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.
When I was in seminary, I helped at a church in downtown Columbus Ohio. It was right across the street from the state capital. The capital took up the entire square block. On Good Friday, I participated in a procession around the entire capital complex. We read the stations of the cross as we traveled. For part of the procession, I carried the heavy cross. It was quite a burden. It was an unusual experience to walk on a downtown street carrying a cross. People looked at us in all different ways. Some ignored us. I think some even joined us for a short time. I thought about how Jesus must have felt as he carried the cross to Calvary. It was an experience I will not forget.
When Jesus said “take up your cross and follow me” I don’t think he meant that every one of his followers needed to literally carry the cross. And yet many were persecuted and killed in the first centuries following his death and resurrection. And some are persecuted even today.
I also don’t think Jesus meant that everything we would do when we followed him was going to be a burden. Yet that seems to be a common thought. We have the expression, “that is my cross to bear”, as if some problem, some challenge we face or even some person we must get along with is what Jesus was talking about when he said take up your cross and follow me.
Some may realize that our burdens are not so bad. I found this story which was attributed to Debra Stitt. A man was struggling with many troubles and burdens. He prayed to God asking for help. Jesus came and asked the man about his problems and the man recounted all of the challenges he faced. Jesus told the man that he would help him and he took the man to a room filled with crosses. They were of all sizes, big and small even some that were huge. Jesus told him that these symbolized the various burdens people carried and asked the man to choose a cross, to choose a burden that he could deal with. The man found a very tiny cross over in the corner and said he would take that one. Jesus said, Are you sure and the man said yes. Jesus then said, "My child, you have chosen your own cross. It is the burden you already carry.” Taking up our cross may be difficult, we may have to do things we prefer not doing, but it is not always something that is truly a burden. In fact, taking up our cross may give us great joy. Helping others is a good example.
Arthur Pink was an Englishman who became an evangelical Christian. While I wouldn’t agree with all of his positions, I do agree with this quote, “Taking up my "cross" means a life voluntarily surrendered to God.” Taking up our cross is a choice we make. It is not forced upon us, like some problem dropped into our lap. Rather, we get to decide what we will do. It may be as simple as choosing between a life of sin and a life of holiness but it is always a choice.
Sometimes our choice is about a job we should do. Moses was given a choice. He didn’t know about the cross of Jesus but he was called by God to go help the Israelites. God had heard the cries of God’s people and asked Moses to help. Moses had lots of reasons why he was the wrong man for the job. I am not good enough, who should I say sent me, what if they don’t believe me, I can’t speak well enough. Moses didn’t think he was worthy of God’s call. God had an answer for every concern that Moses gave him. Other prophets struggled with God’s call. Isaiah and Jeremiah did as well.
Each of us has our own calling, the cross that we are to carry. It will certainly not be the same as one of the prophets from the Old Testament. It may not even be a full time occupation. Most of us will feel unworthy. But God will help us with our concerns and our limitations so that we can do the task we are given.
The apostle, Peter, gives us an example of the trouble that we can so easily fall into. Just a moment before this exchange, he had declared Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Peter was the hero. But Peter had a particular understanding of what it meant to be the Messiah. His human understanding was not God’s way. Peter was distraught when Jesus told the disciples he would die. In following the ways of humans and not listening to Jesus, Peter became like Satan. Jesus felt that Peter was trying to get him to turn from God’s plan. Jesus must have felt tempted to do so.
Taking up our cross means putting away our sins and doing as Jesus would want us to do. We must not fall victim to temptation. I don’t often speak of the temptation to sin as I prefer to focus on God’s blessings. But sin is aways there and the devil is always ready to encourage us to fall into his clutches. Our world is filled with people and opportunities to live a life of sin. Sometimes, the things we think are good can actually lead us to a bad place just as it did with Peter. Christians have often chosen sinful ways thinking that they were doing good.
In the 1970s, El Salvador was racked by a terrible civil war. Leaders thought they were doing the right thing to quash the rebellion. As the war dragged on, the country’s soldiers began to commit more and more atrocities against the people. Eventually, Archbishop Oscar Romero took up his cross and spoke out against the government, asking the soldiers to put down their guns. Before he was murdered by the government, he sought a way to counter this government violence. “The violence we preach is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.” He said further,
Peace is not the product of terror or fear.
Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.
Peace is not the silent result of violent repression.
Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all.
Peace is dynamism.
Peace is generosity.
It is right and it is duty.
Romero sought peace and reconciliation. Is it possible that we are called to do the same?
When people try to do good, others may take advantage. I am thinking about people who have chosen to peacefully protest against wrongs that have been committed against their fellow human beings in the United States. But others have turned these peaceful protests into violence. They have taken things too far.
Martin Luther King Junior spoke about this challenge many years ago. We should struggle with Christian methods, he said, “Never succumb to the temptation of being bitter. As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline… If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness. .. Let your oppressor know that you are only seeking justice for him or her as well as for yourself”. It seems that those words could have been spoken today. I am sure you can think of other examples in today’s world where Christian people have lost their way.
In our desire to do the right thing, to be followers of Jesus, Scripture gives us good advice like Paul’s encouragement in today’s passage from the Letter to the Romans. Paul wrote about how we live together in community. We are to love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. The list goes on.
My favorite expression this week is Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. It seems especially important at this time when it is difficult to see each other. Perhaps you might find a way to reach out to someone you know and either rejoice with the person or weep with that person. It doesn’t seem too difficult and yet Paul tells us that is part of taking up our cross.
Let us be encouraged with the knowledge that God cares about us, that Jesus is with us and the Holy Spirit will guide us. Let us accept the call God has offered to us, to take up our cross, whatever it may be. Let us not be shy or feel unworthy. Rather let us say, Here I am Lord, do with me as you will. Amen.
Things have gotten pretty bad for our beloved ancestors as we read the Hebrew Scripture for today. We recall the earlier sories about how the Hebrew Children managed to get themselves into Egypt. The patriarch Jacob, renamed Israel by the Lord our God had a houseful of rowdy boys, and some of them had become jealous of little brother Joseph, whom the older brothers decided to sell into slavery. Bad as this sounds, it was an improvement over the original plan to kill little Joseph outright, and tell Papa that his beloved son has been slain by a wild beast, BUT, that is exactly what they DID tell Papa. However, not wishing to incur the wrath of the Lord our God, they improvised somewhat on the plan, and poor little Joe ends up in Egypt, where he has a lot of amazing adventures, ultimately becoming Pharaoh’s #1 go-to guy. And when a 7-year famine sharply reduced the population in Israel, Papa Jacob sent several brothers into Egypt, where he had heard food was available. And this is where Joe has an opportunity to practice mercy as taught by our Lord God. Eventually Jacob’s entire family moves into Egypt, where they are originally well received by the Egyptians. Unfortunately, human memories for kindness shown, either by God or other humans, proves to be rather short-lived. And as we hear today, the poor Hebrew Children are in BIG trouble. But God, Who continually keeps all God’s promises, including those implicit in the creation, has NOT abandoned the Chosen People, and is at work in God’s celestial time and methodology, to oh-yet-again bring good out of evil. EG> the Hebrew midwives, saving baby boys and the Egyptian Princess, saving Moses. Our Lord’s ways are inevitably kind and good, in even circumstances that would otherwise be overlooked. Imagine: the doomed baby, Moses, is returned to his own Mother, that she may be his nursemaid, and his sister may continue to watch over her little brother. WE would do well to remember that our God is at work in all things, large, and small, and be comforted by the Psalm, in which God’s children acknowledge:” If the Lord had not been on our side…when enemies rose up against us, they would have swallowed us alive.” God is all about redemption, and it doesn’t matter whether “the enemy” is an invading army, a tsunami, or a pandemic, God is present, and working to bring redemption, whether we see it or not. And in today’s Epistle, Paul calls us to discern “what is the will of God…good, acceptable and perfect. Paul reminds us that we are on a level playing field before God, Who in Christ commands us to love one another, knowing that we are one in Christ, and thereby “members of one another.” This Parish Family loves to demonstrate that we love one another, as Christ commands; and our hope and prayer is that we may soon be free to demonstrate that love we share, with the direct contact many of us miss so much.
As we hear today’s Gospel from Matthew, we wonder if Jesus is having an identity crisis, when He asks His homies ‘who do folks say I am?’ The guys offer various bits of public opinion, and finally Jesus asks them for their opinion. Peter is prompt to answer: “You are the Messiah, Incarnation of the Living God.” And we are quick to agree, as most of us grew up hearing that Jesus is indeed the Incarnation of our Lord God. Imagine, however, the difficulty these faithful Jewish folks had with this concept, which even St. Paul originally considered blasphemous.
We, too, struggle with concepts and situations that are different from the familiar. We now begin to struggle with the effects of global warming, and to acknowledge the reduction in the availability of water that is clean and safe to use and consume. We now realize that, though God’s creation suffers long-standing abuse, eventually, nature fights back! When shall we recognize that we have mis-used, neglected, marginalized, and disenfranchised the very ones who CANNOT FIGHT BACK - those whom St. Paul says are one with us in Christ, and WHO with all we are therefore one with each other? Are we so blind that we cannot see that unless we are mindful of the well-being of ALL our species, we cannot expect to insure our own, OR our beloved children’s well-being and survival. Do we not understand that if any child suffers hunger, our children and grandchildren may go painfully hungry? We endeavour to protect our children, their children, and ourselves, from illness and disease. But if we fail to protect ALL people from such things, how do we propose to TRULYprotect ourselves and our families? Have we the grace to say to our Lord that we have been guilty of an insidious form of elitism, and ask our Lord not only for pardon and redemption, but also for the courage, wisdom, and strength, to change? Our beloved Lord, always quick to pardon and redeem, will always grant our prayers when we ask God’s help in doing what God commands. In the Pentateuch, the books of law taught by God, Our Lord continually commands the people of God that they be mindful of the aliens among them, and provide for them as for one of their own. For that culture, “alien” meant “not one of the Hebrew people.” But have we not used the term to signify any that do not conform to our perception of ourselves.? Have we not chosen to separate ourselves from one another in many ways that signify the smallness of our perception and understanding? Occasionally, I find myself enjoying a little ‘avoidance behaviour,’ in which I neither do nor say that which I know is right, and which I ought. Perhaps you do that too, sometimes. In our Ash Wed. service, we pray, “against You only, O, Lord, have we sinned. Sometimes we DO have the grace to perceive God’s pain, and beg forgiveness.
We find ourselves now in the midst of a terrible pandemic, which has caused much loss, and great suffering, globally. And though I see that God is continually sinned against, I do not believe that this pandemic, with all the suffering it has caused, is in any way God’s action against us. But in keeping with God’s loving and redemptive goodness towards us, I do strongly hope that out of this, we may see that there is much for us to do, so that in the lives of our children, and our grand-children’s life-times, and the lives of generations yet to come, all creation will recognize that we are called to be stewards of creation, rather than abusers; and I pray that all humans acknowledge that all we are commanded by God to love one another, to realize that all are God’s Own Beloved Children; and that the well being of each individual is dependent upon us assuring the well-being of all. For Infinite Love & Mercy, THANKS BE TO GOD!
Rev. Susan Smith-Allen
My younger granddaughter, Alyssa, is two years old. She loves to do things on her own. She is learning to be independent and that includes eating. She likes to cut her own food and refuses to have anyone help her eat anything. As it turns out, when she eats, some of the food ends up on the chair or the floor or even on her. I think of this as all part of growing up.
The dog, Lava, keeps a close eye on Alyssa. She hovers by her chair during mealtime and is always ready to scoop up any food that falls from the table. Lava’s actions are considered helpful. She is often called upon to clean the floors when there is a spill. But sometimes Lava’s actions are not appreciated. She will follow Alyssa around the room when Alyssa is carrying some food. Alyssa will hold her hand up high in the air to keep the food from Lava. But sometimes Lava is able to snatch food right from Alyssa’s hand. What I admire about the dog, Lava, is her persistence. She just never gives up getting some people food. And she continues to search for this kind of food even though she has been admonished.
Today’s gospel is the story of a woman whose daughter is healed through the woman’s persistence. This reading is quite difficult. The response of Jesus to her request seems surprising and uncomfortable even harsh. I always think of Jesus as compassionate but this story doesn’t lend itself to that understanding.
Jesus and his disciples first ignored the woman and her pleading. The disciples told Jesus to send her away. Then Jesus tells her outright that he didn’t come to help her kind of people. Jesus finally says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”. How do we understand the actions of Jesus? Did Jesus come only for the people of Israel?
We might want to explain away the harshness, the rejection of this woman by Jesus. He was testing her we might say or Jesus wanted her to show humility. I prefer to accept it as is and not try to explain it away. It certainly is one of the hard sayings of Jesus. One commentator even suggested this encounter with the woman caused Jesus to expand his ministry to the Gentiles. We all fall into the trap of thinking that the stranger, the foreigner, is not unworthy, certainly not acceptable, not good enough. Jesus listened and responded to the woman, the Gentile.
In her words and actions she showed that she believed that Jesus was the Messiah. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David;” she said. When she described him as the son of David, she was saying that he was the Messiah. She came and knelt before him another sign of her belief in his Kingship. But perhaps it was her quick-witted response to his words about the dogs that convinced him of her faith. Even the dogs deserve some scraps from the table. She may have first appeared to Jesus as a Canaanite woman but her words described her as a believer. She accepted Jesus as the Messiah when many of his own people did not.
Professor Willam Boyce summarized it this way, “this story offers that wondrously-strange and persistent faith that stands its ground against all opposition. This woman is not to be put off, and against all the signs of apparent hopelessness, doggedly stands her ground, persistently seeking the Lord's help, even if it is only to be in those meager crumbs that might fall from the "master's" table. And in the wonderful surprise that is the miracle of faith, she meets the gracious healing power of God.”
Theologian John Kavanaugh suggested that the Canaanite woman embodies the constant and universal quality that every human heart—Jew or Gentile, woman or man, slave or free—possesses. It was her and our own willingness to call out in faith. It is a power we have. Kavanaugh would say that we share a power with Sarah and Abraham with Mary and Joseph, from Romans to rabbis, Africans to Indians. Let us call upon God in faith. Our faith is a power that unites us with others and unites us with God.
Similar words can be found in the reading from Romans. Paul described himself as a follower of Jesus and yet he connected his faith to the faith of the Jewish people. God has not given up on the Jews, he wrote. After all, God promised that he would care for the Jewish people and he continues to do so even today.
Jesus often tested the Jewish rules and laws. He was clearly uncomfortable with the purification rites and rules for eating. Here is another time for testing boundaries. As New testament professor Carla Works writes, "Her words demonstrate that the boundary separating her from the house of Israel must be reconsidered. The encounter with the Canaanite woman prepares the reader for Jesus’ great commission to go and to make disciples of all the nations”.
I have been thinking recently about the plight of outsiders. We have many examples in our world today. I have been reflecting on the challenge faced by women as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of women receiving the vote in the United States. Some like to say women were given the right to vote but I think it more correct to say that they demanded the right to vote. It took 72 years of continual rejection and persistence before the vote was finally made in favor of women.
In a two-part PBS series, I learned actions started in 1848 when women first started to protest, to actively go into the streets for the right to vote. There were many difficult issues that the suffragettes had to face. How would they relate to the desire for black men and women to vote as well? Would their protests be calm and civil or radical and demanding? Should they start at the state level or request a constitutional amendment? As they worked, people said and wrote awful things about what would happen if women voted and about the women suffragettes. Progress for the women was painful and slow with many defeats. Near the end, women protested outside the White House and were arrested and struggled physically in jails. The outcome was never certain and did not occur until 3/4 of the states approved the amendment. Tennessee was the last chance for woman suffrage. The state approved and it passed by only one vote. The suffragette movement showed that persistence matters. The women never gave up. They were similar to the woman in our gospel who withstood rejection and just kept asking.
I appreciated the sermon given by Philip Stowell last week. He spoke about how you and I are not always heard and seen the way we intend to be heard and seen. How do you see yourself? How do you imagine that others see you? Do you sometimes want to say to people, “Oh, that is not what I meant at all! You do not understand what I am saying.” We are all different and we sometimes feel rejected, we can even sense that we are not good enough to be accepted by God. It is just those times that I ask you to have hope. I ask you to be persistent in faith, especially as you reach out to God.
Matthew gave us these words of Jesus. Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.
So let us pray to Jesus in faith and with persistence. Let us pray that Jesus will keep us safe and healthy from the Covid-19 virus. Let us pray that humans will be healed of their divisions and united as one family. Let us never stop asking God for what we need.
I encourage you to follow one of the prayers found in our prayer book called the prayer for quiet confidence.
O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength: By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Let us be persistent like the woman in today’s lesson. Sometimes a derogatory term used about a group of people becomes a source of pride. I suggest that we be proud of the fact that as Gentiles we were once referred to as dogs and realize that dogs like our own Lava can be persistent in a way that gets us some really good food. The Gentile dogs have become the ones who ask Jesus to feed us and he has responded over and over. May you be quietly confident that Jesus hears your prayers, that Jesus is thankful for your faith and will forever listen to your needs. Amen.
A couple of years ago, there was a preacher whose car gave out on him, and who found it necessary to look for a new car. He went to a nearby dealership, and picked out one that he thought was attractive and apparently would serve him well. He asked the salesman the price, and the man told him the car would cost fifteen thousand dollars. The preacher said, “My goodness! fifteen thousand dollars! I cannot afford that much. I am just a poor preacher.” “I know you are,” the salesman replied; “I have been to your church and heard you preach.”You and I are not always heard and seen the way we intend to be heard and seen. How do you see yourself? How do you imagine that others see you? Do you sometimes want to say to people, “Oh, that is not what I meant at all! You do not understand what I am saying.” A situation similar to that, I believe, is recorded for us in St. Luke’s Gospel. Last Thursday, the Church observed on its liturgical calendar the Feast of the Transfiguration as it does every August 6th, which this year, by the way, also marked the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. If you are fortunate enough to be in a parish on that day where the eucharist is celebrated, you would hear the wonderful gospel account of that event. Otherwise, the only other time you hear it is on the Sunday before Lent begins every year. The Transfiguration also has a special place in my heart, since this is The Church of the Transfiguration, which I have called home for the last few years with the exception of a sojourn of two and one-half years as Vicar of St. Michael’s Church in Coolidge.But to recount the story. Jesus takes three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John, with him up to the top of a high mountain, and there, while He is praying, He is transformed. We are told that His countenance is changed, and his clothing becomes dazzling white. Moses, representing the Law of the Jews, and Elijah, representing the prophets, appear alongside of Him, and together they converse about the future. Luke describes the whole thing as a vision. The disciples are confronted with this vision, this transfiguration and, in time, they, too, are transformed. Peter, in his anxiety, in his awe, in his usual headstrong, reactive way, says, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter attempts to trap the experience, to reduce it to something he can understand or do. But before he is able to, the vision is completed, a cloud overshadows them, and the disciples feel within themselves the very voice of God saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” If Jesus could have said something here, it might have been, “Peter, you do not understand. You have missed the point of what I am trying to say to you in this experience.” So briefly, then, this morning, I would like to reflect with you, in the context of the story of the Transfiguration, upon how we see ourselves, upon how we see others, and upon how we are transformed by God.Those of you who remember your Greek mythology will recall the story of the handsome youth Narcissus. The goddess Nemesis, who measured out happiness and misery to mortals, one day decided to cause Narcissus to see his own image reflected in a fountain. He became so enamored of it, that eventually nothing else in life mattered to him, or had any value. A woodland nymph by the name of Echo fell in love with Narcissus, but he was unable to return her love, so taken was he with himself. Eventually Echo pined away in grief, until there was nothing left of her except her voice. One of the great dangers of this mortal existence of ours is that we, too, face the possibility of garnering all the resources at our disposal for no greater purpose than the adornment of our own image. We are easy prey to the narcissistic trap of reducing every relationship in life to nothing more than an echo – a voice that resounds by our own doing, our own wanting, our own image, our own ideas.Best-selling author and rabbi, Harold Kushner, whom I have quoted on a number of occasions, says that one of the first things we need to do in our search to discover God is to deal with the necessity for humility in our lives. By that he means not letting ourselves be overcome by our own achievements, imagined or real, but rather recognizing our limitations. All too often, people think that worshiping idols means setting up statues and bowing down before them. But in reality, worshiping idols is when we become enamored with our accomplishments in life. We, however, are called to a condition of humility.Sigmund Freud believed that over the years science has helped us to eliminate some of our narcissistic tendencies. He cites three examples. The first is Galileo, who deprived us of the luxury of believing that we are the physical center of all God’s creation, of everything. The second is Charles Darwin, who helped us to see that, despite the majesty of our capabilities, we are still a part of the unfolding process, the evolution, if you will, of God’s creation. And finally, Freud saw himself as enabling us to look upon life and to say that there is something more to life than that which we can see, or which we may refer to as consciousness. With the help of breakthroughs in these three areas of science, then, namely, the cosmological, the biological, and the psychological, Freud believed that our narcissistic tendencies had been diminished. But, was that enough?I am reminded of a wonderful story about an instance when our Sixth Fleet was maneuvering in the Atlantic Ocean, on its way to assuming its duties in the Mediterranean. On the Destroyer Danforth, the Captain, in the midst of those maneuvers, was surrounded by his junior officers. At the conclusion of the maneuvers, there was a message sent from the Flagship to the Danforth. The flagman on duty took the message and brought it to the bridge. He said to the Captain, “Sir, we have a message from the Flag.” The Captain asked him to read it. He said, “Sir, perhaps you would like to read it by yourself in the chart room.” With impatience, the Captain turned and said, “Young man, read the message.” The message said, “From Flag to Destroyer Danforth. Your maneuvering in these last exercises was absolutely deplorable. It ill-befits any vessel of the United States Navy to be so commanded. It looked very much as if your vessel was commanded by a boatman’s mate third class.” The Captain turned to the flagman and said, “Very well, young man, take it below and have it decoded.” It is extremely difficult for each and every one of us to accept our failures and other agonizing experiences, and not to defend ourselves unduly. But this is precisely what Rabbi Kushner was talking about. It is only when you and I are able to recognize our limitations in life, and live out of a condition of humility, that we can, with reverence, welcome the Spirit of God into our lives.St. Luke tells us in his account of the Transfiguration that on top of the mountain, Jesus was transfigured in the sight of his disciples. “The appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” He became translucent, we might say. He had an aura about him. The disciples saw him in a new and totally different light. They had a religious experience as they gazed upon him, one which in fact lifted them up, in and through His transfiguration. They could look back to Moses and the prophets, and they could look forward to eternity. How do we look at other people? With what eyes do we see them? What do we see in and through them?Quite a few years ago, when our son Andrew was about five years old, I spent what seemed like an eternity building and putting together a small HO scale model railroad layout in our basement. It was really one of those birthday or Christmas gifts that you give to your kids knowing that you will get as much, if not more, enjoyment out of it than they will. The project involved a lot of sawing, stapling, gluing, drilling, wiring, and assembling, and the end result was fairly functional. Andrew was fascinated by the whole ordeal, and when it was completed he remarked, “You’re a Dad who can fix anything.” Oh, how I wished that statement of his were true all the time. But it was just one way in which a little five-year old looked through his eyes at his Dad.A little while ago in the New York Times, there appeared an article about a woman who did something that was rather courageous and commendable, given her position in city government. It was not unique, because it had been tried by other people in other times and places. But for 23 days, Barbara Sabol, the head of New York City’s Human Resources Administration, posed as a welfare recipient to experience firsthand the huge bureaucracy that she administered. She wanted to look at the system, which serves more than one million poor New Yorkers, through the eyes of one of its recipients, to see how it could be made more effective, more humane, less degrading. How did Mrs. Sabol see others who sought to help her? By her own account, she suffered numerous indignities. She had personal documents lost by a caseworker; several times she was sent to the wrong office; she waited in long and often fruitless lines. She sat in seedy waiting rooms with broken chairs, cockroaches, and telephones that didn’t work. She was yelled at, scolded, but worst of all, Mrs. Sabol was made to feel, as she put it, “depersonalized.” “Instead of asking for my name,” she said, “they asked, ‘What is your Zip Code?’”When you and I see other people, we, like the disciples, are called to see them in a certain kind of light. We gather together in this place, week after week, in the conviction that God’s presence, His power, His love, His healing, is something we experience in the company of one another. We see, or rather we ought to see, other people in our lives, not as men and women to lean upon, not as men and women to control, but as equal partners in this human enterprise in which we are all engaged. We experience and come to know God in the company of other people. We recall the words of the Lord’s Christ, when he said, “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” As we meet our brothers and sisters in their joy, in their opulence, in their pain, in their privation, in their difficulty, we know that in and through them we find the living Christ.Peter, James, and John, on the mountain top, in the company of one another, and in the presence of the transfigured Christ, were transformed. They were given a new way of looking at things, a new reason for living.They looked at Jesus and they saw all the history of the Jews, Moses and Elijah, the law and the prophets, past, present, future. From the finite they were lifted to the infinite. They were given hope. You and I are also transformed, when, like the disciples, we are lifted from the finite to the infinite, when we are given hope for the future. One thinks of the great 17th century composer, George Fredeic Handel who, upon completing his masterful oratorio Messiah, in the record space of 23 days, is said to have exclaimed, “I did think I did see all of Heaven before me, and the great God himself.” We can all recall those moments in our lives, flashes in a millisecond, in which, confronted with the infinite, confronted with the immortal, we soar. These are moments of transformation for us.While the disciples are still on their knees with their faces to the ground, overcome with fear, Jesus comes and touches them and in effect says, “Get up and do not be afraid. You now must live in hope. You have seen the vision. Your lives are forever changed.”Norman Cousins, in his book, Head First: The Biology of Hope, tells the story of a California physician who wrote to him and described the emotional devastation experienced by his 17-year old son following surgery for cancer. The day after the operation, the surgeon came into the recovery room and in the presence of the patient, told the boy’s father that he should expect his son’s death in a matter of days, perhaps a week. The father was outraged. He wrote: “I followed the surgeon out of the room and, as a fellow physician, berated him for his reprehensible conduct. He defended himself by saying that doctors had to be honest and that patients should not be deceived.” The father continued, “I went back into the room and told my son that I had just chewed out the surgeon, and that I had known too many patients who had made surprising comebacks to justify the kind of verdict the surgeon had delivered. I told my son to disregard what the surgeon had said, and that we would work together in proving him wrong. My son believed me. He sailed through the first week after the surgery and has been in remission ever since. That was 4 years ago, and my son has been living a normal life in every way since then.” When we are given a new reason for living, when we are given hope for the future, we are transformed. Once we have seen the vision, our lives are forever changed. The God who transforms us, is the God of hope.So, as we recall once again the story of our Lord’s Transfiguration, let us remember that in our search to discover the Christ in our lives we must first come to terms with our own limitations, and see ourselves as living within the boundaries of an honest humility. We must learn to see others as the means whereby God is made known to us in and through our communion with them. And finally, our transformation is achieved when those very people are able to lift us from the finite to the infinite, and to give us hope for the future in victorious and faithful living. Then, the Lord’s Christ will say to us, “Get up and do not be afraid any more. You have seen the vision. Your lives are forever changed.” Amen.The Rev. Philip W. Stowell
Eating out has become a real difficult task over the last four months. In the beginning, the restaurants were closed. Then, you could sometimes go and pick up take-out food. I am sorry, but take-out food is never as good as eating in a restaurant. Then, you could eat in a restaurant but the number of customers was limited and you worried about whether you might catch the virus. We still have concerns about eating out but at least now many more people wear masks as they enter and leave the restaurant.
Jan and I celebrated our 43rd wedding anniversary on July 22nd. We decided that we would spoil ourselves by going out for a nice dinner. We went to an expensive steakhouse in Scottsdale. We wore masks as we entered and left the restaurant just as everyone did. Thankfully, there were only six tables in the entire dining room that were occupied in the whole time we were there. The food was wonderful. The steaks melted in our mouths. The baked potato was glorious and we had spinach with mushrooms that I loved. We were given a lava cake with ice cream in honor of our anniversary. Given the small number of customers, we felt as if the food was prepared just for us. It was a special experience.
I ask you now to remember some wonderful meal that you have enjoyed. It could have been in a restaurant like I just mentioned. Or it could have been in someone’s home. Maybe it was a family gathering. Imagine that most wonderful meal as we reflect on the gifts we are given by God through Jesus.
Today’s gospel story is about the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. You know this story well. I remember hearing it as a child. One reason it is well known is that it is one of a very few stories found in all four gospels. I think it had great meaning to the early Christians. The oral history was quite consistent. For example, all our gospels report that there was so much food left over that it was gathered into twelve baskets. Unlike other stories, we don’t read about people who were telling everyone about the work of Jesus. It seems that this story was so touching to early Christians that they celebrated it for themselves. Given its storied history how might we relate to the miracle today?
Jesus left in a boat to find a quiet place. He had just heard that John the Baptist had been killed by Herod so he might have been looking for someplace safe. Maybe he just needed a little rest. But the crowds followed him. Despite his own concerns, Jesus had compassion for them. He first cured the sick and then he fed them food. I am remembering the time Jesus changed water into wine at the wedding in Cana. People said his wine tasted better than any other. I wonder if the food he gave to the crowd tasted better the any they had ever had before. I think that fits with the way Jesus did things. That compassion is given to us just as it was given to those who followed him that day. Jesus has compassion for all the troubles we face and asks us to have compassion for others.
I think Christians of Jesus time thought of the Eucharist whenever they heard this story and I do too. We hear that Jesus looked to heaven, blessed and broke the food and gave it to the disciples for them. That is part of our communion service. We know that Christians gathered together and shared food and fellowship. We know they also joined in the Eucharist, sharing in the food of Jesus. For Jesus came and gave them the Bread of Life. He provided the physical food and the spiritual food that strengthened them, his food gave them courage in their troubles and made them steadfast in their faith. Now as you remember the most wonderful meal that you ever experienced, as you recall special tastes and conversation, I hope you also remember that there is no better meal than the bread and the cup that come from Jesus.
It has been four months since our last church service with everyone present. We yearn to come together and share that Bread of Jesus. We are left with remembering the times in the past when we have shared that bread and wine with others. We are left with asking Jesus to send that bread to us in a spiritual way. We are left with coming to church on Wednesday and receiving that bread as I distribute it. I know some save that bread for Sunday as they watch the service online and seek to recreate as much as possible of the communion that we share. We wish for the bread of God and all that it means for us. I wish for that just as you do.
But I think there is more to this gospel story than just the Eucharist. There is more to the story than the gift of food that Jesus provided. For on that day, Jesus showed us how we fit into his miracles. I am thinking of the apostles. They told Jesus they didn’t know how to feed the people. That is why Jesus showed them. When Jesus had blessed the food and given it to them, it was the disciples that handed the food out to the groups of people. The disciples were a key part of the feeding. All of us are a part of the feeding that Jesus makes available to us.
Let us also remember the young boy. He was prepared and brought his own food. He may have worried about how he would eat but he gave all that he had to meet the needs of the others. I am reminded of poor people that I have met in various parts of the world who have been willing to give the little they had to feed other people. They were thankful for their bounty and shared it with those who were less fortunate than even they were. Perhaps the young boy can be our inspiration.
The poor will always be with us and we are always called to feed the hungry. We live in a time when many people have unexpectedly lost their job and suddenly need help, they need food. I think of several reasons why we might help. We sometimes feed the poor out of a sense of duty, or perhaps even a sense of guilt. We might feed the people to stay in God’s good favor. Proverbs 28.27 suggests that “Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing, but one who turns a blind eye will get many a curse.” We may feed the poor because we want a reward. That idea is found in Proverbs chapter 19 verse 17, “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord and will be repaid in full.”
Perhaps we feed the hungry out of a wish to bring people to God, an idea that we can evangelize others through food. Mahatma Gandhi said, “There are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread”. After they receive bread they may hear the words of God.
Maybe we feed others realizing the importance of our work as John Chrysostom said, “Feeding the hungry is greater work that raising the dead.” John Chrysostom also taught us that we find Jesus in others. He said, “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the chalice.”
Or finally, we may feed the hungry despite knowing that the job will never be done. As Mother Teresa once wrote, “If you cannot feed a hundred people then feed just one”.
I find strength in the actions of Jesus. He showed compassion to the people who followed him. Let us have compassion for others in need as well.
Motivations matter but are not so important as our actions. There are many examples of people in this church who followed the example of Jesus. Money has been contributed, food given, native Americans have been helped with seeds and food. Out of our little, much has been accomplished. What a blessing.
We are thankful for the compassion that Jesus showed to everyone. It is a compassion that is given to you. I read this week that the feeding of the five thousand reminds us of the sustaining and preserving the presence of God, even when resources seem miniscule in the light of the challenges we face. (Commentary for Proper 13). Even though you cannot be with me today, please remember the love and strength we receive in the body and blood of Jesus. May we be inspired to serve others with compassion as followers of Jesus. Amen.
There’s a legendary story about a fisherman from Louisiana, who was famous for the number of fish that he could catch. One day a stranger came to his cabin on the bayou and asked him if he would take him fishing. As they got into the boat, the stranger noticed that the famous fisherman had no rod or reel– just an old rusty tackle box and a net. After a while, they came into an isolated cove surrounded by tall, massive oak trees draped with Spanish moss. The stranger watched with interest as the fisherman reached down into his tackle box, pulled out a stick of dynamite, lit the fuse, and threw it into the water. There was a muffled explosion followed by the surfacing of a number of dead fish, which the fisherman proceeded to scoop up into his net. Whereupon the stranger pulled out a big badge and announced, “I caught you. I’m the game warden. You know that it’s illegal to blow up fish!” The notorious fisherman didn’t bat an eyelash. He calmly reached down into his tackle box, pulled out another stick of dynamite, lit the fuse, handed it to the game warden, and said to him, “Are you going to fish, or are you just going to sit there?”
Whenever I hear that story, I am reminded of the Kingdom of God. Throughout his entire ministry, Jesus attempted to teach his followers about the Kingdom of God. He was forever describing it through the use of simile, metaphor, and parable. The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field; it is like a householder who brings out of his treasure that which is new and what is old; it is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; it is like a net which is thrown into the sea, and gathers fish of every kind; the good are put into baskets but the bad are thrown away. In this morning’s gospel, St. Matthew has Jesus say that at the end of the age, angels will come and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. There is a warning here. It is as if God has given us a lighted stick of dynamite and has said, “Are you going to respond to the kingdom, or are you just going to sit there?” So, briefly this morning, I would like to reflect with you upon the Kingdom of God: its location, its demands, and our response to it.
There’s a wonderful story about an old forester, who was said to be the only person who knew the way to the Enchanted Forest. In the forest, according to legend, beauty was in every rock and tree and stream; the deer approached human beings without fear; sun and shadow, earth and sky, the sounds and stillness of the forest all combined to give the visitor a sense of exaltation and clear vision. Every year people visited the old man to ask the way to the forest, but he answered them in what seemed to be irrelevancies. To some he said, “I’ll teach you the ways of the birds and wild animals,” but that didn’t satisfy them. To others he said, “I’ll teach you how to live off the land, to find water where no one else can, to find shelter from the cold, to find food,” but that didn’t interest them either. Sometimes he said, “I’ll teach you the ways of the nature person: patience, endurance, seeing, listening, being a part of nature.” His offers satisfied no one. When the old forester died, his daughter married a young man who knew the whole area well, and one day he said to her, “Isn’t it true that there is no Enchanted Forest?” “Not as a place on the map,” she said. “Why didn’t your father tell his visitors that?” “Because he was stubborn,” she said. “If they had let him teach them the ways of God, they would have discovered the only enchanted forest there is. It has many locations, but few discoverers.”
The Enchanted Forest, the Kingdom of God, is within us. The truth of God is already in you and me. The best that any man or woman can do is to inspire it, to give it form, to give it expression, to give it consciousness, and in this way to pull it out. Jesus knew this, when he said, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” He knew that the Kingdom was a matter of the heart, not of conspicuous consumption. Your treasure, my treasure, is God’s truth, firmly implanted within us. Karl Rahner, one of the most brilliant and insightful theologians of the Roman Catholic church, who died in 1984, once said: “The task of our century is not to stuff the truth into people, but to pull it out.” God put the truth there. Our task is to pull it out. As all good teachers know, the true task of education - educatio – is to inform, to inspire, to bring out of their students the truth.
Those of you who are conscious of repetition in the world around you will readily recall that I have a favorite prayer that I like to say before I begin my sermon. I used it this morning. It is always the same prayer – it never changes. At least the sermon is different. Although, the first rector I ever worked for once told me that he used to preach the same sermon 52 weeks a year; it was only the illustrations that he changed. The prayer that I use before the sermon is one that used to be used by the late Theodore Parker Ferris, who for thirty years was rector of Trinity Church, Boston, and one of the great preachers of our times. The prayer begins: “Help us, O Lord, to be masters of ourselves that we may become the servants of others.” I like the prayer because it speaks to us of one of the fundamental characteristics, indeed, one of the primary demands of God’s kingdom – namely, that of servanthood. It reminds us of our servant calling.
For centuries, and even to this very day, the Pope in Rome has often been referred to by his Latin title of servus servorum Dei - “the servant of the servants of God.” I came across an article a little while ago that sought to extend that definition on down the ranks. A Bishop became the servant of the servant of the servants of God; a Priest became the servant of the servant of the servant of the servants of God; a Deacon became the servant of the servant of the servant of the servant of the servants of God. And finally, a lay person was simply a rich man with servant problems. That is not the kind of servanthood which characterizes the Kingdom of God. Help us to be masters of ourselves, that we may become the servants of others.
It was the last year of our war in the Pacific; it was the winter of 1945. The Japanese empire was contracting, and they were having one of those horrid and celebrated death marches from one concentration camp to another. There was an elderly missionary in this group, and as they trudged along the road in the cold rain, the young guard would yell at these prisoners, “Walk on.” The elderly missionary said to the guard, “I beg of you, please let me leave the line and die in peace.” The guard would yell at him again, “Walk on.” Again, the missionary asked him if he might just go and fall into the ditch, and there die by himself. And again he was heralded by the unfeeling command, “Walk on.” Thrice he asked the young guard if he might die in peace. The third time, the guard did not answer him, but drew near to him and whispered, “We are coming close to my grandmother’s house.” In puzzlement the missionary stumbled on, and when they came to the house, the guard disappeared momentarily into this humble little dwelling. He came out with something in his hand. He went over to the old gentleman and said to him, “Give me your hand.” He put a warm potato into his hand and said, “Take. Eat.” And then he yelled again, “Walk on!” The master becomes the servant. Is there something, do you suppose, vaguely reminiscent in that story of yet another master who became a slave, and who, on the night before he suffered and died, broke bread with his friends, and said, “Take. Eat. Do this in remembrance of me?” In another place and at another time, Jesus said, “whoever among you wants to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the willing slave of all.” We become the willing slaves of others in remembrance of Him. That is our calling. That is a demand of God’s kingdom. That, too, is our treasure.
The late John Coburn was the bishop of Massachusetts from 1976 to 1986. Back in 1967, the year I entered seminary, he was the Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Later he went on to teach in one of the street academies of NYC, and then became rector of St. James’ Church, Madison Avenue. John was always a very quiet and soft-spoken man, and frequently dressed in a three-piece suit with a gold watch chain dangling from his vest. It probably held his Phi Beta Kappa key. I remember one fall afternoon during my first year in seminary, I was in my third-floor dormitory room, when all of a sudden there was a peculiar odor in the hallway. I went to the stairwell to see what was going on, and was met by large clouds of billowing yellow smoke. The fire alarm soon sounded and we all evacuated the building. What had happened was that two men from the oil company were cleaning the furnace in the basement. One of them dropped his work light, and it quickly ignited the cleaning fluid which they were using, causing a loud explosion and fire to occur. The man who had dropped the work light came running up the basement stairs and out onto the front lawn, his clothing totally engulfed in flames. Those who were standing nearby attempted to roll him around on the grass in order to smother the flames. Soon the Rescue Truck arrived along with the fire engines, and the first thing the paramedics did was to strip the burning clothes off the man, and wrap him in clean white sheets. They loaded him into the rescue truck, and just as they began to head off toward the hospital, a most astonishing thing occurred. Dean Coburn came running out of his ivy-covered office building in his three-piece suit, dashed across the lawn, and climbed aboard the moving rescue truck to ride with the burned man on his way to the hospital. Unfortunately, the man never recovered from his burns and died six days later.
We are called to act out of unconditional love. That is our response to God’s kingdom. It is the same unconditional love with which God loves you and me. We cannot earn it---not you, not me, not any man or woman who has ever walked the face of this planet. We do not deserve it. We can only learn to accept it. God loves us in spite of ourselves. His love is unconditional, unearned, eternal. There are no strings attached. That love is the hallmark of God’s kingdom, and he has chosen to give it to us. Our task is to share it with others.
Bernie Siegel, that remarkable surgeon from Yale University, in his best-selling book, Love, Medicine, and Miracles, from which I have quoted before, tells an amazing account of a doctor from California, Jerry Jampolsky. As part of his training, Dr. Jampolsky was sent to a tuberculosis sanitarium. He feared that he would contract the disease but decided that he could take a deep breath when he got there and hold it for three months. One night he was called out to see a woman with active tuberculosis, who had had a massive pulmonary hemorrhage and cardiac arrest. Dr. Jampolsky gave her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and afterwards the nurses told him, “How could you do that? Now you’re going to get tuberculosis.” He never did, and he realized that he was not vulnerable while he was doing something for someone out of love. Commenting on the incident, Dr. Siegel said, “His realization strengthened mine, and now I’ve come to understand why it is that Mother Teresa and dedicated nurses can work among hundreds of sick, infected people every day without becoming ill.” Dr. Siegel continued, “I am convinced that unconditional love is the most powerful known stimulant of the immune system. If I told patients to raise their blood levels of immune globulins or killer T-cells, no one would know how. But if I can teach them to love themselves and others fully, the same changes happen automatically. The truth is: love heals.”
The Kingdom of God is within us. The time for responding to that kingdom, for bringing it out of us and giving it form and expression, for exercising our servant calling, for acting out of unconditional love – is now! The fuse is already lighted; we dare not wait any longer. The time of preparation for God’s kingdom is upon us. We need to be about our tasks of forgiving, healing, loving – ourselves, our neighbors, our enemies.
So when we hear again those words from the Gospel: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” let us claim that kingdom; let us rejoice in it; let us respond to it. Let us share it. It is our calling; it is our task; it is our treasure. AMEN.
I realized after preaching this sermon that some of you might think that I am advocating when it comes to COVID-19, that you do something similar to what Dr. Jampolsky did in my example. We must remember that every disease is different and what worked for Dr. Jampolsky with tuberculosis might not work with COVID-19. Unconditional love, it is true, is powerful, but we must also use it in combination with common sense and our advanced scientific knowledge of microbiology and epidemiology. Love does heal, but that healing many times comes about by God working through the loving hands and expertise of trained doctors, nurses, hospital staff, and first responders. It is not always a sure thing, but whenever it manifests itself it is truly a miracle.
The Rev. Philip W. Stowell
When I was a child, my grandmother would occasionally come and stay with us. She was Irish and had a great sense of humor. I remember that she liked to drink a bottle of beer before she went to bed. As I get older, I have decided it helped her to sleep and that is why this story resonates with me.
98-year-old Mother Superior from Ireland was dying. The nuns gathered around her bed trying to make her last days comfortable. They tried giving her some warm milk to drink but she refused it. One of the nuns took the glass back to the kitchen and remembering a bottle of Irish whiskey received as a gift the previous Christmas. She opened it and poured a generous amount into the warm milk. Back at Mother Superior's bed, she held the glass to her lips. Mother drank a little, then a little more and before they knew it, she had drunk the whole glass down to the last drop.
"Mother," the nuns asked with earnest, "please give us some wisdom before you die.” She raised herself up in bed and said, "Don't sell that cow!” Now that is wisdom that all of us can use.
"A little girl was sitting on her grandfather’s lap as he read her a bedtime story. From time to time, she would take her eyes off the book and reach up to touch his wrinkled cheek. She was alternately stroking her own cheek, then his again. Finally she spoke up, Grandpa, did God make you? Yes, sweetheart, he answered, God made me a long time ago. Oh, she paused, grandpa, did God make me too? Yes, indeed, honey, he said, God made you just a little while ago. Feeling their respective faces again, she observed, God’s getting better at it, isn’t he? You see, wisdom comes from the little children doesn’t it?
Today we hear about wisdom and rest; both of them can be found in Jesus. Wisdom is one of those things that we search for all of our lives and often only know when we experience it. Scripture is a good source of wisdom. My study Bible says that “the fundamental goal of the Book of Proverbs is to teach the acquisition of wisdom and the avoidance of folly”. Proverbs speaks of wisdom as a female person and speaks as if she is searching each of us out. In chapter one “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. ‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?’”
Proverbs teaches us that wisdom provides order to chaos. In the Psalms we learn that wisdom grants us humility. (Psalm 11:12) and protects and guards us. (Psalm 4:6) Proverbs helps us to understand that wisdom comes from God.
For the Lord gives wisdom;
from his mouth comes knowledge and understanding;
he stores up sound wisdom for the upright;
he is a shield to those who walk blamelessly,
Then you will understand righteousness and justice
and equity, every good path;
for wisdom will come into your heart,
and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul;
So, when Jesus spoke about wisdom in today’s gospel lesson, he continued in the traditions of the Hebrew Scripture. The people of his time were missing what was right in front of them. People could not see the truth of John the Baptist and they judged Jesus based on the company he kept. Their perceptions of John and Jesus were clouded by what their faith leaders had taught them. Jesus wanted them to have wisdom to see through the veil of their previous understanding to realize that he was God. He wanted people to put aside their understanding of what the Messiah would do. Jesus came not to take political power but to help us find God in our everyday life. He wanted people to see that God may not do things the way we expect them to be done.
And Jesus said that God’s presence was hidden from the most intelligent, that it was the infants that could see God in Jesus. The words of Jesus are timeless. I think we can learn from the faith of children. Children often see things with an innocence that is difficult for adults. Children see things because their eyes are open to what is in front of them. Our intelligence can cause us to think we already know the answer. We may have become cynical or have too much pride to think we can learn more.
As Christians in today’s world, we seek an innocence that helps us find wisdom and truth in God. We pray that we will be guided by the Holy Spirit in our decisions. We ask God to help us follow God’s will. And we need God’s help.
Wisdom and truth are not synonyms but I think wisdom helps us find truth. Thomas Jefferson once wrote that “Honesty is the first chapter of the book wisdom.” Being honest with ourselves may help us find wisdom. I cannot forget the words exchanged by Jesus and Pilate just before Jesus was crucified. Jesus said, “for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
I have concluded that finding the truth is a difficult thing to do these days. I say that our preconceived opinions or our wish for a certain outcome causes us to seek messages that support our expectations of the truth. In our divided culture and in this world of social media, it is easy to find writing that meets our wishes for the truth. And if there is a blog connected to a version of the truth, I promise you that you will find comments in total support and comments in total rejection of whatever truth is espoused. We just don’t agree on the truth. It seems to me that we are just as challenged to find wisdom in our day as the people of Jesus were challenged. We need the wisdom and truth to deal with so many things we face today, in our faith and in the world.
If we are ever able to find God’s wisdom then perhaps we will understand the last few verses of the gospel for today. I find the words extremely comforting. Come to me all you who labor and I will give you rest. I read that often when we pray the evening service Compline. Whenever I hear those words, I am comforted. I feel as if I can keep at peace with the world.
But I ask myself how does this passage fit with other teachings of Jesus? for he also said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” In the last few weeks, we heard Jesus tell his disciples that preaching the gospel of Jesus would not be easy. They would be persecuted.
It seems to me that coming to Jesus will not save us from trials and tribulations. It won’t save us from rejection. We won’t be able to just rest in a chair and do nothing. Coming to Jesus is more about knowing that we are doing the right thing, finding peace with the things that are going on around us even those things challenge us. Coming to Jesus may mean that we have lots of work to do but the work will give us rest.
Eleanore Stump said, ‘when the person to whom you come is Christ himself, the vulnerability which openness brings with it is more than matched by the love Christ gives. In the gift of that love, everything that might be loss is turned into gift given and gift received, to be returned again in love.”
Sometimes rest is given to us through another person just as Isaac was comforted by Rebekah after his mother’s death. Paul wrote about our constant struggle in ourselves between good and evil. We do good knowing that evil is near. We realize that Jesus saves us from the death of sin. That is when we find rest.
Jesus said take my yoke upon you. A yoke brought a team of two oxen together to pull a load. When we take on the yoke of Jesus, we stay connected to him always. We pull together through the good and the bad. Sometimes, Jesus pulls the load for us. We live together with Jesus in love. Then, we will find rest. Jesus said that we will find rest for our souls.
Isn’t it interesting that when we find wisdom, we will come to Jesus and in the arms of Jesus we will find rest. Let us seek the wisdom of Jesus, let us take his yoke upon us, for when we are united with Jesus we will find rest and peace. Amen.