The early days of World War II were very difficult for the people of Great Britain. Bombs were falling on their cities and the people were unsure of what the future would be like. They turned to Winston Churchill for strength. Churchill was committed and persistent. He would say, “we will never, never, never give in. Others looked to God for strength. A gentleman named James Dillet Freeman wrote a prayer that was intended to be used by people who were threatened by the conflict. His final product is called a prayer for protection. Now Freeman was not a part of an organized religion but his Christian faith comes through in this short prayer. He wrote,
The light of God surrounds us;
The love of God enfolds us;
The power of God protects us;
The presence of God watches over us;
Wherever we are, God is!
What I especially like about this prayer is the image that the light of God is like a cloak that is all around us, giving us protection.
Light is a key image of our scripture for today. In the gospel we are told that John the Baptist came to testify to the light so that all might believe through him. This is the second week in a row that we read the story of John the Baptist. Last week we heard the story from the Gospel of Mark. Today we hear the story from the Gospel of John. There are similarities in the proclamation that we are to repent and prepare for the coming of Jesus and the importance of Baptism. But this passage also focuses on the role that John played and especially in John’s understanding of what he was called to do. Today, let us consider our calling to live in the light and also about what God might be calling us to do this year.
The call to live in the light comes from John and others. Jesus, himself said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” We follow the light of Jesus because Jesus himself offered it to us.
We also find our call in the 2nd letter to the Corinthians. “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” We learn about God through Jesus.
Peter Abelard, the twelfth century theologian, said it this way, “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 God”. With light comes an understanding of God’s love.
What does it mean to be in the light of Christ? Light can be different from one day to the next, it changes what we see. I always look at the Superstition mountains each day. In the early morning when the sun is just coming up, the Superstitions look so dark, foreboding and so rough. In the evening when the sun shines on them we see the details with the mountains looking bright and inviting. Sometimes, the mountains stand out as the sun seems to shine just on them while the surrounding valley is cloaked in darkness.
The different kinds of light change and light affects us in different ways as we encounter it. Watching a candle flame is an interesting experience. The light flickers and you can see different colors. The wick and the wax are constantly interacting in fascinating ways.
Just as light changes things around us change. The Light of Jesus Christ may impact us in different ways as well.
- The light of Christ brings us a knowledge of God that we cannot have without Jesus.
- The light of Christ helps us to be humble and to live in better relationship with each other.
- The light of Christ helps us to see the needs of others and to reach out to help.
- The light of Christ helps us to find peace.
- The light of Christ helps us to accept the forgiveness that Jesus offers and to help us forgive others.
- We often see the light of Christ exhibited by others and it help us to live a life in the light.
John the Baptist must have been a very charismatic person. Many people came out into the desert to listen to his words and to follow his encouragement. He must have been well known throughout the Jewish community. So much so that priests and Levites came out to see him, presumably at the direction of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. I wonder if they were trying to trick him. Their questions suggested that some people wanted him to be something that he wasn’t. I am not the Messiah, I am not Elijah, I am not a prophet. Well then, who are you? They asked. I am just a voice calling people to prepare for the coming of the Lord. I baptize people with water as a sign of their repentance and their commitment to God. But someone will come who baptizes people in the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist was very clear about what he was called to be. He came to testify to the light.
Today, we heard the words of the Magnificat, Mary’s prayer of reflection when she visited Elizabeth. It comes soon after the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that she would bear a son, Jesus. Her response at that time was, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ The Magnificat continues Mary’s commitment to God’s call. She said I am blessed by God. God has done great things for me. I believe that God will do great things for us and I will be part of that.
Each of us has his or her own call and each call is different. Our call is not as well known or public as the calls that John the Baptist and Mary received. We may not know our call so clearly. God may call and we may not listen. Perhaps we do not expect the Lord to be concerned with us. Or we may refuse to recognize the call that we have is from God. But each call is important. John the Baptist was a witness to the light of Christ. We too can be witnesses. Being a witness can be difficult. We believe in Jesus and sometimes when you believe in something so deeply it makes it even more difficult to find the words to share with other people. I wonder if we sometimes put too much pressure on ourselves to say the right thing. Maybe it is just as simple as saying, I believe that Jesus is the Light of the World. Please come and see what you think.
Our call may be as simple as letting the light of Christ shine through us and sharing it with others. We find that message in the Acts of the Apostles, “For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, “‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.” Acts 13:47 We have the light of Christ in us and we should share it with others. The Light of Christ can penetrate even the places where people are mean to each other or fight with each other. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about how the light of Christ can change. He said,
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Mother Teresa spoke about why we are to bring the light of Christ to this world,
“We need to give Christ a chance to make use of us, to be His word and His work, to share His food and His clothing in the world today. If we do not radiate the light of Christ around us, the sins of the darkness that prevails in the world will increase”.
Now, more than ever there is a feeling of darkness that has descended upon us. It is a time of fear and uncertainty. Many people find it difficult to be joyful, to be positive when there is so much sickness all around us. I have entered into that space at times as well. This week has been a struggle for Jan and I. We lost our brother-in-law to Covid-19 and we know of others that are sick. I struggle with how I can keep the doors of the church open when there are so many cases in our state. That is why we are called to bring light to the world. If we can just bring a sense of peace and comfort, a sense of hope, then we are giving the light of Christ to others.
My friends, let us open our hearts to let the light of Christ inside. Let us allow the light of Christ to be a part of everything we do so that others will see that light shining through us. What a gift to give this Christmas. Amen.
The very first words of Handel’s Messiah are sung by a single voice, “Comfort ye, comfort ye. My people, saith your God”. It is both strong and soothing. Just as the strong words of comfortbegin the Messiah, those same words are the beginning of our lessons. We are at the beginning of a new liturgical year and many can’t wait for the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021.
I believe this summary accurately describes our situation. “Public health experts are warning us that we can expect a hard winter ahead, with a pandemic largely out of control in the United States and surging in many other parts of the world. Thanks to the heroic efforts of scientists, there are effective vaccines in the works, but it will be several months before they are widely available. And people are suffering from fatigue, fear, and loneliness”.
In the midst of other problems, it has been a hard two weeks for us. We have not been able to gather in the church. During the time we were away, the season of Advent began. Advent, of course, means coming. We anticipate the coming of Jesus. It happened once a long time ago when the tiny baby was born in Bethlehem. While the shepherds and the wise men may have found great joy in the birth of Jesus, the rest of the world took little notice. Now we prepare once more for the coming of Jesus even as we know that Jesus is already with us now and always.
We also look forward to the second coming of Jesus. We think about a time in the future when Jesus will come again and the earth will change dramatically. Jesus will usher in a new kingdom of heaven. A kingdom come to earth. We think that when that happens all of our troubles will go away.
During Advent we anxiously wait for the coming of Jesus. We expect it will come and we live in hope of that coming. As we hope we act. That is why Advent is a time of preparation. We wish to prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus. We find the words of preparation throughout our readings for today. Most prominently we hear John the Baptist cry out in the desert that we must repent and prepare. We are called to cast off our sins so that our hearts will be pure when Jesus comes.
In spite of the obvious importance of preparation and repentance found in Scripture today, I am not sure we are ready. I think we need the words of Isaiah more than the words of the gospel. This passage from Isaiah was written during the exile. It was a time of deep despair for the Jewish people. Listen to how it was described in Lamentations; For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my courage; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed.
The passage from Isaiah looks forward to better times. It was written to say that God had not forgotten the Jewish people. God was still with them even though Jerusalem had been destroyed and so many people had been taken to Babylon. The writer was saying that the people had atoned for their sins. Help is on the way.
We can relate in a way to what the Jewish people experienced. Life in our world has been difficult for everyone. Many have been confined to their house. People were unable to be with their loved ones for Thanksgiving. We are sad and we are tired. We are worried about what might happen to us. We want this time to end.
I have had those feelings. It has been hard to bring church services to this parish in a meaningful way. Our efforts have been stymied by technology challenges and the protocols that we have been following. I have even had people share with me their sorrow for my plight as your rector. Some have said to me that they are thankful for my efforts. And I do so appreciate the thoughtfulness and the encouragement.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I think my situation is so easy compared to others. I do not worry about how I will pay the bills. I do not worry about what I will do if I become homeless. I don’t worry about where I will find my next meal. I am not out looking for a job. I have not had a loved one get sick and die from Covid-19. I have not had to worry about how I will pay for medical expenses. I don’t struggle with how my child will learn in this environment. While our time may be different, the words of Isaiah speak to us just as they did to the Jewish people during the exile. They bring us hope.
Let us live in the space of Advent hope. A theology professor named Kathryn Schifferdecker wrote about advent hope: Advent hope is not the same thing as optimism, which relies on positive thinking and rose-colored glasses. Advent hope in fact acknowledges the pain of present reality, but it also dares to see God’s presence in the midst of that pain. Advent hope, the hope of which Isaiah speaks, is grounded not in anything we can see, not in politicians or bank accounts or the market. This hope is grounded in God’s faithfulness, and for that reason, it is true, and real, and solid, something to ground you, too, in the weeks and months ahead. We live in that space of Advent hope and we offer it to others.
In the passage from Isaiah, the first phrases are the words the prophet hears that came from God. God called on prophets and others to provide words of Comfort. As the passage continues, we hear the voices of others declaring that God is near, calling on people to repent and sharing the good news with everyone. I think we too are called to provide the good news of God’s comfort to people who are struggling. We are called to get up to a high mountain, we are to lift our voices with strength. We are to say to all the people, “Here is your God!” It is a time for our voices to bring people closer to God, to help them move from being despondent to hope. We send God’s comfort to others when we send a card to a friend or check on someone by telephone. We give comfort when we offer a needy person a meal.
I think hope is one outcome of God’s comfort. What else might the words from Isaiah mean to you? The psalm continues the message of comfort. We hear of God’s graciousness making the earth a good place to live. We learn of the promise of salvation, a gift for God’s followers. But I choose the message of peace. I am comforted when I feel God’s peace. God’s peace takes away my anxiety. And the psalmist describes the comfort ground in the connection between peace and righteousness when he wrote, “righteousness and peace have kissed each other”. God’s comfort is not given just to the successful and it is not limited to the weak. It is a gift for every one of us.
Eleonore Stump wrote about God’s comfort this way: The Gospel says that Christ baptizes his own with the Holy Spirit. Because of this baptism, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within each person who comes to Christ. That is why no one who comes to Christ and receives his baptism of the Holy Spirit walks the wild and rocky road of life alone. God is so much with him that, in the person of the Holy Spirit, God is within him. If God is for us, even within us, who can be against us? This is strength indeed. And so no wonder that the other name for the Holy Spirit is “the Comforter.
The baptism we receive brings us closer to God. It is just what John the Baptist called for while out in the desert. In the gospel many people went out into the desert to hear John and to be baptized. They willingly came to humble themselves, to admit their sins, to ask for forgiveness and to be lifted up by God’s grace. The desert is a place of wildness, a difficult place to live. It can be a place of loneliness. We might feel like we are in the desert now. Let us remember our baptism, Let us feel again the membership we received in Christ’s body, the gift of God the creator and the presence of the Holy Spirit, our Comforter. We experience God’s comfort through God’s presence with us. God the Creator is present with us as is Jesus, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The Latin word for comfort means “with strength”. As Christians we receive just a small slice of the strength of God. We accept that comfort and strength as we prepare for what will happen in an uncertain time. We look forward to the future. And we know that whatever our situation is when Christmas arrives, it will be a time of celebration. For Jesus, our God, is coming. He is here. Amen.
The gospel reading brings back strong memories of the time when I was interviewed for the position of rector at Transfiguration. For me, it was a time when I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life and the love and care of many others. You may have heard parts of this story before. As you listen, I hope you will think about times when God has guided your life.
I finished seminary in May of 2013. I had already received a placement for a church in Cincinnati, Ohio. I had interviewed for a position in Arizona but not heard whether they were interested in me. I took a trip with one of our seminary professors to England to learn about the Anglican Church in that country and how it might help in my own ministry.
While I was on my trip to England, I received an email telling me that I was not selected for the job in Arizona but I was asked to call the bishop. I called bishop Smith and he asked if I would be interested in the position here at Transfiguration. I was but I also shared with the bishop that I did not have a lot of time to decide since I was due to start my job in Cincinnati on July 1.
Things were very busy for me. Within two weeks, I was on my way to Arizona to interview for the position at Transfiguration. Before coming, I had to do a mandatory retreat for three days outside Indianapolis. In the rush of things, I did not clearly understand the interview schedule or the expectations for the interview at Transfiguration. I had been given the information but it didn’t sink in. On our arrival in Mesa, Jan and I went out for dinner but before we ordered, I received a call from Chris Whitehead that he was at the hotel to pick us up for a dinner with the vestry and search committee at Ruby Seyffert’s house. So, we quickly went back to the hotel, met Chris and had a wonderful dinner. On the way home that evening, I asked Chris what we would be doing the next day and he told me that we would start with a Bible study that I was to lead. I had not done any previous preparation for a bible study. But I had recently done a presentation on the parable of the bridesmaids, our gospel lesson for today, for a seminary class. So, I used that parable in my bible study the next day. Despite my mistakes with the schedule, things worked out. I was thankful that Chris Whitehead, on behalf the vestry, offered me the position that evening.
Looking back, I know that I should have been more careful and better prepared. But I also found myself being watched over and cared for. I felt guided by the Holy Spirit throughout that journey. Each time, it looked as if I would stumble, God found a way to lift me up. I was supported by two bishops, by clergy and lay people who showed their love and care. Some of those folks I did not know well at all. I am thankful and blessed.
In the gospel, we hear a parable about a wedding. In those days, the bridegroom would go to the house of the bride. He would enter into an agreement with the bride’s father. Then the bride and groom would return to his house for a grand party. Those in wait did not know exactly when the bride and groom would arrive.
In this parable, we learn about ten bridesmaids who were supposed to light the way into the celebration. When the groom’s party was delayed well beyond their expected arrival, some of the bridesmaids ran out of oil for their lamps and they were not let into the celebration.
It seems clear to me that the parable refers to Jesus as the bridegroom and the parable refers to the return of Jesus to bring God’s kingdom to earth and the end of the world as we know it. If we were to look at the passages that come before this in Matthew’s gospel, they are all about the end of the world. Jesus told the disciples that the Temple would be destroyed. He gave them signs that they should look for. He told them that people would be persecuted. He said they should be watchful. Jesus said that the Son of Man would come. It would be like this, “Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken.” Then, “the Son of Man will come on the clouds of heaven” with power and great glory.
The followers of Jesus during Matthew’s time were expecting Jesus to return during their lifetime. The delay in his return caused many to be worried and uncertain. That message is found in the Epistle for today. Paul’s followers believed that they needed to be alive when Jesus returned in order to be taken up to heaven. They were concerned what would happen to their relatives who had already died. But Paul put them at ease by writing and telling them that Jesus would carry them up to heaven along with the followers who were still living.
In the gospel, Matthew wanted to reassure his community. While Jesus had not yet returned, he was still coming. They needed to be ready for Jesus to return at any time. His coming will not be foretold, they will not have time to prepare. So, they must always be ready. They must live a holy life so that when Jesus did return they would be accepted into heaven. Being prepared means following the words of Jesus. We want to be like the wise maidens not the foolish ones.
We live in a different time. We don’t expect Jesus to come while we are still alive. But the words of Matthew still apply to us as well. We want to be prepared for we have no idea when we will die. We want to live our life in holiness and not risk the possibility that we will be judged harshly by God when we die.
In many works of fiction, the ending of the book neatly ties up every problem and all is well. The man and woman are in love and ride off happily into the sunset. The detective catches the bad guy and everyone is safe. Parables don’t always work that way. They may tell us an important message but the answers do not answer all of our questions and they may leave us hanging.
Clearly, half of the bridesmaids were not prepared for the delay. The message is that they should have been prepared. They should have been ready for a lengthy delay. But I struggle with the question of why the other bridesmaids did not share some of their oil. On the surface, we can understand that each of us are responsible for our own actions and it is the responsibility of each of us to always be ready for God’s coming. But I still wonder where is the mercy that Jesus always offered? To answer that question though would take away from the meaning of the parable.
This week, our bishop wrote about liminal places. A liminal place is a transition stage. It is a position at or on both sides of a threshold. The bishop said it is as if we are walking through a door and we still have one foot in the past and one for in the future. We may not even see the future very clearly. Our country will now go through a transition and none of us really know what that will be like. Covid-19 may mean that more people work from home even after the pandemic is over. Our church has entered into a transition. Some of the changes may be wonderful. I think we will always live stream services so that people can watch the services from their home. Other changes I may not appreciate. Change can be difficult especially for people who are older. That is why I say it is a time for us to search for peace and comfort and healing in Jesus Christ. The bishop reminded us of the passage in Romans which says that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
In the gospel today, we find the words like watch and prepare. I wonder if we might instead use the words like stay steady and trust. I prefer to think about staying steady in our faith, seeking to not fall from God’s grace. I prefer to think of trusting in the presence of God rather than to find fulfillment in other ways. I said that I felt the presence of God guiding my life as I transitioned into this position and I know that God’s presence will always be with me regardless of the changes I will go through. May God bless you in this time and may you remain in the arms of God always despite whatever is to come. Amen.
Today, we remember and celebrate saints past and saints present. As we celebrate, we may ask what are the qualities of a saint and what are the actions saints have taken to become a saint? I think about all of the saints that we know so well. I think about Saint Francis who has always been very popular. Saint Francis gave up all of his world goods. Francis also had a love of animals that many of us appreciate.
How about Saint Patrick who brought Christianity to Ireland. He is one of my favorites. Patrick became a missionary in the land where he spent his youth in slavery. What a commitment it must have taken to return to a place where he was so poorly treated.
In the earliest days of Christianity, people often believed that they needed to be a martyr in order to truly show their love of Jesus. They wanted to follow in his footsteps. So we might think of Saint Stephen, the first known martyr or Jonathan Myrick Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian, who in 1965 left seminary to join the freedom marchers in Selma, Alabama. He was shot to death trying to protect a sixteen-year old girl who had been threatened with a shotgun.
Some saints spent a great deal of time in prayer or solitary living. I am thinking of Dame Julian of Norwich who lived in a small room adjacent to the church. I don’t plan to be a recluse so I hope I don’t have to do that in order to become a saint.
Some saints didn’t take life too seriously. Saint Francis of Assisi was often willing to make fun of himself. He called himself a “fool for Christ”. Francis took seriously the words of Jesus to preach the gospel to every living thing. That is why he sometimes preached to the wild animals. But Francis knew that others would laugh at the idea of “taking to the animals. May we also find a little humor in our journey of faith.
Famous saints did many outstanding things but we can be saints too. A saint in the New Testament is often a term used to describe all Christians. A good example can be found in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians which begins with this introduction, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus” (Ephesians 1:1).
Some people have interpreted the messages found in Revelation to be an indication that the number of people will be limited that go to heaven. But I prefer to hear the words from a verse in today’s lesson which says, “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne.” You see, I prefer to understand the number of people who will go to heaven as limitless.
Many saints went through an ordeal just as Revelation indicates. All of us have struggles in our lives. In Revelation, the saints came to the throne of God and they joined together worshipping God as one unit. Someone pointed out to me the words in our collect: as followers of Jesus we are knit together in one community as members of the body of Christ. We come here to Transfiguration intertwined and connected, supporting each other and praising God together. Even though Covid 19 has made it difficult to be together, we are still one community, worshipping God together.
Revelation also offers us words of comfort. “Jesus will be their shepherd, he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Can you feel God’s presence in your life, wiping away your tears?
When I think about what it might take to become a saint, I focus on the overwhelming mercy of God. Today, I am thinking about the parable of the vineyard. Specifically, the parable where the owner of the vineyard goes out and brings in laborers at all times of the day. At the end of the day, all the workers received the same wage. Some have interpreted this parable to mean that even if you become a Christian late in life, you will be rewarded by going to heaven. I prefer to think about God’s all abiding mercy and God’s willingness to bring us into heaven even if there are times we stray from the path God has chosen for us. I prefer the description of the saints found in a hymn, “for the saints of God are just folk like me”.
And so, we are inspired by the people we know that have been saints to us. They may be parents or other relatives. Perhaps we have experienced saints in those we meet at church or at work. I think of the people I have known at this church since I have been here and have sadly left us. Their saintly work lives on is this place. I most especially remember those who died in the past year. All of these saints are an inspiration to us. They may have passed but their legacy lives on through us.
When I read the beatitudes or hear them read as in today’s gospel, I find the Beatitudes move me in multiple ways. One day I find the beatitudes to be comforting. I am comforted when I think one of the beatitudes applies to me, knowing that God is sending blessings to me when I feel challenged by the world. Another day I find it to be challenging, and one day I found it to be about God’s kingdom. Each perspective has the support of various theologians. I believe that God speaks to us in a way that we need to hear his message and that is different for every person. How is God speaking to you?
The Beatitudes challenge us to live our lives in a certain way. Blessed are those that hunger and thirst for righteousness. Just as the Good Samaritan went out of his way to help someone who had been left for dead, we may have to go beyond our normal limits, for those who have been mistreated and wronged. Blessed are the merciful. We must be sensitive to the misery that surrounds us and respond with grateful hearts. After all, we might be where the other person is if not for the blessings we have already received from God. Blessed are the meek. Meek, in this case, means that we are to be humble, not prideful. Blessed are the pure of heart. Now that one is virtually impossible. All of us are sinners. Yet, the more we stay away from our temptations, the more we focus on Jesus, the better are our chances. The goals are lofty and difficult to achieve. I don’t think Jesus wants us to be discouraged. It is as if Jesus wants us to follow in the path of the saints. Saints are people who made mistakes, people who sinned. We just strive to be a little better than we are today and know that God will accept us as we are.
There is one final way for you to consider these beatitudes. Jesus often turns the world upside down. These beatitudes challenge our world view. For example, our world view is that nice guys finish last. But Jesus said blessed are the meek. Isn’t Jesus asking us to reconsider what we have been taught about the meek. Our world view is that you must have a positive attitude in order to succeed. Jesus said, blessed are the poor in spirit. God’s kingdom is different than the one we encounter on earth. On God’s kingdom, the meek will inherit the earth. Our world view is that we must be stronger than everyone else so we will not be harmed. But Jesus said, blessed are the merciful. It is just another example of how God’s kingdom will be different than what we have understood
Many people think we should seek power, success, fame or wealth. Jesus may be telling us that there is another way. God’s way is different. A former Lutheran professor, David Lose, wrote that this is less about a particular ethic and more about God’s in-breaking kingdom, a promise that God’s kingdom is real and transformative. David invites us to imagine that kingdom, different than the one we experience. It is not about working harder to follow the rules but more about having a new heart, ”one created by God’s own promise to continue to surprise us by who is blessed, who is loved by God”.
Today, scripture can touch us in many ways. We should be comforted today by the blessings God offers us in the reading from Revelation and from the Beatitudes. We should try to live our lives as each blessing suggests. Let’s also look forward with joyful anticipation to God’s kingdom, seeking to bring it to earth and ready to receive it when we die. Let’s celebrate with all the saints, both here on earth and there in heaven and together sing, “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever”. Amen.
Our Scripture today invites us to reflect on what love really means. There have been times when I have spoken about four different kinds of love identified by the Greeks. They are Eros, Philia, Storge, and Agape. But today I want to try something different. I occasionally like to listen to country music. The lyrics from country music songs tell a story, often giving so many different views of love.
Sometimes those songs describe love in funny ways. There is an old tune sung by Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty that reminds me of love being strong despite what happens. They must have used the portion of the wedding vow where each says, for better or for worse. Part of the Lyrics go like this.
An' you're the reason our kids are ugly, little darling
Ah, but looks ain't everything
And money ain't everything
But, I love you just the same
Love is often strong in challenging times.
Brad Paisley sang a song about the choices we make related to love and how we can hurt another.
Well I love her
And I love to fish
I spend all day out on this lake
And hell is all I catch
Today she met me at the door
Said I would have to choose
If I hit that fishin' hole today
She'd be packin' all her things
And she'd be gone by noon
Well I'm gonna miss her
It can be easy to hurt another person by the choices we make.
I happen to like George Strait and he sang many songs about love. Some were about lost love but many described a deep and everlasting love. In one of George Strait’s songs he told a story about two people who’d been in love since elementary school. Their love was first kindled by a note sent by one to the other in class. I love you and I want to know if you love me. Send back this note and check yes or no. Their love lasted forever.
George Strait also described love that was inspirational, about how love takes us to a special place.
Every man has a dream
And you made mine come true.
How it happened
I don't know or care.
I'm just happy I found you.
Wrapped in the arms of love
Is where I'll be
For all the world to see
You're something special to me.
One I especially like tells about a man seeing God in everything after the birth of his baby girl.
God’s fingerprints are everywhere
I just look down and stop and stare
Open my eyes and then I swear
I saw God today
She's got my nose
She's got her mama's eyes
My brand new baby girl
She's a miracle
I saw God today
Today, Jesus told us about the Greatest Commandment. We all know the words by heart. “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” I have chosen to think more about the second of the great commandments, the one about loving your neighbor. If we aren’t careful, we might skip over the love of God which should be first in our lives.
Our former bishop, Kirk Smith, referred to these two commandments as so simple and yet so complex. He wrote, “Does it mean simply showing up in church on Sundays, saying grace before meals, and tossing a few bucks into the Salvation Army bucket at Christmas? Clearly it means a whole lot more. We are happy to spend time in prayer, worship, or reading our Bibles”. On the one hand this activity fits the message about putting our time and treasure where we want our heart to be. But I still wonder if it is enough. Certainly spending time with God means our minds are with God. But how about our heart and our soul?
I think when we love God we will have trust. Because we are human we do not understand exactly everything about God and why certain things happen. But when we love God we try not to make the statement, “If I were God, I would never let this happen.” I think when we love God, we hear those words about “for better or for worse. We don’t blame God if bad things happen. We don’t think that God is unfair. We trust that God is helping us always. It is as Thomas Aquinas once wrote. “To love God is greater than to know God.”
I think loving God means not just trying to put God first in our lives but putting God in the middle of everything we do. We find that in Colossians 3:17, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
You can find the great commandment mentioned by Jesus in the gospels of Mark and Luke as well. In Mark it is told two times. Once when a young man comes up to Jesus and asks what must I do to go to heaven. After Jesus answered, the man said but I do all these things. And Jesus answered then give up all your possessions and follow me. So, loving God with our heart means not letting earthly desires and earthly things get in the way of our relationship with God.
I think loving God with our soul means that we are inspired by God, that God means something special to us. I sometimes have that feeling when I feel God in an experience. It happens when I find beauty in the earth, beauty in a child, and it happens when I celebrate the Eucharist. Not always but sometimes.
I come back to another song by George Strait. This song was meant for one person to another but I hear it as a message from God.
When you see a shooting star in the night
When you hear the warm wind whisper through the pines
I want you to know
It'll be me and my infinite love for you “
I believe that when we feel God’s love for us, we are open to loving God with all of ourselves.
This past spring, Our presiding bishop, Michael Curry offered this suggestion, “And so I decided last week that I was going to make sure every day I did three things very simply, or at least thought about them. How can I love God today? Very simply, nothing complex. How can I love my neighbor, others? How can I love myself? And it occurred to me that just sometimes asking the question, you may or may not have an answer, but you may figure out an answer for that day. That sometimes just asking the question can help in times of uncertainty, in days of pandemic, and in times when the days are just going to keep going on and on and on.” Our pandemic continues so I say his encouragement fits today just as it did six months ago. And yes, I believe that we love God when we love our neighbor.
There are two families that live next door to each other in Pittsburgh and they may teach us a little about love during this election season. The Mitchell family have been lifelong Democrats and the Gates family have been lifelong Republicans. Each family has a sign in their yard supporting their party’s candidate. But each also has a sign saying we love them (actually it is a heart symbol) and an arrow pointing to their neighbor. Perhaps we can all learn from the relationship of the Mitchell and Gates families.
The Wall Street Journal reported that “millions of Americans are harmed at the bitter split in this country, with 9 out of 10 Americans saying incivility is a problem.
The Bible says that it is better to give than to receive. Certainly we show our love of neighbor when we give to others in need. I also like the words of Saint Francis who said in part that it is in giving that we receive. I think that when we give we receive God’s love in a way that helps us express our love of God.
As Bishop Smith wrote, the great commandments are both easy and complex, simple and hard at the same time. Loving God and loving our neighbor may take time and practice. I think all of us are trying and most of us have made great strides. I just hope that loving God is something that we are always trying to express in our lives and loving our neighbor is something that comes easily even when we disagree.
Saint Augustine once wrote, “To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek him the greatest adventure; to find him, the greatest human achievement.” May God’s love come to you in such a way that you are able to return that love. May you never give up seeking God’s love and may love of neighbor be a gift that you can give always. Amen.
Over the last three weeks, I have watched three different political debates. Actually, I struggled to watch the entire debates because there were so many negative things said. After one of the debates, I said to a friend, “I don’t know why we have debates. After all, the candidates don’t answer the questions that they have been asked”. I believed my comment applied to both of the politicians in the debate. But my friend became upset. He felt that my comment disparaged his candidate. I got a somewhat angry response as I was told that the candidate he supported did answer the questions and the other candidate did not. Another sign of the contentiousness of our election process. I feel that the quality of the debates has declined as candidates don’t always choose to artfully declare their position.
I wish that the debates would be a little more like the way Jesus dealt with the Pharisees and the Herodians in today’s gospel. To be fair, Jesus did get upset at the beginning when he responded, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? But after that, Jesus answered their question in a way that most of us wouldn’t have thought of. Jesus responded in a way that showed his excellent debating skills.
I am thankful that Jesus outsmarted the people trying to trap him. It was quite common for religious leaders to engage in this kind of back and forth debating where debating skills were valued. I think we could benefit from this kind of debating style in our political discourse.
In our Gospel today, Jesus said, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” We know that the coin given to Jesus had the emperor’s image on it. People often exchanged Roman coins for the so-called temple coins in order to purchase a sacrifice to be given in the temple.
As I think about the image of the emperor on the coin, I am reminded of our belief that we are made in the image of God. That understanding comes to us right out of Genesis. God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over all things upon the earth.’ It is as if God has stamped our soul, our very core, with God’s image. It means that every part of us, our heart and soul and mind and strength belong to God. That is why the second half of the verse means so much to me. We should give to God the things that are God’s. Since we are made in the image of God, we are to give everything we have to God.
We have a teaching in the Christian church that we are all born with original sin. It means that we carry the potential for sin inside of us. We say that this original sin comes from what Adam and Eve did when they failed to obey God. To this day, we are at risk always to fall into sin.
It is certainly possible that we are both born in the image of God and have the remnants of original sin is us from the time of birth. But I like an expression that I first read in a book called “Christ of the Celts” by J. Philip Newell. Newell felt that the image of God was so imprinted on us that we don’t really have original sin when we are first born but rather grow into an understanding of sin as we grow older. I think Newell made the point that the image of God has a stronger impact on us than the presence of original sin. I like the positive image and the sense the we are given God’s presence throughout our lives.
Most of us are pretty hard on ourselves. We think the worst, think we may not be good enough. If we could just find a way to love ourselves the way God loves us, our lives would be easier. Thomas Merton said it this way, “We are what we love. If we love God, in whose image we were created, we discover ourselves in him and we cannot help being happy: we have already achieved something of the fullness of being for which we were destined in our creation.” Let us be happy that we are made in God’s image.
In his debate with the Pharisees, Jesus may have felt the pull of evil in their question. It may have taken him back to his encounter with the devil out in the wilderness. Both times Jesus chose to live by God’s rule rather than to rule the earth.
Saint Augustine taught that true freedom is not choice or lack of constraint but being what you are meant to be. Humans were created in the image of God. True freedom, then, is not found in moving away from that image but only in living it out.” Rather than being afraid of temptation perhaps we can live into being in God.
And yet we know that we fail and make mistakes. We may even lose that image of God somewhat. The good news is God is with us. One commentator wrote that “Though the image of God on us has been marred by sin, and none of us is what we might be or wish to be, yet the likeness to God which is part of our creation has not been fully defaced” God is still in us. The likeness of God on our soul has never really left us. As Eleonore Stump, theologian suggested, “The God who made us in his image will not leave us in our sins. Through the redemption of Christ, God will make his image lovely in each one of us.”
As children of God we are faced with choices. There are times when a Christian should support and times when a Christian should resist the activities that are going on in the world around us. The answers are not always easy. It is a struggle that goes on throughout our life.
Just as we know God is within us, we also know that the image of God is found in others. In this introduction, Paul described seeing the image of God in the Thessalonians. Paul was so thankful for what they had become in their love of God and of each other. Paul wrote, I am “constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Such a beautiful description of other people that Paul provided. It is an inspiration for all of us. If we could look upon our fellow humans and always think such wonderful thoughts. It seems such an important thought during this election season as feelings about our presidential candidates create such strong emotions in all of us. We find it difficult to understand and accept the views of those who disagree with us. And yet the image of God is in everyone
There is a story about Leonardo Da Vinci. “One of Leonardo da Vinci's most famous creations is his painting of The Last Supper. It is said that while Leonardo da Vinci was working on the painting he got into an argument with a fellow painter. Leonardo da Vinci was so mad at this colleague that in anger and out of spite he painted that man's face as the face of Judas in his painting of the Last Supper. But then, having completed that, Leonardo da Vinci turned to paint the face of Christ and he could not do it. It wouldn't come. He couldn't visualize it. He couldn't paint the face of Christ.
He put down his paintbrush and went to find the man from whom he was estranged. He forgave him; they reconciled with one another; they both apologized. They both forgave. That very evening Leonardo da Vinci had a dream and in that dream he saw the face of Christ. He rose quickly from his bed and finished the painting and it became one of his greatest masterpieces.”
I hope that you can celebrate the gift that Jesus gave us. He wanted us to know that we are made in the image of God and that all of what we have we are to give to God. In doing so, let us be encouraged by the image of God that lies in us. Let us be happy with ourselves because we try to live as God’s people even though we sometimes fail. And let us see God in others. Amen.
The other day, I was talking to a friend on the telephone. He said, “I will be so glad when 2020 is over”. I think many of us share his feeling. We have faced enormous challenges because of the coronavirus outbreak and all of the things that have been done and not done to deal with the problem. People are out of work, businesses have failed, many have become sick and many have died. We have also been besieged by other problems including our struggle with race relations and racial injustice and significant disagreement in the United States about how to move forward. And now we are in the midst of a contentious election. On top of all of this my friend is dealing with several struggles for his family. I am certain that each of you are dealing with problems in your life beyond those I have mentioned. May God bless us all during this time.
I think the words we hear from Paul’s letter to the Philippians speak directly to us today. Listen again to his words, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice”. Paul wrote this letter during a difficult time for himself. Paul was writing from prison. Eventually, Paul’s imprisonment would lead to his death. Paul was concerned about what was going on for the people in Philippi. Paul believed there was some quarrel between Euodia and Synthyche, two of the leaders of the Christian community, We are not told the specifics of the dispute. Maybe they held some different views, some different positions. I wonder if the dispute was causing a problem for others in the church community and creating division. It was certainly enough of an issue for Paul to hear about it in prison and enough to write about it in a letter to the entire community. Paul encouraged them to find ways to work together in the Lord. Perhaps they might disagree on other things but they might find togetherness in the Lord.
Did you notice that Paul wrote, I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. I believe Paul was recognizing each of them as an individual. I don’t think Paul wanted them to be the same and I don’t think he wants us to be the same either. We don’t have to think exactly alike but rather accept each other, learn from each other and be gentle with each other. I think Jesus wants us to work together for the good of all while accepting the ways we are different. I found this quote, “Instead of turning differences into an ugly exclusionary fight, differences are to be welcomed in a joyful way.” Paul wanted the entire community to help resolve those differences.
Churches are often places where people disagree about things. I have sought to mediate a disagreement between two people who were both part of our church community. it happens in churches just as it happens in other communities. I think all of us are called to accept differences while finding our common following of Jesus.
The words Rejoice in the Lord suggest thanksgiving for God. Beyond thanksgiving, Paul wanted us to be joyful. He referred to joy and rejoicing 14 different times in this letter. It is easy to be joyful when things are going well. We often say that we have been blessed by God when we recover from an illness or when we have financial stability or when our families are brought together. But Paul believed we should be joyful in times of stress and struggle. A theologian suggested that rejoicing when we are suffering might be better stated as “take heart” or “have courage.” We rejoice In the good times and the bad times, the Lord is near.
The current situation has made it difficult to even know each other in community. Church services have only restarted recently and even then, we are limited to how many can attend. Some are remaining at home even now. That is a prudent choice for those at risk. Communal gatherings like coffee hour have stopped as well. We are struggling.
And yet, in this time of struggle the Lord is near. New and creative ideas have brought us together. Services have been live streamed or recorded. New online events have been created. In our church a weekday evening Compline service has become a daily event for about 15 to 20 people. This group has grown together in their faith, in their prayer life and in their caring for one another. Other groups are doing Bible studies. Our book group continues to meet and we are having remote coffee hour. Without the pandemic, we would not have created these experiences. These new options allow us to stay connected with members who are only in Arizona for a part of the year. Our online presence has even identified people who were not connected to the church before now. Let us rejoice in the Lord always.
Another part of our struggle is worry and anxiety. Paul told the people of Philippi to stop worrying. That seems like really good advice during this time as well. Paul wrote, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” His words are similar to what Jesus said in the gospel of Matthew, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.”
Jesus said God takes care of the birds of the air and God will take care of you. I think Jesus wanted us to stop worrying about things that are beyond our control. I think Jesus wanted us to put our trust in God rather than choosing to be anxious.
Worry, anxiety and even fear are easy feelings to fall into these days. Worry and anxiety are natural feelings to have. Worry can help us to create a safe and secure environment. For example, the people in the path of hurricane on the gulf coast were worried and they decided to leave the area and to stay away from danger. I don’t think either Paul or Jesus were trying to get us to stop worrying about everything. As I said there are times when worry is useful.
But there are times when anxiety moves beyond the place where it can help us create a positive outcome. We have a tendency to worry about things that are extremely unlikely to happen. We are anxious about things that we cannot control. The problem with this kind of anxiety is that the worry can rob us of our ability to do anything other than worry. We can be so absorbed by our anxiety that we are unable to interact with other people. What is more important is that our anxiety can keep us from a closer relationship with God. That is why we trust in God, so that we can continue to be in relationship with God and find God’s peace.
I would suggest that you evaluate your feelings in the area of worry and anxiety. If your worry is about something that you can change or helps you to be safer, then I wouldn’t change anything. But if you think your worry is about things that won’t happen or that are out of your control, keeping you from positive interactions and your relationship with God, then you might try to work on it. My best suggestion is that you pray to God for help with your anxiety.
Our individual worries can also create a communal sense of worry. Will people ever come back to church? What might happen to our church after the pandemic is over? I myself have fallen victim to some of that kind of questioning. I think it is better for all of us to do our part and let the rest be taken care of by God. Our part is to be faithful to God in all that we do, to welcome others in our midst, to be gentle with one another as Paul suggested, to love one another and to find a sense of togetherness. We are together when we worship God and our Savior, Jesus. The rest of what happens is up to God.
Let us come back to rejoicing in the Lord. I believe that Paul wanted us to rejoice as a community. Let us rejoice together because even in difficult times wonderful things are happening. Let us rejoice in the new ways we have found to be near God as a community. Let us rejoice in our differences. As we accept our differences we remember that Paul asked us to be gentle with each other. Another Bible translation suggests that we have consideration for others. Rejoicing in the Lord is about being able to pray together, giving thanks and offering our petitions to God. Paul wrote about this in Romans when he said, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” Paul said that we can rejoice because we know that the Lord is near. As a theologian named Doug brats wrote, “The Lord is near in the comfort the Holy Spirit gives. The Lord is near in the loving prayers and presence of other believers. The Lord is also near in the trust God grants us that God is working even through difficult circumstances for good.”
In the nearness of God we receive a peace that only God can give us. My friends, whether you feel blessed and thankful or stressed and struggling, let us all join together and rejoice in the Lord. Amen.
There is a game called Jenga that can be played by both children and adults. In the game, you stack 48 rectangular building blocks. Each row consists of three building blocks and the next row is stacked with three blocks in a crisscross fashion. The stack ends up being 16 blocks high. After the stack is complete, players take turns gently pushing and pulling one of the building blocks out of the stack with the goal of keeping the entire stack from falling. The game takes a steady hand as well as thought and patience. Finally, someone tries to remove one of the building blocks and the entire stack falls down. One block makes the difference between the stack staying up and the stack falling down.
In today’s gospel Jesus quotes from Psalm 118, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;” I think we all know that the cornerstone is the first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation. All other stones will be set in reference to this stone. A cornerstone marks the geographical location by orienting a building in a specific direction. Cornerstones have been around for millennia, in some shape or form
Our own church has a cornerstone in the left of the church building with the year 2000 etched into the stone. It helped ensure that the altar would be located on the eastern wall of the church, the traditional direction for the church to face. We will learn today that Jesus was talking about himself, that he is the cornerstone of our lives. He is the one that sets the direction for everything which follows. The idea that Jesus is the cornerstone is mentioned many times, even by the apostle Peter when he was challenged by Jewish leaders.
I am sure you have noticed that many biblical stories speak about vineyards. In every case, the vineyard is referring to the gift that God has given to God’s people. The plants in the vineyard refer to the people of Israel and then later to the followers of Jesus. We are expected to become the good fruit of the vineyard.
A good example is a passage from Isaiah chapter 5. “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.” God created many things for this vineyard and great things were expected. But the vineyard produced wild grapes that were no good for harvesting. So the owner of the vineyard tore it down. Isaiah explained the story this way, “For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”
Some of you may remember that last week, Jesus told a story about two sons and a vineyard. Both sons were asked by their father to work in the vineyard. One said he would not but eventually did and the other said he would but did not. The people listening to this story said that the one who said he would not work in the vineyard but later did was more faithful. My conclusion was that Jesus has asked us to both say we are followers and to actually do the work of God’s kingdom on earth.
In today’s gospel, Jesus continued to have a debate with the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. He told a story about a vineyard and some wicked tenants. The owner of the vineyard left and leased the vineyard to the tenants. But the tenants take advantage and steal from the owner even when the owner sent slaves to deal with them and finally his own son whom they kill. The Jewish leaders are still not listening to God and following God’s wishes. This is a prediction that Jesus will be killed because they refuse God’s wishes. Next Sunday we will hear one more reading about a wedding feast. Jesus continued his disagreement with the leaders in Jerusalem.
Although the Isaiah passage and these stories from Jesus were written hundreds of years apart, they share a theme. God has given his people so much, a vineyard with many fruits. The Jewish people and later the Christians followers were expected to maintain this vineyard and to help it produce fruit abundantly.
We could simply understand this message to say that the Jewish people were wrong and that the entire Jewish population was responsible. But I would disagree with that conclusion. It was the Jewish leaders who created this hatred of Jesus and they were in part responsible for his death. We are not then to leave this story as just something that happened a long time ago and is just a judgement on Jews. Rather we are to ask ourselves how does it fit for us today?
As Christians, we have been given the fruit of God’s kingdom and we have been asked to produce the fruits that God has called upon us to do. We might first ask what fruits are we supposed to produce. Certainly we are to follow the commandments described in the reading from Exodus. I think we are also asked to live a righteous life, listening to God’s wishes, that we are to display human caring for others and we are to courageously witness to the glory of God.
I ask you to note that God once again shows remarkable patience and forgiveness. God forgave the wicked tenants time and again when God sent slaves to check up on his vineyard. It is a reminder that God did not give up on the Jewish people when they rejected the prophets who came before Jesus. If there is nothing else that we take away from the gospel today, let us focus on forgiveness. Helmut Thielicke, a German theologian once wrote, “if we never take the risk, if we never forgive in the name of the one who first took the initiative and moved towards us, then being a Christian will only be a burden because we let grace go to waste.” Let us then be a forgiving people always seeking to be considerate of the other person.
I think the Jewish leaders of Jesus times were a little arrogant. They forgot that God is responsible for all things. Even in our time, we can start thinking we know everything about faith. That is why a commentator wrote that this gospel story might be better titled beware of wealthy preachers. Money can distract us. I am thinking of Jimmy Bakker and his wife, Tammy Faye, who were televangelists in the 1970s and 1980s. My guess is that they were faithful but lost their way when they became financially successful. Jimmy Bakker was eventually put in prison for fraud.
More recently, we have the example of Jerry Falwell, Jr, the head of Liberty University, a conservative college founded by his father. Recently, it came to light that he was using college funds to support his own family’s business and it seems he violated some of the strict codes of the college. Jerry Falwell, Jr was replaced by the Board of Directors. Our denomination has also seen misbehavior by clergy people. As I said, we must be careful not to blame the Jewish people for all of the sins against God.
Perhaps we might choose to follow the words of Paul that we find in his letter to the Philippians. Paul wrote that he had been a faithful Jewish person and that he had always lived a righteous life. But none of that really mattered. Paul said that all of this was a waste because he had found a new life in Jesus. Paul was happy to give up all of those things, to regard them as lost, to regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ. Paul found his faith in the power of the resurrection. Paul experienced Jesus as his cornerstone, his guide, his savior.
We may be guided today by the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, whose feast is this week. Francis chose to be humble, to give up his wealth and turn everything over to God. I think he found it was easier to be faithful when he didn’t have so many earthly things to think about.
Perhaps we too can be humble about where we have come from and only seek the love of Jesus and his forgiving ways. Let us give the credit to God. Let us be thankful for the beautiful vineyard that we have been given by God and let us always seek to produce the fruits of that vineyard for ourselves and for all those around us. May Jesus always be the cornerstone of our lives. Amen.
When I was younger if I wished for something good to happen, I would cross my fingers. I am sure that most of you remember doing this. If you wanted something really important to happen, you might cross your fingers on both hands because that would make your desired outcome more likely. Some people would cross their fingers before a critical play in a sports event. I don’t think that made much of a difference.
The idea that you would cross your fingers has a long tradition. Some think it was started by Christians and that crossing your fingers was a reminder of the cross of Jesus. Certainly, asking Jesus to help us is a good idea. But over time, it has been used as just a lucky thought, a wish for things to occur that might not be important.
Over time, a new custom of crossing the fingers was established. People started to cross their fingers and hold them behind their back when they didn’t tell the truth. Some believed that it was OK to tell a lie if we crossed our fingers. Some people may have believed that crossing their fingers when they told a lie was a request for God to forgive us for what we had said or done. Of course, I don’t think it really works that way.
I remember the idea of crossing fingers as I reflect on the gospel for today. Crossing fingers was probably what the second son did when he was asked by his father to go work in the fields. The second son said he would work for his father but he did not. He obviously didn’t tell the truth. Perhaps he even hoped inside that God would forgive him for lying or being lazy.
Jesus told the story of the two sons as a way to show that the leaders of the Jewish people were not following God’s wishes. Jesus followed in the footsteps of the prophets of Israel as he proclaimed that the leaders were sinners. Neither our Jewish heritage nor our Christian faith indicate that simply proclaiming our faith is enough. We must do the work. As one commentator wrote, “The religious respectability of affirming the right thing not only will never get us to heaven, but stands in the way of an authentic response to God’s call.”
Jesus said the tax collectors and prostitutes were the ones who listened to John the Baptist’s call to repent. They had changed their ways and asked for God’s forgiveness. They took action to follow God’s will. The chief priests who questioned Jesus thought it was below their standard to go see John the Baptist. The chief priests were self-righteous. We may have to give up our sense of righteousness and do God’s work in the world.
This gospel story tells us that faith is about how we act and not what we say. It is not enough to say that we follow Jesus. We must also act on those statements. Action is not always easy. Every one of us has sinned in this world. We are not perfect. Our life can be a daily struggle to do good. That is why we put ourselves in the presence of God as often as we can. For being in God’s presence helps us to defeat the devil and to do good. We ask Jesus to be our guide and our strength.
On Friday, we had a memorial service celebrating the life of Larry Little. Larry’s sister, Connie, shared thoughts that Larry had shared with her. Larry’s advice to us is to do God’s good works in the world. He promised that he would be watching over us and encouraging us.
Bill Robinson spoke of Larry’s Christian actions. Larry worked in the Chile Garden to help feed the needy. The story of Jesus feeding the five thousand was important to Larry. Larry so appreciated the gift that Jesus offered on that day. In the gospel of John, we learn that the people came out to see Jesus because of what he had done. They were excited because he had performed signs or miracles and cured the sick. They came out into the desert, far away from the cities and villages because of what they had seen Jesus do. Larry saw this miracle as a sign that our actions matter.
Jesus’s work for us never ended. As we read today in Philippians, Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross.” Just as Jesus never stopped doing the work of God in this world, we seek to emulate his actions, even though we are humans who are not as perfect as Jesus was.
I think it can be difficult to determine the work of a Christian. Jesus often asked tough questions. The chief priests struggled and finally were unable or unwilling to answer the question about whether John was sent to the desert by God. When they refused to answer, they showed that the question they asked was a trick, a trap. By not responding to Jesus, they stayed in their comfort zone rather than digging deeply into their hearts to accept Jesus.
Sometimes we say that we are going to follow Jesus but we lose our way and we end up sinning. Other times, we may say we are going to follow Jesus but we intentionally choose to do something different. Sometimes we say we will follow Jesus but we don’t really understand what we must do and we mistakenly fall away.
In 1956, Gary Cooper starred in a movie called Friendly Persuasion. He was the husband and father of a Quaker family that faced ethical issues during the civil war. The Quakers were opposed to slavery but they also were pacifists, they were opposed to fighting in a war. The issue became personal when marauding southern soldiers invaded the area nearby. Should the Quaker men join the army or not? Quakers were also opposed to coercion, talking someone into taking a certain action. They believed in the importance of every person’s individual conscience. Thus, the question, should a father persuade his teen age son to remain out of the war or allow him to decide on this own? I am sure questions like this have haunted people in every generation and I think of conscientious objectors who chose to stay out of wars. It may not have been popular.
In our own time, we face questions that will test our understanding of what is ethically correct. We have ethical questions testing us right now and there is not an easy answer. Is it correct to stop illegal immigration because it is opposed to the law and threatens our well-being? Or is it more important to help the stranger and give every person an opportunity to live in safety? Should I focus on the concerns of minorities in America and encourage their right to protest? Or should I focus on looting and destruction of property and be more concerned about the safety of people and those who own property? Should I be more concerned about the actions of police or should I worry more about violence that is happening in poorer communities? I have Christian friends on both sides of each of these questions.
The reading from Philippians describes what our world would be like if we chose to imitate Jesus in all that we do. We would share a perspective that followed the compassion and sympathy of Jesus, that humbly regarded others as better than ourselves. It would be a place where everyone looked not out for their own interests but the interests of others.
In his book, The Drama of Christian Ethics, the Anglican priest, Samuel Wells, wrote that Jesus was so accepting of his people. By sending Jesus to live as a human, God demonstrated that he accepted us despite our faults. Throughout his ministry Jesus accepted people that were outcasts. In this gospel, Jesus points to the so-called sinners, the tax collectors and prostitutes who had repented as examples for each of us.
Thomas Paine, the famed writer during the revolutionary War, expressed it this way, “Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess.” Perhaps we can find that kind of a place in this small community.
Today is special, it is the first day that we have held services at the Church of the Transfiguration since March. During that six-month period, I have been amazed by the dedication of so many to their faith and this church. I am thankful for each person and each gift that has been given. I believe that our faith is stronger when we support each other. I believe that our faith grows every time that we come together and worship God, to ask for God’s forgiveness and to ask Jesus to help us make good choices. May this day be a time to commit ourselves once more. May we reject the actions of the two sons Jesus mentioned. Let us instead say yes to Jesus and live our lives acting on that yes. Amen.
Our country is in the midst of a huge debate over the actions of the police. I don’t have the answers to the issues. I struggle to understand why minor offenses escalate into terrible shootings, injuries and death. I saw a story this week about a mother who called 911 to get help for her 13-year-old autistic son. She had hoped that he would be taken to a psychiatric hospital. Instead he is in the hospital for gunshot wounds from the police. By the way this is a white child in Salt Lake City. As I said, I don’t understand why things escalate so quickly and so terribly.
As we struggle with this issue, I am reminded of two beautiful and amazing stories. The first happened in a courtroom just last October. An ex-police officer by the name of Amber Guyger had just been convicted of murder. The circumstances are so sad. Guyger thought she was entering her own apartment but instead she was one floor up and she entered the wrong apartment. She found a black man inside and shot Botham Jean to death. Two peoples lives were changed forever, in part because of a simple mistake and in part by a fear that too easily can overcome any of us.
In the penalty phase of the trial, the dead man’s brother, Brandt Jean, took the stand and forgave Guyger. Brandt Jean was only 18 years old at the time and he said that he loved his brother dearly and missed him so much. As I understand it, the young man told Amber Guyger that he forgave her, that he wanted only the best for her, and that he wanted her to give her life to Christ, something that he said Botham would have wanted as well. Then, Brandt asked the judge and was given permission to go and give a hug to the woman who killed his brother. They spent a moment together as Amber Guyger sobbed. What a wonderful example of what Jesus teaches us about forgiveness. My friends, this happened just last October it could be a shining light for all of us.
I heard of another wonderful story this week. A lady in Alabama had been arrested several times by policeman named Terrell Potter. Each arrest was for a crime she committed to support her opioid addiction. But she finally was able to beat the problem. She credited Officer Potter for saving her life. One day she saw on the internet that the officer needed a kidney. The lady immediately decided to help. Amazingly, their kidneys matched. She donated her kidney to Potter in July and now both are doing well. An example of forgiveness and reconciliation.
In the gospel, Peter thought he was being generous when he asked Jesus if seven times was enough times to forgive another. But Jesus was even more insistent. You should forgive seventy times seven, he said. In essence, Jesus told his followers that they should forgive others who sin against them always and forever. The spirit of forgiveness should be such an integral part of our lives that we just forget how many times we have forgiveness another person. When we seek to follow this direction, it has such an impact on our lives. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.” Brandt Jean had heard this direction many times in his life and had accepted it as part of being a Christian. It is a way of living that all of us aspire to.
We find examples of this perspective on forgiveness many times in the Gospels. Jesus offered many examples of forgiveness for when he healed other people he almost always offered forgiveness for their sins. One of my favorite passages is found in Matthew chapter 7, “‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? It is so easy for us to see the sins of others and not see our own sins.
The reading from Romans today seems so consistent with this idea. Paul was writing to the Christian community and asking them to not judge how others worshipped God. It seems that Paul believed there were many ways to be spiritual and reach out in prayer. We need to leave it up to each person to find that place where we find God. Why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister, Paul wrote. This passage leaves no room for pettiness about our Christian practices but rather encourages charity and sensitivity toward others.
Forgiveness is often a very difficult thing for us to do and yet it has benefits for both parties. It may not come quickly. We may have to work on it. There is no better reason to forgive than when we say the Lord’s prayer. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. When we forgive the sins of others, God will forgive our sins as well. In Matthew’s gospel this even becomes a warning about eternal life. If we don’t forgive others then God will not forgive us and we will be doomed to the fiery prison of hell. These are strong words.
The parable that is found in today’s gospel is a little unusual. It could not have been based on a real-life scenario as no one could possibly rack up a debt of 10,000 talents. That would be the equivalent of the daily wage for 60 million people. No one could afford to loan that much to a slave. That is why I concluded that the debt is about what we owe to God. Our debt to God is so large that there is no way that we could possibly repay it. And yet God forgives us. We remember the sacrifice that Jesus made for us. Jesus gave up his life so that our sins would be forgiven.
It is out of thanksgiving for God’s forgiveness that we forgive others. We are not like the slave in the parable who decided as soon as he had been forgiven for his own debt, he could mistreat others who owed money to him. We don’t know why he wouldn’t forgive the debt of others but it was certainly selfish and Jesus would never approve of someone being selfish.
A few years ago, we did a Lenten study on forgiveness. I learned that there are benefits to ourselves for forgiving others. The benefits can be physical and mental and emotional. Nelson Mandela spoke about the harm that is caused to ourselves when we are unable to forgive. He said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” The Mayo Clinic suggests that letting go of grudges and bitterness can improve our relationships, give us Improved mental health, lower our anxiety and blood pressure, improve heart health and self- esteem, and decrease the symptoms of depression.
Offering forgiveness is not something that means we are more vulnerable, it does not mean that we invite future harm to ourselves, nor does it necessarily change punishment for offenses. The policewoman Amber Guyger was sentenced to several years in prison for killing Botham Jean even though his brother forgave her.
Some of you will remember a book called The Shack in which a man must confront his anger for someone who killed his daughter. The author, William Young wrote this in the book,
“Forgiveness is not about forgetting. It is about letting go of another person's throat......Forgiveness does not create a relationship. Unless people speak the truth about what they have done and change their mind and behavior, a relationship of trust is not possible. When you forgive someone you certainly release them from judgment, but without true change, no real relationship can be established."
Jesus taught us that we are to forgive over and over again. Sometimes the harm that has been done to us is minor and forgiveness is not too hard. But when the hurt is significant, the words of Jesus are difficult. In fact, we often feel safer or self-satisfied by holding on to our anger or just feeling sorry for ourselves. Yet, deep down, we know that we can and should be better. Forgiveness makes us better and forgiveness creates the opportunity for change in the other person or even possibly reconciliation. If you are struggling with forgiveness of another person, I encourage you to turn to Jesus. For he understood the feelings himself and will help you with your feelings as well. Amen.