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Sermon, August 1, 2021 (Pentecost 10)

God’s Bread

Today’s Gospel is the first of four readings from John’s “Bread Discourse” (6:25-69) in which Jesus explains the deeper significance of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand (Jn. 6:1-15) we considered last week. Bread takes on a profound symbolic meaning as Jesus proclaims, “I am the bread of life” (Jn. 6:35).

The crowd that follows Jesus still seems to think of him as a potential nationalist leader like Moses, who will lead them in the struggle for liberation. Jesus is acutely aware that their motives are misdirected, and that they have misinterpreted the dramatic sign of the feeding miracle. Thus, Jesus skillfully guides their understanding of the provision of food to make his point: that material bread is a perishable commodity. Even the manna of Moses in the wilderness would not keep beyond a day.

Furthermore, Jesus declares that his hearers must not work for food of no enduring value, but for the eternal sustenance that the Son of Man can provide. Manna had come to represent the essence of life in the world to come. But here the Gospel says that it is through Jesus that the true and enduring manna of God is manifested. Jesus, the Messiah upon whom Abba the Father has set his seal, is that heavenly food (6:27).

The crowd then asks Jesus what they must do to “perform the works of God” (v. 28). Jesus responds with the revolutionary teaching that the works of God consist not in actions but in committing oneself to the revelation that God has sent in Christ Jesus (v. 29). Thus, the indispensable work of God is believing in Jesus Christ. It cannot be achieved but is to be received by faith — and only this leads to eternal life.

Once again, the crowd asks for a visible sign, as they recall the remarkable provision of manna to their ancestors in the wilderness (Ex. 16:4). Manna was seen as bread from heaven and was further identified with God’s law that provided nourishment to the Jewish people.

Jesus reminds them that it was not Moses but God the Father who gave them bread from heaven to eat. Moreover, the manna in the wilderness was no more than an expedient provision for a temporary need until they reached the Promised Land. Everyone who ate the manna, even Moses, had died. In contrast, the “true bread from heaven” (v. 32) gives eternal life to the world. “Sir, give us this bread always” (6:34). The crowd is ready to accept the fact that Jesus might offer it; but they are still thinking of a material substance, as Jesus proclaims: “I am the bread of life” (v. 35a).

And he promises: “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (v. 35b). As the bread of life, Jesus will satisfy the deep hunger of all people for all eternity. The miracle here is one of faith, as the pursuit of temporary, temporal concerns gives way to a radically new pattern of life embodied in Jesus.

After their liberation from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites began their journey across the Sinai wilderness. But within a month, their jubilation turned to discontent, and they began to grumble against Moses and Aaron about the lack of water (Ex. 15:23-25) and the scarcity of food. Forgetting the burdens and hopelessness of their former slavery, they accused Moses of bringing them into the wilderness to starve; at least in Egypt they had had enough to eat.

The Lord recognized the needs of the people and told Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you. … In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instructions or not” (Ex. 16:4). At God’s command, Moses and Aaron gathered the people together. As the presence of the Lord appeared in the pillar of cloud that had led them out of Egypt, Moses proclaimed that the Lord would provide food for them.

Thus, in the evening quail appeared; and in the morning the ground was covered with manna, “a fine flaky substance” (v. 14). Quail would have been migrating across the Sinai at the springtime of year; and manna was likely derived from the secretion of scale insects that fed on tamarisk plants. The Israelites were initially puzzled by the appearance of the manna and asked what it could be. Moses replied, “This is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat” (v. 15). Throughout their sojourn in the wilderness, this daily provision of manna would sustain them.

However, the Israelites direct their demands to Moses and Aaron, not realizing that it is the Lord who provides for them. The bread that appears with the dawn is bread from heaven that comes from God. This is the God of abundance who enters into a covenantal relationship with the people, hears their cries, and responds to their needs. By this they “shall know that I am the Lord your God” (v. 12).

In our epistle reading from the fourth chapter of Ephesians begins a section on what is expected of those who would follow Jesus. Today’s reading focuses on unity in the community of faith. All followers of Jesus have received a vocation from God, and thus are called to a life of true humility worthy of this call (4:1-2). We must always bear with one another in love, seeking the bond of peace that unites us.

Our individual vocations are to serve the community, since we are a single body animated and guided by the Sprit. We acknowledge “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (vv. 5-6)

As we gather to hear this word from John 6, especially as we’re gathering at the Table, then our readings offer us the opportunity to explore and meditate on the meaning of the Eucharist. We are invited to meditation and contemplation of not just the bread and wine, but how our life together reflects God’s abundant grace.  The passage offers us the opportunity to ask how these seemingly bare elements — just common food and drink — can communicate to us the life-giving presence of Jesus.

Amen.

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Sermon, July 25, 2021, Pentecost 9

I am the Bread of Life (Part 1 of 4)

This morning our pattern of Gospel readings shift from Mark’s rather hurried pace to John’s slower, more deliberate telling of the Jesus’ story.  Actually, this morning’s Gospel serves as an introduction to Jesus’ “Bread of Life” discourse or teaching.  This is the mid-point in John’s narrative regarding the “Signs” Jesus performs in order to demonstrate that he is the long-awaited Messiah.

 One thing to keep in mind as we consider this story is the size of the “loaves and fishes.”  The loaves are not what we would consider loaves today – kind of like the bread we get when we sit down in some restaurants.  No, the “loaves” were more like thin biscuits.  As for the fish, they were sardines – a typical lunch for a working-class peasant in Jesus’ day.  The intent was that the laborer, or in this case, a young child would be able to snack throughout the day.

The theme of God’s unfailing abundance, as demonstrated in today’s Gospel account of the miracle of the loaves and fish, is anticipated in the feeding of a multitude by the Prophet Elisha.

As the successor of the Prophet Elijah, Elisha’s name means “my God is salvation.” He is depicted as a man of wisdom whose deeds manifested the power of God in all facets of life as he worked on behalf of the nation of Israel during times of political crisis, as well as attending to individuals in need. The passage for today is one of a series of miracles in chapters 4-6 of 2 Kings.

It was a time of famine in the land of Gilgal (2 Ki. 4:38), and a man brought to Elisha twenty loaves of barley and some fresh ears of grain as a first fruits offering in accordance with God’s covenant with Israel. Such holy offerings were usually brought to a priest who then gave them to God. However, the Prophet Elisha ordered that the food be distributed to the people instead. When his attendant protested that there was not sufficient bread and grain to feed the one hundred people gathered there, Elisha offered assurance from the Lord that there would be plenty to eat for everyone, with food left over. And it was so: “They ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord” (4:44).

The miraculous multiplication of bread and grain comes not from Elisha but from God’s promise to give abundantly. Thus, today’s Psalm (145:10-19) offers praise and thanksgiving for the generous faithfulness of the Lord, who provides for all our needs. “You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing” (v. 16).

What we have here in this morning’s Gospel, is what I would call a revelation story that comes by means of a miracle story. It reveals both Jesus’ divine capacity to know immediately the needs of the people and his response to that need with extravagant compassion, indeed an overabundance of compassion to which the baskets of leftover bread bear witness. The word “compassion” comes from two Latin roots: “com” meaning “with” and “passion” meaning “deep feeling over the suffering of others.” In the end, Jesus will respond with compassion to the needs of the whole world by offering his body and blood on the cross. And each time we eat the bread and drink the cup at the Lord’s Supper, we taste in the miracle of the meal the real, redemptive presence of Christ in our broken world. “I am the Bread of life,” he said. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

The feeding of the 5,000 is divine disclosure. It discloses that God is not only for us; God is with us in the person of Jesus, in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. Now that is truly awesome.

The setting of this grand scene is the Feast of Unleavened Bread, celebrating God’s liberation of the Hebrew people from their long captivity in Egypt. Think of how on their journey to freedom, the Lord provided them manna in the wilderness, Now, Jesus, the new Moses, will free the people from all that separates them from God and one another. He provides them with nourishing spiritual food along the way, and he is ushering them into the new reality of God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven.

The well-fed crowd doesn’t exactly get it. They want a king with a scepter and a crown, chariots, and horses. But Jesus is not that kind of king. He reveals that the true, transformative power of God is at its heart the power of unconditional, self-giving love. Who would have thought that back in the day? Jesus, by nature, was perhaps the greatest unforeseen possibility of all time. We still struggle ourselves to get our minds around that. I think of Paul’s words, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).1

There are several variations of the folk tale “Stone Soup,” but in the basic story a traveler arrives in a village asking for something to eat. It is a time of famine, and the villagers have hidden what food they have, even from one another. They are particularly wary of strangers and refuse to offer the outsider hospitality.

Then the stranger announces that he will make his own soup — out of a stone. He builds a fire, takes a kettle, and fills it with water. As the water begins to boil, he places a large stone in it.

Their curiosity aroused, the villagers gather around as he tastes the soup and proclaims how delicious it is. But it would be even better with some seasoning of salt, he asserts.

Immediately, one of the villagers brings salt; and another offers a carrot for further flavor. Soon other members of the community begin tasting the soup and offering their opinions as to what is needed, bringing the required ingredients to the task.

When the soup is finished, the villagers gather together and all eat until they are full. There is even enough soup left over for everyone to take some home to feed their families the next day.

The moral of the story: Whereas there may be no real secret to stone soup, one thing is certain: It takes many and all to make a great feast.

Parker Palmer, author, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal would certainly agree. He tells of his experience of boarding a 6:00 a. m. flight once on his way home from a speaking engagement.

Our departure was delayed because the truck that brings coffee to the planes had broken down. After a while the pilot said, ‘We’re going to take off without the coffee. We want to get you to Detroit on time.’ I was up front where all the ‘road warriors’ sit — a surly tribe, especially at that early hour. They began griping, loudly and at length about incompetence, lousy service, etc.

Once we got into the air, the lead flight attendant came to the center of the aisle with her mike and said, ‘Good morning! We’re flying to Minneapolis today at an altitude of 30 feet … ’ That, of course, evoked more scorn from the road warriors.

Then she said, ‘Now that I have your attention, I know you are upset about the coffee. Well, get over it! Start sharing your stuff with your seatmates. That bag of five peanuts you got on your last flight and put in your pocket? Tear it open and pass them around! Got gum or mints? Share them! You can’t read all of the sections of your paper at once. Offer them to each other! Show off the pictures of kids and grandkids you have in your wallets!

As she went on in that vein, people began laughing and doing what she had told them to do. A surly scene turned into summer camp!

An hour later, as the attendant passed by my seat, I signaled to her. ‘What you did was really amazing,’ I said. ‘Where can I send you a letter of commendation?’ “‘Thanks,’ she said. ‘I’ll get you a form.’ Then she leaned down and whispered, ‘The loaves and fishes are not dead.’

Parker Palmer

In the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus saw plenty where the disciples saw scarcity. Jesus takes whatever we have — loaves and fish, stones for soup, shared airplane snacks, labor on behalf of others — even discomfort, anger, tears, and foolishness — and transforms them into blessings and abundance.

Poet David Whyte writing in The House of Belonging (N. Y.: Harper & Row, 1973) reminds us: “This is the time of loaves and fishes. People are hungry and one good word is bread for a thousand.”

Thus, we begin our exploration of the “Bread of Life.”  There’s more to follow.

Amen.

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Sermon, July 18, 2021 – Pentecost 8

Coming and Going

This morning’s Gospel brings us the conclusion of the sandwich started two Sundays ago when Jesus sent out the Twelve on their first mission trip.  Today’s Gospel begins with their return.  Earlier Jesus had sent them out two by two with authority to proclaim the message of repentance, to heal the sick, and to cast out demons just as Jesus himself had been doing (cf Mk. 6:7-13).

As they gathered around Jesus to tell him about their experiences, Jesus perceived that they were worn out from their travels — because of the crowds, they could not even find time to eat. Thus, they went off in a boat to a “deserted place” for a time of rest (6:31).

Nonetheless, the people followed them on foot, and Jesus and the disciples had scarcely disembarked before they were surrounded by eager followers. As Jesus looked out over the crowd, “he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (v. 34). Here the word “compassion” (cf 1:41; 8:2; 9:22) is used in the sense of merciful love. The image of sheep without a shepherd reflects the Old Testament understanding of God as shepherd who cares for the sheep (Num. 27:17; Ezek. 34:14-15; Is. 40:11; Ps. 23). Now Jesus fulfills the role of the tender guardian who brings God’s peace and healing.

Rather than seeing the crowd’s presence as an unwelcome intrusion on his privacy and time alone with his disciples, Jesus used this as an opportunity, since the people’s need was greater than his own. They were hungry for the truth he could impart; and so he began to teach them. Here we see that Jesus is always available to respond to the needs of those around him and will change his course of action when necessary.

After these two events, the second part of today’s reading (vv. 53-56) provides a summary of Jesus’ ministry and activities as a transition. Once again, as Jesus and the disciples disembark, they are surrounded by throngs of people who bring their sick to him for healing. Wherever he went, the response was the same. People begged just to touch the fringe of his garment, and “all who touched it were healed” (v. 56; cf Mk. 5:27-29). The eager acceptance of Jesus’ ministry here is in marked contrast to his experience in Nazareth, where he “could do no deed of power” (Mk. 6:5).

Christianity does have a mission to the world, and that mission is the most basic reason for the existence of the church. There are religions (some would claim that Judaism is one of them) that do not have a missionary impulse in them; but Christianity has been pushed out into the world from the beginning, like a little fledgling bird nudged out of its cozy nest by its parents. That is in fact a good simile, because what drives Christianity (as distinct from Christendom) towards the world is not personal eagerness for exposure to the public sphere, nor a desire to become big and powerful, nor a sense of its superiority over every other faith. No, it is “sent out” (that is what the word apostolic means), usually against its will, by the God who has called it into being, because of love for the world. The mission of the church is of central importance to Christian faith, so much so that it constitutes the most basic reason why the church must exist. Of course, the church needs to have periods of retreat from the world, to recover its own identity through study and prayer, to renew its courage, and so on. But precisely in these times of renewal, the church learns once more that it does not exist for its own sake. A church that hived off to itself and was content to be a comfortable “fellowship” would contradict in the most flagrant way the whole message of the New Testament.

Douglas John Hall, Why Christian? (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), pp. 138, 139.

While the love of the Lord is expressed through Jesus’ compassion toward those in need, the letter to the Ephesians speaks of God’s promise of unity made available through Christ to everyone — Jew and Gentile alike. This new spiritual community is built on the foundation of the Apostles and prophets with Jesus as the Cornerstone.

Before Christ came, Gentiles lived beyond the hope of God’s promises. Now, through Christ, the barriers between Jew and Gentile have been abolished, as all are brought together in the fullness of God’s peace. The distinction between the circumcised and the uncircumcised concerns only the physical aspect. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross draws the alienated to God and unites the Covenant people with those previously outside the Covenant.

Christ has proclaimed peace to those on both sides of that division and has broken down former walls of hostility. Therefore, all can be united with God through the Spirit poured out on the whole community of Jesus’ disciples. Now there is reconciliation with “one new humanity in place of the two” (2:15).

Because of Jesus Christ, no one is a stranger or alien in the household of God, which “is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (v. 21). We too have a share in this dwelling place as we grow together spiritually through the love of God in Christ.

Amen.

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Sermon, Pentecost VII, July 11, 2021

Another Sandwich

Our Gospel reading for this morning is a most uncharacteristic Gospel lesson. For one thing, no matter how carefully we listen, we cannot detect a single note of authentic joy or hope anywhere in this text. Instead, what we hear is a wretched tale of anger and revenge, resentment, and death. But there is a lot of that going on in our world today!

This is one of very few stories in Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus is never mentioned. Instead, the plot revolves around two men — John the Baptist and Herod Antipas, the Roman puppet king of Galilee, and two women — Queen Herodias, formerly married to Herod’s brother Philip, and Herod’s niece/ stepdaughter.

Last week’s Gospel passage concluded with Jesus sending out the twelve disciples to further his mission in the surrounding villages (Mk. 6:7-13). This was the beginning of another of Mark’s sandwiches.  Today’s Gospel is inserted between the departure of the Twelve and their subsequent return (6:30) it tells the graphic account of the death of John the Baptist (Mt. 14:1- 12; Lk. 9:9), who had been arrested as Jesus began his ministry (Mk. 1:14). John is a compelling figure in all of the Gospels, and this story of John’s death is the only passage of such length not focused on Jesus. The writings of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus also affirm that Herod imprisoned John and ordered his death.

Despite the fact that Jesus was not well received in his own hometown (Mk. 6:1-3), word of his miraculous works had spread throughout Galilee — to the extent that people speculated that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead, or perhaps Elijah or another prophet (v. 15). It was believed that the spirits of those who had died a violent death worked through the living. Herod had thought that beheading John would end his problems with wonder-working prophets who stirred up unrest. But even Herod himself wondered if Jesus might be John the Baptist raised (v. 16).

With this introduction, Mark goes on to tell of the death of John. John had been arrested and put into prison by Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great and tetrarch of Galilee. In the Gospel of Luke, Herod Antipas also played a role in the execution of Jesus (Lk. 23:6-16).

Under Herod’s orders, John had been arrested and put into prison. Herod’s wife, Herodias, wanted revenge against John because the Baptist had called into question the legitimacy of her marriage to Herod. According to Mosaic Law, a man is forbidden to marry the wife of his brother while the brother is still living (Lev. 18:16; 20:21).

However, the real motive behind John’s arrest was likely political. John’s growing popularity posed a potential threat to Herod’s control over the area and could have led to rebellion.

The opportunity for John’s death came at a banquet given in honor of Herod’s birthday. Those attending represented the ruling powers of the day, accentuating the contrast between worldly power and the Kingdom foretold by John. During the festivities Herod’s daughter had greatly pleased the guests with her dancing. Afterward Herod asked her what she would like as a reward, even to half of his kingdom. When she went to her mother to ask what to request, Herodias instructed her to say “the head of John the Baptist.”

The text tells us that Herod was “deeply grieved” at this request (v. 26); but he did not want to break his oath to the daughter in front of his assembled guests. Thus he ordered that John be killed and his head brought on a platter to the daughter, who gave it to her mother. Afterward, John’s disciples came, took his body, and laid it in a tomb. Just as John was killed by the reigning political powers, so too was Jesus handed over and killed. Both their executioners — Herod, and Pilate in the case of Jesus — seemed reluctant to deliver death sentences. However, because of their own ambition and weaknesses, both men ultimately succumbed to outside pressure.

And there is a final parallel that connects this story to the departure and return of the Twelve. Mark was writing during a time when being a disciple could very well mean giving up one’s life. Thus, the disciples had to realize that one day they too might be sentenced to death by those who “lord it over” others (Mk. 10:42; 13:9-11).

Although Jesus is never mentioned, he is the key to understanding the story, which appears in Mark’s Gospel at the very point where the Lord’s fame and success is growing exponentially. Just as the opening verses of Mark link the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with the work of John the Baptist, so here, John’s death is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ Passion. John’s determination to speak the truth to power brings his destruction, and we know that it will be no different for Jesus. King Herod will become the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. The means of execution will be a cross rather than a sword, but the end will be the same.

The Gospel lesson reminds us that the task of following Jesus will never be easy. The road is rocky. Resistance can be expected. We still live in a world where those entrusted with political power live in fear that their authority will be challenged. Our leaders are not as outwardly wicked as King Herod, but they are often just as spineless, committed to expediency, and willing to compromise truth, justice, and compassion if they think it will win some votes and guarantee their election.

So, here we are caught in the middle of a sandwich; waiting for the disciples to return from their first mission trip.  We are reminded, once again, that the decision to follow Jesus, to follow our conscience, carries some innate risks.  The Good News wrapped up in today’s reading is that through God’s grace we are redeemed, and our sins forgiven, so that we are able to receive “the mystery” of God’s will. We are sealed by the presence of the Holy Spirit, who comes to us in answer to our trust in Christ. Our response to God’s grace is to give praise and glory to God.  This allows us to sit with the uncomfortable readings, like today, and the uncomfortable realities of life.

Amen.

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Sermon – Pentecost V June 27, 2021

An Active Faith

Our Gospel reading (cf Mt. 9:18-26; Lk. 8:40-56) is an example of a narrative style in which a second story (Mk. 5:25-34) is “sandwiched” between the beginning (vv. 22-24) and end (vv. 35-43) of the first story.  The common them in both stories is a willingness to express and act on faith even in the face of tremendous challenges and circumstances.

As the passage begins, Jesus is teaching by the Sea of Galilee when Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, comes to him. Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet in a gesture of respect and petition, begging him to come and heal his young daughter, who is near death.

But as Jesus and the crowd set off for Jairus’ home, a woman who has suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years comes up behind him. Although she had gone to several physicians, her condition continued to worsen; and now her finances are drained as well. She believes she can be healed by simply touching Jesus’ clothing.

Acting with courage and initiative, the woman reaches out for his cloak and is immediately healed of her disease. At the same moment, Jesus feels power leave him and asks who touched him. In fear and trembling, a reaction of awe in the presence of Divine power, the woman comes forward. Disregarding cultural barriers by talking to a woman in public, Jesus commends her faith, telling her to go in peace (v. 34).

The insertion of this event in the narrative serves to increase the tension — for as Jesus turns away from the woman, word is received that Jairus’ daughter has died. As a result, the crowd insists that there is no further need to trouble Jesus. But Jesus reassures Jairus, saying, “Do not fear, only believe” (v. 36; cf 4:40; 6:5-6).

When Jesus arrives at Jairus’ home, the crowd is already mourning the death of the child with great weeping and wailing. When Jesus insists that “the child is not dead but sleeping” (v. 39), the mourners laugh at the common euphemism for death.

Taking only Peter, James, John, and the child’s parents with him, Jesus enters the house. He takes the child by the hand (thereby breaking the taboo against touching a corpse) and addresses her as if he were indeed speaking to someone asleep, telling her to get up in the Aramaic words “Talitha cum” (v. 41).

Here it is the spoken words of Jesus that bring about the miracle. Her life revived, the girl obeys the command of Jesus to stand up. Jesus then orders that she be given something to eat, to demonstrate the effectiveness of the cure. And Jesus again warns those present not to tell anyone.

The imagery and language used throughout this story foreshadow the Resurrection of Jesus and emphasize that God is indeed the God of the living and not of the dead (Mk. 12:27). We are also reminded here of the raising of Lazarus (Jn. 11:28-44); the reviving of the widow’s son by Elijah (1 Ki. 17:17-24); and the account of Elisha and the son of the Shunammite woman (2 Ki. 4:18-37).

There is a marked contrast between the two main characters in these stories. Jairus is a leader in the synagogue, while the unnamed woman is among the marginalized of society because of her gender and illness. However, both in their actions demonstrate the nature of faith as humble trust and reliance on the grace and power of God.

We tend to forget the sacrifice of propriety that Jairus makes in personally doing obeisance before a radically unconventional holy man out of Nazareth — a town of questionable reputation (Jn. 1:46).

Perhaps he had heard about Jesus in Capernaum; or maybe he witnessed the healing of the madman in the synagogue (Mk. 1:23-28) where he was a ruler. Or maybe both of these incidents led Jairus to believe that Jesus could heal his daughter.

Jairus’ faith was not theological — but existential. He went to Jesus with open, expectant trust. As a pillar of the community, Jairus forsakes his image among his peers to do what needs to be done for the healing of his loved one. He gives up the goal of impressing other people and focuses on what will bring lasting healing — even the power over death itself.

Lewis Galloway at Day1.org (7/1/ 2012) wrote:

When we experience the abundance of God’s grace, we can’t help but take Jesus seriously. In Jesus, God has a way of transforming our dismissive laughter into tears of joy, our skepticism into speechless amazement. When this happens for us, as it did for a desperate, grieving father and a sick, ostracized woman, we know what it is to be made whole. The gospel is full of promises that become our own when we take Jesus seriously. Touch the gospel promises and take them to heart.

So it is for us this morning. Whether we want to admit it or not, all of us are people of faith.  This gift of faith, that willingness to trust unconditionally, dwells within each and every one of us.  Our task, then, is to put it into action – even if it is only to touch Jesus’ clothing.

Amen.

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Sermon Pentecost IV (RCL Cycle B – Proper 7) June 20, 2021

Storms at Sea and Taking a Nap

When I was serving as a Navy chaplain, one of my assignments was aboard U.S.S. CONCORD (AFS-5) out of Norfolk, Virginia.  She was a fleet replenishment ship and we carried “Beans, Bullets, and Black Oil” (she’s now resting on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii as part of an artificial reef).  Our mission was to make sure in other ships in our battle group had the necessary supplies to help them carry out their mission.  CONCORD was not a large ship, but she could hold her own at sea. 

One day a little windstorm named “Hugo” popped up (this was in September of 1989).  Since the National Hurricane Center predicted it would hit the east coast of the United States somewhere between Jacksonville, Florida and Cape May, New Jersey we were ordered (along with the rest of the Atlantic Fleet) to “put to sea and scatter,” meaning we would ride out the storm at sea.  That night as “Hugo” slammed into Charleston, South Carolina, we face the wrath of an angry sea with waves breaking over the ship, plunging head-long into troughs between the waves and taking “green water” back to the pilothouse.  The ship rode like a chip, because we were only carrying about half of our usual load (replenishment ships and tankers ride better when they are fully loaded.”  Needless to say, no one aboard got any sleep that night.

There is nothing more terrifying than being caught in a storm at sea.  In the midst of the wind and the waves one can get a clear glimpse of just how small and insignificant we are in the face of nature in her rage.

This was where the disciples found themselves in today’s Gospel reading.  There they were, out on the Sea of Galilee, in the middle of the night, in the midst of a raging windstorm.  The Sea of Galilee is known for its sudden, violent wind-storms that were known to sink boats.  Peter. Andrew, James and Joun being fishermen understood the peril of the moment, and all of them had friends and acquaintances who disappeared because of one of these storms.

There they are out in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, in a storm that is about to sink their boat.  There were terrified, and rightly so.

They begin looking for Jesus.  Where is he?  In the stern taking a nap – it had been a long day and he was tired.  The disciples wake him up, and he responds by saying to the storm, “Peace, be still.”  Shush!  Be quiet!  The story continues that the sea became calm and the waves ceased.  Jesus chides them, by asking, where is their faith?”

It’s the same for us.  How many times have we felt battered and bruised by the storms and tempests of life?  Jesus response to us is the same as then when he speaks to our storms and says, “Peace, be still!”  In other words, “relax, calm down.” Our faith reminds us that no storm will every overwhelm us.  That’s the Good News for us this morning is when the storms of life arise, and they will, our faith empowers us to hear the still small voice speaking to our souls – “Peace, be still.”  Then maybe we can relax enough to take a nap.

Peace!

Amen!

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Sermon, June 13, 2021 – Pentecost III

Growing the Kingdom

All their lives the two young brothers had lived in the city behind great stone walls and never saw field nor meadow. But one day they decided to pay a visit to the country.

As they went walking along the road, they saw a farmer at his plowing. They watched him and were puzzled.

“Why on earth is he doing that!” they wondered. “He turns up the earth and leaves deep furrows in it. Why should someone take a smooth piece of land covered with nice green grass and dig it up?”

Later they watched the farmer sowing grains of wheat along the furrows.

“That man must be crazy!” they exclaimed. “He takes good wheat and throws it into the dirt.” “I don’t like the country!” said one in disgust. “Only crazy people live here.” So, he returned to the city.

His brother who remained in the country saw a change take place only several weeks later. The plowed field began to sprout tender green shoots, even more beautiful and fresher than before. This discovery excited him very much. So, he wrote to his brother in the city to come at once and see for himself the wonderful change.

His brother came and was delighted with what he saw. As time passed, they watched the sproutings grow into golden heads of wheat. Now they both understood the purpose of the farmer’s work.

When the wheat became ripe the farmer brought his scythe and began to cut it down. At this the impatient one of the two brothers exclaimed: “The farmer is crazy! He’s insane! How hard he worked all these months to produce this lovely wheat, and now with his own hands he is cutting it down! I’m disgusted with such an idiot and I’m going back to the city!”

His brother, the patient one, held his peace and remained in the country. He watched the farmer gather the wheat into his granary. He saw him skillfully separate the grain from the chaff. He was filled with wonder when he found that the farmer had harvested a hundred-fold of the seed that he had sowed. Then he understood that there was logic in everything that the farmer had done.[i]

The passages for today challenge us to look beyond surface appearances and worldly assumptions for deeper meaning and new ways of seeing.

Chapter 4 of Mark’s Gospel comprises a major sermon of Jesus in which “He began to teach them many things in parables …” (Mk. 4:2). In today’s reading, Jesus portrays God’s Kingdom through the imagery of two parables about seeds.

The parable of the self-growing seed (Mk. 4:26-29), found only in Mark, describes the growth of the Kingdom as a Divine mystery, not dependent on human effort. The farmer who plants the seed actually does nothing to bring about its growth. He sleeps at night and rises in the morning to see what has come forth — until, seemingly without effort or explanation, the grain is ripe in due time. He then takes his sickle to harvest the crop (cf Joel 3:13).

The seeds of the Kingdom that have been planted through the ministry of Jesus will produce a crop that it will be up to the disciples to reap. It is God who gives the growth (cf 1 Cor. 3:6-9), and they must be ready to bring in the harvest. Thus, discipleship requires being prepared to follow the way of Jesus, which brings new life to the world.

This parable not only describes the growth of the Kingdom; it serves as an announcement that the Kingdom, like the harvest, has in fact arrived. The seeds that were planted long ago have been fulfilled in Jesus. The power of Jesus himself will ultimately be manifested, even if it is now hidden like the process of the growth of the seeds. The second parable (vv. 30-32; cf. Mt. 13:31-32; Lk. 13:19) shows how great things come from small and seemingly unpromising beginnings. A mustard seed is so small that it is barely visible (it looks like ground black pepper); yet the mustard plant grows to heights of six feet or more and spreads quickly, taking over large areas (it’s the Israeli version of kudzu). Again, we cannot explain how the Kingdom, like the mustard seed, is able to expand far beyond its original size (Mt. 17: 20; Lk. 17:6). We can only say it is God’s work.

By proclaiming that God’s Kingdom is like a mustard seed, Jesus is declaring his confidence that the work he has begun will grow and sustain life. In fact, the shrub grows so large that “the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (v. 32). The Kingdom is not only large, it is also life giving and protective. There is an ironic twist here as well. Great, lofty trees such as the cedar often symbolized powerful nations (cf Ezek.17:22-23; Dan. 4:20-22); but here the common mustard plant — hardy and invasive — represents the Kingdom of God.

So, what does this mean for us on this mid-June summer morning?  I believe it’s this – everything centers on the abiding presence of God in every aspect of our lives.  Just like the farmer who can do nothing but watch his crop grow from seed to ripe grain because the grain grows from God’s working through the natural forces to make the transformation possible.  The farmer may irrigate his field and apply fertilize on it, but the growth process is out of his control.  So, too, with God’s Kingdom.  While we may work at bearing witness to the good news of God in Christ, and care for our brothers and sisters, especially the marginalized, the inner work of the Kingdom belongs to God, not us.  In other words, the Kingdom’s growth is the result of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the world.  We are invited to watch in awe and wonder.

Amen.

________________________________

[i] From A Treasury of Jewish Folklore, Nathan Ausubel, ed. (N. Y.: Crown Publishers, 1950)

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Sermon, June 6, 2021

Take Heart

Pentecost/Ordinary Time II (RCL Cycle B; Track 1)/6 June 2021

This morning we start our long journey through the “Green Season,” also known as the Season After Pentecost, or Ordinary Time.  The term “ordinary” does not mean common place, every day, or the usual; rather it refers the number of weeks – as in “ordinal numbers.”  Anyway, our time together for the next six months will take us through much of Mark’s Gospel as well as several excursions into the Gospel of John.  Here we are given an extended opportunity to consider the depth and meaning of Jesus’ life and ministry.

In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus is accused of being possessed by Beelzebul, the “ruler of the demons” (Mk. 3:22). Jesus’ ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing had attracted wide attention and a large following. Therefore, he not only drew opposition from the religious authorities, who viewed him as a threat, but also from his family, who misunderstood his actions.

In the opening verses of the reading, Jesus has returned home to Nazareth for a time of respite from the crowds that press upon him and his disciples, to the extent that they don’t even have time to eat. But there were those who thought that Jesus had lost his mind. Unable to comprehend his activities, and perhaps concerned by the unfavorable attention they might draw from the religious and political authorities, some of his family sought to “restrain him” (3:21).

Scribes from Jerusalem who questioned Jesus’ authority were also present. The power manifested by Jesus was clearly undeniable — the blind received their sight; cripples were able to walk; lepers were cleansed; the possessed were restored to normal life. But he also presumed to forgive sins, ate with sinners, and broke Sabbath laws. Thus, the scribes accused Jesus of being in league with the devil and casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul, the chief of demons. If Jesus transgressed the law, then it followed that his exorcisms and other actions could not be of God.

Jesus refutes their accusation by pointing out that if Satan is divided against himself, his power is annulled. “How can Satan cast out Satan?” (v. 23). In like manner, a house or a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.

This truth is further illustrated by a parable (v. 27) in which a strong man (Satan) guards his property until he is overpowered by one who is stronger (Jesus as the Messiah), who plunders Satan’s household. With the full power of God, Jesus has burst into the realm controlled by Satan and shattered the effects of evil — the Kingdom of God is at hand.

Jesus goes on to declare that “people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter” (v. 28); but blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an “eternal sin” (v. 29) that cannot be forgiven. Here blasphemy is used in the sense of abuse or insult.

Jesus had been filled with God’s Spirit (1:10). Therefore, to accuse him of being allied with demonic forces is to attribute the work of God to Satan. This charge is beyond forgiveness because it is a conscious denial of the goodness and grace of God’s Spirit, who is present in all of Jesus’ actions.

What places one in mortal danger is deliberate rejection of God who is at work in and through Jesus. Ironically, by attributing the liberating and healing activity of Jesus to the sphere of Satan, the scribes themselves are committing the ultimate insult toward God.

In verses 31-35, the narrative returns to Jesus’ family, as his mother and brothers wait to see him. When Jesus asks, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” (v. 33), he calls attention to a broader dimension of relationships. The arrival of the Kingdom of God has changed everything and takes precedence over all other loyalties, even as it redefines relationships. Thus, the person who performs God’s will is the one who truly is mother or brother or sister to him. This pronouncement does not belittle family loyalty, but is a reminder that devotion to God’s purposes is foremost.

In this somewhat puzzling passage, Mark shows us that Jesus is the one who brings liberation from the power of evil. The radical nature of true discipleship is defined in terms of the formation of a community that responds without reservation to the outreach of God’s love through Jesus — and does the will of God.

In the Epistle reading from the second letter to the Corinthians, Paul affirms the connection between the faith of Israel in the past and in the present. The “same spirit of faith” (2 Cor. 4:13) that inspired the Psalmist (cf Ps. 116:10) now enables the preaching of Paul. Through this Spirit we know that God raised Jesus from death and will likewise raise “us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence” (v. 14).

Paul goes on to offer encouragement to the converts in Corinth, telling them not to lose heart. For while in this present life we may know affliction, it will be merely transitory. In our trials we need to focus on what cannot be seen. Our external life — our temporary shelter, or “tent” — may perish. But we know that we will have an eternal dwelling with God: “a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (5:1).

This is our hope and consolation today as well. For no matter what we may face in our lives, the future we anticipate with Christ will overcome our suffering and losses. Through Jesus Christ, who died and rose, God’s presence endures forever and will bring about the deepest fulfillment of our souls.  Consider how easy it would have been over this past year with the pandemic to fall into fear and despair.  I believe that the sustaining power and presence of the Holy Spirit kept us and nurtured us even when the only way we could gather was via “Zoom.”

What does this mean for us on this 6th of June 2021?  It’s this.  We are encouraged not to lose heart no matter what the circumstance; because the Reign of God is near at hand and is already here.

Amen.

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Sermon, Trinity Sunday, May 30, 2021

Conversations

Trinity Sunday (RCL Cycle B)/30 May 2021

 Today is Trinity Sunday and it marks a transition from our past six months considering the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus the Christ to the long green season of Ordinary Time.  This six-month long season goes by several names – the Season after Pentecost, the Season after Trinity, as well as Ordinary Time.  This first Sunday is always given over to a consideration of the Holy Trinity – that core doctrine of the Christian faith.  It is a Sunday that will see preachers through-out the Church struggle to describe a mystery that will never be solved.  A majority of sermons preached today will skate on the edge of heresy, and more than a few will fall off into the abyss.

 Allow me from the outset state that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is a mystery, and we will NEVER be able to wrap our minds around it.  I know that even after forty years of ordained ministry have been able to wrap my mind around it.

This Trinity Sunday I would like to invite us to think of the Holy Trinity as an on-going, eternal conversation between the Father as Creator, the Son as Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit as the Sanctifier.  This is a three-way conversation that invites us to first stand silent before the Holy and second to enter into that conversation as beloved children. Since human speech is inadequate to describe the mystery of the manifold aspects of the infinite God; one of the ways we get a glimpse of the glory and majesty of the Divine is through the visions of prophets and mystics, as seen in the call of the Prophet Isaiah.

Our first reading describes Isaiah’s call to prophetic ministry in terms of a vision of the Holy One in the Temple.  Isaiah sets the beginning of his ministry in “the year that King Uzziah died” (6:1), probably around 736 B. C. E. (Before the Common Era) His vision unites heaven and earth, as Isaiah describes the heavenly court where the Lord is enthroned in a vast temple attended by six-winged seraphs singing the familiar threefold hymn “Holy, holy, holy …” (v. 3) that anticipates praise of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As Isaiah views this splendor, he feels unworthy, declaring himself “a man of unclean lips” (v. 5) from a sinful nation. However, his sin is purged as his lips are cleansed by a live coal brought by a seraph from the heavenly altar (vv. 6-7). Thus, when he hears the Lord call for someone to send as the bearer of the Word, Isaiah answers, “Here am I; send me!” (v. 8).

This passage reflects the profound sense of awe and wonder at the glory of God, as well as the transforming power of God’s presence that enables a positive response to God’s call. Here we see that prophetic speech is not derived from human insight and intelligence but is a gift — indeed a demand — from God.

The Gospel reading gives us another example of Divine revelation and invitation to spiritual transformation through the story of Nicodemus, a truth-seeker and a leader of Israel’s religious establishment who recognizes a unique spiritual power in Jesus. But the circles in which Nicodemus moves do not consider Jesus respectable; thus, he comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness.

Nicodemus addresses Jesus as “Rabbi,” thereby honoring him with the title reserved for those learned in Torah and masterful in teaching (Jn. 3:2). Further signifying his respect, Nicodemus recognizes that Jesus has come from God, because of the signs and good works he performs.

Jesus then proceeds to tell Nicodemus what is most necessary for salvation: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (v. 3). This is a transformation from the inside out, a reorientation of the self, not toward the world, but directly toward God.

However, Nicodemus cannot move beyond a literal understanding of the words of Jesus. When one has reached full maturity, the thought of a genuinely fresh start is as difficult to imagine as reentering the womb. But the rebirth of which Jesus speaks is a spiritual rather than a physical birth.

Jesus continues by saying that “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (v. 5). That is to say, everyone who would enter must be sealed with water upon profession of belief and repentance as required in John’s baptism. Fully renouncing the values that separate one from God is accomplished by receiving the Holy Spirit, whom John said Jesus would bring (Jn. 1:33).

Birth from above by the Spirit is a gift of faith that enables one to believe. Birth from flesh, the acceptance of personal identity on a purely earthly level, cannot bring anyone into this experience. “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit” (v. 6). Thus, spiritual transformation derives from Divine, not human, authority and power.

Jesus then compares the Spirit to the mystery of the wind: one can observe the effects of the wind, but no one can control it. In the same manner, the activity of the Holy Spirit is manifested in the transformed lives of those who accept the Spirit. Like the wind, God’s Spirit cannot be predicted or fit into any human categories (v. 8).

But Nicodemus still remains confused and cannot move beyond his literal understanding and into the world of the Spirit. When he asks, “How can these things be?” (v. 9), Jesus chides him by asking how one who is a “teacher of Israel” (v. 10) cannot comprehend what Jesus is telling him. If Nicodemus is not able to believe the evidence of “earthly things” Jesus has told him, how can he even begin to imagine “heavenly things” (v. 12)?

Jesus declares in verse 13 that he can speak of these heavenly things because, as the Son of Man — the link between heaven and earth — he is the one who has “descended from heaven” to bring eternal life. The “lifting up” in verse 14 refers to the crucifixion, but also recalls Moses setting a serpent on a pole so that those bitten by snakes could look up and be healed — a symbol of salvation (Num. 21:8-9).

The Johannine connection between belief in Christ and eternal life is fully stated in the familiar words of verse 16. Through the selfless giving of the Son, the way to eternal life is opened for those who believe in his name. We have the promise that the Son comes not to condemn the world, but to offer salvation for the whole world.

Thus, through this dialogue with Nicodemus we learn that God, as Father, offers us boundless love.

God the Son is the one who came down from heaven; through him we have eternal life.

And finally, God the Holy Spirit infuses our lives in mysterious and surprising ways.

Another way to illustrate this idea of the eternal conversation between the members of the Godhead is in the icon of the “Old Testament Trinity” painted by Andrei Rublev in Russia during the 15th century.  A copy is in your Order of Worship.  It is a depiction of the three angelic beings who visit Abraham in the Book of Genesis.  They are seated around a table.  The being on the right extends his hand toward an empty place at the table.  Notice the square on the table’s pedestal.  It is thought that the icon originally had a mirror placed there so that the one looking at the icon would see his/her reflection.  The extended hand seems to be an invitation to the one looking at the icon to take a seat at the table and join the conversation.

Theologian Miroslav Volf puts it this way

Because the Christian God is not a lonely God, but rather a communion of three persons, faith leads human beings into the divine communion. … Communion with this God is at once also communion with those others who have entrusted themselves in faith to the same God. [i]

On this Trinity Sunday, once again, we are invited into a divine conversation that will transform us and renew us.

Amen.

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Sermon, May 23, 2021 – Pentecost

Power to Change

Happy Easter!

Happy Birthday!

Today is Pentecost!  It has been fifty short days since we discovered the empty tomb and heard the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.  This is the day in which the whole Easter season comes to a climax.  The Holy Spirit descends like a rushing wind, and a new way of being begins for us.  For us, and the Christian community as a whole, Pentecost becomes a celebration of thanksgiving for the new life of the Church through God’s gift of the Holy Spirit.

In the Jewish tradition, Pentecost, or the Feast of Weeks, was a spring agricultural celebration (cf Lev. 23:15-21; Dt. 16:9- 12). Pentecost is Greek for fiftieth, and the first spring crops were harvested fifty days after planting. However, by the time of Jesus, the festival was increasingly observed as a commemoration of the giving of Torah at Sinai. According to tradition, fifty days passed between the first Passover in Egypt and the arrival at Sinai, where Moss received the law. But for the Christian community, Pentecost would become a celebration of thanksgiving for the new life of the Church through God’s gift of the Holy Spirit.

From the beginning, the Spirit of God was associated with wind and breath. At creation, “a wind from God” (Gen. 1:2) hovered over the unformed matter that God had brought into being. This was also the breath that God breathed into humanity to make the Divine image come alive (Gen. 2:7).

Like the wind, the Spirit moves us in different ways, sending us to other places and nesting us into other ground. To experience Pentecost it is necessary to search for change and to allow ourselves to be changed. Changes mean new forms of consciousness, awareness, commitments, and agency. What is it in your life that needs to be changed? Like seeds, we must learn to let go and die so we can sprout into life! Be uprooted from ways of thinking and believing and be taken by the Spirit, flowing with God’s grace to more expansive and necessary ways of living our faith in our world today.

In this text, Jesus is offering his “so long” talk to his disciples. It is about time for Jesus to go, but he assures them they will not be alone. They will have each other and the presence of God through the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ swirling talk moves in various correlations while also showing how the Spirit will be manifested in them. Jesus is placing himself in the past while the Spirit is what comes next, continuing the work of God and/in Jesus.

The One who is coming will take care of us. While Jesus prays in John 17:6-19 for God to protect the disciples, here Jesus makes explicit that it is the Spirit who is going to protect them. This protection will come by advocating, testifying, speaking truth, glorifying, and “prov(ing) the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.”

The Spirit is the paraclete who will advocate for us and the earth. The Spirit will hear our pain, moaning, desperation, and utterances, and will bring it all to God in “proper language” (Romans 8:26). The Spirit will testify Jesus to us and hold on to the subversive memory of Jesus. When we then testify about God’s glory and justice in Jesus, it is the Spirit working on us. When the Spirit testifies in us, we feel the presence of God and can offer our testimonies on how God acts in us, manifests in the world, transforms people, and brings life where there was only death.

While the Spirit will build in us the glory of God and the memory of Jesus, the testifying of the Spirit will also speak truth to us when we go away from God, when we lose our ability to listen and feel the Spirit’s voice and presence. If the Spirit of God is the Spirit of truth, the truth that will set us free, then this is a process and truth that will challenge our ways of living.

When our worship to God is detached from justice and becomes a ritual by which nobody is changed, the prophets will carry the voice of God’s truth and remind us of our moving away from God and into our own need for a safe and cozy religiosity that doesn’t demand anything from us. When we shape the radical message of Jesus to the programs of our churches, to empty spiritualities and to living a life that trusts more in our bank account than in God, we have lost the presence of the Spirit. Sin, righteousness, and judgment will come. As Jesus said “sin, because they do not believe in me; righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.” But what does that mean today?

For us, the sin of not believing in Jesus is not the lack of faith but rather, the sin of splitting belief and practice, word and action, walk and talk. When we are set on beliefs but our beliefs do not mean change of mind and heart, actions of justice, going after those suffering, and restituting what we have destroyed on earth, then our sin continues, clamorously alive behind our comfortable beliefs.

When Jesus talked about righteousness, he was saying: you will see me no more, but your attitudes and actions will be seen. That means that our lives will show if we live a life of righteousness or not. It has to do with what Jesus said in Matthew 7:16: “You will know them by their fruits.” What are our fruits? If we produce fruits of peace, justice, healing, transformation, and care, we will live a life of righteousness. But if we live a life whose center is only ourselves and our families, then we will be judged by the Spirit.

As for judgment, Jesus says: “because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”

The ruler of this world is the structure of death that spins round and round with spirits of sickness, destruction, poverty, brutality, violence, hunger, greed, consumerism, and so on. Patriarchy and capitalism are the structures from which the ruler of this world lives and enacts death. The ruler of this world is turning this life-giving world into a world of death and pain. This world is not the creation of God, the world God made, but rather the corruption of God’s world of life, the tilting of the world off balance. It is this off-balance world that is turning the whole earth off balance and we are now moving toward climate catastrophe. Curved into ourselves, our sins contribute to the ruler of this world, making us be concerned only with our own pain and demands for happiness, forgetting that every single action we do has ripple effects on others. Caring only for us, having health insurance just for a few, housing just for some will necessarily mean the exemption of health insurance and housing for many others.

The Church is empowered by the Holy Spirit to change the world around us – to bring the Reign of God into fulfillment.  We are called and empowered to continue Jesus’ work and ministry in this place and everywhere our lives take us.

Happy birthday! Amen.