What we hear in the silence

The attention of the world is once again on horrific violence and mass murder that occurs weekly, and almost daily, across the United States. We are bombarded with differing ideologies, political philosophies and varying interpretations of constitutional intent and the law. We hear about the perpetrator’s life, and second guesses about his connections & motives; questioning of decisions made by employers, FBI, and law enforcement.
I think it safe to say that most of us are distraught by these events and the unwillingness of our leaders and our society to find common ground that could begin to reduce these occurrences locally and nationally.
Instead we have ongoing debates and bloodletting – name calling, we watch the development of conspiracy theories and accusations on all sides.

In my father’s pharmacy there was a set of posters showing the development of modern medicine. One of them was about that curious treatment of sickness called blood-letting. I asked a doctor friend of my father about this practice. He commented on this 18 & 19th century medical practice. “It wasn’t really effective”, he told me, “but it focused the patient’s attention on something other than their ailment until they either got better or they died.”
That, I believe, is where we are in the United States. We are not working together to find a way forward towards the kind of society we want – instead we are engaged in aggressive debate, and accusations which take up our time and energy blaming others and leaving us tired and distraught.

In Sundays first reading Elijah is also tired and distraught. He has been threatened with death by Jezebel the powerful queen. His fear is so great that he has fled to the wilderness and hoped to die peacefully under the tree. Elijah had given up because he did not see a future – he only saw threats and a painful death.
He spends a long time going to the mountain; a place where one could find God. He wanted to find where God was, in all this distress. Elijah ends up hiding in a cave where the word of the Lord came to him asking “Where are you Elijah?”

Elijah in response unloads all of his stress and frustration telling God of everything that has brought him to hide in that cave. The Lord very simply tells Elijah to leave the safety of the cave and go outside where God will pass by/will meet him. Outside Elijah encounters a strong wind that breaks the rocks, and then an earthquake, and fire. There Elijah discovers that God is not apart of these powerful and frightening events. Then follows a sheer silence and God was present in the silence. Again the questions is asked “What are you doing here Elijah? Again Elijah repeats his history. And God says “Go. Return on your way…” In other words – go home, get back to work. Elijah has a job to do – people with whom he needs to share the word of the Lord as God’s prophet. In doing his job faithfully and well even in the face of threat and murder he is helping to recreate the world to be more as God would have it become.

Psalm 42 also reflects a longing, a desire for God in the midst of trouble – describes a heaviness within when we lose sight of God’s presence and a questioning wonderment as to whether God has forgotten us.

In the letter to Galatians Paul makes that wonderful affirmation that in Christ there are no divisions or distinctions: No longer Jew or Greek; slave or free; male or female; all are one in Christ… We are all one as God’s children by adoption and grace. That is the world Jesus worked for – that is the world as God created it to be and as we are commissioned by baptism to create.

At Garazene in the Gospel reading Jesus encounters one who in our parlance would be called mentally ill. That community had seized him many times it tells us, kept him chained in shackles, and now he lives among the tombs . But Jesus simply asks his name – the man’s reply is a window into understanding. “Legion” he says – perhaps dealing with what we now call PTSD or tht he has many (a legion of) deep problems.

We do not know what happened after that question and introduction but later the people of the city alerted by the swineherds found Jesus conversing with this man. The man was fully clothed and “in his right mind”. The Garasenes were frightened of Jesus and asked him to leave! They valued the pigs more than they valued the healing of the man. The citizens were uncomfortable with Jesus ability to help restore him to a new wholeness. They preferred the former reality of binding the man and forcing him out of the city to live among the remnants of death. They preferred not to hear the voice of God nor see his work among them.

We believe that we can hear that voice of God as Elijah heard it. It may come to us in our silence, in the stillness of our hearts or though the events that swirl around us. But w3e know it will not be a voice that tells us to be afraid, to threaten, or to bind people with labels or other shackles. It is a voice that will tell us to “Go. To return on our way to do the work we have been given to do.”

For some it may be that we are to be the voice for sanity and change to reduce the prevalence of violence in our communities and nation. To hold our leaders accountable for working together for the common good rather than for political ideologies that only serve to divide and to sustain the current distrust & disunity.

The voice may be to tell us to continue to work for a society where there is no Jew or Greek, Muslim or Christian, no gay or straight or transgender, where we will truly all be one in God bound by our common humanity and not pre-judged by the labels other place upon us.

But we should know that ALL of us are commissioned by our baptism:
to seek and serve Christ in ALL people
to strive for justice and peace among all people
and to respect the dignity of every human being. No exceptions!

Don

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I have had enough!

“I have had enough!” Once again I am thinking and saying this as I hear of the latest gun violence (this time in Orlando). As I attend another vigil. Once again I see posts proclaiming “Never again!” but “never” seems to have lost any meeting in this scenario.  So many of us see a problem but there is no will by elected officials to make any common sense changes in law and in the availability of guns  (either in kind, quantity, or even eliminating the possibility of acquiring them without a background check) to reduce the probability of another incident. Orlando joins other communities such as Blacksburg, Newtown, Ft Hood, DC and Aurora. And all we can safely wonder is where next?

We again have the very vocal who want the issue sidelined by attributing it as extremism of one sort or another – be it religious or hatred of the gay community.  These are those who will point out that someone bent on evil will find a way to do evil and therefore we need more good people with guns to protect us…As Dr. Phil is so fond of saying “How’s that working…” for us?  The data tells us “Not very well!”

I have had enough of this being a political issue with extremists of all persuasions lobbing insults at one another and using it as fodder for the next round in the fight. A hostile yelling match that will not end until the citizens have truly had enough and will hold our elected officials responsible for finding a compromise that may reduce the incidence of this sort of hate-based violence.

But we seem more interested in our ideology than in any attempt to find a solution.  Every post I have seen on this subject (including my own responses) get flamed by those whose tactic is anger, name calling and waving around an amendment whose original intent was simply to make sure the state militias of the colonies had access to arms.

Are we so blind that we cannot see this is out of control? Over 130 killings so far THIS YEAR in the United States – but so many are unwilling to see that there is a problem?  “Guns don’t kill people” we are told.  Tell that to the families of those who were killed by a gunman at the nightclub.  Tell that to the families where a toddler or young child has fired a gun and killed a playmate or family member. The reason guns were developed was to kill – they began and remain primary weapons of war. If we had fewer guns available we might still have violence but we would have fewer deaths because guns are effective machines for killing. But guns ale also a profitable industry and they pay lobbyists to convince legislators not to enact new restriction and to remove the ones that do exist.

What to me is ludicrous is that those we change with protecting us, the police, are so often vocal about limiting access to guns – getting guns off the streets and out of the hands of those who should not be allowed the privilege (and YES it is a PRIVILEGE not a right to own weapons that can be used to kill) of gun ownership. It is no wonder that the police are scared since they are often outgunned by citizens with semi-automatic weapons that have no purpose other than killing. But even with sheriffs and chiefs of police calling for regulation common sense cannot be agreed upon because of ideology and the fear engender by the very industry that profits from gun manufacture and proliferation.

Cars I have been told many times also kill. Yes, but we mandate license-based testing before one can drive a car; one needs liability insurance to drive and infractions of the law can mean revoking the privilege of driving; and car manufacturers have a liability for the products they manufacture.  And there is no congressional prohibition on studying auto related deaths to find ways to reduce the fatalities.

We won’t end violence especially gun violence be enacting common sense legislation and controls – but we will reduce it. We will decrease the escalating numbers of victims. Will it be perfect? No!  But it will be a start towards reducing the ever increasing numbers of victims.

Will it happen because we have just experience the largest number of injuries and fatalities in a gun violence incident? It doesn’t stand a chance in an election years with all of the rhetoric and grand standing. I do not know how may more people it will take for us voters, us average folk to get angry and determined enough to demand that common sense prevails. But then in my memory I recall my grandfather telling me “Common sense is not that common anymore!”

Don

PS – This is not an invitation for debate… I have heard it all again and again as the number victims has increased and I have had enough of the endless debate.

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Being Led in the Dance

I have a confession to make – I always envied Fred Astair, Gene Kelly and many others who were able to do the song and dance routines in the movies. I would hum along and think about those moves but I knew I did not have the motor skills to do that very well.

About 8 years ago at Trinity Church in  Rochester I was in my altar-ego costume as Big Bozo the clown at a fundraising dinner, where a folk group called Hammers & Pick was playing Irish music.  Despite my lack of motor skills I found myself dancing – it was fine and funny. With the liberty afforded me by being a clown I was then able to invite someone to dance with me. It was fun and joyful for me and for everyone else as well despite my lack of ability. (It is the closest I will ever get to Broadway.)

In every culture and tribe there is some form of dance. Dance I believe is innate in us. It is a natural way to being in relationship with one another, with God, with music, with the universe. Dance is important and fun and life giving – even if we do not do it very well. I suspect there was dance long before there were musical instruments.

Sunday is Trinity Sunday. In some ways it is difficult to preach this Sunday because there are NO Trinity stories in scripture. The Trinity is theology – come from Theos and Logos literally God Talk.

Trinity celebrates people’s experience of God as creator/Father; Jesus as Son, and the Spirit who dwells within us and sustains us in our life in the world. But it also does something else we do not think about.

According to C.S. Lewis “…perhaps the most important difference between Christianity and all other religions: is that in Christianity God is not a static thing–not even a person–but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance.”

Perhaps our innate love of movement and dance is part of our being created in God’s image – Trinity is a way to describe this dynamic, pulsating life-dance of God. This may account for the popularity of 1930s and 40s musicals, and of Dancing with the Stars.When we dance we find that we express ourselves – pour ourselves into this and by so doing express some of who we are so that it overflows and allows others to enter into the dance as well.

And that is what we discover about the Trinity as well. In this experience of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God is pouring out Gods own self so that we can experience and participate in God’s life.  It is possible to dance alone – but usually it is better and more life-giving to dance with others. And we so often need to invite another to join us in our dance. That is our role as people of faith – to invite others to join us in this dance that feeds our spirit and give us life and joy.

By baptism we are initiated into God so that we know our role is to join in the dance of life; in these outpourings of our life we invite others to share in the life and light and joy of God’s life seen in and expressed through us and overflowing into the lives of others. It doesn’t matter whether we are skilled as dancers – as one old friend of mine observed – we dance for ourselves to live and feel alive – not for how we look to others. This dance of God is the dance of life. This dance is how we create and carryout inspired worship.  This dance is how we love, when we have run out of patience or energy.  This dance is how we speak to those who have hurt us.  This dance is how we pray for our enemies. This dance is how we become Good News in the lives of others … and allow others to be Good News in our life as well. In a hymn by Sydney Carter called Lord of the Dance the chorus says: 

Dance then, wherever you may be
I am the Lord of the Dance, said He!
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be
And I’ll lead you all in the Dance, said He!
 

So let’s not be afraid to let God lead us in the dance of life… nor be afraid to invite others to join us in God’s  dance so we may all be life giving to one another and to the world.

Don

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In the Shadow of the Valley of Death

The readings from scripture set the tone for the third Sunday in the Easter Season – a time set aside in the Christian Calendar for celebrating new life, resurrection, and joy.

But we also come here in the shadow of ongoing unrest, strife and tragedy reported almost daily on the evening news. Ongoing tragedies of civilian deaths in Brussels, Africa and the Middle East; ongoing civil strife in South Sudan.  More than 70 people died in Clark Country last year because of drug overdoses.  People killed by senseless gun violence in Louisville, Indianapolis and elsewhere in this country. Questions without answers haunt us – as senseless death and suffering confront us again, and yet again.  Lest we think this is unique to us listen again to the opening phrase of the reading from Acts, “Saul, still breathing threats and murder…”  Breathing threats and murder – against the followers of the Way of Christ.

Perhaps our current news accounts could read:

  • ISIL breathing threats & murder … continue to radicalize young people for assaults both on Muslims and non-Muslims in several countries…
  • Opposing political faction in South Sudan breathing threats & murder…openly assault men, women & children in continuing civil war.
  • US political candidates breathing threats and murder share plans for economic, and military attacks on perceived enemies in other countries and immigrants to make us feel safe…

Recall that Saul has the authority of the high priest to arrest followers of Jesus in Damascus ,to bring them back to Jerusalem as prisoners.  He has a reputation – and is feared as a persecutor.  On his way to Damascus he has a blinding vision of Jesus.  Those with Saul on this journey of threat & murder heard the voice, but did not see anything.  They led the blinded Saul on to Damascus.

Saul was unable to complete his mission of threats and murder.  Instead, Saul found God anew in an encounter with the risen Christ. This vision changed his outlook and his actions.  This account leads us to question where we find God in the violence and death in our neighborhoods in Metro Louisville , Indianapolis, in Europe, Africa and  Syria & the middle East– where threats and murder are carried out.

Ananias, a disciple of Jesus, also had a vision.  He was asked to go to Saul, a man who had the power to arrest him, in order to give Saul his sight and a message from the Lord.  God intended to use Saul (whom we now call Paul) to bring the good news to the gentile world.  With great trepidation, Ananias went to see this murderous menace – and lays his hands of healing to help Saul regain his sight.

Sight is not always sought, let alone regained, by those intent on their own way – whose evil intentions remain on accomplishing threats and murder.  We wonder what kind of world we are leaving for our children and grandchildren. We hear much fear of the many possibilities there are for evil and destruction to cross the paths of our loved ones, disrupting lives.

In the Gospel reading  from John we have a glimpse into the lives of the disciples following Jesus betrayal and brutal death. They went back to Galilee. Not knowing what else to do, they went back to what they knew – they return to fishing. They go back to the familiar and they catch nothing.  It seems that even in their old trade they do not find success. A stranger on the beach suggests they cast the net on the other side of the boat.  And they get a fabulous catch – so great, that even though there were so many fish, they are astonished that the net was not torn. Jesus is recognized, and Peter rushes to shore to be with him.

This Gospel describes a very typical human reaction following great trauma and upset: the disciples returned to the familiar. They wanted to regain some sense of normalcy, and of moving on with their lives.  They tried to get back to the way things were before. As if we can ever get back to what was ‘before.’

Jesus addresses Peter – the disciple who not only ran away, but also three times denied even knowing Jesus, saying ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ Peter says “Yes! You know that I love you.” Jesus says “Feed my lambs.”  Jesus asks twice more, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’  After each affirmation Peter is told “Feed my sheep.”  By doing this, Jesus not only helps Peter forgive the betrayal but also points him in a new direction – that of being a shepherd for God’s people.

Jesus asked, ‘Peter, do you love me?  Feed my sheep.’  These are nice words.  But they will just remain only nice words if we do not understand what Jesus was teaching Peter.

‘Peter, do you love me?  Feed my sheep.’  Jesus, knowing Peter loves him, is asking Peter about more than the status of their relationship.  Jesus is telling Peter that love is not a feeling but an action.  It is not enough for Peter to feel good about Jesus, but Peter must also actively work to feed and nourish God’s people in order to live out the love and forgiveness that Jesus has already shown him.

Ananias laid hands on Saul. After Saul was healed, he spent several days with the followers of Christ in Damascus, and ‘immediately began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” This 180° turn in attitude was followed by action – sharing his story.

Part of our baptism and confirmation are vows – we have pledged to live out the love and forgiveness God has given us in tangible ways, through specific actions, in the world in which we live.  Actions in Christian community, actions at the work place, actions at home. What action should we, gathered here, take?  The Baptismal Covenant asks:

  • Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News?
  • Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons?
  • Will you strive for justice and peace among all people?

A number of projects undertaken by members of this congregation show action: our ongoing support of the Center For Lay Ministries Food Pantry, support for the work of Exit 0 and Haven House; our benefit concerts that support important work in the community. Towels and supplies go to Haven House, shoes become wells in Africa; funds offered in thanksgiving go to United Thank Offering and Episcopal Funds for Human Need to help others.. The work done by individual members providing leadership and many hours volunteering:  with children in schools, with community service groups, and in other projects which serve a variety of God’s people.  The list goes on.

We know that many Christians of the first few centuries, as well as some today, faced persecution for their beliefs.  They risked their lives to proclaim “Jesus is Lord.”  They stood in the face of evil. They did not go back to ‘business as usual’ – they used their particular gifts to take part in changing the world one bit at a time.  Not everyone can stop evil perpetrated by others, but we can seek the light of Christ by which to choose our actions, and respond to Jesus’ call to “feed my sheep.”

But we cannot forget the threats and murder with which we began this meditation… and which are real all around us.  We may ask where is God in the evil we hear about?  I see God is present in the actions of individuals.  God is present in the midst of the chaos in the person of those who look out for others, who help one another, who enfold others in love, prayer and action, those who comfort others. God is present in the people reaching out to others in sorrow and love. God is present in medical professionals who treat the wounded. We hear many stories of the presence of God in times of trouble if we listen to the stories of the people of God acting in faith and love – and not just the story of unleashed evil that gets the ratings points the media prefers.

Those disciples – Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, and the sons of Zebedee – and Saul (renamed Paul) did indeed follow Jesus.  They left their fishing nets, and made the choice to follow the Way of Christ.  They entered unfamiliar territory; they used their gifts to serve others and to glorify God.  We know this because it is recorded in our scripture.

Their story has been handed onto us, as has this same ministry of Christ.  It may not seem, for example, that being involved in the CLM food pantry, or providing supplies for Haven House, providing support for local children or organizations is a direct answer to those who breathe threats and murder. Yet, it is!  It is a way to share the new life we find in Christ, proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ. It is a way of addressing the world as it is and working to change the world as God would have it become.

When Jesus finished speaking with the disciples, he simply said, “Follow me.”      What will you do?

Don

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Peace, Sent, Receive, Witness

John’s Gospel account tells us that it is Easter evening. Earlier in the day Peter and the beloved disciple had gone to the tomb –  in the early morning, after Mary Magdalene came and told them that Jesus body was not in the tomb. They were perplexed and went back to where they were staying.

Mary, in the garden, saw the risen Jesus but thought he was a gardener.  Eventually she recognized him after he called her by name. She went back to the disciples telling them “I have seen the Lord.”

They remain in the house – with door locked out of fear. Fear of being arrested by the Roman authorities and executed themselves. That night Jesus comes to them in the locked room, and stood among them – saying peace be with you.  We can only imagine how frightening this would have been for them. No wonder his first words are words of assurance and calm – peace be with you.

Then to further assure them that it is him – he shows them his wounds so they know it was really their teacher and friend.

Jesus then breathed on them. That may initially make no sense to us – until we remember that wind, spirit and breath all have the same root word in Hebrew and in Greek – Pneuma – (like pneumatic or pneumonia). We may recall that in Genesis after God created humanity he breathed into them the breath of life. So Jesus breathing on them is a way of saying that they were being given the Holy Spirit. And with that gifting of the Spirit they receive a commission – they are sent….

However the book of Acts tells us that it was not until the feast of Pentecost – 50 days later – when the apostles most obviously and pointedly left the security of the upper room and the Spirit comes upon them dramatically as they became the ones who tell the story of faith and of Jesus to others.

If we really think about it this it speaks deeply about how we too are nurtured and grow in our spiritual life.

The Spirit of God is not a one time gift given at baptism.  God gives the gift of the Spirit’s indwelling presence in many ways and at many times. This gifting of the spirit is a gift of love.

Similarly we don’t love our children once and then tell them to make it last for the rest of their life. We find many ways and times and occasions to let them know – we do this from infancy for as long as we are able. We also do the same sort of things with siblings, parents, friends, and spouses.

We know from our experience there are also many ways and times in which the kernel of faith within us and in others is be fed and nurtured as we grow into an active faithful life of loving God and of loving neighbor.

These disciples huddled in the upper room behind the locked door have begun the journey that gets them to Pentecost and beyond.

irst, they told their news to Thomas – and Thomas wanted the same kind of opportunity they had had to see and experience the presence of the risen Jesus. And it happened.

Even in the confines of that upper room they continued that growth in knowledge and spiritual understanding first by sharing story, and in breaking the bread and sharing the cup with one another. This growing grace within took them out of the upper room on Pentecost, and then helped them continue sharing their story of Jesus in places close & familiar and out into the vast unknown .

We know that we too have been given the Spirit in baptism, in communion, in confirmation, and in countless other ways.  We have been given the peace of Christ, and through scripture, baptism and liturgy we have been told that we, like those first followers, are being sent out into the world to that place our gifts and values intersect with the worlds pressing needs.  That is our Pentecost… our opportunity to emerge from the upper room and become emboldened to proclaim in deed and in word God’s love for all people and God’s desire for wholeness and healing for all creation and for all God’s people.

Like the disciples and apostles getting to that point is a process of telling our story, of hearing the story of faith others tell us, of receiving the grace and the gift of the Spirit that enables us to continue to believe in and grow into this commission we have been given

To be followers of Jesus

to be witnesses, to be doing the work entrusted to us – to be the heart, voice and hands of Christ in the world

Jesus said to them – to you:

Peace be with you – as the father has sent me so I send you…

Receive the Holy Spirit…

And you shall be my witnesses.

Don

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A Parade followed by Execution

Ash Wed palm leaves_resize

The reading of the Passion Gospel always brings forth a question – Why did Jesus have to die in this way?

The first thing I would say in response to this question is that Jesus did not HAVE to die in this way. Jesus had the choice not to. He could have made other choices but chose the path that led to the cross.  He went to Jerusalem rather than staying home.

It is interesting to note that there is no one single official orthodox formulation of an answer to this question of why Jesus had to die as a common criminal.  Each Gospel and Epistle writer gives a different answer to our question.

Today’s service began with a parade – echoing the joyous shouts of welcome, admiration and fervor that greeted Jesus as he came into Jerusalem.  Long ago, and today, we welcome Jesus, the anointed one, the messiah into our midst.  Then, as told in the Luke’s telling of the Passion story, the mood changes drastically, and it is Jesus’ death which the crowds call for.  There is a wild roller coaster of emotion in the Holy Week experience.

One day there is a parade, several days later there is a call for an execution – the person of Jesus at the center of each.  When the crowd placed branches and their garments on the road before Jesus, he was a heroic figure – the anointed one, the messiah – for some that meant a new king, a religious figure with military overtones.  When the crowd called for his crucifixion, Jesus was a criminal, a villain worthy of the worst sort of death.

Just as each of us must ponder the question, “Who is Jesus?,”  I believe that we must also ponder the question, “Why did Jesus die the way he did?”

Our answers are shaped by scripture – the “source” documents of our faith.  They are also shaped by the context of Jesus’ day: what we know of the cultures of the Jewish people and of the Roman Empire, the politics of Judea, and the religious and political leaders of Judea.  Unfortunately these “sources” are subject to interpretation, so we are working with people’s opinions, and the need to make conclusions.

The apostles, St. Paul and many of the early Christians who were Jewish brought with them their understanding of the Jewish sacrificial system.  Sacrifices to God were important and a daily part of the Jerusalem “scene.”   Through this lens, Jesus was seen and understood as the paschal lamb sacrificed for the sins of the world.

My own pilgrimage in this search for the meaning in Jesus’ death began in the Good Friday service in childhood – with a very heavy emphasis in liturgy, preaching and Sunday school on Jesus as the one who paid for my wrongdoings.  This emphasis would agree with a sign I saw in a church recently “His death was the reason for his life”

I am deeply troubled with this sense of God needing to have someone pay “the price.”  God set the rules – so why not have an amnesty and no one has to pay the price. I found it hard to stomach the idea of a God who demands suffering…

I have read about the culture of the Holy Land under the Romans. The political situation – the oppression of the populace – was great.  Then, as now, there is a progression into poverty.  People will hold onto their home and land as long as possible, but when it becomes necessary to sell their land because they cannot pay taxes, a growing number of people will live a life of day labor, struggling for daily bread.

It is against this background that many of Jesus’ parables and teachings can be understood.  I see Jesus as a reformer.  His life’s work can be understood as working toward a religious and social reform that would lead to God’s wishes being done on earth as in heaven.

When Jesus is seen taking on this role it becomes very evident why the political authorities want to kill him.  He is upsetting the existing balance of power, both within the Jewish community and that corner of the Roman Empire.

For me, Jesus’ choices have become a lesson in living – not some sort of transaction or payment accomplished by his death. I no longer relate to the hymns that talk about being washed in the blood of the lamb. I see Jesus portraying a different kind of relationship with God – not of fear and buying God’s favor through the blood from the sacrifice of animals – but of fully living out a life based on Jesus’ relationship grounded in the caring of the Creator for Creation.

Jesus death for me shows the tragic nature of a value system.  His death depicts the attempted destruction of the innocent by the values of the world – it demonstrates the cruelty, the savagery, and the greed that humanity can and does inflict on one another.

Jesus’ death is also the result of choices that Jesus freely made in order to live out the message he fully embodied in his life. Through those choices Jesus has given us the ability to see God, life, and ourselves in a new light and new relationship.  Ultimately, Jesus’ death is a great big YES to God and God’s vision of his kingdom on earth.

This is our answer at this point in our spiritual pilgrimage.

We recognize that is may not be your answer.  And that is fine.

Just as each of us must answer “Who is Jesus to me?” so we also must answer “What does Jesus’ death mean to me?”  I have found that placing it into a wider question, ““What does Jesus’ life, teaching, death, resurrection, and sending of his Spirit, mean to me?”

What is most important is that we meet the mystery where we are. And wherever we are, may the mystery leads us to renewed life in Christ.

Nancy & Don

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The Power of Story

I do not remember  the content of the many conversations I had with my grandfather over my growing up years – but I DO remember the stories. Many of them I continue to tell, and tell, and tell… Stories have great power over our lives. It is important to note what stories we remember and which stories we tell. Especially our faith stories

Isaiah knew this and in Isaiah 43:16-21 is reminding the people of their stories – of the defeat of Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea – “they lie down they do not rise…”; the sustaining presence in the wilderness of the exodus “ for I gave water in the wilderness… rivers in the desert” These stories point to the future more than the past for Isaiah – “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth do you not perceive it?” Just as the mired chariots in the seabed, and the water in the wilderness were new things, unexpected things that eventually become familiar stories for the people; so the prophet tells the people then and now, that God continue to do the unexpected….

Psalm 126 looks back at the Exodus. Seeing a dream of returning to the land fulfilled. They recall laughter, and shouts of joy.. The psalmist recognizes that the good old days of then is not now. Yet, the stories told of that past, fuel the hope for the future… “restore our fortunes… may those who sow in tears – reap with shouts of joy…” may those who go out to plant the seed bring in the harvest as happened of old. May God do for us this new thing we cannot fully imagine.

In the letter to the church in Philippi Paul (3:4-14) tells of his life as a Pharisee, his zeal as a persecutor of the early Christian community. Never was anyone less likely than Paul to become a leader for this sect of Judaism which deified a rabbi who was publicly executed. Yet on the Road to Damascus all that changed… and with it Paul’s life changed… becoming both harder – and more filled with meaning and purpose. One could not project the unfolding of the story from looking at Paul’s past. God is doing a new thing in Paul’s conversion.

The Gospel from John (12:1-8)  is a recollection of Jesus at dinner with his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Lazarus who Jesus raised from death. Jesus spends an evening with them as he is getting ready for his encounter with the religious authorities in Jerusalem. This story recalls for us that Martha on a previous visit asking Jesus to tell Mary to help her with domestic duties. Jesus told Martha she was too busy and Mary has chosen a better part. Martha once again serves, her way of demonstrating her caring for their friend.

Mary on the other hand brings out a jar of nard a costly ointment and perfume. Such a precious perfumed ointment would have been brought from almost a continent away as far as the Himalayas perhaps. We can scarcely imagine what that would have cost her. (It is estimated to have cost a year’s wages…) Mary caringly anoints his travel weary feet with this ointment. Each of these vignettes shows the value of Jesus presence and friendship to these women.

This scene of affection was tastelessly broken by Judas. Judas who handled the money for the apostles complains that the perfume could have been sold and the money put in the treasury – thus making it available to him… showing what Judas valued most.

Jesus tells Judas to leave Mary alone. He understands the caring behind her action and speaks of its use in the future final anointing at his burial.

Then Jesus says” The poor you will always have with you, but you do not always have me.” This oblique statement reveals Jesus’ valuing of care for the poor, the marginalized, the outcast. I believe what he is saying to Judas is “let her do this for me now while I am here – once I am not here you can serve me in the poor who you claim to care about.” God is doing a new thing in that authority, greed, death, and lust for power will not win in God’s economy. Jesus life, teaching, death and resurrection are the seeds of a new reality – a new way of God’s re-creating the world as God would have it, using people committed to this new way of valuing and acting.

There is power in each story to illustrate and to move people to reflection and to action.

When these stories are told, we who tell them make them our story – and that produces courage and hope that helps us persevere, overcome and endure while waiting for our perception of the new thing emerging from God and God’s people.

Paul tells his story, of hos being a former persecutor, to people under oppression to give them hope to endure- assuring them that what they face is worth the glory that is to be revealed in and to them.

In the Gospel Jesus receives Mary’s gift of generosity and brushes aside Judas false indignation. Jesus actually is quoting Deuteronomy about the poor – but he simply implies the instruction that precedes it. The verse in Deuteronomy begins “open your hand to the poor” and adds “because there will never cease to be those in need”

What stories do we resonate with? What stories move us – help us to endure – inspire our hope?

These are the faith stories we have to share – stories that in our telling invite others to find what we have found in the faith community; that tell what has sustained us to endure in the trials and vicissitude of our life…

These are stories that have power in our life and when we live them, share them and use them to inspire our values, and mold our actions these stories focus us into that future into which God is calling us.

Don

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Prodigal Love

N:     What does it mean to love? Sure, we can love chocolate, or a good steak, or a bubble bath, or sitting in a favorite chair watching a favorite sports team. But I’ve been wondering about the kind of love that we talk about God having. What is that love like? Do we know it when we see it? Are we able to practice it with our loved ones? What about with strangers? It is, I think, far easier for us to talk about God’s love than to receive it and pass it on.

Today’s gospel story begins by telling us that the “Pharisees and scribes were grumbling and saying, [Jesus] welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus launches into a well-known parable, often called the Prodigal Son. The original meaning of prodigal, by the way, is abundant, profuse, luxuriant.

So we have something to watch for – parables are often like a Chinese “finger cuffs” – you put your finger in and all seems well, until you want to pull it out – and you are caught. Parables invite us to wander in, and catch us when we find out that somehow we are the people who are being invited to see something in a new way. I think that this “something to watch for” is about the true nature of God’s love.

This parable has three main characters: a father and his two sons. The oldest son is like many oldest children – reliable, conscientious, and achievers. The younger son is like many youngest children – fun-loving, attention-seeking, and outgoing.

Younger:     Why shouldn’t I ask Father for my portion of the inheritance? I’m old enough! There’s more to life than slogging away here! My older brother is all work and no play – and I need to get out from under it all, find my own way in life. Have some fun, find a nice girl, get on with living!

Older:         Hmmpf! Can you believe it? Father always does what my younger brother wants. Always. With me, Father is so rigid, with such high expectations that I often think I can never please him. It’s been hard work to make a living off of this land. And I am good at it – at least father has taught me that much. I have learned how to supervise the workers, we eat well, we have what we need. I try to be satisfied.

N:      Two children – two different views of life, and what life should be like. Nothing new here, is there? Let’s go forward a bit in time and hear what the brothers are up to now.

Younger:     This is the life – parties, girls, good eats! I now have friends who understand me, and plenty of fun to be had. It’s the good life and I want it to go on forever. My brother has no idea about what he is missing.

Older:         I am the good son, the one who is dutiful and obedient. The one who is doing what his father asks. And I am the one who will, someday, inherit all this! I will have sons, and they will take care of me when I am old, and do what is proper and expected. It is what is right! I can’t believe father chose to hand over his hard earned wealth to my brother, who has been missing for many weeks.

N:      Did you notice that both sons are, each in their own way, alienated from their father? It’s easiest to see with the younger child, the one living with “strong drink and fast women.” He’s left home and is in the process of squandering his inheritance, and likely has little thought about his father. He’s making friends, friends who are likely not very good for him, and as we shall see, aren’t likely to stick around when he runs out of money.

Younger:     Yikes! How did this happen? How did I get down to my last coin? Perhaps my friends will give me more money.   [slight pause] No! What do they mean, no!? Oh, my – I shall have to earn my bread. I know how to tend animals, perhaps someone will hire me to do that.

N:      But the older brother is alienated from his father as well. This son’s relationship with the father is one of duty, not love.

Older :        Day after day – except for the occasional festival, life is quite dull. Is this all there is? Father is old, when will he die and leave all this to me? I know I can run this old farm better that he does. Just look at him – he spends his time looking out at the horizon. I think he is looking for my brother. Good riddance I say! This is all mine – my brother has his portion. When will father let that scoundrel go?

N:      There comes a point at which the younger brother realizes that he would be better off working as one of his father’s hired hands, so he travels home. Let’s pick up the story here.

Younger:     I’m almost home, let me practice these words once again… Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.

Please God, please let my father accept me back into his household as a servant. Please – I have been so wrong. I made such bad decisions. What I desire more than ever is my father’s love. I had it once, and so want to be held in his love again.

[slight pause] I can’t believe it – yes – it is! It’s my father, running toward me, arms open! How I long for his embrace. [slight pause] Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.

N:      To the younger son’s surprise, what happened was his father calling to his servants to bring the best robe, a ring for his finger, sandals for his feet, and instructions to prepare a celebratory feast – all signs of being favored. I imagine that the younger son was surprised, and delighted in being welcomed back into the father’s embrace, the father’s love. What about the older brother?

Older:         What on earth am I hearing? Music? Dancing? What is going on? Father has gone over the edge – it’s not time for a feast yet. There is work to be done in the fields. You, slave, what has happened? My brother, come home? Father ordered a feast? Gave him the finest robe?

Father, can this be?   Come on – I’ve been the good son, the one fulfilling my duties! Where has my reward been? I won’t go in there – it’s just not right.

N:      His father answers him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

The story stops here. We get the idea that the older brother will not accept his younger brother back into the family in the same way that the father does, don’t we?

Who was saved? Who was pulled up out of the muck? The younger son – who had squandered his part of the family fortune, and was literally working with pigs in the muck. He found his way back into his father’s love.

And the older son? What about him? He is in his own muck – the muck of thinking that being good is enough, the muck made up of self-righteousness. While his father’s love has been there all along, he has not tasted it, allowed it to be wrapped around him. He is, in some ways, lost. I am reminded of the line from the hymn Amazing Grace – ‘I once was lost but now am found.’ These words were penned by a man who captained slaving ships, was in a storm and his ship sunk and he was saved – both physically and spiritually when he realized the evil of the slave trade. The older son is lost to his father’s love.

This is the point the parable offers to the Pharisees and scribes – remember that their comment about Jesus eating with sinners is what has Jesus tell this parable in the first place.

The younger son is the one who turns his life around – another way of saying “repent.” He also is pulled up from the muck – another way of saying “saved.” These are the folk with whom Jesus eats – these are the folk who accept God’s love in ways that are life-changing. I once was blind but now I see. … how precious did that grace appear… Is Jesus telling us that the people whose lives have been lived “in the muck” (so to speak) have it easier when it comes to recognizing their need for God’s love?

The older son – the one who did his duty, who obeyed, who fulfilled what he thought the expectations were – he is the one still stuck in the muck of judgment and anger. He is busy pointing fingers at his wayward brother rather than being concerned with accepting his own father’s love. In fact, he cannot even turn toward his father’s love – he is not able to accept his father’s joy at his brother’s return, not able to join the celebration, not able to accept that his father’s love is also available to him. Is Jesus telling us that those who are “good” – who obey the rules and expectations like the Pharisees and Scribes do – have a harder time entering into God’s loving embrace?

One of the things that this parable tells me is that God’s love is something that we can’t earn. The older brother illustrates this. Another thing this parable tells me is that God’s love is deep and wide and freely given when we turn toward God. The younger brother shows us this. A third thing this parable tells me is that God so desires that we receive his love. The father in the parable demonstrates this.

One more thing that this parable tells me is that when we receive God’s love, it is like a feast – wearing our best clothes and jewelry, music and dancing, eating the richest food, the “fatted calf.”

Receiving God’s love is to be celebrated – isn’t that a story worth sharing?

Amen.

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Stories Shape Us

In the first reading from Exodus we hear of Moses, the former prince of Egypt who grew up in privilege killed an Egyptian overseer who was mistreating a Hebrew slave and was forced to flee Egypt is out in the wilds tending his Father in laws flock. He goes aside from the flock to see a bush that was aflame but was not being consumed by the fire. Instead of merely observing this strange sight as he anticipated he is called by God. (I think it is important for us to realize that Moses, St. Paul and many others received a call from God while at work.) First Moses was told to remove his shoes for he was on Holy Ground. (Wherever God is present is Holy Ground..) Then God tells Moses he knows of the plight of the Hebrew people… he already knows Moses story good & bad and the Hebrew people’s story…the good and the bad…and our as well. God gives Moses a task. And we have a task as well given to us at baptism – telling our story, sharing our challenges and triumphs. Sharing our trust that God is present in our stories and in our life

In the Psalm we recognize we are all seekers – but too often we do not understand what it is we are seeking. We have a God shaped hole within us and try to fill it with things, with people, with substances, with transient experiences – but nothing fills a God shaped void – except God. But it is hard to surrender our independence to allow God to fill that void. We can’t control God and are afraid of God controlling us…

In the next passage from Corinthians Paul speaks about the Exodus of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt and their many years in the wilderness. He recalls “our ancestors” were all under the cloud and passed through the sea… the manna and the water from the rock… they shared these experiences of God’s care for the people. YET… he recalls many were struck down in the wilderness because they were idolaters… worshipping false Gods… In our culture we do not have graven idols as such – and yet we have many false Gods that set themselves up as being as or more important than our faith. Our job, success, power wealth, the RIGHT belief, the expectations of others, even the attraction of activities we enjoy, and the Oh so many activities from which we can choose on a Sunday morning… SO many other Gods we can choose to serve.

In the Gospel today we have questions about life that seem contemporary. People tell about bad stuff that they hear has happened.. Galileans killed by Pilate at the temple, their “blood mingled with their sacrifices”. Stories that may or may not be true but which stir up righteous anger against Pilate and the Romans… Jesus takes on the question we still have trouble with today… why evil happens. He dismisses the idea that bad things happen to people because they are bad or because God is testing them… You too, he tells them can have this befall you – so you need to live as if each day is your last day. Do not put off turning to God for another day.

In these stories the people present to Jesus we may also be dealing with a bit of political hyperbole. The same kind of hyperbole we see in the current politcal campaign.. requiring fact checkers to let us know where the truth is being presented and who is shading the truth or telling lies. Jesus in response asks about the Galileans who were killed when the tower fell… a construction accident the Romans had no hand in. By taking this tack Jesus confronts those described in a later passage of Luke as those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”. Jesus continually takes our preference to look at the lives, foibles and sins of others and tells us to focus it on our own life, our own failings, and our own need to fill that God shaped hole in our life.

The story of the fig tree illustrates his point. The fig tree is not fulfilling its purpose and its promise. The owner wants to cut it down – but the gardener is more patient, willing to work with it, to let it have the time it needs to become fruitful and achieve its purpose. The story speaks of God’s patience with us, of God working within us to nurture us and encourage us to bring forth fruit, the seeds of which God has planted in our life.

We live in a day when so many of the stories we hear told are angry stories about “them”; about what he or she has said, or what they have done, about atrocities implied or committed. Stories focusing us on the failings and wrongs of others, making us feel righteous and angry. We look to blame others – be it religious extremists; social policy; corporations, elected leaders, the judiciary, or the current political culture of ideology mattering more than governance.

Jesus on hearing these kinds of stories in his day brought the discussion literally back to earth by talking about a tree that hadn’t produced fruit, about digging and enriching the soil with manure. He in essence says “Ask yourself if you are like this tree. Are your bearing fruit or are you just taking up space?” If the later there is time, God will wait but you don’t have forever… It is time to get on with the task at hand, the purpose only you can fulfill

The stories we listen to and the stories we tell are important one. These stories shape us and shape how we live. Stories focus our attention and mold our actions.

When we recognize that God is present as a golden thread through the stories we tell we recognize that we too are on Holy Ground, and are being given the task of continuing to dig around our roots and the roots of other to prepare the ground and to nurture the new shoots of faith to become fruitful and produce the fruits of the God so that the seeds of God’s reign continue to be spread and planted.

Don

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Our Storied Purpose

Three chapters prior to today’s rather strange reading from Genesis, Abram responded to God’s call to pack his bags and take off on a life-changing journey. God had promised Abram a new land in which he would be the father of a great nation. That Abram set out on this journey is establishes that he trusts in God’s word.

Today’s reading, however, shows us that Abram has a question – he and his wife have remained childless and Abram is thinking that God hasn’t quite kept up his part of their agreement.

Abram – soon to be renamed Abraham – seems to have run out of patience. He has a purpose to fulfill and wants to get on with it. Even his name tells his purpose: Abram/Abraham “father of many.” But he has no son, no legal heir to receive this promise (other than a distant nephew).

God responds – assuring Abram he will have an heir. God then augments his assurance with a visual presentation. God takes Abram outside and says, “Look toward heaven and count the starts, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.” I can only imagine what Abram felt – and wonder if he remembered this every time he saw the sky filled with stars. God is assuring Abram that working together Abram’s purpose will be accomplished.

Jesus, too, is focused on his purpose. Some of the Pharisees have come to him, telling him to leave town because Herod wants to kill Jesus. As the representative of Rome, Herod must keep order in his land, and Jesus has been stirring things up with his teaching and healing. Jesus’ work of “casting out demons” and “preforming cures” is becoming known, and Jesus’s cousin John created waves, being a burr under Herod’s saddle (so to speak).

Jesus answers the Pharisees with his purpose: shalom – healing and making whole, done by “casting out demons” and “performing cures.” We, who live in the 21st century, may dismiss “casting out demons” as an understanding best left in the first century. Yet, there are plenty of “demons” to “cast out” in our time – the demon of thinking we can control our world, the demon of desires that entice us to loose ourselves from our purposes, the demon of ‘isms,’ (such as racism, ageism, and nationalism), the demon of addiction, and so on.

Jesus rebukes the Pharisees with the words about Jerusalem from scripture. Jesus reminds them that Jerusalem is not the city God intended it to be, it is, rather, a city that kills the people God sends to it – prophets whose purpose it is to call people back to living as God desires them to live.

Jesus, like these prophets, has a purpose: to call people to return to God’s dream. This dream is one of deep shalom: of wholeness in relationships. He even alludes to his resurrection “on the third day I finish my work.” One way to understand Jesus’ death and resurrection is to view it as Jesus’ YES to God’s ways that was at the same time a NO to the demons of the world. Jesus’ YES is about healing, wholeness and hope – and the triumph of these over the forces of life – the demons – that wish to pull us away from living God’s dream.

I believe that God has planted an echo of his dream in each one of us in the form of our life purpose. One way to visualize our purpose is as a golden thread through our lives that is woven into what we love to do.

I will use myself as an example. Beyond being with family and friends, I love to do a number of things:

  • weaving, spinning, sewing, knitting
  • my past work as a church musician
  • learning and teaching
  • shaping liturgy
  • facilitating groups

Each of these activities – at their core – is about creating and weaving connections. This is my God-given purpose. Not only am I most alive when I am creating and weaving connections, I am also most “in tune” with God’s Dream for healing, wholeness and hope.

My husband, Don, has another purpose: to journey with people. One son has the purpose of discovery, another of drawing out stories. My family members come to life when they are involved in an activity that fulfills their purpose.

Each one of you has a God-given purpose; one which when used in life-giving ways is also working with God to grow God’s Dream of a world that is healed, whole, and hope-filled. And I know that each of you is most alive, most vibrant, most shining when you are doing something that requires you to be “in tune with” and use your purpose

This life-purpose is a critical part of our faith story.

Our parish, St. Paul’s, has a purpose as well. From our work together a few years ago, we discovered and named our purpose as “sharing God’s radical openness.” This is the way that we work with God to bring God’s Dream of healing, wholeness and hope to this corner of God’s Creation.

Sharing God’s radical openness – when we are engaged as a worshiping community in activities that fulfill this purpose we will be most alive, and closest to working with God for healing, wholeness and hope. I have seen this when:

  • The outside doors and communion rail are physically open
  • The vestry made the decision to open our parish hall to Exit 0’s meal program to meet a real need.
  • We celebrated the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, deliberately removing the boundary between sacred and secular.
  • Embracing an unfamiliar person within Sunday liturgy.
  • Supporting members through tough times. I will never forget the space you made for Cyndi to read Ezekiel’s story of the valley of dry bones. I am touched by the Spiritual Companionship Group’s capacity to deepen spiritual roots.
  • Your generosity with sending towel after towel to Haven House, and canned good after canned good to the CLM food Pantry. These needs are not met with a one-time donation.

Last week I spoke of how we can find echoes of our faith story in bible stories. Maybe we have days in which we feel buffeted about looking for solid ground, like Noah’s year-long voyage on the ark; or times when we, like Job, cry to God and don’t seem to get an answer; or times when we just want to stay where we are, with Peter, James and John on the mount of the Transfiguration, so we can avoid the tasks that are set ahead of us. In other words, there is likely some hint of our story in the bible stories we hear week to week. The challenge is to find it, claim it, learn from it, and share it.

The dimension we are adding to our Faith Story this week is one of depth – of purpose, both our own God-given purpose and the purpose planted in St. Paul’s – (which is…) to share God’s radical openness.

It is with these purposes that we joyfully join God in making real God’s Dream. We can do this in our families, in our work, in our leisure activities, and in this very faith community. When we are aware of our purposes, and using them to their fullest, we are also being faithful stewards – caretakers – of the Gospel, the Good News of God with us.

Nancy

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