Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Jesus, Son of God

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Long time ago in Bethlehem,

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so the holy Bible say,

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Mary's boy child Jesus Christ

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was born on Christmas day.

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Hark, now hear the angels sing, the new king born today.

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And we shall live for evermore because of Christmas day!


Today is the day we celebrate Christmas - the birth of Jesus.  Not that Jesus was born on December the 25, but that he was born at all.  This is the day we acknowledge that we worship a God who is willing to come down to earth, to enter into his own creation, and to be a part of the messy-ness of life.

One priest in New York City noted one year that a Christmas tree had already been thrown out at 9:30 on Christmas morning. He saw that as being symbolic of our world today. “Well, that’s over and done with so now we can get on with our lives until next year.” But that’s not the message of Christmas for those of us who believe in something bigger than peace, goodwill and gifts. 

Jesus Christ is God incarnate  - It is more than a God who sent his son to redeem creation – we have a God who was willing to become flesh and to enter into his own creation – to experience what we experience – to love and to laugh and to cry – to be alive to the world.

We must always remember that Christmas is just the beginning – the start of something new. It is about letting the seed that has been planted in our heart come to light and grow in the love of God. It is about taking the responsibility to water it and help it grow. It is about letting that light shine forth to overcome the darkness and to be a beacon for others who are in need of finding meaning in their lives.  And it is about a God who loved us so much that he dared to come down from his throne on high to reside with us and to redeem us and to open the way to heaven for us.  This is the one we call Jesus, and this is why we celebrate his birth.

Before the birth of Jesus, the Israelites thought they knew what God was like - but it is through Jesus that we get the most accurate picture into the nature of our God.  Jesus is God incarnate - God made flesh.  Jesus was a man who laughed and cried, who loved and who got angry.  Jesus was a man who taught and who was willing to learn from those he taught.  It is through Jesus Christ that God learned what it meant to be human.  And it is through Jesus Christ that men and women gained the right to become the sons and daughters of our God.

For all the hurt and pain that we have caused God by the things that we have done - or left undone, all the things humankind has done throughout the years - God loves us so much that he was still willing to send his own son into the sinful world - to redeem us, to love us, to give us hope for a better existence - one that includes the presence of God for eternity.  

For these reasons and so many more, we remember, and we give thanks.  This is why we are here today; this is why we celebrate Christmas; to remember and to give thanks for the love God has poured out on us in a little baby.0


Sunday, December 23, 2018

Mary said, “Yes.”

Advent is a time of the unexpected.  For one thing we have God’s choice of partners in the procreation of his own son.  Jesus could have been set down fully grown anywhere in the world.  But God knew that in order to understand people and to reach out to them, Jesus needed to grow up among them and to really be one of them.  God could have chosen royalty, or a wealthy family to bear and raise his son, one where he would never want or struggle.  God could have chosen a palace and an important city for the dwelling place of his son. 

But God chose Nazareth – a small out-of-the-way place – unimportant – a place where Jesus could grow unencumbered by the wealth and attention he might receive in other places.  God chose a place where Jesus could live among the common folk and learn about them first hand; a place where he could touch, feel and understand the trials and struggles of everyday people.  In this area of Galilee, there was a large gentile population nearby so he would grow up knowing not only the Jewish people, but also how they interacted with people of other faiths and nationalities.  

This is a perfect example of how God works within the context of ordinary life and through ordinary people.    Mary was not any kind of super hero  -  (no Angelina Jolie, no Queen Elizabeth – not even a Mother Theresa) – just a simple village girl who had recently come of age.  Mary lived an ordinary life in the small village of Nazareth.  She helped her mother take care of the house and younger children.  She made a daily trip down to the well, to draw water for use in cooking and washing.  She cooked and cleaned just like any Jewish girl.  I picture her singing as she goes about her work, a sweet disposition and spirit about her.

She dreamed of one day having a home of her own to take care of.  She was betrothed to Joseph, a local carpenter – a tradesman.  The life that laid before them was a simple life – one of love and shared experiences – of small children running around and growing up, much as they themselves had.  When a young couple became betrothed, the husband began work on a place to live – often a room added onto his father’s house.  When that was completed, then he came to collect his bride and everyone was invited to the celebration.

This was the plan – this was what they expected.  But before Joseph came to collect his bride, she had a visitor.  Gabriel, the messenger from God, who tells her she has been chosen to bear the Son of God.  Mary said “Yes, here I am, Lord.  Let it be,” and very shortly she found herself with child.  I’m sure that she knew about the whys and wherefores of pregnancy and childbearing and child rearing.  Those were common enough things in the life around her – and she was prepared for that – even looked forward to it. 

But I’m not sure she was totally prepared for everything that came after.  But in typical ‘girl fashion’ she goes to see her relative Elizabeth who is also expecting her first child.  And Elizabeth affirms how special this child is that Mary carries.  And regardless of what expectation we have for our children we have to wait – nine months until they are born, to see them. to hold them.  And we have to wait until they grow up to see them take their place within this life and this society.  

And so, like Mary, we wait.  We wait in expectation – in anticipation – of what God will do in our midst – how he will work out his promises – using the ordinary to do extraordinary things.   If we just have the kind of faith exhibited by a young peasant girl in a backwater town 2000 years ago – we too may see miracles and experience the great love of our God in new and wonderful ways.

Our lesson from Hebrews tells us that Christ came to abolish the yearly offerings, the sin and burnt offerings to establish himself as The Offering that redeems the world.  In God’s plan, this one person, Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, was to be the salvation of the world.  This little baby would grow up to present himself as that sacrifice for all time.  It is through this offering of Jesus’ body that we have been sanctified and made holy to stand before God.  It is because of this sacrifice that we are adopted as sons and daughters into the family of God.  

And it all started with a visit by an angel and a young girl who said “yes”.



Sunday, November 25, 2018

Christ the King

Today is designated Christ the King Sunday.  It is the last Sunday in the Christian year.  Unlike our calendars that run from January 1 to December 31, The Christian year runs from the first Sunday of Advent to Christ the King.  Next Sunday, we will turn our thoughts and focus to the coming of Christ.  But for now, we look at the culmination of His life of earth, and what that means for us.  

One of the arguments down through the centuries has been over the nature of Jesus Christ.  Is he human or is he divine?  God or man?  Some believed that he was only a man who received the Holy Spirit at baptism.  Others believed that he was fully divine and only pretended to be human.  Those were the extremes, and there was every possible variation between them.

It was in the 4th century that the church affirmed that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine - that he was of the very same nature as God and was not created, but was pre-existent before time. You know, “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten not made - being of one substance with the father.”  All those things that we say in our creed that affirm the divinity of Christ - they were developed at the council of Nicea.  We also say "born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried." Jesus was both human - and divine. We don’t know how that is, but we believe that all things are possible through God, our Father.  

Today our lessons affirm the idea that Christ is not simply a man - but is something more. Daniel shows us the throne room of heaven in the 1st lesson. The "son of man" is given authority and dominion over earth. Christ - Messiah - means anointed one - especially one who is anointed as king.  

If you look at the reported life of Jesus of Nazareth - you won't find him a likely candidate for king. Jesus is very much the "son of man" - Very much human - Jesus was born in a stable - raised in a small insignificant town in a remote part of the world - he worked as a carpenter - and when he took to the road as an itinerate preacher - he didn't stay in grand hotels or spacious homes. He walked the dusty roads - not riding a chariot as nobility did. 

When he said, "foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the son of man (Daniel's term for the Messiah) has no place to lay his head." Jesus is tying into the Daniel image of the coming Messiah - but it didn't quite make sense - because a king was to have absolute power. 

So when he stands before Pilate, it is with the same kind of irony. A king who is in chains - who will be put to death in a most horrible way - and yet - he can say, "For this I was born - to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice." 

Those who are not of the truth - consider it folly to follow this messiah who was crucified. This is not the way of the world - the world wants  to sees its king as victorious - fighting for right - struggling against all odds to win the day. 

A king commands absolute power - is obeyed without question - rules with authority. A king gives orders and expects his orders to be obeyed. This is not the image we see with Jesus. When he washes the feet of his disciples, he tells them, "I am giving you an example, which you must follow if you would be my disciples."   

Jesus was not the kind of king that the people expected. He didn't go around "lording" it over everyone like the gentiles. He didn't snub the poor, the sick, the homeless, the helpless. He lifted them up and helped them to become better than they were. He gave them hope and new reasons to live.  This was part of being an example for us to follow.

Jesus was given authority in heaven, but he didn't rely on that divine authority. For those of us who are of the truth, have heard his voice and - even though he didn't have to do it, he earned that authority - and our trust and respect - when he dwelt among us.  All the way through the New Testament, we learn that Jesus is our Lord and Savior.  We are willing to allow Jesus to be our Saviour - we talk about what he has done for us - giving up his life so that we might live. 

BUT - at the same time, we often pay only lip service to his 'lordship.' We hesitate to call him "Lord" - because that gives him authority over our lives. The world tells us that we need to be in control of our own life. You got to work hard if you want to get ahead in today's world - Self-help books tell us that we can do it all ourselves - We don't need anyone else. 

Both Daniel and St. John speak of dominion - Jesus is given dominion. My dictionary defines dominion as the power to rule - absolute authority. To this end the New Testament calls Jesus, "Lord." 

Giving Jesus authority in our lives means allowing him to be the guiding force in our life. It's about letting go of control for your life and allowing Jesus to be Lord over your life. So often we do something & then we ask God's blessings on what we have done. That's the wrong way around if we are to accept Jesus as Lord.  

This “Holy Day” - Christ the King - is only 93 year old.  It was established by Pope Pius XI and celebrated for the first time in 1925.  Why did Pope Pius institute this day?  It was actually politically motivated.  Mussolini had risen to power and become an absolute ruler in Italy, and Hitler had been released from prison and was beginning to rebuild and re-organize his Nazi party.  Pope Pius was making an overt statement with declaring this as Christ the King Sunday.  He was saying, remember who your true king is - don’t go running after false gods.

God is pictured as The Ancient of Days – the Alpha and Omega – an absolute ruler, pure and wise and holy.  Jesus is pictured as a human – coming through the clouds – the one who was pierced – whose throne is a cross.  He is the holy one who has been given dominion and authority over all creation.  Our earthly kingdoms will pass away to make room for the kingdom of God.  What place does this “son of man” occupy in your home?  How do you acknowledge Christ Jesus in your heart?  And how does his “lordship” play out in your life?

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Becoming Saints of God

Listen to the sermon.

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Mary’s words, her lament, rings true in our hears.  When someone we love dies, the human side of us often wants to ask why and to rail at the unfairness of it all...  And sometimes it is unfair from our point of view.  But what we consider a tragedy for our own personal life, the Lord considers a victory.  From his viewpoint, it is a victory over death - Our loved one has made that transition to the plane where we are intended to spend our real life - eternity. 

In today’s lesson, Jesus does two things to take the focus off of himself: He prays to God and he allows the people around him to hear his prayer so that they will understand that it is God who raised Lazarus from the dead.  The second thing he does is to allow the people standing around to have a part in this raising of Lazarus.  He has them roll away the stone and then he has them unbind Lazarus.  

This act is as important as, and a reminder of, creation.  Jesus speaks the word, he calls Lazarus out of the tomb, and Lazarus comes forth.  Lazarus comes from the darkness of the tomb, from the abyss, into the light that shine in the world.  Out of darkness, God brings light.  Out of death, God brings life - abundant life.

Our lessons today have a delightful way of working together.  Our first lesson from the Wisdom of Solomon is an apocryphal reading, written during that 200 years before the birth of Christ.  In the Old Testament, you can read several stories of faithful servants of God who were taken up into heaven without tasting death.  But you will notice that God’s promises to Abraham (descendants and land and cattle) have to do with what happens here on earth, without mention of any sort of afterlife.  This idea of an afterlife is being presented here in our lesson from Wisdom.  This is where the idea of eternal life begins to emerge.  “The Souls of the Righteous are in the hand of God.”

It talks about the traditional view of death - “In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction...”   That is the way a lot of the world sees death - final and decisive.  

But our lesson goes on, “But they are at peace, their hope is full of immortality, they will receive a great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself...”  It says here that “Those who trust in God will understand truth - AND the faithful will abide with him in love - FOR he watches over his elect.”  (According to my commentary, this was written about 50 years before the birth of Christ and therefore not dependent on him.)  The Book of Wisdom tells us that being made in the image of God includes sharing with him in immortality - the Godly, the ethical will be granted eternal life.

Next we have Psalm 24, still in the Old Testament, talking about what it takes to ascend the hill of the Lord.  I’ve been attending a Bible Study in Alvin that focuses on the relationship between heaven and earth, especially as understood in the Old Testament.  The word we translate as heaven can mean either the sky, or that place where God resides - so from earliest times God was believed to be off in the sky somewhere.  Therefore the people would go to the high places - on hilltops - mountaintops to be near God.   Moses met God on Mount Sinai.  Elijah went to the mountaintop to meet God.  Temples were placed on the highest point in any area so as to be close to God.  Even this place were we are meeting today, Temple Sinai, was named to denote the desire to be close to God.  It has always been man’s desire to be near God - Even the Tower of Babel was a plan to try to draw near God. 

But here’s the grace - in our Gospel lesson, Jesus demonstrates God power to be present here on earth - by raising Lazarus from the dead.  God now resides among his people - here on earth, right now - not in some far-off heaven or some future time.  God’s saving grace and desire to be among his people is demonstrated in this act of mercy.

And this idea of God’s desire to be here with us is reinforced in our lesson from Revelation.  Did you notice that it said the new Jerusalem, the Holy City was coming out of heaven?  God’s desire is that heaven and earth to be together and he wants his home to be among us.  Do you remember  in the beginning God walked on earth in the Garden of Eden and talked to Adam and Eve. It was a place where they could be together and interact.  And ever since our fall from grace, God has been trying to find a way to regain that relationship, that friendship with us.  

Today is known as All Saints Day – my favorite hymn talks about the Saints of God.  It really reflects Paul notion of ‘saints.’  Paul used the word ‘saint’ to speak of the believers who were being saved: Everyday people who lived their lives for Jesus Christ.  One was a doctor, one was a queen, one was a shepherdess on the green – and all of them saints of God and I mean – God helping to be one too.  One was a soldier, one was a priest, one was slain – and there’s not any reason why we shouldn’t be one too.  

They didn’t just live in the past – they are alive today and all around – they are the ones who love to do Jesus’ will.  And you can meet them in school or on the road, swimming or sailing, in church or on trains or planes, even at Wal-Mart or Starbucks, because the saints of God are just like us.  Each time we choose to be merciful, each time we extend a kindness, each time we share compassion, we grow in grace and in stature on our way to becoming Saints of God.  

Monday, October 15, 2018

What must I do?

Jesus is on a journey – he is ultimately headed to Jerusalem and the cross.  Last week he had traveled from Capernaum to Judea beyond the Jordan.  Now as he sets out again, a man comes running up.  He falls on his knees and says, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.”  The address is over the top for a Jew.  Jesus jokes (or maybe spars) with him, “Why do you call me ‘good’?  No one is good but God.”

Next Jesus reminds him of the commandments – those dealing with our neighbors – those that deal with relationships here on earth.  The Jewish belief was that if you just followed all the right laws, then you could please God and you would have eternal life.  So his statement, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” was typical of this time and the present Jewish mindset.

But there’s a problem with this – how many of you have every received an inheritance?  What did you have to do to earn that inheritance?  Did you do something to earn the inheritance, or was it the result of a relationship you enjoyed?  

Jesus essentially tells this man, you cannot earn God’s gift – you can only accept it.  You’ve probably heard people say things like, “You just earned another star in your crown.”  I’ve said it myself, but that just perpetuates the myth.

Eternal life is a gift.  The gift of the kingdom of God is a gift of relationship.  And Jesus is in the process of redefining relationship - relationship with God and with the people around you.    

This man (Luke calls him a rich young ruler) is a good man – he is religious and has been diligent about keeping the commandments – he’s probably not much different from you and me.  He’s spent his life living as best he knew how, following in his father’s footsteps, and most likely felt blessed by God because of his prosperity.  

What he didn’t understand was that eternal life is a gift.  There is a story told about a young boy in Sweden who wanted some grapes from the king’s garden for his sick mother.  He asked the gardener if he could buy a bunch, but the gardener refused.  Standing nearby was the King’s son, and right away he put two bunches of grapes in the boy’s hand.  The boy offered to pay, but the prince said, “My father is not a merchant who sells, he is a king who gives.”  Our God is not a merchant with eternal life to sell.

I can remember a number of years ago when Sam and I lived in Austin.  We both had good jobs, two cars, two beautiful children and enough money for the things we needed.  But something was missing.  At the time we didn’t go to church except Christmas and Easter.  We were good people – not rich, but we had what we needed, and yet, something was missing.  

I would imagine that it wasn’t much different from this young man.  He knew something was missing from his life and he thought that he could buy or earn whatever it was.  And Jesus tells him what is needed.  His face falls, because he isn’t ready to give up what he has.  This young man walks away, shoulders slumped, head down, turning away from what he desperately wanted, because he wasn’t willing to pay the price.  He wasn’t willing to lay down what he had in order to pick up what Christ wanted to give him. 

Jesus turns to his disciples and says that it’s hard for the wealthy to enter the kingdom – not impossible, but hard.  It is only through the grace of God that any of us can enter the kingdom of God.  

It’s hard for the rich to enter heaven because they have a tendency to rely on their wealth or their self for the things they need and want.  It’s hard for the rich to enter heaven because they sometimes develop an unhealthy attachment to their wealth.  We often hear a misquote from the Bible, “Money is the root of all evil.”  But that’s not right.  It’s not money that is the root of all evil, it is “the love of money that is the root of all evil.”  That comes from 1 Tim. 6:10.  Money itself is not the problem, it is our attachment and dependence on it that is a problem. 

But this is a new concept for the disciples.  The culture – the Jewish religion itself affirmed that affluence was the direct result of the blessing and favor of God.  Affluence meant you were a shoe-in for heaven.  But Jesus is giving them something new – getting into heaven may be impossible for us – but not for God - with God all things are possible.

There’s a story about a man who died and went to heaven and St. Peter met him at the gate and says, “We had to develop a new system to decide who gets to come into heaven.  You need a thousand points to get in now.  What have you done with your life?”  

The man says, “Well, I was a minister and preached to hundreds of people and brought them to God.  I visited prisoners and patients in hospitals.  I started a food kitchen to feel the hungry and a clothing center to help people get clothes.”  

St. Peter said, “Well, all that adds up to about 10 points.”  The man, in shock, said, “Ten point?  At that rate I’ll need the grace of God to get in.”   St. Peter said, “That’s worth 990 points.  Come on in.”

Peter speaks for the whole group – “We have left everything to follow you…”  Jesus tells the disciples;  "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold. . .  houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions.”

I don’t know about you, but for me that doesn’t sound happy – fields with persecutions?  I think it’s safe to say that when we follow Jesus, it isn’t always fun and games.  Sometimes there will be struggles and hardships.  Sometimes we are going to suffer, regardless of who we are and what we are and what we have done.  

God is asking something of us.  He’s asking for a commitment.  For some people that might take the form of a commitment of money.  For others, it might be a commitment of time.  And even others might be asked for a commitment of talent.  

I guess it’s sort of like earnest money in a contract – you are putting your money where you mouth is.  You know those bumper stickers out there that say “Honk if you love Jesus.”  Sam and I ran across one a couple of years ago that said, “If you love Jesus, tithe.  Anyone can honk.”  

Jesus is looking for relationship and one of the symbols of relationship is by supporting your local parish.  Consider it a commitment.  This is stewardship season in the Episcopal Church.  Your vestry is looking ahead to next year and planning.  One of the things they will be looking for is financial support.  The biblical commitment is the tithe – ten percent.  Even if you don’t have money, there are other things you can do.  God is calling you into relationship, so search your heart and consider where God is calling you to commit you time or talent or treasure for the coming year.


Saturday, August 18, 2018

Yada Yeshua, Knowing Jesus

Our gospel lesson speaks of Jesus as the “bread of life,” he says, “I am the living bread…”  Here we are two thousand years later and we have the picture in our mind and we know the whole story – sort of – and we know that Jesus is speaking metaphorically about the body and blood – he is referring to the bread and wine of Eucharist.  

We understand what it’s about, but two thousand years ago, they didn’t have the historical understanding we enjoy.  The Jews who disputed with Jesus were raised under very strict dietary laws.  It was very important to “keep kosher” if you were a Jew.  The first thing that we can consider is that Jews were not allowed to consume blood.  The bodies of the animals to be used for food first had to be hung up and drained of all blood before they could be cooked.  And the big one is that the human body is ‘unclean’ according to Jewish dietary law.  So they heard “eat my flesh” and all they could think was, “Not in my mama’s kitchen.”

Our gospel is not the only lessons in which we are invited to eat bread and drink wine.  Our Old Testament also invites us to do the same.   It says Wisdom has built her house, slaughtered her animals, mixed her wine and set her table.  She calls to all, “You that are simple, turn in here.  Come, eat my bread and drink my wine.  Lay aside immaturity and live, and walk in the way of insight.”

Wisdom is often personified – as a woman.  “Wisdom” becomes the Old Testament counterpart – the female counterpart -- for Jesus himself.  Sometimes in Christian and semi-Christian literature you will find references to Sophia.  Sometimes you will hear Sophia being deified.  For some, Sophia is the “the goddess of wisdom,” the mother of creation, and even the “consort” of Yahweh.  

The truth is that Sophia is simply the Greek word for “wisdom.”   When the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) was translated into Greek it was called the Septuagint.  This was done two or three centuries before Jesus to meet the needs of the Greek speaking Jewish population outside Palestine.  In the Septuagint you get, “Sophia…  has built a house…”

If we were to read a little further in the 9th chapter of Proverbs, we would find Sophia (or Wisdom) contrasted with lady Folly.  Folly is undisciplined and without knowledge.  She sits at the door of her house and also calls out to those who pass by.  Here is what she offers to those who are simple, “Stolen water is sweet, food eaten in secret is delicious.”  She offers an illicit meal, one replete with sexual implications.  She offers worldly pleasures – those partaken of in secret – those hidden away from the world.  

This would have been a place where the Prodigal Son would have spent his money and whiled away his time.  There is no return for money and time spent in this place – only emptiness – it is only a dead-end.  Wisdom invites all to leave their simple ways and walk in the way of wisdom – of understanding – and you will live.  Wisdom is sometimes defined as skill in living, but it is more than that.  It is learning to walk with God, learning to walk in the ways of God.  

The question can become, which voice are you listening to, Folly or Wisdom.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.  It’s real easy to say “God told me such-in-so.”   But always remember when we do this that - Andrea Yates thought God told her to kill her children.  And David Koresh – who they said “He loves God and he loves women.”  And he led his followers to destruction – he listened to Folly thinking she was Sophia - Wisdom.

People in the first century listened to what Jesus said and thought it was Folly.  Jesus was telling people in this 6th chapter of John:  “Eat of my flesh and drink of my blood and you will live.”  Jesus was speaking figuratively - metaphorically – but the people who were listening to him were taking it literally.  

Even years later they were still taken literally –when the Lord’s Supper was instituted as the principle (or common) form of worship – people accused the Christians of being cannibals – eating the flesh and drinking blood.  It’s not that they had a hard time understanding the concept of symbolism, but they wanted a reason to condemn this new sect.

People question the wisdom of letting little children take communion.  I remember in Huntsville one young child being questioned about what it meant to take communion.  He said, “It means I’m taking Jesus inside me.”  That is probably the best theology of Eucharist I’ve ever heard.  We are taking Jesus inside us.

And that’s exactly what Jesus is talking about – he wants us to make him so much a part of our life that we incorporate his principles, his very being into our life.  So many people only pay lip service to Jesus, to God.  It sounds great on Sunday morning, but what about the rest of the week?  Do we really try to live our lives (our secular lives) according to the foundations of our sacred lives. 

In our lesson from Ephesians we are admonished, to “be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise.“  Wise here is sophos – a form of sophia.  This is the same root that we get our word for sophomore.  You know that to be a sophomore is to think you are wise and know it all – when you really don’t.  

I don’t know if any of you have ever watched Seinfeld – I’ve seen it a few times, but never cared for it much.  It’s a great exercise in how not to live your life – but it was a popular show and one of the phrases from it caught on and became very popular with young people.  And all over you began hearing, “And he said, yada, yada, yada…”  Everything was yada, yada, yada.  And yada seemed to fill in the gaps in any conversation.  

Remember that Seinfeld is very much a Jewish name – and yada is a Jewish word – it is Hebrew for knowledge, to know to teach or to learn.  Yada appears 875 times in the Old Testament.  From Genesis we find “Adam knew (Yada)  his wife Eve and she conceived and bore a son...”. And although it can have a sexual connotation, it implies a much deeper knowledge.  From Psalm 16:11 “You show (Yada) me the path of life.” And from Psalm 100:3 “Know (Yada) that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his;”  It implies to know in a relational sense, and that’s what Jesus wants from us.   He wants us to know him in a relational way – taking him into us and being in relationship with Jesus is the point of these lessons.

They all tie together – to tell us to live wisely – live a life based on the principles of Jesus, incorporating them into our lives in such a way that we don’t leave out those who don’t know Jesus.  Our collect tells us that Jesus is an example of Godly life and that we are to follow in his footsteps daily.

In seminary, they taught us big flowery words with complicated meanings that encompassed all that Jesus did for us.  But I would rather speak a few simple words that touch the heart of all who hear.  Jesus came and he lived among us – touching the lives of simple folk in positive ways; healing the sick, feeding the poor, forgiving sinners, and giving hope to those without means.  In theological debates with learned people, what he said didn’t make much sense to them because they weren’t ready to give up the ways of the world that maintained their positions of power.   

In Ephesians, Paul tells us – I’m going to reverse the order here - to be filled with the Spirit and to make the most of our time, living as wise people.  We have to life in this world – not only to live in relationship to Christ, but also to live in relationship with the people around us – with Christ so much a part of our life, that it shines forth as a beacon to all who are in need.  

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Herod’s Dilemma

A couple of years before I went to seminary, it was summer and our daughter, Cyndy, had graduated from high school – she was 18 and her brother Andy was just turning 21.  Andy and his friends were planning to go in to Houston to hear some group play at a bar and they wanted Cyndy and her friend Carrie to go with them.  So they had asked me for permission.  

The guys thought that the girls could get in as long as they didn’t drink.  I decided that this wasn’t a good idea since Cyndy’s friend was only 17 and we couldn’t get hold of her parents, so I told them, “No.”  Everybody accepted that and there wasn’t any real argument.  The boys all left and Cyndy and Carrie stayed there.  Cyndy came up and hugged me and said, “Thanks, Mom.  We didn’t really feel comfortable going, but I didn’t want to disappoint my brother.”

That was Cyndy’s dilemma – to be supportive and cool in her brother’s eyes versus feeling comfortable about what they wanted to do.  Herod had a dilemma, too.  Herod’s dilemma was that it was his birthday and the festivities were just beginning to peak.  Everyone was either drunk or getting there pretty quick and so they probably weren't using their best judgment.  The king was in a really good mood – a magnanimous mood - and was very pleased by the dance of the young woman.  Our text says ‘his daughter, Herodias,’ but that's probably incorrect.  Most likely it actually means Herodias’ daughter.  That interpretation is supported by Josephus, the Jewish (political) historian, who calls the daughter, ‘Salome.’    

Herod was of Jewish descent and ruled only at the pleasure of Rome.  But for a Jew he was a very important man, a powerful man, and he wanted to look good in the eyes of those who were with him.  Having been pleased by the dance, he made this astounding offer―anything you want – even half my kingdom.  It was foolish of Herod by any stretch of the imagination, but it supported his self-image of who he was and who he wanted others to think he was.

The girl had no idea what to ask for, so she went out and consulted with her mother. She came back and asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.  Chances are really good that she didn’t really know what she was asking for – she just did what her mother asked without really understanding.  Scripture doesn’t tell us how old she was, but I would imagine she would be about the age of 13 to 15.  And in those days girls were not actually schooled, except possibly in court manners so that they could attract a good alliance in marriage. Her mother, Herodias, had wanted for a long time to get rid of John the Baptizer.  He had been very vocal in condemning her and Herod for marrying.  He represented a thorn in her side by drawing attention to her sin.  

As I said before, Herod, although not religious himself, had a certain respect (and probably fear) for the Jewish religious tradition.  John was a prophet and was speaking out as a prophet calling people to own up to their sinful ways.  And John was calling people to a different kind of atonement for their sins - not an animal sacrifice at the temple, but the sacrifice of a contrite heart and metanoia - turning their lives around. 

Our scripture says that Herod liked to listen to John and he probably spent time down in the dungeon talking to him and listening to what he had to say.  Our lesson says that Herod knew John to be a righteous and holy man and that he protected John.  So, when the daughter asked for John’s head, Herod had a dilemma.

Here he had made this sweeping promise to give Salome whatever she wanted, never dreaming that she would ask for something so – so bizarre.  And now he’s trapped.  He didn’t want to give her this request – but he didn’t want to look bad in the eyes of the court officials and military officers there.  He didn’t want to look like someone who does not hold up his promises.  They all knew what John had been preaching, and Herod didn’t want to appear weak in their eyes.  In the Middle East political arena, any sign of weakness is a death knell.  That is as true today as it was in Jesus’ time. 

What is interesting is that this need for power and face is in actuality a weakness.  It drove him and forced him to do something he didn’t want to do, all for the sake of saving face.  It’s a kind of peer pressure at an extreme level.  For Herod, his word was more important that a human life.

In our lives we face dilemmas all the time.  I remember once when my son quit a good paying job because of a dilemma between his own sense of right and wrong and what his company was doing.  I quit a summer job up on Lake Travis for the same reason – I didn’t like the ethics of the owner of the business.  There are times you just have to do that.  You have to step back and decide if you are going to be a part of whatever it is you don’t agree with, for the sake of what?  A paycheck?  What others might think of you?  To remain in power?  

When those moral dilemmas come, we need to remember our understanding of God, and all that God calls us to be and do, to make those decisions.  We should never allow ourselves to become so ingrained in a situation that we have to act against our conscience in order to please or satisfy someone else.

Now, you may, or may not, have twigged to the fact that this story is actually a “flash-back.”  It starts out saying that Herod heard the stories about Jesus and his disciples, and Herod decided this was actually John having been raised from the dead.  So John is already dead - this flashback tells the circumstances for his death.  So the question is, why would Mark choose this place in the gospel to tell the story of John’s beheading?

The reason is because this lesson is it’s not really intended to be a stand-alone lesson.  It is actually the meat & cheese part of one of Mark’s ‘sandwich’ readings.  Mark does this all the time.  He loves to take two stories and use them to reinforce each other or to make a point.

He will begin telling one story and stop in the middle to tell a different story, and then go back to the first story.  He did it with the story from 2 weeks ago - the healing of Jarius’ daughter and the woman with an issue of blood.  He does it with the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple and he does it with 6 other stories.

In last week’s Gospel lesson, Jesus sent the disciples out by twos proclaiming a call to repentance, casting out demons and curing the ill.  That is what Herod is responding to in today’s lesson.  Next’s week’s gospel starts with the disciples coming back and rejoicing in all that they accomplished.   

Both stories have their own point, but they also function together to relay a message to Mark’s community who were being persecuted.  The message intended by this juxtaposition is to remind them that bad things are going to happen, and good people are going to die, but the good news of God’s love and forgiveness and his healing still goes on wherever God’s people reach out to help others.  

 And this is our inheritance when we set our hope on Christ – when we’ve heard the word of truth and we believe in him – we belong to God.  We don’t have to do things to please the people around us because we have a God who has chosen us before the foundations of the world.  A God who is faithful to us in all circumstances, and who will never desert us.  This is the one we should please.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.  Amen.