I am sure that many you have enjoyed watching the Olympics, just as I have. The competition is intense and I admire the talent and dedication of the athletes and their stories. This week, I was moved by the story of Billy Mills, a long-distance runner who competed in the Tokyo Olympic games in 1964. Billy had to overcome some significant obstacles. He became an orphan. His mother had died when we was eight and his father died when he was twelve. Billy had hypoglycemia, which caused him to be weak, it was difficult to race when he didn’t have enough sugar in his bloodstream. Billy Mills was raised on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota, the son of a woman who was 3/4 white and a father who was 3/4 Lakota Sioux. During his career in running, there were times when he was asked to step out of the team picture because of his native heritage. After college, Mills joined the US Marine Corps. But the biggest obstacle Mill’s faced in the 10,000-meter race in Tokyo was his past performance. The favorite, Ron Clarke from Australia, held the world record of 28 minutes, 15 seconds while Mill’s best time was over 29 minutes. Mills was not thought to be a serious contender. Near the end of the race, Mills found himself near the lead. As they neared the finish line, Billy Mills found an extra burst of speed and won. His winning time of 28:24.4 was almost 50 seconds faster than he had run before. Mill’s gives credit even now to his father’s encouragement. As the eight-year-old Billy mourned his mother’s death. his father shared some words, saying he had broken wings but someday he would have the wings of an eagle and encouraged him to look beyond the hurt, the hate, the jealousy, and the self-pity. Mills remembers the race vividly. With 80 meters to go, he was in third place, yards behind the two leaders. Mills passed a runner and out of the corner of his eye saw an eagle on the runner’s jersey. He remembered his father’s words and they gave him the strength to make a final push and win the race. Later, he found the runner and the man’s jersey had no eagle.
Mills had been inspired by his father’s words and a vision. We can be inspired by an individual in our lives as well. This morning, we realize that our inspiration comes from Jesus. Jesus told us that he is the bread of life. The bread that nourishes us and helps us. We receive many gifts from God. Those gifts come to us over and over again. Let us take a few moments to reflect on God’s gifts, God’s inspiration and God’s vision for our lives together.
God’s gifts come to people even when they are complaining and unhappy. In the first reading, the people complained about Moses and Aaron. There was no food in the desert. They were better off in Egypt, they said. God heard their complaints and provided meat and bread for the people to eat.
Haven’t we all had times when we felt that we were out in the desert. Our faith was being tested and we questioned whether God was present with us. In my own life, there have been times when I felt separated from God. Each time, I came to realize that God was always with me. God gave me nourishment to help me find my way out of the desert, to see where my path should go.
It seems that God intended the forty years the Israelites spent in the desert as their learning experience. In Deuteronomy, it is written, “He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, … in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord”. Now, some people chose fasting as a way to listen to God’s word.
The Psalm celebrates God’s benevolence toward the people. I especially liked the last verse of the Psalm, “So they ate and were well filled, for he gave them what they craved.” They wanted food to eat and God gave it to them. We may not need food to eat but God will give us what we need.
The gospel story takes us beyond the feeding that is done for our bodily needs to help us understand how God feeds us in other ways. After Jesus fed the entire crowd with the bread and the fish, he and the disciples left and went by boat to another town. The crowd pursued them. They wanted some more of that bread to feed their stomachs. Jesus told them he came to offer something much more important. He would provide food for their souls. “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” It was hard for many to her those words. They either didn’t understand what he was saying or didn’t believe it was possible or didn’t think it was important. Jesus gave them the words they needed to hear but for many their minds were closed. They were unable to grasp what he meant.
As we read those words now, we have a better understanding of what Jesus was talking about. Jesus told us that he is the bread of life. Each Sunday that we come to church for a service, we have the opportunity to experience the feeding of our souls again, we open ourselves to let God change our lives again. Jesus gives us the inspiration, the strength, and the grace to live our lives now and to prepare us for an eternal life in heaven. It is a gift that carries us through when times are good and when times are bad. We know that God cares for us every day and always.
One saint said it this way, “Just as earthly bread sustains the fragile substance of the flesh and prevents it from falling into decay, so Christ quickens the soul through the power of the Spirit and also preserves even the body for immortality” Just as the crowd came to Jesus and begged for bread, we also come and give thanks and ask Jesus to feed us the bread of eternal life. The bread of life comes to us in so many ways, sometimes through the words of a friend or family member.
One of the gifts we receive is the opportunity to learn from Jesus. He taught about how to live together as his people. Jesus brought people together, everyone was welcome. His apostles followed the leadership of Jesus and created communities of love and sharing. We then are encouraged to continue to raise up the people of God. In the letter to the Ephesians, we are told it starts with the gift of grace. We know God’s grace is the freely given, unmerited favor and love of God. It is through this grace that we are strengthened and renewed. It is this grace that changes our hearts and souls.
The people in Ephesus were exhorted, encouraged to use this grace to build up the community of faith. They were reminded that each of them had a special gift and that they were to use their own gift for the good of everyone in the community.
I think it is a message that speaks to us here today. We have many gifts in this congregation. There are prophets and evangelists and teachers. But we also have people with gifts like hospitality, being an usher or a person who welcomes others. We have people who sing and others who read the lessons and still others who serve at the altar. We have people with technical skill who help us communicate with each other through social media. And we have people who come and through their presence speak of the importance of community. And there are more skills that I haven’t mentioned. Together, we are to building up the body of Christ. We are one body and one Spirit, we have one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all.
This church is a loving and caring community. I have always felt the Spirit of God working in this church. In a few weeks you will enter into a new time for soon, I will be retiring. It is sad for me to say goodbye. I will miss each and every one of you. This church was a loving community before I came and it will be after I leave. It is just a time for each of you to offer your talents to maintain the spirit of God in this place.
My wish is that each of you will take a small step to hold this place together and that you will be so strong together that the next rector will feel just as I did, loved and cared for. He or she will say that there is a lot of love in this place.
We do these things not because we have to. No, we do these things because we are thankful. We are thankful that Jesus is the bread of life. We’re thankful that the bread gives us the strength to create a loving community of believers. Let us take the energy, the love and the knowledge that we receive from God’s grace, God’s living bread and God’s mercy to share God’s love with each other. Amen.
I remember as a child being friends with a boy named Chris. Chris came from a family of 11 children. I knew that Chris and his family were not wealthy. As I remember, Chris’s dad worked as a janitor, an important profession but not one that paid a lot of money. One day, Chris invited me over to dinner. I remember sitting at a very large table with lots of children and having a good time. What I most remember that evening is that we ate sloppy joes on a hamburger bun. Each child was given one sloppy joe. I also remember that there was one extra sloppy joe left and it was offered to me. I think even to this day how others in the family probably needed the last sloppy joe more than I did but I thought it was such a generous gift to give it to me, their guest. A small gesture but very meaningful.
Many years later, Jan and I went to Honduras to visit an Episcopal boarding school in the capital city of Tegucigalpa. While we were there our group hosted a few selected students for a meal out on the town. We went to McDonald’s. One of the students sat across from us. After eating a few bites of his sandwich, he wrapped it back in the package and put it to the side. I asked him why he wasn’t eating the rest and he said that he was saving it for his brother who was not able to come on our trip. He was so thoughtful to give a part of his lunch to his brother. It was a small gesture but I remember it even today.
In the gospel from John we hear the story of the feeding of the five thousand. You and I have heard this story many times. It is one of the few gospel stories that I remember reading in church when I was a child. This story is the only miracle performed by Jesus that is found in all four gospels. It must have been one of the most important stories told by the followers of Jesus. I am sure it was told in every oral tradition passed down by his followers.
The Feeding of the Five Thousand speaks about the blessings that Jesus heaped upon the people who came to him. He had compassion for all. It is a sign of how God cares for us. We know that God is all powerful. We know that the miraculous intervention of God is not only possible, but it is something that the people of that time expected. They were not surprised. It is similar to the passage from 2 Kings when Elisha was able to feed so many with the help of God.
It is a good day to offer praise to God. Psalm 145 offers a series of testimonies about the wonders of God and all that God does for us. The Lord is faithful, The Lord is righteous and loving, The Lord upholds all those who fall; he lifts up those who are bowed down. The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord, and you give them their food in due season. The Psalm, 2 Kings, and the gospel are both about the glory of God. Since we all know this story so well, let’s consider some other messages beyond just the glory of God. How does Jesus use our gifts? Let’s focus on the young boy and consider how the boy’s gift of two fish and five loaves of bread made everything else possible. What expectations did this day create for the people there and how might we understand their reaction?
In the lesson, Jesus asked a question for which he already had the answer, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” I think Jesus wanted the apostles to feel the responsibility for caring for all the followers of Jesus. Andrew tried to help, there is a boy with some food. It is almost as if Andrew is reaching out for an answer to Jesus. I hear Andrew saying, “We only have a little, will it help?” The magic of this miracle is that with only a little, Jesus performed miracles. The young boy gave all that he had to Jesus. Did he wonder if he would get any food for himself? He did it willingly. and Jesus did so much with what Andrew found and the boy gave,
Pope Francis offered these thoughts about miracles a couple of years ago. “What do you think God is more likely to do, miraculously drop food where there is starvation or inspire people to help their neighbors solve their problems? I like to think that both are possible. But if you choose the latter, how can we help (through the Holy Spirit) in all the places that we touch: our parks, our cities, our church, and more? Let us give what we can. We may think it is not much. Let us give anyway. Perhaps our gift will be matched by another. Maybe our gift will encourage another to give. Together our gift is a lot. God will do great things with our gifts.
We know that the need for food is significant. The United Food Bank has posted on its website that there are 470,000 hungry children. That may be the number of hungry children in the area that the United Food Bank serves. They also post that they hand out 75,000 meals per day. So many in this congregation have been generous when it comes to feeding the hungry. Thank you.
Let’s take a few minutes to think about how the people responded to the compassion of Jesus and his feeding of so many. They were amazed by what Jesus had done, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus was there for them when they needed it. But they wanted more than a prophet, didn’t they. The crowd wanted to make him king we are told. So much did they want Jesus to be their king that Jesus had to go and hide, to stay away from everyone. We know that Jesus didn’t come to be the king of any country on earth. He is the king of heaven. Jesus never fit into the perfect mold that people wanted him to be and we should be careful not to put him into our mold either.
Jesus does so much for us. I think of a quote from the Narnia books by C. S. Lewis. Listen to what the lion Aslan does for the people Narnia. “Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight, At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more. When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death, And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.” So, Jesus is our Lord and Savior. He comforts us, strengthens us, heals us and gives us peace.
As I said let’s not make Jesus into something he is not nor should we want Jesus to be something just because it makes us more comfortable. Jesus did not come to fix every problem we have in the world. Jesus is about bringing us closer to God. Jesus is about expecting us to step away from sin and step to God. Jesus is about expecting us to love our neighbors. He is about expecting us to forgive people. He is about asking us to visit the sick, those in prison and taking care of the needy. One of the commentators I read this week pointed out that the boy brought loaves of barley. Barley rather than wheat was thought to be a food for the poor. Jesus was feeding everyone but he had a special place for the poor. You see, Jesus doesn’t make our lives easy.
I am reminded of another note that C. S. Lewis wrote about Aslan, the lion in the Narnia series. “He's wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.” Jesus didn’t do everything the way people expected him to do. He spoke about the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Our Presiding Bishop is fond of talking about how Jesus turned the world upside down. He encourages us to do the same. I like this thought from Bishop Curry, “Our mission is not only to change the world, but to share in God’s work of turning the world upside down, transforming and transfiguring it from the nightmare it can be into the dream God destines it to be.”
Today’s gospel is a beautiful story of the miraculous power of Jesus. It is a reminder that God cares for us and loves us. What might this message be saying to you? It may be asking you to think about how you love your neighbor. I hope you also remember that Jesus doesn’t always fit in to the box that we wish him to be in. He may give us comfort, but he also challenges us to be something much bigger. He encourages us to reach and to dream big and to help him make this a world where God lives in all people. Amen.
This story comes from a mother. I want to share it in her own words. Years ago, when our daughters were very young, we'd drop them off at our church's Children's Chapel on Sundays before the service. One Sunday, just as I was about to open the door to the small chapel, the priest came rushing up in full vestments. He said he had an emergency and asked if I'd speak to the children at their story time. He said the subject was the Twenty-third Psalm. But just as I was about to get up from the back row and talk about the good shepherd, the priest burst into the room and signaled to me that he would be able to do the story time after all.
He told the children about sheep, that they weren't smart and needed lots of guidance, and that a shepherd's job was to stay close to the sheep, protect them from wild animals and keep them from wandering off and doing dumb things that would get them hurt or killed. He pointed to the little children in the room and said that they were the sheep and needed lots of guidance.
Then the minister put his hands out to the side, palms up in a dramatic gesture, and with raised eyebrows said to the children, "If you are the sheep then who is the shepherd?" He was obviously indicating himself.
A silence of a few seconds followed. Then a young visitor said, " Jesus, Jesus is the shepherd." The young priest, obviously caught by surprise, said to the boy, "Well, then, who am I?" The little boy frowned thoughtfully and then said with a shrug, "I guess you must be a sheep dog.”
Children often teach us important lessons, don’t they? Perhaps the priest in the story needed a little humility. He certainly received it from the young boy. It is a reminder that all things come from God. We should never take our eyes off the blessings we receive from Jesus.
Scripture is filled with references to shepherds. Psalm 23 begins with the words, “The Lord is my Shepherd”. God was the shepherd of the people of Israel. In the New Testament, Jesus spoke in parables about the role of the shepherd. We all seek the good shepherd even in the leadership of humans. I ask you to reflect with me on the leaders who are called to be good shepherds, to God’s presence with us on our journey and to the comfort that only God can give.
Jeremiah stood with a long line of prophets who spoke out against the political leaders of their time. Woe to those shepherds who scatter the flock, he wrote. Matt Skinner, a professor of New Testament shared some examples of leaders who were disparaged in the Bible.
- The idolatrous pretense of Pharaoh and his imitators
- The final verse of the book of Judges expresses despair over the lack of a good king.
- Micah and Amos are other prophets who joined Jeremiah in complaints about leaders.
- Political figures exposed by apocalyptic seers such as Daniel who showed them to be fools and monsters
- The Gospels’ depictions of Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, and Pontius Pilate as cunning and ruthless in their authority to decide life and death”
- Jesus himself often despaired the religious leaders especially the scribes and the pharisees.
What were the scripture writers looking for in a leader? Matt Skinner wrote “Among the many factors that contribute to the Bible’s criticisms of leadership is a deep concern about the danger that festers when a people—whether a nation, a community, a congregation, or a family—have no shared vision, no commitment to common values, no concern for neighbors, no basis for trusting others.
I wonder if Jesus were around today if he would choose to speak out against the leaders in our society. Scripture writers might have found their own reasons to complain about current day leaders. We know our job is not to complain but to reconcile. Ephesians says “in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Perhaps we should focus on breaking down the walls.
Jesus is our example of the good leader, the good shepherd. Before today’s lesson, Jesus had sent out his apostles to preach the good news to others. He gave them a clear mission and clear direction. They were to take nothing with them and if they were not welcome they should just shake the dust off of their sandals and continue.
I wonder what it was like for the apostles when they first preached. Maybe they felt a sense of accomplishment for a job well done. They may have been hungry and tired from traveling and talking. They must have felt rejection and possibly fear that they would be physically harmed. Upon their return, they shared their experiences with Jesus. Then, Jesus invited them to go to a quiet place where they can rest.
Just as Jesus called his disciples to lead, we are all called to help foster a community with a common faith and commitment to our fellow worshippers, places where we care for our neighbors. Some people actively evangelize, inviting others to join us in our spiritual community. Others may simply show by example how a Christian should live. It can be hard work to create loving communities.
It doesn’t require a lot of people to build great places of faith. As I was reminded recently, Jesus picked twelve apostles to build a community of followers. Now there are billions of people who follow Jesus. Our community of faith may be small or large but every step we take makes a difference.
Psalm 23 expresses the words of God’s presence on our journey, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me.” The followers of Jesus referred to themselves as people of the way, people of the journey. We know the journey of the Israelites. They found freedom from the Pharaoh but thy walked in the desert for forty years. One commentator described it as “Israel’s national journey of deliverance, wilderness, and emergence in the land”. Their arrival in Israel did not end their journeys. Many years later, Jeremiah was upset about the kings of Israel who did not protect the people from the invasion of powerful armies. Jeremiah was also upset about the invading kings who took the people from their homeland into exile in Babylon. Jeremiah offered words of encouragement. He promised that God would bring the people of Israel back together. God would help the people of Israel to be fruitful and multiply. God would find leaders to care for them. God did not forget them, God helped them on their journey.
What has your journey been like? Has it been filled with joy and gladness? Or has it been sorrowful and a place of struggle? God is with us on our individual journeys and with us on journeys that we take as a community. Saint Teresa of Avila expressed it so simply, “The feeling remains that God is on the journey too”. We are not alone.
Psalm 23 does speak of God’s presence. It reminds us of God’s comfort “your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” God’s comfort comes to us many times and in many ways. In Isaiah 40 God expects leaders to bring comfort to God’s people. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” God will see to it that the people find comfort. Listen to this from 2 Corinthians, “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” God lifts us up.
I know that we always need God’s comfort, but I so appreciate it now. We have come through so much and there is still uncertainty about what is to come. I need God’s comfort more than ever.
The companion word for me in the Gospel is rest. Jesus told the apostles they had done their work, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” When our work is done for the day, when the difficult task is complete, let us go and find our rest with Jesus.
Psalm 37 encourages us to rest in the Lord. It can be translated as be still in the Lord, wait patiently for the Lord. My favorite verse about rest comes from the Gospel of Matthew, “‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
Jesus called us to build loving communities. Jesus is present with us as we do God’s work. And Jesus calls us to find rest in his loving arms. The rest is needed. Often it doesn’t last long. Jesus took his apostles out to find some rest, but the needs of the people continued. They found Jesus and asked him to heal the sick. Our journey is a lifelong one and may have only moments of rest. That is why we should enjoy the times of rest. We may once again be called to care for others and to proclaim God’s glory. We will almost certainly enter into a new time of stress or struggle. Our journey, our search for God, is never over. Let us be thankful that Jesus is our shepherd. Let us be thankful for his presence with us. Let us be thankful that God give us comfort and peace and rest. Amen.
One Friday three couples decided to treat themselves to a steak dinner. When they arrived at the steak house, they were assigned a number, sent to a crowded, noisy room and told to wait there until their number was called. As they waited, a cocktail waitress came by and said, “Welcome to happy hour, what would you like to drink?” The three couples graciously declined anything from the bar. “Just waiting for a table,” they said. Fifteen minutes later, the waitress came by again with the same invitation. Again, the couples informed her they were waiting for a table. Five minutes later she returned. One of the men mentioned to his wife that their table was probably being delayed in hopes that they would order something from the bar first. So when the waitress came by with her, “Welcome to happy hour” speech again, the man’s wife said to her: “Honey, we are all Baptists and this is as happy as we’re going to get, so tell them to get us a table!”
On this Fourth of July weekend, we pause, as we do every year, to consider our independence and freedom as a people and a nation. In the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, we find these words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” What meaning do these words have for us today? How do they apply to us as individuals within these United States, and as citizens of yet another commonwealth, whose dimensions know no bounds? In the short space of a year, life has changed for many of us; we have had more of an opportunity to ponder our liberties and our freedom, and happiness is still as elusive as ever. I would, therefore, like to reflect with you briefly this morning upon life, upon liberty, and the upon the pursuit of happiness.
How do you and I view life? How do we view life in this great republic of ours in the year 2019? I came across an article the other day which sheds some light on this subject. The article claimed that only in America can a pizza get to your house faster than an ambulance; only in America do drugstores make the sick walk all the way to the back of the store to get their prescriptions, while healthy people can buy cigarettes at the front; only in America do people order double cheeseburgers, large fries and a DIET coke; only in America do we leave cars worth thousands of dollars in the driveway and put our junk in the garage; only in America do we use answering machines to screen calls and have call-waiting so we won’t miss a call from someone we didn’t want to talk to in the first place; only in America do we buy hot dogs in packages of ten and buns in packages of eight. Which just goes to prove that not everything about life is as logical as we think it should be.
Several years ago in Lafayette, Tennessee, James Kruger was watching the presidential debates on TV. Suddenly a warning appeared on his TV screen: a tornado was headed toward Lafayette. As soon as Kruger read those words, the lights went out. He put on sweat pants, grabbed a flashlight, “and then I heard this noise,” Kruger said. He headed for a door, “and all of a sudden I heard the glass breaking and it was sucking,” he said. “When I tried to shut the door, it seemed as if the door were lifting up. So I just dove and I lay flat on the floor.” Lying there, time stood still as everything in the house flew over him, scraping and banging his back. Then the chaos stopped. “I was lying in the dirt. There was no floor. No nothing.” The house was gone. But Kruger says he knows why he survived. “I think God was holding my leg, teaching me that I had not been doing everything he wanted me to do.” There is an old saying attributed to Samuel Johnson that declares, “Nothing concentrates the mind quite like a hanging at dawn.” In other words, when faced with the very real possibility of our death, our brains zoom in to a finely tuned focus on what is most important in life, what our lives have meant, whom we truly love, and what we ultimately believe in.
Perhaps we could all take a lesson or two from an 85-year-old Kentucky woman named Nadine Stair. On being asked what she would do if she had her life to live over again she replied: “I would make more mistakes next time. I would relax. I would limber up. I would take fewer things seriously. I would take more chances. I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers. I would eat more ice cream and less beans. I would perhaps have more actual troubles, but I’d have fewer imaginary ones. You see, I am one of those people who lives sensibly and sanely hour after hour, day after day. Oh, I’ve had my moments, and if I had to do it over again, I would have more of them. In fact, I would try to have nothing else. Just moments, one after another, instead of living so many years ahead of each day. I have been one of those persons who never goes anywhere without a thermometer, a hot water bottle, a raincoat and a parachute. If I had to do it again, I would travel lighter than I have in the past.”
Theologian Jurgen Moltmann argues that the greatest mystery of human existence is not the reality of evil, or injustice, or hatred. Rather, the greatest mystery in the universe is human freedom -- the freedom that God has chosen to give you and me that enables us to order our lives in any way we see fit. We are free to become a Mother Teresa or an Adolph Hitler. We are free to give our lives to God, or free to crucify Jesus the Christ.
John Winthrop, who died in Boston in 1649, was the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. To those who shared that bold and daring experiment with him, he was fond of quoting scripture. He often chose the words of Moses in the 30th chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy: “I offer you the choice of life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life and then you and your descendants will live; love the Lord your God, obey him, and hold fast to him: that is life for you and length of days in the land which the Lord God swore to give to your forefathers.” “Let us choose life.” It is not automatic. We need to choose life. The liberty we refer to this morning is really the freedom of self-determination, the freedom of choice, or free-will, that God gave to us at the moment of creation.
An example of how we exercise that freedom of choice can be seen in a letter that was once sent to columnist Ann Landers. The writer said: “Yes, my parents were abusive, both verbally and physically. They never bothered to control their tempers, and they took out their frustrations on each other and on us children.” She went on to say: “Forgiveness is a great healer. I no longer hold feelings of anger over what happened to me as a child. There is a great deal of freedom in forgiving. I can achieve any goal I wish without the shackles of blame. I have no score to settle with my parents. I don’t keep a tally of wrongs done to me by them. I awake every morning free and unchained.” The writer concluded: “Life is so very, very short. Why spend time on negative thoughts? They only hurt the person who feels them. If you must have revenge, then forgive. That is the best revenge of all.” To forgive is something we are able to do, because we have that God-given liberty, that freedom of choice.
When our nation was founded, Thomas Jefferson suggested that the great seal of the United States have on it a picture of Moses crossing the Red Sea. He suggested the picture of Moses and the Israelites saying good-by to the past, and in faith, in courage, and in hope setting out for a new life, to new shores. And why did he want this? Because this was exactly the freedom of choice to which he believed we were called, and still are today. Ever since its first bestowal upon that primordial couple in the garden, we have struggled to learn the secret of that freedom, that liberty – both dreading its loss, and in rare moments of trust offering it back again to God in praise and thanksgiving.
Finally, we come to the pursuit of happiness. The happiness which we pursue is not happiness for the sake of itself–for that would be pure hedonism---but rather happiness with a purpose. And that purpose is the living of life as God intended it to be, namely, in service to one another out of love. Our happiness, as a Christian community, as a Christian people, is rooted in the fact that we are children and followers of the Lord God. As the Psalmist says, “Happy is the person whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord God.”
Dr. Barbara L. Frederickson has spent fifteen years studying happiness. She has reached the conclusion that happiness comes from finding positive meaning in the things that happen to us. You get a flat tire on the way to work. Bad experience. You have a great conversation with the mechanic who comes to fix your flat. Good experience. Your presentation at work didn’t impress your colleagues as much as you had hoped it would. Bad experience. You learn valuable lessons from your failure that you can use in making your next presentation. Good experience. People who find positive meaning, even in bad experiences, are happier and more resilient than are people who only focus on their bad experiences.
Take Mike Riley, for example. Mike dearly loved his new silver turbo-charged Porsche. When someone stole his sports car, he was dismayed. By the time police tracked it down, the vehicle had been stripped and gutted. Mike felt terrible, but on the way to the junkyard he got an idea. Instead of just dumping his beloved wreck there, he had them crush the vehicle into a two-by-three-foot cube. It now serves as a coffee table in his living room, and he serves drinks from his custom hubcaps. As Steven Mosley put it: “Mike’s root beer may taste a bit greasy, but he teaches us something important about troubles: namely, turn them into something else! Turn the car wreck into a coffee table.”
There are, however, a lot of negative people in the world. I much prefer the attitude of a man Tony Campolo tells about who got on an elevator in the World Trade Center before its destruction. This man could have been like all the other businessmen on that elevator--serious, tense, gloomy-- but he chose not to be like them. As he got on the elevator, he turned and faced the people behind him instead of facing the elevator doors. Then he smiled at all assembled and said, “We are going to be traveling together for quite a while, you know.” And then he added, “What do you say we all sing?” And would you believe it, they did? All those serious business people sang a raucous round of “You Are My Sunshine.” By the time they reached their floor, they were all laughing and relaxed. We need more people like that in the world, to help us express our happiness and joy in living.
And so, as we reflect upon the “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for which our ancestors pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, let us remember that life does not always make sense and is not always as predictable as you and I would like it to be. We need, therefore, to treasure each day with all that it brings, to travel more simply than we have in the past, and to focus more fully on the persons and things that matter most to us. Let us also remember that one of the greatest gifts and mysteries of life is the free-will or freedom of choice that God has given us from the day we were born. We need to be responsible in the exercise of that liberty, because life is so very short, and we have so little time in which to choose to forgive others and to trust God. And finally, because we are children of God he bids us to find positive meaning even in bad experiences, so that we can lead our lives as men and women of whom it can be said: “Happy are they whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord God.”
Sermon by Reverend Philip Stowell
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 man stood in front of a judge arguing that he should be excused from a parking ticket. He had parked in a handicapped spot, despite not having a sticker or a visible handicap. The man claimed he’d meant to park for just a moment to go into a restaurant to bring his mother a glass of water (she was dehydrated, he explained). But when he was on his way out, he saw someone choking and felt obliged to administer the Heimlich maneuver. The only problem was when the judge asked him how one does the Heimlich maneuver, the man had not a clue. The judge told him to pay the fine. Sometimes the job of a judge is easy as in this case. It was clear that the man had not told the whole truth. Other times finding justice is difficult for a judge and for us. How might our lessons help us to find justice?
Our responsibility to seek justice for all people is clearly spelled out in the Bible. In Chapter 6 of the book of Micah, we are told, “and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” In Psalm 10, the psalmist calls out, “O Lord, you will strengthen their heart, to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed.” In the 23rd chapter of Matthew, Jesus admonished religious leaders, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”
In our own baptismal covenant, the question is asked, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” And our response is “I will with God’s help.” You see, doing justice is not really an option for Christians. The hard part is to figure out what is just. Sometimes it is easy, sometimes it is difficult. Sometimes it takes understanding and sometimes it takes work.
In our lessons for today, there is disagreement about justice. Remember, when the book of Amos was written, Israel had split into two kingdoms. The Kingdom of Israel was in the north and the kingdom of Judah was in the south. Amos was a farmer from the southern kingdom of Judah who went to the northern kingdom to denounce the morality of the leaders there. He especially sought justice for the poor and proclaimed that the elders “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth”. Pretty strong words, I would say. You can understand why the priest at Bethel told Amos to go back to his own country and prophesy there. Who was this foreigner who thought he could speak against the king? Yet, Amos insisted that he had been sent by God.
Amos and Amaziah clashed over a question of what is justice? It is easy to think of Amos as a lone individual seeking justice for the poor. And there is truth in that statement. Amaziah served an institution of religious worship in support of political institutions. Justice for him was to support the king. But Amos was part of an institution as well. The prophets were accepted as people with a specific vocation, people who followed God’s word. There are times when institutions clash over issues of justice. There are also times when each of us individually should remind institutions of their responsibilities to the poor and the oppressed. We should work for justice.
The gospel is another case of individuals speaking out. John the Baptist sought justice, he preached against Herod for marrying his brother’s wife. John was killed for speaking out. Now Herod is worried. Herod feared that Jesus was the resurrection of John. Jesus also preached justice. He preached in favor of the poor and the oppressed. He denounced the actions of leaders who were not caring for the needy. Jesus was also killed. There was good reason for Herod to fear the work of John and Jesus for they both sought justice and punishment for leaders who failed to care for the people.
There are many places where we should seek justice. I am thinking about the challenges of homeless people in the heat. Jan told me that it is very dangerous for people to be out in the weather when evening temperatures do not go down to 85 or less. It seems that people lose 2 liters of water during the night in these temperatures. We should always seek justice for the poor, the homeless, the underfed and others.
Another place where we struggle to know what is just is the issue of racism. The Episcopal Church has done a lot of work in this area. My intention is to share what is happening in this area and to let you know about things that are to come. I am well aware that the issue has significant political ramifications. We argue about critical race theory even as we don’t share a common understanding of what it means. We disagree about Black Lives Matter and defunding the police. The Episcopal Church is not asking anyone to take a particular position on these issues but rather inviting us to learn from history together and to share our own experiences and perspectives in an open forum with each other.
I would hope that all of us here today seek to accept all peoples, regardless of race. I think everyone here would say they are not racist. But racism can be a complex issue and I think we might find common ground through study and discussion.
The Episcopal Church has been working on issues of racism since 1988, long before our latest differences came about. In the 2020 Diocesan Convention, a policy was passed. Clergy and lay leaders are expected to take Anti-Racism training as part of their leadership roles. The Diocese of Arizona has nearly completed the training and they will begin to roll it out in the fall.
During this year, I learned about a program called Sacred Ground which was developed by the national church. Sacred Ground is meant to create a space for people of many different backgrounds to learn and to share perspectives on racism. It is non-judgmental. Sacred ground is a program that looks into the challenges faced by people of all kinds, whites, blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asians. About ten people have joined me in what has become a wonderful dialogue about the issues. It is so refreshing to find a group and a way to discuss topics like this. We discussed the harsh treatment of European immigrants when they arrived in this land and how they were forced to give up their traditions and accept common beliefs. We learned about the struggles that Native people faced soon after they welcomed Europeans to the northeastern part of the country. We studied the history of black people both as slaves and after the Civil War. We learned about the challenges faced by Hispanic or Latino cultures. All of these sessions have given our group the opportunity to share some of our own perspectives about race in a comfortable space without judgement from others. If any of you wish to learn more about Sacred ground, let me know.
The experience of Chinese people who came to the United States starting around 1840 in California was something I knew little about. We learned that Asians, especially Chinese, were subjected to so many oppressive laws that were later declared unconstitutional including a foreign miner’s tax which meant the Chinese paid nearly all the taxes charged to miners, and a Cubic Air Ordinance which limited the Chinese from gathering. We also read about how Asian Americans were treated after World War II. As the United States sought to be the leader of the free world and to court the favor of the Chinese, leaders in our country spoke positively about Asians. Asian people soon were accepted. We now understand Asians as educated and hardworking people. That comes in part because of things leaders said about them in the Fifties and Sixties. I better understand why I have held this belief that Asia people are hardworking and better educated for my entire life. That is why Chris Whitehead and other teachers have suggested to me several times how important it to search for our truth not relying on a single source for our information. I have only discussed two possible areas for us to consider as we seek justice. I am sure you could identify many more.
Scripture encourages us to seek justice for everyone. Yet, we often disagree about what constitutes justice. If we all saw justice in the same way, we wouldn’t need the courts to help us figure it out. We also know that some people, just like the man who tried to get out of the ticket for parking in a handicap spot, try to bend the scales of justices in their direction. I suggest that seeking justice means seeking God’s will for our world. As we struggle, let us turn to God, let us remember the gifts that Jesus has given us as told in the letter to the Ephesians. We are destined as God’s children through the work of Jesus. We have been redeemed through his blood and forgiven for our trespasses. We have received wisdom and understanding. As we seek justice let us remember the prayer from today’s collect, “O Lord, grant that we may know and understand the things we ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them”. Amen.
I have been thinking this week about heroes and heroines. A heroine is someone we admire or idealize for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. It seems to me that we have put aside many of the people we thought were heroes as we learned more about them. Where might we find a hero these days? I don’t think we would turn to politics as that is such a divisive place. Perhaps we could turn to sports. The Phoenix basketball team has given the people of this area something to root about and maybe we would find a hero there. As we look across other areas of interest such as religion or literature or art or music, perhaps you have some favorites, but I just find it difficult to name someone that everyone would say is a hero.
Instead, I find our heroes in the common folk, people whose names we may not even know. I think about the medical people who worked so hard when the pandemic was at full strength and hospitals were overcrowded. I think about teachers who found ways to help their students in spite of the challenges of remote learning. I think of the unnamed scientists who helped develop the vaccine. And I think of people, especially at food pantries, who helped provide food when the need was overwhelming.
Today in the gospel we learn about two people who made important choices. They are models to us, examples of how we might express our faith. They remind us to trust in God. They are important because their actions help us to learn about Jesus and his compassion, his love and his powerful healing presence. They may not be heroes in the traditional sense, but I think we should be thankful for their witness and the message that they have left for us.
We actually know the names of one of these characters. His name was Jairus, the leader of the synagogue. Other church leaders in Jesus’ time were opposed to his work and his teachings. Some thought he came from the devil. Jairus knew all of this but chose to express his faith in Jesus anyway. He came to Jesus while Jesus was in the midst of a crowd and asked for healing for his daughter. Jesus dropped whatever he was planning to do, took pity on Jairus.
It was a day for Jesus to be interrupted for just as he started to go see Jairus’ daughter, something happened. A woman, whose name we don’t know, touched his cloak and she was healed. The woman’s actions took great faith and courage. She was required by her faith tradition to stay away from other people. She was considered unclean. She was strictly forbidden from touching anyone. She tried to follow the rules but those rules had not helped her find a solution. No doctors could solve her problem. Was it her desperation, her willingness to try anything to find a cure for her problem? Or was it a faith in God and a faith in Jesus that caused her to turn to Jesus for healing?
Jesus knew that he had been touched and that some power went out from him. And when the woman confessed to what she had done, Jesus confirmed that it was her faith that allowed the healing to occur. Jesus then returned to the task of healing the leader’s daughter. People told him it was too late, but Jesus went anyway and he revived the girl.
We learn from these two miracles that the power of Jesus to heal had no boundaries. His healing was given to another person even though he did not make it happen consciously. His desire to heal did not require any specific action on his part. And we also learn in this passage that Jesus was able to heal someone whom everyone thought was dead.
Do these two stories help you to see more clearly the power of Jesus and the incredible faith of two people? We probably wouldn’t have chosen these two people out of a crowd to teach us about faith. And yet here they are giving us a chance to learn more about how Jesus expects us to use our faith and more about how faith can make a difference in our lives. Both were certainly willing to ask Jesus for help.
I also feel that we learn about Jesus’ willingness to help. He could have turned down Jairus because of his estranged relationship with Jewish leaders. Jesus could have said I have other things to do. But neither answer was ever the way that Jesus chose. He always wanted to help people. He always wanted people to feel God’s love and one of the most powerful ways for that to happen is through healing.
The reading from Lamentations reminds us of these characteristics of God.
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning.
Jesus lived that words of Lamentations always.
How might we respond to this lesson in Mark? The first thing we learn is to ask God for what we want. Each of the people in today’s passage chose to put their faith in God. In so doing they had to reject some accepted practices and teachings of their time. Neither was certain that Jesus was going to help them. But they asked anyway. And that is what we should do also. Ask God for help and do it over and over again. It may be for healing for ourselves and it may be healing for someone else. We could ask God for forgiveness or we could ask for reconciliation with another. As I said, we don’t know whether the exact request we make will be answered in the way we wish. But we can be certain that God hears our prayer. And we can trust in God to love us.
C. S. Lewis suggested that we consider the characteristics of God when we think about miracles, “Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.” Miracles occur because of who God is.
We know that God answers many prayers. It may be something simple like finding a parking place in a crowded lot. Or it could be a healing miracle. Many of us know people who have been healed when the human prognosis was glum. Even those can be miracles. But sometimes, healing defies our best explanation. I have a friend who has been dealing with pancreatic cancer for four and a half years. While we know he won’t live forever, we sure can say he has beaten the odds. Jan and I have a niece whose daughter survived a brain tumor even though the doctors thought she wouldn’t make it. I am sure that some of the people who survived the building collapse in Miami feel as if it was a miracle that they came out alive. Many of you have shared miracles that happened in your life. I believe that miracles do occur and I believe that God is a part of the miracle. I also know of situations where we have asked God for help and it doesn’t seem to happen. I don’t know how to explain the difference. It may seem arbitrary how God chooses one and doesn’t help another. I am only left with trusting what God decides. It is as the reading from Lamentations said today,
“Although he causes grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.”
Even the reading from 2nd Corinthians expresses the love of God. It was written this way, “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” Jesus always reached out with love and compassion.
There was a 20th century English writer named G. K. Chesterton who said this about miracles, “The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them.” Saint Augustine also wrote about miracles, “Miracles are not in contradiction to nature. They are only in contradiction with what we know of nature.” Perhaps someday we will understand the natural event that created any given miracle.
Wise and well-known people have expressed their belief in miracles. People have shared examples of miracles in books and movies. Normal people have told stories of miracles. All kinds of people ask God for help every day. I say that God listens to every prayer. Let us have total faith, trust and belief in God. Each one of us should feel comfortable praying in whatever way works for us and believing that God answers our prayers. We should seek solutions to our issues using our own logic and skilled professionals. But we can also turn to God in faith and trust asking God to help us discern the best actions we can take and asking God to heal us in every way. Amen.
Farmer Evans was driving his John Deere tractor along the road with a trailer load of fertilizer. Tim, a little boy of eight, was playing in his yard when he saw the farmer and asked, 'What've you got in your trailer?' 'Manure,' Farmer Evans replied. 'What are you going to do with it?' asked Tim. 'Put it on my strawberries,' answered the farmer. Tim replied, 'You ought to come and eat with us, we put ice-cream on our strawberries.’
I chose a story about a farmer today because there are several references to growing crops, plants and trees in our Scripture. Farmer Evans, the one in my story, was tending to his strawberries, trying to help them grow. While Farmer Evans was doing his part, he was relying on God’s creation which allowed the plant to grow as it interacted with the soil and rain to produce a fruitful harvest. Jesus told two parables about the Kingdom of God. He spoke about the growth of plants and the harvesting of food. We learn that God tends to all of the plants in this garden we call earth. I ask you to consider how God has tended to you, to think about your growth in God’s word and to contemplate your trust in God.
In Mark’s gospel when Jesus began his public ministry in Galilee his first words were ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.’ (Mark1:15). We often think about the Kingdom of God as something that happens at the end of the world. Do you think there are the signs of the Kingdom of God in the world today?
Ezekiel described God’s work. Ezekiel spoke of God taking a small sprig from the tall cedar and planting it in the mountains. That tree brought good things, fruit for one. Ezekiel also wrote about God’s protection. God would take care of the people of Israel.
In our time, we might imagine God providing the wisdom of the Giant sequoia tree. A sequoia in California called General Sherman is estimated to be around 2,500 years and it is 275 feet tall. What has that sequoia seen that could bring us good news? How majestic it is? How might that majesty remind us of God’s great goodness for us?
While the Kingdom of God will come at the end of time, I think that Jesus came to bring the Kingdom of God to earth then, and to us now. My image of the Kingdom of God is a place where there is no war, a place where people love each other and care for the poor and needy. It doesn’t fully exist yet. I wonder if even now God is bringing us to the place I imagine.
Jesus gave us some clues about what the Kingdom of God will be like. I am still left with questions. Jesus spoke first of a sower planting seeds and amazingly while the sower lived his normal life, this great garden grew and provided a fruitful harvest. Jesus spoke about the gift that God has given us. We receive all of the sustenance from the ground and yet we do little work to attain it. God is always working, always growing, always building. The Kingdom of God is about God’s work not so much about ours. God is always working to bring us closer, to teach us about God’s love and to share it with others. We come and sit in thanksgiving and appreciation as God builds the kingdom around us. As we listen and study God helps us to know what we should do, how we should live and gives us peace in the midst of it all.
In the second parable, Jesus referred to a tiny seed which when planted grew into a large bush, a mustard tree. The mustard tree doesn’t come to its full size immediately, so it may take time for God to grow God’s kingdom on earth. I always wish for the Kingdom to be here now. But God’s way is not my way.
Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador wrote about the Kingdom of God.
“It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us”.
Maybe we are not meant to fully understand the kingdom that God plans for us. The mustard tree became a place where the birds could go and live and survive and be cared for. That description was also in Ezekiel’s message today, the birds are one way Scriptures describe God’s love for those who follow God. For us who follow Jesus.
The TV personality, Fred Rogers, described this Kingdom of God, “I'm fairly convinced that the Kingdom of God is for the broken-hearted. You write of 'powerlessness.' Join the club, we are not in control. God is.” In a way all of us are broken hearted for we have been hurt and we struggle. Fred Rogers was telling us that we are comforted by God when we are in need. God is always there for us. Fred Rogers reminds us that God is the ruler of the universe and we are not. We have to give up the idea that we are in control of things. We may plant a seed but it is God who causes it grow. Our work matters only a little in the grand scheme of things.
As we ponder the mystery of the Kingdom of God, and the fact that God is the one leading and we are not, it is easy to fall into the trap of saying we should do nothing. After all God is in charge and we are not. God grows the Kingdom of God while we rest. Actually, the answer is that we seek to do God’s will in thanksgiving for what God has already given us. We want to bring God’s Kingdom here because of God’s love for us.
The passage in 2 Corinthians says it so well. “the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all… And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” We are urged on by the love and the actions of Jesus, by his very sacrifice for us. We know that our actions are only a part of what must be done and yet we do it anyway. We never know for sure what we should do and we often wish we could do more. We continue to try. Paul reminds us that we walk by faith and not by sight. We must trust that God will take care of things.
I return to the words of Oscar Romero. You may remember that during the civil war in El Salvador Oscar Romero decided to speak out against the government which he believed was committing atrocities, killing the people of their own country. After a particularly forceful sermon, he was killed. Oscar Romero’s words and actions did not end the fighting in his lifetime but the fighting eventually ended. Before his death, Oscar Romero wrote this,
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith…
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
There are times when I wonder, when I feel at a loss because I wish for the world to come together and live in love. But today we realize that we are not in charge, we are only to do our part. We are simply expected to do what we can and pray for the rest. It may be as simple as providing water to the homeless during the summer heat.
In our evening prayers there is a passage that speaks so clearly to this,
It is evening after a long day
What has been done has been done
what has not been done has not been done.
Let it be
We do our work and trust in God.
Mother Teresa worked with the poor in Calcutta for most of her life. She struggled and had dark days of her own. A reporter once reminded her that despite her best efforts she would never be able to take care of all the poor people in Calcutta. Mother Teresa responded, “I am not called to be successful, I am called to be faithful”
We don’t understand everything about the Kingdom of God. But we do know that God is in charge and we are not. Jesus told us that he came to bring God’s Kingdom to earth. Let us trust that God continues to make that happen. Let’s be willing to do our part. And when all is said and done, let us trust in God for what we have done has been done. The rest is up to God. Let it be in God’s loving arms. Amen.
This week, I learned that someone has a twitter handle with the name Satan. I think it is intended to offer some humor but with Satan you never know for sure. Allow me to share some of the things that Satan has posted. Satan expressed his disagreement with a common misperception when he posted "Whoever said 'there's no rest for the wicked' was lying, we love sleep”. We know that the gospel of Matthew tells us that at the end of time Jesus will separate the good from the bad, the sheep from the goats which may have led to this post, “Someone sacrifice a pizza or something I'm getting bored of goats”
We have some common expressions that Satan doesn’t appreciate, “Stop trying to sell me your souls, hell is depressing enough." Here’s another one, Why is 'boring as hell' an expression? Hell is always lit 24/7. Finally , the devil gave us one reason to want to go and see him, “Come to hell, you'll get a better tan.”
Our Scriptures today give us many names for the devil. He was called a serpent or a snake, as Beelzebub or Satan. All of these names speak of a tempter that leads us astray. Jesus was confronted in today’s gospel by Scribes who said that Jesus was being led by Satan and he was arguing against that idea. Jesus decided to make sure that people understood what the devil stood for. Would you join me as we seek to learn from this particular gospel lesson? I find it troublesome, challenging and comforting all at the same time.
While this passage is early in the gospel of Mark, Jesus had already performed many miracles. He healed a leper, a paralytic and a man with a withered hand. But what caused the commotion this time was an exorcism. Jesus had called the evil spirits out of people. Jesus did this so much that Mark wrote, “Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, ‘You are the Son of God!”
Crowds gathered around Jesus, asking for more and believing in his amazing powers. The crowds were so large that it was difficult for Jesus to eat. But two groups of doubters spoke up. Some thought he was insane, crazy. Members of Jesus’ family were worried that Jesus had lost his mind and they came to take him away. Jesus decided that he would remain with his followers and to ignore his family. It troubles me that Jesus became estranged from his family. Our faith teaches us that we must first love God and follow God’s will. When we have a strong relationship with God, then we are able to stay rooted in God as we work to improve our relationships with people in our family. It is not easy.
The Scribes also appeared complaining about Jesus. They opposed his actions on a theological basis. The Scribes believed that Jesus used the powers of Satan to cure people. Jesus reminded everyone that it was evil demons that possessed people and they were from the devil. Why would the devil call his own demons out from a person? It doesn’t make any sense, Jesus said. Furthermore, Jesus had come to bring the kingdom of God to earth and to get rid of the powers of Satan. The folks who had seen Jesus perform miracles were divided. Because of their background or their understanding of the world, the doubters thought Jesus was a fraud.
I am troubled by the number of people who chose to reject Jesus. After all, Jesus was healing people, he clearly wanted the best for others and he was asking people to commit themselves to God. Those seem like good things to me. Yet, many did not believe. It reminds me of the divides we experience in our world today. People are so quick to judge the words and actions of people who are not like them. People often don’t take the time to listen to look for the good that someone is trying to achieve. The other person is just wrong because of who they are, not what they are trying to do. I know I can be like that.
I am also troubled by the struggles people have in their families. I know of so many people who are estranged from family members. It happened with Jesus and there have been separations in my own family. Yesterday, someone told me a story about a woman who learned she was going to die and she took the time to reconcile with her mother. It was an important experience for both of them. I wonder if we might try to find reconciliation somehow in our lives, perhaps find a way for families to reunite. Perhaps we are left with prayer as our only response.
I am also troubled by the constant belittling of people who have different opinions and efforts to sway our opinions. We are living in a time when people are telling us what to think all of the time. We can find opinions expressed on television, on the blogs and on internet sites. Let’s dig through the muddle and form our own opinions. In our relationship with God, this passage encourages us to pay attention to the word of God and to always be listening for God’s call to us. There is no better teacher than Jesus and we find his words to us in Scripture.
One voice that seeks to sway us from God is the devil. I hear Jesus telling us to avoid Satan’s whispers and to stay focused on God. A self-titled philosopher named Marty Rubin once said “If the devil is the ultimate deceiver, then words must be the very devil.” Words can be used to help us but can also be used to derail us. A theologian once wrote, “Very few people believe in the devil these days, which suits the devil very well. He is always helping to circulate the news of his own death. The essence of the devil is the lie, and he defines himself as: 'I am who am not.' Satan has very little trouble with those who do not believe in him; they are already on his side.” We must keep an eye out for our tempters. Even if you don’t believe in the devil, you know that temptations can come from inside ourselves.
Even modern-day religious personality Joel Osteen warns us about the devil, “If you don't set the tone for the day, the devil will set it for you.” Perhaps there is a devil lurking about trying to lead us astray. As I said, we are challenged by the words of Jesus to realize and stay focused for we can easily be tempted and lose sight of the way of the Lord.
In the midst of the doubters and the temptations for today, let us also recognize that Jesus gave us words of comfort about forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit. Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter”. Despite our troubles and our challenges, Jesus always comes to redeem us, to save us. Jesus told us that he came to conquer the devil. The Psalm for today includes words about God’s forgiveness, For there is forgiveness with you; therefore you shall be feared.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of the power of Jesus over the devil, “We should never argue with the devil about our sins, but we should speak about our sins only with Jesus.” We turn to Jesus to find our path, to ask for forgiveness. There is even a quote from Saint Bernard, the man not the breed of dogs, that reminds us that we should turn to Jesus, “God removes the sin of the one who makes humble confession, and thereby the devil loses the sovereignty he had gained over the human heart.” All we have to do when we are confronted by the devil is turn to Jesus. Even if we make a mistake, we can find comfort in the arms of Jesus.
We find comfort in the letter to the Corinthians today which speaks of the salvation we find in God. We learn that God is building us up every day. While our physical bodies may be fading, our spirit is being brought closer to God. We may not know it physically, but we experience it spiritually. “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day”. Let us trust in God for God will care for us.
I mentioned three things for us to ponder today. The number and type of people who opposed Jesus is troubling. It helps us to realize that the words of the devil can lead us astray. The words of Jesus challenge us to put our trust in the Holy Spirit and to ignore the pleas of the devil who simply wants to lead us to bad places. Let us focus our hearts on the comfort we receive from Jesus. For we are certain that Jesus came to bring God’s kingdom here, for us. Let us rejoice in the work of God in our lives. Amen.
Reports of UFOs, unidentified flying objects, have been around my whole life. Most of the time, these sightings have been explained as normal occurrences and they are forgotten by most everyone. Recently, our interest in UFOs was piqued again from a more reputable source. US Military pilots saw flying objects that they could not explain. Last summer, the Federal Government announced a Task Force that would investigate. In June, the director of national intelligence is expected to issue an unclassified report on everything government agencies know about UFOs. Even former President Barrack Obama stated that we don’t know what these things are. None of this is to say the objects are from other worlds but they have not been explained as of yet.
There are many things we don’t understand and many things we can learn. Today, we celebrate the feast of the Trinity. The Trinity can be hard to understand. We often refer to the Trinity as a mystery, a way that God works that is not like any human interaction. We might be a little like Nicodemus in the gospel. Jesus explained that we must be born from above and Nicodemus said, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Our human efforts to explain God may not work. We may even feel like the unknown person who wrote, “He who denies the Trinity loses his or her soul, he who tries to explain the Trinity loses his mind.”
Trinity Sunday is a little different than the other feast days that we have celebrated recently. We have come through Holy Week, the Crucifixion and Easter. We have listened to stories about Jesus and the apostles after he rose from the dead. Last week, we celebrated Pentecost with the outpouring of the Spirit. These are all events that happened. The Trinity has existed forever, for all time. Our readings offer us a glimpse into the workings of the Three Persons in One God. I ask you to consider how you understand the Trinity in your mind and in your heart and in your spiritual being.
The apostles would not have described the Trinity in the same way we do. They spoke of God, they Spoke of Jesus as God and they understood the Spirit. They referred to God, as the one they called Father. It was the best way for them to express their understanding of God at that time. We know that God does not have a gender and so we often seek other words for God who is both Father and Mother for us. The apostles also knew Jesus personally. They were amazed by his teachings which were different than any of the prophets which had come before. Through the signs they saw and through his death and resurrection, they came to realize that Jesus was God and sometimes they referred to him as the Son of God. Once again, using the word Son is just the best way they found to understand who Jesus was and is. The apostles also knew of the Spirit. They had been told by Jesus that the Spirit would come and they gave the Spirit of God credit for so much of the work that they were able to do. Still, the apostles didn’t clearly form the theology that God is three persons in one united God. They just accepted God being with them in these different ways.
The early Christian church took a long time to clearly describe the concept of the Trinity. Debates raged in the early church and it was not until the first two councils of the church in 325 and 381 that our Trinitarian theology was clearly defined and recognized as the belief of the whole church. The Nicene Creed was approved in the first of these two councils in 325.
When we read Scriptures, we can find references to the three Persons. In Matthew, we read as Jesus sends the disciples out to proclaim the Good news. As his final command, Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. In the 2nd letter to the Corinthians, we read, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you”. Finally, we hear the Trinity referred to in 1 Peter 1:2, ”who have been chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with his blood”.
Today’s lessons also refer to the Trinity but does so in more subtle ways. The passage of Isaiah refers to his calling as a prophet. Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” The use of a plural pronoun might be an early reference to the Trinity. Another passage in Genesis speaks of the three visitors to Abraham under the Oaks at Mamre, perhaps another reference to the Trinity. Paul spoke of all Three Persons in his letter to the Romans. It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.
In the gospel Jesus speaks of God and the Spirit. Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. For me this is a clear statement about our need to be baptized. In our baptismal liturgy, we also speak of the Three Persons of the Trinity. So, our scriptural writers did not use the word Trinity because the sense of what that meant was still being formulated, but they did refer to God in many different ways.
Church leaders have tried to find logical ways to explain the Trinity. My favorite is Saint Patrick. He used the shamrock, or three leaf clover. One living plant with three different leaves. Last week, someone told me that the tongues of fire offer us a glimpse of the Trinity. Fire has thee different colors from blue to reddish to yellow, another example of three in one.
Our encounters with the Trinity go beyond logic. In our hearts, we should be thankful that God searches out different ways to interact with us and to help us. A Presbyterian minister named William Dixon Gray wrote that “Rather than explaining the Trinity, let the Trinity explain us. We are always changing from what we are to what we are becoming. The Trinity does not allow things to be static. God is active and we must be too.” Let us allow each of the Three Persons to dwell in our hearts and work in our lives. It changes us. Last week, we thought about finding the Spirit in our hearts and inviting that Spirit to be a part of our lives. The Trinity work as One to be with us and to guide us. The Trinity are an example for us because they act as One and because the love that we receive comes from all Three Persons. If we let that love fill our hearts, then we can be just like Isaiah who responded to the question of whom God should send by responding, Send Me!
For the Trinity is best understood when we think of the Trinity as our relationship with God. We can turn to each member of the Trinity as we wish. Our formal prayers can help us turn to each Person in the Trinity. There are many examples, but you might wish to look at the collects for Morning prayer on pages 100 and 101 and see how many times we speak of each Person in our prayers.
The British Theologian Paul Fiddes, once wrote, “When the early church fathers developed the doctrine of the Trinity, they were not painting by numbers; they were finding concepts to express an experience. I think that we could put aside our efforts to understand the Trinity and just let the experience flow over us. Let us feel the love of all Three Persons. Let us learn from the perfect unity and the differences. Let us seek to emulate the individual identity of each while knowing that they form a perfect community. So, rather than think about the Trinity, I suggest that we feel the Trinity working in our lives. I suggest that we don’t try to put the three Persons into one category or another. I, myself, have used the names Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier as a way to describe the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But I think that God is bigger than any names we place on any Member of the Trinity. God in all forms is still with us, still in our hearts. I prefer to live in the words of Paul who said that we should receive the power, the grace and the peace of God working as One. Amen.