the light of Christ to others.
My friends, let us open our hearts to let the light of Christ inside. Let us allow the light of Christ to be a part of everything we do so that others will see that light shining through us. What a gift to give this Christmas. Amen.
The very first words of Handel’s Messiah are sung by a single voice, “Comfort ye, comfort ye. My people, saith your God”. It is both strong and soothing. Just as the strong words of comfortbegin the Messiah, those same words are the beginning of our lessons. We are at the beginning of a new liturgical year and many can’t wait for the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021.
I believe this summary accurately describes our situation. “Public health experts are warning us that we can expect a hard winter ahead, with a pandemic largely out of control in the United States and surging in many other parts of the world. Thanks to the heroic efforts of scientists, there are effective vaccines in the works, but it will be several months before they are widely available. And people are suffering from fatigue, fear, and loneliness”.
In the midst of other problems, it has been a hard two weeks for us. We have not been able to gather in the church. During the time we were away, the season of Advent began. Advent, of course, means coming. We anticipate the coming of Jesus. It happened once a long time ago when the tiny baby was born in Bethlehem. While the shepherds and the wise men may have found great joy in the birth of Jesus, the rest of the world took little notice. Now we prepare once more for the coming of Jesus even as we know that Jesus is already with us now and always.
We also look forward to the second coming of Jesus. We think about a time in the future when Jesus will come again and the earth will change dramatically. Jesus will usher in a new kingdom of heaven. A kingdom come to earth. We think that when that happens all of our troubles will go away.
During Advent we anxiously wait for the coming of Jesus. We expect it will come and we live in hope of that coming. As we hope we act. That is why Advent is a time of preparation. We wish to prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus. We find the words of preparation throughout our readings for today. Most prominently we hear John the Baptist cry out in the desert that we must repent and prepare. We are called to cast off our sins so that our hearts will be pure when Jesus comes.
In spite of the obvious importance of preparation and repentance found in Scripture today, I am not sure we are ready. I think we need the words of Isaiah more than the words of the gospel. This passage from Isaiah was written during the exile. It was a time of deep despair for the Jewish people. Listen to how it was described in Lamentations; For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my courage; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed.
The passage from Isaiah looks forward to better times. It was written to say that God had not forgotten the Jewish people. God was still with them even though Jerusalem had been destroyed and so many people had been taken to Babylon. The writer was saying that the people had atoned for their sins. Help is on the way.
We can relate in a way to what the Jewish people experienced. Life in our world has been difficult for everyone. Many have been confined to their house. People were unable to be with their loved ones for Thanksgiving. We are sad and we are tired. We are worried about what might happen to us. We want this time to end.
I have had those feelings. It has been hard to bring church services to this parish in a meaningful way. Our efforts have been stymied by technology challenges and the protocols that we have been following. I have even had people share with me their sorrow for my plight as your rector. Some have said to me that they are thankful for my efforts. And I do so appreciate the thoughtfulness and the encouragement.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I think my situation is so easy compared to others. I do not worry about how I will pay the bills. I do not worry about what I will do if I become homeless. I don’t worry about where I will find my next meal. I am not out looking for a job. I have not had a loved one get sick and die from Covid-19. I have not had to worry about how I will pay for medical expenses. I don’t struggle with how my child will learn in this environment. While our time may be different, the words of Isaiah speak to us just as they did to the Jewish people during the exile. They bring us hope.
Let us live in the space of Advent hope. A theology professor named Kathryn Schifferdecker wrote about advent hope: Advent hope is not the same thing as optimism, which relies on positive thinking and rose-colored glasses. Advent hope in fact acknowledges the pain of present reality, but it also dares to see God’s presence in the midst of that pain. Advent hope, the hope of which Isaiah speaks, is grounded not in anything we can see, not in politicians or bank accounts or the market. This hope is grounded in God’s faithfulness, and for that reason, it is true, and real, and solid, something to ground you, too, in the weeks and months ahead. We live in that space of Advent hope and we offer it to others.
In the passage from Isaiah, the first phrases are the words the prophet hears that came from God. God called on prophets and others to provide words of Comfort. As the passage continues, we hear the voices of others declaring that God is near, calling on people to repent and sharing the good news with everyone. I think we too are called to provide the good news of God’s comfort to people who are struggling. We are called to get up to a high mountain, we are to lift our voices with strength. We are to say to all the people, “Here is your God!” It is a time for our voices to bring people closer to God, to help them move from being despondent to hope. We send God’s comfort to others when we send a card to a friend or check on someone by telephone. We give comfort when we offer a needy person a meal.
I think hope is one outcome of God’s comfort. What else might the words from Isaiah mean to you? The psalm continues the message of comfort. We hear of God’s graciousness making the earth a good place to live. We learn of the promise of salvation, a gift for God’s followers. But I choose the message of peace. I am comforted when I feel God’s peace. God’s peace takes away my anxiety. And the psalmist describes the comfort ground in the connection between peace and righteousness when he wrote, “righteousness and peace have kissed each other”. God’s comfort is not given just to the successful and it is not limited to the weak. It is a gift for every one of us.
Eleonore Stump wrote about God’s comfort this way: The Gospel says that Christ baptizes his own with the Holy Spirit. Because of this baptism, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within each person who comes to Christ. That is why no one who comes to Christ and receives his baptism of the Holy Spirit walks the wild and rocky road of life alone. God is so much with him that, in the person of the Holy Spirit, God is within him. If God is for us, even within us, who can be against us? This is strength indeed. And so no wonder that the other name for the Holy Spirit is “the Comforter.
The baptism we receive brings us closer to God. It is just what John the Baptist called for while out in the desert. In the gospel many people went out into the desert to hear John and to be baptized. They willingly came to humble themselves, to admit their sins, to ask for forgiveness and to be lifted up by God’s grace. The desert is a place of wildness, a difficult place to live. It can be a place of loneliness. We might feel like we are in the desert now. Let us remember our baptism, Let us feel again the membership we received in Christ’s body, the gift of God the creator and the presence of the Holy Spirit, our Comforter. We experience God’s comfort through God’s presence with us. God the Creator is present with us as is Jesus, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The Latin word for comfort means “with strength”. As Christians we receive just a small slice of the strength of God. We accept that comfort and strength as we prepare for what will happen in an uncertain time. We look forward to the future. And we know that whatever our situation is when Christmas arrives, it will be a time of celebration. For Jesus, our God, is coming. He is here. Amen.
The gospel reading brings back strong memories of the time when I was interviewed for the position of rector at Transfiguration. For me, it was a time when I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life and the love and care of many others. You may have heard parts of this story before. As you listen, I hope you will think about times when God has guided your life.
I finished seminary in May of 2013. I had already received a placement for a church in Cincinnati, Ohio. I had interviewed for a position in Arizona but not heard whether they were interested in me. I took a trip with one of our seminary professors to England to learn about the Anglican Church in that country and how it might help in my own ministry.
While I was on my trip to England, I received an email telling me that I was not selected for the job in Arizona but I was asked to call the bishop. I called bishop Smith and he asked if I would be interested in the position here at Transfiguration. I was but I also shared with the bishop that I did not have a lot of time to decide since I was due to start my job in Cincinnati on July 1.
Things were very busy for me. Within two weeks, I was on my way to Arizona to interview for the position at Transfiguration. Before coming, I had to do a mandatory retreat for three days outside Indianapolis. In the rush of things, I did not clearly understand the interview schedule or the expectations for the interview at Transfiguration. I had been given the information but it didn’t sink in. On our arrival in Mesa, Jan and I went out for dinner but before we ordered, I received a call from Chris Whitehead that he was at the hotel to pick us up for a dinner with the vestry and search committee at Ruby Seyffert’s house. So, we quickly went back to the hotel, met Chris and had a wonderful dinner. On the way home that evening, I asked Chris what we would be doing the next day and he told me that we would start with a Bible study that I was to lead. I had not done any previous preparation for a bible study. But I had recently done a presentation on the parable of the bridesmaids, our gospel lesson for today, for a seminary class. So, I used that parable in my bible study the next day. Despite my mistakes with the schedule, things worked out. I was thankful that Chris Whitehead, on behalf the vestry, offered me the position that evening.
Looking back, I know that I should have been more careful and better prepared. But I also found myself being watched over and cared for. I felt guided by the Holy Spirit throughout that journey. Each time, it looked as if I would stumble, God found a way to lift me up. I was supported by two bishops, by clergy and lay people who showed their love and care. Some of those folks I did not know well at all. I am thankful and blessed.
In the gospel, we hear a parable about a wedding. In those days, the bridegroom would go to the house of the bride. He would enter into an agreement with the bride’s father. Then the bride and groom would return to his house for a grand party. Those in wait did not know exactly when the bride and groom would arrive.
In this parable, we learn about ten bridesmaids who were supposed to light the way into the celebration. When the groom’s party was delayed well beyond their expected arrival, some of the bridesmaids ran out of oil for their lamps and they were not let into the celebration.
It seems clear to me that the parable refers to Jesus as the bridegroom and the parable refers to the return of Jesus to bring God’s kingdom to earth and the end of the world as we know it. If we were to look at the passages that come before this in Matthew’s gospel, they are all about the end of the world. Jesus told the disciples that the Temple would be destroyed. He gave them signs that they should look for. He told them that people would be persecuted. He said they should be watchful. Jesus said that the Son of Man would come. It would be like this, “Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken.” Then, “the Son of Man will come on the clouds of heaven” with power and great glory.
The followers of Jesus during Matthew’s time were expecting Jesus to return during their lifetime. The delay in his return caused many to be worried and uncertain. That message is found in the Epistle for today. Paul’s followers believed that they needed to be alive when Jesus returned in order to be taken up to heaven. They were concerned what would happen to their relatives who had already died. But Paul put them at ease by writing and telling them that Jesus would carry them up to heaven along with the followers who were still living.
In the gospel, Matthew wanted to reassure his community. While Jesus had not yet returned, he was still coming. They needed to be ready for Jesus to return at any time. His coming will not be foretold, they will not have time to prepare. So, they must always be ready. They must live a holy life so that when Jesus did return they would be accepted into heaven. Being prepared means following the words of Jesus. We want to be like the wise maidens not the foolish ones.
We live in a different time. We don’t expect Jesus to come while we are still alive. But the words of Matthew still apply to us as well. We want to be prepared for we have no idea when we will die. We want to live our life in holiness and not risk the possibility that we will be judged harshly by God when we die.
In many works of fiction, the ending of the book neatly ties up every problem and all is well. The man and woman are in love and ride off happily into the sunset. The detective catches the bad guy and everyone is safe. Parables don’t always work that way. They may tell us an important message but the answers do not answer all of our questions and they may leave us hanging.
Clearly, half of the bridesmaids were not prepared for the delay. The message is that they should have been prepared. They should have been ready for a lengthy delay. But I struggle with the question of why the other bridesmaids did not share some of their oil. On the surface, we can understand that each of us are responsible for our own actions and it is the responsibility of each of us to always be ready for God’s coming. But I still wonder where is the mercy that Jesus always offered? To answer that question though would take away from the meaning of the parable.
This week, our bishop wrote about liminal places. A liminal place is a transition stage. It is a position at or on both sides of a threshold. The bishop said it is as if we are walking through a door and we still have one foot in the past and one for in the future. We may not even see the future very clearly. Our country will now go through a transition and none of us really know what that will be like. Covid-19 may mean that more people work from home even after the pandemic is over. Our church has entered into a transition. Some of the changes may be wonderful. I think we will always live stream services so that people can watch the services from their home. Other changes I may not appreciate. Change can be difficult especially for people who are older. That is why I say it is a time for us to search for peace and comfort and healing in Jesus Christ. The bishop reminded us of the passage in Romans which says that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
In the gospel today, we find the words like watch and prepare. I wonder if we might instead use the words like stay steady and trust. I prefer to think about staying steady in our faith, seeking to not fall from God’s grace. I prefer to think of trusting in the presence of God rather than to find fulfillment in other ways. I said that I felt the presence of God guiding my life as I transitioned into this position and I know that God’s presence will always be with me regardless of the changes I will go through. May God bless you in this time and may you remain in the arms of God always despite whatever is to come. Amen.
Today, we remember and celebrate saints past and saints present. As we celebrate, we may ask what are the qualities of a saint and what are the actions saints have taken to become a saint? I think about all of the saints that we know so well. I think about Saint Francis who has always been very popular. Saint Francis gave up all of his world goods. Francis also had a love of animals that many of us appreciate.
How about Saint Patrick who brought Christianity to Ireland. He is one of my favorites. Patrick became a missionary in the land where he spent his youth in slavery. What a commitment it must have taken to return to a place where he was so poorly treated.
In the earliest days of Christianity, people often believed that they needed to be a martyr in order to truly show their love of Jesus. They wanted to follow in his footsteps. So we might think of Saint Stephen, the first known martyr or Jonathan Myrick Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian, who in 1965 left seminary to join the freedom marchers in Selma, Alabama. He was shot to death trying to protect a sixteen-year old girl who had been threatened with a shotgun.
Some saints spent a great deal of time in prayer or solitary living. I am thinking of Dame Julian of Norwich who lived in a small room adjacent to the church. I don’t plan to be a recluse so I hope I don’t have to do that in order to become a saint.
Some saints didn’t take life too seriously. Saint Francis of Assisi was often willing to make fun of himself. He called himself a “fool for Christ”. Francis took seriously the words of Jesus to preach the gospel to every living thing. That is why he sometimes preached to the wild animals. But Francis knew that others would laugh at the idea of “taking to the animals. May we also find a little humor in our journey of faith.
Famous saints did many outstanding things but we can be saints too. A saint in the New Testament is often a term used to describe all Christians. A good example can be found in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians which begins with this introduction, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus” (Ephesians 1:1).
Some people have interpreted the messages found in Revelation to be an indication that the number of people will be limited that go to heaven. But I prefer to hear the words from a verse in today’s lesson which says, “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne.” You see, I prefer to understand the number of people who will go to heaven as limitless.
Many saints went through an ordeal just as Revelation indicates. All of us have struggles in our lives. In Revelation, the saints came to the throne of God and they joined together worshipping God as one unit. Someone pointed out to me the words in our collect: as followers of Jesus we are knit together in one community as members of the body of Christ. We come here to Transfiguration intertwined and connected, supporting each other and praising God together. Even though Covid 19 has made it difficult to be together, we are still one community, worshipping God together.
Revelation also offers us words of comfort. “Jesus will be their shepherd, he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Can you feel God’s presence in your life, wiping away your tears?
When I think about what it might take to become a saint, I focus on the overwhelming mercy of God. Today, I am thinking about the parable of the vineyard. Specifically, the parable where the owner of the vineyard goes out and brings in laborers at all times of the day. At the end of the day, all the workers received the same wage. Some have interpreted this parable to mean that even if you become a Christian late in life, you will be rewarded by going to heaven. I prefer to think about God’s all abiding mercy and God’s willingness to bring us into heaven even if there are times we stray from the path God has chosen for us. I prefer the description of the saints found in a hymn, “for the saints of God are just folk like me”.
And so, we are inspired by the people we know that have been saints to us. They may be parents or other relatives. Perhaps we have experienced saints in those we meet at church or at work. I think of the people I have known at this church since I have been here and have sadly left us. Their saintly work lives on is this place. I most especially remember those who died in the past year. All of these saints are an inspiration to us. They may have passed but their legacy lives on through us.
When I read the beatitudes or hear them read as in today’s gospel, I find the Beatitudes move me in multiple ways. One day I find the beatitudes to be comforting. I am comforted when I think one of the beatitudes applies to me, knowing that God is sending blessings to me when I feel challenged by the world. Another day I find it to be challenging, and one day I found it to be about God’s kingdom. Each perspective has the support of various theologians. I believe that God speaks to us in a way that we need to hear his message and that is different for every person. How is God speaking to you?
The Beatitudes challenge us to live our lives in a certain way. Blessed are those that hunger and thirst for righteousness. Just as the Good Samaritan went out of his way to help someone who had been left for dead, we may have to go beyond our normal limits, for those who have been mistreated and wronged. Blessed are the merciful. We must be sensitive to the misery that surrounds us and respond with grateful hearts. After all, we might be where the other person is if not for the blessings we have already received from God. Blessed are the meek. Meek, in this case, means that we are to be humble, not prideful. Blessed are the pure of heart. Now that one is virtually impossible. All of us are sinners. Yet, the more we stay away from our temptations, the more we focus on Jesus, the better are our chances. The goals are lofty and difficult to achieve. I don’t think Jesus wants us to be discouraged. It is as if Jesus wants us to follow in the path of the saints. Saints are people who made mistakes, people who sinned. We just strive to be a little better than we are today and know that God will accept us as we are.
There is one final way for you to consider these beatitudes. Jesus often turns the world upside down. These beatitudes challenge our world view. For example, our world view is that nice guys finish last. But Jesus said blessed are the meek. Isn’t Jesus asking us to reconsider what we have been taught about the meek. Our world view is that you must have a positive attitude in order to succeed. Jesus said, blessed are the poor in spirit. God’s kingdom is different than the one we encounter on earth. On God’s kingdom, the meek will inherit the earth. Our world view is that we must be stronger than everyone else so we will not be harmed. But Jesus said, blessed are the merciful. It is just another example of how God’s kingdom will be different than what we have understood
Many people think we should seek power, success, fame or wealth. Jesus may be telling us that there is another way. God’s way is different. A former Lutheran professor, David Lose, wrote that this is less about a particular ethic and more about God’s in-breaking kingdom, a promise that God’s kingdom is real and transformative. David invites us to imagine that kingdom, different than the one we experience. It is not about working harder to follow the rules but more about having a new heart, ”one created by God’s own promise to continue to surprise us by who is blessed, who is loved by God”.
Today, scripture can touch us in many ways. We should be comforted today by the blessings God offers us in the reading from Revelation and from the Beatitudes. We should try to live our lives as each blessing suggests. Let’s also look forward with joyful anticipation to God’s kingdom, seeking to bring it to earth and ready to receive it when we die. Let’s celebrate with all the saints, both here on earth and there in heaven and together sing, “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever”. Amen.
Our Scripture today invites us to reflect on what love really means. There have been times when I have spoken about four different kinds of love identified by the Greeks. They are Eros, Philia, Storge, and Agape. But today I want to try something different. I occasionally like to listen to country music. The lyrics from country music songs tell a story, often giving so many different views of love.
Sometimes those songs describe love in funny ways. There is an old tune sung by Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty that reminds me of love being strong despite what happens. They must have used the portion of the wedding vow where each says, for better or for worse. Part of the Lyrics go like this.
An' you're the reason our kids are ugly, little darling
Ah, but looks ain't everything
And money ain't everything
But, I love you just the same
Love is often strong in challenging times.
Brad Paisley sang a song about the choices we make related to love and how we can hurt another.
Well I love her
And I love to fish
I spend all day out on this lake
And hell is all I catch
Today she met me at the door
Said I would have to choose
If I hit that fishin' hole today
She'd be packin' all her things
And she'd be gone by noon
Well I'm gonna miss her
It can be easy to hurt another person by the choices we make.
I happen to like George Strait and he sang many songs about love. Some were about lost love but many described a deep and everlasting love. In one of George Strait’s songs he told a story about two people who’d been in love since elementary school. Their love was first kindled by a note sent by one to the other in class. I love you and I want to know if you love me. Send back this note and check yes or no. Their love lasted forever.
George Strait also described love that was inspirational, about how love takes us to a special place.
Every man has a dream
And you made mine come true.
How it happened
I don't know or care.
I'm just happy I found you.
Wrapped in the arms of love
Is where I'll be
For all the world to see
You're something special to me.
One I especially like tells about a man seeing God in everything after the birth of his baby girl.
God’s fingerprints are everywhere
I just look down and stop and stare
Open my eyes and then I swear
I saw God today
She's got my nose
She's got her mama's eyes
My brand new baby girl
She's a miracle
I saw God today
Today, Jesus told us about the Greatest Commandment. We all know the words by heart. “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” I have chosen to think more about the second of the great commandments, the one about loving your neighbor. If we aren’t careful, we might skip over the love of God which should be first in our lives.
Our former bishop, Kirk Smith, referred to these two commandments as so simple and yet so complex. He wrote, “Does it mean simply showing up in church on Sundays, saying grace before meals, and tossing a few bucks into the Salvation Army bucket at Christmas? Clearly it means a whole lot more. We are happy to spend time in prayer, worship, or reading our Bibles”. On the one hand this activity fits the message about putting our time and treasure where we want our heart to be. But I still wonder if it is enough. Certainly spending time with God means our minds are with God. But how about our heart and our soul?
I think when we love God we will have trust. Because we are human we do not understand exactly everything about God and why certain things happen. But when we love God we try not to make the statement, “If I were God, I would never let this happen.” I think when we love God, we hear those words about “for better or for worse. We don’t blame God if bad things happen. We don’t think that God is unfair. We trust that God is helping us always. It is as Thomas Aquinas once wrote. “To love God is greater than to know God.”
I think loving God means not just trying to put God first in our lives but putting God in the middle of everything we do. We find that in Colossians 3:17, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
You can find the great commandment mentioned by Jesus in the gospels of Mark and Luke as well. In Mark it is told two times. Once when a young man comes up to Jesus and asks what must I do to go to heaven. After Jesus answered, the man said but I do all these things. And Jesus answered then give up all your possessions and follow me. So, loving God with our heart means not letting earthly desires and earthly things get in the way of our relationship with God.
I think loving God with our soul means that we are inspired by God, that God means something special to us. I sometimes have that feeling when I feel God in an experience. It happens when I find beauty in the earth, beauty in a child, and it happens when I celebrate the Eucharist. Not always but sometimes.
I come back to another song by George Strait. This song was meant for one person to another but I hear it as a message from God.
When you see a shooting star in the night
When you hear the warm wind whisper through the pines
I want you to know
It'll be me and my infinite love for you “
I believe that when we feel God’s love for us, we are open to loving God with all of ourselves.
This past spring, Our presiding bishop, Michael Curry offered this suggestion, “And so I decided last week that I was going to make sure every day I did three things very simply, or at least thought about them. How can I love God today? Very simply, nothing complex. How can I love my neighbor, others? How can I love myself? And it occurred to me that just sometimes asking the question, you may or may not have an answer, but you may figure out an answer for that day. That sometimes just asking the question can help in times of uncertainty, in days of pandemic, and in times when the days are just going to keep going on and on and on.” Our pandemic continues so I say his encouragement fits today just as it did six months ago. And yes, I believe that we love God when we love our neighbor.
There are two families that live next door to each other in Pittsburgh and they may teach us a little about love during this election season. The Mitchell family have been lifelong Democrats and the Gates family have been lifelong Republicans. Each family has a sign in their yard supporting their party’s candidate. But each also has a sign saying we love them (actually it is a heart symbol) and an arrow pointing to their neighbor. Perhaps we can all learn from the relationship of the Mitchell and Gates families.
The Wall Street Journal reported that “millions of Americans are harmed at the bitter split in this country, with 9 out of 10 Americans saying incivility is a problem.
The Bible says that it is better to give than to receive. Certainly we show our love of neighbor when we give to others in need. I also like the words of Saint Francis who said in part that it is in giving that we receive. I think that when we give we receive God’s love in a way that helps us express our love of God.
As Bishop Smith wrote, the great commandments are both easy and complex, simple and hard at the same time. Loving God and loving our neighbor may take time and practice. I think all of us are trying and most of us have made great strides. I just hope that loving God is something that we are always trying to express in our lives and loving our neighbor is something that comes easily even when we disagree.
Saint Augustine once wrote, “To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek him the greatest adventure; to find him, the greatest human achievement.” May God’s love come to you in such a way that you are able to return that love. May you never give up seeking God’s love and may love of neighbor be a gift that you can give always. Amen.
Over the last three weeks, I have watched three different political debates. Actually, I struggled to watch the entire debates because there were so many negative things said. After one of the debates, I said to a friend, “I don’t know why we have debates. After all, the candidates don’t answer the questions that they have been asked”. I believed my comment applied to both of the politicians in the debate. But my friend became upset. He felt that my comment disparaged his candidate. I got a somewhat angry response as I was told that the candidate he supported did answer the questions and the other candidate did not. Another sign of the contentiousness of our election process. I feel that the quality of the debates has declined as candidates don’t always choose to artfully declare their position.
I wish that the debates would be a little more like the way Jesus dealt with the Pharisees and the Herodians in today’s gospel. To be fair, Jesus did get upset at the beginning when he responded, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? But after that, Jesus answered their question in a way that most of us wouldn’t have thought of. Jesus responded in a way that showed his excellent debating skills.
I am thankful that Jesus outsmarted the people trying to trap him. It was quite common for religious leaders to engage in this kind of back and forth debating where debating skills were valued. I think we could benefit from this kind of debating style in our political discourse.
In our Gospel today, Jesus said, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” We know that the coin given to Jesus had the emperor’s image on it. People often exchanged Roman coins for the so-called temple coins in order to purchase a sacrifice to be given in the temple.
As I think about the image of the emperor on the coin, I am reminded of our belief that we are made in the image of God. That understanding comes to us right out of Genesis. God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over all things upon the earth.’ It is as if God has stamped our soul, our very core, with God’s image. It means that every part of us, our heart and soul and mind and strength belong to God. That is why the second half of the verse means so much to me. We should give to God the things that are God’s. Since we are made in the image of God, we are to give everything we have to God.
We have a teaching in the Christian church that we are all born with original sin. It means that we carry the potential for sin inside of us. We say that this original sin comes from what Adam and Eve did when they failed to obey God. To this day, we are at risk always to fall into sin.
It is certainly possible that we are both born in the image of God and have the remnants of original sin is us from the time of birth. But I like an expression that I first read in a book called “Christ of the Celts” by J. Philip Newell. Newell felt that the image of God was so imprinted on us that we don’t really have original sin when we are first born but rather grow into an understanding of sin as we grow older. I think Newell made the point that the image of God has a stronger impact on us than the presence of original sin. I like the positive image and the sense the we are given God’s presence throughout our lives.
Most of us are pretty hard on ourselves. We think the worst, think we may not be good enough. If we could just find a way to love ourselves the way God loves us, our lives would be easier. Thomas Merton said it this way, “We are what we love. If we love God, in whose image we were created, we discover ourselves in him and we cannot help being happy: we have already achieved something of the fullness of being for which we were destined in our creation.” Let us be happy that we are made in God’s image.
In his debate with the Pharisees, Jesus may have felt the pull of evil in their question. It may have taken him back to his encounter with the devil out in the wilderness. Both times Jesus chose to live by God’s rule rather than to rule the earth.
Saint Augustine taught that true freedom is not choice or lack of constraint but being what you are meant to be. Humans were created in the image of God. True freedom, then, is not found in moving away from that image but only in living it out.” Rather than being afraid of temptation perhaps we can live into being in God.
And yet we know that we fail and make mistakes. We may even lose that image of God somewhat. The good news is God is with us. One commentator wrote that “Though the image of God on us has been marred by sin, and none of us is what we might be or wish to be, yet the likeness to God which is part of our creation has not been fully defaced” God is still in us. The likeness of God on our soul has never really left us. As Eleonore Stump, theologian suggested, “The God who made us in his image will not leave us in our sins. Through the redemption of Christ, God will make his image lovely in each one of us.”
As children of God we are faced with choices. There are times when a Christian should support and times when a Christian should resist the activities that are going on in the world around us. The answers are not always easy. It is a struggle that goes on throughout our life.
Just as we know God is within us, we also know that the image of God is found in others. In this introduction, Paul described seeing the image of God in the Thessalonians. Paul was so thankful for what they had become in their love of God and of each other. Paul wrote, I am “constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Such a beautiful description of other people that Paul provided. It is an inspiration for all of us. If we could look upon our fellow humans and always think such wonderful thoughts. It seems such an important thought during this election season as feelings about our presidential candidates create such strong emotions in all of us. We find it difficult to understand and accept the views of those who disagree with us. And yet the image of God is in everyone
There is a story about Leonardo Da Vinci. “One of Leonardo da Vinci's most famous creations is his painting of The Last Supper. It is said that while Leonardo da Vinci was working on the painting he got into an argument with a fellow painter. Leonardo da Vinci was so mad at this colleague that in anger and out of spite he painted that man's face as the face of Judas in his painting of the Last Supper. But then, having completed that, Leonardo da Vinci turned to paint the face of Christ and he could not do it. It wouldn't come. He couldn't visualize it. He couldn't paint the face of Christ.
He put down his paintbrush and went to find the man from whom he was estranged. He forgave him; they reconciled with one another; they both apologized. They both forgave. That very evening Leonardo da Vinci had a dream and in that dream he saw the face of Christ. He rose quickly from his bed and finished the painting and it became one of his greatest masterpieces.”
I hope that you can celebrate the gift that Jesus gave us. He wanted us to know that we are made in the image of God and that all of what we have we are to give to God. In doing so, let us be encouraged by the image of God that lies in us. Let us be happy with ourselves because we try to live as God’s people even though we sometimes fail. And let us see God in others. Amen.
The other day, I was talking to a friend on the telephone. He said, “I will be so glad when 2020 is over”. I think many of us share his feeling. We have faced enormous challenges because of the coronavirus outbreak and all of the things that have been done and not done to deal with the problem. People are out of work, businesses have failed, many have become sick and many have died. We have also been besieged by other problems including our struggle with race relations and racial injustice and significant disagreement in the United States about how to move forward. And now we are in the midst of a contentious election. On top of all of this my friend is dealing with several struggles for his family. I am certain that each of you are dealing with problems in your life beyond those I have mentioned. May God bless us all during this time.
I think the words we hear from Paul’s letter to the Philippians speak directly to us today. Listen again to his words, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice”. Paul wrote this letter during a difficult time for himself. Paul was writing from prison. Eventually, Paul’s imprisonment would lead to his death. Paul was concerned about what was going on for the people in Philippi. Paul believed there was some quarrel between Euodia and Synthyche, two of the leaders of the Christian community, We are not told the specifics of the dispute. Maybe they held some different views, some different positions. I wonder if the dispute was causing a problem for others in the church community and creating division. It was certainly enough of an issue for Paul to hear about it in prison and enough to write about it in a letter to the entire community. Paul encouraged them to find ways to work together in the Lord. Perhaps they might disagree on other things but they might find togetherness in the Lord.
Did you notice that Paul wrote, I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. I believe Paul was recognizing each of them as an individual. I don’t think Paul wanted them to be the same and I don’t think he wants us to be the same either. We don’t have to think exactly alike but rather accept each other, learn from each other and be gentle with each other. I think Jesus wants us to work together for the good of all while accepting the ways we are different. I found this quote, “Instead of turning differences into an ugly exclusionary fight, differences are to be welcomed in a joyful way.” Paul wanted the entire community to help resolve those differences.
Churches are often places where people disagree about things. I have sought to mediate a disagreement between two people who were both part of our church community. it happens in churches just as it happens in other communities. I think all of us are called to accept differences while finding our common following of Jesus.
The words Rejoice in the Lord suggest thanksgiving for God. Beyond thanksgiving, Paul wanted us to be joyful. He referred to joy and rejoicing 14 different times in this letter. It is easy to be joyful when things are going well. We often say that we have been blessed by God when we recover from an illness or when we have financial stability or when our families are brought together. But Paul believed we should be joyful in times of stress and struggle. A theologian suggested that rejoicing when we are suffering might be better stated as “take heart” or “have courage.” We rejoice In the good times and the bad times, the Lord is near.
The current situation has made it difficult to even know each other in community. Church services have only restarted recently and even then, we are limited to how many can attend. Some are remaining at home even now. That is a prudent choice for those at risk. Communal gatherings like coffee hour have stopped as well. We are struggling.
And yet, in this time of struggle the Lord is near. New and creative ideas have brought us together. Services have been live streamed or recorded. New online events have been created. In our church a weekday evening Compline service has become a daily event for about 15 to 20 people. This group has grown together in their faith, in their prayer life and in their caring for one another. Other groups are doing Bible studies. Our book group continues to meet and we are having remote coffee hour. Without the pandemic, we would not have created these experiences. These new options allow us to stay connected with members who are only in Arizona for a part of the year. Our online presence has even identified people who were not connected to the church before now. Let us rejoice in the Lord always.
Another part of our struggle is worry and anxiety. Paul told the people of Philippi to stop worrying. That seems like really good advice during this time as well. Paul wrote, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” His words are similar to what Jesus said in the gospel of Matthew, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.”
Jesus said God takes care of the birds of the air and God will take care of you. I think Jesus wanted us to stop worrying about things that are beyond our control. I think Jesus wanted us to put our trust in God rather than choosing to be anxious.
Worry, anxiety and even fear are easy feelings to fall into these days. Worry and anxiety are natural feelings to have. Worry can help us to create a safe and secure environment. For example, the people in the path of hurricane on the gulf coast were worried and they decided to leave the area and to stay away from danger. I don’t think either Paul or Jesus were trying to get us to stop worrying about everything. As I said there are times when worry is useful.
But there are times when anxiety moves beyond the place where it can help us create a positive outcome. We have a tendency to worry about things that are extremely unlikely to happen. We are anxious about things that we cannot control. The problem with this kind of anxiety is that the worry can rob us of our ability to do anything other than worry. We can be so absorbed by our anxiety that we are unable to interact with other people. What is more important is that our anxiety can keep us from a closer relationship with God. That is why we trust in God, so that we can continue to be in relationship with God and find God’s peace.
I would suggest that you evaluate your feelings in the area of worry and anxiety. If your worry is about something that you can change or helps you to be safer, then I wouldn’t change anything. But if you think your worry is about things that won’t happen or that are out of your control, keeping you from positive interactions and your relationship with God, then you might try to work on it. My best suggestion is that you pray to God for help with your anxiety.
Our individual worries can also create a communal sense of worry. Will people ever come back to church? What might happen to our church after the pandemic is over? I myself have fallen victim to some of that kind of questioning. I think it is better for all of us to do our part and let the rest be taken care of by God. Our part is to be faithful to God in all that we do, to welcome others in our midst, to be gentle with one another as Paul suggested, to love one another and to find a sense of togetherness. We are together when we worship God and our Savior, Jesus. The rest of what happens is up to God.
Let us come back to rejoicing in the Lord. I believe that Paul wanted us to rejoice as a community. Let us rejoice together because even in difficult times wonderful things are happening. Let us rejoice in the new ways we have found to be near God as a community. Let us rejoice in our differences. As we accept our differences we remember that Paul asked us to be gentle with each other. Another Bible translation suggests that we have consideration for others. Rejoicing in the Lord is about being able to pray together, giving thanks and offering our petitions to God. Paul wrote about this in Romans when he said, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” Paul said that we can rejoice because we know that the Lord is near. As a theologian named Doug brats wrote, “The Lord is near in the comfort the Holy Spirit gives. The Lord is near in the loving prayers and presence of other believers. The Lord is also near in the trust God grants us that God is working even through difficult circumstances for good.”
In the nearness of God we receive a peace that only God can give us. My friends, whether you feel blessed and thankful or stressed and struggling, let us all join together and rejoice in the Lord. Amen.