Each week, I ask the Holy Spirit to help me know what God’s message is to us. But each week I am uncertain whether God is offering us the words of comfort or the words that challenge us to follow. Am I called to share God’s love for us, the message that gives us comfort when we have great difficulties, the knowledge that Jesus is with us during our times of trial? All of us come to church bearing burdens, seeking God’s solace. Jesus spoke about his comforting presence in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 11:28-30), “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Today’s gospel is a reminder of the love that Jesus has for us. Jesus said that he would “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed.” All of this he did because he loves us and was willing to give his life for us. But sometimes, the gospel is sharp. It comes to us as a challenge or perhaps a warning. We are told that following Jesus is a difficult path. Today’s gospel falls into that second category. Jesus is blunt. In a more common translation, Jesus didn’t rebuke Peter, he told him to shut up. Their exchange was not friendly. Get behind me, Satan, he said to Peter. If you want to follow me, take up your cross he said to the crowd. You will gain nothing if you obtain all the wealth of this world, rather you will lose your life and I will be ashamed of you when I rejoin God the Father in heaven. Peter had the unique ability to make great pronouncements one minute and to get himself in big trouble the next minute. It makes Peter a good example for us. He tried hard to do the right thing but often he made mistakes. Jesus never gave up on Peter and Peter became the head of the church. Peter had just proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah. I think Peter’s pronouncement had a different meaning to him and the other apostles than it does to us today. Perhaps they thought that Jesus would become a king like his long ago ancestor David. That is why, when Jesus declared that he would be crucified, Peter jumped up and said, don’t be saying that Jesus. Jesus knew Peter was wrong. He didn’t come to kick the Romans out of Israel. Jesus wasn’t going to lead some army against their foes. Instead Jesus wanted them to understand his messiahship was something totally different. Jesus’ message was about how we give up the things of the earth and instead focus on the things of God. It was a hard message for the apostles to hear and it is a hard message for us to live today. What does it mean? Well I don’t think that Jesus wants all of us to live in a monastery. This past week at the clergy retreat we spent a lot of time in the prayers of those who lived in the Benedictine monastery. Benedictine monasticism proclaims communal prayers eight times each day. We offered prayers about four times on Wednesday. The prayers were wonderful but I would not be able to do that every day. Jesus often went off by himself to pray. But Jesus wasn’t a hermit. Jesus lived among the people, teaching and healing and sharing a meal. I think taking up the cross means something other than being a monk. What does it mean to say that I will take up the cross and follow Jesus? C. S. Lewis offered this “Some people when they say that a thing is meant metaphorically conclude from this point that it is hardly meant at all. They rightly think that Christ spoke metaphorically when he told us to carry the cross; they wrongly conclude that carrying a cross is nothing more than living a respectable life and subscribing moderately to charities.” We don’t have to actually carry a cross but it isn’t about being nice either. William Temple was the Archbishop of Canterbury during World War II and he offered this suggestion, “The principle of sacrifice is that we choose to do or suffer what apart from our love we should not choose to do or to suffer”. Some people use the expression “That is my cross to bear” when they refer to a difficult situation in their life. It might mean that they have a difficult relationship with another person or a job that they don’t like or an illness that will not go away. I would say Jesus wasn’t thinking that taking up your cross meant that you would experience difficult things in your life, even though we often do. When Jesus said take up your cross I think he was telling the apostles that they should be willing to die for Jesus. They would proclaim the gospel of Jesus even though others threatened them. The apostles would be killed for sharing their faith. Today, there are Christian martyrs who stand up for their faith despite the political or social environment they live in. Christians in Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan face the pressure of persecution every day. I have been a follower of Jesus since the day I was born. I have never faced persecution as a Christian. So, what does taking up our cross mean to you and I. Let’s look at Peter one more time. When Jesus was arrested and about to be crucified, Peter followed at a distance. He entered the courtyard nearby and three times he was asked if he knew Jesus. Three times he said no, I do not know the man. When Peter was with Jesus in Galilee, it was easy to follow Jesus, easy to declare him the Messiah. But Peter fell down when difficult times came. Have you ever struggled with your faith in difficult times? Have you refused to acknowledge Jesus? Have any of us stood by and let others make false statements about Jesus? Jesus told us that we are to care for the poor, the hungry, the naked, the sick and those in prison. Have we ever forgotten to help those in need? Have we ever found ourselves enjoying the fruits of the earth so much that we forget what Jesus wanted us to do? All of us want to be wealthy, to be strong, to be successful and to be able to influence others. If we let those wishes keep us from doing what Jesus taught us, we deny him. Jesus always served others. Taking up our cross is dying to our selfish wishes and living for Jesus while serving others. C. Clifton Black is a professor of Biblical Studies who wrote that “Christian faith is not a life-style choice; it is a vocation to never-ending struggle. By lying about Jesus and the truth of the gospel, we deny the truth about ourselves. Rejecting the Son of Man, desperately trying to save our own lives, we lose ourselves -- just as he assured us we would (8:35-37). Only by giving ourselves to others as Jesus gave himself for us (10:45) will we ever find ourselves.” Our other readings for today are about faith. Abraham had faith that God would be with him. Abraham fell on his face before God trusting that God would take care of him and God did, giving both Abraham and Sarah a son even in their old age. Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans that Abraham did not receive God’s promise because he followed the commandments, the law. Rather, Abraham received God’s promise because of his faith. Jesus strong words in the gospel about taking up our cross are for our own good. Jesus wants us to be faithful. Take up your cross means that we trust that God will lead us on the right path. Our job is to give up the things of this earth and focus on the things of God. When we follow God through Jesus Christ we are destined to have that peace which only God can give us. We are comforted. That is why we take up our cross, to receive God’s peace and to receive the hope of the resurrection. It is the promise Jesus gave to those who follow him. Amen.
Many years ago I read a short story titled “The Lady or the Tiger”. The story was set in a time long ago, perhaps during the era when the Romans ruled the entire Mediterranean area. A king of a small community ruled with an iron fist. His way to determine the guilt or innocence of someone was to offer a test. The accused party would go to the center of the arena. The accused would choose one of two doors. Behind one door was a tiger who would kill the man. Behind the other door was a lady who would be the accused man’s wife. It seems that the daughter of the king had fallen in love with a young man who was not deemed to be a satisfactory partner. The king decided to put the young man to the test. Now, the daughter of the king had learned which door held the lady and which held the tiger. The young man looked to his loved one and she indicated that he should choose the door to his right. The author of the story, Frank Stockton, wrote that the daughter of the king had struggled with her decision. Should she allow her loved one to marry another lady or did she want him to die instead? The author doesn’t give us the answer, only asks us to decided for ourselves whether the young daughter had sent her loved one to death or allowed him to marry another woman. The reader decides. When I read the story, I wished that the author had given us the answer, rather than to suggest that we should figure it out for ourselves. I sometimes feel that way about Scripture as well. Each of us may need to do some soul searching when scripture is not totally clear. Mark’s gospel is the shortest and most straight forward . When I read it I sometimes want more. It would be helpful if Jesus had told us why he did certain things. What does the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law mean to us? Why did Jesus leave the crowds to pray? Why did Jesus decide to leave the town of Capernaum? I will share my ideas and hope that you might share yours with me later. This passage from Mark is about a miracle, actually several miracles. Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law and she immediately began to serve them. Let me point out that the words we actually read say Jesus “lifted her up”. It is the same Greek verb that is used in other parts of the New Testament to refer to Jesus’ resurrection. I would say that Mark wants us to understand that the healing Jesus performed was more than physical healing. This must have been a healing of body, mind and spirit. I think the serving that the mother-in-law did afterward had little to do with the household chores. This healing did not create the opportunity for a woman to be placed in a position of caring for the men. Rather, she was healed in a way that allowed her to serve God. It is the calling that each of us receives to spread the word of God through the service we provide to others. We follow in Jesus’ footsteps when we serve. Later in Mark we find this passage, ““For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45). We are thankful for the healing that Jesus gave to the people he was with. We ask Jesus to heal us of all of our ills. The healing that we receive may be physical or as our collect suggests it might be healing us from our sins. Whatever we need, God heals us. Once we are healed we are ready to serve God and to serve others. Isn’t that what Paul wrote about? After all, Jesus healed Paul. Jesus got Paul to see that persecuting Christians was wrong and instead Paul was called to convert people to Christianity. Paul knew that his calling didn’t make him someone special. He was just doing his job, serving the Lord by sharing the good news of Jesus. Even more, Paul understood that he was called to meet people where they were. For the Jewish people, Paul helped them find Jesus in the law which was part of their life. For the Gentiles, Paul could explain that his relationship with God through Jesus did not depend on any law. By doing so, Paul made it as easy as possible for people to hear the words of Jesus and to understand that Jesus was their savior as well. Paul wrote that living and preaching the gospel was a reward in itself. Preaching the gospel was compelling and liberating. (James Childs) I found some helpful words about today’s gospel in a commentary by Eleonore Stump. “The whole town hears of her healing and rushes all their sick to Peter’s house. The Gospel says that by the evening the whole city was gathered at the door of Peter’s house (Mark 1:33)! Now, all of a sudden, Jesus seems to have become a one-man hospital. The Gospel says that Jesus healed most of them”. But soon Jesus left the crowds in Capernaum and Jesus decided to go to another town to give the good news to other people. What might we learn from all of his actions? On the surface, it seems that Jesus didn’t care for all of the people who came to see him and needed his help. What happened to his compassion? We all want people to be healed and I am sure that Jesus wanted to heal everyone who came to see him. One way to think about this is to remember that the healing Jesus provided was that resurrection healing, preparing them for service in the kingdom of God. I believe that Jesus concluded that some in the crowd were just there for the physical healing. They had no interest in becoming disciples. They were not willing to live the rest of their lives following Jesus. They were using him for their needs and not listening to the rest of the message that Jesus had to offer. Another thought is that Jesus needed a break. Although we are called to serve others, we cannot always be there for every person who needs our help. We must find some time to rejuvenate, to refresh. Jesus knew that self-care was important. Any of you who are involved in the daily care of another person must find some time for yourself, some time to rest. When Jesus left the crowds in Capernaum, he went off by himself to pray. There were too many people in the town for him to pray there. He went to ask God to restore him to his full strength and Jesus went and asked God to help him decide what he should do next. That may be the most important message we take from today’s scripture. Our prayer life is a time to find comfort, solitude, inspiration and renewal. Once again, I turn to Eleonore Stump, “And yet how absurd it is to suppose that prayer should take second-place to work, no matter what the work is! And how sadly and understandably absurd it is to suppose that the mission of Jesus is to be a ‘Doctor Without Borders.’” And so maybe it isn’t hard to figure out what Jesus was praying about in the early morning in the countryside. Each healing Jesus does is a good thing. But good things can actually get in the way of serving God well. To serve God well, a person has to do not just any good things that others want him to do. He has to do those good things that God has called him to do. It may take prayer to figure out which good things to turn down. In prayer and reflection, Jesus realized that he needed to go to another place, to another town. Jesus came to be the redeemer of every person, not just the people of Capernaum. Jesus knew that he came not just as an extraordinary healer but also to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God had arrived. In our prayers, we turn to God and ask for insight. Yes, we ask God for healing, for all of us need healing of one kind or another. We also pray that God will help us to know what actions we should take, to understand what we are called to do, who we are called to help. Let us pray not just for ourselves but also for this church that our community may know how we might follow God’s will. Amen.
We live in a time when the number of people who say they are religious and the number of people attending church is declining. Yet, Hollywood still produces movies about religious topics. During my lifetime there have been many movies about exorcisms and last year a movie was produced called “The Exorcism of Anna Ecklund”. I must say I did not go to the movie. I think it was a horror movie and that is not my interest. But I do believe that there are evil spirits in the world and I do believe that we must fight against the evil that does exist. In the gospel story Jesus performs an exorcism. A spirit inside a man complains about the work of Jesus. And Jesus calls that spirit out of the man. Not many people today know of someone who had an evil spirit that required an exorcism. It would be easy to say that the lesson does not apply to us. We may not need an exorcism but I think we all call upon Jesus to help us avoid the evil spirits that keep us from being close to God. Or perhaps we can call upon Jesus to keep us from temptation. Each of our lessons today offers words of advice. The Psalm points out the glory of God. We give thanks to the Lord God with all of our heart. We recognize the wonderful acts that God has done. We know that God works in truth and equity for all. And we know that we will find wisdom when we trust in the Lord. Faith, trust and hope in the Lord lead us to ask God for help. In the first lesson from Deuteronomy, we hear that God will raise up a prophet from among the people. As Christians, we think of Jesus when we hear these words. We are told that “Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable”. God calls us to use those gifts of faith and trust that we may listen to Jesus. If we fail to listen to Jesus then we may be following the evil spirits that are mentioned in Mark’s gospel. Temptation may overtake us and keep us from hearing the word of the Lord. Paul wrote about temptation in his lesson for today. He wrote that knowledge can lead to pride whereas love leads us to care for our community. Much of the food in the marketplace came from offerings that were made to idols. Some people believed that eating this food was like worshiping the idol. But Paul said that idols are not gods therefore they cannot be worshipped. But the wise must not be prideful or hold this knowledge over the foolish. Paul wants us to help the weak, care for the suffering and love one another. Let us not lead others into temptation. Let us not think we are smarter or better than someone else. Once again it is about asking Jesus to help us avoid temptation, to avoid the evil spirits of this world. Today, we will have our annual meeting after the service. It is a time to celebrate what we have accomplished together, a time to recognize the work of many, a time to identify new leaders for the church and a time to consider what God might be calling us to in the future. I wish to share my own observations about our communal life with you as I know that some will not be able to attend the actual meeting. Our most important activity is the time we come together and worship God. We support each other when we come together, helping everyone to live in the Lord. Just as our lessons speak to us, it is a time to send away any evil spirits that threaten us and our relationship with Jesus. We praise God, we ask for God’s forgiveness and we share in the communion with Jesus. It is a special time. I find this congregation to be welcoming and caring for each other. I think that the Holy Spirit can be felt in this place. Every church, in fact every organization, has little cliques, groups that form. Our does too. But I don’t think our cliques are destructive to the life of this place. We should always be watchful that nothing separates us one from another. We should be friends with everyone. And we should also be watchful that we welcome other people to our church and encourage them to participate in any way that makes them feel comfortable. There are many indications that this is a healthy congregation of followers of Jesus. I am most thankful that so many volunteers have stepped up to offer activities for the church. Most recently, we have a couple offering an AA meeting and we have someone who plans to start a contemplative prayer group. Many others are active, offering programs like a book club, and a walking group. Our Harvest Festival took place for the second year in a row and so many volunteered to help. We had many people attend our strategic planning activity in the fall and many came in January to plan our next steps as a congregation. I encourage you to review some of our material on the strategic plan and I ask you to find ways to become involved in our many activities here. There are other positive signs for this congregation. The number of people attending our Sunday services has increased by about 3%. The number of people that we consider to be part of this congregation has grown as well. We have enough people on our membership lists that we were able to send an extra person to convention last year and we will do so again this year. It is always difficult to speak about money but we have good news in that space as well. If you look at our financial reports, you would see that our income was expected to be about $6500 less than our expenses in 2017. We were fortunate that so many people gave generously so that our shortfall was only $2700 for the year. In other good financial news, our budget for 2018 expects that our income will exceed our expenses for the first time in several years. Thanks for your generosity. We are blessed that someone left money to this church when they died. So many have given their time and money in the past to support this church. In 2012, this church created an Improvement fund that has helped us to maintain our church buildings and grounds. It is time to consider a new funding campaign for this place. My immediate wish is that we collect money to replace the air conditioners in this church which, I am told, have lasted for 17 years. I would also like to complete the improvements we have started in the Parish Hall kitchen so that we can relicense the kitchen and welcome people from outside of our church family for events that include food. I would also wish that we could finish off our plans to open a nursery. Several people have already given money towards that end. In my dreams, I would wish that we could replace our current organ with another used organ. I think we could accomplish that without spending too much money. Perhaps you have other wishes for a capital campaign for this place. In the near future, you will be asked for your own wish list and we will ask for your help as we move forward. Numbers are not the most important way to measure our communal progress. What I most appreciate is that we come together and share hospitality with each other. I have often heard from others about what delicious meals we serve here and I am thankful. We are called by Jesus and we were called by Paul to care for one another. I am so thankful for the outreach activities that this church is involved in. We help to feed the hungry, to care for those who have been abused, we help children in this community and in the world. Last year we gave money to the Boys and Girls Club for the first time, a new way to help young people. Today, I am so thankful for everyone of the people in this church who make it a special place. It is always risky to identify people by name. However, I wish to thank Linda Ostmeyer, our office manager, and Gary Quamme, our organist. I wish to thank our outgoing senior warden, Bobbie Lafford, and our outgoing junior warden, Don Strachota, for their wonderful work. Thanks to all of our vestry members and most especially thanks to my wife for her love and support. May Jesus keep the evil spirits from our door. Let us pray that God continues to send blessings to this place, that we hear the word of Jesus in all that we do and that the Holy Spirit Guides and protects us. Amen.
A week ago, I went to the movie theater. As I was coming out of the theater, I decided that I was going to stop in the restroom. I found myself following another person, A man was in front of me that I thought was strange looking. He was heavy set and not dressed well and I thought he had kind of a wild look about him. When we got into the restroom, I saw an employee mopping up the floor. Suddenly the man in front of me, the man I thought was wild looking, said to the employee, “thank you so much for keeping the restroom clean” and the employee thanked him for his comments. I was instantly ashamed of myself. I had judged the man as a strange person and yet he was the one who treated the employee with respect. He had demonstrated how all of us should act, caring for others and thanking them for their work. I realized again that we can immediately judge another person and yet our instant judgments of others can be so wrong. In Mark’s gospel today, we have another case of immediate judgment and action. Jesus was walking along the Sea of Galilee and he called on two sets of brothers to come and join him. In both case, the two brothers immediately dropped what they were doing and followed Jesus. Unlike my judgment, however, the apostles made a good choice. Their judgment, their choice to follow Jesus, was a good one. Our readings during this Epiphany season have been about the revelation of God: Jesus being revealed to the three wise men; John the Baptist declares that Jesus is the Lamb of God. We now take one more step in the process. Jesus declared that God’s kingdom was at hand and then called others to follow him. I believe that God does call us. It might be hard for us to recognize a specific call from God. As we have previously discussed many do not hear messages from God. But we have so many other ways to understand God’s call. We have the words of Scripture and we have the teachings of the church. We have the advice of good people who are with us and each of us has a conscience that helps us to know what we should or should not do. Our scriptures reflect several different ways that people responded to Gods call and some advice about how we are to behave. Let us consider the question of how others responded quickly, how God’s call can remain in someone’s heart for a long time, and how others have dealt with the question of balancing God’s call with the other things that happened in their lives. Perhaps we can find some lessons that may apply to our own situation. In the book of Jonah, the people of Nineveh responded immediately to God’s call for repentance as given by Jonah. They changed their ways. God showed his willingness to forgive and be merciful. Jonah’s story is also a reminder to us that each community is called to listen for God’s word and follow God’s call. It is not just something we do as individuals. It is something we do in community with others. Let’s consider the story of Jonah just a little deeper. You probably remember that the first time God asked Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah refused. In fact Jonah ran from God and got on a boat as if he could escape from God’s call by going someplace else in the world. You know how Jonah ended up in the belly of a fish and asked for God’s forgiveness for his lack of obedience. That is what brings us to this reading. Jonah finally did go to Nineveh and tell them to repent. I hear two possible messages to us in Jonah’s situation. First, It is probably not a real good idea to avoid God’s call for us since God will continue to ask us to do God’s wishes. The second message is that God will be with us as we seek to do his will. Jonah went to Nineveh and God was with him as Jonah shared God’s message with others. God is with us as well. I think about how to interpret today’s gospel as well. This reading suggests that the apostles left their families behind and left their careers as fishermen behind. Jesus wanted the apostles to do nothing else now but to be evangelists for God. If you are like me, it makes you feel as if you too are supposed to drop everything that you know and leave everyone behind. But if you read the entire gospel and think about other stories, it didn’t really work that way. Jesus stayed in Galilee for much of his public ministry. Soon after Jesus called these four apostles, Jesus went to the house of Simon Peter’s mother-in law and healed her along with many other sick people. Simon may have become a follower of Jesus but he didn’t leave his family behind totally. There are several stories about Jesus being out in a boat. In one, he fell asleep on the boat and a storm came up. Everyone was afraid but when Jesus was awakened, he calmed the storm. In another, the apostles took a boat and went across the Sea of Galilee ahead of him. Jesus came walking on the water and Peter soon followed. The apostles who were fishermen didn’t leave their original vocation that far behind. In some way, the family of the apostles and their fishing background became a part of their new lives as followers of Jesus and fishers of people. Perhaps you might think that Paul is encouraging people to leave everything behind as followers of Jesus as well. He encouraged people to set aside everything in this world and focus their life on God. Married folks are to set aside their spouse, those who spend money should act as if they had nothing and so on. Let us just remember that Paul believed that Jesus was going to return soon. That has still not happened. How does Paul’s encouragement fit in a world which has continued for so many centuries? Can we stay true to Paul’s advice? In the short time we have on earth, I believe Paul would still want us to remain committed to God above all. Immediate response to God’s call, God’s consistent call to us and the issue of whether we should drop everything to follow Jesus - How do we make sense of all of this today? I would suggest that it all begins with our unwavering commitment to God as the first thing in our lives. It doesn’t matter when we learned about Jesus and whether we immediately responded to the call of being a Christian. What matters is that we follow Jesus in our lives. Once we make our commitment to God, then I would suggest that we ensure that all of our lives are guided by God’s spirit. For some, answering God’s call may be a total change in their lives, for others not. God should guide our married lives and our work lives, our social lives and our recreational lives. When we live that way, I think we are consistent with the response the disciples gave to Jesus, an immediate response to follow him. I ask you to remember that God’s call will remain the same for a long time. Jonah refused God’s wishes the first time around but God was persistent. We don’t know how God called Jonah to bring the word of repentance to Nineveh whether it was spoken or came to Jonah in another way. We don’t know how strongly Jesus called his apostles in Galilee. Was it an authoritative command, a gentle request, or prophetic words? I often think that God was calling me to the priesthood for many years but I wasn’t listening closely enough and did not respond until later. I only hope that the experiences I gained in my lay life have helped me to become a better priest as I live my vocation today. Let us pray that God will speak clearly to each of us and that we will listen to the words of Jesus and follow him in all that we do. This week, I heard many quotes from the most famous poet of Scotland, Robert Burns, whose birthday is celebrated this week. There are many more famous quotes from Robert Burns but I offer these to you today as his most meaningful for us in our Christian lives, and that God will help us to understand exactly what God wants us to do in our lives. “O thou great, unknown Power! Thou Almighty God, who hast lighted up reason in my breast and blessed me with immortality! I have frequently wandered from that order and regularity necessary for the perfection of thy works, yet thou hast never left me nor forsaken me”. Let us be thankful for God’s presence in our lives and the grace we receive to follow his ways. Amen.
Last week, we read from John’s Gospel which spoke of Jesus as the Word. The Word of Jesus, the Wisdom of Jesus is our guidepost. It provides us with direction. One of the themes of Epiphany is the Light of Christ. The light of Christ is a beacon, the torch that leads us on. The three wise men followed the light of a star, a star that was put there by God. Once again we focus on following the light of Christ, being committed to his word and his will for us. And we respond to this guiding light with our commitment to love and serve the Lord Jesus Christ. People have tried for centuries to provide additional details about the visit of the wise men. Matthew does not tell us how many wise men visited Jesus. He doesn’t tell us where exactly they came from. And he doesn’t tell us how old Jesus was when they arrived. Our understanding of the rest of the story is discerned from what Matthew wrote or perhaps just someone’s interpretation. We often refer to the wise men as three kings but they were not. We call them by the Greek word Magi. According to the Catholic resource center there are four possible meanings for that word Magi. “(1) a member of the priestly class of ancient Persia, where astrology and astronomy were prominent in Biblical times; (2) one who had occult knowledge and power, and was adept at dream interpretation, astrology, fortune-telling, divination and spiritual mediation; (3) a magician; or (4) a charlatan, who preyed upon people using the before-mentioned practices”. We believe it means court priests or astrologers. They may have come from Parthia which was in current day Iran. They were given the names Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Those names did not appear in Christian literature until five hundred years after the birth of Jesus. Saint Bede writing in the country we now call England in the seven hundreds wrote this "The magi were the ones who gave gifts to the Lord. The first is said to have been Melchior, an old man with white hair and a long beard... who offered gold to the Lord as to a king. The second, Caspar by name, young and beardless and ruddy complexioned... honored Him as God by his gift of incense, an oblation worthy of divinity. The third, black-skinned and heavily bearded, named Balthasar ... by his gift of myrrh testified to the Son of Man who was to die." (from Catholic Resource Education Center). People believe that it would have taken several years for the wise men to arrive in Bethlehem and Matthew refers to them entering a house, not a manger. They probably didn’t come when he was an infant. Matthew certainly doesn’t tell us much about the star. It could be from the East. In our translation it is his star at its rising. It is hard for me to understand how a star would move before them and then stop and stand over the house where Jesus was staying. Was it a comet, a supernova or a collection of planets that caused the wise men to come? We are not sure. “German astronomer Johannes Kepler proposed in 1604 that the star was a conjunction of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in 7 B.C”. Grant Matthews, a theoretical astrophysicist from Notre Dame, proposed that it was a conflagration in April 17, 6 B.C., when the sun, Jupiter, the moon and Saturn aligned in the constellation Aries while Venus and Mars were in neighboring constellations. (AP 12/1/2007). Astronomer Michael Molnar, agrees that it was on April 17, 6 BC. But he believes it was Jupiter alone that caused the wise men to look for Jesus. Molnar described how Jupiter moved in the sky both East and West and how it rose. (theconversation.com.) All of the hard work and speculation about these details concerning the wise men is not as important as how we understand the story and what it means to our Christian practice. When the Magi saw the star they knew something important had happened. They believed that someone had been born who was destined to become a ruler. That is why Mathew wrote his star at its rising. The Star of the East encourages us to look for that important person as well. We look to Jesus for guidance in our lives. It means that we should be looking to God, and specifically Jesus, to help us on our lifelong journey. We need to find and follow the star of Jesus, a star that keeps us on track and makes sure that we keep following our God and king. When we use the word Epiphany outside of church it means “an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure”. Something special happens that switches on a light in our minds. It is an aha experience. The celebration of the Epiphany in the church is similar. It is the manifestation of Jesus, the Son of God. Manifestation is just a big word that means a public showing or a perceptible, outward, or visible expression. Jesus is publicly shown to the three wise men. It is the first time in Scripture that someone other than a Jewish person came to pay homage to Jesus. That matters to us because we are all Gentiles, non-Jewish people. Epiphany is like our anniversary of the first time that people like us saw and understood who Jesus was. This is the first time that the light switched on in the minds of Gentiles. This is God! The reading from Isaiah fits so well with the concept of the light of Christ. It begins, “Arise, shine, for your light has come”. The light of Jesus has come and will lead us in all that we should do. Later, Isaiah writes, “For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you,” The Lord Jesus illuminates our lives and chases away the darkness that is in our souls. This past week, I went to see the movie “Wonder” which is about a boy with a disfigured face. The boy must deal with all the perceptions of other students and parents when he goes to school. But for me the story tells about the struggles each person faces in their life. Even the bullies had problems. Everyone has some darkness that they must overcome. Jesus is the light that helps us out of the darkness and into the light. One Scripture commentary said, “We are all in need of the Light - and of more light to enlighten our hearts. We need Christ to fill our emptiness, relieve our fears and anxieties and bring us hope of life eternal”. In 1951, composer Gian Carlo Menotti wrote an opera called Amahl and the Night Visitors. The opera was shown on TV many times. Menotti had grown up in Italy where the custom was that the Three Wise Men brought the Christmas gifts for children. In his Opera, Amahl is a poor disabled boy whose mother worries that he will become a beggar. The three Kings visit their house. Amahl’s mother tries to steal the gold meant for Jesus. She wants to protect her son. Although she is caught, King Melchior tells her to keep the gold because Jesus will not need earthly power or wealth to build his kingdom. Amahl offers his crutch for Jesus and is healed. Then Amahl goes with the Three Kings to visit Jesus and gives his crutch to the newborn Christ Child. We learn much from the actions of children. I think it was the Sunday before Christmas that a young boy who is 5 years old told me before the service that he had something to give me. After the service he handed me this small lego toy person. He asked me to give the lego to Jesus. I placed it in the manger with Jesus and it has stayed with Jesus the entire Christmas season. I am so appreciative of the thoughtfulness of the boy. His actions encourage us to consider what gift we will give to Jesus. The Wise men brought gold, frankincense and myrrh. What will our gift be? Perhaps it will be something small but important to us, something personal. Maybe our gift will tell everyone what Jesus means to us or pronounce what Jesus means to the world. It might only be our faith. As we give our gift, we also remember that Jesus is God’s gift to us. Jesus is the light of the world. We are so thankful that Jesus became the light of the world to all people, Jews and Gentiles alike. We pray that this light, this star, will fill the world with God’s glory and that God’s light will shine throughout the world. And we pray that Jesus will be the light that shows us how we can help make this happen. Amen.
On Christmas Eve, we had many people attend the two services at 4:00 PM and 10:00 PM. Everyone at those two services heard the Christmas story as told by Luke. There was no room at the inn and the shepherds and angels came. Only a few people attended the Christmas morning service. They heard John’s gospel, which is about the meaning of the birth of Jesus whereas Luke told the story with visual images. The Episcopal Church chooses to deviate just a little from the accepted set of readings. We normally use the same readings as other faith traditions but today we use the gospel story from John rather than the story of the Holy Family. We will have one more chance to hear about the Holy Family when we celebrate the Presentation of Jesus in early February. Unlike those who are already finished with Christmas, we take time to understand what the birth of Jesus means to John and what it might mean to us. John wrote that the Word became flesh. God stepped out of eternity into human time and taught us how to live our lives. Jesus was God and man at the same time. John points out that Jesus has been around forever. Jesus existed before the world began and Jesus participated in the creation. John refers to Jesus as the Word. In Genesis when we read about the creation of the earth, seven times we hear the words God said. When God spoke the whole of creation responded. Much later, God realized that in spite of all the efforts of the prophets and all the good people that lived their lives faithfully more was needed. God spoke and Jesus took the form of a human. There is another meaning for God’s word. As my study Bible would say, the Divine word is “also the divine principle of reason that gives order to the universe and links the human mind to the mind of God”. That is what we celebrate when we come to church and that is the importance of Jesus to our lives. Jesus means everything to us, Jesus makes our lives have meaning. Without Jesus we would have no direction or purpose in our lives, we would be lost and uncertain. It might be fun to go on a trip where we have no idea where to go. It might be fun to take a trip without a GPS system to tell us where to go. But the direction of our life is much better when we take the Word of Jesus with us to decide how we will live our lives. Jesus connects us to the divine. Peter Abelard was a twelvth century theologian who wrote about the importance of the Word of Jesus. He said, “I think that the purpose and cause of the Incarnation was that God might illuminate the world by his wisdom and excite it to the love of himself.” And that is why we are thankful again today: Thankful for the life of Jesus, thankful for his presence on this earth and thankful for his impact in our hearts. The wisdom of Jesus is like food for our souls. It nurtures us and helps us to grow in God’s grace. Scripture helps us to see what it means to be connected with God. Isaiah wrote “God has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness”. God’s clothing is so elaborate that it is like that of a bride or groom. Some verses were skipped in the reading from Galatians today which reiterate Isaiah’s message. Paul wrote that “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ”. This armor of Christ is the Word of Jesus that we carry with us every day. It is the light of Christ that lives inside of us. It is the Divine Wisdom that keeps us aligned with God. Jesus brought his love to us. He encouraged us to love one another. He taught us about truth, not the truth that we experience in the opinions of others but rather the truth of God that lasts forever. Paul also wrote that all of us are one in Christ, all of us are equals. He said that Jews and Greeks are equal, slave and free are equal and man and woman are equal when we live in the life of Christ. Isaiah offered us another image that seems so relevant for us at Transfiguration. In the Advent season, I spoke of tilling the soil, preparing ourselves for the coming of Jesus. As we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we can receive the fruits of that preparation. Isaiah wrote “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations”. Paul spoke about this in the letter to the Galatians. Jesus helps us to mature in our relationship with God. We no longer need to be watched over by rules and someone to provide discipline. We are so filled with God’s spirit that we know how to behave. Just as a garden grows, we grow in faith. Jesus brings us into a proper relationship with God. He makes us righteous. When we hear the Word of Jesus and seek to live it in our lives, we grow in grace and truth. It is as if we have tilled our ground and made it holy and allowed Jesus to find a place where truth can spring up in abundance. Athanasius served as Bishop of Alexandria in the fourth century and was a well-known theologian. He wrote that “He (Jesus) became what we are that he might make us what he is”. We strive in our lives to be like Jesus. Athanasius words let us know it is not really we who do the work but rather it is the work of Jesus living in us that makes everything happen. Jesus brings us salvation . It is through his work that we become sons and daughters of God. We are not born of God but we were adopted by God. We belong to God because of the love and life of Jesus. I always appreciate what C. S. Lewis said about the coming of Jesus. Some people like to call Jesus a prophet, a holy man or a good role model for us. But Lewis would say we cannot consider Jesus just a prophet. Jesus told us that he was the Son of God. He told us that in order to be close to God, we must go through him. We either believe what Jesus said or we must decide that he was deranged. But most important, we wish to use the Wisdom of Jesus as our guidepost. So many times when we pray we ask God for things. Less often, we pray in thanksgiving for the gifts we have received from God. Given the story of Jesus coming to earth, our thanksgiving should be about the presence of God among us, the willingness of God to take on our human characteristics, the sense that Jesus understands exactly what it is like to be human. At the same time, it is about Jesus helping us to understand better what it is like to be God and to understand better what God wants for us and from us. I often think about the power of evil in this world. I wonder why the good that Jesus brought into this place has not spread further. But then I realize that evil is a strong power in human lives. People allow themselves to be controlled by the devil. But when I think deeply about evil, I think I should be amazed at the power of good. If we look carefully, we will find good in so many places. We find good in the many people that pray for us. Looking for the good is why I started a program to remember the acts of kindness that we have experienced. Although there are many non-believers, The number of people who seek to live their lives the way Jesus taught us is significant. And I pray that the Jesus movement will continue to grow so that more and more good will be found. Let us allow the Word of God to spread in ourselves and help it to be heard by others. Let us be thankful for all that God has done. Let us live our lives following God’s will and not our own. Then we will be able to experience a fulfilling life. Amen.
A little over 100 years ago, the United States was on the verge of entering World War I. The United States Army was in need of recruits to help the anticipated war effort. A well-known illustrator by the name of James Montgomery Flagg painted a poster which has become an iconic symbol. The poster shows a stern face of a man dressed in patriotic clothes. The piercing eyes look directly at you and the index finger is pointed towards you. Yes, the character is the one we refer to as Uncle Sam. The caption says “I want you for the US Army.” The image was first seen in a weekly news magazine with the caption, “What are you doing for preparedness”. The US would not enter the First World War until April 1917, but this poster represented the importance of the war effort. The poster suggested that every US citizen had a patriotic duty to assist. The face on the poster provides our image of Uncle Sam. It was most likely that of a meat packer from 1812 who sent food to the US Army. The poster was so special that it was modified slightly and used again in World War II. The poster was modeled after a similar one used by the British government using the image of a war hero named Lord Kitchener. The I Want You poster was a call to action and it expected a response from all who experienced it. The correct response was yes! Today, we hear the story of Mary. She responded to a call from God and she gave a resounding yes to the call. Mary gives us encouragement to accept our own call from God and today we seek to answer yes to that call. I don’t think that you will find God staring out from a poster with a finger pointed at you but I do think there are ways for each of us to seek and understand God’s will for us. During Advent we have been preparing for the coming of Jesus. Much of what we have read in Scripture is about the second coming. But today, we shift and focus on the story of the first time that Jesus came to earth. It is the story of a miracle. And it is a story of human response to God’s will. We begin with God’s gift to us. The angel proclaimed to Mary “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” This greeting is meant for every one of us. God is with each and every human. Despite what seemed like a wonderful blessing, Mary was confused and probably afraid. Then the angel proclaims God’s will for Mary, that she will bear Jesus, the son of God. To Mary, it seemed impossible but the angel shared those important words “Nothing is impossible with God.” Mary then responds “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” I repeated some of the dialogue to help you focus on each of the steps of the exchange. I think they are steps that each of us experience in our interaction with God. First there is the understanding that God is with us. Yes, God is here for you. Second, we have some level of confusion, perplexity and doubt. How is it possible that God is with me? I am not worthy. I am just a small little person in the universe. I don’t matter. And yet we all do. After some reassurance, God asks us to do something or to be something. And then we have a choice. While it does not come across so clearly in the gospel, Mary had a choice as well. We have free will and we get to decide if we will follow the will of God. I would say that today we are encouraged to say yes to God and to follow God’s will. Mary was not the only one to say yes. The gospel of Matthew tells us about the yes of Joseph. Joseph had planned to dismiss Mary but he was told in a dream not to do so. Joseph said yes to God’s will and Joseph cared for Mary and cared for their newborn son, Jesus. Mary’s commitment to follow God’s will sounds a great deal like the words of Jesus himself. When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his crucifixion, he decided to follow the will of his Father, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” There are many other examples in Scripture of people who said yes to God. Often they were reluctant or confused when they first were approached. Their struggles give us great encouragement as we too often struggle to accept God’s will in our lives. Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, received a visit from the angel Gabriel and was told that he and his wife would have a son. But Zechariah did not believe and the angel took away his voice until his son, John, was born. I think of Abraham and Sarah. The Lord appeared to Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre. After the meal, the Lord told Abraham that Sarah would have a son. Sarah laughed. It wasn’t laughter of joy but rather laughter of unbelief, how could this be she must have thought. When the Lord heard Sarah’s laugh, the Lord said to Abraham, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” Sounds a little like what the angel said to Mary, Doesn’t it? Sarah and Abraham said yes to God’s will that they raise Isaac and that the generations that followed would be faithful to God. I also think of Moses. He was tentative as well. When God asked Moses to deliver his people out of bondage in Egypt, Moses had lots of excuses. Moses said I am not good enough to do this for you, and What am I to say to the people? And he said they won’t listen to me and Moses said I don’t speak eloquently. God persisted, God was with Moses and Moses finally said yes to God. Or how about Paul who persecuted the followers of Jesus and was even on his way to do more destruction when God woke him up. It took some lightning from God to get Paul’s attention but finally Paul said yes to God and became one of God’s most dedicated missionaries. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he wrote about God’s work and our response. Today’s verses are a summary of all of Paul’s beliefs and all that he wrote in the letter to the Romans. God will give us strength through the words of Jesus Christ and God’s strength will help us to be obedient in our faith. Obedience is the yes to God; The positive response to God reaching out to us. Let us all ask God for the strength to be obedient, to say yes. I have never been visited by Gabriel or another angel and told the will of God. I have been visited by a human being who suggested what might be God’s will for me and it has helped me to ponder what response I might give. Nathan, the prophet shared God’s will with King David. Perhaps if we can quiet ourselves down enough, we will hear God speaking to us. In addition to hearing God’s will, we must be ready to respond. Our first thought is often to say that we can’t or send someone else. We just may need a shot of courage. This week, a clergy friend suggested that I go back and read a poem by Denise Levertov. She found courage in the glory of nature. I would say that she found God in nature. Please listen to this A certain day became a presence to me; there it was, confronting me--a sky, air, light: a being. And before it started to descend from the height of noon, it leaned over and struck my shoulder as if with the flat of a sword, granting me honor and a task. The day's blow rang out, metallic--or it was I, a bell awakened, and what I heard was my whole self saying and singing what it knew: I can. A being came from the sky and struck her shoulder with a sword just as a king might commission a knight. Will you keep your senses open for God to strike you with His sword and may you feel the strength of God’s will and respond just as Mary did. Perhaps you will be perplexed at first but then you will realize that you can and promise to do God’s will. When you celebrate Christmas this evening or tomorrow morning, I hope that you will look on the baby Jesus, worship him and say to him, Yes, I will follow you. Amen.
Last week, I introduced a theme for our Advent season. The theme is tilling the soil. On Monday, I watched two powerful horses plow the ground in our new Chile garden. I once again experienced how hard the top layer of the ground is here. The horses traversed the ground many times, digging through that top crusty layer until they found the soft and rich soil beneath. This week, I feel that tilling the soil means allowing God to work in God’s way and time to make us whole people. We want to allow God to break through that hard crust we have developed, the protection that we have created to keep ourselves from being hurt. We want to let God find that fertile layer of our souls that lies beneath.
All of us are made in the image of God. We were created to live as God’s children. Theologian John Philip Newell wrote about this in Christ of the Celts. He struggled with the idea of original sin. Newell believed that we weren’t created as sinners but rather carried God inside ourselves. God’s goodness is deep inside. He wrote, “wisdom is deep within us, deeper than the ignorance of what we have done or become.” Newell said similar things about having God’s passion for justice and righteousness and God’s love is deep within us. Today I ask you to consider how you connect again with the core of your being, that part of us that mirrors God so closely. We may have lost contact with that core as it has been covered over by years of neglect, even years of selfish action. We seek to allow God to dig through the crust that has covered our souls and find that freshness beneath.
There are times we question where God is in our lives. We want God to swoop down and correct all that has gone wrong and we want that to happen now. When God’s work is not obvious to us, we worry. Christians have had this reaction from the very beginning. The author of 2nd Peter must have been responding to a community expecting Jesus to return quickly and restore their lives to peace and tranquility. We are so like them in many ways asking when God will correct all the evil. We can mask the feelings of disappointment when God does not appear.
The author of 2nd Peter gives us one explanation. “With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” We really do think of ourselves first and continue to ask God why things we want cannot happen immediately. Yet we know that God works on God’s time.
How can we understand God’s time? It might help to consider how short human life is especially compared to the length of time scientists tell us the universe has existed and the earth has flourished. Astronomers recently reported that they had measured the impact of two stars that collided 130 million years ago. Scientists estimate that the Grand Canyon started to form some 6 million years ago. We see the Grand Canyon as it is now but our view is like a single snapshot not a picture of what happened over so many years. Geology and astronomy help me to understand just a little about God’s time. I know God can do anything but it’s hard to see God’s work throughout the ages.
Still, we are inpatient. We wish that Christmas would hurry up and come. We want to see the baby Jesus lying in a manger. We want to be with our family and share presents and a lovely dinner. Is there another choice? We could chose to enjoy the experience of Advent, the anticipation, the preparation, the waiting, and the gradual change. For in the waiting and looking, perhaps we will allow God into our souls.
As I read the Scriptures for this week, I felt the powerful images presented to us. Isaiah provides metaphors for us of God’s work. God leveling out the rough places. People are like grass. They wither and fade away but God’s word will stand forever. God will feed his flock like a shepherd. It sounded like poetry to me.
I am not an avid reader of poetry. But I remembered some favorite poets like John Dunne and Robert Frost. What poetry inspires you? Poets often present us with images and I found something helped me think about God’s time and our time in a set of poems by T S Eliot called the four quartets. They were written just before and during the Second World War. The first, Burnt Norton, begins like this
“Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future,
and time future contained in time past” and later
“Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.”
I am sure that others have a better sense of the meaning of this poem. I hear it saying that we are made up of all the things that have happened throughout our lives. Humanity is made up of all things that have happened before us. History is present today in our lives. Later in the poem, Eliot speaks of a garden which has fallen into decay. Yet in the midst of the garden are the memories of better times. If we have fallen into decay in our lives, then Advent is a good time to remember what we were like earlier and remember that our former self is still inside of us. I believe that God works in us throughout our lives. We may just not feel it or see it. God is waiting for the chance to work magic in our souls again if we will only let God in.
When we listen to Scripture we hear of God’s marvelous work. “Comfort, O comfort, my people”. Yes, God will give us comfort. For the Jewish people of Isaiah’s time, comfort was release from the bondage of sin and the bondage of exile. It was a comfort that could only come to them when God brought them home once again. Home is a special place for all of us. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her penalty is paid”. God forgave their sins. For the Jewish people, sin is both a communal act and a personal act. God forgave the sins of those who had come before and those who had sinned now. We have forgiveness from God as well.“Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” God has the power to change the world. God made the lives of the Israelites better and as they returned from exile in Babylon, they were so ecstatic in their freedom, a gift from God, that their trip back to Jerusalem was easy, joyful.
The Psalm offers a special note of God’s power and grace given to us. “I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people.”
Today, we celebrate the second Sunday of Advent. We pray that God will give us a peace that is beyond measure. It is a peace that passes all understanding. It is a peace that we wish to hold in our hearts forever.
I often think about our lives as a journey. We journey through work and family and most especially in our faith. I don’t think anyone’s journey with God is constant, correct, perfect. We fall from the straight and narrow at various times along the way. This Advent, I hope that you will find some time to pause and reflect on your journey, where you have been and where you are now. The last of T S Eliot’s four quartets is called Little Gidding which was the site of a 17th century Anglican monastery. This quote comes from Sparknotes. “The poem (Little Gidding) considers those who have come to the monastery, who come only ‘to kneel / Where prayer has been valid.’ It is here that man can encounter the ‘intersection of the timeless’ with the present moment, often by heeding the words of the dead, whose speech is given a vitality by a burning fire.”
Is it possible that you might hear the voice of God’s truth in that place where prayer is valid, in a person that inspires you, perhaps even a prophet like John the Baptist, calling from the desert. May you find the timeless truth of God in your reflection. May you let God till your soil until God finds the fruitful soul beneath. And when that happens, I believe that you will know God’s peace. Amen.