Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Philip W. Stowell
Sept. 19, 2021
There once was a young woman who asked for an appointment with her pastor to talk to him about a besetting sin about which she was worried. When she saw him, she said, “Pastor, I have become aware of a sin in my life which I cannot control. Every time I am at church I begin to look around at the other women, and I realize that I am the prettiest one in the whole congregation. None of the others can compare with my beauty. What can I do about this sin?”The pastor replied, “Mary, that’s not a sin, why that’s just a mistake!”
There have been times like that in all of our lives. There have been times when we realize how full of ourselves, how egotistical, we really are; when our bubble is pricked and we come back down to reality. Willard Scott of The Today Show, who died just two weeks ago, remembers his radio days when he received his all-time favorite letter from a fan. It began: “Dear Mr. Scott: I think that you are the best disk jockey in Washington. You play the best music and have the nicest voice of anyone on the air. P.S. Please excuse the crayon---they won’t let us have anything sharp in here.”
What makes us, though, so vain and self-inflated? How do we become that way? I would suggest to you this morning that that is how we deal with our anxieties and our fears. In times of great stress, when we fear that we have somehow lost control of our lives, our world, our friends, our relationships, we retreat behind the masks of hubris and self-importance. In this morning’s gospel, St. Mark tells us that Jesus’ disciples “did not understand what he was saying, and they were afraid to ask him.” This man, whom they had learned to trust and love over the course of his three-year ministry with them, had just told them that he would be delivered into the hands of unfriendly people; that he would be put on trial; that he would be killed; that he would be separated from them. For the disciples, this was a time of extraordinary stress and anxiety. Every aspect of their lives was threatened; painful change was at hand. And so, quite naturally, they retreated into this competition among themselves as to who was the greatest. Therefore, I would like to reflect with you briefly this morning upon stress, upon greatness, and upon servanthood.
A number of years ago, our son Andrew, who at that time was an ICU nurse at Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, was showing us his stethoscope. He decided that he wanted to listen to my heart, and after doing so he said, “Dad, did you know that your heart skips a beat every so often?” Even though I said that I was unaware of that, he suggested that I get an EKG from our primary care physician, which I did a few days later. The skip did not turn up in the doctor’s office, but my doctor asked if I had ever had a stress test, and when I replied that I had not, he suggested that it might be a good idea to have one. So two weeks later I went to the Virtua Cardiology Group in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, and had my first echocardiogram and stress test. Talk about stress and anxiety! Well, I flunked my stress test because no one told me that I had to get my heart rate up to a certain level while I was on the tread mill. I had been on the tread mill for about 6 minutes, when the nurse asked me how I felt. I replied that I was a getting a little tired. So she told me to stop and get off. I was then told that I had not gotten my heart rate up to the desired level and that I would have to come back in one week for a four-hour nuclear medicine stress test. A nuclear test is when you don’t have to go on the tread mill, but instead they inject you with some kind of drug that opens your blood vessels and then they take pictures of your heart at 45 minute intervals. I had more stress from having flunked the initial test, and from worrying about my upcoming tests than I had had in a long time. But I didn’t feel the need to be full of pride and self-importance. All the stress finally disappeared when the whole ordeal came to an end a week or so later, and all test results came back normal.
Social scientists tell us that at times of extreme stress in our lives, it behooves us to remove ourselves from an unfriendly environment, surround ourselves with friendly, optimistic people, and to concentrate not on that which we perceive to have lost, but rather to concentrate upon what remains. Quite a few years ago, Manny Lawton wrote a story about the survivors of the famous death march from Bataan in World War II. The story was entitled Some Survived. In it he told about how he and others in their group consciously sought out among those surviving troops, men who were optimists, men who had a sense of humor. Looking back on the experience, he realized that, in large measure, this company contributed richly to their survival.
In this morning’s gospel, once Jesus got his disciples into a house, away from the crowds, he sat them down together and asked them, “what were you arguing about on the way?” They were silent because they had argued about who among them was the greatest. Jesus then said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” He was calling them to discover who they really were in terms of humility and servanthood. Too often, though, we tend to think of ourselves not as last, but rather as first in order of importance.
There’s a little-known story about the late Joe Louis, professional boxer and World Heavyweight champion, that illustrates the self-control that is a mark of true greatness. He and the late comedian, Harvey Stone, were on tour entertaining the troops during the Second World War, and in their uniforms they often went unnoticed by civilians. In New York City one day they were rushing to a performance when the Brown Bomber, as Lewis was known, accidentally sideswiped a cab. The irate cab driver made tracks to Joe’s open window and began hurling abuse on him that covered every racial slur in the book. As the heavyweight champ of the world took it all in, the driver challenged him to a fight, uniform or no uniform. But Joe kept his cool and soon the frustrated cabbie drove off. Stone was flabbergasted. “Joe, why didn’t you take at least one tiny swing at him for all that maligning?” Joe replied, “If someone insulted the famous tenor Enrico Caruso, would he have sung him an aria?”
St. Mark then tells us that Jesus next proceeded to take a little child in his arms, and said “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” To understand this gesture, you must realize that in Jesus’ culture, children were essentially non- persons. They were left with the women, who themselves were considered subservient to the men, but children were even further down the social ladder. Only slaves were lower in social standing than children. Therefore, to say that the followers of Jesus could welcome him by welcoming a child was an earth-shaking suggestion. But Jesus wanted them to understand how God viewed greatness. It came not from being high on society’s status ladder, but by welcoming those on the bottom rungs or those who didn’t have a place on the ladder at all. Someone once said that true greatness is not how far we rise above others in status or fame or achievement, but in how far we are willing to go in including and caring for the least and the lowly in his name. Jesus called his disciples then, as he calls us now, to a radically different kind of greatness in and through servanthood.
James Citrin and Richard A. Smith head up an international executive search firm. Their job puts them in contact with some of the most successful CEOs in the business world. Citrin and Smith have studied the patterns of the great leaders, and out of their research comes one surprising finding: the best leaders are the ones who promote others’ success. Only 4% of top leaders were judged to be self-centered in their career goals. At least 90% of the top leaders Citrin and Smith studied made it a priority to help their subordinates succeed at their jobs. This is the key to success.
John Kenneth Galbraith, in his autobiography, A Life in Our Times, illustrated the devotion of Emily Gloria Wilson, his family’s housekeeper. He wrote:. It had been a wearying day, and I asked Emily to hold all telephone calls while I had a nap. Shortly thereafter the phone rang. Lyndon Johnson was calling from the White House. “Get me Ken Galbraith. This is Lyndon Johnson.” “He is sleeping, Mr. President,” said Emily. “He said not to disturb him.” “Well, wake him up. I want to talk to him.” “No, Mr. President,” Emily said. “I work for him, not you.” Galbraith concluded, “When I called the President back, he could scarcely control his pleasure. He said, ‘Tell that woman I want her here to work in the White House.’” Jesus defined true servanthood when he said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
This coming November 8 marks the 124th anniversary of the birth of Dorothy Day, uncanonized saint of the homeless. She was also one of America’s most inspired complainers. For most of her life she kept saying things aren’t the way they should be, and that it would be a far less cruel world if those who go to church cared for the poor half as well as they take care of their Bibles. For six years Dorothy looked for a way to connect her social conscience with her religious conversion, a search that gave birth to the Catholic Worker movement in May of 1933. Originally it was just a newspaper, but within weeks of the papers’ publication, the first house of hospitality -- her apartment -- came into being. It happened simply because Dorothy couldn’t turn away a homeless woman who had seen the paper and came asking for help. Today there are nearly 175 Catholic Worker houses of hospitality, not to mention the many more places of welcome that wouldn’t exist had it not been for Dorothy Day’s struggle to live the gospel with directness and simplicity. At the core of her life was her experience of ultimate beauty -- Christ’s face hidden in the faces of America’s human cast-offs. She used to say “Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor, are atheists indeed.” Albert Schweitzer once said that there are two kinds of people. There are the helpers, and the non-helpers. The happiest and most successful people are those who understand that life is not about being served, but about serving. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
So on this morning, when you and I face the loss of control, of relationships, of old ways of doing things in our lives, let us not resort to fear and anxiety and the stress that leads us to feelings of self-importance, superiority, and vain pretensions. Let us instead seek out optimistic people and friendly surroundings, and concentrate not on what we have lost, but rather on what we have left. Let us also see ourselves in the light of God’s greatness, as those who, in the spirit of the Lord’s Christ, include and care for the least and the lowly in our world. And finally, may we find success and fulfillment in the exercise of the servanthood to which Jesus calls us, as he called the disciples of old, so that in being helpers in this mortal life of ours, we may prove to the rest of the world that “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Amen.The Rev. Philip W. Stowell
A Sermon Preached By The Rev. Philip W. Stowell
The Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost
September 12, 2021
There once was a man who opened a new sporting goods store in town. On his first day of business, he received an anonymous bouquet of flowers. He became puzzled when he read the enclosed card, which expressed deep sympathy. While he was thinking over the message on the card, his telephone rang. The florist was on the line, and apologized for having sent the wrong card with the flowers. “Oh, that's all right,” said the storekeeper. “I’m a businessman and I understand how these things can happen.” “Unfortunately,” added the florist, “I sent your card to a funeral reception.” “Well, what did it say?” asked the storekeeper. “It said, ‘Congratulations on your new location.’”
How often in life do you consider that you have failed? Has it been in the way you conduct your business, or in interpersonal relationships, in goals you have set for yourself, or in investment decisions you have made?. Social scientists tell us that in large measure most of us consider that we have failed on some level in life at one time or another. It should, therefore, come as no surprise to us to hear the story that St. Mark relates for us in this morning’s gospel. Jesus is traveling with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi, when Peter makes his now famous confession and says to Jesus, “You are the Messiah.” But then when Jesus tells them, referring to himself, that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, rejection, be killed and then rise again after three days, Peter gets upset and rebukes Jesus. Jesus, however, turns to Peter and gives it right back to him. He says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on earthly things.” Jesus, you see, saw in Peter’s words a continuation of Satan’s temptation, when he showed him all the kingdoms of the world and said to him, “all these I will give you if you will fall down and worship me.” Suffering was not a part of Peter’s plan of worldly power for Jesus. “Get behind me, Satan.” With a words like that, Peter must surely have felt like an immense failure! With this story in mind, I would like to reflect with you then for a few moments this morning upon failure, upon belief, and upon sacrifice.
An article appeared in the New York Times a while ago, which shed some light on how young people today view small-town living. The article’s dateline was Broken Bow, Nebraska, and it told how high school students in remote pockets of all parts of our country have always gotten the message that “rural” translates to backward, or something to be hidden or overcome. For example, at Broken Bow High School, all but 5 of 75 graduating seniors are going off to college or military service. The school’s principal estimates that no more than 1 out of 10 will ever return to put down roots in that community. “The failure of places like Broken Bow,” the article goes on to say, “to retain their young people has traditionally been explained by a shortage of jobs, especially among the highly educated.” As a result, the exodus of young people has hastened the decline of hundreds of little towns across the Great Plains. A Chamber of Commerce secretary is quoted as saying, “Too often, you are considered a loser, a failure, if you don't leave. If these small towns are going to survive, we have got to change that way of thinking.” Many times what is regarded as failure is often a matter of one person’s perception, and may have nothing to do with the reality of the situation.
I have had a number of moments of failure in my life, from which I have learned something, and one of those occurred several years ago. Susan was having trouble starting our lawnmower, and I thought that she just didn’t have the necessary strength when pulling the starting cord. However, after Andrew and I both tried pulling the cord and not getting anywhere, I realized that there really was a problem. I took the lawnmower to a local lawnmower repair place, and after a day or so they had repaired it and called me to come and pick it up. When I asked what the problem had been, the man said, “You know, a lawnmower needs oil in its crankcase to be able to run, and yours was bone dry.” I said, “It ran well for the first five years,” and he said, “I’m surprised that it lasted that long!” As it turned out, too much damage had already been done, and after two more mowings, the lawnmower gave up the ghost, and we had to buy a new one! I felt like a total failure. But now I know that a lawnmower needs oil as well as gas.
At an IBM awards recognition ceremony a number of years ago, the keynote speaker stood up and said: “We have learned nothing from our successes. We want to believe that we learn from our successes, but our failures are, in fact, our tutors.” Many a world-renowned scientist in our century has testified to the reality that science is predicated upon testing and learning from failure. And so it is with us.
After Jesus’ rebuke of Peter, he turns to his disciples and says, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” In other words, Jesus is saying if you want to change your lives, and that is what will happen if you follow me, then here is what you must do. Trust me. You must deny yourselves and take up your cross. At this point, Jesus is not talking about a question of doctrine, or dogma, or a matter of intellectual subscription. He is talking about something much more far reaching, much more fundamental than that. He, in effect, is saying, “Do you believe that God can change your life?” Then follow me. It is a matter of interpersonal trust and relationship. He is saying, “Do you dare to lower the boundaries of your life and let God in?” For that is what believing, that is what trust, is all about.
At this time of year, when school traditionally has begun for many children, but this year COVID has changed all of that, it is appropriate to recall what E.B. White, the famous Kansas newspaper editor and children’s author, is reported to have said. He was speaking at a convention of teachers, and said, “Folks often ask me where I went to school. They think I will tell them Stanford University or Columbia, or some place like that. But I usually say, ‘I went to school to Miss Georgia Brown at Caney, Kansas.’” White continued: “I was blessed with a number of great teachers along the way, but none had such influence with me as this simple Kansas woman, born in Montgomery County, Kansas, the same as I was. She taught us arithmetic and reading, and she made us learn them. But she inspired us. She made us look beyond the narrow confines of our little town and up toward the stars. She said in later years that she had never judged a student by the address on his enrollment card. She used to say to me: ‘You are growing tall, but are you thinking tall?’” Miss Brown used to say, ‘Do you know that there is a ladder that goes right up through the roof of this school house? And you can climb upon it just as high as you want to go? The base of the ladder is in this school. This is where you get on it. This school is your passport to anywhere you want to go. Don’t ever look at this school as something you like to get out of -- get down on your knees every night in this world, boy, and thank God you have this school to get in to!’” White concluded, “As I think back over the wonderful things Miss Brown did for me, I realize that her genius was in her boundless faith in the fundamental goodness of the human race.” Miss Brown believed that life could change. As Jesus once said, “All things are possible to one who believes.” And it is God who makes it all possible. Miss Brown said, “Thank God that you have this school to get in to!” It is the belief that you and I have in life, in the fundamental goodness of the human race, that is our center, too. It is a matter of interpersonal trust and relationship. It is our power from God.
After Jesus says “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” he goes on to say, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” What he is annunciating here is the fundamental principle of sacrifice. Jesus demonstrated it on the cross; we practice it in our daily dealings with each other. How often do you and I have the opportunity to see people who sacrifice who they are and what they have, what they possess, for others? By sacrifice we are linked, we are connected, to one another and to God in the life of His kingdom.
An article appeared in the Los Angeles Times about the time that a certain incident took place during the L.A. riots in May of 1992. It happened at the burning corner of Florence and Normandie Avenues in South Central Los Angeles. It was there that Fidel Lopez met the Rev. Bennie Newton for the first time. In the frenzied initial hours of the riots, Lopez, a Latino man, had been one of the victims of the mob cruelty, jerked from his truck and beaten senseless. Newton, a black minister of The Light of Love Church, covered Lopez’ body with his own, screaming at the mob, “Kill him, and you will have to kill me, too!” After placing his body across Lopez’s, Newton waited for Lopez to regain consciousness. Then he managed to get the battered and bleeding man into his car, and took him to his home. When the minister could not summon an ambulance, he drove the injured victim to Daniel Freeman Hospital, where Lopez was treated and released the next morning. A few days later, the two men were re-united outside a house in Torrance, Calif., where they hugged each other and cried. The 47-year old Lopez, wiping his eyes, said to Bennie Newton, “I passed through a bad moment. I thank you. You saved my life.” Newton told Lopez that members of his church, the Light of Love Church, in South Central L.A., had started collecting a special fund to help replace the nearly $3,000 that had been stolen from Lopez that afternoon. Lopez’s boss had given him the money to buy dry wall and insulation for a construction project the next day. Newton said to Lopez, “Out of tragedy, good will come. The storm is over.” You and I are connected, we are linked, by lives of sacrifice, to God and to one another. That is what our faith, that is what our religion, is all about. It is in the holding of life together, that we find our strength and hope, that we discover that all things are possible to one who believes.
As we come together this morning once again, as the family of God that we are, let us see our failures in this life as opportunities for learning. When we hear Jesus say, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” let us remember that our belief, our faith, is based not on some intellectual subscription, but on a personal trust and relationship. We need to lower the boundaries of our lives to let God in, to follow him, so that God can change our lives. And finally, we know that that change can take place when we are connected to God and one another through selfless acts of sacrifice. Let us remember that we find our strength and our power for living in the knowledge that we are linked, that we are connected, in God’s kingdom, and that indeed “All things are possible to one who believes.”
The Rev. Philip W. Stowell
A Sermon Preached By The Rev. Philip W. Stowell
The Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
September 5, 2021
There once were several businessmen who decided to go bear hunting in Alaska. After they unloaded their gear in a mountain cabin, their guide advised them on which rifles to use and how to bag a bear safely. A businessman from Texas, however, spoke up and said, “Never mind all that. Just show me the way to the grizzlies!” The guide pointed to the north and warned, “If you go out there without a gun, you are a dead man.” The Texan ignored the warning, and strolled out the cabin door unarmed. A few minutes later, the rest of the group looked out the cabin window and saw the Texan running back toward the cabin at top speed with a ferocious bear in hot pursuit behind him. When the Texan reached the cabin door, he flung it open, and jumped to one side. The huge bear, unable to stop, hurtled right into the cabin. Then the Texan yelled to his colleagues, as he slammed the front door, “You men skin that one – I’m going after a couple more.”
What kind of risks are you willing to take in life? What kinds of things do you consider to be risky business today? Our gospel this morning is really a story about risk. The people who lived in the region of the Decapolis, brought to Jesus for healing a man who was both deaf and unable to speak. It was a group effort, but it was also a risk. The people had no idea if Jesus could accomplish such a miracle. The man himself had no idea if he could be healed. For him, too, it was a risk. Jesus took a risk also, because he did not know how the man or his friends would respond to such a healing. To risk something is always to take a chance. It is usually to do something that we ordinarily would not do. Yet many times, the only way we find out if we are capable of doing something , is to take the risk and do it. And so, St. Mark tells us, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears, spat, touched his tongue, and said, “Ephphatha,” which means, “Be opened.” Immediately, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. The miracle was accomplished, and the risk was worth it. For that reason, I would like to reflect with you briefly this morning upon risk, upon community, and upon openness.
Psychologist Rollo May in his book The Nature of Will, writes, “There is an enhancement and stimulation given by risk. It often brings a feeling of intense aliveness and clarity and can create a true expansion of consciousness and even an ecstatic state. Such experiences have been described by some mountain climbers, parachutists, deep-sea divers, and astronauts. Courageous risk-taking,” he concludes, “is justified and appropriate when it has a well-thought-out purpose and value, but is not primarily an end in itself.”
Some twenty years ago when we were vacationing down in Florida, Susan, and I and our son Andrew, did some courageous risk-taking, I think. In retrospect, I am not sure that there was any well-thought-out value to it. Andrew and I rented a jet-ski one morning in a little bay off the Gulf of Mexico, and we had such a great experience doing it, that we wanted to share it with Susan. We convinced her that she would not get wet, and at the most she would feel only a little salt-water spray on her face. So, the three of us set out on one jet-ski, and what a sight we must have been! Andrew was up in front steering the craft, then me, and finally Susan bringing up the rear. Things seemed a bit more wobbly than usual, but we proceeded out into the open water and were quite excited when a pair of dolphins swam by us. We had slowed down, which was a fatal mistake, and were gradually turning to get a better look at the dolphins, when all of a sudden we started tilting to one side. Before we knew it, all three of us were falling off the jet-ski into the water. As we bobbed around with our life jackets on, another jet-skier, who was leading a jet-ski tour in the area, came to our rescue, and instructed me how to grab our capsized craft and turn it right-side up in the water. Then Susan helped push me back up on the seat, and before long we were all riding the jet-ski slowly back to the dock, with our heads hanging low in embarrassment. Our learning from this harrowing little adventure was: God does not approve of jet-skis polluting his creation, and Jet-skis were not made for three people.
Oceanographers tell us that a lobster grows by shedding its shell at regular intervals. The body of the lobster begins to feel pretty cramped inside a three-pound shell, so the lobster tries to find a reasonably safe spot in which to rest while the hard shell comes off. The new pink membrane just inside the hard shell then becomes the next shell, which will be big enough for a four-pound lobster to live in. But there is risk involved. No matter where a lobster goes for this shedding process, it is in danger and very vulnerable. It can get tossed against a coral reef or eaten by a fish. But in order to grow, a lobster has to risk its life. The truth of the matter is that you and I, like a lobster, must take risks in order to grow. There are risks in many fields, which we are likely to make almost daily. Nor are most of these occasions for risk large or dramatic ones. Many of them are, indeed, quite commonplace. Yet each of these contains within it, the possibility of success, or the danger of disappointment or failure. The Lord’s Christ calls each of us to this kind of risk-taking in life, to grow, to break out of our shells, to trade the safeguards of our existence for the vulnerability of the Gospel.
We celebrate the community we share here at The Church of the Transfiguration every time we come together as the family of God in this little corner of Mesa. For it is here that we worship God, hear and proclaim the Gospel, celebrate the sacraments, renew old friendships, make new ones, and pray for those in need. We recall our good times and our bad times, our successes and our failures. It is especially important that we do this now during this time in between rectors. We had a magnificent farewell last week for our rector of 8 years, Bob Saik, and we recalled all that he and Jan have done for us and the ministry that we shared during that time. We continue to ask God’s blessing on their family and the continuation of their life’s journey together. We don’t call that “retirement,” and I speak from experience, but simply a new phase in the ministry which is theirs, wherever that may lead them. The process is now underway of searching for Bob’s successor. There will be an interim priest until that successor is found, along with a dedicated number of lay leaders from this parish, one of whom you heard from a little while ago, Lynn Graff, who will hold things together and carry on the work of the church. I have let it be known that I am only a “supply priest,” who fills in when someone is sick or on vacation or just in need of some time off. We look forward in anticipation to the completion of that search with God’s help. In the meantime, remember that we are far from perfect, and that there is much unfinished work for us to complete. We remember, as Thomas Aquinas once said, that we are more a hospital for sinners, than a museum for saints.
Along these lines, I am reminded of a newcomer in town, who was once approached by a church evangelism committee. Said the newcomer, “I don’t believe in organized religion.” To which the church committee replied, “Good. Then, you’ll love our church! We’ve been trying to get things organized for the last 25 years, and it hasn’t happened yet.”
Harvey Cox, who retired in 2009 from the Harvard Divinity School, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, wrote a book a little while ago entitled Turning East. The book documents the increasing impact of Eastern religions on American life, and especially student life. At the end of his volume, Cox concludes that the strength of Christianity lies in its congregational organization. He confesses: “To grow spiritually, one must apprentice himself to a struggling little church in my neighborhood, a place where I must contend with younger and older people, some of whose views I appreciate and others whose ideas I find intolerable. The music is sometimes stirring, sometimes off key. The preaching is uneven. There is never enough money to pay for the utilities, despite numerous pot-luck suppers. How often I have been tempted to jettison this all-too-human freckle on the Body of Christ and stay home on Sunday mornings with better music on my stereo, and better theology on my bookshelf. But I do not. A voice within me keeps reminding me that I need these fallible human confreres, whose petty complaints never quite overshadow the love and concern underneath. This precious little local church is where the Word becomes flesh. I do not believe any modern Christian can survive without such grounding in a local congregation.” You and I are that local congregation to which Cox refers.
Perhaps Mother Teresa, who died in 1997 at the age of 87, summed it up best, when she said: “We ourselves [may] feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But if that drop were not in the ocean, I think that the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”
The collective experience of the people in this morning’s gospel was to bring this deaf man to Jesus. It may have seemed like a fairly insignificant act, a drop in the ocean, but it was a very important drop that had far-reaching consequences. St. Mark tells us, “They begged him to lay his hand on him.” Jesus then took the man aside, away from the crowd, and responded to him as an individual, privately. “He put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then he looked up to heaven and said to him, 'Ephphatha' – 'be opened.'" In doing so, he showed the man that he cared. He made him feel that he was important. He gave him worth. He gave him value as a human being.
When Jesus Christ comes to any person, and touches his or her life, and empowers that person, a great awakening occurs, an opening takes place. When you and I are touched by this Jesus, the Christ, the portals of our lives are opened. We, in turn, are empowered to bring others to that same openness and hope, to that same promise.
Helen Keller once remarked that “if it had not been for Anne Sullivan, the name of Helen Keller would have remained unknown.” While most of us know the story of Helen Keller, few of us know the background of Anne Sullivan. As a young girl, Anne Sullivan was known as “Little Annie.” She was diagnosed as being hopelessly insane and was locked in the basement of a mental institution outside of Boston. Little Annie would on occasion violently attack anyone who came near her. At other times she would completely ignore them. An elderly nurse believed that there was hope for the child and felt that she could communicate love and hope to her. The nurse daily visited Little Annie, but for a long time Little Annie gave no indication that she was aware of her presence. The elderly nurse persisted and repeatedly brought cookies and left them in her room. Soon the doctors in the institution noticed a change. After a period of time, they moved Little Annie upstairs. Finally the day came when this seemingly “hopeless case” was released. Filled with compassion for others because of her experience, Annie Sullivan wanted to help others. Because Anne Sullivan’s life had been miraculously opened, she, in turn, was able to open the life of Helen Keller, just as Jesus had opened the life of the deaf man.
So, as we gather this morning as a family of God, to worship Him, to hear and proclaim the Gospel, to celebrate the sacraments, to renew old friendships and to make new ones, and to pray for those in need, let us remember that you and I are called to a certain amount of risk-taking in this human existence of ours. Taking risks is a part of the life to which God calls us, because that is how we grow and develop in our faith, and in our understanding of the call of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As a community and as individuals, God calls us to a ministry that has as its goal the healing and the making whole of others. When the Lord’s Christ touches our lives and opens them to God’s love, we, in turn, are empowered to bring openness and new life to those who share this life with us. We are called to give them worth and value as human beings, to say to them, as He has said to us, “Ephphatha” — be opened!
There once was a harried young mother who was beside herself when the telephone rang. She listened with relief, though, when the kindly voice on the other end of the line said, "Hi, Sweetheart. How are you?" "Oh, mother," the poor thing said, breaking into tears," it's been an awful day! The baby won't eat and the washing machine broke down. I tripped down the stairs and I think I've sprained my ankle. I haven't had a chance to go shopping and the house is a mess and we're having company for dinner tonight!" "There, there, darling, it will be all right," the soothing voice on the line said. "Now sit down, relax and close your eyes. I'll be over in a half hour. I'll pick up a few things on the way over and I'll cook your dinner for you. I'll take care of the house and feed the baby. I'll call a repairman I know who'll be at your house to fix the washer this afternoon. Now stop crying. I'll take care of everything. In fact, I'll even call George at the office and tell him he ought to come home early." "George?" the distraught woman said. "Who's George?' "Why, George! Your husband!" "But my husband's name is Frank." There was a slight pause and then the woman on the line asked, "Is this 555-1758?"
The tearful reply was, "No, this is 555-1788." "Oh my, I'm terribly sorry,” the voice on the phone apologized. “ I must have dialed the wrong number." There was another short pause before the housewife asked, "Does this mean you're not coming over?"
Have you ever felt so embarrassed that you just wanted to bury your face and hide? Have you ever felt like saying, “Did this really happen to me?” After hearing this morning’s gospel, I think all of us tend to feel a little bit that way about our Lord’s disciples. We are embarrassed for them. St. Mark tells us that as they are crossing the Sea of Galilee, a storm develops on the water, and they become panicky. After waking Jesus up, who is asleep in the stern of the boat, they say to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He then says to the wind and to the sea, "Peace! Be still!” and all is still immediately. Then he says to the disciples, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" The disciples must have felt about two inches high after a rebuke like that; they probably wanted to run away and hide. So the Gospel this morning is really a story about life -- your life and my life. It is a story about the security we all seek, the corners we all try to cut, and the investments we all must make. And it is upon these three things that I want to reflect with you briefly this morning.
From the earliest accounts of the human race in the Book of Genesis, security is a central issue. Adam and Eve, after they had tasted of the fruit of the tree in the midst of the Garden, sought to hide themselves from the Lord God. But they were discovered and expelled from the security of the Garden of Eden. In this morning’s Old Testament lesson from the Book Of Job, Job discovers that he cannot hide from God behind empty words. After thirty-eight long chapters, God finally answers Job out of the whirlwind, and says to him: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man.” Several chapters beyond where our lesson ends today, Job at last confesses: “I heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Life, at times, it seems, is one long, never-ending, quest for security. Security, however, is an elusive thing. It is not always something that we can count on in this life. This is especially true these days with all the reports of how our cyber security is under attack by numerous “hackers” around the world, affecting everything from oil pipelines to meat processing plants.
A number of years ago, I took part in a Flashover Survival Training exercise with the Fire Dept. at the Delaware County Emergency Services Training Facility near the Philadelphia Airport. The exercise was designed to help firefighters recognize flashover conditions before they occur in an actual fire. A flashover, to refresh your memories, is when all the contents of a room get heated to the point that they combust or ignite simultaneously, creating one huge mass of flame. For the exercise, six of us at a time, along with two instructors, entered what was known as a flashover container — a small corrugated metal box about the size of our sanctuary, and only ten feet high. We all wore full protective clothing including a breathing apparatus. The doors were closed and a fire allowed to build up inside. The six of us took turns being up near the front of the container in order to operate the hose nozzle we had in there with us to knock the fire down periodically. The radiant heat was so intense that we had to crawl on our hands and knees, and we could not look for extended periods of time at the fire itself or our face masks would melt. Some of my colleagues in the Fire Dept. said to me, “From now on, whenever you preach about hellfire and brimstone, you will know what it really feels like.” From this exercise, we learned firsthand that our security, our survival, if you will, is dependent upon being able to recognize the conditions that exist for a flashover to occur before it actually happens. I came away realizing how tenuous security can be even for those trained to fight fires.
Security, then, is not something that we can always count on in this life. When we look for security in spiritual matters, the same is also true. There are no sure things, no guarantees, no easy wins when it comes to entering the kingdom of God. The well-known evangelist of another generation, Billy Sunday, used to say: "When I get to heaven, I know I'll be in for some surprises. I'll be surprised that I'm there, surprised to see some others there that I didn't think would be, and surprised to see some missing that I thought would be there."
Sometimes, though, we are tempted to take short-cuts in life, not always realizing what the outcome of our actions may be. There once was a woman who was doing a final check of her things-to-do-before-Christmas list. She discovered that she had forgotten to send any Christmas cards. It was Christmas Eve, and though the time was short, the clock had not yet struck five o’clock. She rushed into a store and found two boxes of cards — already marked 50 percent off. Without reading or even really looking at them, she feverishly began addressing and signing the cards. Dashing to the post office, she shoved them onto the counter just as the clerk was reaching for his “This window closed” sign. The next morning, on Christmas day, when things had quieted down a bit and some semblance of order had been restored, she noticed that one of those last minute cards had been left over. She wondered, “What was the message I sent to my friends?” Opening the card, she stared unbelievingly at the words: “This card is just a note to say ... A little gift is on the way.” We all have a pretty good idea of what this woman did on the day after Christmas!
The disciples in the boat this morning had a different experience when it came to taking short-cuts. They had Jesus asleep in the stern, and all they had to do was to wake him up when they thought that they were in danger. St. Mark tells us that he "rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, 'Peace! Be still!'" and everything quieted down. Jesus was the disciples' short-cut to safety and security. Most of us are not that lucky.
There once was a mountaineer who got lost in the Swiss Alps. A rescue team was dispatched to find him, but when they eventually did, it was too late. The mountain climber had died from exposure. Some nearby monks brought his body to the chapel down in the valley. At the funeral service, the priest told the congregation how the rescuers had found the man: “his hands cramped against the mountain, pick in hand, eyes directed upwards to the mountain peak.” The priest paused a moment, and then he made this reflection: “the mountaineer never made it to the top of the mountain, but he kept on trying.” Christian living and commitment is much like that. It requires a great deal of effort on our part; it is never easy. It calls for hard work, long hours, perseverance, and determination. There are no short cuts.
The third and final lesson which we learn from this morning's Gospel is that if you want to get anything out of life, you have to invest something in it. Jesus once said, "How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God," and his disciples, we are told, were exceedingly astonished. It seems as if, in today's culture, everyone wants something for nothing. People are not willing to invest the necessary time, and effort, and initiative to get the job done, or done well. You and I are part of a generation that seeks instant gratification with as little output as possible. The famous psychoanalyst Karl Menninger was once asked: "What would you advise a person to do if he or she felt a nervous breakdown coming on?" He replied, "Lock up your house, go across the railroad tracks, find someone in need, and invest yourself in helping that person." If you want to get anything out of life, you have to invest something in it.
In this morning's Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples in the boat that the missing ingredient in their lives is faith. He says to them, "Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?". Without a little bit of effort, and a little bit of faith to overcome their fear, they will never get to the other side of the lake. Everything costs something; everything has its price.
When Mother Teresa first began her work among the dying on the streets of Calcutta, India, she was obstructed at every turn by government officials and orthodox Hindus. They were suspicious of her motives and used their authority to harass her and to frustrate her efforts. She and her fellow sisters were insulted and threatened with physical violence. One day a shower of stones and bricks rained down on the women as they tried to bring the dying to their humble shelter. Eventually Mother Teresa dropped to her knees before the mob. “Kill me!” she cried in Bengali, her arms outstretched in a gesture of crucifixion, “and I'll be in heaven all that much sooner.” The rabble withdrew but soon the harassment increased with even more irrational acts of violence and louder demands were made of officials to expel the foreign nun in her white sari, wearing a cross around the neck. One morning, Mother Teresa noticed a gathering of people outside the nearby Kali Temple, one of the holy places for Hindus in Calcutta. As she drew closer, she saw a man stretched out on the street with turned-up eyes and a face drained of blood. A triple braid denoted that he was of the Brahmin caste, not of the temple priests. No one dared to touch him, for people recognized he was dying from cholera. Mother Teresa went to him, bent down, took the body of the Brahmin priest in her arms and carried him to her shelter. Day and night she nursed him, and eventually he recovered. Afterwards, he would say to his people, over and over again, “For 30 years I have worshiped a Kali of stone. But I have met in this gentle woman a real Kali, a Kali of flesh and blood.'” Never again were stones thrown at Mother Teresa and the other sisters. We, too, as Christians, need to make the effort, to take the initiative, to exercise our faith. We need to invest something of ourselves in life, if we are to get anything out of it, if we are to make a difference in our lives and in those of others.
So, this morning as we hear once again this familiar Gospel story about our Lord and his disciples on the Sea of Galilee, we recall that it is a story about life: about the security we all seek, the corners we all try to cut, and the investments we all need to make. But let us remember three things: Our security in this world is never guaranteed, no matter how hard we try. It is never a sure thing. The road of Christian discipleship is always one that requires long hours and honest work. There are no short cuts or easy solutions.. And finally, it is our faith, our commitment, that ultimately makes a difference. We need to invest something in life in order to get something out of it. Thus, we, too, will discover, as did the disciples of old, that our security lies not in our attempts to protect ourselves against life's many hazards, but rather in following Him, whom even the wind and the sea obey.
Sermon given by Reverend Philip Stowell
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