When you come to the edge
Far Away From the
Breezes of the Jordan River
3rd Sunday Advent
The season of Advent should help us to prepare our hearts and our minds for the coming of the Christ-child, so that this time he will have a proper place to be born. A whole year has passed, a year that brought many changes in our lives, some of them good, some of them not so good, some of them heartbreaking. The geographic map of life has changed, and even old familiar places don’t seem the same. Even as we travel for Christmas – coming and going as changed.
Remember how we all used to be so confident when traveling? The airports were full of people going somewhere, looking resolute and in hurry, or sometimes even looking like lost sheep. But whatever we saw there we didn’t notice much fear. Now there is great anxiety about traveling, full body scans, intimate pat downs and an agonizing wait until we hear that any plane, with loved ones aboard, has landed safely. We go to see the tree in Rockefeller Center, on the subway we are suspicious.
We see this same kind of concern, unease in John this morning. He is in jail; he is far away from the breezes of the Jordan River where he baptized Jesus, whom he recognized as the messiah, God’s chosen one. Jesus was the one to usher in change, a new world that John and many others followers had been waiting for, counting on. So what changed him? Prison. It would change anybody. He was having second thoughts about Jesus and his mission. He had lots of time to be alone – to think. And in reality, who wouldn’t? – This shows John’s humanity. These are always my favorite parts of the gospel, when humanity peaks through to meet us in our own questions. If we are honest, I suggest, we all have second thoughts sometimes about faith, about what God can do -especially in times of despair, when our prayers seemingly go unanswered.
Everything had been taken from John. He asks, "Why is nothing happening concerning the kingdom we both had dreamed about?" Okay, God – this world is so much in trouble, so messed up – what are you waiting for, step in assert yourself – take charge?
Jesus heard the same type of questions that John sent through his disciples. Jesus responds, "Tell him what you see. The eyes of the blind are being opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame are walking. John is to make up his own mind according to the evidence." And this is where we take our own lesson. We are still at war–this morning, thousands and thousands are still out of work, some have lost their homes; the world is a precarious place these days. Where is the one who is to come? The answer is the same Make up your own mind - according to the evidence, your faith, your heart.
As we approach Christmas yet again - what do we expect from God? Have we confused faith with expectation? Faith puts God in charge. Expectation puts us in charge. Faith allows God to surprise us. Expectation does not. What should we expect from God? Nothing. What should we believe God can do? Everything!
Advent is a time that reminds us that even with little or shaken faith, we can foster great hopes and plant those seeds that may blossom into a future that we, like John, may never see on this side of heaven. As Jesus says – we need to have the eyes of a child to see the hope, that optimism that he offers the world even if we can’t see it clearly sometimes.
twin boys were exact opposites. Bill was an eternal optimist. No matter how dark
the cloud, he always found a silver lining. Bob was a hopeless
pessimist...always finding the negative no matter how good the situation. Alice
asked a psychiatrist what to do about Christmas. The doctor told her to buy all
the toys she could for Bob, the pessimist; and to get nothing for Bill. In fact,
he told her to wrap up some horse manure for Bill.
Christmas morning, Dave and Alice came downstairs and found the twins by the tree. She asked Bob what Santa had brought him. "A BB gun, but I'll probably hit someone in the eye and blind him. And a bicycle, but I'll probably get run over and be killed while riding it. And an electric train, but I'll probably electrocute myself," said Bob. Realizing it wasn't going well, Alice asked Bill what he got. "I'm not sure!" he replied excitedly. "I think I got a pony, but I haven't been able to find him yet."
So, what brings us optimism, comfort, hope in our own faith? Where do we pin our hopes? Our hopes are still on the baby in the manger; they should be in no other place. It is from that child – alone, that the world will find redemption. So is it okay to have fear or doubt sometimes– you bet; but know that we are not alone in the struggle. Advent always leads to Christmas.
The Baptism of the Lord
The Last Look Back at the Face of God on This Side of Heaven.
In Matthew we look back at a key day of the Life of Jesus. It was the day the small door leading to the carpenter’s shop closed for the last time. The meek and lowly Carpenter headed toward the Jordan; as he arrived, he probably saw that group of scowling Pharisees standing off to the side after the John called them, “vipers.”
John's is a story of such great significance that we hear parts of it every year -- twice, sometimes three times. If you have ever done any Biblical studies, you noted that all of the stories in the Bible do not appear in all of the Gospels.
Each community of writers recorded that which they thought were significant. This is why we must look closely at John and Jesus here. The entire universe came together in that River, on that day; it was an event so big, all four gospels tell the story. A bit differently, perhaps, but a core truth emerges: Jesus is God’s chosen one, God’s beloved son. A voice from heaven declares, “You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
John is one on my Biblical favorites; he is out there in the desert – in his own Woodstock. He is drawing crowds who are listening to what he has to say; he is a fringe player, some even think he might be the Messiah. However, in the presence of Jesus, John sees his own sinfulness. All the gospels agree that Jesus’ public ministry begins with this open and public baptism in the Jordan River.
What was it like to be there? We all have been at events that completely consume us while we are in the moment. We live in that glow, whether it is from a concert or a good play for days. However, when we describe it to friends, our description never quite captures the electricity that was in the air. You just had to be there.
As he is baptized, listen. What do you hear? Do you hear the soft flutter of God’s Spirit settling on his shoulders? Everyone there saw it – felt it. And then - they heard it: "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."
What has this Son done to merit such approval? He hasn’t taught. He hasn’t triumphed over Satan. He hasn’t preached a single sermon, cast out a demon, healed one sick person nor made a single disciple. He just waded out into the middle of the Jordan and allowed Himself to be immersed. And the heavens roared approval! Baptism is very important!
I will be ordained almost 15 years in May and have baptized several hundred children. Sometimes Baptisms are noisy, sometimes distracting, but there is one point that it always comes together, and amazingly it is at the same point in which Jesus meets John; it is in the Baptism itself – the pouring of the water. Those of you who are here with your children that I have baptized know that this is true. In every single case when I have poured the water, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Sprit a certain Peace exists. In the hundreds of babies baptized, not one has cried at that moment. And you think they would; after all, they are held out over the font and angled down; it cannot be comfortable. However, as the water is poured many look beyond all of us – or seemingly through us. I like to believe it is the child’s last look back at the face of God on this side of heaven.
I think that is what happened to Jesus – he saw God, and from that moment in that River – the New Age began.
But even with the glory of that moment in the Jordan River, Some missed him. Some miss him still. We expect God to speak through peace, but sometimes he speaks through pain. We think God talks through the church, but he also talks through the lost. We look for the answer in our own faith, but he’s been known to speak through the other faiths as well. We think we hear him in the sunrise, but he is also heard in the darkness. We listen for him in triumph, but he speaks even more distinctly through tragedy.
Like it or not we live in a time of great uncertainty. Things that seemed so sure and solid have turned out to be much more fragile than we thought, and things which we though could never fail have crumbled and fallen. We’re not so sure just what’s durable and dependable anymore, and we feel like our present and our future is on such thin ice, it could all fall through at any time.
The only thing that stands though time and always has, in this world through the next, is our faith, a faith that was given as a gift to us by those who loved us. They loved us so much that they carried us to a font like this and shared their faith. So let us not forget that we too looked back and once saw the face of God – although I suspect we have forgotten what he looks like.
We are also called to be a voice proclaiming the presence of Jesus in a world that has little use for a Savior because there are just too many other choices. We are called, as John was, to point to Jesus as the source of fulfillment in life, as the only one whose life can really fill us with a joy for living in this life and the next.
Living the Righteous Life
6th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Gospel is a continuation of The Sermon on the Mount, of which some say
was the greatest sermon ever preached and received with human ears. After
the part of the sermon that most of us as know as The Beatitudes: “Blessed are
the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus continues on
exhorting the law, enfolding it around human actions that can lead us to the
Kingdom of Heaven, or not. He is very clear in this Gospel. This is
certainly a fear evoking section of his sermon.
Jesus centers on settling the differences that exist between people; he implies this as crucial to the human community. And, such differences can be settled, he suggests, if we live by a higher righteousness and seek to be reconciled to each other. He uses brother both literally and metaphorically here. If we do not live by a higher standard and seek reconciliation, our differences will not go away. Instead, they will fester and grow until we are separated more and more from others, from ourselves, and, ultimately, from God. As always – it is easier said than done; but Jesus says these actions and behaviors are not optional. He calls us to task in Matthew.
Robert Fulgum once wrote book called, All I Really Need to Know I learned in Kindergarten. From that book comes a popular excerpt: He writes, “ALL I REALLY NEED TO KNOW about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate-school mountain, but there in the sandpile at Sunday School. These are the things I learned: Share everything. Play fair. Don't hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don't take things that aren't yours. Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody…Live a balanced life - learn some and think some… When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together. Be aware of wonder…Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup - they all die. So do we. And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned - the biggest word of all - LOOK. Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living. Take any of those items and extrapolate it into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or your work or your government or your world and it holds true and clear and firm. Think what a better world it would be if all - the whole world - all governments had a basic policy to always put thing back where they found them and to clean up their own mess. And it is still true, no matter how old you are - when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.
basic tenants of living the righteous live are taught to all of us, but as we
grow the world begins to intrude on that simplicity and innocence. Jesus
spoke with great clarity about the primacy of human relationships. He wanted
good relationships to be maintained, in families and among others, and the
re-establishment of broken relationships was a central concern. He also
talks about accountability for our actions.
It seems to me, anyway, that the immediate world in which we live is angry. We are angry and impatient with just about everything, and sometimes that anger just boils over, in road-rage, at athletic events of all age levels. It is an anger that is dangerous, unpredictable and internally damaging. John Farmer a Star Ledger columnist wrote recently, “The most surprising thing about the massacre in Tucson, Ariz., however shocking, it really isn’t all that surprising to many Americans. We lament these rampages of rage and we never get used to them, but they don’t come as such a surprise any longer.” How sad, but he has a point.
He goes on to write, “The reaction in the press, among politicians and in much of this country is a call for calm, a cooling of the poisonous political rhetoric and a pledge to stop pointing fingers of blame — at the right or the left — for the tragedy.” How long will the calm last, is the proverbial question.
Henri Nouwen a priest and gifted writer tells a disturbing story about a family he knew in Paraguay. The father, a doctor, was active in protests against the military. He spoke out repeatedly against its human rights abuses. Local police took their revenge by arresting his teenage son and torturing him until he was dead. It was a horrible crime. Townsfolk wanted to turn the funeral into a huge protest march. But the doctor chose another means of protest.
The father displayed his son’s body in the local church. However, he was not dressed in a fine suit. And the funeral director applied no make-up. The father displayed his son as he had found him in the jail. The son was naked, his body marked with scars from the electric shocks and cigarette burns and beatings. It did not lie in a coffin but on the blood‑soaked mattress from the jail. It was the strongest protest imaginable, for it put injustice on grotesque display. Is that not what God did at Calvary? He laid it all out there for all to see the price that must be paid for humanity's refusal to obey God's Law.
So does it matter whether we seek after righteousness whether we are persons of integrity, high morals, honesty, and ethics? It matters to our society. It matters to people we love. Most of all, it matters to God.
Will we ever learn this lesson on this side of heaven – can real peace really exist in ourselves or in the world? I don’t know, but we should always include a hope for that kind of peace in our prayers, because Matthew does present us with frightening words of judgment; our righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees or else.
Voice of Truth
1st Sunday of Lent
Today is the first Sunday in Lent. Lent is that season of preparation for the devastation of Good Friday and the joy of Easter. It remembers and celebrates the preparation of Jesus on His road to the Cross. And the very first event in that were the Temptations. We pray for help every week to avoid temptation as we pray, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Easier said than done. Oscar Wilde the playwright said, “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it... I can resist everything but temptation.” And so it is for many of us.
We have to take consolation in the fact that Jesus was tempted just like you and me. He spent 40 days in the wilderness wrestling with what and how He should carry out God's will. What is important to note was that after the temptation and struggles Jesus was different; afterwards, he began his ministry, with a focus, with a direction and with a clear destination in mind.
The wilderness experience can certainly come in the form of a desert, a forest, an ocean; it can also be internal, the desert or wilderness of the soul. For Aron Raltson, known as the mountaineer who cut off his right arm with a pocketknife to survive; the desert experience came in the form of an 800 pound boulder that trapped his arm against a canyon wall, leaving him in that position for 127 hours or nearly six-days in, 2003. Ralson wrote a book about his experience called, Between a Rock and a Hard Place that recently became the film, 127 Hours. Many of you know the story of how Ralston decided to go hiking alone in a Utah Canyon. The canyon is beautiful but isolated. That is its allure, its siren song to climbers. As Ralston climbed through a narrow canyon wash, he dislodged a bolder just enough to pin his arm trapping him. While it is a stretch to compare Ralston’s experience with that of Jesus, I suggest, psychologically they were very much in the same place and were changed by those experiences. They were both able to see things that were not clear before.
Ralston says, “I definitely feel very blessed, both from what happened in Blue
John Canyon and some of the things that have come to me in my life since then. I
don't feel invincible by any means… I feel that it happened for a lot of
reasons, and it's been a tremendous gift for me and my family and a lot of
people who were touched by having heard about it. I do think it was a miracle
and a blessing. [It was] possibly one of the greatest things that's ever
happened to me. I've really tried to make it all of that.” A strong statement
considering he lost his arm in the ordeal.
He also talks about voices that he heard as he was trapped in that isolated canyon. He says, “It’s kind of a tough thing to understand. It somehow sounded like it came from outside of my head as opposed to those kind of internal monologues. But, I recognized it as being somehow part of me. Not my thinking voice and not that same kind of inner voice, but another voice that was still part of me but was outside of me. I mean I heard it like somebody played a tape. There were actual sound waves bouncing off the walls of the canyon. It got louder and louder, shouting at me to use the boulder to break my bones.” He said that he prayed to the devil as well as to God. So who answered his prayer?
He says, “I think it was God…I asked for deliverance from that canyon, and I had to abide the time that I did there in order to have the experiences that I did and to have the miracle of the rescue operation unfold the way it did. It was God that spoke to me and gave me the opportunity, and I took the action to be able to get myself out of there. So it was the combined forces of faith and free will.” To me this sounds like the same kind of triumph that Jesus experienced at the end of his ordeal.
Jesus knew, as he must have known for some time that God was calling him to a special mission. Now was the time to begin it. Jesus emerged from the test even stronger in faith, not in spite of the testing, but in large measure because of it. Jesus went into the wilderness because he wanted to leave the world of many voices. He wanted to hear the One voice, the voice of God. However, what he discovered was that even in that remote wilderness there was more than one presence, and there was more than one voice. There always is. The hard part is to focus on the One voice that is the source of truth, the source of strength, the source of life. The ultimate question is: in the presence of many voices calling to us, enticing us, and tempting us, to what voice will we listen?
Each day we encounter temptations which require us to choose between good and evil. There is no once-and-for-all-time choice, because temptations come to us each day and we must choose. But in the end the Gospel says, the angels came and ministered to him. That is a beautiful way of saying that God was there, God was real, and God’s grace and strength were sufficient. I would like to close with a poem that kind of brings this all together. “Listen: At the heart of the cyclone, tearing the sky, / and flinging the clouds and the towers by/ is a place of central calm. So, here in the roar of mortal things, / I have a place where my spirit sings…/ in the hollow of God’s palm.” (Charles Edwin Markham).
You place yourself there, and you will be equal to all the demands of life. Let’s try to do that as we begin yet another Lenten journey.
Because Some Prayed
5th Sunday of Lent
The story of the raising of Lazarus is unique to John’s gospel. This is such a rich gospel. It contains comfort for those who mourn, hope for those who live and glorious new life for those who have died.
I would like to talk about the “someone” of this gospel that none of us know. After all most of us have heard about Martha and Mary, we know they have a brother Lazarus who was Jesus' friend. But we don’t know much about the person I am going to talk about. His looks are immaterial. His gender is of no concern. His title is irrelevant. He is important not because of who he is, but because of what he did.
He went to Jesus on behalf of a friend. His friend was sick, and Jesus could help, and someone needed to go to Jesus. Others cared for the sick man in different ways. Each role was crucial. Each person was helpful, but none was more vital that the one who went to Jesus.
The question came from two sisters. They would have gone themselves but they couldn't leave their brother. They need someone to go, but not just anyone. They needed someone who knew how to find Jesus. Someone who wouldn’t quit in mid-journey and wander off. Someone who would make sure the message was delivered. Someone who was convinced as they were that Jesus must know what has happened. So Martha and Mary sent someone to tell him: “Lord the one you love is sick” And because someone went Jesus responded.
How important do you think this person was in the healing of Lazarus? How essential was his role? Lazarus was healed only healed after someone made the request, a prayer so to speak.
Would Jesus have responded if the messenger had not spoken? Perhaps, but we just don’t know. The power of God was triggered by prayer. Jesus looked down into the very throat of death and called Lazarus back to life...... all because someone prayed. This is still key for us today. It is as relevant now as it was then, especially in light of the current state of the world.
In heaven the prayers of saintly intercession is very much valued. John, the apostle would agree. He wrote this story of Lazarus and was careful to show the sequence. The healing began, when the request was made.
We can be that someone; the starter of the miracle. Lord the one you love is tired, sick, hungry, fearful, lonely, depressed, like a train off the tracks. Our words may vary, but the response never changes. The Lord hears the prayer. He silences heaven, so he won’t miss a word.
You and I live in a loud world, a busy world. To get someone's attention is no easy task. The new cell phone/car law was enacted because we just never stop doing no matter what the cost might be. So he or she must be willing to turn down the radio, the TV, move away from the computer and set down their book or newspaper and silence their cell phone (yikes!). When someone is willing to silence everything else so they can hear us clearly, it is a privilege. How many arguments start over the lack of listening?
John’s message is critical. You talk to God, because God listens. Your voice matters in heaven. Even if you stammer, or stumble, even if what you have to say impresses no one, it impresses God - and he listens. He listens to the lonely, elderly, Alzheimer’s patient in a nursing home; the gruff confession of a prison inmate, or when the alcoholic begs for mercy, for the 100th time. He listens when the spouse seeks guidance, or when the businessman stops off in a airport chapel. God listens.
Our prayers move God to change the world; too often we quit, we give up. Mother Theresa admitted as much. We may not understand the mystery of prayer; we don’t need to. But this much is clear; actions in heaven begin when someone prays on earth, what an amazing thought. So when someone says to you: “I am praying you; thank them”. And when someone asks for prayers, pray for them.”
So let these last days of Lent be filled with your prayers. Lazarus was three days dead in a sealed tomb when he heard a voice, lifted his head, and looked over his shoulder and saw Jesus standing there. God had followed him into death and back into life. He will do that for every one gathered here. He says, “Your part is to trust. Trust me to do what you can’t.” Just ask...
The Weather Has Changed
3rd Sunday of Easter
A colleague wrote in a poem that begins, “The weather outside is never the weather inside” (Jon Curley). I think, in many ways, this describes the feelings of these two disciples. There is a storm raging within about all that has happened that does not reflect the world in which they now live; most others are going about their normal business for them nothing has changed, but for the two disciples, they are in a daze.
We too have been on this road. Someone we love dies; we have a job loss, or we experience some other sudden, life changing event. Many in the south are there now. Where do I go, what do I do now are their questions. We are barely able to function, get out of bed, but yet the rest of the world moves forward like nothing has happened. The sun still shines; the bills still come in the mail.
It is into these moments of life that the Christ is likely to enter-when life is most real and inescapable. God’s grace does not usually come in a blaze of heavenly light or the sudden revelation of a dream or even in the midst of worship.
God’s grace falls in on us in the midst of the supper table or walking down the road, trying to get away from everything that bogs us down. God’s grace falls in on us in the midst of the everyday and ordinary moments, in the plain and simple struggles to understand, in the middle of common conversations on long walks, during phone calls and driving in the car to pick up or deposit kids. That is why, sometimes, I suspect, we do not recognize him.
The sacred moments of our lives are the everyday moments in which we can learn to open our spiritual eyes and see God moving along the road with us. The road, the conversation, the meal, the friends, even the stranger-all ordinary but made incredible through the grace of God.
Jesus doesn't wait for the two disciples or us to find him. He meets them and he meets us where we are. Wherever that is. He meets us in our deepest pain, in our most secret sin; he knows and he is still comes. He comes to heal, to forgive, and to help us find our way back.
These two disciples were numb, but they were hungry. It takes sitting down to a meal together before their eyes are opened. And notice, they did not open their own eyes, but “their eyes were opened for them.” This only after they suffered the personal devastation of knowing that Jesus was dead and they were being hunted.
God’s Grace abounds along the road of living, even if we are trying to escape to run away; God comes to us and breaks through to us in the most common ways in the midst of the most mundane, or in those breathtaking moments.
For Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest, the Emmaus story is about moving from a hardened heart to a grateful heart, moving from a life without hope of resurrection to one which is based on that hope.
The brief encounter between Jesus and his friends on the road to Emmaus is a reminder to us that in any moment, in the midst of any experience, the resurrection may be lurking. For us to believe in the resurrection is not simply to put the literal idea into our minds and haul it out on Easter if we need it, but it is to believe in the resurrection is a way of being in the world, a way of living in relation to everything that is in our lives. It is learning how to trust God and trust in the will of God to renew life even in the most mundane, ordinary and difficult moments of our lives.
and Get Dressed and Go to Church
It was a Sunday morning, and a mother hurries into her son's bedroom and speaks agitatedly at the sleeping bundle. "Look", she cries, "it's Sunday time to get up and go to church!" The son mumbles from under the covers, "I don't want to go." "What do you mean, "I don't want to go?" responds the mother. That's silly. Now get up and get dressed and go to church!" He says, "No, I don't want to go, and I'll give you two reasons why not." He sits up in bed and continues, "First, I don't like them and they don't like me" The mother replies, "Now, that's just plain nonsense. You've got to go to church; and I'll give you two reasons why you must. First, you're 50 years old and second you're the pastor!"
First surprise, then laughter, such is the basis of today's feast of Pentecost. The disciples of Jesus were hiding. They were hiding in fear behind closed and locked doors. They felt better huddled together in isolation planning what to do next, where to go. And then, a surprise! Into their isolation Jesus comes. Through closed doors he walks, passed locks he breaks in: surprise first and then laughter. I'm sure at first it was nervous and hesitating laughter, but afterwards long and loud as the impact of their friend's presence sank in. He says “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” I'm sure they would not have laughed so hard if they knew what the friend really asked of them, (they would all die for this cause) but for the moment they rejoiced. What he asked, of course was what the mother of the story asked: get out of bed, get out of your isolation and fear, go to church ... and into the assembly, into the world and announce the Good News.
The disciples are scared and unsure, but he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will enable them to do what they cannot do themselves.
We see the Sprit usually represented as a white dove. In medieval times they used to release hundreds of them in the cathedrals on Pentecost day. We do so even today at big events; they still stand for symbols of peace and hope.
But I think the Irish had it right when it came to Pentecost. In the old Celtic tradition the Holy Spirit is not represented as a white dove, tame and pure, but by a wild goose! Geese are not controllable; they make a lot of noise, and have a habit of biting those who want to contain them: definitely Irish. Geese fly faster in a flock than on their own. They also make good guard dogs. This Spirit drives people together, demanding they support and travel with one another. And it often forces those on whom it rests to become noisy, passionate, and courageous guardians of the gospel. It forces them to stand in places they never would have chosen on their own. It has pushed me to stand here.
The noisy goose of Pentecost is the meals on wheels provider, the hospital visitor, the AA leaders, the college kids building houses for the Habitat for Humanity or those who "Teach for America" in the inner cities and backwater. It is those who are making their way to the disaster sites that seem to grow with each news report to help those who are lost and hurting in ways that we cannot imagine.
Pentecost is considered by many as the birthday of the church. It was only a few weeks ago that a group of Christians predicted the end of the church and the world. Many here probably wondered about that; I have talked to more than of few about that, 5/21 prediction. The world might end at the same time; we just don’t know if and when that will happen. However, it will end for all of us as individuals someday. It ends every day for someone; it ends in the death of a loved one, a crushing diagnosis, a job loss, a weather related disaster or in myriad of other ways. We, members of humanity, cannot stop any of this that is why the events of Pentecost are so important to consider.
Jesus – sent the Spirit to surround us, and at times to hold us up, so we would never be alone on this side of heaven, even though at times we think we are.
The goose of Pentecost has descended on disciples of every age and in every historical period making the noisy, irritable people, fighting injustice helping to make a difference in their world. You know these people; they look hard at what we do not see, or choose not to see. The symbols of Pentecost are, red for passion, fire for action, and a common language that articulates mercy, compassion and seeks the peace Jesus offers in this Gospel.
Pentecost is still represented by the wild goose flying loose in this world urging all of us to get out of bed, out of our isolation, go into the world to change it. Because of Pentecost and the Sprit whatever we may face, whatever we may be asked to take up, will never be too much; that is the promise made through this Gospel. So now when you look on the symbol of the dove, realize it calls us to do so much more with our lives.
The Eureka Moment: Why the
Mathew has collected a series of parables and presents them here as a single sermon. “Parable” means “comparison” or “analogy.” Jesus was quite fond of using “parables” to teach. In Matthew Mark and Luke, called the Synoptic Gospels, we find about sixty separate parables. The parable of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son are two of the most well known. In most of Jesus’ stories, he did not even mention God, but would seemingly be telling stories about fishermen and shepherds, families, kingdoms, businessmen and homemakers, usually without any explanation as to the deeper meaning, often leaving his listeners wondering why such a wise man would tell such simple stories. And here we are two-thousand plus years later still retelling these stories; they travel through time well: their application to life is timeless. The master had a good strategy. How would a parable be written today?
A young lady was waiting for her flight in an airport. As she would need to wait many hours she decided to buy a book to spend her time. She also bought a packet of cookies. She sat down in a chair, in a row of chairs, to read, to rest and to wait. Beside her chair where the packet of cookies lay, a man sat down in the next seat, opened his magazine and started reading.
When she took out the first cookie, the man also took one. She felt irritated but said nothing. For each cookie she took, the man took one too. This was infuriating her, but she didn't want to cause a scene. When only one cookie remained, she thought: "ah... What will this bold man do now?" Then, taking the last cookie, he divided it into half, giving her one half. That was too much! She was much too angry now, she had to move! In a huff, she took her book, her things and stormed to other row of chairs.
She finally boarded the plane. When she sat down in her seat, she looked into her purse to take out her glasses, and to her surprise, her packet of cookies was there, untouched, and still unopened! Now, if we were in a small discussion group we could begin to pull apart the greater meaning in this simple story. The points of view among us would be diverse because we all come from different life experiences, and those experiences help us to see life from our seat wherever that is; Jesus knew this of his own listeners as well. Not everyone would see the story in the same way and that becomes the teaching moment.
As many of you know, I have been teaching college level English for some years. Academic research, proper academic citation is sometimes tedious to learn; even I admit it is annoying and oftentimes difficult to master for young students. So when a student, who has been struggling all semester, finally that has that eureka moment; when everything comes together and makes sense, the semester comes full circle for me. It is why most teachers – teach.
And the greatest of all teachers, in another time, tried to bring his followers to their own eureka moments. Because Jesus knew that is where the teaching would take place: maybe weeks or months later. What about the parable of today what might we take home? Well for me, a home gardener, part of the wonderment of sowing seeds, of setting life free, is its mystery.
We can never know if or when life will
spring up from that dry seed, and whether or how it will grow.
There's an old saying: "Anyone can count the seeds in an apple, but only God
can count the apples in a seed."
Each life can be touched, moved and changed by the word of Christ. How we respond is anybody’s guess. Our response is like those seeds in the apples. Some lives will respond with only a little fruit. Some lives will bear great amounts of fruit. Some who respond will produce no fruit at all. Other lives will produce just enough to see them through day-to-day. We may be the products of our environment, but the Gospel that comes to us is now part of our environment and we have the power to choose whether we will allow the weeds of world to choke it out or whether we will root ourselves as deeply as possible in the faith we have received.
Because God is God
– He Looks Beyond All Boundaries
This comes after last week: remember Jesus walked on water to the storm-tossed boat after he sent his disciples off. Here, again the Gospel says, Jesus withdraws. He is drawing great crowds and occasionally has to pull back to regroup-recharge. He is here with his disciples moving off to rest, and this woman calls out. She is not of their faith, but apparently she has heard of what Jesus can do. “Have pity on me” recognizes that she has no claim on Jesus, does not deserve his attention, let alone a miracle from him. Jesus does not respond right way, and some in his merry band say, in all the Christian charity they can muster, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” She crosses all boundary lines to get help for her daughter. How many parents would do the same? How many watching their children suffer from an illness or a major disappointment have said, “I would switch places if I could” but feel helpless when they cannot do more.
We have all watched or read about, at one time or another, a reported apparition of the Virgin Mary on the side of a building, on a tree truck or other places and spaces. Whether they are legitimate is not is for me to guess, but thousands make their way there in the hopes that they or a family member may be healed, even probably after being discouraged by others from going. It is the same with this woman; she goes because there is a chance, even if it is slim that this Jesus can heal her daughter. Because of that persistence this Canaanite woman receives her a miracle.
There seems to have been no bigger problem in the early Church than relations between Jews and Gentiles. The first converts were, of course, also Jews. As Jews they believed that they were God’s chosen people: Gentiles were not really people, but more like dogs. Where have we heard this debasement of humans before?
This summer I read, In the Garden of Beasts: Love Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. The non-fiction work by Erik Larsen covers Germany in 1933-36 as Hitler begins his political assent. What would that have been like to be there as darkness fell over Germany, still recovering from WW-I?" Roosevelt is looking for an ambassador: no one wants the job. So in early June of 1933, he chooses: William Dodd, a professor at the University of Chicago who speaks German and received his graduate degree in Germany. Dodd accepts the job and goes to Berlin with his wife, son and daughter, Martha. While Dodd is navigating Berlin's diplomatic channels, his daughter, Martha, is also immersing herself in Berlin. The 24-year-old is recently divorced, and she hits the party circuit pretty hard and starts to have affairs — including one with the first head of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. She sees the glittering cafes; she sees the street life, the trams, the cars, the bars, and the whole thing. ... and she wonders, right away, at the contrast between what the press back home is reporting and what she's experiencing." But she starts to change her mind, when she sees storm troopers marching a young girl through the streets of a small country town with a sign around her neck that says, "I offered myself to a Jew." All around her laughter arose as the girl is paraded through the streets. “I wanted to follow” Martha’s says, but her companions pull her away. In defiance of a Nazi warning against marriage between Jews and Aryans, the young woman had planned to marry her Jewish fiancé. Of course the Genocide in Germany was one of many others because of the “us” an “them” attitude.
Jesus too, is surrounded with this same type of prejudice and separation of peoples 2000 years before. You can hear it in his own words as he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But because God is God – he looks beyond all boundaries. He sent this son, not for some but for all. The relationship between Jew and Gentile doesn’t mean very much to us today, but in the days of our Lord it was an explosive issue.
In the minds of his disciples, (who would later become saints) the fact that this woman is a mother with a sick child is secondary to the fact that she is a Gentile.
For them, the issue is not their Lord’s ability to heal a sick child, but will he step over the forbidden threshold that protects the purity of the Jews as the children of God?
He stepped over the line then; he steps over it today to find all of us wherever we are – no matter what we have done.
If all of humanity could only learn from his example there would never be another 9/11, or another genocide but real peace in the world.
A Lot Has Changed,
and Yet a Lot Remains the Same
It is interesting that the Gospel reading from Mathew is about forgiveness as we find ourselves on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedies. Forgiveness is hard to extend those who have impacted and are still impacting the lives of so many. For me as I look back I cannot believe that 10 years has passed. I would suspect most of us here who are old enough can remember were we were as we heard and then saw the events of that Tuesday. I remember thinking that everything has changed; not many us knew what the world would be like when we woke up on 9/12, especially since we live 30 miles from New York and few hours drive from Washington DC, but here we are, nonetheless, 10 years out; a lot has changed and yet a lot remains the same.
There have been other tragedies and senseless deaths since 9/11, and I suspect we’ll read about many more in our lifetimes, perhaps even falling victim ourselves.
It became painfully clear on that day that death can always bridge the distance to find any of us. What crumbled on that dark day were not just skyscrapers, but also our illusions that we were somehow safe from the violence the rest of the world has known for a very long time. It doesn't matter how wealthy, well defended, or far removed we are from evil. Terror can still find us, whether in NY, Washington, in our mailboxes or in our cities. We only have to drive 25 miles north where the police say – “[There are] young men in their teens and early 20s, with no regard for life, not even their own, carrying weapons so powerful they can’t control the guns …in their hands. The number of innocent victims-mothers and children caught in the crossfire – is what chills the community. (DiIonna, Star Ledger 8/14,2011)
I am not sure what it is about humanity that otherness or difference whether be race, religion, sexuality, politics or some other divide can cause such a vitriolic hate that leads to senseless injury and killing where human life is zeroed out as worthless.
As we move forward, Ground Zero is being rebuilt and rises from the ashes scattered a decade ago. There are rescue workers and people who lived and worked near the Trade Center still suffering and fighting to receive benefits for injures they suffered in the aftermath of that Tuesday; they still need our prayers and support.
Our faith in God is our only hope in this world because humans cannot be trusted as we have seen in every layer of society all too often. After every cross, resurrection remains a possibility. The stone that covered the tomb has been rolled back for all eternity, but it will be up to us to walk out of it as new creatures—or carry on hate and prejudice to generations not yet born.
Our God is not a god of violence. He allows the weeds to mix and grow within His vineyard. He sends his messengers and prophets again and again to offer countless opportunities to change the way things are. But we (humanity) - as a whole refuse to listen – and I suspect the world is in the shape it is - precisely because we have killed many of the messengers. Our God is a God of grace, a God who loves unconditionally – without bounds – if this is even humanly comprehendible. He is a God who opens his arms and welcomes every human being. A God, who longs to give all his people eternal life, but who, at the same time, refuses to force anyone into accepting his gifts.
So the good and the bad in this is He has given us free will, and we have paid a steep human price for that freedom. He doesn’t stop bombs nor catch bullets that strike kill and maim innocent people. Everyone still remains free to choose, and that is the paradox of this life. Some assume that because God is not a heavy-fisted tyrant, he either doesn't exist or he's so far way he's not worth worrying about, so it becomes easy for them to pull the trigger. This is a grave error of assumption – no pun intended. Some day – God will come to collect the harvest; none of us know when.
I would like to close with the words of the Prophet Micah who said, “do justice, love kindness, and … walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8). And, I add: pray for real world peace in our lifetime.
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