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Sermon, May 8, 2022 – Easter IV

Hearing the Shepherd’s Voice

Happy Easter!

          Today is “Good Shepherd Sunday.  Every year on this fourth Sunday of Easter we hear Jesus’ description of himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.

          The story is told in A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs of the Jewish People, Nathan Ausubel, ed. (N. Y.: Crown Books, 1948):

          Usually, the orthodox rabbis of Europe boasted distinguished rabbinical genealogies, but Rabbi Yechiel of Ostrowce was an exception. He was the son of a simple baker and he inherited some of the forthright qualities of a man of the people.

          Once, when a number of rabbis had gathered at some festivity, each began to boast of his eminent rabbinical ancestors. When Rabbi Yechiel’s turn came, he replied gravely, “In my family, I’m the first eminent ancestor.”

          His colleagues were shocked by this display of impudence but said nothing. Immediately after, the rabbis began to expound Torah. Each one was asked to hold forth on a text culled from the sayings of one of his distinguished rabbinical ancestors.

          One after another the rabbis delivered their learned dissertations. At last, it came time for Rabbi Yechiel to say something. He arose and said, “My masters, my father was a baker. He taught me that only fresh bread was appetizing and that I must avoid the stale. This can also apply to learning.”

          And with that Rabbi Yechiel sat down.

          One of the greatest challenges facing us is our ability to discern the Shepherd’s voice amidst all the other voices that clamor for our attention, many of whom claim to speak for God. Those voices are legion, but we do not always recognize how contrary they are to the voice of the Good Shepherd.

          For instance, there are many voices that tell us how to grow closer to God: by having a prescribed religious experience, by believing the correct doctrine, by reaching a higher level of knowledge or a higher level of morality.

          By contrast, the Good Shepherd tells us that everything depends on belonging to him. Never does our status before God depend on how we feel, or having the right experience, or being free of doubt, or what we accomplish. It depends on one thing only: that we are known by the shepherd: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish” (John 10:28).

          The voice of the Good Shepherd is a voice that liberates rather than oppresses. It does not say, “Do this, and then maybe you will be good enough to be one of my sheep.” It says, “You belong to me already. No one can snatch you out of my hand.” Secure in this belonging, we are free to live the abundant life of which Jesus spoke earlier in the chapter: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

          The abundant life of which Jesus speaks is not necessarily about abundance in years, or in wealth, or status, or accomplishments. It is life that is abundant in the love of God made known in Jesus Christ, love that overflows to others (John 13:34-35). It is eternal life because its source is in God who is eternal (17:3), and in Jesus, who is the resurrection and the life (11:25-26).

          Jesus the Good Shepherd, Holland writes, does all of this. The authority that the Shepherd claims over us is “to quicken, to dignify and enlarge our faculties by our submission to it.” We hear Jesus’ voice and become one with him — “made over to him, drawn to him by secret kinship”—able to understand his speech, which grows louder and more distinct as we learn how to listen.

          Jesus tells the Jews — and us — that the way to gain certainty is not by human ability to stay in charge. Instead of offering answers leading to conceptual control, Jesus offers a relationship. Knowledge of the Shepherd is not to be grasped and mastered like vocabulary lists or calculus rules. Although effort is involved, it is not the kind we expend when we are trying to get a firm hold of things. It is rather the opposite: the effort to grasp is converted into the experience of being grasped.

          Amidst all the other voices that evoke fear, make demands, or give advice, the voice of the good shepherd is a voice of promise — a voice that calls us by name and claims us as God’s own.  And Jesus promises that no one is able to snatch us out of the Father’s hand.

Happy Easter!

Amen!

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Sermon, April 24, 2022 – Easter II

Believing is Seeing

Happy Easter!

          Today we encounter two resurrection appearances that are often combined into a single incident.  The first appearance occurs on the evening of Easter day.  The disciples are huddled together in fear of the Roman and religious authorities – after all, their leader was executed for sedition and they’re probably next.  Jesus appears greeting them with “Shalom” and shows them the marks of his crucifixion.  He then breaths on them inviting them to “receive the Holy Spirit.”  Jesus then gives his disciples, and us, the authority to declare sins forgiven.

          The second appearance takes place a week later.  The difference is that Thomas, who was absent the week before, is now present.  Jesus invites him to touch him and leave his doubts for faith and belief.  He tells us that faith in Jesus is possible even without physically seeing him.

          The Apostle Thomas was a realist; and when his fellow disciples excitedly told him that they had seen Jesus alive, he was skeptical. He demanded to see the marks of the crucifixion before he would believe their testimony. His story still speaks to us today in our doubts and fears.

          A famous early 17th-century painting by Caravaggio, entitled “The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” shows Jesus grasping Thomas’ wrist and guiding Thomas’ index finger into the gaping spear wound in his side. The bared torso of Jesus is bathed in light against a dark background. Thomas leans forward intently, his brow furrowed in concentration, as he peers at the mark of the wound. Two other men hover closely over the shoulder of Thomas and observe as well.

          The Gospel text does not indicate whether Thomas actually touched the wounds of Jesus; but the appearance of the Lord was enough for Thomas to proclaim, “My Lord and my God!”

          Khalil Gibran, in Jesus, the Son of Man: His Words and His Deeds as Told and Recorded by Those Who Knew Him (N. Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 1928), imagines Thomas agonizing over the words his grandfather had taught him: “Let us observe the truth, but only when the truth is made manifest to us.”

          Always looking for evidence of the truth had made Thomas a slave to doubt. “Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother,” Gibran concludes.

          Only when Thomas saw for himself did he believe in the truth of the Risen Lord, for “doubt will not know truth till his wounds are healed and restored.” Gibran depicts the disciple released from the legacy of doubt in his past, saying: “Then indeed I believed, and after that I was rid of my yesterdays. … The dead in me buried their dead; and the living shall live for the Anointed King, for Him who was the Son of Man.”

          According to tradition, Thomas was called to spread the word of the Risen Lord to the people of India. And so, the Gibran projection of Thomas’ response continues: “I shall go. And from this day to my last day, at dawn and at eventide, I shall see my Lord rising in majesty and I shall hear Him speak.”

          But here is a truth with which we must come to terms today. The church of the resurrected Jesus Christ is founded on a complete reversal of this doctrine. Now, it is “believing is seeing,” and not the other way around.

          Jesus tells Thomas that those who find a way to trust in him without the privilege of seeing him — these ones are blessed. Let’s think about this promise of Jesus. He is suggesting that believing in another person actually creates a form of sight. We know that newlyweds experience this all the time. A couple would never take the plunge and get married if they elected to wait around to see everything about their mate before they were willing to believe in this other. No, they trust all kinds of tomorrows for which they cannot begin to see the details, much less the shape.

          Believing in another actually creates a form of sight or perception. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus says to Thomas.

          Like Thomas, we too seek affirmation of the reality of the Risen Christ; and often our doubts can keep us from recognizing this pivotal truth. But there comes a moment, whether through a period of gradual discernment or because of a sudden life-changing event, when we too find we can exclaim, “My Lord and my God!”

Happy Easter! Amen.

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Sermon, April 17, 2022 – Easter Sunday

“Christ is risen, alleluia! He is risen indeed, alleluia!”

          Happy Easter!

          Today, we begin a fifty-day celebration of Jesus’ resurrection – the Queen of Feasts.  Seven short weeks that will carry us from an empty tomb to the rushing mighty wind of Pentecost.  This is the heart of our life together as Christians.  It is what gives meaning to everything we do.  The Church’s life, its work, its mission, and its proclamation is wrapped up in this one event.

          Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. tells us,

                     “Easter comes out ringing in terms that we all hear if we seek to hear it, that the soul of man is immortal. Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ we have fit testimony that this earthly life is not the end, that death is just something of a turn in the road, that life moves down a continual moving river, and that death is just a little turn in the river, that this earthly life is merely an embryonic prelude to a new awakening, that death is not a period which ends this great sentence of life but a comma that punctuates it to loftier significance. That is what it says. That is the meaning of Easter. That is the question that Easter answers — that death is not the end.”[i]

          The word of our Lord’s Resurrection is always a new word for us and to us. Wherever we are in our own story, we need the liberating pronouncement of forgiveness and resurrection again and again. The ancient word that Jesus has been raised from the dead is something we need to hear anew. The darkness of Good Friday, and the silence at the beginning of the Easter Vigil, indicate to us a beginning, a space that is dedicated to be filled with the light of Christ. We look to the Paschal Candle as the beacon that both draws us and sends us on our way rejoicing.

          The Resurrection of Jesus introduces a new day, a new creation, a turn in the story — but the remembrance of all that has brought us to this place is still with us. As we adjust to the glorious flow of God’s acts, we realize that we still live in two worlds, and that there are many around us to whom the story has not yet been revealed in its fullness.

          In this morning’s Psalm we sing, “On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:24).  Our faith teaches us that on this day, the power of death was finally and eternally conquered.  This means that we can stand next to an open grave ready to receive our loved one’s remains and not go stark raving mad.  It also means that we can look our own mortality in the eye and not give in to hopelessness and despair.

          This is the Good News we proclaim.  The resurrection is the driving force behind the Church’s life and work.

          There is always work to be done, good news to be shared, again and again. The Church today proclaims the new — that is also our legacy—and seeks for yet more fruitful ways to integrate this “ending” into the life of a world that desperately seeks resolution.

          “You broke the reign of death, O Lord, and you have made life shine forth again, alleluia!”

________________________________

[i] Martin Luther King, Jr., in a sermon, “Questions That Easter Answers,” at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama (4/21/1957).

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Sermon, April 3, 2022 – Lent V

Seeking What We Already Have

            Our Lenten journey this Sunday picks up the story of Jesus at a dinner party at the home of Martha and Mary in Bethany – a village just a few miles southeast of Jerusalem (this will become Jesus’ home base during Holy Week).  Their brother, Lazarus (whom Jesus had just raised from the dead), is also there.  John points out that things are rapidly coming to a head and events are about to turn ugly.

          In John’s Gospel, the passage immediately preceding today’s reading we learn of the developing plot against Jesus by the religious authorities in Jerusalem.  They are alarmed by Jesus’ growing popularity, which would certainly draw unwelcome attention from the Romans.  Just for good measure, Lazarus is included in this conspiracy in order to silence all of Jesus’ adherents and other members of his fan club.  So, today, the clock is ticking, and Jesus has just six days to live.

          In today’s Gospel, Mary is seen taking a container of oil of nard (oil extracted from a balsam tree), breaking it, and anointing Jesus’ feet with the expensive perfume. Afterwards, John reports that she wiped his feet with her hair.

          Anointing another with oil has always had deep spiritual significance: sometimes it is enacted at the coronation of a monarch. In the Jewish world, it was a symbolic action announcing that the person anointed was especially favored by God. In the Old Testament, prophets anointed future kings. Samuel so designated the future King David. When Mary anointed Jesus, she may have been signifying that he was a king, the Messiah. Mark’s gospel hinted at this in pointing out that what she had done would always be remembered (Mk. 14:3-9). Judas, who would become Jesus’ betrayer, objected to what he saw as a waste of money. He reasoned that the money should rightly be given to those in need — and in his rational determination, he had a point.

          Judas was particularly aware of the uses of money, as the organizer of the group who traveled with Jesus, and who took charge of the money they carried with them. Perhaps he was the one who paid for food and lodging in funds drawn from the contributions of their wealthy supporters. In a bitter aside written long after Jesus’ death, the writer of John’s Gospel suggests that Judas was not honest in this task (13:10-11).

          But here Jesus defends Mary’s apparent extravagance. He must have known he was in great danger, and that the journey he was on would end in a terrible death. Being fully human, he certainly perceived the likely consequences of his outrageous actions among the people. And he had many enemies who surely would bring him down if they were able.

          Mary also perceived the danger that Jesus was in, and maybe she sensed that he faced a tragic future. She offered her gift as a comfort and reassurance to him, and perhaps as something more. She believed he was the Messiah and applying the nard ahead of that revelation granted her participation in its truth. We view here a gift from the heart of Mary that may have defied rational justification. But it clearly had Jesus’ blessing.

          We too seek Jesus’ approval and assurance that there is a way —beyond reason — that leads to eternal life. It is at the heart level that we come to accept his sacrifice for us and kneel, as Mary did, before him in gratefulness.

          So it is for us some 2,000 years later; we find ourselves kneeling at the foot of the cross – where the ground is level for all of us, begging for mercy and discovering to our astonishment that what for which we are asking has already been granted; moreover, it has been ours before we could ask or imagine.  Such is grace – how much more do we find ourselves at Jesus’s feet asking for what has already been given to us.

          Let us bless the Lord.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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Sermon, March 20, 2022 – Lent III

Be Patient – God’s Still at Work

              At the heart of this morning’s Gospel Jesus tells a parable about a conversation between a landowner and his gardener and a certain fig tree that after three years in the orchard had not produced any figs.  The landowner expresses his displeasure with the situation and demands that the fig tree be cut down and turned into firewood.  The gardener makes a simple bargain with the landowner – give me a year to tend to the tree, and if it produces figs well and good, if not, the landowner gets some firewood.

              We live in a society driven by the need to see results. This may entail completing a difficult task or obtaining certain goals or objectives. In business, good results are indicated by steady and lasting profits — the bottom line. A farmer or gardener hopes for clear-cut results in the form of a fruitful harvest.

              The parable that Jesus tells in today’s Gospel involves a fig tree that does not produce the desired result of bearing figs. Even though the tree is barren, the gardener urges that it be tended for another year before it is cut down.

              We ourselves tend to delay the discipline necessary to become fruitful, to give God all of our lives. St. Augustine of Hippo was a world-class procrastinator, at least when it came to the spiritual life. He knew he should change his life, reject his immortal lifestyle, and embrace Christianity — but he kept putting it off. Through the prayers of his mother, St. Monica, Augustine finally did become a fervent Christian. But he would lament in his autobiography, the Confessions, that he had wasted much time: “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!”

              Lent is a yearly reminder that repentance, turning to God, is the natural character of the Christian life. Conversion is not a one-time event: it is lifelong. Just as, when we rise each morning, it is a picture of rising from our old life through Baptism — so we model in Lent the process of our redemption through self-examination of our selfishness and sin, and renewal of our commitment to Christ.

              Left to ourselves, we, like the fig tree, would wither and die. Now, as our part of the world looks to the budding of new life in spring, we turn toward Christ our sun as the ultimate source of healing and forgiveness. We open ourselves to the peace that passes understanding in him — since we can never make sense of the tragedies of the world apart from his love.

              The reading from Exodus gives us the story of Moses and the burning bush.  Here, Moses has his first encounter with God – the first of many encounters that will shape and direct the rest of his life. 

              The bush flamed up — eye catching, mind puzzling, awesome. Why didn’t it burn? Like Moses, we’re drawn toward the mysterious. We’re captured by beauty, stilled by it — a blazing sunset, an artistic masterpiece, crashing waves on a rocky coast, the deep silence of a star-filled night. What is your “holy ground”? Where are you pulled into silence, called through your senses to hear God’s voice? God told Moses to take off his shoes because he was standing on holy ground. Nothing should come between our human self and our “holy ground.” We may not have to take off our shoes. Maybe we just need to remove the self-imposed wrapping on our hearts to hear more clearly God’s call to us. So much of our connection with God is interior, but there is our exterior connection as well.  Here, we learn of God’s unpronounceable holy name – YHWH (best transliterated as Yahweh, or “I AM”).  I AM speaks to each of our hearts, calls us to come closer, to feel, to touch, to explore who I AM is. Take off your shoes, if you can, and stand on your own holy ground.

              The Good News as we near the mid-point of Lent is that God is still at work in us creating in us the image of himself.  Are we willing to accept the sometimes disruptive process that draws us from our tendency toward sin and accept the offer of new life in grace?  Like the fig tree, God continues to dig around us, and fertilize us, so that we might some day bear fruit.  God knows our potential better than we know ourselves.  To prove the point, the gardener knew something the landowner did not.  Fig trees do not produce fruit until they are four years old.  Amen.

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Sermon, March 13, 2022 – Lent II

Holding and Being Held

          Today is the second Sunday in Lent, and we continue our way to the Cross. It is true that the tone of Lent is introspective — that is, it encourages us to look within our history, consider our worship life, and examine our inner state: our sins and shortcomings, what we do and what we neglect to do. We also look toward the Cross as we seek forgiveness, and toward the coming Resurrection as our source of power for future service.

          In Lent we may be led to evaluate ourselves more than at any other time of the year. And so, it is helpful to set aside moments when we ask God to examine us, seeking clarity and honesty in light of the Cross and the Resurrection.

          As Christians we cannot afford to have illusions about ourselves or others in our lives. Our sense of history, our teachings about humanity, should lead us to be, above all, realistic. This means not expecting to achieve paradise or perfection tomorrow — or even at the end of a period of penitence and devout practice. But neither should we despair of our present situation, especially in light of the mighty acts of God that we have seen accomplished in the past.

          Lent ideally helps us to achieve a balance that is born of historical perspective and human honesty. Above all, we take these weeks seriously as a time to grow in self-understanding and prepare for a genuine response to God.

          John Keble, one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement in Great Britain, also said in a sermon entitled “The Disappointments of Our Lord”: “Now as Christ exhibits to us all other features of God’s character, so this among them, that he respects our freedom” — even to the extent of allowing himself to be rejected by those he came to save. “He says, ‘How often would I have gathered thy children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings’” — meaning: “Do you know how anxious I am, how much I care for your souls? How truly I wish to hold you and assure you?” Part of our honesty and openness toward our Lord in Lent can be seen as an answer to his generous offer to comfort and hold us through the coming storm. Will we accept this most tender aspect of Jesus’ care for us—now, here, today?

          David Vryhof, SSJE (the Cowley Fathers), wrote: “Give yourself wholeheartedly to the One who has given himself for you, holding nothing back. Love as you have been loved — freely, boundlessly, and unconditionally, with no expectation of reward. The great paradox is that by losing our lives in this way we gain them. This is the way to freedom, this is the way to joy, this is the way to life — eternal life, abundant life.”

Amen.

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Sermon, February 20, 2022 – Epiphany VII

A Mystery

          First of all, I want to thank everyone for your prayers and support these past several weeks.  I especially want to thank Mother Diane Reeves for filling in on the past two Sundays – I needed the break.

          This morning our Epistle reading continues to explore St. Paul’s understanding of the resurrection as the core belief in the Christian faith.  He has made it perfectly clear in his letter to the Corinthians that if there is no resurrection – if the Christ has not been raised, then everything we do, say, believe, pray and act is meaningless.  For us, as Christians, the whole thing revolves around the resurrection.

          While Paul proclaims the centrality of the resurrection, he makes no attempt to explain the “how” of the resurrection.  He is content to leave that in the realm of mystery (15: 51ff).  Paul uses an illustration from agriculture. A seed that is sown must disintegrate before the life it contains can grow into something new and greater. Only by dying is it able to live again. Yet there is continuity; for if wheat is planted, more wheat, not another grain, will grow. “But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body” (1 Cor. 15:38). Similarly, the physical body that is perishable will be raised in a state that is imperishable.

Just as death came into the world by one person (Adam), the Resurrection also came into the world through one person (Jesus). As we live in a body like that of earthly Adam, so we will have a body like that of heavenly Jesus. Thus, “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven” (v. 49).

          Christ is the first fruits of eternal life, and in due course, those who are in Christ will also inherit the realm to which he has become heir. The existence of the physical body hints of the reality of what the spiritual body will someday be —like a full-grown plant that rises from a seed.

          “So, it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable” (15:42). We begin to grasp the reality of this hope as we contemplate the Risen Jesus. The good news for us is that we, made one with Christ, may look to him as our strength and our redemption, now and forever.

          This text is not simply about resurrection, it is about redemption. God will take the brokenness and perishability of the creation and will redeem it into a new creation, seed to plant, earth to heaven. The first part is required for the second part — God does not make a new creation out of nothing but redeems the current creation from its beginnings and its temporality into a new eternal creation. The concept of recapitulation is what is being done here, and again in the Joseph story — by Joseph’s brothers came the death of the father’s favorite, by God, through Joseph, came the redemption of the whole family.

          The other thing that Paul’s writing to the Corinthians does is put to rest the idea of the immortality of the soul, a popular heresy among the churches.  We believe in the resurrection of the body.  It is not that we have some eternal aspect which is preserved from death, rather the whole of us, body and all, will be redeemed, resurrected, transformed, by the power of the living God.  If we hope only for our souls, why do we bother trying to stay healthy, or avoid pain? Immortality of the soul is for Stoics; resurrection is for Christians.

          So, what does this have to do with us on the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany?  Simply this, we are called, invited, and encouraged to live a life of abundant love and grace because we live within the assurance of the resurrection – meaning that death will NEVER ever have the final word in our lives.  We have been redeemed and raised to new life in Jesus the Christ, and for that, we give thanks to God. Amen.

Hymns sung this Sunday (Episcopal Hymnal 1982)

  • Praise To The Lord, The Almighty #390
  • In The Cross of Christ I Glory #441
  • Lord, Make Us Servants Of Your Peace #593
  • I Come With Joy #304
  • Love Divine All Loves Excelling #657
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Sermon, January 30, 2022 – Epiphany IV

Our Calling

This is the sermon that Father George would have preached on January 30. He was unable to be at the service. In place of a regular service we had a Morning Prayer service.

Today we pick up the theme of calling, or vocation, and we will be spending the next couple of Sundays looking at how God calls us to his purpose and work.  The idea of vocation, or calling, is misunderstood by many people of faith – especially some Christians.  The common misconception is that vocation is limited to persons being called to a religious life (as a monk or nun) or to become a part of the clergy.  When I was in the ordination process, I was often asked to describe my “call” to become a priest.  This limited view of vocation diminishes the holiness of the lay or “secular” callings.  Doing this attempts to place limits on the work of the Holy Spirit in fulfilling the whole purpose of God’s work in the world.

Jeremiah was wrapped in God’s love. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you …” God tells the prophet. Even before he ever drew a breath, God knew Jeremiah — even before we took a breath, God knew us, God loved us. God didn’t let Jeremiah diminish himself in God’s eyes. “Do not say, ‘I am only …” says God to the prophet.

Can we hear God say the same to us? That’s love — speaking words that uplift; words that don’t allow the diminishment of the other; words that build confidence and trust.

Paul goes into great depth in a description of love. His Corinthian congregation had begun falling out with each other, the community fracturing, losing relationship. He reminds them of the very earthly laws and expectations of that day; but then he pours out the binding, rebuilding, sustaining power of love. Love rejoices, bears all things, believes, hopes, endures. We learn to love this way by remembering it’s how God loves us.

When we lose sight of the inclusiveness and the giftedness of love, we join those who’d throw Jesus off the cliff because: “Isn’t this only Joseph’s son?” Today we might hear: It’s only a woman; it’s only an immigrant; it’s only a group of teenaged students. Those words diminish our grasp of love — devalue our relationship with each other. God knows each of us. God consecrates each of us. God offers us words of love to share. None of us is only in God’s eyes; all of us are called to proclaim love.

The Good News Jesus was proclaiming was the gracious announcement that a whole new narrative of God’s dealing with us is breaking into our world.  Jesus was reminding his listeners, and us, that God was still at work in the world unfolding new narratives – new stories – intended to draw us more deeply into the larger story of God’s unconditional love for us.

All of us, by virtue of our baptism, have a vocation – a calling to live fully and deeply into God’s love for humanity.  Our Baptismal Covenant outlines our common vocation.  How we live out that vocation is a reflection of how we have individually heard that call.

What is at the heart of our common vocation?  Our Presiding Bishop would put it this way, that we are called to live into and reflect the unconditional love of God in every aspect of our lives.  In other words, we are called to love and in that love we, and all others, catch a glimpse of God’s love.

Amen.

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Sermon, January 23, 2022 – Epiphany III

Telling Stories

There is a wonderful celebration in the Jewish community at the end of Sukkoth, also known as the Feast of Tabernacles – which recalls the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness for forty years.  The celebration is known as Simcat Torah, which means “Rejoicing in the Torah.”  In this celebration, the final verses of Deuteronomy are read and then, with great flourish the Rabbi or the reader rewinds the scroll to the very beginning and reads the first verses of Genesis.  The Jewish community will read the entire Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures) over the course of a year; so, this is a continuous cycle of readings – much like our various lectionary cycles that continuously recycle from year to year enabling us to hear the whole of the sacred story told us in the scriptures.

In today’s reading from the Hebrew scriptures, we find Nehemiah, the Persian appointed governor, and Ezra, his scribe, standing before the people.  Ezra begins to read the Torah – the book of the Law, to the people.  It takes all day and at the end the people begin to weep.  Nehemiah instructs them not to weep, but rather:  And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

In other words – rejoice and give thanks – celebrate the gift of the Torah.

The back story for this event is that the Persian emperor had released the Jewish people from their seventy years of captivity in Babylon.  The captives, as well as those who remained in Israel, lived through a period of abject spiritual poverty after Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and the destruction of King Solomon’s Temple in approximately 597 BCE.  The Temple was gone, along with every vestige of their religious life and worship evaporated.  Fast forward seventy or so years – the Persians overthrow the Babylonians and the Persian emperor gives permission for the exiles to return home.

Nehemiah is appointed as governor (meaning he’s responsible for collecting the taxes due the emperor).  Nehemiah and Ezra return to a still shattered Jerusalem.  This is where the story goes beyond today’s consideration (I invite you to take some time to read the books of Ezra and Nehemiah).  What was happening here is that the people – those taken into exile and those who remained had forgotten their story, they had forgotten who they were, and, more importantly, whose they were.  So, Ezra and Nehemiah tell the people their story.  The people needed to hear their story so they could, once again, become the people of God.

This, my brothers, and sisters, is why we recycle the lectionary every three years (two years in the Daily Office cycle).  By the way, the Forward Day by Day devotional guide is a wonderful way to follow the daily office lectionary.  There are other resources to help with this as well.

Nehemiah’s people had forgotten their story; consequently, they had lost their identity as the people of God – the Chosen people.  The people in Nazareth were on the verge of losing their story, their identity.  The Roman occupation, and Herod’s disregard of Jewish law had an eroding effect on the people.  When Jesus chooses the passage from Isaiah 61: 1 – 2, which heralds Israel’s return from captivity, Jesus is saying to the folks in his hometown, “remember your story.”  Remember who you are and, more importantly whose you are.  When Jesus says to the gathered congregation, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” he is telling them that their story is alive and well and the promise of God’s love and favor is still theirs.

Our Judeo-Christian faith is full of stories.  These stories remind us of the depth and breadth of God’s love for us, and for the whole world.  We have stories because it makes it easier for us to remember the great truths of the Gospel.  Writer Elie Weisel was once asked by God created humanity, he replied, “God made man because God loves stories.”  One of my favorite stories is about a rabbi named, Baal Shem Tov (which means – Master of the Good Name) who lived in the Ukraine during the early to mid-seventeenth century and is credited as the founder of the Hassidic movement in Judaism.

[Baal Shem Tov story – see below]

The moral of this story is that when someone comes to us and tells us our story, we know that we are loved and forgiven.  Therefore, we are able in the words of our first reading:

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Today this scripture is fulfilled in our hearing! Amen.

Baal Shem Tov story

The version I told this morning (23 January 2022) was edited and shortened from the version here:

The founder of Chassidism, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (called the Baal Shem Tov, or “the Besht” for short), was well-versed in the secrets of the Torah and of creation. But he also knew the greatest secret of all: what each man’s purpose is in this world.

Those who believed this completely and followed his directives were called his chassidim.

To each of his chassidim the Besht revealed his task in life, and one, who is the hero of our story, he instructed to become a wandering storyteller. He should travel from town to town and from village to village and tell people stories about the Baal Shem Tov. “You will know when your mission is achieved,” the Besht added.

Shortly thereafter the Besht passed on to his eternal rest. For the next ten years the chassid diligently and joyously carried out his assignment, wandering from town to town telling the “Baal Shem Tov stories” he had witnessed or heard about.

One day, someone told him that there was a rich Jew in Vitebsk who actually paid money for such stories: ten rubles (at that time a huge amount) for every new one, and five for those he had already heard, plus traveling expenses. It was a two-day journey, but to our hero it seemed like minutes. He knew many stories and he really needed the money!

When he arrived at the rich man’s plush home, it was already late Thursday evening, and he was so tired from the road that he wanted only to sleep. But there would always be tomorrow.But he woke late on Friday, and by the time he finished praying, it was already time to get ready for Shabbat. But there would be Shabbat.

Unfortunately, that evening at the Shabbat dinner, try as he could, he just couldn’t remember any stories, not even one. He thought that after a good night’s rest his mind would be sharper, but it wasn’t. And the next day it was the same thing: he would begin a story, and suddenly his mind would go completely blank.

He thought that perhaps he was going mad. No matter what he did, he had no results. He even remained for another two days, but it was obvious that something very strange was going on: he, who knew hundreds of stories about his great teacher, having witnessed many of them himself, and having told and retold them countless times over the years, could not remember anything! He had forgotten everything; he had no other choice than to shamefacedly give up.

The wealthy man was very disappointed, but nevertheless, against all hope, he accompanied the chassid to his wagon; perhaps at the last moment some story would pop into his mind—but it didn’t.

The host slipped a few silver coins in the pocket of his visitor so he wouldn’t feel completely broken, and helped him onto the waiting carriage. Then, as he put his foot on the first step, he remembered . . . “A story!!! I remember a story!” he shouted.

“Once the Baal Shem took ten chassidim (I was one of them) and told us to get in his carriage shortly before Shabbat. We didn’t ask any questions, being used to such journeys. We entered and sat down and, as usual, we immediately felt as though the carriage was flying in the air. Moments later, we landed.

“We got out and found that we were in a place we had never seen before. It was a large town square that was completely deserted. Even the stores were all closed, and off to one side stood a stage or pulpit, that looked recently built, surrounded by several large crosses and flaming torches, as though there was about to be some sort of large outdoor church ceremony.

“The Besht told us to follow him as he quickly left the square, walked quickly through some winding streets, and in just minutes went through the gates of what was obviously the Jewish ghetto. He stopped before one of the houses and began pounding on the door, until a small peephole opened up and someone frantically whispered from inside.

‘Are you mad?! What are you doing out there?!’ Several bolts and locks clicked and slid until the door opened and the owner frantically motioned for all of us to enter, slamming it shut behind us.

“‘Tonight is one of their terrible holidays! The worst of the worst!!’ he said, short of breath, as he was reclosing the bolts and locks as fast as possible. ‘You’re lucky I let you in! In another few minutes the entire town square is going to be filled with bloodthirsty Jew-haters from all around, and the devil himself, Bishop Thaddeus, yemach shemo (may his name be blotted out), will give his annual Easter speech. It’s full of venom against us. Come, follow me — we will make place for you in our underground shelter. Come! We mustn’t waste an instant! Before they start going wild.’

“But the Besht turned to one of his pupils and calmly said, ‘Go back to the square, and when the bishop begins to speak, go up to the stage, pull on his robe, and tell him that I wish to speak to him urgently.’

“The owner of the house was shocked! He watched in wide-eyed astonishment as the chassid actually began to reopen the bolts, open the door and slip outside. He didn’t know if he should lock them again or not; he’d never seen anything like it in his life! It was like seeing someone walk into a burning furnace!

“The chassid, once outside, made his way back through the winding streets ’till he reached the square. It was already filled with thousands of people, and more were silently arriving from all sides. A strange, cold silence hung in the air, and it was beginning to get dark.

“The bishop strode to the front of the stage, as if from nowhere, and stood imposingly before the crowd in his bright crimson robes and high pointed red hat. The torchlight danced weirdly in his eyes and made the huge golden cross hanging around his neck gleam diabolically. To make matters worse, the fires and huge crosses surrounding the stage reminded the chassid of the stories he had heard of the Inquisition. But he pushed all these thoughts from his mind, waited for the bishop to begin, closed his eyes for a moment, whispered Shema Yisrael, and with his head down, began gently pushing his way to the podium.

“But the Besht wasn’t pleased. ‘Go back and tell the bishop“Amazingly, no one even noticed him. They were so transfixed by the bishop that they just moved out of the way, and before he knew it, he reached the front. He took a deep breath, said another Shema Yisrael, grabbed the robe of the bishop and pulled twice.

“The bishop was just beginning his tirade when he felt the tug at his garment and looked down. He was startled, outraged, his face became livid with anger; but before he could utter a sound the chassid looked him in the eyes and said, ‘My master and teacher, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, wishes to see you, and he says you should come urgently.’

“Suddenly the bishop’s face became pale and his eyes opened wide, as though he was afraid. ‘Not now!’ he whispered after a few seconds of confusion. ‘Tell him that I can’t come now. Later! Tell him later. Go away!’

“Miraculously, the entire crowd was all still standing like statues, as though hypnotized, and noticed none of this. So the chassid backed his way out and returned alone to the Besht, convinced that he had fulfilled his mission.

“But the Besht wasn’t pleased. ‘Go back and tell the bishop that if he doesn’t come now, it will be too late.’

“Without hesitation the chassid turned and did as he was told. He left the house, returned to the town square, pushed his way through the crowd, and pulled on the bishop’s robe just as before.

“But this time, when the bishop heard the Besht’s message, he was really stunned. He took a few steps back, put his head in his hands, and then, turning his face to heaven, he yelled to the crowd: ‘I’m receiving a message from the Lord!! I must be alone!’

“He motioned the chassid to leave, watched him as he walked toward the Jewish section, and then he himself descended from the back of the stage and headed in that direction, holding his hat under his arm.

“Minutes later he was standing with the chassid before the house in the Jewish quarter. ‘Tell him to remove his crosses before he enters,’ said the Besht from inside. The bishop did so, and as he entered the house and saw the face of the holy man, he fell to the floor and began weeping like a baby!

“The Baal Shem turned to the others and explained. ‘This man was born a Jew. He even had a bar mitzvah. But shortly thereafter he was lured to the Church and eventually became the anti-Semite he is today. I saw in heaven that now was a propitious time to bring him to his senses.’

“After the bishop stopped weeping, the Besht told him to stand and follow him into a side room, where they closed the door and spoke for several minutes. No one knows what they said in there, but after a while the bishop came out dressed in different clothes, left the house, and no one has seen him since. And that is the end of the story.’”

The chassid looked at the rich man and saw that he was smiling with contentment; he liked the story. He liked it so much that he put his hand over his eyes and tears began rolling down his face. He was crying, weeping from sheer happiness. “That is the story I’ve been waiting for,” he said.

He dried his eyes, looked at the chassid and continued. “I am the bishop in your story. The Baal Shem Tov told me in that side room to live a life of repentance until someone came and told me my own story. Now I know my prayers have been accepted by G‑d.”

By Tuvia Bolton

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Sermon

Sermon, January 9, 2022 – Feast of the Baptism of our Lord (Epiphany 1)

Baptism

Today our celebration centers around the Baptism of our Lord by his cousin, John the Baptist.  This feast is always celebrated on the first Sunday after the Epiphany and marks the close of our Christmas observance.  This entire Epiphany season invites us to reflect on Jesus’ baptism and its importance for us who follow him.         

Luke’s version of Jesus’ baptism is more concise than the other Synoptic Gospels.  Luke’s intention is for us to focus on the work of the Holy Spirt in Jesus’ baptism, and, by extension, ours.  Catholic theologian Raniero Cantalamessa has written that: “John the Baptist presented Jesus to the world as ‘the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’ (see Jn. 1:33). Not only through the sacrament of baptism that he instituted, but throughout the whole of his work, Jesus ‘baptizes in the Holy Spirit.’ His entire messianic mission consists in pouring out the Holy Spirit upon the world.

The baptism in the Holy Spirit, that once again we have started to recognize and discuss in the church, is one of the ways in which the risen Jesus continues his essential work, which is to baptize all of humankind ‘in the Spirit.’ It has been described as a renewal of the Pentecost event and, as importantly, also of the sacrament of baptism and of Christian initiation in general, even though the two realities coincide and therefore never come about separately or in opposition one to the other. Pentecost does not cast sacrament into a lesser role (especially the sacrament of baptism with water), and neither does sacrament cast Pentecost into a lesser position.”

In his baptism, Jesus becomes aware of his full identity.  In the same way, we, too, are immersed into our full identity through the gift of the Holy Spirit.  There is an old Hindu parable about a tiger cub raised by goats.  The cub learned to bleat and nibble grass and behave like a goat.  One night a tiger attacked the goats, and they all scattered toward safety. But the tiger cub kept grazing and crying like a goat, without getting frightened.

The old tiger roared, “What are you doing here, living with these cowardly goats?” He grabbed the cub by the scruff of his neck, dragged him to a pond, and said: “Look how our faces are the same, reflected in the water! Now you know who you are and whose you are.”

The tiger took the cub home, taught him how to catch animals, eat their meat, roar, and act like a tiger. Thus, the tiger cub discovered his true self.

In baptism, we are gifted with our true selves.  This is more than mere identity, rather this sacrament allows who we are – created in the image and likeness of God to take root and bring our souls to light and life.  In a very real sense, the Holy Spirit brings us to the water and there we see our reflection and God’s staring back at us.  This is where we begin to discover our true selves as God intended us to be.

When this happens, we discover that along with being baptized with water we are also immersed in the Holy Spirit.  Thus, we are marked and sealed as Christ’s own forever.

Amen.