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The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – 07.29.18

            So, what does one say for their “last” sermon in a congregation where they have served for 21 years?  I started thinking about this sermon a couple of months ago.  I initially had the idea of using the Gospel reading assigned for the day of my initial call here, and then crafting a sermon based on that text 21 years later.  Pastor Winston Bone, who was the Assistant to the Bishop in the Metropolitan NY Synod for many years and was responsible for seminarians as well as assigning names of potential pastors to congregations in the call process, told me that the good people here at Saint John had been through a difficult time and to “just go there and love them for a year.”  The Gospel assigned for that day was all about God’s love, and I knew I had been given a great gift for that first sermon.  Reflecting on it after 21 years might have been memorable.

            But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had always accepted the assigned texts from the lectionary, even when they were stories I might have wished to avoid.  So, I decided to take a look at the Gospel reading for today, and I again I knew it was a gift.  Placing my trust in God’s wisdom had served me well again. 

            The famous story of Jesus feeding the five thousand is found in all four Gospel narratives, and it is remarkably similar in each one.  Each gospel writer gives the number of 5,000 people, the only difference being that John, our gospel for today, just says 5,000 were fed while the others say 5,000 men were fed plus women and children.  In each story the disciples are perplexed about how to feed all these people.  Both Mark and John say it would cost two hundred denarii, or six months wages, to buy enough bread for them all to get just a little bit. In all accounts the disciples suggest that the people be sent away so they can find food for the evening meal, yet Jesus is adamant that the disciples find a way to feed everyone.  In each story, when the disciples canvas the crowd to find food, they come up with five loaves of bread and two fish.  John adds in the detail that it is a young boy who has the food to offer.  In all four accounts, Jesus blesses the food, they distribute it, and after everyone has eaten their fill, there are twelve baskets left over.

            Jewish readers of the story would recognize allusions to Moses and the prophet Elijah.  John viewed prophets positively and characterized Jesus as a prophet to help communicate Jesus’ identity.  Like the prophets, Jesus was sent by God, performs signs, and has knowledge that goes beyond human understanding.  For John, the work of the prophets was very important because they communicated a divine perspective regarding human events.  

            But, of course, Jesus is much more than a prophet.  This is the classic story of God’s abundance and how we should have faith that God, here in the person of Jesus, will provide abundantly for us.  And that is why this story is just perfect for the circumstances we find ourselves in today.  Congregations usually have one of two attitudes on which they base their ministry – scarcity or abundance.   One of the defining characteristics of Saint John has always been an attitude of abundance.  We have never based our decisions on negative expectations, but rather on our trust in the abundance of God.

            This positive attitude of abundance predates my ministry here, but I have been proud to encourage it during the past 21 years.  When I came here attendance and money were both low.  Yet the congregation projected an attitude of abundance that Pastor Bone and I both sensed.  One of my seminary professors said I should not go to such a small, struggling congregation because I was a second career pastor.  “Leave that to someone young” she said.  But I sensed a spirit of renewal and positive energy and I was blessed beyond my expectations.

            We have always given generously to others and have been blessed in return.  We have never chosen to give in order to receive blessings – we understand that God’s grace is pure gift – but we have always chosen generosity rather than hoarding assets for ourselves.  One of my best memories of Saint John will always be the council meeting when I was able to announce that we had been informed that we were going to receive a sizeable inheritance.  Although we could not allocate how we were going to spend the money until it became a reality, everyone at the meeting wanted to discuss how we should tithe the money – that is, share 10% of it.  They weren’t focused on what we could do with the money for ourselves, but excited about how we would share it with others.  Then, the story gets even better, because at the annual meeting when we presented our plan for the money, someone remembered a ministry we had forgotten.  Instead of re-allocating the money, we just gave another 1% of the total to that cause, for a total of 11% given to others.

            Through the years we have had ups and downs, times of abundance and times when scarcity threatened.  Yet we have never lost our focus on sharing what we have with others.  When a congregation like ours has that kind of attitude, it is not limited to just sharing with others, but rather it spills over into all aspects of ministry.  I remember one year when it seemed as though we might not be able to afford a full-time pastor, and Deacon Gary stood up and spoke with great passion, from his heart, about trusting in God’s abundance and allowing God’s Holy Spirit to guide us. He exhorted us not to lose faith and not to adopt an attitude of scarcity.  His words were inspiring and prophetic.

            Right now, we, along with most congregations, are experiencing a time when things might appear to be scarce.  Even though our attendance is less than what it was a few years ago, the hard truth is that many of my colleagues see even less people divided into two services on most Sundays.  That’s disheartening.  For whatever reason, even though there seems to be more people around than ever before – there are certainly more cars taking up parking spaces on the streets – less and less people are interested in being committed members of a faith community.  This is not just a Christian phenomenon, many of our local temples have merged due to declining membership.

            I don’t know what the answer is to these perplexing problems.  It has affected me directly, I would have retired a year or two later if I knew the congregation could continue to afford a pastor with my years of experience.  Yet we must trust that the Holy Spirit is at work – the right person to serve here with new eyes, lots of energy and new ideas is out there, perhaps a senior in seminary who will be ready to answer your call after their graduation.  It is possible that some thinking outside the box is needed – our congregation has always been good at being open to new ideas, not just for the sake of something new, but in order to enable us to continue a ministry of abundance in the midst of a time when faith communities seem to be experiencing scarcity.

            As a sign of abundance for the future, today we are blessed to welcome Angel as a member of our congregation.  He has been attending faithfully for a couple of years now and could have easily just continued in the same way, sharing in worship and helping out in various ways as he has been doing.  Yet, inspired by his history as a faithful member of the church in Mexico, he wants to make a commitment to be a member of this congregation.  He feels blessed to be part of us and we are blessed to have him.   And remember, his name means “messenger of God.”

            We were also blessed this morning by the presentation from some of the participants at the ELCA National Gathering.  We were the only congregation in our conference to send a group – 8 youth and 2 chaperones.  I am confident that in three years I will be hearing all about the exciting time the participants had in Minneapolis.

            I have complete confidence in the ongoing ministry of Saint John, but only if you continue in the spirit of abundance, trusting in God’s promises and always being willing to share with others.   Do not allow the fear of scarcity to overshadow your natural inclination towards abundance.  Do not have a glass is “half empty” attitude.  Human nature makes it too easy to give in to fear, rather than allowing our hearts to trust in God’s promises.  Abundance does not always mean more money or even more people, nor does it mean ignoring reality.  Abundance means being able to continue carrying on a meaningful ministry for this time in this place, however that may come to be.  Of course, that means everyone has to pitch in – make the effort to come to worship regularly -can you imagine the possibilities if the church was this full every Sunday! –  give faithfully and as generously as you can to support our ministry, care for one another, work for justice, peace and compassion in the world and share with those in need.  That is the work we are called to do by God.  Amen.

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Ninth Sunday after Pentecost – 07.22.18

Our gospel story for today focuses on a contrast that applies just as much to our everyday lives now as it did two centuries ago.  Jesus is at the height of his popularity in the Gospel of Mark, and the crowds are relentlessly following him and his disciples wherever they go.  Jesus has compassion for the people, and willingly works tirelessly to teach those who want to hear and to heal those who are suffering.

As Christians, we look back to the prophetic words of Jeremiah in our first reading and see the actions of Jesus.   Jeremiah assures the people that God sees and understands when they have poor leadership, when they are neglected by those who should be caring for them.  When that happens, God will send a new shepherd, who will be wise and just and promote righteousness.  Our gospel describes Jesus as fulfilling those promises.

Today we have to pay attention to the opening verses of our gospel reading.  This takes place immediately after the disciples returned from their first mission trips which we have been talking about for the last two weeks.  They had experienced a good deal of success, teaching and preaching and healing.  In fact, in last week’s reading, Mark tells us that word was spreading around Galilee so much that even King Herod heard about the disciples preaching.  Jesus’ response to his disciples is to urge them to come with him and rest.  Apparently, they had worked so hard that they did not even have time for regular meals, and we know that Jesus often found himself in the same predicament, so they must have all been pretty exhausted.

What does Jesus mean when he says they should go to a deserted place?    In their case it literally means the wilderness, where there were few if any people and no distractions.  Jesus is attentive to the practices of his disciples and is aware of all the challenges they faced on their journey.  But this story is not just for the past.  Jesus is always attentive to all that we go through on a daily basis.  We can fall into the trap of too working hard, whether it be for our families, our jobs, our church, or our community without attending to our souls and our spiritual and emotional needs.  Jesus is concerned about us when we do not stop to think, to meditate, to wonder, to focus on what is really important, to pray.  It is at those times that Jesus says: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

Whatever our deserted place is – and it is unlikely to be the kind of wilderness experience those first disciples had – it should be a place where we can have a sense of ourselves again. No noise except that which we choose, no presence besides our own and the Holy Spirit, no company besides plants and animals.  In such a place we seek peace, mindful that there is no peace if our heart has no peace.  We should never be afraid in our deserted place, because there will only be fear if we allow ourselves to live in fear.  In our deserted place, we must clear our minds in order to free ourselves from the grip of anxiety, fear, and endless movement.  In our deserted place, we appreciate the silence and attend to the movements of our bodies.  In our deserted place, we recover our hearts back again from our cell phones and our busy lives. Our deserted place is not necessarily a geographic location but a kind of pathway of time and space that functions as a way in and out of our constant work, distractions and busyness.  To be able to know ourselves is to know how we function best in the world.  In that way, we are much more effective than when we are distracted, tired and feeling unfulfilled.

Our world is in such a precarious situation that we need this constant movement in and out of our own deserted place that solid spiritual practices provide. These practices are so important because our presence and work as Christians in the world are fundamental to the lives of those who are marginalized.  Like Jesus, we are to have compassion for others – the sick, homeless, refugees, the poor.  We see people in need everywhere.  We want to attend to their needs, to welcome them home.  We talk at church about how to offer assistance, how to be present, how to promote policies that are compassionate and just.

We worry about the earth itself, the condition of the land, the destruction of wild places, the safety of our drinking water, the humane treatment of animals and other creatures.  We have the capability to provide enough food for all using practices that will protect the land and the health of all those who will consume it, yet we can’t seem to put those practices above corporate greed.  There is enough food, but often corruption prevents safe distribution to those who live in hunger.  Sometimes it feels as though creation itself is crying out for our support so that it may be healed.

For example, the famous cedars of Lebanon, mentioned many times in Scripture, are in danger of being wiped out by the end of this century because of global warming.  They have outlived empires and survived the destruction of modern wars, but scientists warn that they may not be able to survive the rising temperatures of the earth.  The cedars used to be found in forests that covered thousands of square kilometers but now there are only 17 square kilometers left in scattered groves.  The magnificent cedar trees are the symbol of the country of Lebanon, they are survivors just as the country has survived, and the people will be devastated if the trees become extinct.

As the stewards of the earth and all its creatures, we have so much to do, as Jesus reminds us.  Our gospel stories tell us that at times, even Jesus couldn’t stop. His heart was driven by such deep compassion.  But Jesus knew he needed to stop. No one can run too much and do too many things without being forced to stop and take a break, possibly because of illness.   Our task as followers of Jesus is to be attentive to all that is crying for our attention and demanding our care.  As people of God, we are called to discern the spirit of our times and see where the Spirit of God lives and what the Spirit is asking us to do.

At the same time, Jesus is telling us that we have to pause and pay attention to our hearts, to our movements and to how we are living our lives. Without a strong spiritual life, oriented by daily spiritual practices of prayer and meditation, of pause and time alone, we cannot do all the work we need to do and we cannot be all that we are called to be. A heart without action is ineffective, and action without a heart is empty. Jesus is calling us to have a compassionate heart and to do strong actions of justice and mercy.  Yet he always reminds us to take the time to be spiritually healthy and to be attentive to our basic physical needs so that we can be the most effective at carrying out the work he calls us to do.  Amen.

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Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – 08.15.18

            Today’s gospel reading is not a big favorite with most people.  We really don’t want to think about John the Baptizer’s head being served up on a platter.  Yet the very nature of the Gospel of Mark forces us to think about this story.  We know that Mark is usually brief and to the point.  It is like the Reader’s Digest condensed version of the other gospel narratives.  Mark doesn’t usually spend a lot of time on any one story.  Yet there are fifteen verses dedicated to this story of the beheading of John the Baptizer.  It seems that Mark had something important to say about this event.

            The placement of the story is also significant.  It is right after Jesus sent his disciples out on their first mission trip.  It seems as though the word about their trip had spread, because Mark tells us that King Herod heard about the preaching the disciples were doing.  Jesus was becoming known throughout Galilee, and people were wondering who he is and what is the source of the power that allowed him to preach with authority and to heal those who were suffering. 

            Whenever the subject comes up of who Jesus really is, people often leap to one of the same three conclusions – either he is John the Baptizer raised from the dead, he is Elijah, or he is one of the other prophets.  But King Herod thinks he knows who he is – he is pretty certain this must be John the Baptizer raised from the dead, come back to haunt him.  So, it is at this point in his narrative that Mark offers a flashback to the story of how Herod sent men out to arrest John and put him in prison.  Herod actually admired John, but the constant nagging of his wife Herodias forced him to do something.  She did not appreciate the fact that John kept telling Herod that he had broken Jewish law by marrying the wife of his brother Philip and she wanted Herod to eliminate John.  But Herod feared John, he recognized that he was a messenger of God, so he tried to placate her by having him arrested.

            That wasn’t enough for Herodias, she kept plotting in the background for John’s demise.  The lavish setting for Herod’s birthday party provides her with the perfect opportunity.  She arranges that her daughter will provide entertainment by dancing.  Although this story is sometimes told with an erotic edge to it, there is no evidence that was the case.  The word for her dancing translates as “joyful dancing” and the word used for “girl” indicates she was about 12 years old.  Her dancing pleased Herod and his guests, and in the midst of this party attended by all the important people, and probably fueled by a few goblets of wine, Herod offers to give the girl anything she wishes for, even half of his kingdom.  That was the perfect cue for her mother, who instructed her to ask for the head of John the Baptizer.

            This is the point where we would say, “be careful what you promise.”  Herod finds himself in a completely compromised position.  He showed off in front of all his guests, in his big blustery way he promised the girl anything she asked for.  Now she has requested the one thing he definitely did not want to do – first of all because he genuinely likes John, he enjoys listening to him, and second of all because he is afraid, he senses that John is an authentic prophet of God.  

            Herod could have stood firm on principle and done the right thing.  He could have explained that the life of a person is not to be bartered for or destroyed in the name of a careless promise made at a party.  Yet for all his power and authority, Herod, like so many authoritarian personalities, was really weak.  He worried more about losing face in front of his guests than about standing on moral principles.   He made a boastful promise to the girl in front of all these men that he ruled over and wanted to impress them.  He believed that turning back on his promise would make him look weak. 

            Again, this story is bracketed by the missionary journey of the twelve. They are sent out just before our text and they return immediately following it. Jesus warned them that some may not welcome them nor hear them. The good news does not resonate with everyone — in fact, it actually offends some people. Mark tells us that twice Herod sends out people:  first to arrest John and then to behead him.  The contrast between these two “sending out” events is that Jesus sends his followers out to bring health and wholeness to the life of others, whereas Herod sends his employees out to destroy the life of another person.   Mark’s return to the story of John’s death at a time when Jesus seems to be enjoying success and popularity introduces a sobering note. It serves as a reminder of what happens to preachers who threaten established authorities. The confusion of identity between Jesus and John implies that a similar fate awaits Jesus.

            Lamar Williamson, Jr. (Mark, Interpretation) concludes his comments on this section in his commentary on the Gospel of Mark with: “One way to read the passage, then, is in terms of success versus significance. Success, as the world measures it, seen in the court of Herod. There we find the chief of state and his advisers, the military commanders, the leading people of the country; they are the ones who can afford leisure and pleasure; they can get what they want when they want it. John the Baptist, alone in his cell, doomed and helpless to save his life, appears in shocking contrast to the glitter of the successful people of his time. Our minds are perpetually and perversely fascinated by the wealth, power, and intrigue of Herod’s court; yet the significance of the text lies in the death of that starkly simple prophet in Herod’s prison. The Gospel here invites us to look closely at success … and then choose significance as we follow Jesus on his way.”

There is another contrast in this story – Herod can throw a lavish party for important people.  The disciples are sent out by Jesus with no bread, no bag, and no money. Herod has everything, at least according to the way the world judges the value of material things.  By that standard, the disciples have nothing, yet Jesus would say that they have everything that they need.  This story provides us with a good illustration of Jesus’ words: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  Ultimately, Herod was haunted by the fact that he ordered the death of an innocent man.  John the Baptizer and all of Jesus’ followers are saved by the death of an innocent man.  Amen.

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Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – 07.08.18

            Do you remember the gospel from two weeks ago when they were caught in a big storm on the Lake of Galilee and the disciples asked, “Who is this who can calm the wind and the waves?”  They were not sure of just who this rabbi was that they were following.  More accurately, they wanted to know the source of his amazing authority and power.  In today’s gospel, the people of Nazareth, his hometown, think they know exactly who Jesus is.  They know he is the son of Mary, he has four brothers and an unknown number of sisters who still live in town.  He is a carpenter – “tekton” in Greek.  That word should really be translated as “builder” because in English a carpenter works in wood, whereas a builder works with many materials.  That would be true of a builder in first-century Galilee, where wood was in scarce supply and most buildings were made of stone or a material we would call adobe. 

            Galilee was prosperous during the time of Jesus, so his family was not living in poverty.  Most of the people were peasants, hired to work the land.  There was an artisan class which included builders, a little above the peasants, but still considered lower class.  Then there was the upper class which included merchants, landowners, religious authorities, lawyers, judges and rulers.   97% of the people were illiterate.  There was no middle class.

            As far as his neighbors were concerned, Jesus was trying to be something that he was not destined to be.  He was born into the lower class, a member of a family of artisans, and was now claiming that he was a rabbi, and even worse, a prophet and a healer.  They believed that one’s place in society was determined by birth and family, and it did not change.  On top of that, the religious authorities were already against him and spread rumors that he did not honor the law, even that he was perhaps a little bit “off his rocker” as we would say.  So, in spite of his success in other areas of Galilee, the hometown folks in Nazareth were not having any of it.

            Mark tells us “and he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.”   Unbelief, lack of faith, is linked to Jesus’ ability to teach and heal.  We can infer that the few people he was able to heal had faith in his power and so it was a success.  Even though Jesus had known these people all of his life, he was still amazed that they do not believe the message of God’s love, mercy, compassion and righteousness that he was proclaiming.

            The author of Mark, in his blunt, no-nonsense style, does not mince words.  The mission of Jesus to his hometown is clearly a failure.   Yet he never gives up.  Presbyterian pastor Moffet Churn is encouraged by this story.  He recalls how years ago he had to take bowling in order to fulfill the physical education requirement and receive his bachelor’s degree.   He was never an athletic person, so at first, he enrolled in judo, inspired by the kung fu films that were popular at the time.  But even though he tried twice, each time he took an incomplete because, as he puts it, “for the life of me, I couldn’t learn to fall.”   Fortunately, he managed to pass his final exam in bowling and graduate with his class a few weeks later.  But he still remembers how fragile and frightened he felt at the prospect of being a beginner in a class that required skill he did not possess.  In order to graduate he had to learn both how to fail and how to succeed.

            Even though Jesus fails during his visit to his hometown, he does not give up.  Instead, he leaves Nazareth and goes out to the surrounding villages to teach, where presumably he had more success.  At that time, he also decides to send his disciples out on their first mission trips.  He wants them to learn by experience, so that when he is no longer with them they will be able to proclaim the gospel message.

            He sends them out two by two for a few reasons – safety, since the roads were dangerous to travel alone, because two witnesses were always required in order to corroborate a story, and for mutual encouragement and support.  They were to have complete faith in the laws of hospitality that governed the Middle East and take nothing with them.   Food, shelter and any other necessities would be provided.  If they were not welcome in a particular place, they were to “shake off the dust on their feet as a testimony against them.”   Shaking the dust off one’s feet was a gesture of cursing a place, symbolizing a complete break so that not a trace of it would remain with them.

            The indications are that the disciples had some success on their trip.  They proclaimed their message of repentance, cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.  But Jesus had prepared them for the possibility of failure by the rejection he experienced in his hometown of Nazareth.    

            This particular story raises a lot of questions.  Are we unable to hear the message because we have difficulty in accepting the messenger?  Pastor Brian Stoffregen recalls about 45 years ago when he was in a gospel singing group for the summer.  They learned afterward that at the first church they visited one of the members came for the performance but said, “if one of those kids has a beard or plays the guitar, I’m leaving.”  Stoffregen still has a beard and plays the guitar.  The man kept his word and left.  Other people from his congregation said it was a shame that he could not hear the message presented in such a wonderful and enjoyable way simply because he would not accept the messenger.

            Mark’s implication is that if the people of Nazareth believed in Jesus he could have done a great deal more when he was with them.  The spiritual climate of a congregation, the sense of expectation, the sense of openness to God’s power will have a great deal to do with how much God’s power can accomplish in that community.  Unbelief does not completely destroy God’s ability to work, but an overwhelming sense of negativity or doubt can have a dampening effect on God’s miraculous power.  The lack of faith in the people of Nazareth was revealed by the fact that the people did not seek Jesus out.  They did not bring their sick for healing, they did not bring their children for blessing, they did not gather to hear him teach.  Faith is not passive, it requires action.  Without faith, the people did nothing.   In a congregation, faith must be present during worship, at council meetings, in all the many activities that take place.   

            Jesus says that a prophet is often without honor in their own hometown and among those who know them the best.  The basic meaning of the word translated as “honor” means to put a price or value on.  We honor those people or things on which we place a high value.  To the people of Nazareth, Jesus was just Mary’s son, he was just a builder, he was just one of many siblings.  He wasn’t anyone special, why would they bother to seek him out.  They resented the fact that he appeared to elevate himself above the status he was born with.

            Faith opens us up to receive what God wants to give us. Sometimes it is miraculous, sometimes it may seem to be a burden – like the cross.   Even when we are empowered by the Spirit, sometimes we will meet with success and other times we will fail.  Even Jesus’ divine power did not prevent failure at times.  Yet faith implies action, it implies that we will never give up, that we will always find people and communities – often the most unexpected – that are open to hearing the Good News.  Amen.

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Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – 07.01.18

Sometimes when we see something disgusting we say, “Yuck!” Parents may tell their children, “Don’t touch it!”  There are some yucky things in the world that we try to avoid.  For reasons we don’t fully understand, the ancient Hebrews felt the same about certain things.  Some animals, foods, diseases, body fluids, and dead things made the people say, “Yuck! Don’t touch them!”  Such things were “unclean” or “impure”. If you touched them you became unclean. If you had one of the diseases, you were unclean, and then anything or anyone that you touched became unclean.  Being unclean was the opposite of being holy.  Being unclean meant that you couldn’t come to the temple to worship God. Anything unclean was unfit or unworthy to be in the presence of God. If you were unclean, you had to go through a rite of purification or cleansing in order to be welcomed back into society and into the presence of God.

The use of the word “unclean” can be misleading. It doesn’t mean “dirty” like children get when they play or if we do physical labor, but more like something we try to avoid.  Being unclean refers to the relationship between people or things and God.  It is like when someone tells another person, “Don’t touch me!”  There is something about the relationship that is estranged.  Unclean things and people were estranged from God and from each other.  They weren’t supposed to touch each other.

In some ways that ancient view of unclean things is like our saying, “One bad apple spoils the whole bunch.” Contact with one of those unclean things made you an unclean person. There is some truth to this.  If we come into contact with someone who has a contagious disease, unless we are protected, we are likely to end up with the same sickness. If we hang around with the wrong group of people, they may have a bad influence on us. There are some good reasons to stay away from certain people and things.

Jesus mixes everything up. Jesus doesn’t become unclean by contact with the unclean people. They don’t bring him down to their level. Jesus’ holiness transforms their uncleanness. The bleeding is stopped and the woman is healed. The corpse comes back to life and the young girl gets out of bed. With people in situations where others said, “Stay away” to, Jesus never says “stay away!”  Instead, he offers his healing touch.  Jesus’ holiness transforms the people’s uncleanness.  Jesus raises them up to his level and makes them worthy to be in the presence of God.  Jesus, as the one good, holy apple, can make all the bad apples become good.

Sometimes our lives may seem full of “yucks.”  We may even think that we are terrible, rotten, yucky people. Jesus doesn’t think so. To him, there are no yucky people.    With Jesus, there is something about touching or being touched that makes us clean and holy and beautiful.  In our gospel story, Mark mentions touching seven times.  The crowd “pressed” around Jesus.  The woman believed his touch would heal and so she touched his garment.  Jesus asked twice who had touched him.  Finally, after the father asked Jesus to lay hands on her, Jesus took the little girl by the hand and raised her.

Commentator Sister Mary McGlone describes today’s gospel story as a “miracle archway.”  The two pillars are the father’s request and the healing of his little daughter.  The pinnacle is the healing of the woman.  In the space between the pillars and under the pinnacle is meaningless touch.  The kind that happens when a large group becomes a crowd and tries to move.  Their attention is fixed on one thing and whoever they bump into is of no consequence.  That is how the disciples saw their walk with Jesus – they were on the way with him to the official’s house and they wanted to stay close to Jesus and see what would happen.  The jostling of the crowd had no consequence, so much that they did not even notice the woman who had suffered for 12 years, the entire lifetime of the sick little girl they were on the way to see. 

The woman has clearly heard about Jesus, and that sparked some hope in her after years of discouragement.  She had such faith that she believed that if she just touched his cloak his healing power would save her.  And she was right, just coming into contact with his garment healed her illness.  But for Jesus that was not enough.  He wasn’t some sort of anonymous miracle worker, he wanted to have a personal relationship with people.  When he felt the healing power flow out from him, he wanted to know who it was that had touched him.  The woman, who had broken social taboos by touching someone when she was unclean, summoned up the courage and came forward. 

For that moment they entered into a personal relationship, made especially powerful by the fact that Jesus calls her “daughter.”  This is extraordinary because it is the only time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus calls anyone “daughter.”  He has called others mother, sister, brother.  He addressed a paralytic as “child.”  But never before or after does he address someone as his daughter or son.  Was it her extraordinary hope and faith, perhaps her audacity, that enabled her to receive healing directly from him in such an unprecedented way?  Jesus returns her courage and faith by calling her daughter, affirming that she has received life from him.  

Jairus, the official of the synagogue also demonstrates an extraordinary measure of hope and faith.  We can understand the fear and despair of a father who has a child who is critically ill, perhaps dying.  As we know from our previous gospel readings, the Pharisees and Sadducees were set against Jesus, always trying to set traps so they could falsely accuse him of breaking the laws.  Yet this official of the synagogue defies the religious authorities and makes a direct plea to Jesus to save his daughter. 

This gospel story calls us to trust in the grace and power of God.  Grace is everywhere, even where we least expect it.  God is Emmanuel, which means God with us.  God is with us, for us, and among us.  And God is especially present to those who are suffering in any way.   Because of that, there are new miracles taking place everyday all around us.  Miracles of conversion and repentance and new beginnings.  Miracles of hope, of courage and of faith. 

Jesus has the same message for any of us for whom hope is dead, for anyone who has given up on the possibility of a new beginning.  The people in our gospel were mourning the death of a child, but Jesus said to them, “The child is not dead, but asleep.”  And then he told her, “Little girl, arise!”  He tells us the same thing – arise!  Arise from our despair, from our hatred, from our blindness to the truth, from our prejudices and from our fears.  Because God’s grace can win over hate.  We see it time and time again.  Today we are encouraged to put our trust in God’s healing touch and to be alert to share that healing touch by welcoming, listening, healing and forgiving. Amen

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Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – 06.24.18

Today’s gospel is full of riddles for us to solve.  Jesus decides it is time to leave the crowds who have been pursuing him in his home area of Galilee and go across to the “other side” of the Lake of Galilee.  The other side is a Gentile area, where there will be more stories for us to hear in the future.  But for now, we are told that once Jesus initiated the plan, the disciples “took him with them in the boat, just as he was.”  I’ve always wondered what that meant – “just as he was.”  And we often forget that there were other boats making the crossing with them, indicating that all of his followers, men and women, were accompanying him on this journey.  

They are overtaken by a storm which must have been pretty bad because the disciples, some of whom were professional fishermen, were afraid of sinking.  Yet Jesus manages to nap peacefully – asleep on a cushion – right where the person steering the boat would have been standing.  I often imagine that Jesus, disturbed from his much-needed slumber, reacted as a slightly annoyed parent would.  First, he took care of the immediate danger – he calmed the wind and waves – rather sternly, but not with too much drama.  Then he turns his attention to the disciples, as a parent would with their children.  They are clearly afraid – now, perhaps of him and his ability to control forces of nature – and he asks “have you still no faith?”  It seems he is growing weary of their lack of understanding.

Their reaction is to ask “who then is this?”  There is a scene in an old mystery movie about a man who his family thinks is just an insurance salesman.  In reality he was a highly trained government spy who spoke several languages fluently, was an expert marksman and knew all the tricks of the trade.  In the story the man’s wife disappears on a trip to Paris, and he takes his son and follows her, utilizing all his spy skills to find her and bring her to safety.  When they first arrive in Paris the son overhears his father speaking fluent French on a pay phone as he tucks a pistol into his belt.  When he emerges from the phone booth his son, whose eyes were wide as saucers, looks at his dad and asks, “Who are you?”  His father was clearly someone that he had never imagined.  That is kind of how the disciples reacted to Jesus.

One way to interpret this story is that for Mark, the trip across the lake is the mission to the Gentiles.  The storm represents the many disagreements and difficulties that took place in the early church as they tried to obey Jesus’ command to “make disciples of all nations.”  We often use ship imagery in the church – the area where you are sitting right now is called the “nave” from the Latin word “navis” which means ship.  (“Navy” comes from the same Latin root.)  

Any study of church history will reveal the storms that have been overcome in order to reach out to those who are perceived to be different.  Bishop Lyle G. Miller said these words in opening worship at the Sierra Pacific Synod Assembly in 1991 (quoted in The Lutheran, June, 1991.)  He said, “The church is not a luxury liner, granting passage and comfort to all who qualify and clamber aboard, but rather like a rescuing lifeboat, sometimes listing, or even leaking, but always guided by Jesus, the captain, at the helm.”

Many years ago, author James Moak adapted a tale about lifeboats and life- saving.  There was once a simple little life-saving station on a dangerous coast where many shipwrecks occurred.  The building was a hut and they had one boat, but the members were diligent and constantly watched over the seas, going out day and night searching for those in danger with no thought of their own safety.  Over the years many people were saved by that station, so many that it became famous.  People wanted to become associated with the station and made large donations to support it.  New boats were purchased and new crews were trained.

As time went on some members were unhappy with the crude hut, so they replaced the cots with beds and put better furniture in.  Gradually it became a gathering place for the members, they decorated it and furnished it as a club.  Fewer members were interested in saving lives so they hired lifeboat crews to do that work, although the lifesaving motif still prevailed in the decoration.  Shortly after that a large ship was wrecked off the coast and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet and half-drowned people.  They were dirty and many were sick.  The beautiful new club was really messed up and had to be completely cleaned.  Their solution was to have a shower house built outside the club so victims could be cleaned up before being brought inside.

That created quite a schism and at the next meeting most members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities because it interfered with their social life.  But some insisted on lifesaving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still considered a life-saving station.  They were voted down and told if they wanted to save the lives of victims of shipwrecks, they could establish their own life-saving station farther down the coast.  Which they did.  Well, history continued to repeat itself and if you visit that coast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along the shore.  There are still shipwrecks in the rough waters, but not as many rescues.   

History constantly repeats itself in the form of storms that seem to sneak up on us, take us by surprise and then unleash such terrible force that we become terrified.  We, as the church, are called to be Christ and help to calm the storm, or at least to offer sustenance and comfort to its victims.  Our nation is in the middle of such a storm, as we hear and see terrible images of children being separated from their parents.  As Christian and other religious leaders have stated, no matter our individual opinions on the complicated issue of immigration, taking children away from their parents, detaining them in prison-like conditions, and holding them hostage because of a moral dilemma that has been politicized is a sin. 

Our Presiding Bishop of the ELCA Elizabeth Eaton and the Interim Bishop of our synod, Donald McCoid, have issued pastoral statements about this terrible situation that is taking place, noting that the majority of the people who are being arrested for seeking asylum are fleeing dangerous and horrific conditions in their home countries.  As Bishop Eaton said, “Leaving their communities is often the only option they have to provide safety for their children and protect them from harm. Tearing children away from parents who have made a dangerous journey to provide a safe and sufficient life for them is unnecessarily cruel and detrimental to the well-being of both children and parents.”  

These are real people just like us who love their families and want to do the best they can for them, just as we do. Jesus said we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Surely this policy is not something we would accept for our own families.  Bishop Eaton goes on to remind us, “As we continue to serve and love our neighbor, we pray for the children and families who will suffer due to this policy and urge the administration to stop their policy of separating families.”  Bishop McCoid encourages us with these words, “May we follow our God of love and justice who does indeed welcome the stranger and has compassion for those in need.”  Amen 

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Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – 06.17.18

            In 1976 the people of Bangladesh were suffering from a terrible famine.  Economics professor Muhammad Yunus visited the village of Jopra, one of the hardest hit communities.  While he was there he met a group of forty-two poor basket weavers.   Yunus removed $27 from his pocket and loaned it to those women.  They used the money to buy straw to weave baskets and seats for stools.  They were able to sell the baskets and stools, repay the loan, and develop a successful business.

            That idea, which started with forty-two impoverished women grew into the Grameen (which means “village”) Bank.  Small loans allow poor entrepreneurs and crafts people to invest in supplies and services to help them earn a living.  Since then Yunus and the Grameen Bank have granted micro-loans to more than seven million poor people, who have no collateral and most of whom cannot even read or write.  The repayment rate has been 98%.  This program is not dispensing charity, it is investing in people who have never had the opportunity to reach their potential and experience decent lives.

            Just like the tiny mustard seed in Jesus’ parable grows into a large shrub, so these tiny micro-loans grow into profitable businesses that bring a quality of life to impoverished people who before dared not even dream of having basic food, clothing and shelter. The poorest of the poor flock to Yunus and the Grameen Bank out of hope for their future.  96% of the loans have gone to women, who are usually victims of repressive social and economic conditions.  The seed money gives them a chance for life with some measure of safety and an ability to care for their families. 

            In 2006 Professor Yunus, “Banker to the Poor,” received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to eliminate poverty.  His dream is that someday people will have to go to museums to see what poverty was like, because it will have been eradicated. 

            Where do we plant our tiny seeds of faith?  One important place is in our children.  Most often, although not always, they are baptized as infants and then we enjoy watching as they gradually grow in faith.  Sometimes they come to faith at an older age, when they embrace the promise of God’s grace for themselves.  We teach them, we act as role models for them, we nurture them on their faith journey.  But, as Jesus reminds us, we may plant seeds but we must resist the temptation to think we know exactly how to make them grow.  Very often they surprise us. Today we are blessed to have our young people lead us in worship, demonstrating their commitment to God and their thankfulness to the congregation for our support of them.

            In our second reading Paul writes, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”  Today we are also pleased to celebrate with four of our young people as they affirm the promises made on their behalf at their baptism.  We have enjoyed accompanying them on their faith journey thus far, and we are confident that they will continue to be part of our church family and contribute their time and talent to the church, each in their own unique way.

            In their essays for confirmation (which you will be able to read in the summer issue of our newsletter) they have each described moments that were special to them.  These essays never fail to amaze and impress.   They are young theologians, speaking knowledgeably of their faith in God and their trust that God is always there for them, watching over them and always willing to forgive their sins.  In a world that sometimes seems superficial and too technological, they have a firm grasp on the reality of sin, the need for forgiveness and their complete trust in the gift of God’s grace.  They understand the meaning of baptism and confirmation and the reasons why we gather as a congregation to worship God. 

            They each have particular memories that are meaningful to them, affirming that we have served as role models for them while providing them with a safe and fun place to grow in faith.  They appreciate their individual families and their family of God, and they find safety, comfort and strength in both.  They are thankful and express their gratitude, both in words that we truly appreciate and by doing things for others.  A favorite part of confirmation class has been working at the Garden at St. Francis Episcopal Church and sharing worship with the people there.  They also enjoyed confirmation class with Tom and Nick, as one of them put it, “I really don’t get what everyone said was so bad about it anyway.” 

            All of us, together with their families, have worked together to make this day possible for them.  But we have to be careful not to try and make these individuals fit into neat little categories that we create. 

Jesus chose the mustard seed for his second parable for today.  In his day, mustard was a weed.  It could be useful as a seasoning, but it was not something that people would purposely plant.  Yet it grew abundantly and well even in less than ideal conditions.  Jesus calls it the “greatest of all shrubs,” which was probably a bit of a joke on his part.  The mustard plant is not a magnificent or great plant, but it provides shelter and security for little birds and other creatures. 

            Jesus is encouraging us to perceive greatness in new ways.  Like the mustard plant, the kingdom of God is everywhere.  It’s spreading and growing all around.  Even though Mark insists on the messianic secret in his gospel, the word still gets out and spreads among the people.  In fact, there is no gospel story where the message and example of Jesus remains buried in the ground, dormant, waiting for perfect conditions.  The good news is like a weed, spreading everywhere, invasive even among those who prefer neat and tidy beginnings and endings. 

            We are so blessed today to see an example of the seeds of faith as they have grown in those who were once little children, now mature young people we are so proud of, ready to take their part as leaders and sowers of the seed.  They are each unique individuals who look forward to the future with a positive attitude, and we are eager to see what each of them will accomplish as they grow into adults, with the confidence that they are beloved children of God and cherished members of the family of God.  We cannot control what will happen in the future, but we trust that God has a wildly fruitful plan that is already in operation.  We may not see it clearly or fully understand it, but as our confirmands so eloquently expressed, we know that we will be the beneficiaries of God’s free gift of grace.  Amen.  

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Third Sunday after Pentecost – 06.10.18

            It is difficult to imagine the chaotic scene described by Mark in our gospel for today.  This story occurs after our gospel for last week, which took place on the Sabbath day when the Pharisees deliberately misinterpreted Jesus’ actions as they gathered evidence against him.  Then he went down to the Sea of Galilee, with a great multitude of people following him.  Along the way he healed the sick and cast out demons, and the crowds were so tremendous that the disciples had a boat ready for him to sit in so he could speak without being crushed.  Then, according to Mark, he ascended a mountain and called the twelve who would become his inner circle of disciples.

            Our story picks up with “then he went home” which we assume means his hometown of Nazareth.  It’s no wonder he headed home, after all he had accomplished he must have needed a safe place to rest.  But that was not to happen.  It seems that crowds of people followed him to Nazareth, and they were so insistent that Jesus and his followers could not even sit to eat a meal.  That triggered three different responses –  from Jesus, the Scribes and his family members.

            The famous words which were spoken by Abraham Lincoln can be found in this text.  “…if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.”   Jesus knew that the social order his people had known for centuries was crumbling.  The land that peasant farmers had farmed for generations was being turned into estates, owned by absentee landlords.  That created an exodus into the towns and cities, particularly by younger sons, because of the lack of land for them to inherit.  The cities were becoming crowded and full of poverty as the traditional network of family and clan began to erode.

            Jesus was seeking healing and change, not just for individuals who suffered, but for the social institutions that the people depended on.  With that background, it is easier to understand his radical view that those who were normally considered the insiders might become outsiders, and those who were marginalized by society as outsiders would now have the opportunity to become insiders.

            Unfortunately, the Scribes did not hear Jesus’ teaching in the same way that he intended it.  Instead, they sowed dissension, by falsely claiming that Jesus was able to heal and perform exorcisms because he was under the power of Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons.  Jesus cleverly points out that Satan cannot drive out Satan and implies that the worst he could be guilty of is instigating a coup in hell.  Yet the Scribes are unable to be open to new revelation.  They assumed that Jesus could not possibly be doing the work of God through his healing and exorcisms because he did not fit the categories they understood nor did he always follow their strict interpretation of the law. They were incapable of being open to the possibility of change and forgiveness through the work of the Holy Spirit.

            The Scribes were considered the most learned men in Israel, and so had tremendous influence.  They used that influence to continually try and turn people against Jesus.  As Josef Goebbels, who was Hitler’s minister of propaganda said, “If you tell a lie often enough people will believe it.”  And so, we see in scripture another example of the maxim, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”  History repeats itself when lies are told and repeated until people believe them, often with tragic consequences. 

            The third response is from the family of Jesus, and his reaction to them.  Jesus was in a house with his followers, and his family were outside.  They did not enter, but rather called to him to come out to them.  This part of the story is probably the easiest to understand from our perspective.  What worried parent or sibling has not at times wanted to protect their loved one from harm by removing them from what they perceive to be a dangerous situation?  Jesus was being accused of blasphemy, of being a disciple of Satan.  Not everyone in the crowd was disposed to be friendly towards him.  The Pharisees and Scribes had done their work of sowing dissension and fear in order to create a hostile atmosphere.  It would have suited their purposes well if Jesus had given up and gone home with his family.  This is a lesson we can learn when we sometimes act out of misguided love and try to inhibit our loved ones from taking on a challenge that we perceive to be dangerous or foolhardy. 

            Jesus’ response to them is sometimes misunderstood.  He does not exclude his family from further contact, rather he redefines the meaning of family.  The biological family would no longer be defined just by blood, just as the family of God would no longer be defined by the religious authorities.  Jesus assumed the freedom to reinterpret religious practices in order to fulfill their ultimate purpose of life with God.  He opened up the traditional restraints of family and clan to make relationship with him a matter of commitment rather than shared ethnicity.

            This story ends with his mother and siblings standing outside the house while he refuses to leave his followers and go home to safety with them.  They are temporarily on the outside, and those who have chosen to follow him are on the inside. His family initially acted out of their fear for his safety, but because he refused to give in, they, too, gained the insight and courage to follow him.  We know that Mary, the mother of Jesus, will continue to demonstrate not only her love for her son but her commitment and example to others as a faithful disciple.  His brothers will become leaders in the Christian community, in fact, his brother James will become the chief elder of the Christian community in Jerusalem. 

            Jesus’ entire ministry was about making the kingdom of God available to everyone.  He believed in having hope for the future and in the ongoing inspiration and power of the Spirit and so he could not be controlled by the past.  The community he was bringing together would have no limits.  No one would have special access to him except through believing in his message and putting it into practice in our lives. 

            Once again, we can say, “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” but this time in a positive light.   As Christians, we sometimes have to break with traditions or assumptions from our past and reinterpret our practices in order to embrace the life-giving intentions of God for everyone.  We have to be willing to drop our claims based on race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual identity and economic status in order to embrace a wider meaning of the family of God.   We have to be open to the revelation and inspiration of the Spirit in our lives.  As Jesus demonstrated, acknowledging past wrongs, being open to new inspiration, and being willing to make healthy changes can lead to new life.  Amen.

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Second Sunday after Pentecost – 06.03.18

We often talk about the importance of observing the Sabbath but we don’t do such a great job when it comes to actually practicing it.  Sabbath is not just a time to take it easy from the demands of ordinary life, although that is part of it. Sabbath rest is more than a nap. Sabbath rest is life-oriented and life-giving, according to the mandate for Sabbath in Genesis.  God rests at the end of creation so that creation can continue, which indicates God’s desire for encouraging life, not just taking a break from it.  The Sabbath is created for life, and so God rests for the sake of life.  That kind of rest is essential because it anticipates action for the sake of life once again.  When the Sabbath is for the sake of life, then it means getting back in there and figuring out where life needs to happen. 

This was demonstrated by Jesus in our gospel lesson.  The day begins with Jesus and his disciples walking through a field and helping themselves to some ripe grain for breakfast.  They were not stealing, what concerns the Pharisees is the fact that they are traveling and gleaning on the sabbath.  To the Pharisees, their behavior appears to deliberately neglect the mandate to observe the sabbath and keep it holy.

Jesus disagrees, not because he regards the sabbath commandments as trivial but because he sees a larger picture, one that regards the sabbath in a different light. He turns to a story about David in 1 Samuel and roughly paraphrases verses 1-6 from the 21st chapter.  In this story David took consecrated bread that was supposed to be reserved for priests because he was a fugitive, seeking allies and fleeing King Saul, who had declared his intentions to kill him.  Jesus implies that the priest (whom either Mark or Jesus misidentifies as Abiathar instead of Ahimelech) did nothing wrong in breaking the strict letter of the law concerning the bread.  By satisfying David’s hunger, the priest sustained the life of a weary traveler and contributed to David’s commitment to live into his calling as the king anointed to replace Saul.

Jesus is offering a legal opinion that he finds in scripture itself.  He believes that sometimes certain demands of the law are rightly set aside in favor of pursuing greater values or meeting greater needs, especially when those greater needs promote a person’s well-being and facilitate divine blessings.  Jesus’ argument was not new, nor was it scandalous.  The Pharisees understood the sabbath, but they probably did not appreciate that Jesus, this new and uppity rabbi, was dispensing legal opinions.  And Jesus definitely would have caught their attention in his assumption that somehow, he and his calling were comparable to David and David’s calling.  In addition, declaring himself the “lord” or “master” of the sabbath itself could imply that the law’s ultimate purpose is to serve Jesus.  The scandal resides not in the act of eating the grain, but in the way that he presents himself.

Then Jesus visits the synagogue in Capernaum and abruptly turns his attention to the man with the withered hand.  In a previous visit to the same synagogue, there was a man with an unclean spirit shrieking in the middle of the service.  Clearly there were people attending this synagogue who didn’t meet normal expectations.  Often our churches appear to be filled with people who all seem to look alike and perhaps even think alike, but the Spirit has a way of disrupting things.  Rev. Thomas Long tells how he once worshipped in a downtown Toronto church filled with demure Presbyterians, except for about 20 homeless people who danced around the communion table and shouted enthusiastic responses during the sermon.  Their presence was disconcerting, yet at the same time seemed to be a profound gift of the Spirit. 

The healing in the synagogue intensifies the conflict over Jesus’ authority and his values.  For the Pharisees, the issue is not whether Jesus has the power to heal the man’s hand, it is whether doing so on the sabbath demonstrates a willful disregard for the law of God — a law that was believed to give good order to life and to facilitate encounters with God’s blessings and holiness. Jesus’ response to the Pharisees – “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” – indicates that he disagrees with the premise of their suspicions.  By healing the man, he does not disparage or break the law – nothing he does is considered “work” that the sabbath prohibits.  Jesus is honoring the purpose of the sabbath commandment in his belief that the chief objective of the law is to save and preserve life.  Therefore, what better day is there than the sabbath, a day meant to promote God’s commitment to humanity’s well-being, for the restoration of a man’s malformed hand?  That healing will restore his ability to work and provide for his family as a full member of the community.

According to ancient rabbinic tradition, “Saving life overrules the Sabbath,” so Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries would not have found his basic perspective especially troublesome.  Jesus and the Pharisees probably do not disagree about the protocols of the Sabbath.  The Pharisees know full well that saving life and doing good are lawful on the Sabbath.  The Orthodox respect that tradition today, when emergency responders and health care workers are given dispensation to work on the Sabbath if necessary.  The issue was that Jesus’ opponents were out to collect evidence to use against him, and they left the synagogue and met with the Herodians, who they normally disagreed with, but who shared their antagonism towards Jesus and presented distorted evidence and alternative facts to plot against him.  It was probably inevitable that the story in the synagogue would end badly. 

Of course, the bad ending was only temporary, as so often happens with righteous people.  On the show This American Life, a young father tells how he took his preschool daughter to lunch on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.  On their table was a drawing of Rev. King.  His daughter asked who it was, and he told her, explaining that she had off from school to honor him.  He told her King was a preacher and that his message was that we should treat everyone equally no matter who they are.  She thought about it and said, “That’s what Jesus said.”

The father goes on, “And I said, yeah, I guess it is.  You know, I never thought of it that way, but yeah.  And it is sort of like do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  And his daughter thought for a minute and said, ‘Did they kill him, too?”

Ultimately, the stories of Jesus ended badly in the short run, but in the long run we have Easter and the enduring promise of the resurrection, with an eternal Sabbath.  For those who follow him, whose stories may also end up badly in the short run, we often find that their legacy endures and becomes a model for the rest of us.   We need a re-commitment to a Sabbath life and a Sabbath perspective, so that life can be abundant and holy for all.  Amen.

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Pentecost – 05.20.18

Today is a celebration of the day when God’s promise to the followers of Jesus was fulfilled.  Luke tells us that before he ascended to be reunited with the Father, Jesus promised that he would send the Holy Spirit to be with them, to encourage and empower them, to inspire them and give them wisdom.  According to Luke’s timeline, Jesus ascended forty days after Easter, after having made numerous post-resurrection appearances to them.  Those appearances served not only as proof of his resurrection, but also as opportunities to teach them how the prophecies of Hebrew scripture had been fulfilled through his life, ministry, death and resurrection.

Before he ascended, he asked them to remain together and wait patiently for the gift of the Spirit to come.   Luke describes that event, which took place ten days later, in vivid detail.  Devout Jews from many countries all over the Roman Empire had gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost, which was originally Shavuot, a harvest festival.  In contemporary Judaism, it is a day of thanksgiving for the gift of the law, the Torah.  We aren’t sure if that was also part of the festival in Jesus’ day.  Shavuot took place fifty days after Passover, hence the Greek name, Pentecost, which Christians appropriated as a day of thanksgiving for the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The people came from different cultures and spoke different languages, what they held in common was their Jewish identity, expressed through their faith in God and their reverence for the Torah. 

Luke tells us that “all of the followers” were together, waiting as they had been instructed by Jesus.  That means not just the eleven remaining disciples of the inner circle, but others as well – probably Mary, the mother of Jesus, his brothers, the other women who were at the tomb and various other people.  Suddenly, there is a sound of rushing wind and flames as of fire appear on the heads of the followers.  Wind and fire help to convey the dynamic power of the Spirit and the idea that the Spirit cannot be contained, yet at the same time is not meant to be chaotic, there is meaning and purpose to how, when and where the Spirit chooses to act.  

We learn later on in the Book of Acts that apparently only the disciples actually perceived the flames of fire, but it is clear that everyone present discerned that something powerful and remarkable had occurred.  People from many different places heard the story of Jesus from his followers in their own languages, which is a miracle by itself.  They asked, are these people not mainly from Galilee, where they speak Aramaic?  How then can they converse with us in our native tongue?  There is also some comic relief – some accuse them of being drunk, but Peter points out that it is only nine o’clock in the morning, presumably too early to have imbibed too much wine. 

The message is made clear when Peter quotes the prophet Joel, who prophesied that God would pour the Spirit upon “all flesh,” making no distinctions according to rank, authority, or position.  Children, both boys and girls, speak the word.  Women and men alike receive the gift, people who are both slave and free. The Spirit tears down all the walls of respectability: age, gender, and status alike.  For these are the last days that Joel prophesied about, and the Spirit is surrounding “all flesh” with its gifts. Everyone who calls upon God is being saved.

Compared to Luke’s description of the day the promise of the Spirit was fulfilled, our gospel story seems pretty tame.  It is John’s recollection of how Jesus promised to give the gift of the Spirit to his followers, during that time right before his death when he was determined to explain as much as he possibly could to them.   Jesus outlines the critical role that the Spirit will play both in the Christian community and in the world.  In John, Jesus’ preferred term for the Spirit is the Paraclete.  This word is notoriously difficult to translate and so we use the title “the Spirit of Truth” whom Jesus calls to accompany his followers as helper, counselor, advocate, and guide.  As part of the Holy Trinity, the Spirit is sent by Jesus, but goes out from the Father.

The Spirit of Truth testifies to the truth incarnate in Jesus and empowers Jesus’ followers to become witnesses to his mission.  The Spirit speaks through the community of disciples, teaching us to bear witness not only with our words, but with our lives.  As Jesus himself said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” The most compelling witness that any disciple can bear is to love others as Jesus did, through our words and actions.

Today, we are celebrating not just the gift of the Holy Spirit but also a very special day for Makayla and Khloe who have been waiting to receive their First Holy Communion.  Every Sunday we come together as a family of God to take part in a special meal.  The bread and wine we offer as gifts to God will be given back to us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, as the body and blood of Jesus Christ.  We never do this alone, we always share this meal together.  Today marks the first time you will receive communion, yet it will not be the last.  As the years go by and you grow into teenagers and then adulthood, this meal we call the Eucharist will be an essential part of your growth in faith.  We call it the Eucharist, a Greek word, because it means thanksgiving, and we are thankful that God comes to us in this meal.

As you grow you will face many challenges, but your faith in God’s love for you will keep you strong and able to face those challenges.  The Eucharist is the sharing of God’s life with us out of love.  The food that Jesus gives us helps us grow strong in love of God and others such as parents, teachers, relatives, and friends –even people we do not know.  The most important message that Jesus says to us through the Eucharist is that God loves us and cares for us.  When we come to God’s church and share the meal, we are being made strong in His love.

Pentecost is not just a one-time only celebration of the Holy Spirit, it is a reminder that the gift of God’s Spirit is always with us.  The Spirit accompanies us through life, inspiring us to do things we thought we could only dream about.  The Spirit breathes new life into each one of us and through us, into our congregations and the wider church.  The Spirit’s imagination is always at work, bringing a holy disruption to our everyday lives.  Let us follow the example set by our children, who articulate their trust in God so well, and let the Spirit guide, inspire and empower us so that our dreams of a compassionate and just world may become reality.  Amen.