Wednesday, March 4, 2020
Sunday, February 24, 2019
They say that hindsight is 20/20. They say that truth can be seen most clearly in the rear view mirror. One of the more impactful things I’ve heard is when your life if over, you can look back and see the landscape littered with the evidence of God’s presence. Those are different ways of saying that you can see most clearly all the intricacies of a situation after it is past.
In our first lesson, we are reading the climax of the Joseph narrative. Joseph, who was a dreamer, a spoiled brat and the apple of his father’s eye, was not looked upon with favor by his 11 brothers. They got so fed up with him, that they sold him to a passing caravan as a slave. Then they told their father that he’d been eaten by a wild beast. Joseph had a number of ups and downs as a slave - sometimes favored and sometimes imprisoned. But because he had the ability to interpret dreams, he eventually found favor with Pharaoh and was elevated to ruler status in Egypt. He proved his worth by saving the country from the great famine and when his brothers came looking for food, he eventually revealed himself to them. That is where our lesson picks up today.
He could have been very angry - they expected him to be. No one would have blamed him for holding a grudge against them and exacting revenge. But he didn’t. He not only forgave them, but he embraced them and provided for them and their families during the remaining 5 years of famine; He gave them a place to live and food to eat.
He interpreted everything that happened to him in light of God - as an orchestrated dance that eventually placed him in the right spot at the right time to be the saving grace, not only for Egypt, but also for his own family who had denied him. Not all of his journey was pleasant - he was unjustly accused and abused and left to rot in a dungeon - but in the long run he allowed himself to be used by God, and he forgave those same brothers telling them, “You meant it for evil. God meant it for good.” I wonder how many of us could be so gracious under similar circumstances?
But if you listened to our gospel reading this morning - it is asking us to do the same thing. To forgive those who hurt us, to pray for those who abuse us, to bless those who curse us. To turn the other cheek, to give without expecting return, to not take back something stolen from you. Hard, hard lessons and yet, where it is leading us today?
During Diocesan Council this weekend, we began each day with an Indaba Bible Study. Generally, we gathered in small groups and the passage of scripture was read out loud. Each person then went around and shared what one word or phrase stood out to them. Then the passage was read again with each person sharing where does this touch my life today. The third reading asks, “What is God calling you to change or do through this passage?”
Now consider our gospel reading today in that light. ‘Do unto others as you would have the do unto you.’ ‘Do not judge.’ ‘Forgive.’ ‘Love your enemies.’ ‘Lend without expecting return.’ ‘Be merciful, as your Father is merciful.’ ‘Turn the other cheek.’ These make great sound bites, but they are very countercultural to the world at large. These are hard sayings in our world today. The wolves in our world today would eat you alive if you followed these rules to the letter. So what do we take from this lesson - these hard sayings of Jesus?
Do to others as you would have them do to you. Often called or considered to be “The golden rule.” Do you know that every faith tradition has something similar to this golden rule? The main difference between our version and others is that the others are passive while the Christian rule is active. Essentially the other rules say “Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you.” So, for example, if you don’t want them to hit you, then you shouldn’t hit them. The Christian rule though is active - or pro-active - It says, “Do unto others, what you would have the do unto you.” If you want someone to treat you with respect, then you need to treat them with respect. We all come from different backgrounds and are raised to value different things. How do we use this demand of Jesus to look at the world around us in a different way. Sometimes we can’t personally address wrongs we perceive happening in the world at large, but we can pay attention to that part of the world that touches our life.
You look at your neighbor and say to yourself, “If I were in that position, I would hope that someone would do ______ for me.” And try to find a way to do it. You know we have so many people begging on the street in this day and age, there is no way any of us could satisfy all of them. And we know that some people are sponges and will drain you dry if you let them. We also know that there are some people who really do not have the capacity to change - those who live on the street with mental health problems that are not addressed by our current governance and health care systems. So how do you know when and how to help people? There are many agencies, some governmental, but more funded by churches and other non-profit organizations that can minister to those people better than individuals can. That way support of places like The Beacon and Lord of the Streets is so important - because they are equipped to minister to and help people who are living on the fringes of society.
When I was at Church of the Redeemer over in the Eastwood area, I had the opportunity to minister to a number of homeless people. A few were living on $600 a month disability and believe me, it is a challenge to pay rent, and utilities and still have enough left over to buy food.
They had no cars, but a few had bicycles. We developed a bicycle ministry at Redeemer and through the gifts of abandoned bikes from Rice and the University of Houston, we managed to have enough to give to kids in the neighborhood and to many of the homeless. We had a repair ministry and taught them how to take care of their bikes and fix them.
I used to go down to Jack in the Box and get two tacos. I’d eat one and take the other to someone standing down on the street corner begging. The Red barrel collection in our neighborhood Kroger’s came to us and I had food to give to the neighbors. I almost never had money, but bus tokens and Kroger & CVS gift cards along with the red barrel bags fed people and got their medicines. We were the mail box for a number who were trying to get jobs. Being at Redeemer taught me a lot about street people. More than once I took them to the hospital, or to get their medications. I knew, not only their street name, but their legal name. I knew which ones were bi-polar and which ones were schizophrenic. A good number of them were in church every Sunday - especially if we were having food.
I still keep my eyes open to the possibility that God will place someone before me and expect me to do something. But you know, this list of things that Jesus expects us to do - none of us will ever be able to live up to that expectation. Sometimes forgiveness is hard. And it’s hard not to want to get back at someone who hurts you. And Jesus doesn’t really expect us to be a doormat. So we have to find that balance between where our base nature tells us we want to be, and where Jesus encourages us to rise above ourselves. We have to learn to temper our inclinations with God’s expectation. And we need to remember at all times, even when we fall short of God’s expectation, his forgiveness is perfect, even if our isn’t. One of the things that I try to remember is that God wants me to be the very best version of myself possible. I don’t have to live up to someone else’s expectation. I just have to strive to be the best I can be. Sometimes it’s a struggle to go against nature - to not lash out when we have been hurt. With current mantras raging like “Don’t get mad, get even,” it is sometimes very hard to hear the voice of God calling for grace and mercy. But God’s love and mercy is never failing. His grace abounds wherever we let it and even when we fall short of his expectation, his forgiveness covers us.
Sunday, February 10, 2019
There is a common thread running through all of the lessons today. Isaiah says to the Lord, “I am a man of unclean lips.” Paul tells the Corinthians, “I am the least of the apostles.” And Peter tells Jesus, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” And what is it that we know about all of these men? Isaiah was a powerful prophet of the Lord. Paul was the primary apostle to the Gentiles. And Peter was the foundation of the Church that grew out of those who followed the way of Jesus.
We have this story from the beginning of the book of Isaiah. Isaiah has this tremendous vision of the Lord sitting on the throne, filling the temple, surrounded by seraphs, who fly around singing, “Holy, holy, holy...” And he is overwhelmed and responds, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, yet I have seen the Lord of hosts.”
(That’s grace, to be unworthy and yet to receive the Lord and stand before him.)
(This vision of God’s glorious throne room reminds me of an incident a number of years ago in Huntsville. I was the assistant at St. Stephen’s and campus minister for Sam Houston. A young family move here from Venezuela. The mother was a student at the university and they had an 8 year old daughter. One day the daughter, Alexia and I were out picking dewberries and she told me a secret. She confided in me that she had seen the glory of God. As I questioned her, I realized that what she had seen was the sun shining through the clouds leaving trails of golden light, and I agreed that she had indeed seen God’s glory. It is so refreshing to see the world through the eyes of a child! The glory of God is made visible to us over and over in this way.)
So here is Isaiah as a very young man and the vision inspires him and when he hears the Lord say, “who will go for us,” Isaiah eventually responds with enthusiasm, “Here am I. Send me!” How many of us respond in the same way? It’s so much easier to say, someone else will go.” I just heard from a friend who told me her son had pulled out a man trapped in an overturned wrecked car just before it burst into flames. He didn’t think about it, he just saw the need and did it. Isaiah didn’t think about what it meant either, he just answered the call.
In our Gospel lesson today, Peter sees the miraculous catch of fish, and he backs away. He’s scared. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” He is in the presence of holiness and he is afraid. I always wondered about this thing of being afraid, fear in connection with the Lord, with God, and with angels. And I never quite understood it until recently.
Neither passage uses the word ‘awesome’ or ‘fearful’ but both imply it. The Hebrew word Yāre’ can be translated both as awe or as fear. In some translations you read about the “awesome acts of God” or other translations you read about the “fearful acts of God.” It’s bothered me for years and then a few months ago, I heard an explanation that made sense to me - of how something wonderful can also be fearful. Our sun is one of the most powerful things in existence. It’s like a continual nuclear reaction. Without the sun, we could not have life on earth, but if we got too close to the sun, it would destroy us. This idea of God’s power contains the same kind of internal dichotomy. Without God, we would not exist, but being in the presence of God should always inspire awe (or fear) in us.
So both our Old Testament lesson and our gospel reading remind us of both the power of God (that vision of the throne room of heaven) and his ability to work in our lives (the miraculous catch of fish.). In both cases the response was, “I am not worthy...”. But we also know that in each case, Isaiah and Peter both accepted the commission that the Lord gave them.
Our lesson from Paul expresses a similar statement - I am the least of the apostles - and he admits that he is unworthy because he persecuted the newly founded church. But the other thing he talks about - God’s grace - is never poured out in vain. He says, “By the grace of God, I am what I am.” Remember in the Old Testament when Moses was standing before the burning bush, and he says, “Who are you, Lord?” “Who do I tell the Israelites sent me?” And God says, “I am who I am. Tell them ‘I am’ sent you.”
This phrase, “I am” is one of the things that got Jesus in trouble. In John’s gospel, there are seven “I am” statements. I am the bread of life... I am the good shepherd... I am the way, the truth and the life, etc... The ecclesiastical authorities of the day considered these statements to be heresy because Jesus was equating himself with God - “the great I am.” All three of our speakers today use the phrase “I am.” But all three of them name themselves as unworthy of God. And yet by the grace of God, all three allowed themselves to be used by God and became God’s instruments in the world, to spread the good news of God to all people.
The same is true for us - none of us is worthy to stand before God. But God himself makes us worthy through his grace and adoption as his children. Our collect for the day says, ‘set us free from the bondage of sin...’ and it asks - on our behalf - ‘for the abundant life seen in Jesus Christ.’ So, even if we feel sinful or unworthy of Jesus - or of God, please know that God can take any raw material that He sees in you and He can transform it for his own use.
Being fearful is not an uncommon response on our part. When God came to me wanting me to go to seminary and be ordained, I was 50 years old. I was too old. This path would take me to seminary. I had already started two different masters program, one in music and one in math and I had not completed either one, so I had convinced myself that I was not smart enough to get a masters degree. I was not smart enough. And the last thing was to be a priest, you had to be holy, and you had to preach... and there’s no way I qualified in that category. Oh, I read scripture and I prayed, but I didn’t have that special spark that set me apart. I can remember at one point in my life wondering if they let “ordinary people” take classes at seminary, because I thought I might find that interesting.
So the one thing about today’s gospel lesson that I had forgotten is that Peter - a ordinary fisherman, with no special skills, by his own admission a sinful man and definitely not holy - was being called by Jesus to set his fear aside and to follow Jesus, to become the corner stone of a faith that would spread across the world. If Jesus can use a man like Peter, then he can use me and he can use you to be witnesses of our faith and witnesses to the world of God’s place in our daily life. Amen.
Sunday, January 27, 2019
When I was first exploring my call to ministry, it was suggested that I play a little "Bible Roulette." I opened me Bible, without looking at it, and put my finger down on the page - and it was this passage from Nehemiah. "Ezra the Priest brought the law before the assembly... and read from it... from early morning until midday... One of the verses that is omitted from this reading says, “he stood on at a wooden podium... and opened the book in the sight of all the people... and when he opened it all the people stood. " And further down, "And they read from the book clearly and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading." And my first response was, "Oh Lord, does this mean what I think it means?"
Does this all sound familiar? When I opened the Gospel book, you all stood to hear the reading. Now I am standing at a wooden podium giving an interpretation of the readings so that all can understand.
This first lesson takes place approximately 500 years before the life of Jesus. In our Gospel lesson (500 years later) – once again the people have gathered to hear the Word of God being read.
Today, 2000 years later, the people of God are still gathering in churches around the world to hear the Word of God being read. The tradition continues and the story is still told – over and over – with interpretation for the time. There are thousands of churches reading these lessons today. And an interpretation (the sermon) being given - chances are very good that no two sermons will be the same.
Now we have a history lesson, this is God’s doing because I have an aversion to history. But in the case I think its important to connect the pieces. Ezra and Nehemiah are both characters out of the post-exilic period; the Babylonian exile. After Cyrus the Persian king overthrew the Babylonians in 539 BC, he allowed the Jews to begin going back to their homeland.
The first wave went back, taking with them the holy vessels that had been stolen from the temple. Their job was to rebuild the temple which had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar the Babylonian king. They accomplished that task, but they had problems in carrying over their worship practices into the living of their everyday lives.
So Ezra the priest felt called by God to go to Jerusalem and restore the law. His task was to restore the temple worship and help the people to see how this affected their everyday lives. This was the second wave to return from exile.
The third wave consisted of Nehemiah, the governor, whose task it was to rebuild the city wall around Jerusalem. Each returning group met resistance from the people already there.
In our lesson today, we find Ezra reading the law from early morning until midday. And those that are assembled are men, and women, and those who could understand - probably older children. Now understand that the law had not been read in that land in over 70 years. Chances are that very few people there had ever heard it read. They most likely had heard tales and stories passed down word of mouth.
But on this day, most people were hearing the law read for the first time. And it says that the people wept when they heard the law. Why did they weep? Because the Word of God touched their hearts? Because they knew that they had not been following the law? Probably. But are they condemned by their leaders? No, as a matter of fact they are told, "Do not mourn or weep, for this day is holy to the Lord." They are told, "Eat, drink, give to those who have none, for the joy of the Lord is your strength."
In our gospel lesson, Jesus also is reading from Holy Scripture. Jesus has gone to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, as was his custom. This is not something new, it is something he always did. The people knew him, they watched him grow up, and they’ve heard him read before... But this time it's different, this time he's been gone, and they've heard reports, strange reports, about him. He opens up the scroll and he reads. It is a nice familiar text - one they've heard many times before - and they wait for his teaching, his understanding of this text.
And his first words are, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." And they're not sure what to make of this. You see, following his baptism and his temptations, Jesus now understands that he has a purpose. And that purpose can be found is the prophetic scriptures of the Hebrew people. He understands that he has been anointed by God, he has received God's Holy Spirit. He understands that the anointing of God is always given for a purpose. It is never given just as a feel-good sensation or for one's own personal enjoyment - it is given for the fulfilling of a task. Now Jesus knows exactly who he is and what he is to do, and this scripture spells it out in full.
- He is to preach good news to the poor, be they monetarily or spiritually poor.
- He is to proclaim release to those who are held captive, be it physical or emotional imprisonment.
- He is to be the instrument of healing, to the blind, the crippled, the deaf.
- He is to set free those who are oppressed in every land or state.
- He is to proclaim the fulfillment of the Lord's purpose here on earth, during our time - not in some far distant idealistic future.
Jesus is proclaiming his purpose in life. He is also telling the people what it takes for the Kingdom of God to be present in our lifetime. Jesus was uniquely suited for this purpose. He knew who he was and he understood what that meant. He also understood that this was just the beginning of a new paradigm on earth. He knew that even though this was nothing new, since it had seldom been practiced on earth, that he was to be the example - he was the one to demonstrate - exactly what God meant. Jesus' purpose was to demonstrate that the far distant idealistic future was here, - now, - in our lifetime.
Jesus proclaimed it then, two thousand years ago, and he proclaims it now, here in our presence. You see, when the church gathers for worship and for fellowship, the aim should not be to make its members feel good, but to equip them for putting into visible form the Kingdom of God in their daily lives.
Obviously we're not all called to go out and preach the gospel or heal the sick in the way Jesus did. Paul reminds us of that. We are all part of the body of Christ. But if each one of us does our part - worship regularly, fellowship with those who love Christ, reach out to those within our sphere of influence - God's kingdom will be manifest here on earth.
One way we can do this as Christians is to stay attuned to the needs of the people around us. If someone mentions a personal concern to you, they are quite often reaching out for help - for comfort - for understanding. If someone mentions a particular need, offer to stop and pray, right then – or offer other kinds of help that can be beneficial in the given situation.
So often we say something like, “I’ll keep you in my prayers.” And we forget how much more powerful it is to stop right then, take their hand and pray for them - right then, not in some distant future. I used to do that - all the time. And somehow I've gotten out of the habit - often saying, "I'll add you to my prayer list…" And I realize that in doing that, I'm perpetuating this idea of the Kingdom of God as being somewhere in the distant future. But when I stop and pray with the person right then, then the Kingdom of God is present - right then - in that very moment.
I like what James says in his letter to the 12 tribes, "Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them…"
As members of Christ's body here on earth, we are called to do these things. It doesn't take fancy words or special knowledge. What it does take is a belief that God can do all things, and through him all things are possible. We simply open up our hearts to let the love of Christ come in, and allow Him to work through us - sometimes in spite of us…
God calls each and every one of us to be a part of His Kingdom here on earth. And God will use you for his purpose. When people see you, will they say, "I want to be like that", or will they say, "Don't let me be like that…" - it's your choice -- how will God use you?