A couple of months ago, near Boston, two people went up in a hot air balloon and all of a sudden they were enveloped in clouds so thick, that they didn’t know where they were. They drifted about for what seemed like hours. They could have been over the Atlantic Ocean, Vermont, or Connecticut. Of course, they were very distressed. Finally, the clouds parted, and down on the ground they saw a man standing beneath them. One of the men in the balloon yelled down, “Where are we?” The person on the ground looked up, looked around, looked up again, and said, “You’re in a balloon!” The two men in the balloon looked at each other in amazement, and one called down again, “Are you an Episcopal priest?” The man on the ground yelled back, “Yes!” The other man in the balloon said, “How in the world did you know that he was an Episcopal priest?” “Easy,” the other responded. “I don’t know of any person in the world who could give you an answer so quickly, that is so logical and tells you so little about where you are and where you want to go.”
In this conversation, the man in the balloon speaks first, then the man on the ground responds to him. How well do you listen when someone speaks to you? How carefully do you hear what someone else has to say? On what level do you respond? How does the Lord God speak to you, and how do you respond? In this morning’s gospel, which is part of Jesus’ farewell words to his disciples at the Last Supper, Jesus prays to God: “ I speak these things in the world, so that [my disciples] may have my joy made complete in themselves. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” Therefore, this morning I would like to reflect with you briefly upon listening for God’s truth, upon discovering God’s truth, and upon living God’s truth.
In George Bernard Shaw’s play, St. Joan, Joan of Ark is put on trial and questioned by her interrogators. At one point they turn to her and ask, “How do you mean, voices?” St. Joan answers them, “I hear voices telling me what to do. They come from God.” The interrogator says, “They come from your imagination.” And St. Joan replies, “Of course, that is how the message of God comes to me.” In and through our imaginations, God does speak to us, I am sure. But that is only one way in which he does so. There are many. Our complicated natures operate on so many different levels, that we do not always know on what level we should be listening. There’s also something to be said for the old observation that “we hear only what we want to hear.”
Auditory scientists tell us that we spend 70% of each working day in verbal communication. That breaks down to 9% in writing, 16% in reading, 30% in talking, and 45% in listening. Listening occupies most of our time, yet, oddly enough, it is the area in which we are least efficient. Tests conducted by the University of Minnesota over a period of several years show that on the average people listen to only about half of what they hear. For example, during the 20-minute sermon, you hear around 3,000 words, but you wind up listening to about only half of them. Now that’s pretty depressing, if you’re the preacher. Such a low rate of return can be especially costly not only in business and industry, but also in our personal relationships, and in our spiritual life, as well.
The well-known Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, puts it another way, when he says of our lives, “We live on two simultaneous tracks, like railroad tracks. There is a track of faith and there is a track of reason.” Many times, in your life and mine, faith appears to run contrary to reason and doubt, and so a tension is created. Frequently, we tend to ignore one of those tracks, to ignore one half of our nature, so that no listening and no response can occur. Our task, your task and mine, is to hold together in tension these two tracks, the one of faith, the other of reason, since both are gifts of God.
Jesus prayed for his disciples, “Sanctify them in the truth.” And so along with Pilate, we, too, must ask, “What is truth?” What is this truth that Jesus is talking about? In the old marriage service that we used to use, the one that was found in the 1928 Prayer Book, the bride and groom at the end of their vows to each other would conclude by saying, “And thereto I give thee my troth.” No one ever knew what the word troth meant. So we would always have to tell the couple that it was an old English word that meant truth. And back then it meant everything about a person; a person’s whole being was that person’s truth. And so you pledged your entire self to another person in marriage. Over a period of time the word has now come to mean simply a person’s pledged faithfulness, or fidelity. Jesus understood God’s truth to be God’s being–everything about him: his ways, his purposes, his love, his very self. And he prayed that his disciples would be set apart, or immersed, in the very life of God himself, so that they would come to understand that which was most real, most vital in their own lives. “Sanctify them in the truth.” Sometimes we think that we have a corner on the truth, that we know everything there is to know about someone or something, as God would know that person or object, only to find out that we are wrong. We are misled by the misrepresentations and perspectives of ourselves and others.
Most of us have a tendency to judge the world by our experience and by the limits of our own understanding. We, therefore, have to realize that we do not always have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It just can’t always be that way. In a Peanuts cartoon not too long ago, Snoopy was lounging on his dog house in a pensive mood. As Snoopy watched Charlie Brown and Linus walk by, he reflected to himself: “I wonder why some of us were born dogs, an others were born people? Is it just pure chance, or what is it? Somehow the whole thing just doesn’t seem fair.” Then, he hopped down off of his dog house, and trundled away, while saying to himself, “Why should I have been the lucky one?” Our perspective may not always be one that contains the entire truth.
Or then, at other times, people misrepresent themselves to us, and we are understandably misled into thinking that we possess the whole truth and nothing but the truth. In the fall of 1989, Princeton University admitted Alexi Indris-Santana to its freshman class. Admissions officials believed that they were getting a diamond-in-the-rough based on Santana’s unconventional background. Completely self-educated, Santana claimed to have devoured great literature while working as a ranch hand in Utah beginning at the age of 15. He trained for track by running barefoot through the Rocky Mountains and his application included newspaper clippings of track results that evidenced outstanding speed for an 18-year old. He also had authentic SAT scores of over 1400. During his first year-and-a-half at Princeton, Santana developed a wide circle of friends, was a serious student with good grades, and had a heavy course load. He struck many of those who knew him as an embodiment of Rousseau’s noble savage, and seemed to hark back to a time when men born to unfortunate circumstances pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and made something of their lives. But then, at the Harvard-Yale-Princeton track meet in February, someone from Santana’s past recognized him, and the hoax was over. Alexi Indris-Santana turned out to be James Arthur Hogue, a 31-year old ex-convict with a shady past, a fugitive who had broken parole in Utah. Hogue was charged with five crimes, including his acceptance of $40,000 in financial aid, which counts as theft by deception. James Arthur Hogue is a good example of how hard it is for us sometimes to separate truth from fiction, and just when we think we have a handle on the truth, it eludes us.
God’s truth--- the truth that we have from God, about his life, his love, about ourselves in relationship to that life and love, has been implanted by Him deep within our souls. Our task, your task and mine, is to discover God’s truth in our lives, and once we have discovered it, we are called to help others find it also. We are called to seek life and hope in those around us. That is what living God’s truth is all about.
Jesus prayed to his heavenly Father: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent [my disciples] into the world.” In other words, as I have been sent to help people discover your truth in their lives, in the profoundest moments of their existence, so, now, I have commissioned them to do the same in my name.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian dissident who is renowned for his writings about human freedom, was the recipient of the 1970 Nobel prize for literature. He tells this story about how effective a simple gesture can be. While imprisoned in Russia, a fellow prisoner of Solzhenitsyn’s once helped him to find life and hope, and gave him reason to go on living. Solzhenitsyn was working twelve hours a day at hard labor. He had lost his family and had been told by doctors in the Gulag that he had terminal cancer. One day he thought to himself, “there is no use going on. I’m soon going to die anyway.” Ignoring the guards, he dropped his shovel and sat down and rested his head in his hands. He felt a presence next to him and looked up and saw an old man he had never seen before, and would probably never see again. The man took a stick and drew a cross in the sand in front of Solzhenitsyn. It reminded him that there is a Power in the world that is greater than any empire or government ---a Power that could bring new life to his situation. So, he picked up his shovel, and went back to work. A year later Solzhenitsyn miraculously was released from prison, and went to live in this country. That fellow prisoner, that old man whom he never saw again, had helped Solzhenitsyn find God’s truth in his life; he had caused him to discover new life and hope in the deepest moments of his despair. Once you and I have discovered God’s truth in our lives, we are called to seek new life and hope in others, and to become for them God’s living truth.
So, as this Easter season draws to a close, let us remember that God is forever speaking to us on many levels and in many different ways. We must be attentive listeners. We must hold in balance the dual elements of reason and faith, which are a part of our natures. You and I must live as men and women whose sensitivity is attuned to God’s calling and God’s creation. Once we have discovered God’s truth implanted deep within our souls, we are called to seek new life and hope in those around us. We are called to share what we have found in ourselves of God and his ways, and thus to become his living messengers of truth in the world. “As He has sent me, so I, now send you.”
Preacher: The Rev. Philip Stowell
Four local preachers once met for a friendly gathering. During their conversation one preacher said,“Our people come to us and pour out their hears, confess certain sins and needs. Let’s do the same. Confession is good for the soul.” In due time all agreed. One confessed he liked to go to movies and would sneak off when away from his church. The second confessed that he liked to smoke cigars. The third oneconfessed that he liked to play cards. When it came to the fourth one, he would not confess. The others pressed him saying, “Come on now, we confessed ours. What is your secret or vice?” Finally he answered,
“It is gossiping and I can hardly wait to get out of here.”
They say that “confession is good for the soul,” but not necessarily for public discussion. How many times
have you made a private confession to a priest of the church? How many times have you gone into one of those dark confessional booths and laid bare your soul? If you come from a Roman Catholic background, such a practice is not novel to you. There are even some Episcopal Churches, which we refer to as Anglo- Catholic parishes, where private auricular confession is heard on a regular basis. It may be hard for some of you to believe, but I grew up in one of those parishes in Chicago, and I remember having to make my first confession the day before I was confirmed. Since back then confirmation took place in the third grade, and since all of us third graders in the confirmation class were not old enough to have committed any serious sins, we were given a long list of sins that we might have committed from which to choose. If anything, that list gave us ideas more of what to do, than to remind us of the bad things we had already done. That reminds me of the story of the Roman Catholic priest who had the students at the parochial school where he taught make lists of their sins before they entered his confessional. One week a young child came to confession and the priest heard him unfolding the list he had brought with him. The youngster began, “I lied to my parents. I disobeyed my mom. I fought with my brothers and...” There was a long pause. Then a small angry voice said, “Hey, this isn’t my list.”
In that wonderful gospel which we heard a few moments ago, and which we hear every year on this Sunday after Easter, Jesus came into the midst of his disciples and said to them, “Peace be with you.” After their close friend and teacher had been arrested, put on trial, and crucified, the disciples were alone behind locked doors, and fearful of the Jews. All of a sudden Jesus appeared and said “Peace be with you.” After he had said this he showed them his hands and his side. This was really his way of reassuring them that, true to his promise, he had not deserted them, and that, in his words, he would be with them always to the end of the ages. Then Jesus sent them on a mission by saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Their mission was one of forgiveness. “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” With all this in mind, I would like to reflect with you briefly this morning upon peace, upon promise, and upon forgiveness.
“Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” How, then, do you and I find that peace about which our Lord spoke? In Belfast, Ireland, a Roman Catholic priest, a Jewish rabbi, and a Protestant minister were engaged in a heated theological discussion. Suddenly, an angel appeared in their midst and said to them, “God sends you his blessings. Make one wish for peace and your wish will be fulfilled by the Almighty. The minister said, “Let every Roman Catholic disappear from our lovely island. Then peace will reign supreme.” The Roman Catholic priest said, “Let there not be a single Protestant left on our sacred Irish soil. That will bring peace to this island.” “And what about you, Rabbi?” said the angel. “Do you have no wish of your own?” “No,” said the rabbi. “Just attend to the wishes of these two gentlemen, and I shall be well pleased.”
That is not what Jesus had in mind when he spoke of peace. Peace often must begin with ourselves. Evangelist Billy Graham once said, “ Love is not a vague feeling or an abstract idea. When I love someone, I seek what is best for them. If I begin to take the love of Christ seriously, then I will work toward what is best for my neighbor. I will seek to bind up the wounds and bring about peace and healing, no matter what the cost may be.”
The late novelist and playwright, Dr. Wallace Hamilton, liked to tell of an Indian sheep farmer who had a big problem. His neighbor’s dogs were killing his sheep. It got so bad, that he had to do something. So he examined his options. First, he could have brought a lawsuit and taken his neighbor to court. Secondly, he could have built stronger fences so the dogs couldn’t get in. But he had a better idea. He gave some lambs to his neighbor’s children. When these lambs began to multiply and their little flocks began to develop, the neighbor tied up his dogs and the sheep farmer’s problems were over. As Jesus said: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons and daughters of God.”
The words “Peace be with you,” were also meant to be ones of promise and reassurance to the disciples, who then realized that Jesus would never abandon them or forsake them, or leave them behind. The same is true for us today. The entire Easter story, which began last Sunday, is really God’s promise to us that He who raised Jesus from the dead, also watches over us and will not leave us. The problem is that we are surrounded by all kinds of promises in this mortal existence in which we find ourselves. Many of these promises are illusions; they are like desert mirages which appear to be water, but are in fact only a trick of sun, heat, and sand. When we head toward them, we move faster and faster, until finally we plunge headlong into them, and all we get is a mouthful of sand. These days advertising is the false spirituality of materialism, promising what it can never deliver. Even the slogans of advertising sound religious, using the language of ultimate concern: “GE – We bring good things to life; Coca-cola – It’s the Real Thing; BMW – The Ultimate Driving Experience; Bayer Aspirin – Bayer Works Wonders” In a culture of consumption, we sacrifice our souls for the mirage of glittering images, and all we get is a mouthful of sand. What are the real kinds of promises that Jesus would have us emulate in our lives? Here is one example.
Booker T. Washington describes meeting an ex-slave from Virginia in his book Up From Slavery : “I found that this man had made a contract with his master, two or three years previous to the Emancipation Proclamation. Under the terms of the contract the slave was to be permitted to buy himself, and he promised to pay so much per year for his body. While he was paying for himself, he was also permitted to labor where and for whom he pleased. Finding that he could secure better wages in Ohio, he went there. When freedom came, he was still some three hundred dollars in debt to his master. Notwithstanding that the Emancipation Proclamation freed him from any obligation to his master, this black man walked the greater portion of the distance back to where his old master lived in Virginia. There, he placed the last dollar, with interest, in the hands of his former master. Washington wrote, “In talking to me about this, the man told me that he knew that he did not have to pay his debt, but that he had given his word to his master, and he had never broken his word. He felt that he could not enjoy his freedom until he had fulfilled his promise.” Now that is a true promise!
After Jesus said, “Peace be with you,” he said to his followers, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus was sending them forth on a mission and the purpose of that mission was forgiveness. He described it for them in this way: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” One of the great gifts of the Spirit is that of forgiveness. As members of Christ’s body, the Church, how do you and I exercise this gift of forgiveness, this gift of the Spirit, in our lives?
In the latter years of the reign of King Hussein of Jordan, who died in 1999 at the age of 63, a terrible tragedy occurred. Two Israeli schoolgirls were playing in a park called the Island of Peace, located in the middle of the Jordan River, right on the border of the two countries. While the girls were playing, a Jordanian soldier shot them both dead for no apparent reason. The news media flashed the story around the world with lightning speed. For a short while, it seemed that the fragile peace between Israel and Jordan could be broken. But then it became clear that the soldier was suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness and that he acted with no authorization from anyone. Apologies were made and accepted in diplomatic circles, and the world breathed easier. The story could well have ended there, were it not for King Hussein. Hearing what one of his soldiers had done, the king left his palace, and even his own country. He traveled to the humble homes of the families of the two slain Israeli girls. Entering each house in turn, King Hussein, who was used to having people bow before him, fell down on his knees. He bowed before the grieving parents. Then he looked up into their eyes and said, “I beg you, forgive me, forgive me. Your daughter is like my daughter, your loss is my loss. May God help you to bear your pain.” Nothing in the annals of diplomatic protocol suggested that a king needed to humble himself liked that. Ironically, a Muslim king gave the world that day a glimpse of how a truly Christian person might behave.
Forgiveness is never easy. Each day it must be prayed for, and struggled for, and won. That is our mission That is your mission and mine. As followers of the Lord’s Christ, you and I must understand that there is no length to which we will not go, to exercise this gift of forgiveness. We are, of course, reminded of Jesus’ words at another time and place, when in response to Peter’s question “How often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him,” he replied “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” The late lay theologian, lawyer, and civil rights activist, William Stringfellow, in one of his writings, once described the endless efforts that are expected of us in our calling as forgiving Christians. He wrote, “There is no forbidden work. There is no corner of human existence, however degraded or neglected, into which Christians may not venture; no person, however beleaguered or possessed, whom they may not befriend and represent. Christians are distinguished by their radical esteem for the Incarnation, by their reverence for the life of God in the whole of creation, even and, in a sense, especially, creation in the travail of sin.”
So, on this day, as we hear once again our Lord say to his disciples, “Peace be with you,” let us remember that the peace which he would impart to us enables us always to work for what is best for our neighbor, binding up wounds and bringing healing no matter what the cost may be. That same peace is also Jesus’ promise to reassure us that the God who raised his son from the dead, will never abandon or forsake us in the daily living of our lives. Finally, on this day, we are reminded of our mission to bring forgiveness to the broken and imperfect world in which we live. This gift of the Spirit is what distinguishes us Christians from the rest of humankind, because our willingness to forgive others knows no limits. The message of this day, in Jesus’ own words, very simply, is this: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Amen.
A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Philip W. Stowell The Second Sunday of Easter April 11, 2021
In T.S. Eliot’s poem, Journey of the Magi, one of the three kings from the East says: “We returned to our places, these kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods.” In many cases the Magi are pictured as restless men, unwilling to settle down into the routine of their former lives. William Butler Yeats describes them as he sees them in his mind’s eye: “the pale unsatisfied ones, in their stiff, painted clothes, who appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky.” For the Magi, there had to come a time when they would be “moving on,” so to speak. They knew that the great events of life do not usually last for ever or even for very long. No matter how exhilarating an experience they were having in Bethlehem, they realized that they could not remain there indefinitely. For one thing, Herod knew where they were. He had asked them to find the young child and bring him word, so that he, too, could go and worship him.But St. Matthew tells us that “being warned by God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.”We heard in this morning’s gospel that Joseph and Mary were warned in a dream to take their newborn child and travel to Egypt in order to avoid Herod’s wrath. After Herod’s death, another angel came to them and encouraged them to return to the land of Israel. But, fearing Herod’s son, Archelaus, they chose not to return to Bethlehem, but to go to Nazareth in Galilee instead. One of the fundamental truths regarding our life and our relationship to God is contained in this part of the Christmas story. Many of us manage to miss it most of the time. It is that God calls us out and sends us back into life, but he doesn’t always send us back to the same place. The implication in the story of the Magi is that they returned home by another route because they were now different people; their lives had been changed. In both stories, angels appear in dreams to bring about the changes that occur. For that reason, I would like to reflect with you briefly this morning upon dreams, upon returning, and upon God’s presence.A horse-betting man once had a strange dream. He dreamt about hats - dozens and dozens of hats floating in space. As a horse player, the man thought his dream might be symbolic - especially when he noticed that one of the horses running in the next race was named “Hatfield.” So he placed a bet on this filly and she came in first! "Derby” was running in the second race, so the man took all his earnings from the first race and placed them on “Derby.” And sure enough, “Derby” came in first! There was a horse named “Stetson” in the third race. “So,” said the man, “I placed everything on ‘Stetson’ and he came in first.” “What happened in the fourth race?” a friend asked. “By this time I was feeling quite lucky so I bet all I had previously won plus $1,000 on a horse named ‘Blue Streak’ since I saw no horse with a hat name. I lost everything! Some horse named ‘Yarmulka’ took the field.”An expert on dreams appeared on a television program a few weeks ago. She testified that we think of many things in our dreams because our brains are actively working then, even though the rest of our bodies are not. This is a modern day explanation for what happens in our sleep. Dreams may also be a way of coming to understand our past. We certainly don’t use them anymore to predict our gambling future or to account for messages from God. However, in all fairness to the Bible, I think we can say that the language of dreams was a way people had of expressing the conviction that they had a vision of God which influenced their lives. They had acquired a new kind of wisdom or insight into life because of having found God in their day- to-day secular world.And so it is with many of us modern-day Christians. We have been to Bethlehem this past Christmastide, and like the Wise Men, we, too, are “on our way back,” you might say. But it is different this year. There has been a damper on things. We most likely did not have our traditional festivities of gift-giving, holiday merry-making and entertainment, and goodwill because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We will not immediately be going back to our normal work-a-day world of competition, big business, the false security of social position, glamour of notoriety, and other things that we seek to build around ourselves, to inflate our own egos. At least not for the moment, that is. Hopefully, once we, or most of us, are vaccinated, in time things will return to normal, and even then it will be a “new normal,” as the medical and scientific communities remind us. And if we are restless and unsatisfied after what we have been through this past year, with so much, sickness and death and displacement, then things will look different to us. And if Christmas has meant anything to us this year, as we hope it does every year, then that is all the more reason why things will look different to us. For once we have been to the manger, no matter what else is happening to us in the world around us, then our return to our worldly kingdoms, and to an alien people clutching their gods, will look different to us. For everything — world, home, church, school, business — and especially our way of looking at them, will be different. If it does not, there is cause for concern.The Wise Men returned home another way because they realized that violent, self-serving power, like Herod’s, only spelled out destruction for themselves and for others. Mary and Joseph returned to a different place because they realized that fear and its consequences were no atmosphere in which to raise a child. God sends you and me back, but not the same way, not to the same place, especially not this time. Hopefully, this Christmas, and during this pandemic, you and I have had a vision, however momentary, of God in our lives, a clue as to the meaning of all life. Hopefully, we have seen the power of love, the beauty of goodness, in the self-sacrificing actions of doctors, nurses, scientists, first responders, police, firefighters, store owners, food suppliers, postal employees, sanitation workers, and countless others who have sought to keep the world around us running. Hopefully, we have witnessed the liberating effect of God’s judgment and forgiveness, and all false pride and deceit has been swept away in its face.God calls us out and sends us back, not only at Christmas, but at other times as well, and especially at this time in our life together as a nation and a global community. Some time ago, I supported a young woman in her decision to spend some time at a nearby convent to sort things out in her mind and to get away from her normal routine in life for awhile. Occasional retreats, withdrawal for prayer, rest, and self-examination are all part of God’s way of forming the whole person you and I were meant to be. If you have been out of a job for awhile, or been away at school, or laid up with an injury or an illness, or acting as a caregiver for the sick and elderly, or simply staying sheltered at home to avoid spreading the COVID virus, these are all ways God has of calling us out of the mainstream of life for awhile. They may be ways of providing us with the opportunity for a deeper vision, a clearer insight into the nature of God’s activity in the world, and his purposes for us. For when he sends us back, it is not always to the same place and in the same way. The world has changed and so have we. Things look differently through our eyes afterwards, after any length of time removed or away; we are not the same people anymore.The message that God conveys to us at Christmas, or at any other time that he calls us out and sends us back into life, is that through Him we are no longer slaves, but his children. In the words of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians: “God chose us before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children, according to the good pleasure of his will.” That is the “good news” as we begin our New Year of 2021, and face once more the challenges of recession, poverty, war, politics, healthcare, recovery from illness, and the education of our youth. The Good News is that God has placed his might and his strength on our side; the power of slavery in our life has been broken; he has offered freedom to those who have become prisoners of life. He has called us out, and He sends us back into the world, but he sends us back with a new outlook, with new strength, with new faith, to do his will. We can call him, “Abba,” Father, because we have become his children by adoption and grace.And because we are his children, we know that he is always with us. God may call us out and send us back, time and time again in life, but no matter where he sends us back and in whatever way, no matter how restless, and how unsatisfied we may be, we take our hope from the knowledge that he is always with us.There is a familiar story about a French soldier who returned from war suffering from amnesia. Alighting from the train at a station, he wandered around aimlessly, saying aloud over and over again, “Who am I? Whose am I?” He was put in touch with local authorities who sought to find the answers to his questions. Because his face was so badly disfigured, three families in three different towns claimed him as their own. So he was taken to the towns where the first two families lived and allowed to wander about on his own. Nothing happened. But as he entered the third village, recognition lit up his face. He walked unhesitatingly down an avenue, turned into a side street, walked through a little gate, and up the front steps to his home. The old familiar surroundings had renewed his memory. In a sense, they had helped him to come to himself. He knew from that moment on who he was and whose he was.How like amnesia victims we all feel from time to time: the pressure of the world; the tensions in our lives; the sadness and cruelty all around; the endless routine that stifles. Sometimes we have to stop and ask, “What is it all about? Does someone care? Where do I belong?” Then Christmas comes, and the old familiar story of a manger and a family and a baby is read again. And suddenly the pathway is familiar, the landmarks friendly, and we come to ourselves and feel at home again. This is familiar. We have been here before — and before that as many times as we can remember.But it is familiar because of Him, as well as because of the story and the place. Once more standing in the old place, we sense the overtones of His life, His faith, His demonstrated purpose of life, His sonship. And we remember the time when we first sensed all this about Him. And the time we first felt the claim of His life making sense in our own. And then all those busy things seep in to interrupt and crowd and claim us. And the old questions grow tall again to haunt us. But we now know that there is a difference. We go back having sensed his Presence, and having felt his Spirit touch our spirit, and we now know that He is with us, and that is the difference.Those of you who have read the book The Hiding Place, know that its author is a Dutch woman by the name of Corrie ten Boom. The book, and later a movie by the same name, chronicles the lives of the ten Boom family, who established a hiding place for Jewish refugees in their home during World War II. For this act they themselves were betrayed and imprisoned by the Nazis. The story is one that describes the trials, courage, and witness of those who lived and died in the concentration camps. The author, Corrie ten Boom, has to struggle with the claims of the Lord’s Christ upon her life in the midst of that horrible situation, where it is hard to believe that any love could have existed. At one point in the book, Corrie finds herself thinking about what she could do to her captors. The naked struggle between hate and love is visible in her soul, from which derives the paradoxical title of the book. There is no hiding place from the Lord.God sends us back into the world. The going back is never easy. It may make us, like the Wise Men, restless and unsatisfied. It is rarely to the same place from which we began. But remember, wherever you go, whatever you experience, He is there. There is no hiding place from the Lord. The good news of this Christmas season is that we are able to know who we are and whose we are because God has adopted us “as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will.”Amen.
A couple of years ago, there was a preacher whose car gave out on him, and who found it necessary to look for a new car. He went to a nearby dealership, and picked out one that he thought was attractive and apparently would serve him well. He asked the salesman the price, and the man told him the car would cost fifteen thousand dollars. The preacher said, “My goodness! fifteen thousand dollars! I cannot afford that much. I am just a poor preacher.” “I know you are,” the salesman replied; “I have been to your church and heard you preach.”You and I are not always heard and seen the way we intend to be heard and seen. How do you see yourself? How do you imagine that others see you? Do you sometimes want to say to people, “Oh, that is not what I meant at all! You do not understand what I am saying.” A situation similar to that, I believe, is recorded for us in St. Luke’s Gospel. Last Thursday, the Church observed on its liturgical calendar the Feast of the Transfiguration as it does every August 6th, which this year, by the way, also marked the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. If you are fortunate enough to be in a parish on that day where the eucharist is celebrated, you would hear the wonderful gospel account of that event. Otherwise, the only other time you hear it is on the Sunday before Lent begins every year. The Transfiguration also has a special place in my heart, since this is The Church of the Transfiguration, which I have called home for the last few years with the exception of a sojourn of two and one-half years as Vicar of St. Michael’s Church in Coolidge.But to recount the story. Jesus takes three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John, with him up to the top of a high mountain, and there, while He is praying, He is transformed. We are told that His countenance is changed, and his clothing becomes dazzling white. Moses, representing the Law of the Jews, and Elijah, representing the prophets, appear alongside of Him, and together they converse about the future. Luke describes the whole thing as a vision. The disciples are confronted with this vision, this transfiguration and, in time, they, too, are transformed. Peter, in his anxiety, in his awe, in his usual headstrong, reactive way, says, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter attempts to trap the experience, to reduce it to something he can understand or do. But before he is able to, the vision is completed, a cloud overshadows them, and the disciples feel within themselves the very voice of God saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” If Jesus could have said something here, it might have been, “Peter, you do not understand. You have missed the point of what I am trying to say to you in this experience.” So briefly, then, this morning, I would like to reflect with you, in the context of the story of the Transfiguration, upon how we see ourselves, upon how we see others, and upon how we are transformed by God.Those of you who remember your Greek mythology will recall the story of the handsome youth Narcissus. The goddess Nemesis, who measured out happiness and misery to mortals, one day decided to cause Narcissus to see his own image reflected in a fountain. He became so enamored of it, that eventually nothing else in life mattered to him, or had any value. A woodland nymph by the name of Echo fell in love with Narcissus, but he was unable to return her love, so taken was he with himself. Eventually Echo pined away in grief, until there was nothing left of her except her voice. One of the great dangers of this mortal existence of ours is that we, too, face the possibility of garnering all the resources at our disposal for no greater purpose than the adornment of our own image. We are easy prey to the narcissistic trap of reducing every relationship in life to nothing more than an echo – a voice that resounds by our own doing, our own wanting, our own image, our own ideas.Best-selling author and rabbi, Harold Kushner, whom I have quoted on a number of occasions, says that one of the first things we need to do in our search to discover God is to deal with the necessity for humility in our lives. By that he means not letting ourselves be overcome by our own achievements, imagined or real, but rather recognizing our limitations. All too often, people think that worshiping idols means setting up statues and bowing down before them. But in reality, worshiping idols is when we become enamored with our accomplishments in life. We, however, are called to a condition of humility.Sigmund Freud believed that over the years science has helped us to eliminate some of our narcissistic tendencies. He cites three examples. The first is Galileo, who deprived us of the luxury of believing that we are the physical center of all God’s creation, of everything. The second is Charles Darwin, who helped us to see that, despite the majesty of our capabilities, we are still a part of the unfolding process, the evolution, if you will, of God’s creation. And finally, Freud saw himself as enabling us to look upon life and to say that there is something more to life than that which we can see, or which we may refer to as consciousness. With the help of breakthroughs in these three areas of science, then, namely, the cosmological, the biological, and the psychological, Freud believed that our narcissistic tendencies had been diminished. But, was that enough?I am reminded of a wonderful story about an instance when our Sixth Fleet was maneuvering in the Atlantic Ocean, on its way to assuming its duties in the Mediterranean. On the Destroyer Danforth, the Captain, in the midst of those maneuvers, was surrounded by his junior officers. At the conclusion of the maneuvers, there was a message sent from the Flagship to the Danforth. The flagman on duty took the message and brought it to the bridge. He said to the Captain, “Sir, we have a message from the Flag.” The Captain asked him to read it. He said, “Sir, perhaps you would like to read it by yourself in the chart room.” With impatience, the Captain turned and said, “Young man, read the message.” The message said, “From Flag to Destroyer Danforth. Your maneuvering in these last exercises was absolutely deplorable. It ill-befits any vessel of the United States Navy to be so commanded. It looked very much as if your vessel was commanded by a boatman’s mate third class.” The Captain turned to the flagman and said, “Very well, young man, take it below and have it decoded.” It is extremely difficult for each and every one of us to accept our failures and other agonizing experiences, and not to defend ourselves unduly. But this is precisely what Rabbi Kushner was talking about. It is only when you and I are able to recognize our limitations in life, and live out of a condition of humility, that we can, with reverence, welcome the Spirit of God into our lives.St. Luke tells us in his account of the Transfiguration that on top of the mountain, Jesus was transfigured in the sight of his disciples. “The appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” He became translucent, we might say. He had an aura about him. The disciples saw him in a new and totally different light. They had a religious experience as they gazed upon him, one which in fact lifted them up, in and through His transfiguration. They could look back to Moses and the prophets, and they could look forward to eternity. How do we look at other people? With what eyes do we see them? What do we see in and through them?Quite a few years ago, when our son Andrew was about five years old, I spent what seemed like an eternity building and putting together a small HO scale model railroad layout in our basement. It was really one of those birthday or Christmas gifts that you give to your kids knowing that you will get as much, if not more, enjoyment out of it than they will. The project involved a lot of sawing, stapling, gluing, drilling, wiring, and assembling, and the end result was fairly functional. Andrew was fascinated by the whole ordeal, and when it was completed he remarked, “You’re a Dad who can fix anything.” Oh, how I wished that statement of his were true all the time. But it was just one way in which a little five-year old looked through his eyes at his Dad.A little while ago in the New York Times, there appeared an article about a woman who did something that was rather courageous and commendable, given her position in city government. It was not unique, because it had been tried by other people in other times and places. But for 23 days, Barbara Sabol, the head of New York City’s Human Resources Administration, posed as a welfare recipient to experience firsthand the huge bureaucracy that she administered. She wanted to look at the system, which serves more than one million poor New Yorkers, through the eyes of one of its recipients, to see how it could be made more effective, more humane, less degrading. How did Mrs. Sabol see others who sought to help her? By her own account, she suffered numerous indignities. She had personal documents lost by a caseworker; several times she was sent to the wrong office; she waited in long and often fruitless lines. She sat in seedy waiting rooms with broken chairs, cockroaches, and telephones that didn’t work. She was yelled at, scolded, but worst of all, Mrs. Sabol was made to feel, as she put it, “depersonalized.” “Instead of asking for my name,” she said, “they asked, ‘What is your Zip Code?’”When you and I see other people, we, like the disciples, are called to see them in a certain kind of light. We gather together in this place, week after week, in the conviction that God’s presence, His power, His love, His healing, is something we experience in the company of one another. We see, or rather we ought to see, other people in our lives, not as men and women to lean upon, not as men and women to control, but as equal partners in this human enterprise in which we are all engaged. We experience and come to know God in the company of other people. We recall the words of the Lord’s Christ, when he said, “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” As we meet our brothers and sisters in their joy, in their opulence, in their pain, in their privation, in their difficulty, we know that in and through them we find the living Christ.Peter, James, and John, on the mountain top, in the company of one another, and in the presence of the transfigured Christ, were transformed. They were given a new way of looking at things, a new reason for living.They looked at Jesus and they saw all the history of the Jews, Moses and Elijah, the law and the prophets, past, present, future. From the finite they were lifted to the infinite. They were given hope. You and I are also transformed, when, like the disciples, we are lifted from the finite to the infinite, when we are given hope for the future. One thinks of the great 17th century composer, George Fredeic Handel who, upon completing his masterful oratorio Messiah, in the record space of 23 days, is said to have exclaimed, “I did think I did see all of Heaven before me, and the great God himself.” We can all recall those moments in our lives, flashes in a millisecond, in which, confronted with the infinite, confronted with the immortal, we soar. These are moments of transformation for us.While the disciples are still on their knees with their faces to the ground, overcome with fear, Jesus comes and touches them and in effect says, “Get up and do not be afraid. You now must live in hope. You have seen the vision. Your lives are forever changed.”Norman Cousins, in his book, Head First: The Biology of Hope, tells the story of a California physician who wrote to him and described the emotional devastation experienced by his 17-year old son following surgery for cancer. The day after the operation, the surgeon came into the recovery room and in the presence of the patient, told the boy’s father that he should expect his son’s death in a matter of days, perhaps a week. The father was outraged. He wrote: “I followed the surgeon out of the room and, as a fellow physician, berated him for his reprehensible conduct. He defended himself by saying that doctors had to be honest and that patients should not be deceived.” The father continued, “I went back into the room and told my son that I had just chewed out the surgeon, and that I had known too many patients who had made surprising comebacks to justify the kind of verdict the surgeon had delivered. I told my son to disregard what the surgeon had said, and that we would work together in proving him wrong. My son believed me. He sailed through the first week after the surgery and has been in remission ever since. That was 4 years ago, and my son has been living a normal life in every way since then.” When we are given a new reason for living, when we are given hope for the future, we are transformed. Once we have seen the vision, our lives are forever changed. The God who transforms us, is the God of hope.So, as we recall once again the story of our Lord’s Transfiguration, let us remember that in our search to discover the Christ in our lives we must first come to terms with our own limitations, and see ourselves as living within the boundaries of an honest humility. We must learn to see others as the means whereby God is made known to us in and through our communion with them. And finally, our transformation is achieved when those very people are able to lift us from the finite to the infinite, and to give us hope for the future in victorious and faithful living. Then, the Lord’s Christ will say to us, “Get up and do not be afraid any more. You have seen the vision. Your lives are forever changed.” Amen.The Rev. Philip W. Stowell
There’s a legendary story about a fisherman from Louisiana, who was famous for the number of fish that he could catch. One day a stranger came to his cabin on the bayou and asked him if he would take him fishing. As they got into the boat, the stranger noticed that the famous fisherman had no rod or reel– just an old rusty tackle box and a net. After a while, they came into an isolated cove surrounded by tall, massive oak trees draped with Spanish moss. The stranger watched with interest as the fisherman reached down into his tackle box, pulled out a stick of dynamite, lit the fuse, and threw it into the water. There was a muffled explosion followed by the surfacing of a number of dead fish, which the fisherman proceeded to scoop up into his net. Whereupon the stranger pulled out a big badge and announced, “I caught you. I’m the game warden. You know that it’s illegal to blow up fish!” The notorious fisherman didn’t bat an eyelash. He calmly reached down into his tackle box, pulled out another stick of dynamite, lit the fuse, handed it to the game warden, and said to him, “Are you going to fish, or are you just going to sit there?”
Whenever I hear that story, I am reminded of the Kingdom of God. Throughout his entire ministry, Jesus attempted to teach his followers about the Kingdom of God. He was forever describing it through the use of simile, metaphor, and parable. The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field; it is like a householder who brings out of his treasure that which is new and what is old; it is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; it is like a net which is thrown into the sea, and gathers fish of every kind; the good are put into baskets but the bad are thrown away. In this morning’s gospel, St. Matthew has Jesus say that at the end of the age, angels will come and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. There is a warning here. It is as if God has given us a lighted stick of dynamite and has said, “Are you going to respond to the kingdom, or are you just going to sit there?” So, briefly this morning, I would like to reflect with you upon the Kingdom of God: its location, its demands, and our response to it.
There’s a wonderful story about an old forester, who was said to be the only person who knew the way to the Enchanted Forest. In the forest, according to legend, beauty was in every rock and tree and stream; the deer approached human beings without fear; sun and shadow, earth and sky, the sounds and stillness of the forest all combined to give the visitor a sense of exaltation and clear vision. Every year people visited the old man to ask the way to the forest, but he answered them in what seemed to be irrelevancies. To some he said, “I’ll teach you the ways of the birds and wild animals,” but that didn’t satisfy them. To others he said, “I’ll teach you how to live off the land, to find water where no one else can, to find shelter from the cold, to find food,” but that didn’t interest them either. Sometimes he said, “I’ll teach you the ways of the nature person: patience, endurance, seeing, listening, being a part of nature.” His offers satisfied no one. When the old forester died, his daughter married a young man who knew the whole area well, and one day he said to her, “Isn’t it true that there is no Enchanted Forest?” “Not as a place on the map,” she said. “Why didn’t your father tell his visitors that?” “Because he was stubborn,” she said. “If they had let him teach them the ways of God, they would have discovered the only enchanted forest there is. It has many locations, but few discoverers.”
The Enchanted Forest, the Kingdom of God, is within us. The truth of God is already in you and me. The best that any man or woman can do is to inspire it, to give it form, to give it expression, to give it consciousness, and in this way to pull it out. Jesus knew this, when he said, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” He knew that the Kingdom was a matter of the heart, not of conspicuous consumption. Your treasure, my treasure, is God’s truth, firmly implanted within us. Karl Rahner, one of the most brilliant and insightful theologians of the Roman Catholic church, who died in 1984, once said: “The task of our century is not to stuff the truth into people, but to pull it out.” God put the truth there. Our task is to pull it out. As all good teachers know, the true task of education - educatio – is to inform, to inspire, to bring out of their students the truth.
Those of you who are conscious of repetition in the world around you will readily recall that I have a favorite prayer that I like to say before I begin my sermon. I used it this morning. It is always the same prayer – it never changes. At least the sermon is different. Although, the first rector I ever worked for once told me that he used to preach the same sermon 52 weeks a year; it was only the illustrations that he changed. The prayer that I use before the sermon is one that used to be used by the late Theodore Parker Ferris, who for thirty years was rector of Trinity Church, Boston, and one of the great preachers of our times. The prayer begins: “Help us, O Lord, to be masters of ourselves that we may become the servants of others.” I like the prayer because it speaks to us of one of the fundamental characteristics, indeed, one of the primary demands of God’s kingdom – namely, that of servanthood. It reminds us of our servant calling.
For centuries, and even to this very day, the Pope in Rome has often been referred to by his Latin title of servus servorum Dei - “the servant of the servants of God.” I came across an article a little while ago that sought to extend that definition on down the ranks. A Bishop became the servant of the servant of the servants of God; a Priest became the servant of the servant of the servant of the servants of God; a Deacon became the servant of the servant of the servant of the servant of the servants of God. And finally, a lay person was simply a rich man with servant problems. That is not the kind of servanthood which characterizes the Kingdom of God. Help us to be masters of ourselves, that we may become the servants of others.
It was the last year of our war in the Pacific; it was the winter of 1945. The Japanese empire was contracting, and they were having one of those horrid and celebrated death marches from one concentration camp to another. There was an elderly missionary in this group, and as they trudged along the road in the cold rain, the young guard would yell at these prisoners, “Walk on.” The elderly missionary said to the guard, “I beg of you, please let me leave the line and die in peace.” The guard would yell at him again, “Walk on.” Again, the missionary asked him if he might just go and fall into the ditch, and there die by himself. And again he was heralded by the unfeeling command, “Walk on.” Thrice he asked the young guard if he might die in peace. The third time, the guard did not answer him, but drew near to him and whispered, “We are coming close to my grandmother’s house.” In puzzlement the missionary stumbled on, and when they came to the house, the guard disappeared momentarily into this humble little dwelling. He came out with something in his hand. He went over to the old gentleman and said to him, “Give me your hand.” He put a warm potato into his hand and said, “Take. Eat.” And then he yelled again, “Walk on!” The master becomes the servant. Is there something, do you suppose, vaguely reminiscent in that story of yet another master who became a slave, and who, on the night before he suffered and died, broke bread with his friends, and said, “Take. Eat. Do this in remembrance of me?” In another place and at another time, Jesus said, “whoever among you wants to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the willing slave of all.” We become the willing slaves of others in remembrance of Him. That is our calling. That is a demand of God’s kingdom. That, too, is our treasure.
The late John Coburn was the bishop of Massachusetts from 1976 to 1986. Back in 1967, the year I entered seminary, he was the Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Later he went on to teach in one of the street academies of NYC, and then became rector of St. James’ Church, Madison Avenue. John was always a very quiet and soft-spoken man, and frequently dressed in a three-piece suit with a gold watch chain dangling from his vest. It probably held his Phi Beta Kappa key. I remember one fall afternoon during my first year in seminary, I was in my third-floor dormitory room, when all of a sudden there was a peculiar odor in the hallway. I went to the stairwell to see what was going on, and was met by large clouds of billowing yellow smoke. The fire alarm soon sounded and we all evacuated the building. What had happened was that two men from the oil company were cleaning the furnace in the basement. One of them dropped his work light, and it quickly ignited the cleaning fluid which they were using, causing a loud explosion and fire to occur. The man who had dropped the work light came running up the basement stairs and out onto the front lawn, his clothing totally engulfed in flames. Those who were standing nearby attempted to roll him around on the grass in order to smother the flames. Soon the Rescue Truck arrived along with the fire engines, and the first thing the paramedics did was to strip the burning clothes off the man, and wrap him in clean white sheets. They loaded him into the rescue truck, and just as they began to head off toward the hospital, a most astonishing thing occurred. Dean Coburn came running out of his ivy-covered office building in his three-piece suit, dashed across the lawn, and climbed aboard the moving rescue truck to ride with the burned man on his way to the hospital. Unfortunately, the man never recovered from his burns and died six days later.
We are called to act out of unconditional love. That is our response to God’s kingdom. It is the same unconditional love with which God loves you and me. We cannot earn it---not you, not me, not any man or woman who has ever walked the face of this planet. We do not deserve it. We can only learn to accept it. God loves us in spite of ourselves. His love is unconditional, unearned, eternal. There are no strings attached. That love is the hallmark of God’s kingdom, and he has chosen to give it to us. Our task is to share it with others.
Bernie Siegel, that remarkable surgeon from Yale University, in his best-selling book, Love, Medicine, and Miracles, from which I have quoted before, tells an amazing account of a doctor from California, Jerry Jampolsky. As part of his training, Dr. Jampolsky was sent to a tuberculosis sanitarium. He feared that he would contract the disease but decided that he could take a deep breath when he got there and hold it for three months. One night he was called out to see a woman with active tuberculosis, who had had a massive pulmonary hemorrhage and cardiac arrest. Dr. Jampolsky gave her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and afterwards the nurses told him, “How could you do that? Now you’re going to get tuberculosis.” He never did, and he realized that he was not vulnerable while he was doing something for someone out of love. Commenting on the incident, Dr. Siegel said, “His realization strengthened mine, and now I’ve come to understand why it is that Mother Teresa and dedicated nurses can work among hundreds of sick, infected people every day without becoming ill.” Dr. Siegel continued, “I am convinced that unconditional love is the most powerful known stimulant of the immune system. If I told patients to raise their blood levels of immune globulins or killer T-cells, no one would know how. But if I can teach them to love themselves and others fully, the same changes happen automatically. The truth is: love heals.”
The Kingdom of God is within us. The time for responding to that kingdom, for bringing it out of us and giving it form and expression, for exercising our servant calling, for acting out of unconditional love – is now! The fuse is already lighted; we dare not wait any longer. The time of preparation for God’s kingdom is upon us. We need to be about our tasks of forgiving, healing, loving – ourselves, our neighbors, our enemies.
So when we hear again those words from the Gospel: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” let us claim that kingdom; let us rejoice in it; let us respond to it. Let us share it. It is our calling; it is our task; it is our treasure. AMEN.
I realized after preaching this sermon that some of you might think that I am advocating when it comes to COVID-19, that you do something similar to what Dr. Jampolsky did in my example. We must remember that every disease is different and what worked for Dr. Jampolsky with tuberculosis might not work with COVID-19. Unconditional love, it is true, is powerful, but we must also use it in combination with common sense and our advanced scientific knowledge of microbiology and epidemiology. Love does heal, but that healing many times comes about by God working through the loving hands and expertise of trained doctors, nurses, hospital staff, and first responders. It is not always a sure thing, but whenever it manifests itself it is truly a miracle.
The Rev. Philip W. Stowell
Help us, O Lord, to be masters of ourselves that we may become the servants of others. Take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them, and take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen.
There once was a Mafia Godfather who found out that his bookkeeper had stolen ten million dollars from him. This bookkeeper was deaf, and it was considered an occupational benefit. The man got the job in the first place, since it was assumed that a deaf bookkeeper would not be able to hear anything that he'd ever have to testify about in court. When the Godfather went to shakedown the bookkeeper about his missing $10 million dollars, he brought along his attorney, who knew sign language. The Godfather asked the bookkeeper: "Where is the 10 million bucks you embezzled from me?" The attorney, using sign language, asked the bookkeeper where the 10 million dollars was hidden. The bookkeeper signed back: "I don't know what you are talking about." The attorney told the Godfather: "He says he doesn't know what you're talking about." That's when the Godfather pulled out a 9 mm pistol, put it to the bookkeeper's temple, cocked it, and said: "Ask him again!" The attorney signed to the underling: "He'll kill you for sure if you don't tell him!" The bookkeeper signed back: "OK! You win! The money is in a brown briefcase, buried behind the shed in my cousin Enzo's backyard in Queens!" The Godfather asked the attorney: "Well, what did he say?" The attorney replied: "He says you don't have the guts to pull the trigger.”
Because you and I are choosing creatures, we have many choices to make in life. We are free to choose to be truly ourselves, to be the people God intended for us to be --- independent, creative, responsible individuals. Yet, with that personal freedom, there is always a cost involved. In this morning’s gospel, Jesus spells out for his followers what it will cost if they choose to become one of his disciples. What he says, in effect, is that if you choose to follow me, your children will rise up against you, and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Yet, over and over again, Jesus says: “Have no fear of them;” “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” And so we struggle: do we stay the safe and easy course, or do we run the risk of discipleship and all that it entails? It is costly to choose, it is costly to be a disciple of the Lord Christ in any age. You and I, however, are called to follow, we are called to be his disciples, we are called to bear the cost. For that reason, I would like to reflect with you briefly this morning, in the context of our gospel, upon our struggle, upon our self-worth, and upon the cost.
One of the great figures in psychological circles in the last century was the late Frances Wickes. In the late 1920s she wrote a volume entitled The Inner World of Children, which soon became a classic in its field. Then, when she was 87 years old, this brilliant woman wrote another book with the title, The Inner World of Change. In this work, she describes how you and I simultaneously have two psychological pulls. On the one hand, we have a yearning, a dream, to become ourselves. On the other, we have an archetypal yearning to somehow return to a union with nature, with what she refers to as the "undemanding life of the unconscious."
If you look at the story of Adam and Eve in the very first book of our Holy Scriptures, you will quickly realize that it is a story about becoming conscious. Once Adam and Eve became conscious, they became self-conscious. They said, "We are naked." The Lord God went looking for them in the cool of the day, in this new estate, but they had lost that sense of oneness with nature, and they were hiding. And so husband and wife were thrown out of the Garden of Eden, and God put angels with swords of fire in front of the Garden so that they could not return. Ever since that time, you and I, and countless others along with us, have experienced that inner pull in opposite directions. We want to remain in that choosing, conscious state, and become who we were meant to be as completely as possible. Yet, there is a part of us that wants to return to that primordial condition, to that Garden state, where we are one with nature, where there is no turmoil. And so we are torn. Because we are conscious human beings, we are faced with countless choices in life, some far more costly than others. We are the choosing animals, and there are choices we must make every day. If we do not, we run the risk of falling back into the undemanding life of the unconscious. That is our struggle.
The Lord's Christ comes to us and calls us to be choice-makers in life; He inspires us to become the people we were meant to be as completely as possible. Sometimes, though, we wonder, when all is said and done, do our lives really count? How can you and I tell if our lives count to our society, to our generation, to our God? In other words, do we have some small measure of self-worth?
Bishop Wayne K. Clymer of the United Methodist Church tells of spending a summer in a clinical pastoral education program in a prestigious New England hospital. The program was much the same as the one in which I participated over 40 years ago in a state psychiatric institution in Connecticut as a chaplain intern. There was a clearly marked pecking order in the institution which ranged from the medical department heads, through the interns, registered nurses, nurses’ aides, to the cleaning women. One day Clymer and another chaplain intern in the program were standing in the hallway being introduced to staff members. They met a doctor, a nurse, and a nurses’ aide. Just inside the doorway was a girl washing dishes. No one bothered to introduce her. Clymer remembers turning toward her and saying, “I don’t believe I got your name.” She looked up through her thick glasses somewhat startled, but with a broad smile, and said, “Well, I guess I am somebody, too.” We all have moments like that when we wonder, does my life really matter? And if it does, who cares? Our self-worth quickly drops.
In this morning’s gospel, Jesus says to his disciples: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. Even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” In other words, he is saying that sometimes the value of what we do and who we are in life is known only to God. The material rewards that we too often expect for our blood, sweat, and tears, for our sacrifices, do not always appear. We do not necessarily receive a quid pro quo for all the things we accomplish in life. We need to remember, at times like these, that our self-worth comes not from what we or others can
see or touch. It comes instead from those attributes which are cultivated in the human heart and are known often only to God – attributes such as love, forgiveness, gentleness, patience, goodness, and mercy.
I remember being marooned many years ago one Sunday afternoon in a small north Jersey town as I waited for a train. With nothing to do except wander around the village, I walked into the only building that was open, which happened to be the lobby of the local post office. On its bulletin board was the familiar art gallery that decorates post office lobbies — pictures of people wanted for robbing the mails. Rewards were offered for their capture: five hundred dollars for some, a thousand dollars for others, and for one (evidently a grand duke of the profession), five thousand dollars. Each person had a price on his or her head. It struck me suddenly as I walked around that those pictures were a crude but real suggestion of the heart of the Christian gospel. Every person has a price on his or her head, a divine price tag, an infinite worth in the sight of God. But being decision-makers, having self-worth, also entails risk. Jesus said, “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in law.” Is that the kind of risk that you and I are willing to bear in order to follow in His footsteps? Author Scott Peck defines full maturity in a Christian context as being totally available - totally available to others and to God, and that, he says, is costly.
A story appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer a number of years ago about a young, 26-year old man from Northeast Philadelphia by the name of Justin Healy. Most days, Justin Healy is minimally conscious, and even his one good eye appears glazed. He does not speak. He gives few indications that he is aware of what is going on around him. A year and a half earlier, Justin fell from a roof he was repairing, breaking his skull and bruising his brain. Doctors are not sure whether he’ll ever be much better. That, however, does not matter to Justin’s fiancee, Megan Lester. Almost every day, Megan sits by Justin’s side at the Moss Rehabilitation Center gazing at his face, telling him stories, making sure his hair is combed and his mustache trimmed. Often she kisses his cheek, and rubs his arms. Rarely does the smile leave her face. Justin had one other previous accident a few years prior to this one, when he crashed his motorcycle and spent months in rehabilitation therapy. Megan said, “We were finally digging ourselves out of the hole the first accident had created for us, and were planning to get married, when it happened again.” When people act astonished at her decision to stay with Justin she replies "This is what you do for someone you love. He would do it for me.” To Justin, Megan says, “I know that you have far to go in your recovery, but I will be by your side every step of the way, and then for a long time after that.” Megan Lester lives the kind of commitment that Christian discipleship is all about. It is being totally available to someone else. It is risky; it is costly. But that is precisely what it takes to follow in the footsteps of the Lord's Christ.
So, this morning, as we struggle with that inner pull either to become ourselves as completely as possible, or to return to that primordial Garden of unconsciousness, we are reminded that we are the choosing people. It is our freedom of choice which allows us to become disciples of the Lord’s Christ.
Our sense of self-worth in this life comes about not through the material rewards we accumulate for ourselves or the achievements we earn, but rather through the attributes of life implanted deep within our hearts, attributes such as patience, love, kindness and forgiveness. Our lives do count, we are of value, in God's sight, always.
And finally, that sense of accomplishment, of worth, is never achieved without some cost, without some struggle. To be truly committed followers of this Jesus, the Christ, means that we must be totally available to others, and that is risky. As He himself comes to us as One who is totally available, so, too, must we become totally available to those who surround us in life and love, and to God. Then, and only then, will the Lord's Christ also say of us, "I will be by your side every step of the way, and then for a long time after that.” Amen.
Sermon by: The Rev. Philip W. Stowell
When my brother, Roland, endured throat cancer and had half his neck cut away, my sister, Cathy, suggested he pray. His response was, “I don’t know how”. My brother, a cowboy, had never been to church. He’s found communion in nature and working with horses. But cancer had thrown him out of his element, and I guess you could say, brought him to his knees.I took my brother some prayers I thought might be helpful, by Thomas Murton and such, tucked into the cover of a Bible, along with an afghan made by our Prayer Sisters here at Transfiguration. But the idea of prayer did not come up. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. So, I left it there wondering how to relate how I pray and asking myself what others had done to connect with Our Father. I did put a bookmark into the page where we find the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11: 2-4 for him to find should he crack open the Good Book.
God is waiting. God is listening. Just as soon as we get off our high horse. I’m pretty sure God humiliates us on purpose and strips us bare to bring us to a state of receptivity. He loves us and seemingly allows crushing experiences to happen as a tool to humble us, to a place where we are empty, naked and out of pride.
I hear over and over, “there’s no wrong way to pray.” I mean, you have to start somewhere. Bring your baggage. Hell-o -here I am full of remorse, guilt, grief, disappointment, and I’m tired. Show me the way---now you’ve opened the door. Dig deep, find your feelings. Be honest.
Teresa of Avila has some ideas on bringing the living Waters promised to us:
- First you dig a well -get deep inside and haul that water up bucket by bucket to the light. Shine some light on all that was hid
- Then you can start an irrigation system to spread it around to where it is needed. You have to dig some more, trenches that lead somewhere. You’ll see some progress. Things are growing. You are growing
- Haul your cross up that hill you’ve so admired, slogging, aching till you see the fountain gushing forth, like a gift. You’ve been given Grace and it’s forthcoming. your faith is coming back to you. God has faith in you
- Then it begins to rain. It comes freely. God’s love is all around. All he asks is “Love your neighbor, as I have loved you”
And reach out. Ask for guidance. Prayer is a relationship which starts in conversation and develops over time, with some initial effort on our part until we recognize a Presence. We pray with people for the experience of relationship. We are one body
There is an Episcopal church just down the hill from where Roland lives. He asked me if it was as neat on the inside as it looks on the outside. I said, “Neater. “There are people inside”. I can now suggest to him that he walk down and enter the doors. The people will show him what to do next. He can read the prayers along with the others. They are very welcoming. Then he can go home and take his horse for a ride, with God at his side
On this day we commemorate the last meal that Jesus shared with his disciples. In today’s gospel, St. John recalls how Jesus told those who sat at table with him:“I give you a new commandment: that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” In fact that new commandment, that mandatum novum, is what gives this day its name, Maundy Thursday.
The love about which Jesus spoke is rooted and grounded in humility, a humility which he demonstrated for his disciples just moments before by washing their feet. After which he said to them: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” Therefore, I want to reflect with you briefly today on that greatest of all virtues, humility, of which someone once said:“Those who think they have it, don’t, and those who think they don’t have it, often do.” There was also the Dominican monk who once said that, “The Jesuits are known for their learning, and the Franciscans for their piety and good works, but when it comes to humility, we’re tops!” You and I are called to exercise that humility in the love that we show toward other people, following the commandment our Lord gave to us. True humility allows us to do what we have to do without recognition, to put our trust in God, and to be grateful for the things we have. It is on these three aspects of humility that I wish to focus today.
There was an interesting article in Life magazine sometime back. It was about Dan Dyer, a maintenance man for Roper Hospital in Charleston, SC. Until 1989 Dan had been responsible for the hospital heating and air conditioning system for eight years and yet the hospital staff for the most part were oblivious to Dan’s existence. Dan was usually out of sight in the boiler room or some such place, and his contribution to the healing of sick and hurting people just wasn’t all that obvious. In September of 1989, though, Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston. Electricity went out all over town. Roper Hospital was reduced to a system of backup generators, and for some reason the diesel pump for the generators was not pumping the needed fuel to them. That threatened to leave a large hospital and its intensive care unit, where patients depend on life-support systems, with no electricity. It was in the midst of that crisis that Dan Dyer made five trips out into a hurricane to hand-pump diesel fuel back to the small tank that fueled the generator. Every trip through the high-velocity winds, water, and crashing debris was a risk of his life to safeguard the lives of the patients in the hospital. After that night, nurses, the hospital administrator, and even the governor of the state knew who Dan was. Dan Dyer became a bit of a celebrity and was recognized from that point on as the man who keeps Roper Hospital running. Isn’t it somewhat ironic that for eight years Dan Dyer worked faithfully behinds the scenes without any thought of recognition for himself, and only when a crisis occurred was he thrust into the limelight?
Another mark of the humility that underlies the love which our Lord asks us to share with one another, is our trust that God is with us and behind us in all that we do. After Sundar Singh, an Indian Christian missionary who died in 1929, had completed a tour around the world, people asked him, Doesn’t it do harm, your getting so much honor?” The ascetic holy man’s answer was: “No.” He went on to say, “ [On that first Palm Sunday] the donkey went into Jerusalem, and they put garments on the ground before him. He was not proud. He knew that it was not done to honor him, but that it was for Jesus, who was sitting on his back. Likewise, when people honor me, I know that it is not me, but the Lord, who does the job.” When Communist forces invaded Vietnam in the 1950s, Hien Pham, like many Vietnamese Christians, was arrested and jailed for his beliefs. After his release from prison, Pham made plans to escape Vietnam. He secretly began building a boat. Fifty-three fellow Vietnamese made plans to escape with him One day, four Vietcong soldiers came to Pham’s house and confronted him. They heard he was planning an escape. Was it true? Of course, Hien Pham lied to them. If he had told the truth, the Vietcong might have killed him and arrested the other fifty-three participants. But after the soldiers left, Pham felt uneasy. Had God really wanted him to lie? Didn’t he trust that God would provide for him under any circumstances? Even though it made no logical sense, Pham believed that God wanted him to tell the truth, even at the risk of his own life. So, Pham resolved that if the Vietcong returned, he would trust God, he would confess his escape plans. Well, Pham finished building his boat, and his friends made the final plans for their daring escape. To their horror, the Vietcong soldiers returned and demanded to know if the escape rumors were true. Hoping against hope, Hien Pham confessed his plans to escape. Imagine Pham’s surprise when the soldiers replied, “Take us with you!” That evening, Hien Pham, his fifty-three friends, and four Vietcong soldiers made a daring escape under cover of night on a homemade boat. But that is not the end of the story! They sailed straight into a violent storm. Pham reports that they surely would have been lost, if not for the expert sailing skills of the four Vietcong soldiers. The escapees landed safely in Thailand. Eventually, Hien Pham emigrated to the United States, where he made a new life for himself. Hien Pham, in his humility, trusted in God, fully convinced that God is able to do what God has promised.
A final attribute of that humility to which Jesus calls us is a deep gratitude for all that we have been given. The famous American concert impresario, Sol Hurok, liked to say that Marian Anderson had not simply grown great, she had grown great simply. He said: “A number of years ago a reporter interviewed Marian and asked her to name the greatest moment in her life. I was in her dressing room at the time and was curious to hear the answer. I knew that she had many big moments to choose from. There was the night Toscanini told her that hers was the finest voice of the century. There was the private concert she gave at the White House for the Roosevelts and the King and Queen of England. She had received the $10,000 Bok Award as the person who had done the most for her home town of Philadelphia. To top it all, there was that Easter Day in Washington, D.,C. when she stood beneath the Lincoln Memorial and sang for a crowd of 75,000, which included Cabinet members, Supreme Court Justices, and most members of Congress.” Which of those big moments did she choose? “None of them,” said Hurok. “Miss Anderson told the reporter that the greatest moment of her life was the day she went home and told her mother she wouldn’t have to take in washing anymore.” We need to be grateful to God for all that we have been given, however small or insignificant that may seem.
In another place and at another time Jesus said, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Humility is the defining characteristic of the love which Jesus charged his disciples to share with one another when he said to them at the Last Supper: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” That commandment applies no less to us today than it did to those first disciples so long ago. We, therefore, need to express our humility: by doing whatever we do without any thought of attention or recognition; by trusting that God is with us and supporting us in all our undertakings and accomplishments; and finally by giving thanks to God for all that we have been given. The Lord’s Christ reminds us that if we truly show forth our love in this way, then everyone will know that we are his disciples. Amen.
From: Rev. Philip Stowell
The hymn “Sweet, Sweet Spirit” describes what it felt like at the convention. Thepresence of God was very palpable! The Bishop and all of her staff and aides worked hard to make sure the convention moved along smoothly. Everything seemed to be well coordinated.
The first section of the meeting had discussion groups made up of representatives of all of the churches participating in the convention. Each attendee was assigneda specific table and group. That allowed the delegates an opportunity to mix and learn more about what other churches in the diocese are doing in areas such as outreach. There are many interesting and wonderful things being done to serve shut ins and others in need.
The main speaker from Forward Day By Day, Steve Gunn, was fantastic! He encouraged us to study the Bible, learn about faith and go out and be disciples. He especially stressed studying the Bible. That is the base of our faith. The Canon to the Ordinary gave a very moving sermon. It too was focused on us being disciples and going out to spread God’s Word to the people by words and actions. It was so uplifting and brilliant that all of the attendees stood up and applauded.
There were many opportunities to mix with other “disciples” and learn from each other. It was a good experience. Bishop Reddall presented an excellent first convention!
This was my first convention. The two days were comprised of the spiritual, the motivational, the self affirming, business and for me a sense of pride in the Episcopal church and our diocese.
The three speaker, not only had thought provoking messages; but also were gifted public speakers and charismatic leaders. The table discussions, where we were grouped with convention goers from other congregations, were well organized and productive. Interesting ideas on how our diverse parishes implemented the theme of Walking with Jesus were discussed. The resolutions passed on the church’s relationship to the Native people of Arizona are closely aligned with our Chile Garden and its work with Native agriculture. The other resolution on establishing a designated day for gifts to Camp Genesis also has a tie to Transfiguration as the funds from our book ministry are designated for scholarships to Camp Genesis.I was impressed with the exhibits because I found people and organizations there that share my social justice passions and with whom I will connect in the future.
The direction of he diocese as articulated by Bishop Reddall made me proud to be a part of the Episcopal Community. The themes for the next three conventions Caring for God’s Creation, Evangelism, and Systemic Racism should be exciting. I encourage those of you who have never been to a convention to consider running as a delegate in the future.
The convention theme, Walk in Love, was certainly evident throughout the event: from resolutions for acknowledging how Native Americans have been treated and for recognizing them with prayer to the wonderful enthusiasm shown for two missions as they achieved parish status. I was impressed by the diversity of the diocese including Navajo, Hispanic, and Sudanese, and many female clergy. During our round table discussions I heard of many diverse outreach programs from churches of all sizes. For resolutions and canon changes all comments and discussions were positive. I was pleased to see how harmonious this group was.
Our new bishop, Jennifer Reddall, is very enthusiastic in leading a meeting and keeping things moving along, and she is bi-lingual speaking both English and Spanish.
But, I was most impressed with the Eucharist on Saturday morning. In a ballroom full of hundreds of people and with two large screens so that we could follow the service it was very impressive. Canon Anita Braden delivered an entertaining and moving sermon. We had prayers and music in Navajo Dine, Sudanese, Spanish, and English. With recorded music and hundreds of voices it was a great way to start our day.
I was blessed with the opportunity to experience this event.
Two workshops were held: Canons, Resolutions & Budget and Candidates Forum. Since I didn’t have a lot of notice, I wanted more info on voting items. I’m glad I went because there was not much discussion on the floor at the time of approval.
Basically, the discussions of Canons and Resolutions mirrored the material in the Episcopalian. A change to Canon 3 redefined the composition of the Standing Committee to take Deacons off the Lay side and put them in the Clergy side. This would allow for more Lay representation. Article 5 changed the description “priestly” ministry to ‘regular” ministry to clarify the previous canon change regarding Deacons. Both changes would put our Diocese more in line with the national church as well as other dioceses. Resolutions covered: Acknowledging and Praying for the People of the Land (per Native American Program Group) with an appendix suggesting prayers to be added to the standard forms in the prayer book, Camp Genesis Sunday on the 3rd Sunday in September, and Creating a task force on Parental Leave to apply to Diocesan Employees.
The Budget discussion was more interesting in that there was a major change in the line item regarding the Bishop’s compensation. Since we are dealing with two bishops this year, this item now reflects compensation only for Bishop Reddall. Also, 2 positions were added for Border Ministry and Creation Care. There was no longer a need for transition expenses so this was cut. I don’t remember details of other items enough to comment. This budget is balanced. We were also told that as of the Convention that Diocesan revenue is ahead of last year’s budget. After this session I got carried away in the exhibit hall so didn’t make it to the Candidate Forum.
Friday Business Meeting including Keynote and small group discussions.
Our speaker was the Rev. Scott Gunn, executive director of the Forward Movement who gave an excellent speech which covered: stages of spiritual growth, catalysts for this growth, and creating a culture of discipleship. He has another claim to fame as co-founder of Lent Madness in the Spring on Facebook. Every year a collection of saints and other notables are put together from Holy Women, Holy Men, the more obscure the better. Two candidates are voted on every day, with the winner announced at the end of Lent. I’ve tried to play but tend to fall behind after a few days because I don’t always see the posts (got to fix my feed I guess).
Table discussions: All attendees including visitors were assigned to groups of 8-10 people per table, with everyone from a different parish. Each table had a moderator who presented us with a set of questions (most of whom I don’t’ remember). The person who started each question would then pick the next person to speak until everyone had a chance to answer. First we introduced ourselves by name, parish, role, and principal languages used. One member of my table was from St Mark’s, another was one of the Lost Boys of Sudan whose language was Dinka. Others were from all over the state, mostly the Tucson area. We were asked to categorize our parish by environment. I said that Transfig was an ex-urb parish, more urban than rural, but otherwise just a “bedroom” community. We were asked what our parish did to reach out to the general community. I mentioned “A million meals for our neighbors” as well as the Chile farm and suggested that the attendees visit Bill’s booth in the exhibit hall. I wasn’t the only delegate to promote the Chile Farm. Bill said he was inundated after the discussions were over.
Saturday Eucharist and business meeting
The Eucharist was excellent; I was very impressed by the “preacher” our Canon to the Ordinary, the Rev. Canon Anita Braden, whose style could only be described as interactive, a style I really haven’t experienced in my own church experience.
Afterwards, the business meeting was started, very standard, except that Bishop Reddall really kept it moving. For voting items, we were given colored cards to vote yea or nay, much more clear than just raising hands. There was not much discussion on the items which had been covered in the pre-convention workshops, also saving a lot of time. All the changes, the resolutions and the budget were passed speedily. For the elections, a number of candidates were nominated from the floor because of the Standing Committee changes. Nominations were also made to the next General Convention. We voted, finished the morning business and went out to the patio for a sack lunch. We covered a few more business items after lunch and received the election results. Just a few more items, then we were dismissed. The next convention will be held at a nice resort outside of Tucson. Don’t remember the name.
I think the only rough patch was when Bishop Reddall was trying to get our attention, and I say this with amusement, no disrespect intended. At one point, she even tried a loud wolf whistle. In this diocese, the standard “The Lord be with you” works the best.
In conclusion, it was a wonderful experience, given that the socializing was the highlight. I know that this is one reason I go. Very tiring tho.
Canon Ray Dugan
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. These words from today’s Epistle to the Hebrews were originally attributed to Saint Paul; however, recent scholars attribute them to an unknown author, probably in Rome, at around the turn of the first Century. This author was telling us that despite the troubles of our present time, which as in every age of human existence, always appear greater than anything we have seen in the past, will be set right by a loving God in due time. However, Jesus tells his disciples and we are his disciples in this troubled age, that we are not to be afraid, but to be prepared for what comes with our lamps lit and ready for action no matter the hour of the day.
We marveled to hear of the courage of the security guard in Dayton who having gathered hundreds in the bar whose door he was securing, locked the door and courageously stood off the shooter facing him defying him to enter the premises. His defiant action in defense of the frightened victims he had accepted to protect was a marvelous example of what Jesus asks us all to be prepared to do.
We have all been shocked at the acts of violence and killing that seems to be accelerating at a frightening pace. Whether the cause is a consequence of increased calls for opposition to thousands seeking asylum from violence in their homelands of Central American and Africa, or neglect of mental health treatment of those suffering from drug misuse and mental illness or the lack of a more equitable level of pay for low income workers, our elected officials need to hear from us in calls for action to make this a better word and find political solution to the issues of our age. Be Ready!
Another issue that has served to alienate many seniors in our society from younger generations is the rapid pace of change in our world. We are doing a poor job of keeping up with and adjusting to these changes. Seniors must learn to respond to younger impatient drivers going 20 or so miles over the speed limit in cars that offer quick response time with voice commands and new control aids that didn’t exist when we got our learner’s permits. Younger drivers must also be ready to respond to slow drivers in the high-speed lanes or careless left-turning seniors. Blessed are the drivers whom the highway patrol finds alert when they come upon them Be Ready!
When I am asked my race, I sometimes respond that I am a member of the human race. When I am asked what my church is, I sometimes reply that I am an ecumaniac. I define an ecumaniac as one who loves all denominations and religions better than their own. I still prefer being an Episcopalian as long as the Episcopal, Church continues to expand our faith, belief and definitions of the Creator Master of the Universe in such a fashion as to be one who loves all of his (or her) creations. You know the Bible includes definitions of God that go beyond describing God as a male. Why can’t we, the human race, learn to be more inclusive? I simply hope that when the owner of the universe comes for me to take me to my heavenly home I will be ready to acknowledge God as my heavenly parent and won’t be too surprised to meet those who have preceded me into the after-life we describe as heaven.
I was reminded last week of the rapid pace with which our modern society has had to adjust to changes in our knowledge of the universe. I viewed a program in the Nova series on Channel 8. I was reminded that just two or three centuries ago, scientists believed that the earth was the center of a two-dimensional universe around which the sun, moon and planets orbited covered by a canopy of stars fixed in a dome above us. Just within the past century we have learned that our galaxy is only one of thousands of galaxies expanding from a central core that erupted in a big bang 13.8 billion years ago. The knowledge of an expanding universe is a consequence of vastly improved telescopes and space travel which has expanded our knowledge of the moon, Mars, the rings of Saturn and even passing comets.
Cosmology has had to make radical changes in the way we have come to think about not just our earth and the planets but our place in the universe that we as Christians believe God created. Astrophysicists have had to make radical changes in the way they think of things. We, theologians with Bachelor of Science degrees like I have, have likewise had to make radical changes in the ways in which we think and teach our children about God. I believe I have accommodated my faith in God to those changes. My knowledge and faith in God have expanded along with the universe. I always thought of God as an awesome God to have created the world in which we live. Now, I am called on to believe in God as a universal God that created this vast universe in which he has dwelled for over 13 billion years and yet who responds to every sparrow’s fall on this insignificant speck of dust we call our home. Wow! Can we be ready to respond to our heavenly Father who created the vast universe 13.8 billion years ago when we are called to respond to our summons to join our Lord and our loved one who have preceded us into that galaxy far away we call heaven? I believe I am so ready and will be happy to be welcomed by friends and loved one who are already members of that heavenly kingdom.
Do I believe that heaven is only populated with Episcopalians? Or are there also former creatures of other planets orbiting other stars in our Milky Way galaxy who have been visited by our Lord? I can imagine that in this vast universe in which our planet earth is but a mere speck of dust there may well be other creatures who have evolved sufficiently within the past 13 billion years to have recognized and acknowledged the presence of God in their midst? We are told in our scriptures that God loves his creation and cares for every living creature. I can hardly wait to see God’s heavenly Kingdom!
When I am asked what I think about the acts of violence that are occurring in our world today I answer that we must respond with acts of love and compassion to those in a world that hurts for them. If someone hits me on my cheek I am told by our Lord that we are to turn the other cheek. We are to love God, who sent his only begotten Son in order that all who live in God’s creation are to respect it, learning to love it as our Lord does, and to love others as God loves us.
Returning to our Epistle to the Hebrews, we are told: “By faith we understand that the worlds are prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.” The author of Hebrews was, of course, not aware of the extent of “the worlds” that were prepared by the word of God. The extent of the visible universe in the 21st Century is clearly far more vast than he imagined. Are we prepared to recognize God’s presence in our world today and accept the commission that our Lord has given to us? Jesus is calling his disciples, that includes you and me, to be prepared to spread God’s love for his creation to a troubled world. We are to offer solace. Where there is confusion and blindness, we must provide clarity and vision. All the while we have available the tools at hand to repair a broken world. As St. Paul put it, we have faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. Love one another.