Sunday, November 30, 2014

You are the potter...

From today's reading:  Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.  Isaiah 64:8

Today is the first Sunday in Advent. Our lessons for today are full of apocalyptic images – the heavens torn open, the mountains quake, the sun turning dark, the moon without light, stars falling from the heavens all speak of the end of time.

Yet even amid of these images of destruction, our lesson from Isaiah ends with “you are the potter, we are the clay, the work on your hand.”  This is a reminder that God created us and is intimately involved in our life.  A potter molds and forms each piece, and sometimes he crumbles it up and starts over to remake that which will be good, useful or beautiful.  He glazes it and fires it to make it strong.  God's presence and involvement in our life is the sign of his faithfulness

So even though we do things in this life that God disapproves of, he is faithful to guide us back into his presence, and through his son, Jesus Christ we are redeemed, forgiven and restored.  So this Advent, be watchful - keep alert to His presence, and seek opportunities to serve him in this world.
Lord, open my eyes that I might see you as you are present in my life and to proclaim your coming to a world in need of your love and mercy.  Amen.


Friday, October 24, 2014

Promises from God

Deut.34:1-12. The Lord showed Moses the whole land...  And said, "'this is the land of which I swore to Abraham,,, I will give it to your descendants'... But you shall not cross over there."

At bible study the other night, one person commented, "that's not very nice, to show him the land but not to let him enter into it."  I would like to argue that it was a very kind thing that the Lord did.  

When Moses began this journey with "the children of Israel," he was 80 years old.  After 40 years of wandering in the desert, he is now 120 years old.  It has not been an easy task of leading this collection of vagabonds.  He has argued with them, he has kept them in check, he has taught them to be a family and given them laws and rules to guide their behavior.  He has judged between them when disputes had divided them. And he has mediated between them and their God.  

As a parent with grown children, I can tell you that it is not easy raising a family and that is exactly what Moses did - for forty years.  (These days we hope our kids are out of the house in 20 years.). Moses is tired and as they approach the promised land, he knows the journey is almost over.  His job was to bring them here.  It will be some else's job to help them become established in the new land.  

As a parent, I can also tell you that more than anything, we want to know that our children are going to survive, that they are going to succeed in life.  We pour our heart and soul into our children and we want to know that they are going to be okay when we are gone.  That is the gift that God gives to Moses:  "you have been a faithful shepherd, doing your best to shape and form these your children.  This is the land they will inherit.  Well done, good and faithful servant."

Moses died there and the children of Israel entered the promised land under the leadership of Joshua.  As a parent, that is all we can do - give our kids the tools they need to live life to its fullest, and trust the Lord to be with them as they continue the journey.  Shalom.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Being good stewards in the vineyard

Based on readings from Matthew 21:33-46, Exodus 20:1-20, and Philippians 3:4b-14

I want you to think about what it is that you are proudest of in your life.  Is it something tangible?  A new computer or tablet, a new car, your house, your job, your grades in school, your spouse or kids?  Or might it be something subjective?  Your attitudes, or knowledge or a talent or ability, maybe your birthright or status in life or the community?  My husband always claims he’s proudest of his humility.  If you know what you are proud of, I want you to keep that in the back of your mind.


Our first lesson – Exodus 20 – the Ten Commandments is somewhat familiar.  The Ten Commandments were the firsts laws handed down from God on the Holy Mountain.  They can be divided into 2 groups that Jesus so tidily summed up  -  Love God, love your neighbor. 


The first group (commandments 1 – 4) tends to our relationship with God – the vertical.  Our covenant tells us our responsibility to God; we are to love God only; we are not to entertain or idolize other gods; we are not to use his name improperly and we are to spend time with him every week. 


This law about keeping the Sabbath is actually a bridge between the laws describing our relationship with God and our relationship with others.  It’s the beginning of how we are to live our lives here on earth.  We take time to rest – to re-create – to commune (or communicate) with God so that we can begin the new week with renewed vim, vigor and direction.


The rest of the laws have to do with our relationship with each other here on earth.  Honor your mother and father – they were co-creators with God in bringing you to life.  Without them, you would not exist.


You shall not murder, nor commit adultery, nor steal, nor bear false witness, nor covet anything belonging to your neighbor.  (Now I could spend the rest of the sermon elaborating on these commandments – but I’m not.)


Now, I admit that I have made fun of those 6 hundred 15 laws that a righteous Jew was supposed to follow.  When you think about it, a lot of those laws dealt with the same kinds of things that today’s laws deal with.  Would anyone here like to give a guess about how many laws there are in America today?  There are whole libraries dedicated to stating and explaining the laws that have been passed by the national and state legislatures.  The reason we have to have laws is because there are always people who are going to do things that end up hurting others – and without laws there would be chaos and anarchy. 


In a perfect world everyone would be kind and courteous to everyone else and we would need no laws.  Problem is we don’t live in a perfect world.  When I taught school, we usually ended up the year with many more rules than we started with – because each time a student would do something (that we had not anticipated) that injured someone or caused some kind of trouble or disruption, a new rule would have to be made.


At the first of this sermon, I asked you what kinds of things you were most proud of.  In our second lesson we hear Paul talking about the things he is most proud of…  He's proud for being a born and bred, card carrying, law-abiding Jew, righteous under the law – he makes a long list of all the things that as a Jew he has a right to be proud of.  Many of these qualities set him apart from the crowd and in Jewish circles placed him above the average person.


But Paul, following his conversion, has come to realize that it doesn’t mean anything.   He now understands that in the grand scheme of things, at the end of his life, it is not going to matter.  Paul has learned that it is the love of Christ that is of utmost importance and he declares that he doesn’t want the kind of righteousness that comes from pride and the law – but only that which comes from faith in Christ. 


And then we come to Jesus – and to one of those parables that is somewhat discomforting – an allegory that challenges us. 


I read a number of sermons expounding on how this parable makes sense to the people of that day – but it goes deeper than to say “oh, there were lots of absentee landlords in Israel at the time of Jesus...” The Hebrew people had a collective memory of their history and their scriptures.    In a way of explanation let me offer the following: 


If I were to begin, “Jesus love me, this I know,___”

How about “Holy, holy, holy. ______”

And “Amazing grace,  _________”

You folks know these – you’ve sung them over and over – now you have three tunes rolling around in your head.  That’s the same way the Jews were with the Psalms – they knew them because that was their hymn book, songs they sang over and over. *


Likewise you know many of the Old Testament Bible stories – as the first lesson was read, you might have thought of Charlton Heston standing on the mountain holding the tablets of the commandments.  If I were to mention, “the Garden of Eden” or  “Noah’s Ark,” you know what that is about – and an image probably comes to mind.   If I say, “Joseph and the many colored coat,” you know it – an image comes up - or David and Goliath.  Likewise this parable Jesus tells begins as a familiar story from scriptures. 


For the people Jesus was talking to (the chief priests and the elders and Pharisees), the image of a vineyard was that kind of thing – It‘s from Isaiah 5, and I’m going to quote it for you.  Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard:  My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.  He dug it and cleared it of stones and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.”


This sounds very much like the parable we just read from Matthew.  It is a story about God – and the land he had provided for his people – with everything they needed for life – and the people are the grapes – not the good grapes God expected but wild (sour) grapes.  It was a song of the unfaithfulness of the people of God.


Now when Jesus tells this parable, it is not the produce itself that is found wanting, but those who have been given responsibility to tend the vineyard (the leaders).


The thing we find interesting as we examine this parable is the patience of God.  He sends his slaves to collect the portion of the harvest that belongs to him.  When the tenants beat one, stone one and kill one, the landowner doesn’t immediately rush in and punish the tenants.  He sends more slaves to collect the tithe owed to him, and the tenants treat them the same as they had the first. 


So the landowner sends his son, the heir to the property.  And the tenants seem to think they can kill him and then the property will be theirs.  Because they have worked the field and harvested the grapes, they have decided they are entitled to the entire harvest, forgetting that it was the owner who cleared the land, planted the fields and built the fence, press and tower.  We see the patience on the part of the landowner, for he is willing to give the tenants a chance to do the right thing – not just one chance, but multiple chances.  Notice that Jesus leaves the parable there – he does not complete it.  He poses the question, allowing the religious leaders to draw their own conclusions  -  and they do – out of their own flawed reasoning.   


Today is the beginning of our stewardship season, and this is a story about stewardship.  How well do we tend this corner of the garden that God has given us? As new tenants of the vineyard it means we are the ones responsible for producing new fruit and presenting it to God.  How are we going to be different from the original tenants?  It is now our turn to give back to God from what he has given to us. 


This says so much more about the way we are to live our lives and conduct our affairs. How do we tend our vineyard?  God created this wonderful place for us to live and he filled it with all good things – all the things that combined with the knowledge and wisdom and willingness to work – can be used to provide us with a really good life.  Are we careful with the things that God has given us?  Do we tend this vineyard and take care of those things which God has provided for us?  Do we give credit to God for those things which make our life worth living? 


So what kinds of stewards are we of those things that God has given to us.  Do we give back to him from the first fruits of our bounty?  Do we honor that which God has given us?  That’s a question that each one of us has to answer for ourselves. 


There was a time when Sam and I were “C and E’ers” – we only attended on Christmas and Easter – if we happened to be in
Alvin on those holidays.  God began working on each of us individually and eventually we moved back to Alvin and began going to church on a regular basis – every Wednesday night to choir practice and every Sunday to church.  And I have to say it was more about singing in the choir and making music than it was about worshiping God.   


I’d like to be able to say that there was some moment of enlightenment or inspiration that was the beginning of the change in me – but I don’t recall any.  I just know that somewhere along the way of faithful attendance, I quit watching the clock and started listening (really listening) to the sermons.  I started hearing things that rang true, that made sense, that inspired my imagination. 


And the first time they talked to us about filling out a pledge card, my reaction wasn’t really that great.  That was my hard earned money and we had a family to feed.  The first time I really remember Sam and I sitting down and talking about any real kind of “donation” was at a marriage encounter weekend.  It was a powerful experience of the love of God shone to us through other loving couples.  There was no upfront cost for the weekend, but one of the talks dealt with giving.  As Sam and I wrote about this separately and later talked about it, we both decided that we wanted to give – not only to cover our own costs, but also to cover the cost for another couple to attend.  Over the years I did work up to a tithe, but it didn't happen overnight.

As I've grown in the Lord, I have come to realize that God has indeed always given me the things I needed – he has found amazing ways to take care of me.  And I have found that if I return to him out of the bounty he has provided, he manages to do wonderful things with what I provide, regardless of size.   What we give to God should always be our response for the faithfulness of God to provide for us.  And what I have learned is that God’s faithfulness always trumps my own meager efforts.  Amen. 
* From a sermon by Randy L Quinn

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Life and God

You lift me up on the wind, you make me ride on it, and you toss me about in the roar of the storm.  Job 30:22

Job is talking about his experience of life - in my experience, life can be a lot like a rollercoaster ride. You ride up to the heights, and then you often tumble down to the lowest of the low and after you bottom out you may be on your way up again.  The people of old, biblical people, saw everything that happened to them to be a direct result of God messing in their life.  A very subjective or egotistical view.  Often in the Bible, God is portrayed as a puppet master pulling the strings of various people to make them do certain things or behave in certain ways. 

As an Episcopalian I believe in the doctrine of freewill - we along with everyone else are allowed to make our own choices in and about life.  This means that things might happen to us that are not the direct result of God's action.  It also means that we can be affected by the choices of others - i.e. drunk drivers.  But that doesn't mean that God does not know what happens to us and it doesn't mean that God doesn't care.  One philosophy of life is that God is a "clockmaker" - that he set thing in motion in the beginning and has not interfered since.  I don't believe that either. 

I believe that God knows what happens to us and that he cares.  I believe that he has a general plan for our life and encourages us along the way.  I also believe that God is active - at work behind the scenes to bring about opportunities for us to experience and know him.  I believe that he brings about encounters that can be life changing. God is Lord of All and if he sent Jesus Christ to offer the ultimate sacrifice, then he can and will help be available to aid us as we walk through life.

Lord God, most loving Father, help us as we struggle through this life and make yourself known to us at all times - even in the hour of our greatest need.  Amen.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Bringing good news

'Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God.  Acts 14:15

Paul and Barnabas have been sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with the people in Lystra.  Because God worked through them to show signs and wonders such as healing, the people thought they were their Greek gods come down to earth.  We got into a discussion last week and the statistic was thrown out that God heals miraculously through prayer about 3% of the time.  I believe from my experience that this statistic is probably pretty accurate.  I've prayed for many people over the years and I've seen one healing, one (temporary) healing, and several times when symptoms were eased.  I don't know why God chooses to heal some and not others, but what I've learned is that when it happens, it isn't me that heals, but it is my faithfulness to pray that allows God to work.

A discussion came up on a website about why so many people are afraid to pray out loud for healing.  I don't think it's a problem of thinking 'what happens if the person isn't healed,'  We're much more likely to be worried about what happens if they are healed.  The silent prayer before we begin should always be, "Lord, lead my prayer to be what you will and what you want for this person."

We are mortals and if we are faithful to share the good news of Jesus Christ, God can and will use our faithfulness to accomplish his purpose on earth.  The flip side is that if we never step out in faith and risk failure, then we will never see success; we may never see God's hand at work in us, through us, or around us.

Monday, August 4, 2014

You give them something to eat...

Excerpt from yesterday's sermon...

Jesus Christ is always affirming, renewing, redeeming, and restoring us.  Instead of guilt, Jesus offers us forgiveness; instead of hunger, food; instead of loneliness, his caring presence; instead of death, life; instead of alienation, adoption and belonging.  Jesus takes our need and reaches through it to restore us. 

 Like the disciples, we are called to participate in his miracles;  To reach out in Christ name, in his love and with his power to those in any need.  To give witness to the power of God in Christ and to bring hope into lives that have been left abandoned or broken.  We are called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give rest to the weary, bring good news to those held captive.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Live peaceably with all

From today's reading:  Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.  If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Romans 9:12, 18

Sometimes Paul seems so obtuse and so often can be confusing.  And he seems to contradict himself even in a single sentence. You are supposed to hate what is evil and yet bless (and not curse) those who persecute you.  Isn't persecution evil?  Paul says, "live in harmony with one another" and "never avenge yourselves."

We look at the world around us, this same creation that God proclaimed "good," and we see it at war, passenger airliners being shot out of the sky, whole families being slaughtered.  Who is living in harmony?  Who is seeking revenge? God is crying in his heaven over the atrocities we commit on one another.

I have friends who have suffered persecution on Facebook and/or been "unfriended" because of political or religious beliefs/conflicts.  The border crisis here in the US is just the latest of Satan's long line of attempts to divide us as a country, and as a religious people.  Instead of trying to work together to solve a very real problem, people are at each others' throats dividing into extremist camps that will never solve anything. Jesus said, "Let the little children come..." and "As you do unto the least of these, you do unto me..."  Where does all this discord stop?

Jesus, come to us, help us to find unity in the midst of division.  Lord Jesus, we need you - your love and compassion.  We need your grace and mercy to remain strong in the face of dissension, so that we might live peaceably as a witness to a world torn by strife.   Amen.


Sunday, July 13, 2014

The extravagant sower

This parable of the sower is very familiar.  We have heard it and its interpretation too many times.  We think we know it and we have a tendency to dismiss it casually.  Sam was telling me that he’s sat in church before listening to this parable and thinking, “Yea, I know people like that…”  and we do.  We’ve all heard the interpretation and we’ve all known people like those mentioned in conjunction with each kind of soil.  (Hold that thought, we’ll come back to it later.)

When Sam and I lived in Austin the first time, we had a garden, and in that garden we planted all kinds of vegetables for eating.  I remember getting out my graph paper and drawing the garden and deciding on what plants to put where.  We always had two rows of corn on the west side of the garden and two rows of okra next to the corn.  There were potato plants, squash plants and sometimes watermelon or cantaloup in the middle.  On the east side we had tomato and pepper plants.  Along the fence on the north side were cucumbers and green beans.  Sam bought a tiller and turned the soil, and he and I very carefully planted the precious seeds.

Now, I understand that a farmer planting acres of ground can’t do it that way.  He’d never get finished – and he and everyone depending on him would starve to death.

Someone asked once where I get my inspiration for sermons.  Well, one place I get not only my inspiration, but my passion, is from reading sermons.  And the sermons that give me the most inspiration and passion are those I disagree with.

I read 4 commentaries, two articles, and three sermons that all talked about the sowing of seeds in the first century.  And they all agreed that there were two ways common for sowing seeds in Jesus’ day.  One method was to plow first, then they would tie a seed sack to a donkey, poke a hole in it and lead the donkey up and down the plowed field allowing the seed to fall out of the sack in the rows.  The second way was to sling the feed sack over your shoulder, reach in and grab a handful and throw it on unplowed earth – this was called the broadcast method.  Then the field would be tilled after the seed had been distributed.  Now each of the commentaries and articles agreed that using the broadcast method, the sower couldn’t tell what kind of soil his seed was falling on and couldn’t really control where his seed went.  

My response to that is “baloney!”  One preacher talked about casting grass seed in his yard and only one in four seeds falling on good ground – the rest fell on the driveway, the sidewalk, the street and the bushes.  Now I don’t know about you, but I know I could walk around my yard broadcasting seed with much better results.  I can see the bushes and the cement and keep most of the seed off.  I figure all these guys have got to be city boys with no idea of the cost of the seed.  The main problem is that they are trying to make this example of farming sensible to us and for the people at that time.

This reading is a split reading.  The first half is Jesus telling the parable, but after the people had gone home and the disciples were left alone, they asked him, "What did that parable mean?  We don't understand."
You see, if this parable had made sense to the people of Jesus' time, then Jesus would not have had to explain it to the disciples.   But it didn't make sense agriculturally or any other way and that was the whole point.  I can hear them now – “We don’t understand – why would the farmer waste good seed?  And what’s that got to do with the kingdom of heaven?”  It’s true that using the broadcast method, you’re going to lose some seed – but not three out of four.

This parable is about the Kingdom of Heaven – and about how it’s different from our human experience, not how it’s like it.  In this case, our sower is God, and God is extravagant!  If you don’t believe it, take a look at the world around you.  God is the great and reckless sower, and he has sown his seed everywhere.  That’s why you will find wildflowers growing out of cracks in the sidewalk, and bushes growing on the side of cliffs.  In Hawaii we saw flowers blooming in the middle of vast expanses of lava.    God’s extravagance is why there are thousands of varieties of trees, and more than just rice to put on the table alongside the meat.

The seed that is being sown is the word of God.  Jesus is the sower and his extravagance matches God’s.  He didn’t just teach to those who were considered to be good enough.  He taught everywhere: in the synagogues, in the market place, in people’s homes, along the dusty roads, at people’s dinner parties, up on the mountain top, out at the sea shore, - even in some of the gentile villages.  He didn’t worry about who was listening to his words – he let them fall wherever they might.  He didn’t worry about whether or not the people hearing would bear fruit… Remember at the beginning of this sermon I told you to hold on to the thought that we’ve all known people like those in the interpretation… well…

Most of us can point to times in our own lives when we’ve been each kind of soil; times when we just couldn’t understand what Jesus was talking about; where what he said was so foreign that it bore no meaning for us.   These are times when we may be on a different path from the one God calls us to travel.

We can relate to the people on rocky ground.  Maybe when we heard the word and understood it and rejoiced in it…   but when we tried to share it, friends made fun of us, or ridiculed us for our beliefs.  We have second thoughts and shy away.

And we can relate to the seed that fell among the thorns…  We don’t like to hear things like “sell all you have and give to the poor”…  Today’s business world doesn’t like to hear about God’s sense of mercy and justice.  We want a car that’s faster and fancier…  We want a house we can entertain in…  We want the newest computer and software…  We want to be attractive to the opposite sex…  We want to party and have fun…

Truth is, it’s hard to follow Jesus – the cross is often too much to bear.  The things he asks are hard to do.  We know that we are not innately good soil.  The world and human nature pulls us away from the things of God.  And some people lose hope and think they can’t make it.

But thank goodness, God is not looking for ‘good soil’ because we can’t make ourselves into good soil.

The good news is that God doesn’t leave us where he finds us.  But God himself is the sower and he gets to work to produce in us the soil needed to receive the seed.  He breaks up the hard clay of our life and plows it under.  He picks out the rocks and deepens the soil there.   He clears the thorns bushes and prepares the ground.

Isaiah tells us, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven…and water the earth making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth…  it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose….”

This is a parable to encourage us to be like Jesus.  It says, don’t be scared to go out and sow the word of God in those you meet.  It’s not our decision (or responsibility) who is ready and who’s not.  Not all people you meet will be ready to receive the word, but God will begin to prepare their hearts and make them ready to receive the seeds of faith and growth.  We are simply called to plant the seeds and we can trust God to take care of the rest.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Gathered under his wing

From today's reading:  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!  Matt 23:37

How often does God call us and we are not willing....?  Like the father of the prodigal son, he did not pursue, but the left the gate open - ready for the son's return.  But I believe that God, in his own way does pursue us - subtly - ever calling us back, giving us gentle reminders that he is indeed waiting for our return and he gives us every opportunity to return.  Still - it is up to us to take that first step.  

For whatever reason this morning, as I was waking, I remembered Jane in her last days - I remembered reading scripture to her - she would tell me what to read and a beautiful smile adorned her face as I read and she rested in the words of faith.  God was gathering her under his wing, and she gladly sheltered in his love.

As we prepare to make our summer trip to Idaho to visit with Sam's brother who has been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, I can't help but remember Jane's last long car trip was up to visit Danny.  What a gift that they were able to do that before she died.

One of my favorite song, as I think on these things...

There's a family gathering, and it won't be long,
There's a family gathering, can you hear my song.
I'm calling my children from the ends of the earth,
They're coming on home, they're my sons of new birth,
And there's a gathering, they're gonna feast at my table!
In the end, God does gather his family and shelters them under his wing, in his new Jerusalem.  It's never too late to open your eyes and see the glory of God's kingdom and to find rest in his presence.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

He must increase. . .

From today's reading:  John answered, 'No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, "I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him. . .   He must increase, but I must decrease." John 3:27-28, 30

John the baptizer was always clear about his mission.  He was the voice of one crying in the wilderness.  His was a ministry to call the people to repentance, to prepare their hearts to receive the greatest gift that God would give - the gift of God's own son.  "One is coming, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie."  

The thing that John knew was that once Jesus appeared on the scene, he would become the focus, the prominent one.  "He must increase, but I must decrease."  John did not have to have center stage, he was willing to step back and let Jesus flourish.  This also becomes the pattern that should dictate our own relationship with Christ.  He must increase, and we must decrease.  As we get to know Christ, as we allow him to grow in us, then that should become visible in the way we live our life.  He should be seen more and more in us as we learn to live our life more and more for him. 

Lord Jesus, come fill us with your Holy Spirit so that we may decrease and allow you to increase in us. Grant that wherever we may go, we may be agents of your grace and others may know your presence.  Amen.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Ascension - the promise of hope.

From today's reading: I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation..., so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.  Ephesians 1:17-18

Today we celebrate the feast of the Ascension - the day Jesus was taken up into heaven.  After the devastation of seeing their teacher put to death as a common criminal, they were given an opportunity to see him again and to be with him, to ask questions, to pay more attention to what he was saying, to be with him for a little longer..

As Jesus is taken up out of their sight, he assures them that he will not leave them comfortless, that he will send an advocate, to guide them and to be with them.  Jesus has a task for them to accomplish - the spreading of the gospel and they will need power and wisdom as they move out into the world.

These are the same gifts that Jesus gives us today if we are willing to open up  our minds to the power of the Holy Spirit.  He has been taken up and we no longer see him, but he is now with us at all times and in all places, inside us; ready to respond when we call on him.  And that hope to which he has called us?  The establishment of God's kingdom on earth and the promise of eternal life!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Jesus calls forth life out of death

Ezekiel was one of the Israelites taken captive at the fall of Jerusalem and moved from his home in Jerusalem to Babylon. Basically his world has been destroyed - his home ransacked - his career as a priest crumbled when the temple was demolished and he was taken off along with thousands of others.   

So instead of being a priest leading the people in temple worship, he becomes a prophet - seeing visions from the Lord and hearing the words of the Lord.  In this visitation of the Lord, Ezekiel is transported to a valley and the valley is filled with bones - dry bones - that seem to have been there for centuries.  And the Lord asks him, "Can these bones live?"  Well, what would you say?  Ezekiel, says, "You know" - implied in that is "how should I know?  You're Lord, you tell me."  And God tells him to prophesy - prophesy to the bones. 
Ezekiel looks out over that valley of dry bones - hopeless, unredeemable.  They represent all that is lost in Israel - the destroyed temple, the lost homes, the broken and bleeding people, the lost jobs, all the hopeless and helpless situations that can go along with the aftermath of a conquered, defeated people. 
(What are the hopeless situations - the dry bones in our lives?  So many possible out there - a lost job, a bankrupt business, a failed marriage, a broken relationship, unfulfilled dreams, lost loved ones, illnesses and death, a house in rubble following a hurricane or tornado...)
Ezekiel faces all that and more when he looks at this immense graveyard - total desolation - but he follows what the Lord tells him to do and he begins to prophesy - and as he does, an amazing thing happens, what he prophesies begins to come true.  The bones begin to rustle - they come together and sinew and muscle appear and flesh covers it all.  But there is no breath and so God has him prophesy to the breath - the winds - the spirit - and that breath (or spirit) comes and enters the body and they live and stand and they are more Ezekiel can count.
And God says, "this is the whole house of Israel and they say, 'Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost'."  But God has an answer - "I am the Lord and I will open your graves and raise you up.  I will put my spirit within you and you shall live."  God brings hope and life out of the hopeless and helpless in our lives.
This is the hope of Israel - the resurrection that the Pharisees claim - here is that starting point for the kind of faith that God is calling for.  This is the hope of the nation - the whole house of Israel. This is a communal hope - not an individual hope. 
America has seen that kind of hope more than once.  Pearl Harbor and 9/11 both were a defeat – death and destruction that could have crumbled our nation – but it didn’t.  Out of that death and destruction were sown the seeds of resurrection – the determination to rise out of the rubble – a unifying hope.  What Ezekiel reported seeing gave hope to a defeated nation - the hope that they would indeed live again.  God does not leave us in those barren, dry, parched places - crying over those dry bones.
Our world cries out for that kind of hope - the kind of hope that brings life and resurrection.  Two of a number of movies that use the image of death and resurrection are Harry Potter and Flight of the Phoenix.  In Harry Potter - Professor Dumbledore has a very unique bird - a phoenix - Harry sees it wilt away, burst into flames and becomes a pile of ashes.  When the professor comes in, Harry, devastated at having witnessed this scene is assured by the professor that this was a part of life and that the bird will indeed rise again out of the ashes.
The second movie is the Flight of the Phoenix – a story about a plane that goes down in the desert - a hopeless situation with seeming insurmountable odds - and yet hope arises from unexpected places.  It is a story of faith - faith which almost crumbles when they find out the person designing the escape craft isn't exactly what they think and only has experience designing model airplanes.  But out of hope and necessity, they pull together and overcome the odds to live again. .
These stories demonstrate the need for the story of resurrection out of death - the need of the people for the kind of hope that is presented in these stories.  The understanding that we can live again.  We need to understand that when things seem the darkest, we can have still have hope and that the Lord is there with us.
We find the same kind of situation in our gospel lesson when Jesus brings that kind of hope to the individual level.  Here is not a valley of dry bones - here is a single person, in the grave four days.  The 'four days' seems strange to us - especially since we find Jesus raised in three days.  But the four days is significant - the Israelites believed that the soul or spirit of a person stayed in the vicinity for three days before rising up to heaven.  So the four days means the soul has departed - making the miracle even more unlikely.
Jesus was late - and what do we do when God doesn't come through when or like we think he should?  Mary and Martha berated Jesus - "Lord if you had only been here..."  God doesn't always act in the way we expect - and how do we handle that.  But you see, Jesus had come  -  Jesus calls forth life out of the conditions of death. 
Just as people looking out over that valley of dry bones would call it hopeless - so the family of Lazarus called the loss of their brother hopeless.  And Jesus comes - not when they wanted him to, but he does come - and he comforts them, his presence is tangible - he weeps with them at their loss.  Although Martha tells Jesus that she believes that God will give him whatever he asks for, she doesn't believe that this is possible - the spirit has already left that place.
"Lord, if you had only been here - our brother would not have died..."  In our darkest hour, Jesus comes.  Jesus calls us forth from the tomb of broken hearts and disappointments, from the tombs of rejection and loneliness, from the tomb of self-loathing and meaninglessness.
As humans, we fix our eyes on a goal, quite often to the exclusion of other possibilities.  As humans in this world, we too often want what we want, the way we want it, because we've been convinced by the world around us that we are in control.  But the truth is that we are not in control and sometimes our hopes and dreams must die before we become capable of accepting a new idea, a new dream.  Sometimes we don't see or even look for the window of opportunity that is open for us until the door we are focused on is slammed shut.
Jesus comes to open new doors, to cry with us when we are devastated and then to help us to new understanding and new life.  He comes to restore the spirit that has left our bodies.  Out of the conditions of death and devastation can arise new life.  Jesus calls forth life even amid the conditions of death.  Can you hear his call?
I'm a recovering smoker.  I smoked for 30 years.  After my first year in seminary, Jesus called me out of the tomb of destruction - I was having to use my inhaler two or three times a day - pre-cursors of the conditions of death - and yet I kept smoking.  God finally told me that if I was going to live to proclaim his good news - I was going to have to come out of that tomb of death and destruction and walk in life.  I quit smoking.  Recovering alcoholics and recovering drug addicts can tell you the same story, Jesus calls forth life even amid the conditions of death. 
Please pray with me.  Lord, open our hearts and minds to hear you when you call, to follow you where you lead and to trust you to restore our spirit and to bring new life and hope in all the situations and circumstances of our life.  Amen.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Temptation, is it really what we think?

In today's gospel, Jesus has just been baptized and instilled with the Holy Spirit of God.  And our scripture tells us that he is led by that same Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the devil.  Its called a desert because it is deserted - it is a place where very little grows and very few live.  It is a place where you are alone - with little to eat or to shelter you from the scorching heat. 
And Jesus fasted for 40 days - living off what little the land could provide - no contact with other people - utterly alone.  And at the end of those 40 days comes the temptation.  Jesus is hungry; he's lonely; he's in a physically and emotionally weakened condition.  This is one of the circumstances in life when we are most susceptible to temptation – when we are weak, when we have been beaten down by life.   When we are strong and among our true friends, we can fight off temptation.  It doesn't control us. 
So Jesus is in a weakened condition - both physically and spiritually and the devil comes... -  this is a stumbling block for many people - the devil - some translations say Satan - other meanings used for the Greek word diabolos are false accuser, and slanderer.   Our lesson also calls him tempter - which can be translated enticer or tester. 
I once had a parishioner ask me if Satan was real.  Our catechism in the back of the prayer book never mentions Satan - it talks about human nature, rebelling against God, and sin, which it defines as seeking our own will over the will of God.  So I followed the catechismal party line and rather than talking about the person of Satan, I talked about the reality of evil in the world - and the need for people to personify that reality. 
But even at that, some people don't want to admit the reality of evil in the world today.  That's why you hear people say things like, he's just misguided, or she showed poor judgment, or they made a mistake, or they're just going through a dark period.  Any euphemism to keep us from having to confront the concept of evil.
But there is evil in the world - people want to believe that it doesn't exist, but if evil doesn't exist, how do you explain things like the two young men who recently ceremonially raped and killed a young girl in order to sell their souls to the Satan.  This is evil.  Or another topic that has been much in the news lately is the “slave trade“ in the Houston area – young ladies being sold especially for sexual uses. 
Several years ago there was a show called Joan of Arcadia about a teenage girl who talked to God.  It was a great show because it dared to talk about realities of life and ways of facing those realities.  One episode had a discussion between two characters concerning evil.  Joan's mother was taking catechism from a former Roman Catholic nun turned surfer.  The word evil comes up in their conversation.  Joan's mother said, "Evil's so ugly and foreign..."  The nun replied, "Evil is charming and beautiful - it asks for one small compromise after another until it whittles you down.  It makes you doubt yourself, and it functions best when no one believes in it."
You know, Satan is called the deceiver - and not without reason.  He lures us into a false sense of security weaving a tale of deception.  The three temptations of Jesus are an example of that kind of deception.
In the first temptation, the devil comes to Jesus with a temptation that doesn't seem so outlandish. "You are hungry.  You are the Son of God.  (the word translated "if" can also be translated "since" - Satan is not questioning Jesus' sonship, he is affirming it with a suggestion that Jesus prove it.)  You don't have to be hungry.  You can do something about it.  Turn these stones into bread and satisfy your hunger."
This is more than a temptation to satisfy the desires of the flesh.  It is a temptation to deny our need for God.  Nothing wrong with a little bread, but consider this difference - God gave the children of Israel manna from heaven - a free gift - they didn't have to do anything - it fell from the sky and they just picked it up.  But Satan is asking Jesus to take matters in his own hands - not wait for God's gift, but to make the bread himself - to be self-sufficient - not to rely on God's promise.  It's subtle - it looks like taking care of a necessity, when the issue is actually much deeper - putting himself in the place of God, denying even the need of God.
Next we find that Satan has taken Jesus up on the temple - and once again tempts him - "You are the Son of God.  You can do whatever you want.  Scripture says that God will send his angels to take care of you.  Go ahead - throw yourself off the temple - you won't get hurt." Jesus has already shown in the first temptation that he will rely on God, that Jesus will trust God to take care of him.  Since Jesus understands that, Satan is trying to encourage Jesus to 'call the shots' on how - and when - God is going to take care of him - it's actually an attempt to make Jesus seize control by forcing God's hand.
And finally Satan takes Jesus up on a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world.  And he tells Jesus, "Fall down and worship me and all this will be yours."  Well, okay - we know Jesus is a king - king of the Jews, light of the world, prince of peace - what's wrong with taking up his throne now, and then he can dictate what he's trying to teach to the people.  They'd have to obey him and surely he could have spread his message much faster. 
That would have been an attractive compromise that looks good on the surface - but what a difference it is from what God offers.  What Satan was offering was for Jesus to be king over an imperfect earthly world.  What God offered was for Jesus to be king over the redeemed kingdom of heaven.  A kingdom he himself would redeem. 

God has planned for us something greater than we could ever imagine for ourselves.  But like Jesus, we have to be willing to wait on God's plan, in God's time.  But the evil that permeates this world would convince us that what we can gain through our own efforts in this place, at this time, is the goal we should aim for.  That we should settle for something less than God's plan for our lives.  The darkness that people talk about is what Satan uses to obscure God's plan by injecting his own end objectives - that of drawing us away from the love of God - away from the help of God's saving grace.  Jesus is the light of the world - and he does shine out in the darkness - and in his light, Satan - evil – sin - call it what you will - cannot hide.  After all we can't see heaven, we can't prove its existence.  It's a matter of faith.
So I suggest that, yes, we are tested - after all, there is a reason we pray, "Lead us not into temptation - but deliver us from evil."  We are led into temptation every day.  Temptation comes in all sizes and shapes.  Temptation
          to keep the extra change the clerk gives us
          to fudge on our taxes
          to tell a small untruth that might help us get ahead at work
          to listen or pass on gossip about a neighbor or co-worker
          to cut off that driver who’s trying to get ahead of the line
          to glance at your neighbor's paper when you don't know the
              answer to that test question.

And even though we are led into temptation - please remember that temptation itself is not sin.  Sin (or evil) comes when we succumb to that temptation - when we choose to act less than Godly in any given situation.   
Let us pray:  Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan:  come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ our Lord who overcame temptation, and died and rose again that we might have life eternal.  Amen.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Daily Word: Rejoicing in the face of struggle

Daily Word: Rejoicing in the face of struggle: From today's reading:  Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and ...

Rejoicing in the face of struggle

From today's reading:  Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.  Habakkuk 3:17-18

Once a month there is a Friday night celebration service at Fr. Jim's house in Huntsville.  The person in charge of the music would often pick a song called "I will rejoice in the Lord always" based on these verses from Habakkuk and it always drove Fr. Jim crazy.  I think he questioned the reason for such rejoicing when everything was obviously going wrong.  But the truth is, that even when things go wrong, and maybe especially when they go wrong, that is the time when we often draw closer to God. 

There are so many things that happen to us that we have no control over, and those are the times that we feel helpless.  When we are helpless to do anything ourselves, it helps to know that there is a God who is in control - even when things don't go the way we want them to go.  My sister-in-law Jane died three weeks ago.  That was a hard loss for the whole family.  When we first learned that she was dying, she told me, "I don't like God's plan.". She had so much she wanted to do and to accomplish before leaving this earth and no time to do it.  And yet, God was so present at her bedside.  I saw an acceptance come over her and a smile on her face as she listen to her favorite scriptures being read.  I was not there as she died, but I understand from those who were that she began to get glimpses of heaven and those who were waiting for her to cross over.

Those of us who are left behind take comfort that she is in the arms of a loving God who has taken away the cancer and the pain and raised her to new life.  I will rejoice in the Lord always.  And we live in the promise that we will be with her when our time has come.  I will exult in God my Savior.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Be renewed in the Spirit

You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, . . and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.  Ephesians 4:22-24

Albeit, easier said than done.  Today is the 3rd of January.  Have you made your new year resolution(s)?  What might they consist of?  What is it that you want to change in your life?  Where do your priorities lie?  Are the ideals that we think we might like to have actually what we want in our life.  It’s much easier to say we want something than to actually work toward it.

Although a new year is a great time to make changes in your life, don’t be over ambitious with your resolutions.  Too often we try to bite off more than we can possibly achieve.  Remember, resolutions are similar to goals – those things we actually want to achieve in our life.  Goal-setting ideally involves establishing specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bounded (S.M.A.R.T.) objectives.  

It’s not too late to make your resolutions.  Where is God calling you to make changes, to improve your life, to grow in knowledge or wisdom, or minister in his Name.  Take time to make a prayerful decision when choosing your resolutions.  Remember when God is in the equation, all things are possible.

Dear God, help me to see where I need to make changes during the coming months.  Give me the strength and perseverance needed to remain true to the resolutions we make together.  Amen.


Thursday, January 2, 2014

God works through our weaknesses

Elijah was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, . . Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, "Get up and eat. . . otherwise the journey will be too much for you."  1 Kings 19:3,5,7

Elijah has run away, fearing for his life because Jezebel has threatened to kill him.  He has gone into the wilderness and asked God to allow him to die.  Instead, the Lord prepares him for a journey to the mountain where he hears the still small voice of God.

When the Lord calls us to some task or journey, he will use whatever means necessary to get us to the place where he wants us to be.  In this case, God used Elijah’s fear of Jezebel to start him on journey to the place where he (Elijah) could hear the voice of God.  I can recount several occasions where God has used my fear or weakness to put me in a place where I could hear the voice of God or where I could do ministry in his name. 

The other part of this is that when God calls you to a place of ministry or instruction, He will provide the means for you to make that journey or accomplish that ministry, to survive as you seek His face.  Just as the Lord provided food for Elijah’s journey, he will also provide for you as he calls you out to accomplish his purpose.

Almighty God, open my eyes to behold you as I stumble through this life.  Allow me to see your face in the people around me and to hear your voice in the stillness that sometimes surrounds me. Use me, Lord, to do your work and to grow closer to you especially when I feel furthest from you.  Help me, Lord, to climb the mountain that I may remain close to you in this life.  Amen.