Sixth Sunday of Easter

Sixth Sunday of Easter 2018 PDF

Sixth Sunday of Easter

John 15:9-17

When we are young we learn a list of “dos” and “do nots.” Do not cross the street without looking both ways. Do show respect for your elders. Do not misbehave. Do treat people the way you would like to be treated. Lend a helping hand in cleaning up the dishes after a meal. The list is seemingly endless. Some grade-school children learn the list well and follow all the rules. And some of these might even become a little self-righteous with the way they follow the rules in the midst of many others who do not. There is a comfort that can come from following the rules, doing what is expected, keeping the list. But there also comes a time when we grow out of childhood, internalize the purpose of the rules, and live as adults.

Even the Old Testament had a list, which today we refer to as the Ten Commandments. Honor your father and mother. Do not covet another’s belongings. Here again, learning the list and following it is rather easy and straightforward. It is literally a checklist, as to how to be good and honorable in God’s sight. And too often we encounter, or have become ourselves, those who are a bit smug, in the way they keep the rules and follow the list, much like proud grade-school children who find comfort and validation in mere obedience.

But Jesus gives us a command in today’s gospel that supersedes all others. It is simply this: “love one another.” Of course, with a command, an invitation like this, it can be seductive to return to a checklist! How much easier would it be to maintain a checklist, such as, going to church, celebrating the sacraments, fasting on Ash Wednesday, and Good Friday. But the command issued by Jesus is much more difficult. A command to love knows no bounds, knows no checklist. It can be much easier to simply attend church once a week and other higher feast days in the church liturgical year, than it can to “love.” By this command, Jesus invites us to an adult spirituality, no longer satisfied by keeping a list. We are not children who need to be told to help with cleaning up after dinner. We do this naturally out of love. And we likely do much more.

There is no box to check for “love.” Love does not count the cost or put a limit on what price is too high. Love can always do more. Love is based on a personal relationship with another that is not transactional but self-giving. As Jesus says in the gospel, his love for his friends reaches the point of laying down his own life for them. There is no boundary to what love calls us to do. And for that reason, we might prefer a list of dos and do nots. But that is not what we receive from Jesus. We receive from Christ a command simple but demanding, inviting: “love one another.”

The Christian life, modeled by Jesus, is about a freedom to love to the point of laying down one’s life for the other. A relationship with Jesus necessarily involves a relationship with Jesus’ friends. And these friends are called to love not only Jesus and God but, perhaps more importantly, one another. How much simpler the spiritual life would be, if we only had to focus on loving Jesus, or loving God. But to be a friend of Jesus means we must love Christ’s other friends as well. This kind of love is not simply a checklist of good deeds, but a dying to self that puts others first. This love is self-sacrificial and demand, invites that we put our own wants, needs, and desires aside to serve and love the other. But, some might respond, “others have so many needs there is no way we can meet them all.” We could die trying, “Precisely.” is the answer we might expect. The Christian life is one that invites a kind of heroism of daily self-sacrifice, daily dying to one’s self. This is the paschal mystery given to us by Jesus. For when we give ourselves to the point of no return, God is there to raise us up to new life.

Continuing last Sunday’s theme of the vine and branches, Jesus speaks of the love of God that is to be the bonding agent of the new Israel. The model of love for the faithful disciple – “to love one another as I have loved you” – is extreme, limitless, and unconditional. The love manifested in the gospel and the Resurrection of Christ, creates an entirely new relationship between God and humanity. Again Christ, the example of sevanthood, the Redeemer, is the great ‘connector’ between God and us.

In Christ, we are not “slaves” of a distant, divine Creator, but “friends,” yes friends of a loving God who hears the prayers and cries made to God in Jesus’ name. As “friends of God,” we are called to reflect that love to the rest of the world.

Loving one another as Christ loved us, begins by putting aside our own hopes and wants and seeking instead the hopes and wants of others, caring for and about others with selflessness and understanding, regardless of the sacrifice; always ready to make the first move to forgive and to heal. That kind of love can be so overwhelmingly demanding that we may shy away from the prospect. But most of us have known some time when we have been able to love like that or when someone has loved us like that. It is an incredible joy. We experience a profound sense of purpose and wholeness in giving and receiving that kind of love – the depth and love Christ has had for us all.

Christ transforms creation’s relationship with its Creator. God is not the distant, aloof, removed architect of the universe. God is not the cruel taskmaster. God is not the unfeeling judge, who seeks the destruction of the wicked. God is creative, reconciling, energizing love. And Jesus is the perfect expression of that love. All that God has done in the first creation of Genesis and the re-creation of Easter has been done out of limitless, unfathomable love. Such love moves from demand and invites us not to fear God, but to accept God’s love offering of “friendship;” not to self-loathing for our unworthiness, but to grateful joy at what God has done for us. Amen.

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Fifth Sunday of Easter

Fifth Sunday of Easter PDF

Fifth Sunday of Easter

John 15:1-8

Grapes that are native to the United States are good for only one thing, grape juice. They do not produce good wine. On the other hand, many grapes native to Europe, for example, are excellent for producing wine. Being half Italian, that is something my relatives would say or think about grapes that are native to the United States. There are stories of nineteenth century Italian immigrants coming to California with their grapevine cuttings, so they would be able to plant their own native grapes in this New World and have wine. They tended these cuttings onboard ships and then across the Appalachian range, the Great Plains, and the Rocky Mountains before finally settling on the West Coast.

The grapevine cuttings were precious reminders of the land, the culture, and the people, the immigrants left behind; and these same cuttings, properly transplanted, cared for, and pruned, would provide life and happiness in this, the New World. And it turned out that California’s climate, Napa Valley in particular, was ideal for growing grapes that would produce some of the world’s best wines.

We can imagine something of this, when Jesus says that he is the Vine. In typical Johannine fashion, we have here no parable about the kingdom of God being like a vineyard. Remember, last week I talked about that John does not talk in parables. He talks and uses the “I AM” statements and in chapter 15, John uses “I AM the true vine.” For the fourth gospel, Jesus is the Vine. He goes a step further to say that God is the vinegrower. For us and our image above, perhaps God is the immigrant who brings the precious vine to the New World, ready to plant in fertile soil.

Jesus reminds us of the vinegrower’s role. Not only does the vinegrower ensure its viability, but God prunes the branches to produce fruit, and cuts away those that do not produce any fruit. In a stark vision of the end of time, Jesus takes yet another step to say that those branches that have been cut away will be thrown into the fire to be burned. Such apocalyptic images are rare in this gospel, though they appear more frequently in Matthew. As the vinegrower, God tends God’s precious vine, much like the immigrant bringing native cuttings to the New World. Once transplanted, the real work begins. I wonder if we were think of immigrants as God, yes God the vinegrower, that has been transplanted here, would we be so quick to uproot them from where they have been planted?

Where are we in this metaphor? We are the branches, fully aware that no branch can produce fruit on its own. We must remain attached to the vine to bear fruit. So as not to be uprooted, lopped off, we remain in Jesus.

The images this morning are ancient, but easily applicable and comprehended. Anyone with experience in gardening or observing nature grasps the symbolism here. The metaphor is simple yet sublime, and seems to be evidence of a good Teacher.

The image used in today’s gospel is polyvalent. It can be understood in a number of ways. For one, Jesus says that the branches that do bear fruit are pruned, to bear more. We can reflect on that, to wonder why these fruit-bearing branches need to be pruned at all! Is it not enough to cut off the branches that do not bear fruit? No, for the vinegrower, merely producing fruit is not enough. The vinegrower knows that the branch can produce more. And anyone with gardening experience would agree.

And so we at times have the experience of being pruned. We can wonder why. Things seem to be going well. Life is in order. Good things are happening. And yet, we are pruned. We die to parts of ourselves regularly. And this dying is essential if we are to produce fruit. The vinegrower, God, knows exactly what God is doing. Our task is simply to remain attached to the vine, and to produce fruit. Our being pruned is a natural and healthy, though perhaps painful at times, experience that is necessary for us to grow in to the people we are to become. This process of being pruned, of dying to self, is essential for the Christian life, and it is directed, even carried out by God. The result of which is producing fruit.

In Christ, we are connected to God and to one another. We cannot live our faith in a vacuum. Unless Jesus becomes the center of our lives, the faith we profess is doomed to wither and die in emptiness, unless we embrace the gospel and its demanding spirit of selflessness, compassion, forgiveness, and love, our profession of faith is meaningless. The Risen One calls us to community, to be branches on the same vine, to realize our life in Christ is also life in one another.

Easter season speaks to us of the eternal presence of Christ in our midst, present to us in the Word we have heard and has taken root in our hearts. Our faithfulness to the call to discipleship invites that we work to enable that Word within us to produce a garden of compassion, forgiveness, justice, reconciliation, and love. In the fruit we bear as branches of Christ, we glorify God the vinegrower. Remember, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” Amen.

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Easter Day

Easter Day 2018

Easter Day

John 20:1-18

Mary Magdalene was the first to discover the empty tomb and her reaction might be described as fear and unknowing. Easter morning must have been confusing, even frightening, time. Jesus had just been killed by the state, an imperial occupying power. Most of the disciples had scattered. Now when Mary of Magdala came to pay her final respects, she finds the tomb empty. It might be hard for us to imagine, but apparently the early disciples did not understand that Jesus was to rise from the dead. Though they had been with Jesus during his earthly ministry, they were unprepared for this victorious act of God over death itself. To us, the resurrection of Jesus is a central point of faith. For them, it seems to have been wholly unexpected. The gospels are remarkably candid about this embarrassing fact.

John’s Easter gospel says nothing of earthquakes or angels. His account begins before daybreak. It was believed that the spirit of the deceased hovered around the tomb for three days after burial. Mary Magdalene was therefore following the Jewish custom of visiting the tomb during this three-day period. Discovering that the stone has been moved away, Mary Magdalene runs to tell Peter and the others. Peter and the other disciple race to get there and look inside.

Note the different reactions of the three: Mary Magdalene fears that someone has “taken” Jesus’ body; Peter does not know what to make of the news, but the “other disciple” – the model of faithful discernment in John’s gospel – immediately understands what has taken place. So great is the beloved disciple’s love and depth of faith, that all of the strange remarks and dark references of Jesus now become clear.

While the Easter mystery does not deny the reality of suffering and pain, it does proclaim reason for hope in the human condition. The empty tomb of Christ trumpets the ultimate Alleluia – the love, the compassion, the generosity, the humility, and selflessness will ultimately triumph over hatred, bigotry, prejudice, despair, greed, and even death. The Easter miracle enables us, even in the most difficult and desperate of times, to live our lives in hopeful certainty of the fulfillment of the resurrection at the end of our life’s journey.

Today we stand, with Peter, the other disciple, and Mary, especially Mary, at the entrance of the empty tomb, with them, we wonder what it means. The Christ who challenged us to love one another is risen and walks among us! All that Jesus taught – compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation, sincerity, selflessness, and love for the sake of others – is vindicated and affirmed in God raising Jesus from the dead. The empty tomb should not only console us and elate us, it should challenge us to embrace the life of the gospel. With Easter faith, we can awaken the promise of the empty tomb in every place and moment we encounter on our journey through this life.

Women never let anyone convince you that you are inferior or not important. If it were not for the Mary Magdalene in the story, we would not be here. Let me see if I can put the importance of women in this story a little differently.

When God created woman, God was working late on the 6th day. An angel came by and asked, “Why spend so much time on her?” God answered, “Have you seen all the specifications I have to meet to shape her?” She must function on all kinds of situation. She must be able to embrace several children at the same time. Have a hug that can heal anything from a bruised knee to a broken heart. She must do all this with only two hands. She cures herself when sick and can work 18 hours a day.” The angel was impressed, “Just two hands…impossible! And this is the standard model?” The angel came closer and touched the woman, “But you have made her so soft, God.” “She is soft,” said God. “But I have made her strong. You cannot imagine what she can endure and overcome.” “Can she think?” the angel asked. God answered, “Not only can she think, she can reason and negotiate.”

The angel touched her cheeks, “I am sorry God, but it seems your creation is leaking! You have put too many burdens on her.” “She is not leaking. It is a tear,” God corrected the angel. “What is it for?” asked the angel. Then God said, “Tears are her way of expressing her grief, her doubts, her love, her loneliness, her suffering, and her pride.”

This made a big impression on the angel, “God, you are a genius. You thought of everything. A woman is indeed marvelous!” God said, “Indeed she is. She has strength that amazes a man. She can handle trouble and carry heavy burdens. She holds happiness, love, and opinions. She smiles when she feels like screaming. She sings when she feels like crying. She cries when happy and laughs when afraid. She fights for what she believes in. Her love is unconditional. Her heart is broken when a next-of-kin dies, but she finds strength to get on with life.”

The angel asked, “So she is a perfect being?” God turned and looked back at God’s creation, “No, she has just one drawback. She often forgets what she is worth.” Amen

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Easter Vigil

Easter Vigil 2018

Easter Vigil

Mark 16:1-8

The gospel of Mark was the first one to be written. At sixteen chapters, it is the shortest gospel. It also has the shortest concluding chapter, which we read this evening. We remember Mark as one who gets right to the point. There is no need for extraneous details. Indeed, in the original ending of the gospel there is not even a resurrection appearance. The women find the tomb empty, and in the following verse, they run away afraid. Other copyists and editors, including other gospel writers, thought this was no way to end a gospel, which is part of the reason we have multiple endings to the gospel of Mark.

But in today’s story the women come to the tomb, a place of repose for the dead. The tomb itself has been sealed with a massive stone, and so the women contemplate how they will be able to move the stone. Both the tomb and its stone are stark reminders to the reader that Jesus was crucified. He was then left as dead. It is not as though he merely passed out from exhaustion on the cross. No. Jesus truly died, a claim that will be repeated in the New Testament and even in later creeds, including in the renewal of our baptismal covenant we will proclaim tonight.

But upon their arrival, the women, find the stone, that exclamation point on the tomb, has been moved. The tomb is empty. Shockingly, a white-robed young man, who is called an angel by Luke and Matthew, but is a “young man” in Mark, announces to the women that Jesus has been raised! They are to announce this good news to Peter and the other disciples. As such, St. Augustine referred to Mary Magdalene in particular as apostola apostolorum, “the apostle of the apostles,” for she was sent to preach the Easter message to those whom Jesus has called, the apostles themselves.

Death has no hold on the author of life. The tombstone cannot seal God’s son. Jesus has been raised from death to new life! For those of you who were here at Christmas, will remember that I spoke of the bands of cloth that could not keep the Christ child, the Bethlehem Burrito contained. The same bands of cloth that contain the body this night, could not hold the risen Christ.

We are told that the women were amazed. We likely would share their amazement. And yet they are told not to be amazed. Jesus had risen from the dead, and they were not to be amazed. What Jesus had predicted at least three times earlier in the gospel, he has now accomplished. He rose on the third day. Though it can be a natural reaction to be amazed at the work of God, we are to expect that God will do what God says will happen. We can rely on the promises of God, who raises from the dead.

The first to witness the effect of this resurrection were the women, whose testimony would not count in a Jewish court. Still, these were the ones with the motivation, love, care, and concern to visit the tomb. Mark does not say anything about the male disciples being there. Rather, they would meet Jesus in Galilee, where they first were called. It seems their long journey would bring them back to the beginning. Only now Galilee will be so much different, not because it has changed, but because the disciples have changed. They will not be able to go back to the way things were, but they are going back to the beginning nonetheless. And so it can appear to us as we live the spiritual life. So many of our conclusions circle back to where we began. But we are never the same, having been transformed by our experience of the risen Christ.

Women never let anyone convince you that you are inferior or not important. If it were not for the women in the story tonight, we would not be here. Let me see if I can put the importance of women in this story a little differently.

When God created woman, God was working late on the 6th day. An angel came by and asked, “Why spend so much time on her?” God answered, “Have you seen all the specifications I have to meet to shape her?” She must function on all kinds of situation. She must be able to embrace several children at the same time. Have a hug that can heal anything from a bruised knee to a broken heart. She must do all this with only two hands. She cures herself when sick and can work 18 hours a day.” The angel was impressed, “Just two hands…impossible! And this is the standard model?” The angel came closer and touched the woman, “But you have made her so soft, God.” “She is soft,” said God. “But I have made her strong. You cannot imagine what she can endure and overcome.” “Can she think?” the angel asked. God answered, “Not only can she think, she can reason and negotiate.”

The angel touched her cheeks, “I am sorry God, but it seems your creation is leaking! You have put too many burdens on her.” “She is not leaking. It is a tear,” God corrected the angel. “What is it for?” asked the angel. Then God said, “Tears are her way of expressing her grief, her doubts, her love, her loneliness, her suffering, and her pride.”

This made a big impression on the angel, “God, you are a genius. You thought of everything. A woman is indeed marvelous!” God said, “Indeed she is. She has strength that amazes a man. She can handle trouble and carry heavy burdens. She holds happiness, love, and opinions. She smiles when she feels like screaming. She sings when she feels like crying. She cries when happy and laughs when afraid. She fights for what she believes in. Her love is unconditional. Her heart is broken when a next-of-kin dies, but she finds strength to get on with life.”

The angel asked, “So she is a perfect being?” God turned and looked back at God’s creation, “No, she has just one drawback. She often forgets what she is worth.” Amen.

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Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday 2018

Maundy Thursday

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Liturgically we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist but the gospel reading is about Jesus washing the feet of the disciples as a model of service. The church gives us this reading from the gospel of John on Maundy (Holy) Thursday to remind us of the Christian call to imitate the teacher who served. For the Christian, service is required. It is not something we do only when we feel so moved. Rather, it is a fundamental element of our identity. We act this way, in service, because of the example Jesus himself gave us. Of course, if his life and death were not example enough, we have this further action on his part during the Last Supper. So in addition to healing the sick, curing the lame, making the blind see, we have one further example. It is as though Jesus is preemptively responding to later followers who might say, “Sure, Jesus made the blind see, but I cannot do that.” Or, “Sure, Jesus made the leper whole, but I cannot do that.” And Jesus gave us another example, one that each person could do. Jesus bent down, and washed the feet of his disciples, even though they called him “Lord and Teacher.”

Such an example reverberates through the centuries. As human beings, we typically enjoy the status that comes with power and privilege. We enjoy sitting in places of honor. We enjoy getting bumped up to first class on a flight. We enjoy having a fine meal at a restaurant. And these things are all well and good. But Jesus reminds us that those with true power are servants of others without power. Jesus reminds us that to be the master is to be the servant. In so doing, Jesus overturns cultural and societal norms. How many servants are praised and admired? If we become a servant like Jesus what will happen to our prestige, our power, and our honor? What would people think of us, if we stooped so low, to be of service to those “beneath us?” Yet, this is precisely what Jesus asks of his disciples. This is not to be a “once-off,” or “one-and-done” kind of service for show, so we can be admired for how much we serve. Instead, this is to be our way of being.

We can imagine what Jesus’ followers, and the crowds, and even his enemies thought of him when he was serving others to the point of being crucified. Jesus certainly did not appear to be one with power, prestige, or honor at that point. Yet, that is precisely where these acts of self-service lead, and it is where they will lead us. We will pour ourselves out to the point of complete and utter self-emptying. And at that point, God will raise us up like he did Jesus.

Over this and each Triduum we recall the ultimate mystery of faith. The death and resurrection of Jesus. There could be no resurrection without death. And death was humiliating, shameful, and complete. In some ways, it can be difficult to imagine that this poor Galilean, who died at the hands of an occupying force, still has followers today. His message completely upended cultural and societal norms. How may of us really want to follow Jesus to the cross? It seems much easier to admire him from afar. In preparation for his death, Jesus celebrates supper one last time with his disciples. He gives them a lesson they, we, will never forget. In John’s gospel we do not have the institution of the Eucharist. That happened in John chapter 6.

Instead, in John’s gospel tonight, we have an outward sign instituted by Jesus Christ to give grace: the washing of the feet. Up to the thirteenth century, the washing of feet was listed among one of more than thirty sacraments in the ancient church. And of course, this evening we see this ritual commemorated again in the liturgy. This fundamental element of our identity is not something for liturgy only. It is to be lived each and every day of our lives. Amen.

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Palm/Passion Sunday

Palm Passion Sunday 2018

Palm/Passion Sunday

Mark 11:1-11

How quickly praise can turn to derision. “Crucify him!” How quickly loud acclamation can turn to disdain. “Crucify him!” How quickly Hosannas can turn to a feeding frenzy. “Crucify him!” We see it in business, in politics, even with friends and family. One minute somebody is singing praises, the next it is insults and scorn. “Crucify him!” The gospel readings display that very paradox today. We come into church singing “Hosanna!” and fifteen minutes later we cry, “Crucify him!”

The people wanted an earthly king to shake off the Roman occupation and achieve political independence. But how quickly they turned on Jesus when they realized that he would not fulfill their plans. “Crucify him!” God had something else in store.

As Jesus did not meet the expectations of the crowd, or even his disciples, they turned and fled. One disciple ran so fast, he ran out of his clothes (Mark 14:51-52). Peter, of course, denied, “Crucify him!” that he even knew Jesus. By the time Jesus was on the cross the only remaining friends were some women and Joseph of Arimathea, though it seems Jesus would not have known about Joseph’s act of courage. The women were said to have ministered to Jesus and followed him when he was in Galilee. Though the women lacked the “disciple” title, they were clearly Jesus’ followers, offering a ministry of presence up to and during Jesus’ death and subsequent burial. The women stand in contrast to the behavior of the “real” disciples (those who bear the name) who denied Jesus, or simply fled the scene.

The entire passion narrative in Mark shows the confusion, bewilderment, and misunderstanding that punctuated the horrific scene of Jesus’ crucifixion. The crowds believing Jesus is calling for Elijah, the chief priests and scribes mock Jesus as one who cannot save himself, Pilate acquiesces to the crowd’s demands and participates in the miscarriage of justice. The centurion alone (a Gentile) is the only one to face the crucified after death and proclaim the faith in him. Peter (a Jew) confessed Jesus as Christ (Mark 8:29) and now the centurion (a Gentile) confesses Jesus as the Son of God, only after his death. To be the Christ, the Son of God, necessarily means suffering and death. To have come down from the cross would have been to deny Jesus’ own identity as the Christ and Son of God. Rather than a political military leader commanding armies in a revolution, Jesus is the crucified Son of God, Messiah, God’s plans are not our own.

We are fickle human beings, often in search of entertainment. We are designed by eons of evolution to look toward the future rather than the past. Palm/Passion Sunday is our conscious effort to root ourselves in our past, the very foundation of our faith, the paschal mystery. This week we celebrate the most ancient and fundamental mysteries of faith. Without this effort to reach our past, we would likely be fleeting from one moment to the next, seeking to fulfill various desires and cravings. Being in touch with the paschal mystery reminds us that this life has meaning beyond the here and now. We have a future that is eternal. The love, relationships, and bonds we create in this life will endure. The passion and death of Jesus necessarily result in his resurrection, which gives us a promise and foretaste of that eternal life. Rather than seek the next big thing, upon entering this Holy Week, we recall that our faith is rooted in the past, and our destiny is eternal.

In his account of the Passion, Mark portrays a Jesus who has been totally abandoned by his disciples and friends. “Crucify him!” Jesus endures such a cruel and unjust death alone. “Crucify him!” Yet, amid the darkness, a light glimmers. The prophecy of a new temple “not made by human hands” is fulfilled in the shreds of the temple curtain. It is a Gentile pagan centurion that confesses his new-found realization, that this crucified Jesus is indeed the “Son of God” and a member of the Sanhedren, Joseph of Arimathea, is emboldened to break with his fellow councilors and request the body of Jesus from Pilate. The passion of Jesus should be a reason for hope and a moment of grace for all of us, as we seek the reign of God in our lives – however lonely and painful our search may be. Amen.

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Christmas Eve 2017

Christmas Eve 2017

Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-20

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

We just finished singing with our hearts and minds, “Joy to the world! The Lord is come! Let earth receive her King! Let every heart prepare him room and heaven and nature sing.”

Having heard the good news from the angels of heaven, the shepherds quickly make their way to find the infant Jesus. He was in “bands of cloth” or “swaddling clothes,” in other versions of the bible. This is an ancient and still used practice of wrapping an infant in garments that restrict the movement of the limbs. We can imagine a newborn wrapped as they typically are, to resemble something like a burrito. Yes ladies and gentlemen, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, will from here on out be known as the Bethlehem Burrito. You can thank me later, because you will never hear this story again and not think of the Messiah, the Son of God as, the Bethlehem Burrito, you are welcome!

The shepherds find Jesus in a stable. As we know, Mary and Joseph could find no room at the inn and were reduced to having their baby in a stable, dirty with animal droppings, feed, animal bedding, and various creatures that we might expect in such a place. This was a far cry from palatial stables, as seen on TV during the Kentucky Derby. The ancient stable was often unkempt, certainly not a place for a newborn, or even a family. It would be more like a chicken coop, or perhaps a doghouse today. The point is, there is no pageantry surrounding Jesus’ place of birth. The family is one of migrants, on the move, without access to something as basic as a bed, or as sanitary as a bathroom. Modern depictions of the stables of Jesus’ birth are often so sanitized that we can miss the scandal of such a place. But it is precisely the scandalous conditions of Jesus’ birth that is such a critical piece of the story.

Jesus will experience so much in his short life. People will follow him. People will misunderstand him. People will seek to keep him from accomplishing what God has intended for Jesus to do, say, and think. Jesus will squirm, fight, be pushed, and forced to step out for the sake of the mission God has given. Jesus will encounter those in his path that will seek to keep him restrained, not able to move, bound up and it all started here in this stable, this place, this filthy, lowly, and scandalous place.

The “king” is not born in a palace, but in a stable. The reversal is a common gospel theme, especially for Luke. It was prefigured in Mary’s canticle from Luke chapter 1, verses 46-55, when she said, “he,” meaning God, “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” The one who has no place to lay his head, the one bound, has been lifted up by God. In short, God’s ways are not our ways.

Jesus comes to us as one who is lowly. The infant wrapped in bands of cloth that restrict his movement is laid in a manger. A manger, of course, is not simply a pretty place to lay a baby. In fact, a manger is a “feed-box.” Such a depiction is quite deliberate on Luke’s part. Jesus will be bread for the world, food for the world as is foreshadowed by his being laid in a feed-box. Jesus is nourishment that will sustain the world, as echoed in the multiplication of the loaves in Luke chapter 9. The manger foreshadows the Passover meal at which Jesus will say, “This is my body, which is given for you,” in Luke chapter 22 verse 19. After the resurrection, the disciples will come to know Jesus in the “breaking of the bread” Luke 24. The next generations of Christians too will know Jesus in the breaking of the bread in the Book of Acts chapter 2 and chapter 20. Jesus is the food for the world.

I know that since I stated this sermon, that a good number of you have pondered, the Bethlehem Burrito reference. “Why and where would this Bethlehem Burrito naming, the narrative come back around?” Perhaps is started here with the binding of the King of Kings. From this point in the life of Jesus, there will be those that will seek to have Jesus bound. It started here in the stable and yet we know those bindings did not keep Jesus bound. In what ways have you been bound, have you allowed Jesus, to be bound in your life?

Tonight’s story, then, is not so much about a cute baby, but instead it is about the incarnate God choosing to be born in lowly, dirty, ugly, and migrant conditions, placed in a feed-box, foreshadowing the nourishing, life-giving, Bethlehem Burrito, role Jesus would have for centuries to come. The story should cause us to reconsider how we think of the lowly, for they will be lifted up. God’s ways are not our ways. We may look to and admire the powerful, the moneyed, the purveyors of influence. God, on the other hand, casts down those from their lofty places and instead lifts up those who have little or no standing in this world. The birth of Jesus signals a major reversal that was foretold by Mary herself. May we be ready for the upheaval that reversal will bring in our lives. Amen.

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All Saints Sunday Matthew 5:1-12

All Saints Day 2017

 

All Saints’ Day

Matthew 5:1-12

Today’s gospel is the beautiful Beatitudes reading. The word “blessed,” as used by Jesus in the eight maxims, was written in Greek as makarios. A word which indicates a joy, that is God-like in its serenity and totality. So today I want to start a little differently than I usually do, by giving some background on the words we find in the verses of the Beatitudes.

Specific Greek words used throughout the text indicate several important meanings. Blessed are: the poor in spirit. Those who are detached from material things, who put their trust in God. Those who mourn. This Beatitude speaks of the value of caring and compassion – the hallmarks of Jesus’ teaching. Those who are meek. The Greek word used here is praotes – true humility which banishes all pride. The blessed who accept the necessity to learn and grow and realize their need to be forgiven. Then moving on to those who are merciful. The Greek word here is chesedh. It indicates the ability to ‘get inside a person’s skin’ until we can see things from their experience mind and feel their joys and sorrows. Those that are peacemakers. Peace is not merely the absence of trouble or discord. Peace is a positive condition. It is everything which provides and makes for humanity’s highest good. Note, too, that the “blessed” are described as peace-makers and not simply peace-lovers.

The Beatitudes present something of a “which comes first, the chicken or the egg” situation. Are we blessed because we live and act in a certain way, or does God’s gift of blessedness, bestowed so generously on us, enable us to live and act in a God-like way? At first glance, the Beatitudes seem to say that blessedness is a reward given to those who live and act in ways that transcend the ways of the world. In reality, we are able to live and act in these ways of the Beatitudes, because we are already blessed. As children of God, blessedness is who we are. Because we are already blessed, we live even now in the “kingdom of heaven.” Blessedness is a way of being, that stretches us toward what we become in the fullness of Life. Being blessed is God’s gift to us, choosing to live our blessedness is our gift to God and each other. Its what we will do today in coming forward to bring our pledge before God in our continued journey to generosity.

This feast day is one of all the saints in heaven. The difference between us, and the saints in heaven is not in the Life we share – we all share in God’s Life. We are all blessed. We are all of God – but in the fact that we still face and must daily deal with the difficulties of life, that can cause us to lose sight of God and all the blessings we have been given. We are all blessed when we do not despair at the difficulties of life, but meet them, with the virtues of the blessed: meekness, slowness to anger, charity toward others, comfort, righteousness, mercy, and peace. Our blessedness, then, rests in our relationship to God and on our responses to the situations of life that call us to die to ourselves. God’s kingdom is present in our blessedness and in the good choices we make to further that Life of God that is in and around us. Difficulties in life may happen, because of the choices we make. And those difficulties may indeed challenge our courage, but they cannot take away who we are, whose we are, the blessed ones of God.

Being holy and living the gospel does not mean that difficulties will never come our way, nor does it mean that we will always respond well to those difficulties, nor does it mean that overcoming difficulties will be easy. Neither does being holy and living the gospel mean that we need to go out looking for ways to die to self so that we can be holy. In themselves, difficulties are not necessarily signs of holiness. Blessedness is best measured and achieved in the ordinary experiences of life by our way of responding to them. This means first and foremost that we act as people who belong to God.

The saints in heaven give us courage, that it is possible to spend our lives being faithful to God and charitable toward each other. They model for us gospel living – dying to self, so that one day we share in God’s everlasting glory. This day, this holy All Saints Day, in which we remember those who have gone before us, in which we will bring up our convenantal commitment, in which we recognize those who have decided to become a part of this amazing place we call our spiritual home. This holy day, then, has many facets but all point to God’s self-giving of divine Life to us. This self-giving is the blessedness of God’s kingdom which is being realized in our very own lives. There is a challenge to this day as well, as great joy and rejoicing. To believe and live as though blessedness is already ours and holiness is not beyond our grasp. The blessedness God offers is an unshakable peace that comes from resting in God’s abiding divine Presence. For this we are to “rejoice and be glad.” Amen.

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Proper 25 Matthew 22:34-46

Proper 25 2017

 

Keeping laws would probably not be readily named as one of our favorite activities. We tend to think of laws as restrictive and we keep them because we know they are necessary for good order in our homes, neighborhood, workplace, and society at large. If we deem it safe and hurting no one, we might set aside keeping a law for some immediate benefit. For example, we might roll through a stop sign in the middle of the night when no one is around. Perhaps there are those of us that follow the speed limit while in the city, but once on the interstate or open road, speed limit is merely a suggestion or guideline to follow. Even some religious laws can be be set aside for a good reason. For example, if one is sick with the flu, it makes far better sense to stay home from church one Sunday, rather than go to church and risk infecting others. Some laws, however, are so far reaching that they ought to never be set aside. Laws which protect us as a society from those that would seek us harm, for example, are laws that should not be violated. In this Sunday’s gospel, Jesus clearly teaches a law that should not be violated.

Once again to test Jesus, the Pharisees, questioned Jesus about, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Each Pharisee, no doubt, probably had some commandment governing religious practice, that they judged to be the most important. Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees takes his hearers beyond any individual commandment, simple black and white answer or practice, to the foundation of them all. Loving God with one’s whole being and loving neighbor as oneself. This is the persuasive, not be violated law. Keeping religious laws – no matter how meticulously – means nothing if the motivation for our actions is not love for God and others. Laws are not entities unto themselves. But always are to lead to the greater good. Keeping laws and precepts – “the whole law and the prophets” – is a way of making visible, in our daily living, the twofold law of love upon which every commandment is based. Law and love cannot be separated if either is to bring deepened relationships and unity, harmony, and justice which are ultimately the goal of both law and love. The law of love is a law of hearts turned toward God and others.

Love of God and love of neighbor are one law. They cannot really be separated. In loving our neighbor, we love God. We cannot separate love of God and love of neighbor, because our neighbor is created in God’s image and bears within him or her, the Presence of God. That kind of puts that into a different and deeper context for all of us. Each person we encounter is created in the image of God. Further more, our love for God cannot be something only thought or even only said, for example, in prayer. Our love for God must be carried out by loving actions toward our neighbors. This is how God has already loved us and acted toward us. One cannot simply and only offer prayers and thoughts, in a human tragedy. Those that can evoke change, have a responsibility to not only offer prayers and thoughts, but act and do something about it.

The Pharisees thought they could trip Jesus up on a thorny question. Jesus passed the test about law, the Pharisees put out, not only with Jesus’ words, but also with how Jesus lived this double law of love. Do we pass the same test?

Let’s face it, most of us do not have great difficulty loving those we know and care about. In our present society this is perhaps not only challenging, but sometimes it is also very risky. In places where crime does occur, we tend not to trust the stranger – the one we meet on the street or the one who might come to our door. On the one hand, we must be careful and protect ourselves and our loved ones. On the other hand, we must be genuinely sensitive to others’ needs. If someone comes to our door and needs to use the phone, we can offer to make the call for them. If we see something wrong, we can take responsibility and call the police or other agency. We can do something so simple as hold a door open for someone who is carrying too many packages. In these and countless other ways, each day, we not only do our love for our neighbor, but in those acts, we also show our love for God. This is our most important priority – to love God in the neighbor, we meet every day.

In this week’s gospel, as in last week’s, the Jewish leaders seek to trip Jesus. The question the lawyer poses was much discussed in rabbinical circles. “Which is the greatest commandment?” The Pharisees’ intention in posing the question was to force Jesus into a single rabbinical school. Thereby opening Jesus up to criticism from all other sides. Jesus’ answer, however, proves Jesus’ fidelity to both the Jewish tradition and to a spirituality that transcends the legal interpretation of the commandments. The “second” commandment is the manifestation of the first. If we love the Lord God with our whole being, that love will manifest itself in our feeding of the hungry, our sheltering of the homeless, and our liberating of the oppressed.

As our society continues to become more and more diverse, as science continues to make some unimaginable advances in all forms of technology, the ethical and moral questions we face become more complicated, difficult, and challenging. The Great Commandment gives us a staring point for dealing with such issues. We are called to love as God love us – without limit, without condition, without counting the cost, completely, and selflessly. The implication of such love is staggering. Personal agendas collapse, bottom-line consideration pale in importance. If we really understand the depth of God’s great love for us, we cannot help but embrace, God’s Spirit of love – love that is unconditional and selfless. Love that gives joyfully, thankfully, and acknowledging our own journey to generosity.

In today’s gospel, Jesus’ command to love our neighbor means seeing one another as we see ourselves. Realizing that our hopes and dreams for ourselves and our families are the same dreams others have for themselves and their families. The fact is that all of us, at one time or another, are aliens, outsiders, foreigners, and strangers. The commandment to “love our neighbor as yourself” calls us to look beyond suspicions, doubts, and stereotypes, we use to mark people, and recognize every person as a blessed child of God, worthy of respect, forgiveness, companionship, mercy, compassion, and love. Amen.

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Proper 24 Matthew 22:15-22

Proper 24 2017

 

Matthew 22:15-22

Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” There are many deep divisions between “Caesar” and God, between earthly kingdoms and the kingdom of heaven. In this gospel, the Pharisee’s disciples and the Herodians raise what amounts to be a minor division, when they raise the question of paying the “tax to Caesar.” Seeing through their ruse, Jesus turns the tables and entraps them “with the truth.” The “way of God” is not found in opposing civil and religious realms, but in acting as Jesus would in both areas of life. That is responding appropriately in each “kingdom.” Like Jesus, we are to give ourselves for the good of others in all areas of life. Giving ourselves first to God, we will know the “way” and the “truth” of other loyalties, and our choices and behaviors will further God’s plan for salvation.

Jesus quickly dispatches this false divide between realms in which we live. Telling his hearers to give to each realm what properly belongs to it. This is actually the easy part of life. The deepest divide to which we must attend is between disingenuous hearts living a lie and transparent hearts living “in accordance with the truth.” This deepest divide is what Jesus came to heal – for those who wish to be healed. It would seem that the religious leaders – who ought to be, the very ones who model for the people, how undivided hearts live and act – are the very ones who do not choose to be healed. They seem to do everything to foster division. They pretend to be turned toward God through their strict religious observations, but in effect are turning toward themselves.

They pretend to be deeply religious, but in effect are shallow and self-promoting. By trying to entrap Jesus, these religious leaders are actually putting “Caesar,” that is their own will and agenda, their own fears and obstinacy, ahead of God. Their own response and actions have betrayed, that they themselves do anything but “teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.” Their own lifestyle and way of relating to others betray who and what is first in their life.

The obligations to Caesar and God are radically different. To the state we pay taxes, but to God we give undivided hearts. Isaiah speaks for God: “I am the Lord, there is no other.” Our ultimate loyalty and self-offering is to God and so “we give to the Lord the glory due his name!” If we keep God central in our lives, then there is no problem with giving “to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” Further, if we place this in the eschatological, which is a fancy theological term for end times and fulfillment, context of Matthew’s gospel, the controversy with which the religious leaders confront Jesus simply crumbles. For everything in this world ultimately belongs to God. There is nothing of this world that compares to who God is and how much God cares for us, and nothing, nothing, nothing of this world is worth more than what God offers us. The only thing God asks of us is the self-offering, our own journey to generosity, that acknowledges who God is and who we are in relation to God. In return, God gives what no emperor or state can give: a share in divine life.

Often our struggle with living the gospel is not really about two “kingdoms” presenting opposing values. But rather that our own divided hearts trump everything else. This kind of self-giving that gives to God what is God’s due and to society what is society’s due, necessitates that we think of others first. It truly is that simple. Yet sometimes so hard to live!

The confrontation over Caesar’s coin is not a solution to any church-versus-state controversy. Jesus’ response to the Pharisees confronts them – and us – with the demand to respond and act out of our convictions and to take responsibility for our actions. While we yearn for easy answers to complicated questions and “soundbite” solutions to complex problems, the real purpose and meaning of life are found in the intricacies of our consciences and the things we believe in the depths of our hearts.

Jesus appeals to us to look beyond the simplistic politics and black-and-white legalisms, represented by the coin and realize that we are called to embrace the values centered in a faith that sees the hand of God in all things and every human being as a part of a single family under the providence of God. As Thomas Merton wrote: “We are warmed by fire not by the smoke of the fire. We are carried over the sea by a ship, not by the wake of the ship. So, too, what we are is to be sought in the invisible depths of our own being, not in our outward reflection in our own acts. We must find our real selves not in the froth stirred up by the impact of our beings upon the beings around us, but in our own soul which is the principal in our acts.”

In other words, like it states in our Baptismal Covenant on page 305 in the Book of Common Prayer, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” Our answer is, “I will with God’s help.” Further more, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” Our answer again is, “I will with God’s help.”

The Pharisees who confront Jesus with Caesar’s coin are trying to trap Jesus – and us – into making a choice between one’s country and God. But Jesus’ response, and our response, indicates that one’s citizenship does not have to be at odds with one’s faith. In fact, when government seeks to provide for the just welfare of its citizens, it is doing the “things” of God.

The preamble to our nation’s constitution reads more like a covenant we have made with one another, than a legal outline of how our government will operate. Although God is not mentioned at all, we can sense the Spirit in the Preamble: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more prefect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our prosperity…”

To strike that balance between the things of Caesar and the things of God, demands that we respond to the invitation, I preached about last week. That we participate in the affairs of government, responsibly and intelligently. In order that our public policies reflect the wisdom and justice of our God. Amen.

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