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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

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.

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Sermon, May 16, 2021

Now We Wait

Easter VII (RCL Cycle B)/16 May 2021

Happy Easter!

This week marks a shift in our life together as the Church.  This past Thursday we observed the Feast of the Ascension.  Jesus leaves final instructions and is taken up into heaven.  His final instructions are to wait in Jerusalem until the Father’s promise is fulfilled (Acts 1: 4).  So now we wait. 

In this ten-day period known as Ascensiontide a couple of significant things happen in the ancient community.  The community begins to coalesce around the apostles’ leadership.  The glue that holds them together is a life of common prayer centered on the Temple.  The second significant act is an extension of the first – the community elects a replacement for Judas in order to bring the number of apostles back to their original twelve.  So they elect Matthais and bring him into the “inner circle;” thus, establishing the precedence that will become what we now call “apostolic succession.”  Still, the community waits, and so do we.

This seventh Sunday of Easter reminds us that, just like the original Christian community, we, too, are living in between the promise of Jesus’ return to finally establish the reign of God and it’s fulfillment.  In today’s readings, the community that Christ has called into being prepares to carry on its mission in the world.

On the Seventh Sunday after Easter, the Gospel passage in all three lectionary years is taken from the High Priestly Prayer (Jn. 17:1-26) that Jesus shared with his closest disciples on the night before his death. Whereas the few prayers in the Synoptic Gospels are short and addressed to Abba, this is an extended meditative prayer that contains a number of themes central to the work of Christ in John’s Gospel. In the verses for today, Jesus prays for the protection and unity of his followers as they are faced with the reality of living in a hostile world when he is no longer with them.

As the reading begins, Jesus tells God the Father that he has fulfilled the Lord’s will for him by making God’s name “known to those whom you gave me from the world” (v. 6). They in turn have believed the words of Jesus that he was sent by the Father; thus Jesus has been glorified in them.

During his earthly ministry, Jesus had watched over the community of followers God had entrusted to him, and none of them came to harm (except Judas, the one “destined to be lost,” v. 12). But now that Jesus will no longer be present physically, Jesus prays for the Father to protect them. He asks that they be one, even as Jesus and the Father are one (v. 11b).

As he is returning to his Father, Jesus speaks to the disciples of the joy he has known in constant awareness of the Father’s presence — praying that his disciples may know this same joy for themselves. “ … I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves” (v. 13). The message that Jesus has brought to the world, only to face rejection, he gives to the disciples. It is now their mission and identity as well. And since it has been derived from Jesus and not the world, enmity from the world is inevitable (v. 14).

It would be easy for the disciples to separate themselves from the world; but that is not what Jesus prays for them. Because he loves the unredeemed world just as his Father loves it, those who are now the stewards of his message must remain in the world. Apart from their witness, there would be little hope for others. God, who has been with Jesus, will now also preserve the disciples from evil. “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one” (v. 15).

Jesus goes on to pray that they may be made holy by the truth of the Father’s message they have received (v. 17). Just as the Father sent the Son into the world with the ultimate truth, Jesus now sends the disciples out with the same truth. By his own sacrifice he is consecrating — “sanctifying” — himself even now (v. 19), as he is about to face arrest. His consecration in ultimate truth is essential to their consecration in that same truth.

Christ’s revelation of himself to the disciples is now complete. Even though they will fail badly within the next few hours as Jesus is arrested, their witness to the Gospel will survive. Christ’s prayer is an ongoing intercession as he prays that the disciples be made holy by the truth they have received from him, as they are sent out into the world to bear witness.

In his final hours, Jesus prayed for the protection, unity, sanctification, and joy of the disciples as he prepared to leave this world to go to the Father. The disciples for whom Jesus prayed are our representatives; thus, as the Lord prayed for them and sent them, so he prays and sends us today as well.

For now, however, we wait anticipating the gift of Holy Spirit as promised.

Happy Easter!

Amen.

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Father George Worship Service

Sermon, May 9, 2021

How Do We Abide?

Easter VI (RCL Cycle B)/9 May 2021

Happy Easter!

Today Jesus is saying “farewell” to his disciples, and to us.  This Thursday is the Feast of the Ascension.  On that day, we will gather with the disciples on the crest of the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem and watch as Jesus vanishes from our sight.

In last week’s Gospel, we heard Jesus tell us to abide in him in the same way he abides in the Father.  We are instructed to live this way because this is the means by which our faith, even our lives are sustained and nurtured.  Thus, enabling our souls to grow deeper into that mystery we call grace.

There are two questions before us this morning and in actuality they are one and the same question.  The first is how do we live the abundant life Jesus promises?  The second is how do we live and abide in this abundant life?  Brother David Vyrhof of the Cowley Fathers puts it this way:

Why is it that we do not always experience abundant life? Perhaps it is because we do not know how to abide, how to live in union with Jesus, so that his life becomes our life, his strength our strength, his love our love.

Our Gospel passage today is a continuation of last week’s reading (Jn. 15:1-8) from Jesus’ farewell discourse to his disciples on the night before he died. Here we learn that God’s love for us as followers of Christ is in turn to be embodied through love for Christ and for one another. Jesus declares, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love” (Jn. 15:9). Moreover, just as Jesus has been faithful in keeping the Father’s commandments, his followers are to do likewise (v. 10).

Obedience and abiding are indistinguishable in the life of Jesus. From his Baptism, to the wilderness temptations, to healing the ill and infirm, to fraternizing with the outcast and unclean, to challenging Israel’s religious leaders, and finally to giving his life at Golgotha — Jesus’ life has been lived according to God’s will for him.

Such obedience, as a sign of genuine love, is also a source of great joy. Far from being oppressive, this obedience to God leads to a sense of purpose, wholeness, and fulfillment, so that believers’ “joy may be complete” (v. 11).

We are to express that Divine love by loving one another in the same way that Jesus loved us. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (v. 12; cf 13:34-35). This love is expressed by actions, not just words or feelings, and is seen most clearly in the way of self-sacrifice — in laying down one’s life for one’s friends (v. 13), as Jesus did for us.

When the disciples obey Jesus’ commandments and share his love, they are no longer “servants” — they are his “friends” (vv. 14-15). The slave or servant of even the most generous master does what is commanded by necessity, because a hierarchy of authority exists between them. Now a new relationship is established based on mutual commitment and trust. This friendship is a manifestation of Jesus’ steadfast love and a call to service and faithfulness.

In acknowledging the disciples as friends, Jesus has opened to them all that the Father has given him to reveal. He has withheld nothing — they know what he knows. They now have everything required for them to be fellow workers with God for the salvation of the world. They have matured in Christ from being servants who follow orders to becoming co-working friends.

Jesus goes on to make clear that their discipleship is not something they planned and executed. Jesus chose them and charged them with a purpose. John’s Gospel makes no stronger statement on the call to vocation than here. Moreover, they are chosen to bear fruit that should last (v. 16) as they carry on Jesus’ mission.

To this Jesus adds a promise. When a disciple brings his or her will into conformity with God’s will, which is love, the empowerment to love will be manifested in any petition. In this obedience, there is no limitation to what God can and will do in the life of the believer.

We have not chosen Jesus; he has chosen us. We may never understand the reasons for God’s choice. It is enough if we learn what we have been called to do: love one another and glorify the name of the Father by keeping the commandments given to us. “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another” (v. 17).

These words of Jesus are echoed in today’s Epistle, where we read that we are children of God by loving and obeying God’s commandments: “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments” (1 Jn. 5:3a). However, the commandments are not burdens to be borne, but are the way to life and fulfillment. Thus, the life obtained in Jesus’ name is a gain over the world for all who believe. “And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith” (v. 4b). This victory is the work of Jesus the Redeemer “who came by water and blood” (v. 6a) — the water of Baptism and the blood of his death and Resurrection. The presence of the Spirit further affirms the witness of Jesus as God’s Son. “And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth” (v. 6b; cf Jn. 15:26).

John Taylor, writing in The Go-Between God states:

Patriarchs, prophets and kings had from time to time acted as intercessors for the people, and Moses was the supreme example of this. Yet no figure in the Bible before the appearance of Christ seems to have depended upon the habit of communion with God as Jesus did. We tend to read back into the Old Testament and into the devotional patterns of other faiths those meanings which Jesus gave to the word “prayer,” and so conceal the fact that what was so characteristic of Jesus is almost unique amid the formal recitations which are the commonplace of religion everywhere else, including most of the churches. Other faiths have their mystics, but only in Jesus, I believe, can we find such spontaneous and personal communion with God combined with such passionate ethical concern for humanity. Both awareness of God and awareness of the world attain their zenith in him. …

And then, for the first time, through the quiet tones of human speech, the sound-waves of this world were stirred by that eternal converse which is ever passing between the Father and the Son in the Being of God. And since the third person of the Trinity is himself that communion which flows between the Father and the Son, the Spirit is the very breath of the prayer of Jesus. Immersed in the Go-Between Spirit, he cried Abba! And knew himself as the Beloved Son. And pouring out that Spirit upon the openness-to-each-other of his friends he shared with them the right to use the same naively bold address: Abba![i]

Now the saving grace of Christ was to be offered to all — not through external circumstances, but because of the faith of believers. The message of God’s love through Christ can truly be preached to the ends of the earth, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit and Baptism extended to all who hear and accept the love of God through Christ. This is indeed a “marvelous thing.”

Living the abundant life and abiding in Jesus is both simple and difficult at the same time.  All we have to do is to accept the unconditional love Jesus offers – that is the easy part.  The other thing we have to do is to love our brothers and sisters unconditionally, just like Jesus, thus we abide and build what our Presiding Bishop calls “The Beloved Community.”

Amen.

Happy Easter!

________________________________

[i] John Taylor, The Go-Between God (Oxford Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 225-226

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Worship Service

Maundy Thursday 2021

Our Maundy Thursday service

Join us Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021 for services at Church of the Mediator in Micanopy.

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Father George Worship Service

Sermon, March 28, 2021 – Palm Sunday

We resumed in-person services on Palm Sunday. We hope to be streaming services from the church in the near future. In the meanwhile, here is a transcript of Father George’s sermon from this past week.

Minding the Gaps

Palm Sunday (RCL Cycle B)/28 March 2021

Today is Palm Sunday and marks the beginning of the holiest week of our Christian year.  It’s also known as Pasion Sunday because the seminal event is a reading of the Passion narrative – this year from Mark’s Gospel.  Either way, it is a day which pulls us in many directions at the same time leaving us unsettled and confused as we try to make sense out of this week.  The events of Holy Week are necessary in order for us to begin to comprehend the wonder of Easter.  There is no skipping over the week – we have to go through it in order to arrive at Easter.

While traveling on trains, we are often reminded to mind the gap. It is a cautionary statement; to be careful of the distance between spaces, the holes and cracks where one might fall, trip, or be injured. I think this warning is implicit in the text, even while Paul warns explicitly of evil workers in this letter. Growing to be more like Jesus can be filled with pitfalls. When we do not have the mind of Jesus, we are likely to behave in ways that do not glorify God. When we do not have the mind of Jesus, there is discord, confusion, and destruction. How, then, do we keep our minds stayed on Jesus?

This Sunday, as if Jesus suddenly coming to his senses, enters Jerusalem, hailed by crowds who want to make him into the triumphal king who will save them from Rome. Jesus doesn’t care. He is already walking away from our shouts of hosanna. He’s moving toward the meal he most longs for, the last one, when he’ll kneel down like a servant to wash his friends’ feet. He’s walking toward our angry shouts of “Crucify him!” and toward our betrayals, as one by one we abandon him to torture and death; he is walking toward the edge of the world.

None of it can stop him. He jumps off the edge, on to the cross; and into God’s time. Life, eternal. The life we are living today.

Which means, in a pretty unsettling way, Holy Week can’t be about a story that took place in the past, or a mere remembrance, or a historical re-enactment. It’s about the kind of life Jesus makes possible for all of us right now.

That life demands a different mind than the one I generally use. My own mind wants to shout hosannas in a happy crowd waving palms, and later on be able to blame that other crowd, the Jews, for all the bad stuff that happens. My own mind wants to claim Jesus as my friend and me as his personal favorite and pretend I won’t betray him, later, like his other friends. I want to act as if I’m somehow separate from all the other suffering, sinful souls Jesus pours himself out for: disciples and executioners, cheering and jeering crowds; each one of you.

So it’s really hard for me to walk with Jesus in a manner worthy of the Gospel. Sure, I want forgiveness; but I don’t necessarily want to admit how violent my impulses can be, how capable I am of yelling “crucify.” Sure, I want new life, but I don’t want to sit abandoned in a garden, be humiliated and hurt and killed, to get there. I want to hang on to my own power, and save myself, rather than empty myself like Jesus. I know Palm Sunday’s exciting, but I also have a feeling it’s going to get pretty dark over the next week, before it’s time for Easter.

Except — except that we’re on God’s time now. And it turns out I don’t have to jump off the edge of the world alone, because Jesus already has. His abiding love is everywhere. The good news is that there’s nothing left for me to do through my own anxious efforts at self-improvement. There’s nothing left for any of us to do. God is always moving all humanity closer to God, with the endless love of our friend and savior Jesus lighting the way for us, from the cross.

Palm Sunday serves as a reminder that a triumphant beginning and ending is possible, indeed inevitable, though the journey between these places will be difficult. These seemingly impossible moments present us with opportunities to practice being humble and obedient, to extend forgiveness, and to have a willingness to change so that we can become more like Christ. Let us mind the gaps and not fall for things that would separate us from God or from each other. 

During this Holy Week, as we journey with Jesus to the cross, let us walk mindfully, being concerned about what concerns him. In this particularly challenging moment, let us be reminded that the God who meets us at the cross is the God who will give us resurrecting power. The Psalmist puts it: What is humanity that God is mindful of us? (Psalm 8:5)  But perhaps the question that we should carry with us is how we can be mindful of God as we follow Jesus and mind the gaps.

Amen.

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Music Worship Service

Worship Service, March 21, 2021, Lent 5

Prelude

Service

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