Ash Wednesday – February 14, 2018

‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’  Today we begin the season of Lent – we enter an ancient time of penitence and preparation.  Today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew is the gospel always read on Ash Wednesday.  And that last phrase – where your treasure is, there your heart will be also – asks us, or rather challenges us, to examine our priorities and reorder our lives.  What do we treasure?  What does God treasure?  What do we need to change to bring our priorities in line with God’s?

What does God treasure?

God treasures human beings.  God treasures us.  What an appropriate idea for St. Valentine’s day!  In John’s gospel Jesus says to Nicodemus, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him…’

Not to condemn, but to rescue, to redeem, to save us from ourselves and our small minds and hearts, from our failure to love.  Our sins, our failures, our separation from God comes from a failure to love God, to love others, or love to ourselves.  We do not treasure what God treasures.  Often we try to overcome our failure to love with specific actions that ‘prove’ our respectability and faithfulness to God.

Jesus calls us on behavior that’s only skin deep – our Gospel is from Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus warns us about looking pious. He’s challenges us to consider WHY we do what we do.  Giving to others, praying for others, denying oursevles or fasting, especially in service to others – these are all wonderful Christian disciplines.  And these actions help make the world a better place – closer to the Kingdom.  Any of them will strengthen our spiritual muscles and draw us closer to God and to each other.  But we always run the risk of doing the right things for the wrong reasons.  Are we looking for our egos to be stroked through our righteous living?  Or would we be fine if no one ever knew the good that we do?  Are our actions fueled by love?

When a lawyer asks Jesus which of the commandments is the most important, Jesus replies, ‘”You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’  The Law of Love is the law by which we are judged.  What does God treasure?  Human beings.  What ought we to treasure?  Each other.  It’s all about love.

The season of Lent gives us the chance to examine our lives and our priorities.  It’s all about making sure that our relationships are in right order.  Do we love God?  Do we treasure our relationship with God?  Do we have compassion for ourselves?  Do we love others, even those who might not love us?  Do we treasure our relationships?  Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.  Amen.

Posted on February 15, 2018 By Kristen

Last Epiphany – February 11, 2018

Today is the last Sunday of the Epiphany season.  This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent will begin.  Each year, on the last Sunday of Epiphany, we read the Gospel story of the transfiguration of Christ.  And in this lectionary year B, we have the odd story of Elijah and Elisha as Elijah moves into the realm of God.  Sandwiched in between the OT story and the gospel is the small paragraph from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, in which Paul talks about seeing the light of the gospel of Christ.

All three lessons talk about seeing.  And our gospel lesson includes hearing as well.  The voice in the cloud tells Peter, James and John, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’  Ears to listen and eyes to see what God is doing in the world seems to be the theme of the day.

I love the Elijah and Elisha stories.  The prophets were really crotchety characters and the stories told about them seem so lively.  Biblical scholars say that during the time of the Kings there were bands of ecstatics – people who prophesied and experienced God in ways we would call charismatic.  These are the groups that Elijah goes to meet with in our lesson.  And each time he stops, they pull Elisha aside and say,’you know, today’s the day that Elijah goes…’ And I imagine with increasing impatience Elisha replies, ‘I know.  Shut up!’ Elisha’s stubbornness, though, allows him to witness what happens to Elijah when the Lord takes him in the chariot of fire.  Eyes to see.  And with the seeing, God gives to Elisha a double share of Elijah’s spirit, a double share of the spirit of God which empowered Elijah.

Peter, James and John follow Jesus up the mountain and are given the privilege of seeing Elijah and Moses with a transfigured Jesus.  These three men were the closest of his disciples.  The transfiguration occurs near the end of Jesus’ life and it’s interesting that Jesus tells the three not to mention what they’ve seen until after the Son of man has risen from the dead.  I imagine that they don’t immediately say anything about what they’ve seen because they don’t understand what they’ve heard – the Son of man will be raised from the dead?  What?

The disciples have no idea, they don’t understand what’s about to happen to Jesus and happen to them.  Their world is about to turn upside down.  Soon after the transfiguration Jesus goes up to Jerusalem for his last Passover where he’s be taken and crucified, dies and is buried, and then rises again.  Not what the disciples expect to happen.  After the resurrection, I imagine that Peter, James and John talk about their experience on the mountain and say, ‘ah, that’s what he meant.’  And I imagine that their experience on the mountain gave them strength to do the work God gave them to do in establishing the church.  They had seen Jesus in all his glory.  They had heard the voice of God.

Where does that leave us?  Do we have eyes to see and ears to hear?  Have we seen?  Have we heard?  It may be that you have had a mountaintop experience, felt or seen God in strange and wonderful circumstances like James or John or Peter.  It may be that you’ve seen a chariot of fire. Maybe God has spoken to you through other people, through dreams or circumstances – like the woman who heard God speak to her through the billboard asking her to consider the priesthood.  Perhaps, like Elijah, you’ve been drawn closer to God through the sound of sheer silence.

God speaks to us in unexpected ways at unexpected times through unexpected means.  Peter, James and John heard God on the mountain.  God shows God’s power in unexpected ways at unexpected times through unexpected means.  Elijah rode a whirlwind into heaven.  The disciples saw the light and glory of Christ in the transfigured Jesus.  We must take the time to listen deeply and watch closely for God’s words and God’s actions.

Part of the reason we need each other is so that we can hear God’s voice and see God in action – Elisha sees God in and through Elijah.  The disciples see God in and through Jesus.  Paul says, ‘it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ to us.  So we have the light of Christ shining in us, shining into and out of our hearts, in order to be seen and known to the rest of the world.  We use our eyes to see and our ears to hear and then we, too, reflect the words and actions of God to the world around us.

Like Elisha, like James and Peter and John, may we watch closely and listen deeply for God in the world around us and in each other.  And then may the light of Christ be seen in and through us so that the world may know God’s power and love.  Amen.

Posted on February 15, 2018 By Kristen

Fifth Sunday in Epiphany – February 4, 2018

 

I was having breakfast with a group of clergy people a few years ago and the subject Sunday’s lessons, our lessons for today, came up.  Our group was made up of two male and two female clergy.  And one of the guys said, ‘How am I supposed to preach that Peter’s mother in law is healed so that she can get up and serve dinner?  It seems so sexist!’  We all laughed – and I think we all went back to our Bibles and commentaries and read and reread the passage.  Is that what the lesson is about?  Peter’s mother-in-law is healed so that she can serve the disciples?

It is the sequence of events, isn’t it?  Mark says that, “Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”  Peter’s unnamed mother in law is healed.  And then she gets up and goes back to work.  I believe there IS a cause and effect at work – but I don’t believe that she is healed SO THAT she can serve…  I think there is a different cause and effect at work; Peter’s mother in law received and then responded to grace.  She received the grace of healing from her fever.  And the gift gave her the freedom to give of herself with joy as a grace to others.

The theologian Paul Tillich, in his sermon, You are accepted, defines sin as anything that separates us from God, from our neighbors, or from ourselves.  And it is grace, he says, that reunites us again with God, with our neighbors, and with ourselves.

We live in a world that is fallen, where difficult things happen, where the people we love fall ill and die.  Separation occurs, often by our own hand, but sometimes just because we are human.  So that when Jesus heals Peter’s mother in law, her separation ends and that moment of grace reunites her with herself in wholeness and reunites her with those she loves and that love her.

Isaiah gives his description of God as one who sits above the inhabitants of the earth, who stretches the heavens out like a curtain and we are not able to hide anything from God, God does not grow faint or weary and his understanding is unsearchable.  This God is all-powerful and everlasting.  And to us, the faint and the powerless, God gives the grace to rise up again.  So that, in Isaiah’s words,  if we wait on the Lord, we will have our strength renewed, we will mount up like eagles, we will run and not be weary, we will walk and not faint.

Mount up with wings like eagles?  Run and not be weary?  Walk and not faint?  These are echoes of joy in his words.  The weary and the powerless receive grace – with newly powerful and strengthened hearts we move forward with joy.

This is what God wants to give us.  This is what Jesus gives to Peter’s mother in law.  Her fever is cured.  Her illness relieved.  She gets up, free again.  And with her freedom comes joy.  So she starts to make a fuss over her guests.  With a grateful heart for what she has been given, she sets to work.

Jesus came so that we could have abundant lives, filled with hope and joy and peace. In order for that to happen, in order for us to have abundant life, we have to bring our illnesses, our faintheartedness and our powerlessness to God.  Notice that the disciples tell Jesus that Peter’s mother in law is ill as soon as they learn of it.  And then later, the community begins to bring the sick to Jesus for healing.  We go to God with our struggles.  God responds to us with grace.  We find hope and peace and joy and we begin to share what we have been given.

I don’t know what all of our struggles are this morning.  It may be that we’re worried about the future.  It may be an illness that we suffer or someone we love suffers.  It may be the grief that comes from deep loss.  It may be remorse for what we have done or left undone.  Whatever it is, we can take it to God, for whom it is no surprise.

Sometimes, when we turn to God, when we give our burdens to God, the burdens are removed, taken away.  Illnesses are healed, our futures are made more certain, we know we are forgiven and reunited with those we love, and mourning is turned to joy.  These are wonderful moments when we receive grace and feel like we can fly.  Thank God the nightmare is over!  We are grateful and joyful and our work becomes easy and delightful and the love of God in us spills over onto everyone and everything around us.

But God doesn’t always fix everything the way we’d like when we’d like.   We have to go through the wilderness to get to the Promised Land.  We have to go through Good Friday to get to Easter.  We still live in a fallen world with heartache and death as our companions.  At the least, when we lay our burdens at the feet of Jesus, when we allow God to help us with our pain and sorrow, our fear and doubt, the burden is easier to bear because God carries the bulk of it.  We are not alone.  God walks with us, reminding us we are beloved, encouraging us along the way.  We walk without fainting.  We run without getting weary.  We are freed to keep on going, grateful for the company, grateful for God’s love, sometimes even with a hint of joy around the edges.

Frederick Buechner, in his book Wishful Thinking, writes, “The grace of God means something like:  Here is your life.  You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.  Here is the world.  Beautiful and terrible things will happen.  Don’t be afraid.  I am with you.  Nothing can ever separate us.  It’s for you I created the universe.  I love you.  There’s only one catch.  Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.”

May we have enough faith to turn to God with our fears and struggles.  May we find the grace we need waiting for us there.  And then, may that grace spill over onto everyone around us.  Amen.

 

 

 

Posted on February 13, 2018 By Kristen

Epiphany 4 – January 28, 2018

 

We are in the second half of the season of Epiphany, the season that is all about discerning who Jesus really is – from the birth stories where Jesus is recognized as a king by the Magi to the Transfiguration, which we read about on the last Sunday of Epiphany, our gospel lessons revolve around the different groups of people who begin to discern what God is doing through Jesus.  I use the word ‘discern’ intentionally.  To discern is to come to know, to come to understand a thing or situation or a person.  It’s another word, like epiphany, that describes an ‘aha’ moment.  The people who come into contact with Jesus begin to see, to discern, to understand who Jesus is.

St. David’s is in a season of discernment, too.  We are not discerning who Jesus is as much as we have set out to discover who we are and what God is calling us to do.  We are looking for ‘aha’ moments over the next few years.  Who are we?  Why are we here?  What are we going to do about it?  I think that our lessons for today have a few things to teach us about the process of discernment.

We’ll start with the Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy.  Moses is nearing the end of his life; the people of Israel are getting ready to leave the wilderness and enter the Promised Land.  Moses is in the process of giving them God’s instructions and his own last many thoughts.  

In our passage for today, Moses is reassuring the people that God will not leave them without counsel.    “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet,” Moses says.  

The story of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness is like and unlike our story.  We too are being led by God – that’s the first thing I want us to remember.  We ARE being led by God.  But unlike the Israelites, we have the Spirit of God with us.  Remember, before the day of Pentecost people didn’t have the Holy Spirit to empower them except on rare occasions. We read in the OT about certain prophets or certain heroes who were anointed with the Spirit for a specific time or a specific task.

Most, if not all of us, here today have been baptized.  And by virtue of our baptism, we received the Holy Spirit, who will guide us and help us in our discernment.  We have the voice of God, the presence of God with us as we travel.  Each of us is able to discern what God is doing and what God wants us to do – at least in part.  That’s why it’s so important that we work together to discern what God is doing and where God is leading us as a community.  The more we talk to each other, the more we listen to each other, the better able we will be to hear God’s voice and see our way clearly.

Which brings me to the second thing I’d like us to consider from our lessons.  Paul writes his first letter to the Corinthian church to answer some questions they have raised and to discuss certain behaviors among them that Paul says need to be changed.  In our passage for today, Paul is answering a question about eating food that had been offered to idols.  Now, I realize that we don’t have that issue facing us, but Paul gives the church a warning that I think we should also heed.  He says, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.  Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.”  It sounds very circular – Paul often circles around his thoughts and makes plays on words that don’t translate well for us.  Here is what Eugene Peterson does with this passage in his translation:  “We sometimes tend to think we know all we need to know to answer these kinds of questions – but sometimes our humble hearts can help us more than our proud minds.  We never really know enough until we recognize that God alone knows it all.”  Humble hearts help us more than proud minds…

Yes, each of us has the Holy Spirit and God speaks to each of us.  It’s when we are most sure that we know what God is up to that we are most in danger of missing what God is doing.  Our proud minds are sometimes closed, our ears no longer carefully listening to what God is speaking through others.  We need our humble hearts more than our proud minds as we move through this season of discernment.  God will work in and through our community – no one person has all the answers.

And the last thing I want us to remember comes from our Gospel lesson in Mark.  The community in Capernaum is gathered in the synagogue, listening to Jesus teach.  Did you notice that the only one who clearly recognizes Jesus is the crazy man?   Everyone else in the synagogue is astounded and amazed at Jesus and his words.  Who is this guy??  The crazy man says, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”  

So the last point to remember is – God seems to speak through the most unlikely people and the most unlikely situations.  The places we turn to, to help us discern, may not be the places we hear God’s truth, God’s voice most clearly.  God tends to surprise.

I serve on the Commission on Ministry for our diocese – we help folks discern a call to ordained ministry.  When I lived downstate, I served on the Commission on Ministry in the Diocese of New York, as well.  At one of the discernment conferences downstate, I interviewed a woman who talked about how she came to discern God’s call to the priesthood.  She said she’d had this feeling that God was calling her out of the life she’d had, asking her to do something more than the work she was already doing in the church.  She wasn’t sure what to do. One day while she was driving her car down a familiar highway, praying about this, she passed a sign for the Catholic church that read…  Have you considered the priesthood?  She told us that she started laughing and crying and had to stop her car to get ahold of herself.  This woman heard God speak through a billboard aimed at Catholic men…

We are in a season of discernment.  Let’s remember that God is with us, that God’s Spirit will lead and guide us.  Let’s remember that God uses all of us and each of us in this discernment process – that we need to listen to each other and not hold on to our own ideas too tightly – humble hearts, not proud minds.  And let’s remember that God tends to surprise.  Answers might come from the places and people we least expect.  May our hearts be humble and our eyes and ears wide open.  Amen.

Epiphany 3 – January 21, 2018

 

Jonah received a call from God to go to the people of Ninevah.  Eventually, he answered that call.  The people of Nineveh received a call to repentance from God and they repented and answered God’s call.  Andrew and Peter, James and John received a call to follow Jesus and they answered his call by leaving their nets and following.  God is calling all of us and each of us to join God’s project of building the kingdom.  How are we answering?

In the church it’s easy to get sidetracked into discussions about who believes what and what they ought to believe or discussions about our attendance or lack thereof or our finances or lack thereof.  And we often think of God as judge of our lives – the one who knows who we really are and is sadly disappointed.  We imagine that God is outside of us, outside of the world we inhabit.  If we’re very spiritual, we invite God in, we believe we have added God to our world.  Personal savior, personal God.

When God calls us, though, God is calling us out of ourselves into the life of God.  Accepting God’s call on our lives involves asking God in, recognizing Jesus as Lord and Savior, as we affirm in our baptismal vows, AND joining up with God’s vision of who we could be and what the world could be.

When Jesus calls Andrew, Peter, James and John, Jesus has a vision of what his ministry will be, what these disciples will become, what they will accomplish.  When Andrew, Peter, James and John leave their nets and follow Jesus, they have no idea what their future holds.  They leave their lives to join up with the vision Jesus embodies.

God’s call on us today is exactly the same.  To be a disciple, to answer God’s call requires us to leave behind the lives we thought we were going to live.  Given where the world is today, maybe it’s not such a bad idea to leave it all behind.  God has a vision, a dream for what we can accomplish for the kingdom and calls us to join up with that vision, that dream.  God sees the world clearly.  God has a realistic assessment of where the world is.  God knows.  But rather than being just deeply disappointed by our state of affairs, God knows the best that is in us, too.  God longs to inspire and challenge us to join something larger than ourselves – to participate in God’s vision, God’s dream for the world.

What is God’s vision for St. David’s?  What is God hoping to draw out of you individually and out of all of us as a community?

In the Gospels we read about the disciples and their call and their struggle to understand what Jesus wanted from them and their struggle to be faithful and brave.  We don’t always read all of Jonah’s story.  Parts of it are very familiar – Jonah is called by God to preach repentance to Ninevah (an enemy city of Israel.)  Jonah does not want to go and hops a ship to get out of town.  Except, the ship runs into terrible weather and in typical fashion for the time, the shipmates look for someone aboard who has angered the gods and has caused the foul weather – someone who can be thrown overboard to appease the gods.  Jonah fesses up, gets thrown overboard, and gets swallowed by a whale.  Which allows him to rethink his life’s choices and decide to go to Ninevah.  Our portion of Jonah’s story this morning reports how successful Jonah was in his mission.  What we don’t read after our portion this morning, what we might not remember is how Jonah responds to his success.  Is he happy?  Does he rejoice at Ninevah’s repentance?  

No.  He goes off to sulk, angry that the enemy has turned from their wicked ways to follow God, angry that God is merciful and compassionate.  Jonah not only has to learn to follow God’s leading, he has to learn to love as God loves – without reservation, without regard to nationality or social status or education or wealth or whatever other distinctions we might notice.

That’s the challenge for us, when we commit to God’s vision, to love as God loves, to be a visible sign of Christ’s love.  People who are unlovely, irritating, poor, dirty, annoying, unstable, and sometimes just like us, are anxious to know that God loves them and when they find out that we offer God’s love, they will want to be a part of us.  And if we are truly committed to loving as God loves and being that visible sign, we will have to include them in our community…

God called Jonah and he reluctantly followed.  Jesus called Peter and Andrew, James and John, and they immediately followed.  All of them were changed by God’s call and each of them changed the world.

Now it’s our turn.  God is calling us.  How will we answer?  Will we run away?  Can we leave our nets and follow?  Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Lord Jesus Christ, give us grace to answer ‘yes.’  Amen.

 

Epiphany 2 – January 14, 2018

 

This morning we have a series of call stories in our readings – the call of the boy Samuel, Jesus’ call of Philip, and Philip’s call to Nathaniel.  Three different calls that come in three different ways.  Each of us has a call from God.  And every faith community has a call.  Sometimes the call that comes is a lifelong project.  And sometimes the call is for a specific task at a specific moment in time.  I have another call story to tell you…

Ten years ago I was called back to work with the parish that had sent me off to seminary, St. Mary’s, Scarborough.  St. Mary’s had had many wonderful years of ministry, but when I was asked to work with them they’d had four or five years of serious disagreement and infighting and they were in danger of closing.  This parish that had had three services on Sunday morning, with about 200 people in attendance was now down to 20 people on a ‘good’ Sunday.  They were struggling.  

We spent the first few months thinking about who they had been and who they had become.  They wanted to stay together as a community of faith, but weren’t sure they had the means or the energy to keep going.  What they DID know was that they had a call to serve and they wondered with me what it was that God wanted them to do.  Around Thanksgiving, Fr. Peter Sabune asked to see me.  Fr. Sabune was the Chaplain at Sing Sing Prison, just down the hill from St. Mary’s.  He had a request for the parish.  A number of the men had missed the cut off for the Angel Tree program – the prison ministry that sends Christmas gifts to inmates’ children – and Fr. Sabune hoped that we could help him meet the needs of what he expected would be five or six men.  Sure!  Of Course!  This was just the kind of thing we were looking for – a way that our small group of people could make the world a bit better through sharing God’s love.

A week later, Fr. Sabune showed up with a list of names and an apologetic look.  He told us that as he began to gather names, more men asked to be added to the list.  He did not have 5 names.  He had 50.  And it wasn’t just one gift per name.  Most had more than one gift request.  Oh no.  There were only fifteen of us.  This was not what we were expecting.  We took a deep breath and then we took the list from him.  We said we would do our best.v

Friends from other parishes heard what we were doing and asked if they could help.  Neighbors heard what we were doing and asked if they could help.  We coordinated the buying and wrapping of about 125 gifts.  And when we lugged them over to the UPS store to get them mailed off, I discovered that our local store was run by a couple of Afghan refugees.  When they asked what we were up to, I explained who I was and what the parish had done.  And then one brother got teary-eyed.  And he told me that the generosity of Americans never ceased to amaze him.  ‘Americans change the world,’ he said.  He spoke of his gratitude in coming to America and how he and his family had been embraced and supported by so many people.  And then he paid for about half of the boxes we had to send, adding his own generosity to the gifts of so many others.

God is always at work in the world.  Sometimes God’s work is obvious and at other times, it’s hard to see that anything good is going on.  Our call is to seek out where God is working or where God wants to work and to join God there.  Sometimes the work God calls us to seems impossible.  Sometimes, it IS impossible.  And yet, when God calls, love will find a way.

Samuel has an awful, wonderful call in our OT reading this morning.  Things were very dark in the nation of Israel just before this story takes place.  Eli is the priest, the leader of the people.  And the second chapter of I Samuel says, ‘Now the sons of Eli were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people.’  It goes on to say that they took their portion of the food people brought for sacrifice before it was given to God.  Eli knew what they did but seemed unable to stop them.  Yet he never took the work away from them.

Samuel lived in the temple with Eli and his sons because his mother had promised God that her first-born would be given back to God’s work.  So Samuel was brought up by Eli to be a priest.  Samuel is sleeping in the temple in our reading today, because someone had to stay with the flame and make sure that the lamp of God stayed lit through the night.  

The imagery we’re given here reinforces what a difficult time it was – the Word of the Lord was rare, visions were not widespread, Eli is old and cannot see clearly and it’s night in the temple of God where Samuel is keeping watch.  Into this darkness, the still, small voice of God calls Samuel’s name.  Samuel hears, but he’s confused about who is calling him.  And it takes the priest, Eli, three times to realize that Samuel is being called by God.  Eli is unable to see or hear God clearly.

Most Israelites around Eli and Samuel would be wondering what God was doing or if God was doing anything at all.  God was at work, calling a young boy to be the next prophet of Israel.  God was at work giving Samuel a message that would be a difficult one for him or any young person to bear – a prophecy about the death of his master’s sons and the fall of his house.  But young Samuel is faithful to God’s call.  And eventually, after many years, Samuel will anoint Israel’s first king, Saul, and then anoint Israel’s greatest king, David.  No one would have believed that the young boy sleeping in the Temple would be used by God to bring in Israel’s glory days so many years later.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus begins calling his disciples, in this case, Philip and Nathaniel.  Neither of these men fully understood what Jesus was asking of them or what they were being called to do.  Nathaniel is amazed that he’s been seen by Jesus but Jesus tells him – that’s nothing.  Just wait!  You can’t imagine, Nathaniel, all of what you will see and do.  Neither Philip nor Nathaniel had any inkling of what God was doing in the world through Jesus or what God would do in the world through them.

Tradition says that Philip worked as a missionary and was martyred at Hieropolis in what is now Turkey.  Nathaniel, also known as Bartholomew in the other gospels, worked as a missionary too.  There are traditions that place his death either near the Caspian Sea or in what we now know as India.  I doubt either man ever imagined that their encounter with Jesus would lead them so far from their homes in Bethsaida.  

God is still at work among us here.  I know these seem like dark days, I know that I’m saddened by the language used about other nations by our president, language that fails to see and honor others as beloved children of God.  Somehow we have to hear what’s being said and at the same time remember the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we honor tomorrow, and his message about building the ‘beloved community.’  Where is God at work around us?  Where can we join in?  What are we being called to do?

God knows each of us and calls us each by name, just as Samuel and Philip and Nathaniel were called.  God has work for us that will lead – who can imagine where?  God is at work in the world.  May we listen for the call and then follow where God leads.  Amen.

First Sunday in Epiphany – January 7, 2018

Welcome to Epiphany!  Last week’s gospel reading from John, that beautiful poetic passage about the meaning of the Incarnation, speaks of Christ coming to “dwell with us.”  Eugene Peterson’s translation of John’s gospel says that “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”  Last week I heard David Bentley Hart’s translation – “And the Logos became flesh and pitched a tent among us.”  Pitched a tent.  The God of the Universe took on skin and pitched a tent with us…  And we’ve spent the last two thousand years trying to figure out what God was up to in taking on skin and pitching his tent with us.

Epiphany is the season in which the Church lays out the stories about the Incarnation – who knew what when and what did they see?  The season begins with the visitation by the magi – the first revelation to the world at large that God has come to dwell with us. Another of the defining stories of the Epiphany season is the baptism of Jesus – our gospel reading for today.

A definition of the word ‘epiphany’ is ‘a moment when you suddenly feel that you understand, or suddenly become conscious of, something that is very important to you.’  The baptism of Jesus becomes just such an event for those who witnessed it.  Jesus meets his cousin John down by the riverside.  In the other gospel accounts, John doesn’t want to baptize Jesus – John feels that he’s the one who needs to be baptized by Jesus.  But Jesus insists and John baptizes.  

There was already a tradition of washing as a cleansing act within Judaism – we talked about this during Advent.  John’s baptism was a twist on the ritual cleaning familiar to the Jews of his time – it’s just that John’s baptism occurred publicly in the Jordan River.  Symbolically, the people went into the water guilty, unclean, dirty and would rise again forgiven, newly cleansed and ready to begin anew.

Jesus goes to the Jordan for his own baptism.  This is an unusual action for someone we say was sinless.  What does Jesus have to be cleansed of?  When Jesus comes up out of the water, something different happens.  The Spirit descends and a voice declares Jesus the beloved son with whom God is well-pleased.  Here is the ‘aha’ moment, the sudden comprehension into the reality and essential meaning of Jesus.  He is God’s beloved son.  God’s own Spirit rests on him and with him.  Lots of people went to John for baptism.  No one else’s baptism looks like what happened to Jesus.

In Christ’s baptism, God begins to show the world that God longs to dwell with us, to move into our neighborhood, to pitch tent with us; the Holy Spirit longs to guide and teach us.  Yes, Jesus was already God’s Son before his baptism.  And yes, the Spirit of God was already with him before his baptism.  But through John’s baptism of Jesus, we become conscous of, we begin to understand how God indwelt Jesus and how God longs to indwell us.

At Pentecost, the baptism of John is transformed into the baptism of Jesus – we still say that baptism reflects our commitment to Christ, our own going down into the water and coming up forgiven, cleansed, and ready to begin anew.  But we also recognize that our baptism, like the baptism of Christ, includes God’s commitment to us – the Holy Spirit given to us, dwelling within us, pitching tent with us to guide and guard us on the journey.

At our baptisms we are anointed with oil and told that we have received the Holy Spirit and are marked as Christ’s own forever.  We receive the light of Christ, the Spirit is passed on to us.  We become part of the light of Christ in the world.

Just as Jesus will go on to live his life as his Father wished and as the Spirit led, so we are called, by our baptism, to go on and live our lives as God wishes and as the Spirit leads.  What is our call?  Where is the Spirit leading us?

At the least, we have some idea what the Spirit, what God expects from us.  Instead of the Nicene Creed, we’ll renew our baptismal promises this morning, as a reminder of God’s desire for us and our promises to God.  It’s good to be reminded, from time to time, of what God expects from us and why.  It’s good to be reminded of what the conscious living out of Christ’s light looks like.

You’ll remember that no where in our covenant do we promise to be perfect.  In fact, with each promise we make we recognize our need for God’s power to fulfill it.  “I will, with God’s help” we say, as a reminder that we lean on the Spirit of God within us to empower us.

Keeping our promises, living as the light of Christ in the world, is important, not because God is keeping a list of who’s naughty and who’s nice, but because we carry the light of Christ.  And unless we are living as God leads, others will not have their own Epiphany moments.  We carry the light of Christ, we are God’s hands and heart and feet in the world.  We are the containers of God’s love and we are called to share the light of Christ, the love of God with the world, so that the world will know that God has pitched tent with all of us.

May we live into the covenant we’ve made with God, that the world may be transformed, seeing the reality of Jesus through the light of Christ in us.  Amen.

Advent III December 17, 2017

Are you ready? Is the house decorated; the presents bought, wrapped and sent? Baked your cookies, made the candy, cards sent out? Are you exhausted? Christmas is coming – it’s almost upon us…

There is an air of expectation. Christmas is almost here. The Christ-child is about to be born among us again, ready or not.

The first-century Jews of Palestine had an expectation that something was near – possibly, hopefully, the end of the world as they knew it. After much infighting, Palestine had found some peace with their country divided between Herod the Great’s sons. But Roman rule was hard, taxes were high, and the religious leaders were divided amongst themselves as how to properly worship, how to best maintain their Jewishness within the Roman society surrounding them. Supposed Messiahs and Prophets rose up only to be brought down by the Roman authorities. Still – there was a feeling that something was going to happen.

John the Baptizer’s ministry finds success down by the River Jordan. People from all around the country stop by to hear him, to watch him baptize those who accept his words and repent of their sins. Somehow John’s baptism is needed, even though the people could go to the Temple and offer their sacrifices for the forgiveness of their sins. Somehow, John the Baptizer’s preaching convinced people that they need something more than what the Temple offered.

No wonder the Priests and Levites come down by the river to see what’s was going on. Who are you and what are you doing? That’s what they want to know. Who is John? What is he doing? Is he another false prophet? Another so-called ‘Messiah?’ What are his claims for himself? Does he claim to be Messiah? Elijah? A Prophet?

There was an expectation among the Jews of Palestine that God would send someone to help them, because every time Israel was in captivity, every time Israel found herself under oppressive rule, the people would cry out, and God would send someone to help set them free. There was an expectation that Messiah would come and free them. But there were also rumors that one of the great Prophets – or one very like Elijah or Moses – would rise up again and help lead the people to freedom.

John’s answer to the priests and Levites echoes Isaiah, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.’ I am not the one, John says, but I am preparing the way for him. He’s almost here. It’s time to get ready.

While John’s message didn’t sit well with the priests and Levites who heard him, his message was good news. Good news for the people around him. Good news for us.

The role of the prophet is to proclaim the truth – the truth about our lives and the truth about what God has done and will do for us. John told the truth about himself. He held up the mirror for the people who came to hear him – he showed them clearly that their lives needed God’s grace and forgiveness and then he baptized them in the river, symbolically washing them clean and making them ready to meet the One who was coming.

We are in desperate need of the Good News found in the birth and life and death and resurrection of Jesus. We are in difficult straits. We try to live good lives, we try to do good things. And yet, so much of the time, it’s not clear that our actions are good or helpful or what God wants… From a simple decision – paper or plastic – which means either we chop down trees or create a petroleum product which will live for years beyond us to the more difficult questions – how do we stay in right relationship with each other? What steps can we take to use less of the world’s water, energy, money, resources, so that our sisters and brothers around the world will have enough to survive. What does God want from us? How do we know when we’re doing the wrong things? The right things?

John the Baptizer comes up out of the River Jordan and reminds us that we can trust God. While John holds the mirror and reminds us that we are not ready, John also reminds us that God has a plan. God’s Son, Jesus, will come and live among us and teach us that God loves us no matter what. John knows, and Jesus will teach us, that all of our sins, all the things we do wrong, all the things we thought were the right thing that turn out to be the wrong thing – all of our failures can be forgiven. No matter what. We can always be forgiven. We can always go under the waters of baptism and come up clean. We can always be transformed by the love and forgiveness of God into the people God created us to be.

John the Baptizer doesn’t tell people that once they’re baptized their lives will be easy. Jesus will tell his disciples that it’s difficult to be a follower – ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,’ Jesus says. And yet, Jesus will also tell us, ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’ John preaches and Jesus declares that God expects everything from us and gives us everything we need. High expectations and the only real security to be found anywhere come from God.

The One whose sandals won’t be untied by John is the One who comes to bring us peace and the good news that we are deeply loved. We are forgiven and deeply loved. Regardless of what remains on our to-do lists – we are forgiven and deeply loved. So stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us! Amen.

Second Sunday of Advent – December 10, 2017

I don’t think I’ve told you any of my old house stories yet, have I? I love old homes! My home in Syracuse is one of the oldest I’ve lived in, built in 1929. But the story I have this morning is about the home we owned in Ossining, down state New York. The house was built in 1935, so it had lovely plaster walls and it had crown moldings, the yard had mature trees and shrubs. It was my favorite house on the block and I was delighted when it came on the market at a time we were looking to buy. I lived in that house for 20 years.

When we moved in it was in good condition. A few rooms really needed a coat of paint – and because the boys’ room was pink, they demanded we paint their room, too. The master bedroom was painted a light beige, it had recently been repainted and seemed in good shape, so it was the last room we thought about painting. We moved the furniture in and all was good.

Except, a bit later we noticed some cracks in the wall. And when we inspected, we discovered that it wasn’t the wall that was cracking but wall paper. And when we dug a little deeper we found that the room had originally been papered (in 1935) and then painted over and over down through the years. As time went on, chunks of the painted paper began coming off of the walls.

So we had a dilemma. We could rearrange the furniture to hide the missing paint and paper. We could paint the whole thing again and still rearrange the furniture so that any unusual looking wall would be hidden. Or we could scrape all the wallpaper off of the walls and begin again. There was the easy way, the sort of easy way, and then there was the difficult way, which was also the right way long term – because eventually that wallpaper would have to be removed.

I reasoned that if the paper was coming off in chunks, the whole thing wouldn’t be that hard to remove, right? Sure. I love painting and wallpapering. I had already redone the dining room, where the paper had been applied properly with sizing and was very easy to strip. So I took on the task of getting the old painted wallpaper off of the master bedroom walls. In some places it was quite easy to remove the paper. But most of the paper was very attached to the wall. And if there was such a thing as sizing and ‘easily removable’ paper in 1935, it had long ceased to be easily removable. I used a putty knife to get most of the paper off and I gave up counting the hours it took.

The end result of all my work was great. We had fresh walls and could start over – and so I did. The room was beautiful for many years after.

Preparing those bedroom walls for a new coat of paint reminds me of preparing our lives for the coming of the Christ. There is the easy way, the sort of easy way and then there is the difficult way, which of course is the ‘right’ way to prepare.

John the Baptizer came among the people of first century Palestine calling for them to repent and be baptized. Washing and baptism has always been a symbol of cleansing and being made new.
The Midrash, the Jewish rabbinic commentary on the Old Testament, says that after being banished from Eden, Adam sat in a river that flowed from the garden. This was an important part of his repentance process, of his attempt at return to his original perfection. And Exodus tells us that before giving the commandments at Mt. Sinai, the Israelites were commanded to wash themselves in order to meet God. So John the Baptizer carried on the tradition, calling the people to repent and be baptized, in order to prepare themselves to meet God.

And now we are called to prepare ourselves to meet Christ this Advent season. We might think that we can take the easy way or the not so easy way of preparation by moving the furniture of our lives around, or throwing on a new coat of paint. But the hard way and the only way to prepare ourselves to meet God is by getting rid of the old paper and scrubbing ourselves clean.
Repentance is not a popular word. Admitting we have wronged someone is just not an easy thing to do. Most of us prefer to ‘settle,’ to pay whatever price we need to make restitution without actually having to confess. Oh my! We are in the midst of a societal moment right now, with some men’s treatment of women coming into the light.

How many stories will we hear over the course of the next few months where payments have been made and we still hear claims of innocence. Or we hear the easier apologies: “I’m sorry for whatever I might have done to offend.” Or “I’m sorry if you think what I have said ordone is offensive.” This is what it means to paint over or just move the furniture around. It sounds like everything is okay, but we have not made a confession or repented. It’s a whitewash.

Removing the old paper comes when we confess – that hard work of admitting what we have done specifically and asking for forgiveness – and then taking steps to change our ways. Repentance is what is needed in preparation for coming face to face with God.

What do we have in us that we would be embarrassed for God to see and know? These are the things for which we need to repent. In truth, God already knows who we are and what we have done. Repentance isn’t so that God knows who we are. Repentance is for us. So that we admit to ourselves who we really are. It is hard work to look in the mirror and face ourselves, without excuse. The most wonderful thing is that God wishes to meet with us and to dress us in Godly clothing and God can’t do that as long as we cling to our old rags, as long as we think that throwing on a new scarf or tie or a new coat of paint will be good enough and no one will notice the paper falling off in chunks.
That wild prophet, John the Baptizer, is calling for us to examine our lives, to get prepared for the One who is coming to live with us. It’s time to get ready.

Let’s pray. Merciful God, who sent your messenger John to preach repentance and prepare the way, give us grace to heed his warning and forsake our sin, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer, Amen.

Advent I – December 3, 2017

Today is the first Sunday in Advent. Here we are, on this first Sunday, caught between what has been and what will yet be. The first of Advent is always like that – we look back and we look forward. We begin preparing for the first coming of the Christ-child. And we continue to prepare for the second coming of the King in his glory. And… we bake cookies, decorate the house, host parties, go to parties, buy gifts for all those who are dear to us and for some who are not so dear.

In all of our activity, it’s easy to lose sight of what this season is all about – preparation for the advent, the coming of the Christ. Preparation for the coming of Christ, not through cleaning and baking and buying. Preparation through keeping awake to what God is doing in the world. Preparation through making room in our lives for God to work in us and through us.

Jesus knew how easy it would be for his disciples to get sidetracked – sometimes I think the term ‘attention deficit’ is just another term for ‘human being.’ We are easily distracted from the important by the immediate. We are easily distracted from hard work by fun. We get lulled to sleep by the routine of life and we forget to keep our eyes peeled – watching and waiting for God’s future.

Now that we’re in Advent, we have also entered a new liturgical year. So our gospel readings move from Matthew into Mark. Mark’s gospel is the shortest of the gospels. His is the most direct – the least descriptive of the four. In Mark, things are always happening, always moving. But Mark isn’t the only gospeller to include Jesus’ warning that we should keep awake, keep working for the kingdom. We just ended our study of Matthew’s gospel with the last three parables Matthew records which are all on the same topic – living faithfully while awaiting Christ’s return. We enter our readings from Mark at about the same place in the story – very near the end of Jesus’ life, again where Jesus is preparing his disciples to live without him.

So how should we enter into Advent? How can we live into the command to ‘keep awake’ this year?

It will take some discipline, but here are my suggestions:

First, tune out the crazy.

Tune out the crazy because this year, as in almost every year but it seems worse this year, the world is chaotic and contradictory. What should we do about Korea? Or Syria? Should we be arming the Kurds? What should we do about the racial divide in our country? What should we do about the increasing separation between rich and poor? How many people are coming for Christmas? Do we have enough saved for retirement? Will the kids be okay? The news continues to tell us that the middle class is shrinking and more people are going to lose their health care, while at the same time the newspapers and television and radio are full of ads telling us to buy, buy, buy… It’s just too much. And we don’t have to listen. Tune it out. Let it go.

Second, let go of what has been. 2017 has been a year of loss in many different ways for many of us. Maybe you, like me, lost someone you love. Maybe your finances are not what you need them to be. Maybe your health is not what you hoped it would be. Maybe your relationships are not what you had hoped. Whatever the sorrows and losses and disappointments of this last year have been – let them go. Give those losses, those hurts and disappointments to God. God can take what we’ve lost and redeem it. God can take what we’ve lost and bring new life.

2018 will not be the same as 2017. We know for sure that there will be someone new sitting in the office – we don’t yet know who that will be, but we know Karen is retiring. You may love the changes. You may hate the changes. You may love some and hate others – what’s guaranteed is that there will be change. So begin now to let this version of St. David’s go. New life only comes through the death of the old. God will take what we’ve lost and redeem it. God will take what we’ve lost and bring new life.

Tune out the crazy. Let go of what has been.

Last, we must wait patiently for our redemption. The Christ-child will be born, whether we’ve completed everything on our to-do list or not. How much better for us to prepare our hearts and lives for God’s indwelling rather than the distractions of clean houses and perfect gifts. I KNOW the to-do lists are important – my own is long and I DO want to clean and bake and decorate and give good gifts. But the most important work we can do this season is not found on that long to-do list. The most important work we can do is to remember that God longs to dwell in us, longs for deepened relationship with us. Every Advent, every Christmas, God waits for us to make more space in our hearts and minds for our relationship with him. God longs to take our burdens and set our hearts free. God can only live and breathe and work in us to the extent that we allow God into our lives. Our patient waiting involves listening to God’s voice, making room for the Spirit by stilling our own spirits, slowing down the busyness of our lives so that God’s stillness can heal us.

Tune out the crazy. Let go of what has been. Wait patiently for our redemption. When we feel the anxiety and tension rising, let’s take a deep breath. The most important work we can do this season is to listen for God’s voice, make room for God’s Spirit, and allow God’s stillness to heal us. Then Christ will be born anew in us and everything else will take care of itself. Amen.