I have been thinking about the word repentance all week. John called for people to repent as he preached in the wilderness. The word repentance is found in our collect as well. The prophets preached repentance and we pray that we will heed their warnings. Most of the time I think of repentance as giving up a sin that I have committed and seeking instead to follow in the ways of the Lord. But then I read a commentary that suggested the Greeks and the Hebrews used this word in ordinary life to mean a “change of mind”. It has a similar meaning to giving up on sin but has a slightly different focus. So, in my analytical mind I decided to look it up in my Bible dictionary. I learned that repentance has several Biblical meanings that range from regret to reversal, from changing one’s mind to a complete moral or ethical conversion. Perhaps all of these ideas fit into what we are hearing on this day. How we approach repentance might be based on what we need. And it might be a little different for each one of us.
Our path to repentance may begin with regret. We are sorry for our sins. We are sorry for the people we have hurting. We are sorry for the things that have separated us from God. We wish to change all of that and bring ourselves closer to God once again.
A few may wish for a complete conversion. We, like Paul, believe that we are doing the right thing. But suddenly, we are struck by some powerful force; something like the lightning that struck Paul, and we are transformed. Paul was blinded, but in his blindness he could now see that Jesus was his Lord and Savior. I know of people who have had that sudden conversion experience. You may wish for that yourself.
I would like to spend a few minutes on the idea that repentance is a change of mind. For me, that depends on our faith. Here is one example. In May of 1950, a group of students from Oxford University gathered for a debate between atheists and Christians. The debate was chaired by C. S. Lewis. A philosophy student named Antony Flew argued the case for atheism in a speech titled “Theology and Falsification”. He subsequently published a paper based on his speech. It became the preferred argument for atheists around the world. Flew was accepted as one of the leading atheist thinkers. Now, jump forward to 2004. Flew declared that he had changed his mind. He simply believed that the evidence from science and philosophy now pointed to the existence of a God. Flew wrote that “he accepted the existence of a self-existent, immutable, immaterial, omnipotent and omniscient Being.” It took fifty plus years but Flew found repentance as defined by a changing of one’s mind.
In the last few weeks, I have encountered two people who were regular churchgoers but are no longer believers. When people find out that I am a priest, I get into some interesting dialogue. On our cruise, I met a lady who had been raised as a Christian but no longer felt comfortable with what she had been taught or believed. As we toured several cities in Southeast Asia, we often visited Buddhist temples. The people who worshipped at these temples were very sincere. They would light incense and say prayers asking Buddha to care for them in some way. After one of the stops, this lady decided that she wanted to talk with me. She said that she just didn’t understand why Christians were so consumed with believing that Jesus was God. After all, the Jewish faith only has one God, the Muslim faith has Allah and the Buddhist faith has no need for God to be human. Why then is it so important for Christians to believe that Jesus is God. We talked for awhile about the issue but neither of us changed our mind. She just no longer had faith in Jesus.
I heard another story about a woman who had been raised as a Christian who has decided that that was not right for her. She said to another person, “I just don’t get this Jesus thing”. Once again, we have a person who no longer had faith in Jesus.
Faith is something that we have and faith is something that is given to us by God as a gift. Many times we want to treat our faith as something that we have because we have studied the issues with our intellect and decided that we believe in God. I don’t think it works that way. The former atheist turned believer must have had some faith deep inside of him given by God. His faith churned inside him for fifty years as he studied and thought, finally coming to the conclusion that God existed
Faith comes from our hearts and faith is a gift that God has given us. I hope that today you are thankful for the gift of faith. Let’s thank God gives us faith so we will change our mind and turn our hearts to Jesus. We call out to Jesus praying, Come Lord Jesus and instill in our hearts faith and hope and love. Help us to change our minds. Help us to repent.
Another concept of repentance is such that we must reverse our course. We need look no further than the reading from Malachi today. This reading suggests that we must be purified, cleansed of our sins. I am not sure I would enjoy the experience very much. Refining gold and silver requires an extremely hot fire and I certainly would not like to be purified in that way. Nor would I like to be cleansed with the soap of the fuller, for the soap was powerful and the stench of the cleansing was overwhelming. Let us hope that our sins are not so bad that we need to be refined or cleansed. Wouldn’t it be better if we were just gently nudged to get rid of our sins and follow God.
Sometimes, the reversal requires us to look at something from a different point of view. There is a story that Abraham Lincoln once met with a group of ministers for a prayer breakfast. At one point one of the ministers said, “Mr President, let us pray that God is on our side”. Lincoln’s response showed far greater insight, “No, gentlemen, let us pray that we are on God’s side.” Religion is not a tool by which we get God to do what we want but an invitation to open ourselves to being and doing what God wants. Repentance then is a reversal of course. We switch from asking God for what we want to trying to understanding what God wants. Our repentance is to turn from our ways and follow God’s ways.
Regardless of the kind of change we need to experience, I want to remind you that we cannot do it alone. Yes, it does take some effort on our part and a willingness to be different, but much of the work is in God’s hands. That is why we ask once again that Jesus would come into our lives, that Jesus would help us to be changed. For we know that Jesus is the Emmanuel, God with us.
In each of our readings today, we hear about God’s coming acts that will save us. In fact, we learn that God’s justice will prevail and it will happen soon. In Canticle 16, we hear that God will come to his people and set them free. John the Baptist tells us that all flesh shall see the salvation of God. I find God’s work to be so prominent in the letter to the Philippians. Paul celebrated for the people heard God’s message to them. Our lives are no different than the people of Philippi. We have heard in Scripture that Jesus Christ is our Savior, he came to be with us and is with us still. We believe that Jesus will work with us so that we will be ready for the day that he comes. We have lived with the compassion of Jesus. And we try to show the world who Jesus is by letting our “love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help us to determine what is best”.
Advent is a time when we prepare for the coming of Jesus. We want to repent and return to the Lord. We know that we cannot do it alone. So we turn with hope and joy to Jesus and say, Come Lord Jesus, come quickly that we may do our best to live our lives just as you would have us do. Amen.
A gentleman from Ontario wrote that “When his daughters were little he would always tell them around Christmas that this is Jesus' birthday and he only received 3 things so do not be disappointed in what lies under the tree. When it came time for worship on Christmas morning, he asked the children what they thought Jesus would think of Santa and all the hype. Would Jesus ask Santa a question? His youngest daughter replied, "I think Jesus would ask how come I only got three things and none of them were toys?" ... SAL Ridgeway Ontario
Our liturgical season has changed. Thanksgiving is over and Advent has begun. Did you notice that we changed the colors on the banners to blue? The advent candle has been lit, the tone of our service is a little more contemplative. The world may have been talking about Christmas for several weeks but now we start talking about Christmas in church.
You know that Advent means coming. We look forward to the coming of Jesus. When you think about it, there are two different comings of Jesus that we prepare for. To start, we remember the first time that Jesus came to earth. We want to hear the story from Luke about how Mary and Joseph were denied a room in the Inn and we want to see the baby Jesus in the manger. That’s one coming. We believe that Jesus will come again at the end of the world. That is the second coming. Jesus told the story himself and we read it in today’s gospel. The Son of Man will appear on a cloud and judge all of heaven and earth. It will be a traumatic time with much fighting and lots of calamities on earth. It sounds like a time that we should fear. But for those of us who are faithful to Jesus, it seems like a time to look forward to because Jesus will be in full power. At that time, Jesus will judge us. It is our hope that we will be judged as having done well and we will be invited into heaven. We live our lives doing our best to follow the will of Jesus. We know it is the right thing to do and we hope that our good works will be recognized by Jesus on judgment day and that our wrongs will be forgiven. We live in the middle between these two comings of Jesus trying to look back and forward at the same time.
Most of us have been though lots and lots of Advents and Christmases. My suggestion is that you look for a way to make this Advent personal. It might mean that you change your point of view a little. Sometimes we approach Advent as something that is going to happen to us or for us. That Jesus is going to come for the whole world, or we remember that Jesus did come and did save us. I want you to think about the fact that Jesus is coming to you personally. It is not something that just happened a long time ago, or will happen later. It is something that is happening now.
What I am saying is that instead of thinking of this coming of Jesus as a passive experience, let’s find a way to be involved in it individually and actively. Jesus is coming for me and I cannot wait. I want Jesus to enter my heart and change me. Rather than remembering what did happen or imagining what might happen, let’s see if we can make something happen. Let’s seek an encounter with Jesus.
There are so many things we can do. For example, some of you will choose to have a special set of daily devotions for Advent. I have chosen to use this book called “O Wisdom, Reflections on the Names of Jesus”. Some people choose to make an Advent wreath and light candles at the dinner table just as we do here in church. Others have told me that in their house they had an advent calendar. Each day a child would open a little box on the calendar and a tiny figure would be taken out and shared. When she was younger, our daughter had a felt Advent Christmas tree. Each day, she would add an ornament to this tree. We are not kids anymore but let’s try to create some experience each day that reminds us of the coming of Jesus.
I know that many people feel the pressure of the holiday season. There are presents to buy, cards to send and gifts to wrap. There is decorating to be done and cooking to be completed. We may spend time at parties and we may make plans to see relatives. Is it possible that you could dedicate each of these activities to Jesus? After all, our decorating is about showing the light of Christ to all people. Our gifts can be given in remembrance that Christ gave us the gift of salvation. Our time spent with others reminds us of the times that Jesus shared a meal with friends or ate with those who argued with him about his mission on earth. Let’s consider our daily work this season as a way to honor Jesus.
I know that for some people, the holidays are a sad time. You miss someone who has passed or you cannot be with a loved one who is far away. I hope that you will find some solace as you turn your heart to Jesus that his coming may give you some comfort and peace.
I would encourage you try one more thing. I would suggest that you ask for and pray that Jesus will come into your life and into your heart. This is something we do often in our prayers and in our hymns. Some offer this prayer before a meal, “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest and let these gifts to us be blest”. We sing the hymn, “Come Thou O Love Divine” and “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” as well as the anthem “E’en so Lord Jesus Quickly Come”.
Before the season is over, we will be singing that special hymn, “O come O Come Emmanuel”. But I think we should change the words a little bit. Yes we want God to be with us but not to ransom captive Israel but rather to lift us out of our depression. Yes, we want Jesus to come down from heaven and free us from Satan’s tyranny, to save us from our sins, to help us to sin no more. We want Emmanuel to come not to some ancient tribes on the mountain of Sinai but rather to those of us gathered here that we may follow the will of Jesus.
The presence of God in our lives is reflected in this beautiful passage from the letter to the Thessalonians. It is a prayer of thanks for the presence of other faithful Christians in our lives, especially those who inspire our faith and give us joy because of their dedication. It is encouragement for sharing our faith and helping each other during the times that we question our faith. It is a reminder that we live in the present, that we seek God each day and that our faith can be a source of joy. Paul was convinced that God would hear his prayers for his brothers and sisters in Thessalonica and that God would help them to grow in love and faith even though Paul could not be present with them.
At the very end of the Book of Revelation, the author, John, wrote that there will be a river of life flowing through the city and that on either side of the river there will be trees. The trees will bear fruit that will be for the healing of the nations. He writes that the Lord God will be the light and will reign forever. One of the last verses goes like this, “The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon. Amen. Come Lord Jesus”
I believe Jesus is coming to us soon, to each of us, before this year is over. In that coming, let us hope that the nations will be healed.
I would like to paraphrase from a prayer found in the Book of Occasional Services. It is our responsibility and joy to listen to the message of the angels and to go to Bethlehem to see the Son of God lying in a manger. We seek to hear and heed the story of God’s loving purpose for us including the glorious redemption brought to us by Jesus. We look forward to greeting Jesus into our lives once more on this Christmas. This Advent, we await the coming of Jesus. We remember his first coming and we prepare for the second coming. Let’s also ask Jesus to come into our life today and every day of this Advent season. Let’s have an encounter with Jesus during this holiday season. Amen.
One of the stops we made on our recent trip to Southeast Asia was in Bangkok, Thailand. Bangkok is a thriving, economically strong city. As we were driven through the city, we saw many pictures of kings past and present prominently displayed on the streets of the city. One family has ruled the country since 1782 and the tour guide made a point of telling us about improvements made by previous kings. These kings were successful in keeping Thailand from being colonized as other countries in the area were. One recent King, Rama the ninth, ruled for 70 years from 1945 until 2016. He was very popular as he worked to improve living conditions for the poor people in rural areas and his love of music and the arts was appreciated by the people. The country is now led by a prime minister who took over in a military coup in 2014. But it seems that the role of the king is more than that of a figurehead. The latest king does not seem popular and there is a power struggle between the king and the prime minister.
Kingdoms in our world are defined by space and by borders. Kingdoms are defined by people who seek power that will last from generation to generation. Some kings or queens are benevolent, trying to help to make their country a better place but others seem to be only interested in themselves.
Today, we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. It was started 100 years ago as an effort to change our focus from the things of this world to the things of God’s world. We emphasize Christ as our king not earthly kings.
Everything that Jesus did turned the concept of kingship upside down. Jesus spoke often that the kingdom of God was near, but it had nothing to do with space or time, it had nothing to do with control over a group of people. It had nothing to do with how people would exert power over one another. Rather it had to do with love and servanthood, with caring and helping. As Jesus said it had nothing to do with this world.
My experience in Thailand gave me a brief glimpse into the good and bad that monarchies sometimes provide. It seems appropriate because our modern world does not give us a great deal of experience with monarchies. In the United States we tend to look to our Canadian and British friends to understand what a monarchy is like. Queen Elizabeth has reigned for 66 years and she has been a model for what we wish a monarch would be. She is kind and caring. She is a giving person. But we know that not every king or queen has been so wonderful. Our experience may not prepare us well for the radical message Jesus provided.
As I said, Jesus turned the entire concept of kingship upside down. I must say that there are times when I struggle with the image of Jesus as king. I feel as if our two images of God are contradictory. On the one hand, we have an image of God as all powerful. God, the creator, who made the heavens and the earth. God who can move mountains. God who can destroy the world in a flood and build it up once again. This is the God we find in some readings for today. The book of Daniel provides an image of God, the Ancient One, who has been in existence forever. This God ascends to a powerful throne with fire spewing out, a demonstration of God’s power. This God is worshipped by so many that they cannot be counted. And we are introduced to a figure that is like a human being, who is given dominion over all things. Our Christian minds see Jesus as that figure and we understand why we are called to worship him as a king. This passage from Daniel is part of what we refer to as apocalyptic literature. It is written as a dream that Daniel had about what will happen at the end of the world.
In the Psalm, we also encounter images of God. This time, God is clothed in marvelous apparel and placed on a throne. Then we hear about the glorious power of God, a God who can control the water. If you have ever experienced raging waters that are found in a flood or a hurricane, you understand the power of water. But God controls all water, even the oceans.
The book of Revelation is also considered apocalyptic literature, another dream about the end of the world. This passage is a little different in that Jesus is specifically mentioned in the dream. Jesus is the one who will ascend to the throne and be given power over all things. Jesus is our king.
On the other hand, we have Jesus as the servant of all. The one who gave up his life for our salvation, the one who spoke of love not war. In the gospel of John, we hear Jesus speaking to Pilate just before he is taken out to be crucified. I imagine that Jesus was bound in chains and perhaps bloodied by the thrashing that he had just received. This is not an image of God clothed in beautiful garments and sitting on a majestic throne. But it is consistent with other times when Jesus preached about being servants. In Mark’s gospel Jesus “sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Jesus demonstrated that he was a servant because he taught all who would listen, he was a healer who took care of the sick, and he forgave people who had sinned.
It turns out that Jesus is both the mighty ruler and the humble servant. We are called to accept both of these images of Jesus as our God. In fact, we learn about how we should behave from the actions of Jesus.
Eleonore Stump offered this observation about what appears to be opposite views of Jesus, “What most people reject as the worst things in life turns out in Christ’s crucifixion to be the prize-winning goods. On the cross Christ makes manifest that real winning is what looks to the world like losing.”
And we also recognize the glory of Jesus as king. Eleonore Stump said it this way, “There is a time for suffering, when all worldly values and all earthly desires are turned upside down, a time when we struggle with sin and suffering. But there is also a time when things turn right-side up again and then all struggle ends. At that time, each one of Christ’s people will say of every affliction, “That was then; this is now!” Only that now, when all sin and suffering falls away, is an everlasting now. And the cross is the way to it. It is best said in the letter to the Philippians, “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Philippians 2:8.
The interrogation by Pilate gives us a great example of the humble Jesus. Jesus was not bullied or afraid. My kingdom does not belong to this world, he said. It tells us that worldly pursuits are less important than Godly pursuits. I saw a news article about some student council members who decided to invite a sophomore with learning disabilities who was eating lunch by himself to join them. It changed his day. We know that often it is the little things we do that make a big difference for others. It is an example of how we can be servants to others.
Jesus told Pilate that he came into the world to testify to the truth. Jesus was more interested in the truth than taking his rightful place as a king. The truth is that Jesus loved us and was a humble servant to all of us. The truth is that Jesus is God. The truth is that Jesus saved us through his sacrifice and reigns over the world at the same time. Although not included today, Pilate actually asked, “What is truth?” That is a question that we should ask ourselves all of the time. We should always be seeking the truth of the gospel and the truth of God’s message to us. It may not always be clear and there are many people who may turn us away from the truth. But let us always be the ones who seek God’s truth. Let us share in both the humbleness that Jesus taught us and the glory of his crowning as the king of all. Let us celebrate and seek to find the truth which is best found in following Jesus. Amen.
I have taken the trip from Mesa to Flagstaff many times. As you drive up the mountain, you experience so many climate changes. You start in the desert with little that is green and yet you are surrounded by the majestic saguaro cactus, silent sentinels keeping watch over the landscape. You end up in Flagstaff with its massive ponderosa pines giving shade to all who visit. Of course there are many other changes as well. Flagstaff has a small population relative to the huge numbers of people found in the valley. Flagstaff has an outdoor feel to it. Sometimes, Phoenix feels like a concrete jungle to me but Flagstaff has never had that sense for me.
I was reminded of the changes as you travel from Flagstaff and Mesa because of the setting of today’s gospel, Jericho. I haven’t been in Israel for many years but I remember the bus ride from Jericho up to Jerusalem. It is only twenty miles. But Jericho is 825 feet below sea level and Jerusalem is 2500 feet above sea level. Jerusalem receives about 20 inches of rain per year and has a Mediterranean climate while Jericho is an oasis in the desert. Jericho is a small city while Jerusalem is a large metropolis. Jerusalem was the center of the Jewish faith in the time of Jesus while Jericho was a small outpost.
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus arrived in Jericho from Galilee. He was on his way up to Jerusalem. It was a pilgrimage that had been taken by religious people for centuries. There are several Psalms of ascent which are prayers offered during this journey. This was his last reported event before his arrival in Jerusalem, just before the joyous events we celebrate on Palm Sunday and the sadness of Good Friday. The journey Jesus took has some parallels to our situation. There are times when we take such trips, perhaps a pilgrimage of a different kind. Our lifelong journey, our pilgrimage, is filled with blessed moments and challenges. We wish that our journeys will result in a mountaintop experience, a time when we see God in a special way. We hope to finish our journey with a welcome into heaven by Jesus. The story of Bartimaeus can give us some suggestions about how we reach out to God during our travels. It can give us encouragement about how God helps us on our way.
Bartimaeus was blind and sitting by the roadside begging for money or food. There are three specific things that draw our attention. One of the first things to note is how he cried out for help. He must have heard about Jesus, especially about those who had been healed. Bartimaeus called out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” For many, referring to Jesus as Son of David meant that he recognized Jesus as the Messiah. It would have been a startling confession of faith.
Did you notice that the crowd walking with Jesus tried to drown out Bartimaeus? They didn’t want to be bothered. Their sights were set on Jerusalem and they didn’t want anything to get in the way. Several disciples accompanied Jesus on this journey. They continued to misunderstand his mission. Did they let their own interests get in the way of helping this poor man? Did they believe that going to Jerusalem was more important than helping others? Of course, we know that Jesus came specifically to help the downtrodden. Bartimaeus was just the kind of person Jesus came to help, despite the efforts by the crowd to drown him out.
I was struck by what Jesus said when they finally met. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked. Jesus wanted Bartimaeus to ask the question, to say explicitly what his need was. Bartimaeus didn’t say he needed food or money which was what he usually asked for. Rather he said that he needed to have his sight restored.
Bartimaeus was the one person who clearly understood who Jesus was. Despite his blindness, he could see that Jesus was the Messiah and Jesus was the one who could heal him. The disciples of Jesus, the close followers, were the ones who were blind. They tried to keep Jesus from what he was called to do. In the passage just before this, James and John asked for special treatment, they wanted to be honored when Jesus was made king. They didn’t understand that Jesus was going to die on the cross and that they too would be killed for their beliefs. It was another example of their blindness. Only Bartimaeus knew who Jesus was and when he was healed this former blind man followed Jesus to Jerusalem.
What might we take away from this lesson? The three takeaways are to cry out to God for help in faith, to be unfettered by anyone or anything that stands in our way of asking God to help us and to trust that God will care for us.
I think this lesson tells us that we should ask God for exactly what we need. That is a little tricky. Sometimes we know what we want but that may not be what we need. It is always okay to ask God for what we want but it is usually better to let God decide what we need. I am sure that Jesus knew what Bartimaeus needed before he spoke. But he wanted to hear the words from Bartimaeus anyway. Because in asking, Bartimaeus declared that Jesus was God. We too show our worship of God when we ask for God’s mercy and when we ask God to help us in our need.
There is another subtle message. The recognition of God may come from someone that we don’t know or expect. If Bartimaeus was the one who could see and know who Jesus was, then how might we be blind to the work of God in our lives? How might we learn from someone else about the wonder of God’s love?
The saving power of Jesus was found in his healing and in his sacrifice. The saving power of God was known by the Jewish people long before Jesus came to earth. The reading from Jeremiah speaks a similar story to the one we heard in the gospel. The people cry out to God begging that they will be saved, that God will return them to their chosen city of Jerusalem. It is as if they shouted out to God with joy because they knew that when they asked God for help, God would be there for them.
Psalm 126 fits perfectly with the reading from Jeremiah. It is a plea that God will bring back the Jewish people from their exile. The psalmist refers to the time when God gave the land of Israel to these people and asks that they once again receive that gift. It is the same cry for God’s mercy that we heard from Bartimaeus. The people are confident that God will hear them once again.
I cannot help but think of the horrific events in Pittsburgh yesterday. Eleven people were killed in a synagogue. Once again, the Jewish people have been attacked by someone who was opposed to their religious beliefs. The cry of the Jewish people in Jeremiah and Psalms that God will take care of God’s people could be spoken of this latest tragedy. We weep with the people in that synagogue. We decry acts of violence done for any religious purpose and we decry violence of any kind against unsuspecting and law abiding people. We join the Jewish people in their cry that God will save us from these terrible tragedies. We pray that God will stop all acts of violence against people who are worshipping in any church or synagogue. We ask God to help us find ways to defend ourselves against such violent acts. We pray that God will take away our fear.
The story of the blind man in the gospel fits our current day situation well. Let us always have faith in Jesus Christ. In faith we have the courage and conviction to call out and ask Jesus for healing. We do so with confidence and hope. We are ready when Jesus turns to us and asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” We want God to keep us safe and we want God to heal us from every sickness. We pray that God will heal those people who have lost their way and believe that somehow violence is the answer to their concerns. And we live with that joyful knowledge that Jesus hears us and when Jesus decides that what we ask for is the best thing to do, we know that Jesus will act to provide that healing. That is why we come to church with joy. It is a joy that comes from knowing of God’s love and mercy for us. Amen.
We come together to ask God for healing. It is a serious subject but I decided to start with some funny stories about going to the doctor.
A doctor said that a patient announced she had good news … and bad. “The medicine for my earache worked,” she said.
“What’s the bad news?” he asked.
“It tasted awful.”
Since she was feeling better, he didn’t have the heart to tell her they’re called eardrops for a reason. They belong in your ear not your mouth.
A patient told this story.
When I went to the ER to have a painful ingrown toenail removed, I was sobbing, gagging, petrified … the works. But my doctor knew how to calm me down. “Don’t worry about a thing,” he assured me. “I just looked up how to perform this operation on YouTube.”
“Here,” says the nurse, handing the patient a urine specimen container. “The bathroom’s over there.” A few minutes later, the patient comes out of the bathroom.
“Thanks,” he says, returning the empty container. “But there was a toilet in there, so I didn’t need this after all.”
The Reader’s Digest used to have a section titled “Laughter is the best medicine”. I started today with some funny stories because data shows that when we laugh, our brain produces endorphins, which are up to 500 times more effective at eliminating pain than morphine. Laughter raises levels of disease fighting immunoglobulins by 14 percent. Laughter is helpful for healing.
So is prayer. “Studies of the effect of patients’ faith on disease outcomes have shown reduced hypertension, better lipid profiles and lower cholesterol levels, and improved immune function”. All of us should know how spirituality can help with our own healing. Let us use the understanding that our healing is impacted by our spiritual selves. We wish to pray for healing for ourself and for others. Let us join together asking God through Jesus to heal us.
Every person in church today and people that we love would benefit from healing prayer. All of us need healing in some way. Most of us have some physical problem that could use the power of God’s healing. Right now, my healing needs are for the common aches and pains of aging. But for some, the physical needs are much more acute. We need healing for our psychological being as well. We deal with feelings of rejection, anger, jealousy, frustration and sadness. We need healing for our relationships. We need healing for a divided nation.
So we turn to God in prayer. I have chosen three stories of healing from our Scripture. God healed King Hezekiah and allowed him to live as king for fifteen more years. In the readings from Acts, Peter healed the man at the gate, a man who had been lame from birth. In the Gospel, Jesus healed the woman who touched his cloak and healed the daughter of the leader of the synagogue. I could have chosen many other readings found in Scripture. These are just three of my favorites.
I often turn to Jesus to ask for healing. Jesus is our savior and our redeemer. Jesus is our mediator and advocate. Jesus is our judge, the one who gives us mercy. Jesus brings us into one with God. These are just a few of the ways we understand the blessings that Jesus gives us in our lives. Most importantly, Jesus is our healer for even in his death on the cross he healed us from our sins.
Our Gospels, especially Matthew, Mark and Luke, have story after story of people who were healed by Jesus. Jesus healed people who were blind and lame, people who were paralyzed, people who were deaf, people who had chronic illnesses, people who were thought to be dead. People were healed in different ways, some by the spoken word of Jesus, some were healed by simply touching his cloak and some by their faith. Yes, Jesus was a healer.
The healing Jesus provided often included more than the solution to a physical ailment. Jesus often told people that their sins were forgiven. In doing so, he healed them of the pain of sin, perhaps their guilt.
Jesus healed people in their relationships. Jesus dealt with the apostles as they argued about which was the greatest. He spoke to the woman at the well about her many husbands and brought her closer to God, helped her to prophesy to the other townspeople. Jesus often asked people to look inside of themselves and to see who they really were. It was all in an attempt to heal the entire mind, body and spirit. Jesus came to heal us in every way, whether that be physical or mental or emotional or relational.
I chose to do this service today in part because Thursday was the feast of Saint Luke. Yes, we believe Saint Luke to be the author of the Gospel that bears his name and the author of Acts of the Apostles. But Luke is also mentioned by Paul as one of his followers. In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he refers to Luke as the beloved Physician. Because of this, Luke has come to be the patron saint of healers. Luke is the only one who didn’t leave Paul when he was persecuted. Luke gave us six miracles that do not appear in any of the other gospels. The Order of Saint Luke is an organization of clergy, health professionals and lay people who believe healing is an essential part of the teaching and practice of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is an ecumenical organization dedicated to the Christian healing ministry.
I remind you that not all of the work is God’s. We have a roll as well. Sometimes, we are the caregivers. We can be an important presence in the lives of those in need.
Henry Nouwen wrote about our roll. “Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone's face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love? These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come.”
He also spoke about the importance of presence this way. “The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing... not healing, not curing... that is a friend who cares.”
We ask God to heal people in this church, people that we know are sick and suffering, and people on our prayer list. We pray that God will help doctors and nurses and all care givers to know how they can best help, to guide their hands as they work.
I am finished talking about healing and prayers. I think it is time to just pray. I think touch is an important part of healing prayer. Remember, that the woman simply touched the cloak of Jesus and she was healed. I ask you to reach out and hold the hands of someone nearby. I hope you feel the power of that touch as I offer this prayer for all of us.
Lord God, you are the creator of the Universe, the all powerful one. We pray that you will send your healing power to be among us today. Lord Jesus Christ, we know that you offered healing to the sick and suffering, we ask that you offer that healing to each of us here present. O Holy One, send the breath of life to be with us, that it may be to us a source of healing for all that ails us. Gracious God, we ask you to heal each of us physically. We ask you to heal our minds, to help us get rid of anger and frustration, sadness and jealousy, loneliness and anxiety. We ask you to provide healing for this congregation that we may be united in our worship, and that we may forgive those who have harmed us. Bring us together to do your work in the world. We ask that you heal those things that divide our country, helping us to listen and to find understanding so that we will work together on all of our problems. We ask for this in the name of the Holy and undivided Trinity. Amen.
Page 4 of 4
We humans are an interesting lot. We like to debate and discuss the meaning of so many things. We argue over the meaning of the words Jesus said. Today’s gospel is no different. Jesus told his disciples “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The saying is so striking that people have wondered what it really means. Listen for a moment to the different interpretations of this single verse when you do a simple internet search.
Some have said that there is an eye of the needle gate in Jerusalem. These folks suggest that when the gates of the city were closed at night, they would leave open the eye of the needle gate. It was much smaller than others. If someone brought a heavily loaded camel to the eye of the needle gate, they would have to unload all of the goods from the camel and the camel would have to get on its knees and crawl through the gate. The conclusion is that wealthy people must unload their possessions and humble themselves before God in order to get into heaven.
Others have said there is no such gate. Rather, there is a problem with translation. There are two words in Greek that are very similar. One is the word kamilon which is translated as rope. The other word is kamelon which is translated as camel. The argument goes that Jesus said it is harder for a rope to go through the eye of a needle. Perhaps, then we could find a really large needle or a really small rope and make it work. With my eyesight, I struggle to get any thread through a needle.
Still others have said that these other two interpretations are wrong. The Persians had a saying before the Jewish people that used an elephant as the example of an animal trying to get through the eye of a needle. So, camel is the best interpretations and Jesus wanted us to know how hard it is to get to heaven.
I don’t consider myself a biblical scholar nor am I an expert in languages. I am just going to let these different interpretations of the eye of the needle verse stick with you and let you decide which is correct. What all of these interpretations have in common is the seriousness of Jesus statement.
The young man told Jesus that he followed all of the commandments. Jesus loved the young man and appreciated his dedication to the commandments. I think Jesus knew that the young man was troubled despite his faithfulness. There was something that kept him from God. This man’s problem wasn’t just the possessions that he had. It was the way he treated them. Many people in Jesus’s time thought that wealth meant you could have everything you wanted and needed. It was an accepted attitude. The young man lacked a state of being, or perhaps a way of being. His possessions ruled him when he should have been focused on God instead. But Jesus told us that wealth isn’t what matters. Jesus wanted the man to live with God’s will in his heart and mind. Without a relationship to God, we are lost.
There was a time when people would sell all of their possessions and join a monastery or go to a convent. I don’t think Jesus wants all of us to go into a monastery. After all, we are called to bring God’s kingdom to earth. If we all lived in a monastery, we wouldn’t spend much time with other people and wouldn’t usually work to change the world. We must look into our own lives and see if there is something that is getting in the way of our relationship with God. It isn’t enough simply to be a good person and to follow the rules. Jesus expects us to commit our lives to him and to God the Father. For some it is our possessions that keep us from God but for others it is something else.
When we listen to the words from Amos today, it sounds as if God will send a great calamity to the people of Israel. Amos warned the people to repent. The words are quite simple. “Seek the Lord and you shall live” Amos tells us. We should turn to the Lord for all of our wishes, not just because we are afraid of some terrible outcome if we don’t.
In the Psalm we say, “I will praise the Lord with everything that I have”. Can we just turn our hearts to God and let everything else work the way it should? If we offer praise to God isn’t it likely that we allow God to lead us? Won’t our possessions become less important when we are able to praise God?
Another way to think about the dilemma the man faced is to understand that we are all called to use the gifts we have in service to the Lord. Last week’s lessons were about how we should be stewards of God’s creation. We are expected to care for the earth and to care for the animals of the world and to care for our pets. This week, our call is to be stewards of our gifts.
I am thankful for the willingness of Jeff Lokensgard to share his thoughts about stewardship. You will hear two more presentations from parishioners about their commitment to stewardship. Each will share their own perspective about how they use their gifts to glorify God. Tomorrow, we will create the pledge cards for everyone that we know is a regular attendee of this church. I do this always remembering how thankful I am for the people who give their time to make this church a special place and how thankful I am for the people who contribute to this place. Our goal is to join together in community to seek to understand God’s word and to live into our relationship with God. We wish to be a welcoming community where God’s spirit can be found. We can only do that if you help us. I ask you to prayerfully consider your response when you receive your pledge. Our church lives right on the edge of having enough income to pay for the expenses we incur each year. How will you respond to God’s call to be a steward? This year, we have chosen the theme transforming generosity. The idea is that when we give away some of what we have, when we help God’s kingdom and help others then we will be transformed, changed by the understanding that we are doing just what Jesus called us to do.
I hope that you respond to the words of Jesus not just out of a sense of responsibility or guilt but rather out of a sense of joy and thanksgiving. You see, if your response comes from the perspective that you must earn your way into heaven by giving away money, you have missed the wonder found in the words of Jesus. It is all about the joy we have in God’s gifts that we decide to give some of it back.
I spent a lot of time on that eye of the needle verse so as I finish I want you to know that the most important words of today are found in the story after the young man leaves the presence of Jesus. For Jesus said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” God’s actions are much more important than our actions. And God can make a difference in our lives. We just need to open our hearts so that God can work in our lives. I like the words we find in our collect for today. We ask the Lord to send us grace, grace that leads us and grace that follows us so that we can do God’s work in the world.
May you feel God’s grace in such a way that all you care to do is praise God. May you feel God’s grace so that you are not distracted by earthly things but always pay attention to God’s will for you. May you feel God’s grace so that you have strength enough to follow God’s wishes for you. Amen.
Page 4 of 4
In my priestly role, I have been fortunate to be invited to some very special events. On Friday, I was asked to officiate at a renewal of vows. The couple is from England and they are the parents of my daughter’s friend. They chose a location quite special, the Grand Canyon. They had rented a place in the park called Shashone Point. It isn’t well known and doesn’t show up on the official park map. We had to drive through a locked gate onto a rough dirt road until we reached the canyon rim. That was the easy part. Many of you may know that I am afraid of heights and to get onto the point you had to walk on a narrow ledge with a drop off of over a thousand feet on one side. We all managed to make it out onto the point and had a lovely service. It was glorious. That is why I say that being a priest has many blessings.
For the renewal of vows I chose a portion of today’s gospel reading. We began with the verse that starts “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’” We left out the portion of the gospel that speaks of divorce. It totally changes our sense of the reading. We focus on the love that two married people share. While the views were beautiful at the Grand Canyon, the best part of the ceremony was the visible love that you could feel between these two people. And we celebrated, for they have been married for 45 years. They are a wonderful example of how a marriage can show everyone how God loves us all.
Each week, our Bible readings offer a rich array of topics for us to think about. Today is no different. We have stories about creation and our responsibilities to be good stewards. We could talk about the gift that God gave us through Jesus and we could speak about how much Jesus loved the children or even how children can be such an example to us. I thought about each of these different topics and my first idea was to talk about God’s expectation that we be stewards of the earth. Today, I am going to speak about the glories of creation in two ways. First, about how God created so much beauty and our role in that creation. A second point is that as part of that creation God established the covenant of marriage and what that means to us.
The feast of Saint Francis of Assisi was Thursday the fourth. We all know that Francis appreciated the beauty of nature and was especially drawn to all the creatures of the earth. He lived out the words found in Genesis when God said “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” Many brought their pets to be with them today. We celebrate the importance of all God’s creatures. We are thankful for our pets. We know the unconditional love that our pets have for us. I remember times when I came home from a bad day at work and our dog, Chester, would run up to me and greet me with so much joy. God created these animals to help us in our lives and we are to help the animals as well. When God indicated that we are to name these animals. God also wanted us to care for them. We are to be stewards of God’s creation. This month we will talk about stewardship. While the focus may be on how we support this church, I ask you to never forget that we are stewards in many parts of our lives.
Another part of God’s creation is marriage. Jesus spoke of two people becoming one flesh. He also spoke about divorce. I thought about how many people in the church this morning have been affected by divorce and hearing the words of Jesus may create your own memories, thoughts that hurt you in your very being. The words of Jesus about divorce may make you feel sad or guilty or lost. How might we deal with the words of Jesus today?
I would first like to point out that Jesus answered the question of divorce by talking about marriage. Jesus told us that marriage is an important commitment to God. Jesus brought us back to God’s creation describing how God created the world and expected humans to marry and to become one flesh, to be united one with another. Jesus said that God joined together two people and “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate”.
We are fortunate in this community that we have so many examples of what a good marriage is supposed to be like. Thanks to those who work to make their marriage successful. Yesterday, we had a celebration of life for Roz Cope. I remember that Ed and Roz had their renewal of vows in April. They demonstrated the love that exists between husband and wife, another example of how we might love one another.
Jesus’ words about divorce are strong and may be difficult for us to hear. It doesn’t seem as if there is any room for concluding that divorce is OK. I believe that Jesus wanted us to work at our marriage, to do everything we can to keep two people together. In the marriage ceremony it is not just the husband and wife who make a commitment to each other, it is also the community. Everyone attending a wedding ceremony is asked if they will do all in their power to support the couple in their marriage.
One reason that Jesus spoke is that he knew the pain and suffering that comes with divorce. It is likely that both parties who go through a divorce feel a sense of loss and abandonment, a sense of failure and an uncertainty about what will come next in their lives. We call this family Sunday. We always care about families, but each month, we dedicate our service in a special way to families. We ask everyone to pray for families and to offer their support to each other because after all, we are a family in this church. Jesus knew that divorce hurts every member of a family, most especially the children. We pray for all children who have experienced a divorce.
Jesus told us that divorce is wrong. But divorce is a pretty common thing in today’s world. Churches have reached the point where divorce is much more accepted than it was. Divorce is just one of many things that Jesus told us is wrong. We also do things wrong when we lie or cheat or steal. And we do things wrong when we refuse to help the needy.
Saving a marriage may come in conflict with some other sins. It may conflict with abuse or infidelity which are also wrong. And when that happens, we may need to choose the lesser of the sins. It is not what Jesus said but it is what I believe.
We should be clear that divorce may be just like other sins. We ask God to forgive us and God does. For some reason we have come to the conclusion that divorce is a greater sin than others. I just don’t see it that way. Jesus died on the cross to forgive all of our sins, not just some of them. Jesus wants us to live in relationship with God, not to be ostracized for a particular thing that is wrong.
And as Christians, we are called to forgive each other as well. We are called to live in community with one another and to welcome everyone to this church. So, while a divorced person may have done something wrong, we remember that all of us have done something wrong. As we receive God’s forgiveness, we reach out to persons who feel as if they have been forgotten just because what they have done is public information.
My suggestion is that each of us reflects on what we have done wrong, and ask God to forgive us, that we make a commitment to not sin again, and that we pray to remind ourselves of that commitment. After that, let us all rejoice in the forgiveness which we have been offered in spite of the fact that we have done little to deserve it. Amen.
How many of us want things to be done our way? And when we don’t get what we want do we grumble or actually complain? We live in a time when the customer is always right and we often feel like we have the authority to say so when it doesn’t happen. Here are some examples of complaints that were submitted by travelers and published in the Toronto Star.
- “On my holiday to India, I was disgusted to find that almost every restaurant served curry. I don’t like spicy food at all.”
- A guest at a Novotel in Australia complained that his soup was too thick. He was inadvertently slurping gravy.
- Following a trip to a national theme park, one angry woman complained that the sun was so hot it melted her ice cream.
- An air traveler voiced her disapproval of all the clouds in the sky, saying they ruined her children’s game of Eye Spy.
But all of those complaints are minor when compared to one reported by the Associated Press. It seems that a man named Arthur Bundrage approached a Syracuse, New York, bank teller and demanded $20,000. When he got home, he discovered he’d been shortchanged. Outraged, he stormed back to the bank to tell them what he thought of their service. That’s when he was arrested. Well, I guess he thought he was justified in his complaint.
Before I continue, let me offer this quote for why we shouldn’t complain. “Never waste a second of your life complaining. Complaining doesn’t solve problems. It attracts them. The more you complain, the more problems you’ll have. And the more you infect other people with your problems. Don’t be an infection. Be a cure.” Here is one more, “Stay away from “still” people. Still broke, still complaining, still hating, and still nowhere.” Complaining isn’t something new
Did you notice all of the grumbling found in Scripture today? It began with the Israelites in the desert. The people were complaining to God and to Moses telling them they were tired of eating manna. They wanted to eat meat or fish. It sounds like something I might have done when I was a child. Do I have to eat my vegetables tonight? I am really tired of them. By the way, Scripture tells us that manna was actually quite good to eat. The Israelites beat the manna, boiled it and then made cakes out of it. The Bible tells us that it tasted as good as cakes made with oil. Well, I guess variety is the spice of life and the Israelites were looking for some variety in their diet.
And it wasn’t just the people who complained. Moses told God that he was tired of their complaining. He said that they were God’s people, not his and God should fix the problem not him. And that isn’t all of the complaining either. Joshua complained to Moses about two men prophesying in the camp when all the elders were away. Not one of the Israelites was happy and they expressed their dissatisfaction to God and the leaders of the people.
Well, complaining didn’t stop in the Hebrew Scripture. In the Gospel, the apostles complained about someone preaching the good news in Jesus’ name without being authorized to do so. The apostles only wanted those who had been anointed to cast out demons in the name of Jesus. Others needed to be stopped. They must have thought that you needed to be ordained in order to talk about how God works in our lives. That doesn’t happen today, does it?
It doesn’t seem that much has changed. We complain about bad drivers, about people who get in our way. We complain about things that our neighbors have done and things that are happening on the other side of the world. I know that complaining can be therapeutic. At the same time complaining can also make us negative about many things. We even occasionally complain to God about what is going on in our lives. Why did you let me get sick, we might say in our prayers to God. Why did you allow me to lose all of that money? Why can’t you come and solve my problems?
We complain to people as well as to God. How do you respond? I would say that when we hear complaints about something we said or did, we usually want to offer a retort or respond with a negative comment about the other person. We might even become disgusted or ignore the other individual. Somehow, though, when we complain to God, we believe that God is able to take it all and deal with our concerns.
You see, in each of the situations described in Scripture today, God took action. God wasn’t angered by the complaints of God’s people. God told Moses to bring together the elders and God ’s spirit entered into them. If we were to read on, we would learn that God sent quail to feed the people meat. God also entered into the lives of the apostles. Jesus told them to leave the man alone who was casting out demons in his name. God intervened to help humans understand God’s will.
These readings also highlight the role of lay people in ministry. God encouraged the lay leaders who served with Moses, the seventy elders, to preach and to speak about what God wanted. In the Gospel, Jesus allowed someone who was not close to him to cast out demons in his name. The letter from James indicates that we should call upon the elders to pray over the sick and that their prayers will be heard by God. In each case, God took charge and supported the role of the lay people in ministry.
If we believe that God intervened with the Israelites and the apostles, then God can intervene in our life as well. When we pray, we may actually be complaining and still God responds. We may not know how God answers our complaint but I believe that God does.
Just as God inspired the ministry of lay people in Scripture, part of what God does is to empower us for our ministry. In the Episcopal Church, we believe that lay ministry is just as important as the ministry of any ordained person. Lay ministry takes so many different forms and there are so many things you can do as a lay minister in this church. Chalice bearers, ushers, lay readers and the altar guild offer their ministry during the service. Others offer a ministry of hospitality that we enjoy after the service. This Sunday is social media Sunday and we have a dedicated group who keep our Facebook page and the website up to date while others help with the announcements and the newsletter. The emphasis today is on those who declare the word of God to others. I know that several people in this congregation have invited others to come and attend our church. That is a piece of lay ministry. It makes me remember the gentleman so many years ago who invited Jan and I to come and sing in the choir. It was our introduction to the Episcopal Church and it changed our lives.
Many years ago, I was encouraged by the rector of our church to go and visit someone in the hospital. When the priest asked me to go visit, the person’s name did not register with me. But I went anyway. It turns out that the man I visited was someone I had met before but not seen for a while. We had a good visit. The person I visited thanked me for coming and I got over some of the nerves I had about going to the hospital.
Your ministry matters. Listen to this quote from D’Angelo “I learned at an early age that what we were doing in the choir was just as important as the preacher. It was a ministry in itself.” I like this quote from Nathaniel Parker Willis about ministry as well, “If there is anything that keeps the mind open to angel visits, and repels the ministry of ill, it is human love.” Our ministry to others only requires that we love one another.
May you feel God’s spirit entering into you and encouraging you to minister to other people. It is always the grace of God that changes things. Hear Isaiah speaks to us about God’s grace, “do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God.” God’s grace is all that we need to bring God’s love to others. May you feel the strength of God empowering you this week. Amen.
On Friday, I took a trip to Mexico with a friend. For me, it was just a chance to get away. Jan was up in Flagstaff helping our daughter take care of the grandchildren. It was good to spend the day with another person and just talk. On the way we passed through the town of Why, Arizona. It is a small town located near Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. We started chatting about what people were thinking about when they named the town. Were they asking themselves “Why did I come to this place?” Did they wonder, “Why did God create this place?” Or was it just the only name they could think of.
When I thought about Why, Arizona it made me think of the comedy routine that was made famous by Abbott and Costello, “Who is on First”. So, I can imagine asking someone from the town of Why, “What town do you come from?” And the answer is Why. Well I just want to know how to find you? Why. I think we could make up our own comedy routine that used the town name Why. The confusion could last forever
Later, I learned that the town was named after the intersection of two highways that formed a Y when they came together. In Arizona, a town name must be at least three letters so they named the town with a question Why.
My friend said the town named Why reminded him that children ask Why over and over again. Why is the sky blue? Why do I have to go to school? After a while parents can get tired of hearing that question
Jesus mentioned children in the Gospel lesson we read. Children can be difficult to deal with sometimes but they also bring us great joy.
Jesus encouraged us to pay attention to the children for he said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Let’s reflect on that verse, asking ourselves what it means to welcome a child or any other person. I think the best place to start is to remind ourselves that we are welcomed by God.
God created us and God loves us. God has mercy and compassion on us. And God forgives us for what we have done. We can find God’s forgiveness so many times in Scripture. God forgave King David for his sins. God forgave Paul for persecuting the followers of Jesus and turned him into an apostle. God’s love was so complete that God sent Jesus to be with us.
We know that Jesus welcomed many into his life. Jesus visited with Gentile women and a woman who was bleeding. He healed lepers and people with demons. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus brought the children to sit with him, even though his disciples tried to chase them away. Everyone of the examples I have given you are people who were outcasts. Jesus forgave people when they had sinned. Even as he hung on the cross he forgave those who were killing him. It was another way that Jesus welcomed people.
Please know that Jesus welcomes you. It doesn’t matter where you come from, what you have done or what you look like. I hope that you find comfort in this welcome from Jesus. I hope that you can feel acceptance in the arms of Jesus.
We read in Scripture that we are children of God. We sometimes refer to God as Abba, a loving father. Yes, God welcomes each of us. Sometimes, just like children, we ask God questions. Questions like, Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does God allow people to go to war? Why did Jesus have to die? I wonder if God gets tired of hearing our questions. What we know is that regardless of our questions and our doubts, God accepts us for what we are.
Why did Jesus welcome the child? Professor of theology, Elisabeth Johnson, said “In any culture, children are vulnerable; they are dependent on others for their survival and well-being. In the ancient world, their vulnerability was magnified by the fact that they had no legal protection. A child had no status, no rights. A child certainly had nothing to offer anyone in terms of honor or status. But it is precisely these little ones with whom Jesus identifies.
How are we supposed to care for the children? Professor Johnson said it this way, “True greatness, Jesus says, is not to be above others, but to be least of all and servant of all. It is not to ascend the social ladder but rather descend it, taking the lowest place. It is not to seek the company of the powerful, but to welcome and care for those without status, such as the child that Jesus embraces and places before his disciples.
When you come to church, I hope that you feel welcomed by God, by Jesus, in this place. I hope that you feel welcomed to come to the altar for communion. In response to God’s welcoming, we try to welcome others. We often say about the Episcopal Church that all are welcome. We try to live that welcome when we greet folks who visit and when we offer God’s peace to others during the service. We seek to welcome others with our outreach programs. We welcome those who have been here for many years because that is what Jesus taught us.
In the letter from James, the author expressed concern about divisions in the church. James wrote that we covet something we cannot have so we enter into conflict and disputes. Our works are to be done with gentleness born of wisdom. We are not to harbor selfish ambition in our hearts. God’s righteousness is found in those who make peace. This letter encourages us to ask God for what we need and as we do we are able to welcome others in peace.
Some of you probably know a hymn composed by Marty Haugen in 1995 that speaks of our welcome. The first verse goes like this.
Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live,
a place where saints and children tell how hearts learn to forgive.
Built of hopes and dreams and visions, rock of faith and vault of grace;
here the love of Christ shall end divisions. All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.
It often seems easier to surround ourselves with people who are successful. We certainly shouldn’t avoid them. But Jesus told us to welcome the child. In doing so, he wanted us to welcome all who are outcasts. In our society we glorify youth and vitality. The outcast might be someone who is older. It might mean welcoming someone who comes to the church alone. It could be someone who is sick and cannot attend on Sunday. The outcasts certainly include prisoners and homeless people.
Welcoming also gives us the opportunity to learn from others. I know I learned from people in Honduras and El Salvador who were poor and yet maintained a positive attitude, people who were joyous for the little things they had in their lives. I feel that I have learned from people who come to food kitchens where I have helped hand out food. Most of these people are thankful for the little that they have been given. It is encouragement for us to be thankful for all we have received.
While children may not be as low on the social ladder today as they were in Jesus’ time, they are still at risk. Jesus didn’t really tell us what we can learn from children. Still, I think there is much we can learn from children. Children have a love of life that some of us have lost. Children are inquisitive, a trait that many of us could use. Last week, at the 10:00 service, a child came walking up to the front of the church as we started communion. I loved her joy and determination and curiosity. Children are loving, it means so much to me when my granddaughter speaks to me over the phone and shouts, “Good morning, grandpa”. I hope that each of you are thinking about ways that children have taught you something. It is from the least, the smallest, the unempowered that we sometimes can learn something important. What might you grasp from those people this week?
I encourage you to leave church today remembering that you are welcome because you have receive the love, mercy and forgiveness of Jesus. And I encourage you to reflect on how you can share God’s mercy with someone who needs it, welcoming them, giving someone the comfort and care that is only possible through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
This past Tuesday, we remembered those who died in the 9-11 disaster. We remembered people who died in New York, Washington DC and Pennsylvania. We remembered those first responders who came immediately to help those who where affected, putting their lives at risk. We remember that first responders are still impacted by their efforts on 9-11. We remembered those who lost loved ones, friends and colleagues.
As I watched the news on Tuesday, one of the television stations aired a segment on Pat Tillman. I am sure you all know that Pat Tillman was a defensive back for the Arizona Cardinals who decided after 9-11 to serve in the military. Tillman died in a battle in 2004 in Afghanistan. We are thankful for his patriotism, his commitment to defend the United States and we are thankful for his sacrifice. I continue to be amazed by his decision to give up a lucrative football career to serve in the military. Clearly, his desire to protect our country was stronger than his joy in playing football and his wish to make money.
As the newscast continued, I watched an interview conducted with Pat Tillman the day after 9-11. You can see in his face and hear in his words the resolve to do something in response to the disaster. Players and coaches on that Cardinals team later would say they knew something significant had changed in Tillman. They could tell by his words and his look. They were not surprised when he left his football career behind him. Here is part of what he said,
"My great-grandfather was in Pearl Harbor and a lot of my family has given up, you know everything, and has gone and fought in wars. And I really haven’t done a damn thing, as far as laying myself on the line like that, and so I have a great deal of respect for those that have, and what the flag stands for.” Pat Tillman showed his resolve and determination that day.
Our lessons for today, remind us that we are called to have dedication and commitment to follow Jesus Christ. We are asked to have resolve. We are asked to stay the course even though our lives may be difficult. We are asked to follow the example that Jesus gave to us.
You may remember that in last week’s readings, I spoke about persistence. The characters mentioned in Scripture were persistent in their prayers to God. It seems to me that this week is a continuation of that sense of determination. Let us be resolved to follow Jesus.
The phrase that most touched me in Isaiah today is the expression, “therefore I have set my face like flint”. Flint, of course, is a hard stone. It was used as a tool, as an arrow by the Native Americans, and it was struck to start a fire. In the image of a person setting a face like flint we understand the determination that individual has. I am reminded of a point in Luke’s gospel where Jesus decided that he must go to Jerusalem, be crucified and rise from the dead. Luke wrote, “Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem. Jesus would not be deterred from this path. No one, not even Peter, could keep him from doing what needed to be done.”
In order to understand what this means to us, we return to Scripture. The passage from Isaiah is about a prophet who has heard God’s word. Knowing the word of God helped the prophet to remain steadfast in the Lord. The prophet was not moved by adversaries or temptations. Nor was the prophet changed by punishment or persecution.
I think we are in a similar position. We have heard the word of God. We should remain committed to following God’s word. It does not matter what difficulties we encounter. We may be tempted by sin, tempted by those who would lead us astray. Jesus was punished on the cross. Our punishment may not be physical, but we may be laughed at or teased by people who do not believe. Our call from God may put us in situations where it would be easier to just give in and deny that Jesus Christ is our Lord. That is why we set our face like flint. We will not be held back from our mission.
One of the temptations we face is found in the letter to James. We must be careful in all that we say. For the tongue can be a source of evil in our lives. The tongue is such a small part of our body and yet it can be so powerful. The tongue can be a source of good such as when we declare the glory of God. It can be the source of evil, such as when we gossip about others.
James wrote that the tongue can control the rest of the body. He referred to the bit of a bridle through which a rider controls all the movements of the horse. He wrote about the rudder of a ship which can be small but controls the movements of a massive ocean liner. We must let the small voice we receive from God control our words and actions.
James even warned preachers like me, telling them to be careful in what they say and mindful of God’s word, we can send many off in the wrong direction. Words can be so powerful. Let us use them to worship and praise God, not to separate ourselves from others.
The Gospel reading gives us another example of determination and the risk of temptation. Jesus was testing the Apostles. He asked them, “who do you say that I am?” Peter spoke out and said you are the Messiah! His words were inspirational. He used his tongue for good. Then, Jesus spoke about the suffering and rejection he would experience. Peter must have been horrified. He loved and worshipped Jesus so much that he couldn’t imagine Jesus suffering. Peter decided he couldn’t let it happen. So he chose to argue the point with Jesus. Perhaps Peter spoke too quickly, letting his tongue and his emotions get the best of him. I don’t think Peter heard the most important words that Jesus spoke on that day. For Jesus said that after three days he would rise again. Peter missed the glory, the promise, and the redemption that he would receive when all the events were concluded.
Jesus gives us a great lesson. Jesus knew what he was going to encounter but was resolved to go through with it. Jesus knew that he would suffer in body and in spirit, but he would continue anyway, for the final result would be transforming.
In the sorrow and depths of despair that the United States experienced during the Civil War, after the death of so many soldiers who fought on both sides at the Battle of Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln captured the essence of what it means to be committed. He said, “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain - that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Lincoln was steadfast in his efforts to save the union. His words guide our nation to this day.
Lincoln was focused on patriotism, love of our country and dedication to live the ideals upon which it was founded. The example that we receive from Pat Tillman and Abraham Lincoln is about dediucation. Today, we seek to apply their ideas on dedication to our love of God and our resolve to live our lives as followers of Jesus.
Our commitment is to be firm in our faith, followers of Jesus. We live to be part of the Jesus Movement. We need to be dedicated for we know that we will have hard times. I don’t expect that we will be persecuted physically even though Christians in other parts of the world face that possibility. Our temptation will come in other ways. We must expect it and be ready to face it. Perhaps our temptations will be like the one Peter faced. We may experience a time when our faith in Jesus, our love of Jesus is so strong that we only want to live in the resurrection. We want to avoid the suffering Jesus experienced in his life and avoid any suffering in our lives that may come from our faith. Let us instead recognize that we may be tried and let us be resolved to remain faithful followers in all we do. Let us be strengthened by the work of Jesus and accept his mercy and love, his forgiveness when we do wrong. And let us remember that if we are resolved to follow Jesus, we receive his promise of eternal life. Amen.