Farmer Evans was driving his John Deere tractor along the road with a trailer load of fertilizer. Tim, a little boy of eight, was playing in his yard when he saw the farmer and asked, 'What've you got in your trailer?' 'Manure,' Farmer Evans replied. 'What are you going to do with it?' asked Tim. 'Put it on my strawberries,' answered the farmer. Tim replied, 'You ought to come and eat with us, we put ice-cream on our strawberries.’
I chose a story about a farmer today because there are several references to growing crops, plants and trees in our Scripture. Farmer Evans, the one in my story, was tending to his strawberries, trying to help them grow. While Farmer Evans was doing his part, he was relying on God’s creation which allowed the plant to grow as it interacted with the soil and rain to produce a fruitful harvest. Jesus told two parables about the Kingdom of God. He spoke about the growth of plants and the harvesting of food. We learn that God tends to all of the plants in this garden we call earth. I ask you to consider how God has tended to you, to think about your growth in God’s word and to contemplate your trust in God.
In Mark’s gospel when Jesus began his public ministry in Galilee his first words were ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.’ (Mark1:15). We often think about the Kingdom of God as something that happens at the end of the world. Do you think there are the signs of the Kingdom of God in the world today?
Ezekiel described God’s work. Ezekiel spoke of God taking a small sprig from the tall cedar and planting it in the mountains. That tree brought good things, fruit for one. Ezekiel also wrote about God’s protection. God would take care of the people of Israel.
In our time, we might imagine God providing the wisdom of the Giant sequoia tree. A sequoia in California called General Sherman is estimated to be around 2,500 years and it is 275 feet tall. What has that sequoia seen that could bring us good news? How majestic it is? How might that majesty remind us of God’s great goodness for us?
While the Kingdom of God will come at the end of time, I think that Jesus came to bring the Kingdom of God to earth then, and to us now. My image of the Kingdom of God is a place where there is no war, a place where people love each other and care for the poor and needy. It doesn’t fully exist yet. I wonder if even now God is bringing us to the place I imagine.
Jesus gave us some clues about what the Kingdom of God will be like. I am still left with questions. Jesus spoke first of a sower planting seeds and amazingly while the sower lived his normal life, this great garden grew and provided a fruitful harvest. Jesus spoke about the gift that God has given us. We receive all of the sustenance from the ground and yet we do little work to attain it. God is always working, always growing, always building. The Kingdom of God is about God’s work not so much about ours. God is always working to bring us closer, to teach us about God’s love and to share it with others. We come and sit in thanksgiving and appreciation as God builds the kingdom around us. As we listen and study God helps us to know what we should do, how we should live and gives us peace in the midst of it all.
In the second parable, Jesus referred to a tiny seed which when planted grew into a large bush, a mustard tree. The mustard tree doesn’t come to its full size immediately, so it may take time for God to grow God’s kingdom on earth. I always wish for the Kingdom to be here now. But God’s way is not my way.
Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador wrote about the Kingdom of God.
“It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us”.
Maybe we are not meant to fully understand the kingdom that God plans for us. The mustard tree became a place where the birds could go and live and survive and be cared for. That description was also in Ezekiel’s message today, the birds are one way Scriptures describe God’s love for those who follow God. For us who follow Jesus.
The TV personality, Fred Rogers, described this Kingdom of God, “I'm fairly convinced that the Kingdom of God is for the broken-hearted. You write of 'powerlessness.' Join the club, we are not in control. God is.” In a way all of us are broken hearted for we have been hurt and we struggle. Fred Rogers was telling us that we are comforted by God when we are in need. God is always there for us. Fred Rogers reminds us that God is the ruler of the universe and we are not. We have to give up the idea that we are in control of things. We may plant a seed but it is God who causes it grow. Our work matters only a little in the grand scheme of things.
As we ponder the mystery of the Kingdom of God, and the fact that God is the one leading and we are not, it is easy to fall into the trap of saying we should do nothing. After all God is in charge and we are not. God grows the Kingdom of God while we rest. Actually, the answer is that we seek to do God’s will in thanksgiving for what God has already given us. We want to bring God’s Kingdom here because of God’s love for us.
The passage in 2 Corinthians says it so well. “the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all… And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” We are urged on by the love and the actions of Jesus, by his very sacrifice for us. We know that our actions are only a part of what must be done and yet we do it anyway. We never know for sure what we should do and we often wish we could do more. We continue to try. Paul reminds us that we walk by faith and not by sight. We must trust that God will take care of things.
I return to the words of Oscar Romero. You may remember that during the civil war in El Salvador Oscar Romero decided to speak out against the government which he believed was committing atrocities, killing the people of their own country. After a particularly forceful sermon, he was killed. Oscar Romero’s words and actions did not end the fighting in his lifetime but the fighting eventually ended. Before his death, Oscar Romero wrote this,
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith…
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
There are times when I wonder, when I feel at a loss because I wish for the world to come together and live in love. But today we realize that we are not in charge, we are only to do our part. We are simply expected to do what we can and pray for the rest. It may be as simple as providing water to the homeless during the summer heat.
In our evening prayers there is a passage that speaks so clearly to this,
It is evening after a long day
What has been done has been done
what has not been done has not been done.
Let it be
We do our work and trust in God.
Mother Teresa worked with the poor in Calcutta for most of her life. She struggled and had dark days of her own. A reporter once reminded her that despite her best efforts she would never be able to take care of all the poor people in Calcutta. Mother Teresa responded, “I am not called to be successful, I am called to be faithful”
We don’t understand everything about the Kingdom of God. But we do know that God is in charge and we are not. Jesus told us that he came to bring God’s Kingdom to earth. Let us trust that God continues to make that happen. Let’s be willing to do our part. And when all is said and done, let us trust in God for what we have done has been done. The rest is up to God. Let it be in God’s loving arms. Amen.
This week, I learned that someone has a twitter handle with the name Satan. I think it is intended to offer some humor but with Satan you never know for sure. Allow me to share some of the things that Satan has posted. Satan expressed his disagreement with a common misperception when he posted "Whoever said 'there's no rest for the wicked' was lying, we love sleep”. We know that the gospel of Matthew tells us that at the end of time Jesus will separate the good from the bad, the sheep from the goats which may have led to this post, “Someone sacrifice a pizza or something I'm getting bored of goats”
We have some common expressions that Satan doesn’t appreciate, “Stop trying to sell me your souls, hell is depressing enough." Here’s another one, Why is 'boring as hell' an expression? Hell is always lit 24/7. Finally , the devil gave us one reason to want to go and see him, “Come to hell, you'll get a better tan.”
Our Scriptures today give us many names for the devil. He was called a serpent or a snake, as Beelzebub or Satan. All of these names speak of a tempter that leads us astray. Jesus was confronted in today’s gospel by Scribes who said that Jesus was being led by Satan and he was arguing against that idea. Jesus decided to make sure that people understood what the devil stood for. Would you join me as we seek to learn from this particular gospel lesson? I find it troublesome, challenging and comforting all at the same time.
While this passage is early in the gospel of Mark, Jesus had already performed many miracles. He healed a leper, a paralytic and a man with a withered hand. But what caused the commotion this time was an exorcism. Jesus had called the evil spirits out of people. Jesus did this so much that Mark wrote, “Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, ‘You are the Son of God!”
Crowds gathered around Jesus, asking for more and believing in his amazing powers. The crowds were so large that it was difficult for Jesus to eat. But two groups of doubters spoke up. Some thought he was insane, crazy. Members of Jesus’ family were worried that Jesus had lost his mind and they came to take him away. Jesus decided that he would remain with his followers and to ignore his family. It troubles me that Jesus became estranged from his family. Our faith teaches us that we must first love God and follow God’s will. When we have a strong relationship with God, then we are able to stay rooted in God as we work to improve our relationships with people in our family. It is not easy.
The Scribes also appeared complaining about Jesus. They opposed his actions on a theological basis. The Scribes believed that Jesus used the powers of Satan to cure people. Jesus reminded everyone that it was evil demons that possessed people and they were from the devil. Why would the devil call his own demons out from a person? It doesn’t make any sense, Jesus said. Furthermore, Jesus had come to bring the kingdom of God to earth and to get rid of the powers of Satan. The folks who had seen Jesus perform miracles were divided. Because of their background or their understanding of the world, the doubters thought Jesus was a fraud.
I am troubled by the number of people who chose to reject Jesus. After all, Jesus was healing people, he clearly wanted the best for others and he was asking people to commit themselves to God. Those seem like good things to me. Yet, many did not believe. It reminds me of the divides we experience in our world today. People are so quick to judge the words and actions of people who are not like them. People often don’t take the time to listen to look for the good that someone is trying to achieve. The other person is just wrong because of who they are, not what they are trying to do. I know I can be like that.
I am also troubled by the struggles people have in their families. I know of so many people who are estranged from family members. It happened with Jesus and there have been separations in my own family. Yesterday, someone told me a story about a woman who learned she was going to die and she took the time to reconcile with her mother. It was an important experience for both of them. I wonder if we might try to find reconciliation somehow in our lives, perhaps find a way for families to reunite. Perhaps we are left with prayer as our only response.
I am also troubled by the constant belittling of people who have different opinions and efforts to sway our opinions. We are living in a time when people are telling us what to think all of the time. We can find opinions expressed on television, on the blogs and on internet sites. Let’s dig through the muddle and form our own opinions. In our relationship with God, this passage encourages us to pay attention to the word of God and to always be listening for God’s call to us. There is no better teacher than Jesus and we find his words to us in Scripture.
One voice that seeks to sway us from God is the devil. I hear Jesus telling us to avoid Satan’s whispers and to stay focused on God. A self-titled philosopher named Marty Rubin once said “If the devil is the ultimate deceiver, then words must be the very devil.” Words can be used to help us but can also be used to derail us. A theologian once wrote, “Very few people believe in the devil these days, which suits the devil very well. He is always helping to circulate the news of his own death. The essence of the devil is the lie, and he defines himself as: 'I am who am not.' Satan has very little trouble with those who do not believe in him; they are already on his side.” We must keep an eye out for our tempters. Even if you don’t believe in the devil, you know that temptations can come from inside ourselves.
Even modern-day religious personality Joel Osteen warns us about the devil, “If you don't set the tone for the day, the devil will set it for you.” Perhaps there is a devil lurking about trying to lead us astray. As I said, we are challenged by the words of Jesus to realize and stay focused for we can easily be tempted and lose sight of the way of the Lord.
In the midst of the doubters and the temptations for today, let us also recognize that Jesus gave us words of comfort about forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit. Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter”. Despite our troubles and our challenges, Jesus always comes to redeem us, to save us. Jesus told us that he came to conquer the devil. The Psalm for today includes words about God’s forgiveness, For there is forgiveness with you; therefore you shall be feared.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of the power of Jesus over the devil, “We should never argue with the devil about our sins, but we should speak about our sins only with Jesus.” We turn to Jesus to find our path, to ask for forgiveness. There is even a quote from Saint Bernard, the man not the breed of dogs, that reminds us that we should turn to Jesus, “God removes the sin of the one who makes humble confession, and thereby the devil loses the sovereignty he had gained over the human heart.” All we have to do when we are confronted by the devil is turn to Jesus. Even if we make a mistake, we can find comfort in the arms of Jesus.
We find comfort in the letter to the Corinthians today which speaks of the salvation we find in God. We learn that God is building us up every day. While our physical bodies may be fading, our spirit is being brought closer to God. We may not know it physically, but we experience it spiritually. “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day”. Let us trust in God for God will care for us.
I mentioned three things for us to ponder today. The number and type of people who opposed Jesus is troubling. It helps us to realize that the words of the devil can lead us astray. The words of Jesus challenge us to put our trust in the Holy Spirit and to ignore the pleas of the devil who simply wants to lead us to bad places. Let us focus our hearts on the comfort we receive from Jesus. For we are certain that Jesus came to bring God’s kingdom here, for us. Let us rejoice in the work of God in our lives. Amen.
Reports of UFOs, unidentified flying objects, have been around my whole life. Most of the time, these sightings have been explained as normal occurrences and they are forgotten by most everyone. Recently, our interest in UFOs was piqued again from a more reputable source. US Military pilots saw flying objects that they could not explain. Last summer, the Federal Government announced a Task Force that would investigate. In June, the director of national intelligence is expected to issue an unclassified report on everything government agencies know about UFOs. Even former President Barrack Obama stated that we don’t know what these things are. None of this is to say the objects are from other worlds but they have not been explained as of yet.
There are many things we don’t understand and many things we can learn. Today, we celebrate the feast of the Trinity. The Trinity can be hard to understand. We often refer to the Trinity as a mystery, a way that God works that is not like any human interaction. We might be a little like Nicodemus in the gospel. Jesus explained that we must be born from above and Nicodemus said, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Our human efforts to explain God may not work. We may even feel like the unknown person who wrote, “He who denies the Trinity loses his or her soul, he who tries to explain the Trinity loses his mind.”
Trinity Sunday is a little different than the other feast days that we have celebrated recently. We have come through Holy Week, the Crucifixion and Easter. We have listened to stories about Jesus and the apostles after he rose from the dead. Last week, we celebrated Pentecost with the outpouring of the Spirit. These are all events that happened. The Trinity has existed forever, for all time. Our readings offer us a glimpse into the workings of the Three Persons in One God. I ask you to consider how you understand the Trinity in your mind and in your heart and in your spiritual being.
The apostles would not have described the Trinity in the same way we do. They spoke of God, they Spoke of Jesus as God and they understood the Spirit. They referred to God, as the one they called Father. It was the best way for them to express their understanding of God at that time. We know that God does not have a gender and so we often seek other words for God who is both Father and Mother for us. The apostles also knew Jesus personally. They were amazed by his teachings which were different than any of the prophets which had come before. Through the signs they saw and through his death and resurrection, they came to realize that Jesus was God and sometimes they referred to him as the Son of God. Once again, using the word Son is just the best way they found to understand who Jesus was and is. The apostles also knew of the Spirit. They had been told by Jesus that the Spirit would come and they gave the Spirit of God credit for so much of the work that they were able to do. Still, the apostles didn’t clearly form the theology that God is three persons in one united God. They just accepted God being with them in these different ways.
The early Christian church took a long time to clearly describe the concept of the Trinity. Debates raged in the early church and it was not until the first two councils of the church in 325 and 381 that our Trinitarian theology was clearly defined and recognized as the belief of the whole church. The Nicene Creed was approved in the first of these two councils in 325.
When we read Scriptures, we can find references to the three Persons. In Matthew, we read as Jesus sends the disciples out to proclaim the Good news. As his final command, Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. In the 2nd letter to the Corinthians, we read, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you”. Finally, we hear the Trinity referred to in 1 Peter 1:2, ”who have been chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with his blood”.
Today’s lessons also refer to the Trinity but does so in more subtle ways. The passage of Isaiah refers to his calling as a prophet. Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” The use of a plural pronoun might be an early reference to the Trinity. Another passage in Genesis speaks of the three visitors to Abraham under the Oaks at Mamre, perhaps another reference to the Trinity. Paul spoke of all Three Persons in his letter to the Romans. It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.
In the gospel Jesus speaks of God and the Spirit. Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. For me this is a clear statement about our need to be baptized. In our baptismal liturgy, we also speak of the Three Persons of the Trinity. So, our scriptural writers did not use the word Trinity because the sense of what that meant was still being formulated, but they did refer to God in many different ways.
Church leaders have tried to find logical ways to explain the Trinity. My favorite is Saint Patrick. He used the shamrock, or three leaf clover. One living plant with three different leaves. Last week, someone told me that the tongues of fire offer us a glimpse of the Trinity. Fire has thee different colors from blue to reddish to yellow, another example of three in one.
Our encounters with the Trinity go beyond logic. In our hearts, we should be thankful that God searches out different ways to interact with us and to help us. A Presbyterian minister named William Dixon Gray wrote that “Rather than explaining the Trinity, let the Trinity explain us. We are always changing from what we are to what we are becoming. The Trinity does not allow things to be static. God is active and we must be too.” Let us allow each of the Three Persons to dwell in our hearts and work in our lives. It changes us. Last week, we thought about finding the Spirit in our hearts and inviting that Spirit to be a part of our lives. The Trinity work as One to be with us and to guide us. The Trinity are an example for us because they act as One and because the love that we receive comes from all Three Persons. If we let that love fill our hearts, then we can be just like Isaiah who responded to the question of whom God should send by responding, Send Me!
For the Trinity is best understood when we think of the Trinity as our relationship with God. We can turn to each member of the Trinity as we wish. Our formal prayers can help us turn to each Person in the Trinity. There are many examples, but you might wish to look at the collects for Morning prayer on pages 100 and 101 and see how many times we speak of each Person in our prayers.
The British Theologian Paul Fiddes, once wrote, “When the early church fathers developed the doctrine of the Trinity, they were not painting by numbers; they were finding concepts to express an experience. I think that we could put aside our efforts to understand the Trinity and just let the experience flow over us. Let us feel the love of all Three Persons. Let us learn from the perfect unity and the differences. Let us seek to emulate the individual identity of each while knowing that they form a perfect community. So, rather than think about the Trinity, I suggest that we feel the Trinity working in our lives. I suggest that we don’t try to put the three Persons into one category or another. I, myself, have used the names Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier as a way to describe the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But I think that God is bigger than any names we place on any Member of the Trinity. God in all forms is still with us, still in our hearts. I prefer to live in the words of Paul who said that we should receive the power, the grace and the peace of God working as One. Amen.
In 1995, twin baby girls were born in Worchester, Massachusetts. As with many twin births, these girls were born premature, actually twelve weeks before their due date. Kyrie and Brielle Jackson were taken to the neonatal intensive care unit. Both girls weighed about two pounds and their lives were endangered. Each girl was put in her own incubator. About three weeks into their lives, one of the girls took a bad turn. She struggled to breathe, her heart rate went up and she was turning blue. A nurse decided to take a chance and put the two girls into the same incubator. It was a technique that wasn’t encouraged in the United States at that time.
An amazing thing happened. Soon after they were placed together, the healthier twin instinctively put her arm around the one that was struggling. Almost immediately the sicker child’s vital signs stabilized. Both girls survived and flourished. This event was a miracle for the family but it has also changed the practice of medicine. Now, contact is considered an important part of the early hours of childbirth. Parents are told to hold their child skin to skin. By the way, if you want to see a picture of that small arm reaching out and holding the sister just go to Youtube and enter a search like “twin sister miracle”.
For me, it is an important message about how our presence in someone’s life can make a difference. One of our struggles during the pandemic has been the difficulty for us to spend time with those we love and to touch them. During the worst days of the pandemic, family members were not allowed to visit and touch their loved ones in nursing homes and hospitals. We know that human presence is important. Today I ask you to reflect on the presence of God in your life. How do you experience and turn to the Holy Spirit as you remember that Jesus was the one who said that he would send the Holy Spirit to be with us? Let us also reflect on how the strength of the Holy Spirit encourages us to share God’s love with others.
This morning, we celebrate the beginning of the Christian church and we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. The visit of the Holy Spirit came in great power. There was a sound like the rush of a violent wind. Tongues of fire appeared, and a tongue settled on each of the disciples.
The power of the Spirit was incredible. The immediate result was that the apostles were able to speak in many different languages. The Holy Spirit gave them much more than that. In her book, “The Fellowship of the Holy Spirit”, Georgia Harkness, an American Theologian, described the coming of the Holy Spirit this way, “At some point (the power of the Spirit) is represented as the power to work miracles, as in Peter’s healing of the lame man at the temple by saying to him, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk’ (Acts 3:6)… However, it is the greater miracle of courage and an amazing fidelity in witness under opposition that the power of the Holy Spirit is most often and most clearly seen.” The power of the Holy Spirit was not a one-time gift. The courage that the disciples of Jesus received stayed with them to the end of their days. Their proclamation of the glories of Jesus never wavered despite the number who disagreed with them and sought to stop them. The Spirit was with them throughout their journey.
That courage is still a gift we receive today. In fact, it is something we often pray for. At the beginning of his sermons, Philip Stowell ends the prayer with the words, “Take our hearts and set them on fire”. I think of the fire that God gives us to love and serve, to share and to care and to live fully our Christian Life. Thanks to Jan for her work and Linda for her organizing, we have offered a flame of fire in your bulletin as a symbol of the power that you have received from the Holy Spirit, a power to set your heart on fire.
We often think of the Holy Spirit as a power, a force, a source of strength. The Spirit is often referred to as a blowing wind, a breath that gives us life. And yet I also think of the Holy Spirit as a presence. In today’s gospel, Jesus told his disciples that he was sending the Holy Spirit. Jesus said to his disciples, “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.”
In the first letter of John, we hear the words that “if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” In today’s gospel Jesus sends the Holy Spirit as an Advocate. Now the Holy Spirit acts as an Advocate on our behalf and ensures that if we ask, our sins are forgiven. We have other names for the Holy Spirit. At various points, Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as a Comforter and a Helper. We sometimes call the Holy Spirit our guide. The Spirit is the source of truth.
Max Lucado, a contemporary Christian writer speaks about Jesus and the Holy Spirit as the way to get to heaven. He said it this way, “The wizard [of Oz] says look inside yourself and find self. God says look inside yourself and find [the Holy Spirit]. The first will get you to Kansas. The latter will get you to heaven. Take your pick.” Let us accept this invitation and see if we can find the Spirit inside of us.
I often think of Jesus as a partner with me along my journey. I think the Holy Spirit can be our partner as well. I think of the Holy Spirit as a presence, God’s presence within us. NT Wright, the well-known New Testament Scholar once wrote that, “Those in whom the Spirit comes to live are God's new Temple. They are, individually and corporately, places where heaven and earth meet.” The Celts speak of places where earth and heaven meet as thin places. We often seek those out. It may be as simple as inviting the Holy Spirit into our hearts.
When Cursillo groups meet, they begin with a prayer. It is an invitation, a request that the Spirit come and be with us. It starts this way, “Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love.” Today, let us think of the Holy Spirit giving us the love of God. I started the sermon today speaking about the gift of healing that one twin sister gave to the other. I ask you to imagine the Holy Spirit putting an arm around you and through that touch, that feeling of God being right there with you, you are given a new strength. That strength cannot be described any better than the love of God in us. The Cursillo prayer suggests that you think of that touch, the gift of God’s Spirit, as a fire of love. It is the love of God that gives us the energy to share God’s love with everyone. In the times that we struggle to love another, someone who has hurt us, we can look inside of ourselves and find God’s love and it will give us a new chance to find love for that other person.
That Cursillo prayer speaks of love as a fire. What exactly is the fire of love? If we listen carefully, we may hear the poet T S Eliot describe a choice we have between the fire of hell and the fire of the Spirit. He begins by describing the Spirit alighting on Jesus as a dove.
“The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
T S Eliot then describes where that fire comes from.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.”
We often think of Pentecost as a time to celebrate, to be thankful for the disciples of Jesus who passed those important messages about Jesus down to us. We are thankful for their courage and steadfast faith in the face of so many who challenged their story. Today, I ask you to be thankful for the Spirit. I ask you to be thankful for the power and the presence of that Spirit. Let us pray that the Spirit will come into our hearts and that the power of God’s love will be with us. Let us use that powerful love to live righteous lives and to share God’s love with everyone. Perhaps we can be like the twin sister and reach out with arms of love to give new life to all we meet. Amen.
A couple of months ago, near Boston, two people went up in a hot air balloon and all of a sudden they were enveloped in clouds so thick, that they didn’t know where they were. They drifted about for what seemed like hours. They could have been over the Atlantic Ocean, Vermont, or Connecticut. Of course, they were very distressed. Finally, the clouds parted, and down on the ground they saw a man standing beneath them. One of the men in the balloon yelled down, “Where are we?” The person on the ground looked up, looked around, looked up again, and said, “You’re in a balloon!” The two men in the balloon looked at each other in amazement, and one called down again, “Are you an Episcopal priest?” The man on the ground yelled back, “Yes!” The other man in the balloon said, “How in the world did you know that he was an Episcopal priest?” “Easy,” the other responded. “I don’t know of any person in the world who could give you an answer so quickly, that is so logical and tells you so little about where you are and where you want to go.”
In this conversation, the man in the balloon speaks first, then the man on the ground responds to him. How well do you listen when someone speaks to you? How carefully do you hear what someone else has to say? On what level do you respond? How does the Lord God speak to you, and how do you respond? In this morning’s gospel, which is part of Jesus’ farewell words to his disciples at the Last Supper, Jesus prays to God: “ I speak these things in the world, so that [my disciples] may have my joy made complete in themselves. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” Therefore, this morning I would like to reflect with you briefly upon listening for God’s truth, upon discovering God’s truth, and upon living God’s truth.
In George Bernard Shaw’s play, St. Joan, Joan of Ark is put on trial and questioned by her interrogators. At one point they turn to her and ask, “How do you mean, voices?” St. Joan answers them, “I hear voices telling me what to do. They come from God.” The interrogator says, “They come from your imagination.” And St. Joan replies, “Of course, that is how the message of God comes to me.” In and through our imaginations, God does speak to us, I am sure. But that is only one way in which he does so. There are many. Our complicated natures operate on so many different levels, that we do not always know on what level we should be listening. There’s also something to be said for the old observation that “we hear only what we want to hear.”
Auditory scientists tell us that we spend 70% of each working day in verbal communication. That breaks down to 9% in writing, 16% in reading, 30% in talking, and 45% in listening. Listening occupies most of our time, yet, oddly enough, it is the area in which we are least efficient. Tests conducted by the University of Minnesota over a period of several years show that on the average people listen to only about half of what they hear. For example, during the 20-minute sermon, you hear around 3,000 words, but you wind up listening to about only half of them. Now that’s pretty depressing, if you’re the preacher. Such a low rate of return can be especially costly not only in business and industry, but also in our personal relationships, and in our spiritual life, as well.
The well-known Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, puts it another way, when he says of our lives, “We live on two simultaneous tracks, like railroad tracks. There is a track of faith and there is a track of reason.” Many times, in your life and mine, faith appears to run contrary to reason and doubt, and so a tension is created. Frequently, we tend to ignore one of those tracks, to ignore one half of our nature, so that no listening and no response can occur. Our task, your task and mine, is to hold together in tension these two tracks, the one of faith, the other of reason, since both are gifts of God.
Jesus prayed for his disciples, “Sanctify them in the truth.” And so along with Pilate, we, too, must ask, “What is truth?” What is this truth that Jesus is talking about? In the old marriage service that we used to use, the one that was found in the 1928 Prayer Book, the bride and groom at the end of their vows to each other would conclude by saying, “And thereto I give thee my troth.” No one ever knew what the word troth meant. So we would always have to tell the couple that it was an old English word that meant truth. And back then it meant everything about a person; a person’s whole being was that person’s truth. And so you pledged your entire self to another person in marriage. Over a period of time the word has now come to mean simply a person’s pledged faithfulness, or fidelity. Jesus understood God’s truth to be God’s being–everything about him: his ways, his purposes, his love, his very self. And he prayed that his disciples would be set apart, or immersed, in the very life of God himself, so that they would come to understand that which was most real, most vital in their own lives. “Sanctify them in the truth.” Sometimes we think that we have a corner on the truth, that we know everything there is to know about someone or something, as God would know that person or object, only to find out that we are wrong. We are misled by the misrepresentations and perspectives of ourselves and others.
Most of us have a tendency to judge the world by our experience and by the limits of our own understanding. We, therefore, have to realize that we do not always have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It just can’t always be that way. In a Peanuts cartoon not too long ago, Snoopy was lounging on his dog house in a pensive mood. As Snoopy watched Charlie Brown and Linus walk by, he reflected to himself: “I wonder why some of us were born dogs, an others were born people? Is it just pure chance, or what is it? Somehow the whole thing just doesn’t seem fair.” Then, he hopped down off of his dog house, and trundled away, while saying to himself, “Why should I have been the lucky one?” Our perspective may not always be one that contains the entire truth.
Or then, at other times, people misrepresent themselves to us, and we are understandably misled into thinking that we possess the whole truth and nothing but the truth. In the fall of 1989, Princeton University admitted Alexi Indris-Santana to its freshman class. Admissions officials believed that they were getting a diamond-in-the-rough based on Santana’s unconventional background. Completely self-educated, Santana claimed to have devoured great literature while working as a ranch hand in Utah beginning at the age of 15. He trained for track by running barefoot through the Rocky Mountains and his application included newspaper clippings of track results that evidenced outstanding speed for an 18-year old. He also had authentic SAT scores of over 1400. During his first year-and-a-half at Princeton, Santana developed a wide circle of friends, was a serious student with good grades, and had a heavy course load. He struck many of those who knew him as an embodiment of Rousseau’s noble savage, and seemed to hark back to a time when men born to unfortunate circumstances pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and made something of their lives. But then, at the Harvard-Yale-Princeton track meet in February, someone from Santana’s past recognized him, and the hoax was over. Alexi Indris-Santana turned out to be James Arthur Hogue, a 31-year old ex-convict with a shady past, a fugitive who had broken parole in Utah. Hogue was charged with five crimes, including his acceptance of $40,000 in financial aid, which counts as theft by deception. James Arthur Hogue is a good example of how hard it is for us sometimes to separate truth from fiction, and just when we think we have a handle on the truth, it eludes us.
God’s truth--- the truth that we have from God, about his life, his love, about ourselves in relationship to that life and love, has been implanted by Him deep within our souls. Our task, your task and mine, is to discover God’s truth in our lives, and once we have discovered it, we are called to help others find it also. We are called to seek life and hope in those around us. That is what living God’s truth is all about.
Jesus prayed to his heavenly Father: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent [my disciples] into the world.” In other words, as I have been sent to help people discover your truth in their lives, in the profoundest moments of their existence, so, now, I have commissioned them to do the same in my name.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian dissident who is renowned for his writings about human freedom, was the recipient of the 1970 Nobel prize for literature. He tells this story about how effective a simple gesture can be. While imprisoned in Russia, a fellow prisoner of Solzhenitsyn’s once helped him to find life and hope, and gave him reason to go on living. Solzhenitsyn was working twelve hours a day at hard labor. He had lost his family and had been told by doctors in the Gulag that he had terminal cancer. One day he thought to himself, “there is no use going on. I’m soon going to die anyway.” Ignoring the guards, he dropped his shovel and sat down and rested his head in his hands. He felt a presence next to him and looked up and saw an old man he had never seen before, and would probably never see again. The man took a stick and drew a cross in the sand in front of Solzhenitsyn. It reminded him that there is a Power in the world that is greater than any empire or government ---a Power that could bring new life to his situation. So, he picked up his shovel, and went back to work. A year later Solzhenitsyn miraculously was released from prison, and went to live in this country. That fellow prisoner, that old man whom he never saw again, had helped Solzhenitsyn find God’s truth in his life; he had caused him to discover new life and hope in the deepest moments of his despair. Once you and I have discovered God’s truth in our lives, we are called to seek new life and hope in others, and to become for them God’s living truth.
So, as this Easter season draws to a close, let us remember that God is forever speaking to us on many levels and in many different ways. We must be attentive listeners. We must hold in balance the dual elements of reason and faith, which are a part of our natures. You and I must live as men and women whose sensitivity is attuned to God’s calling and God’s creation. Once we have discovered God’s truth implanted deep within our souls, we are called to seek new life and hope in those around us. We are called to share what we have found in ourselves of God and his ways, and thus to become his living messengers of truth in the world. “As He has sent me, so I, now send you.”
Preacher: The Rev. Philip Stowell
There was a man who decided that he needed a pet. But this man didn’t want any normal pet like a dog or a cat. He went to the pet store and he decided to get a centipede. A strange choice I would say. He brought the centipede home in a small container. Not long after, the man decided to go out to dinner and asked the centipede if he would like to join him. As you might expect, the man got no answer. But the man didn’t give up. He asked again if the centipede would like to go to dinner with him. Still, he got no answer. Finally, the man yelled into the contained do you want to go to dinner. The centipede responded, “Patience man! I heard you the first time! I’m putting on my shoes!”.
Many people speak about how difficult it is for them to be patient. I even hear some people talk about times they have asked God for something and they say they must be patient for God’s time is not our time. We speak of patience as a virtue. But today, we have another way to think about patience for it is one of the ways we abide in God. We have encountered the word abide a lot lately. It is found often in the gospel of John and in the letter that we refer to as 1st John. In other parts of John’s gospel, Jesus speaks of abiding with his disciples. He told them about the many abiding places that God has saved for them and he said that my Father and I will come and abide with you.
Two weeks ago, Susan Smith Allen spoke about abiding in God’s love. That word abide may mean many different things to many different people. Just one definition of abide is to wait patiently. A similar definition would be to wait for. Alfred Lord Tennyson once said “I will abide the coming of the Lord. Yes, I will wait for Jesus to come again. Let’s think about what that abide might mean in our relationship with God.
As we seek to abide in the love of Jesus, we listen to the words he shared with his disciples. Jesus spoke of his love for the one he called Father. He said that they abide with each other in love. We certainly are not as good at our relationships as Jesus, but we can aspire to follow the example of Jesus and God the Father. Jesus told us that it all begins with love. It is with love that we find ourselves able to abide with Jesus.
Jesus spoke of his own commitment to obey the commandments of God. Following the commandments and loving were connected for Jesus. Jesus spoke as if abide meant that he and the Father were living together in love. Most of us think of following the commandments as some kind of difficult task, something we do grudgingly. It is as if we have to make some grim resolution and stick with it. But Jesus saw following the commandments as something that he did with joy. And Jesus wanted his disciples to follow the commandments so that his joy might be in them. This exact perspective is found in the letter of 1st John today, “his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world”. When we obey the commandments, we become strong, strong enough to do everything that is needed in this world. As it says in the Psalm, “Shout with joy to the Lord, all you lands; lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing.” We want to be joyous when we seek the Lord and the way to do that is to follow God’s commandments. The gospel of John isn’t specific about all of the commandments we are to follow. It speaks only of the love that we should have for one another. When Jesus used the word abide, he spoke of the gift that we receive from him. We are blessed when Jesus abides in us. I feel that kind of abiding as a sense of peace, a calmness, a place of rest and security.
There is a hymn that we sometimes sing which begins with the words, “Abide with me”. The hymn takes place when it is evening and we are ready to go to sleep. It is a prayer for God’s comfort.
“Abide with me: fast falls the even tide
the darkness deepens; Lord with me abide;
when other helpers fail and comforts flee,
help of the helpless,
O abide with me.
This hymn was written by a priest named Henry Francis Lyte. It was a favorite of Kings, an inspiration to generals, a reminder for competitors at athletic events and words of strength for a woman who faced a firing squad. God comes and abides with us, is present with us in the times that others leave us and when we feel helpless. The Abiding presence of God gives us our peace. As I read this week, the word abide “characterizes a relationship of trust, knowledge, love and unity that exists between Jesus and God”. While on earth, Jesus was able to reach out to God, to abide in God the Father. “In that same way, we as disciples are able to abide in Jesus even though Jesus has returned to God.
On this Mother’s Day, we give thanks for all the women who have cared for us. For most of us, our mother gave her love in ways that are similar to the love we receive from God. It is a good way to think about love and a good way to think of abiding in that love. Our mother’s cared for us and abided in us.
It is the gift of love and abiding from mothers and, more importantly, from God that inspires us to action. God certainly gives us the gift of love in all things. Yet sometimes love is a word that is too broad, it has so many definitions that we are uncertain what it means. So, when we know that God’s love abides in us, it can help us feel God’s presence, feel that God is with us.
I have already mentioned that abiding in God may give us patience to wait for the things we ask for. It may give us an acceptance of the things that God has chosen for us and it may be one reason that we follow the commandments with joy. The word abide can also be used to describe a willingness to accept what Jesus has given us. We might say, “I abide in the decisions that have been made by Jesus for me”. Perhaps this is another place that we may find joy, to know that Jesus has done wonderful things for each of us. Another definition for abide is to remain in a stable place. We wish to be with Jesus always so we will abide with Jesus. We come together on Sunday and at other times to sit with Jesus, to be in the presence of God. We join with other Christians in this time of worship, praise. We need some time to just be with God and with fellow Christians.
When I was considering the possibility of a life as a priest, my daughter suggested I read a book called “Let your life Speak” by Parker J Palmer. Parker struggled with depression. He told the story about people that would come and visit him during his lowest points. It wasn’t helpful when someone would say it is a beautiful day outside come and enjoy or if they offered similar words of encouragement. What helped Palmer in those difficult times was the person who came and just sat with him. I would say it was the person who came and abided with him. We can do that for each other.
Andrew Murray was a Christian pastor who wrote a book called Abide in Christ. He suggested this, ““Oh, that you would come and begin simply to listen to His Word and to ask only the one question: Does He really mean that I should abide in Him? The answer His Word gives is so simple and so sure: By His almighty grace you now are in Him; that same almighty grace will indeed enable you to abide in Him.” The words from both the Epistle and the Gospel today speak of the grace of God and the love of God. And they tell us that Jesus abides in us and that we are asked to abide in Jesus. I think we will find that our worries will go away, we will feel God’s peace when we just come and abide in Jesus. Let us come then, sit in quiet and joy, and abide in the love of Jesus. Amen.
Teachers have wonderful stories to tell and I would just like to share two of them. One teacher wrote that a child in her pre-first grade class had been gone for several days because his grandfather had passed away. When he returned the teacher told him they had missed him. The boy responded, “I had to go to Iowa because my grandpa died and I had to be at the back and be a polar bear.” When the teacher called the mom to share that with her, the mother said to me that indeed, all the grandsons ages six to adult had been the pallbearers. The teacher is reminded of that story every time she goes to a funeral and it brings a smile to her.
A teacher was grading the students’ science homework papers for her fifth grade class. One of the questions was “Who developed the system of naming organisms?” or something like that. Anyway, the correct answer was supposed to be Carl Linnaeus. One of the students wrote ‘Adam’ for his answer. When she questioned him about it, he said he was referring to Adam in the Bible. He had learned in Sunday School that Adam had named all the animals in the Garden of Eden. Guess what? She counted his answer correct!
As I encountered our scripture readings for this Sunday, I was reminded that once again Jesus breaks though the barriers that keep us apart and unites us in bonds of love. It happened because two people were willing to having a conversation. A follower of Jesus, encouraged by the Spirit, initiated a discussion asking if that other person would like to better understand scripture. It reminds me that sometimes we are called to be the student and sometimes we are called to be the teacher. We often think about young people as being the ones who might misunderstand the meaning of something, but sometimes we as adults also misunderstand. We should always seek to learn something new. And we never know when a young person, perhaps a child, might teach us a truth that we have forgotten or missed, just like the boy who wrote about Adam naming all of the creatures.
Our first lesson today tells the story of Philip teaching a person from Ethiopia. Each of them provides us with inspiration. The Philip in today’s passage was first mentioned two chapters earlier in Acts. The Hellenists complained to the apostles that their widows were being neglected in the distribution of food. The apostles decided they needed some help. Stephen, the first martyr, was selected to help, along with six others including Philip. After Stephen was martyred, there was a great persecution and many people fled Jerusalem. Philip went to Samaria. His gifts went well beyond the distribution of food and he became an outstanding evangelist, converting many in Samaria. Soon after we encounter him on the road to Gaza.
We are told that the Spirit led Philip on this mission. An angel told Philip to take the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. It was the Spirit who told Philip to go to the chariot and speak with the Eunuch. Later, it was the Spirit of the Lord who snatched Philip away from the Eunuch and sent him off, most likely to continue his evangelism activities in a new city called Azotus. I think Philip was just one of the normal people. He started following Jesus after the resurrection. Through the love of Jesus and with the help of the Holy Spirit, Philip grew. As we learn in the gospel, he produced much fruit. Philip may not be much different from any of us. We are just normal people who have the opportunity to share the good news of Jesus with others. Philip’s actions encourage us to share the story of Jesus with others.
Scripture teaches us that God was active in the early church community, leading everyone who followed Jesus. We have not lost the Spirit. The Spirit is with us and helping us to find our way. The Spirit is encouraging us to share the good news of Jesus to all people. We might even ask where the Spirit is leading us now?
I think the Eunuch in our story is a complex person. We sometimes struggle with people who are different than we are. We can even look down upon them or think they are bad. We might try to avoid people who are different than we are. Because of his physical characteristics, people of that time may have shunned him. Yet, he held an important position and had access to a chariot. He was able to read and yet he may not have understood what he was reading. In some ways, the Eunuch was powerless and in other ways the Eunuch was powerful. I think people we don’t know may be complex just like the Eunuch. We shouldn’t judge them without seeking to understand them better. What is most important for us is that the Eunuch was a God-fearing person. He went to Jerusalem to worship. He may only have been allowed to enter the Court of the Gentiles when he went to the temple. Still, he believed in God and wanted to know more.
The Eunuch was in his own chariot, on his own ground when Philip came to share the story of Jesus. Perhaps we are called to meet people in their place of comfort, on their ground and that may be the best place for them to find Jesus. It may not come from a brilliant speaker in a large auditorium. Often it is a message given from just one person to another person. It may come in a backyard or in a car. We should always be ready.
The Eunuch is also an inspiration for our pursuit of the gospels. None of us are like the Eunuch. But we can be inspired by his commitment to worship God in Jerusalem despite the effort it took. We can follow his lead by being forever curious about what Scripture is teaching us. As I was browsing through the news highlights this morning, I saw an article about Kathy Ireland, a former model and now businesswoman. She wrote about how her mother had packed a bible in her suitcase when she went off to start her modeling career. It started her commitment to Jesus. She wore that sometimes things in the Bible were very clear but other things seemed at first reading to be mistakes. We may all be well educated but none of us knows everything about God. This passage encourages us to continue seeking knowledge, to read Scripture and perhaps to share our understanding of scripture with others.
The entire book of Acts is about the growth in the number of people who followed Jesus. The people who joined came from so many different places and so many different backgrounds. It all began with Peter converting people on the first Pentecost. But the word of Jesus spread to the very ends of the earth. Ethiopia might have been considered the end of the earth and that was where the Eunuch came from. We are reminded that the gospel of Jesus is meant for everyone in every place. When we hear about the Eunuch, he may have some unique characteristics, but he is not a stranger. He is just one of the people whom we are called to join us as part of the Jesus Movement. Commentator Matt Skinner wrote that we should not treat the Eunuch “as a portal to a strange world. Instead, we should recognize him as a mirror held up in front of the church, collectively. Whom do you see? Who’s missing? Why?” Our church is diverse in our religious backgrounds, in the parts of the country we come from, in our political views and even in the way we speak. But we are still missing people from this community who are different than we are. This lesson invites us to think of how we can encourage “the other” people to join us in this part of the Christian Community.
In the gospel, Jesus told us that he is the vine and we are the branches. He said that we have already been cleansed through his word. We are ready to serve as branches of the vine. He said, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing”. What it means to bear fruit is not mentioned but it certainly includes witnessing to the gospel among all nations for that is mentioned in the twelfth chapter of John. As branches let us find our strength in Jesus. Let us allow his grace and mercy to flow through us and help us to produce good fruit. We receive strength when we seek to learn more and more about Jesus. Let us always be students of the word and share what we learn with others. Let us aways remember the love that Jesus has for us. May God’s grace be with us always and may the word and love of Jesus carry us when we think the days are long and our life is difficult. Amen.
Last Sunday, I watched the conclusion of the Masters golf tournament on TV. It is considered one of the most important and prestigious tournaments. It is always played on the same golf course in Georgia. The winner of the tournament was Hideki Matsuyama. Japanese golfers have competed in this tournament for many years but this was the first time that a Japanese golfer won. I am sure the victory meant a lot to the people of Japan. I think it was nice that an Asian person won the tournament in this time of strong anti-Asian sentiment. My attention was drawn to the winning golfer’s caddy. After the tournament, the caddy took the pin out of the 18th green and gave the flag on that pin to the winning golfer. That is a custom. The caddie took the flagpole and put it back in the hole. Then the caddy did something unique. He turned and faced the golf course, took off his hat and bowed to the course. You may interpret his actions in several ways. Clearly it was a sign of respect. Perhaps his actions signified his appreciation for the challenge of the course and maybe for the beauty of the course. I wonder if we might learn from this simple gesture. In a world of hatred, anger, and significant disagreement, can we find a way to appreciate our environment, respect our fellow humans who walk the earth with us and sometimes compete with us. I doubt the caddy was a Christian, but I think he gave us a way to think about our role as Christians. Today, as we reflect on Scripture, I ask you to consider how we are called to show our respect and reverence for the risen Jesus, to be a conduit of his healing work and to share the story of Jesus with others.
Let’s consider two different stories about the resurrected Jesus. Last week, we listened to a story about the resurrection from John’s gospel. In that story, Thomas was presented to us as the doubter. But Luke’s version speaks of several of Jesus’ followers who were uncertain and doubtful about whether and how Jesus had risen from the dead. Of course, Jesus comforted them and told them he is not a ghost. Jesus wanted the apostles to feel his human presence and told them to feel the marks in his body and even join him in eating fish. This is no apparition. Jesus has come bodily to be with them in the resurrection. They were filled with great joy and wondering even in their disbelief. Jesus is God made human who has defied the laws of death. As followers of Jesus, we are called to join in this experience.
The reactions of the disciples seem so realistic when I read the various resurrection stories. On Easter morning, Luke wrote that when the women told the men about the resurrection, the men considered the story to be an idle tale. Today, we learn that they were startled and terrified. They may have asked, “What will life be like for us now?”
We may not see Jesus personally, but we experience Jesus in our prayer life, in church, and in times when we are not expecting it. While we may have our own doubts, I hope we can encounter the risen Lord with awe, amazement and respect. Just as the apostles ate food with Jesus, we are encouraged to share a meal with each other, sharing in the love of Jesus as we share bread and wine. It may sound strange when we hear Luke writing about the body of Jesus in the flesh, appearing to the apostles. I think we should just sit in wonder and acknowledge that all things are possible with God.
Let me share this perspective. In his book Sacred Sense: Discovering the Wonder of God’s Word and World, William P. Brown charts wonder through the Bible, arguing that wonder “lies at the heart of biblical faith.” Wonder is not the same as unadulterated joy or a banal and passing interest. Instead, the astonishment of wonder can be coupled with both fear and desire: “On the one hand, wonder carries the unsettling element of bewilderment. On the other hand, there is the element of insatiable curiosity or the passionate desire to know. Wonder, thus, bears an inner tension.” (These words are shared by Cameron B.R. Howard in the web site Working Preacher). Let us see the wonder of the risen Jesus.
The reading from Acts also gives us an opportunity to experience the risen Lord. We enter the story in the middle. Peter and John came to the Temple to pray. As they entered the gate they encountered a man who was lame and begging for money. Peter had no money to give. Instead, Peter said to the man. “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” The man got up and walked. He was so excited to be walking that he leaped for joy. The people who saw it were amazed. Even though Jesus was not present bodily for this miracle, it is still the work of the risen Jesus to perform this healing. It gives us encouragement to know that Jesus is present with us and Jesus is ready to help us in our times of trouble.
Some in the crowd at the Temple thought Peter was responsible for the healing. But Peter did not take the credit. He told those who are gathered around that Jesus is the power that caused the man to be healed. Apparently, Peter and John were only the hands and mouth of God, the tools that Jesus used for his healing. The healing was a sign that God provided to glorify the name of Jesus for everyone. It is a miracle of Jesus even though Jesus was not physically present.
As today’s followers of Jesus we too are called to be conduits of his grace in the world. We share the grace of Jesus with others and sometimes marvelous things happen. We do not take credit for God’s marvelous works but are just thankful that we were able to provide a place for Jesus to help others.
Here is a story about kindness that reminds me of how the risen Jesus works even today. A young boy named Jordan was chosen as the hero of the week in his school. Jordan decided to share his love of reading with the other children. Reading is so important to Jordan because he is autistic. Reading has helped him to overcome some of his problems, particularly his stuttering problem. Jordan ended up recording a video and telling about his favorite book, a New Day by Brad Melzer. Jordan’s video went viral. By sharing the story, Jordan reminded us of the theme of the book, “With a little more kindness in it, every day can be a new day.” His commitment and effort were rewarded with kindness when he met the author of the book on a video feed. Seeing Jordan’s joy helps all of us to know how we can make a difference, how we can be conduits of the grace of Jesus.
Our life is more than just sharing kindness with others. The third message for today is about our calling. Jesus told his disciples that they were called to be witnesses. They had seen the resurrected Jesus and they were called to proclaim the name of Jesus to all nations.
We may be called to be witnesses as well. In 1st John, we are told that we are children of God. As children, we are not to simply live in wonder at the glory of Jesus. We are to respect sin and lawlessness. It is our wonder and amazement at the risen Jesus that helps us to put away our sins. We read that “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.”
Saint Augustine wrote about the power that we receive from Jesus. We are changed by his resurrection. He wrote, “The joyful news that He is Risen does not change the contemporary world. Still before us lie work, discipline, sacrifice. But the fact of Easter gives us the spiritual power to do the work, accept the discipline and make the sacrifice.”
Today is the last day our scripture lessons speak about the visits of the resurrected Jesus. I ask you to hold these experiences of the resurrected Jesus close to you. Let your heart be filled with awe and wonder. Let us respect the meaning of the risen Jesus. Let us be filled with hope and strength that we too can deal with all the work we need to do in this world. Just as Jesus was with Peter when he healed the man who was lame, Jesus is with us now and always. Amen.
Four local preachers once met for a friendly gathering. During their conversation one preacher said,“Our people come to us and pour out their hears, confess certain sins and needs. Let’s do the same. Confession is good for the soul.” In due time all agreed. One confessed he liked to go to movies and would sneak off when away from his church. The second confessed that he liked to smoke cigars. The third oneconfessed that he liked to play cards. When it came to the fourth one, he would not confess. The others pressed him saying, “Come on now, we confessed ours. What is your secret or vice?” Finally he answered,
“It is gossiping and I can hardly wait to get out of here.”
They say that “confession is good for the soul,” but not necessarily for public discussion. How many times
have you made a private confession to a priest of the church? How many times have you gone into one of those dark confessional booths and laid bare your soul? If you come from a Roman Catholic background, such a practice is not novel to you. There are even some Episcopal Churches, which we refer to as Anglo- Catholic parishes, where private auricular confession is heard on a regular basis. It may be hard for some of you to believe, but I grew up in one of those parishes in Chicago, and I remember having to make my first confession the day before I was confirmed. Since back then confirmation took place in the third grade, and since all of us third graders in the confirmation class were not old enough to have committed any serious sins, we were given a long list of sins that we might have committed from which to choose. If anything, that list gave us ideas more of what to do, than to remind us of the bad things we had already done. That reminds me of the story of the Roman Catholic priest who had the students at the parochial school where he taught make lists of their sins before they entered his confessional. One week a young child came to confession and the priest heard him unfolding the list he had brought with him. The youngster began, “I lied to my parents. I disobeyed my mom. I fought with my brothers and...” There was a long pause. Then a small angry voice said, “Hey, this isn’t my list.”
In that wonderful gospel which we heard a few moments ago, and which we hear every year on this Sunday after Easter, Jesus came into the midst of his disciples and said to them, “Peace be with you.” After their close friend and teacher had been arrested, put on trial, and crucified, the disciples were alone behind locked doors, and fearful of the Jews. All of a sudden Jesus appeared and said “Peace be with you.” After he had said this he showed them his hands and his side. This was really his way of reassuring them that, true to his promise, he had not deserted them, and that, in his words, he would be with them always to the end of the ages. Then Jesus sent them on a mission by saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Their mission was one of forgiveness. “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” With all this in mind, I would like to reflect with you briefly this morning upon peace, upon promise, and upon forgiveness.
“Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” How, then, do you and I find that peace about which our Lord spoke? In Belfast, Ireland, a Roman Catholic priest, a Jewish rabbi, and a Protestant minister were engaged in a heated theological discussion. Suddenly, an angel appeared in their midst and said to them, “God sends you his blessings. Make one wish for peace and your wish will be fulfilled by the Almighty. The minister said, “Let every Roman Catholic disappear from our lovely island. Then peace will reign supreme.” The Roman Catholic priest said, “Let there not be a single Protestant left on our sacred Irish soil. That will bring peace to this island.” “And what about you, Rabbi?” said the angel. “Do you have no wish of your own?” “No,” said the rabbi. “Just attend to the wishes of these two gentlemen, and I shall be well pleased.”
That is not what Jesus had in mind when he spoke of peace. Peace often must begin with ourselves. Evangelist Billy Graham once said, “ Love is not a vague feeling or an abstract idea. When I love someone, I seek what is best for them. If I begin to take the love of Christ seriously, then I will work toward what is best for my neighbor. I will seek to bind up the wounds and bring about peace and healing, no matter what the cost may be.”
The late novelist and playwright, Dr. Wallace Hamilton, liked to tell of an Indian sheep farmer who had a big problem. His neighbor’s dogs were killing his sheep. It got so bad, that he had to do something. So he examined his options. First, he could have brought a lawsuit and taken his neighbor to court. Secondly, he could have built stronger fences so the dogs couldn’t get in. But he had a better idea. He gave some lambs to his neighbor’s children. When these lambs began to multiply and their little flocks began to develop, the neighbor tied up his dogs and the sheep farmer’s problems were over. As Jesus said: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons and daughters of God.”
The words “Peace be with you,” were also meant to be ones of promise and reassurance to the disciples, who then realized that Jesus would never abandon them or forsake them, or leave them behind. The same is true for us today. The entire Easter story, which began last Sunday, is really God’s promise to us that He who raised Jesus from the dead, also watches over us and will not leave us. The problem is that we are surrounded by all kinds of promises in this mortal existence in which we find ourselves. Many of these promises are illusions; they are like desert mirages which appear to be water, but are in fact only a trick of sun, heat, and sand. When we head toward them, we move faster and faster, until finally we plunge headlong into them, and all we get is a mouthful of sand. These days advertising is the false spirituality of materialism, promising what it can never deliver. Even the slogans of advertising sound religious, using the language of ultimate concern: “GE – We bring good things to life; Coca-cola – It’s the Real Thing; BMW – The Ultimate Driving Experience; Bayer Aspirin – Bayer Works Wonders” In a culture of consumption, we sacrifice our souls for the mirage of glittering images, and all we get is a mouthful of sand. What are the real kinds of promises that Jesus would have us emulate in our lives? Here is one example.
Booker T. Washington describes meeting an ex-slave from Virginia in his book Up From Slavery : “I found that this man had made a contract with his master, two or three years previous to the Emancipation Proclamation. Under the terms of the contract the slave was to be permitted to buy himself, and he promised to pay so much per year for his body. While he was paying for himself, he was also permitted to labor where and for whom he pleased. Finding that he could secure better wages in Ohio, he went there. When freedom came, he was still some three hundred dollars in debt to his master. Notwithstanding that the Emancipation Proclamation freed him from any obligation to his master, this black man walked the greater portion of the distance back to where his old master lived in Virginia. There, he placed the last dollar, with interest, in the hands of his former master. Washington wrote, “In talking to me about this, the man told me that he knew that he did not have to pay his debt, but that he had given his word to his master, and he had never broken his word. He felt that he could not enjoy his freedom until he had fulfilled his promise.” Now that is a true promise!
After Jesus said, “Peace be with you,” he said to his followers, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus was sending them forth on a mission and the purpose of that mission was forgiveness. He described it for them in this way: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” One of the great gifts of the Spirit is that of forgiveness. As members of Christ’s body, the Church, how do you and I exercise this gift of forgiveness, this gift of the Spirit, in our lives?
In the latter years of the reign of King Hussein of Jordan, who died in 1999 at the age of 63, a terrible tragedy occurred. Two Israeli schoolgirls were playing in a park called the Island of Peace, located in the middle of the Jordan River, right on the border of the two countries. While the girls were playing, a Jordanian soldier shot them both dead for no apparent reason. The news media flashed the story around the world with lightning speed. For a short while, it seemed that the fragile peace between Israel and Jordan could be broken. But then it became clear that the soldier was suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness and that he acted with no authorization from anyone. Apologies were made and accepted in diplomatic circles, and the world breathed easier. The story could well have ended there, were it not for King Hussein. Hearing what one of his soldiers had done, the king left his palace, and even his own country. He traveled to the humble homes of the families of the two slain Israeli girls. Entering each house in turn, King Hussein, who was used to having people bow before him, fell down on his knees. He bowed before the grieving parents. Then he looked up into their eyes and said, “I beg you, forgive me, forgive me. Your daughter is like my daughter, your loss is my loss. May God help you to bear your pain.” Nothing in the annals of diplomatic protocol suggested that a king needed to humble himself liked that. Ironically, a Muslim king gave the world that day a glimpse of how a truly Christian person might behave.
Forgiveness is never easy. Each day it must be prayed for, and struggled for, and won. That is our mission That is your mission and mine. As followers of the Lord’s Christ, you and I must understand that there is no length to which we will not go, to exercise this gift of forgiveness. We are, of course, reminded of Jesus’ words at another time and place, when in response to Peter’s question “How often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him,” he replied “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” The late lay theologian, lawyer, and civil rights activist, William Stringfellow, in one of his writings, once described the endless efforts that are expected of us in our calling as forgiving Christians. He wrote, “There is no forbidden work. There is no corner of human existence, however degraded or neglected, into which Christians may not venture; no person, however beleaguered or possessed, whom they may not befriend and represent. Christians are distinguished by their radical esteem for the Incarnation, by their reverence for the life of God in the whole of creation, even and, in a sense, especially, creation in the travail of sin.”
So, on this day, as we hear once again our Lord say to his disciples, “Peace be with you,” let us remember that the peace which he would impart to us enables us always to work for what is best for our neighbor, binding up wounds and bringing healing no matter what the cost may be. That same peace is also Jesus’ promise to reassure us that the God who raised his son from the dead, will never abandon or forsake us in the daily living of our lives. Finally, on this day, we are reminded of our mission to bring forgiveness to the broken and imperfect world in which we live. This gift of the Spirit is what distinguishes us Christians from the rest of humankind, because our willingness to forgive others knows no limits. The message of this day, in Jesus’ own words, very simply, is this: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Amen.
A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Philip W. Stowell The Second Sunday of Easter April 11, 2021
Happy Easter! This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. I hope that you feel the joy of Easter today at Transfiguration. I hope that you find joy in the rest of your life today. I hope that you will be able despite Covid-19 to spend time with family and friends. Jan and I are excited to drive to Flagstaff and join our family there, to be with our granddaughters and to share a lovely Easter meal.
It seems especially important to celebrate Easter this year. We have gone through so much. Last year at this time, the church was not open and we shared a service on Youtube and Facebook. Many have been impacted financially by the pandemic. Others have been tested by the requirement that we stay at home. It has been difficult to be away from other people. But the worst of it for me has been the loss of life. I read the other day that nearly 3.4 million people died in the United States in 2020. That was an increase of 15%. According to the report, Covid -19 was the third leading cause of death in 2020. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. The impact of 2020 on us can be found in the names of those we lost, our family members and friends. This past year, my brother-in-law died. Several parishioners died. Two of my cousins died. The husband of another cousin died. And my aunt, the last of my parent’s generation, died. It has been a dark time.
There is so much for which to be joyful on this Easter. We are finally back in church and together again. We have a chance to wave at our fellow parishioners even if it is at a bit of a distance. We even can talk to people again in person. It seems that things will continue to be better in the future. Maybe this Easter you will remember back to wonderful experiences you have had in the past. Perhaps it was a lovely dinner at your grandmother’s house. Maybe it was an Easter egg hunt when you were a child. Maybe it was dressing up in a special way. Perhaps you received a chocolate Easter bunny and ate all of it in one day.
Yes, Easter is a time of great joy. While we may appreciate all of the wonderful and joyous things that happen on Easter, our real joy comes from Jesus. It is the day that Jesus, our Savior, created for us. It is a day to celebrate Christ’s victory over sin and death. In the early church, this was the most important day of the year. It was the day when those who were learning about Christianity joined the faithful as full members of the church. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus changed everything for us. As we say in the collect, “Jesus Christ overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life”. We should lift up our heads a little taller today for Jesus has opened wide the gates of heaven and he did it for each of us.
I hope that you find a personal message in Scripture for today. Consider how Paul is speaking to you in his letter to the Corinthians. Paul worried that people would not believe it was possible for Jesus to be raised from the dead. He offered the eyewitness accounts of so many of Jesus’ followers as a reason why we should believe. The list continues but ends with his own witness. “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” Paul was blessed to encounter the risen Jesus. I wonder if you may have experienced the risen Jesus at some time in your life. What touches me the most is Paul’s statement that he was unworthy, that he was unfit to be an apostle. So many of us think we are unfit. We know that we are sinners. Yet, Paul’s words are meant for each of us. Jesus rose from the dead for each one of us even if we think we are unfit. Paul said it so well, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.” We have all been given God’s grace and it has made a difference in our lives. God’s grace has not been in vain for any of us. I hope the words of Paul and the love of God and the resurrection of Jesus give you great joy today.
Peter’s testimony in the Book of Acts is similar. Peter encountered the risen Lord. He is asking us to believe because of his own experience. Once again, I hope that you hear his message as given directly to you. “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Every one of us is acceptable to God. And Peter reminds us that when we believe in Jesus we receive forgiveness for our sins.
As we reflect on John’s version of the resurrection story, I ask you to place yourself at the tomb. Our Bishop, Jennifer Reddall, suggested this week that we not be in a rush to put aside our grief that we have lived with this year. She wrote, “If we skip over the griefs of this year, we may move too quickly away from the empty tomb. If we stay, and reflect, and weep... we may come to find that the person standing next to us is Jesus.”
Let us remember that it was Mary Magdalene who first found the empty tomb. She ran and got Peter and another disciple to come and see. We know little about the reaction of the two disciples when they saw the tomb was empty. We only know that they left and went to their home. Mary stayed. She cried. So much had been taken from her. Jesus had been killed. Now, she couldn’t even see his body place ointments on his body. She didn’t know where they had taken him.
Some of us can relate to Mary. For some were not allowed to see their loved one before they died. Some were only given a few moments, barely time to say good-bye. I mentioned people that I knew who died his past year. In the listening and the grieving, I remembered things about what people who died had accomplished and I learned things I never knew. One of my relatives who died offered a ministry of going to the places in Cincinnati where people had been killed and offering prayers at that sight. What a gift that I knew nothing about.
Mary could have left but she didn’t. In her grief, she was welcomed by angels. And then she saw Jesus. She didn’t recognize him at first but when he spoke to her she must have been filled with joy. Mary Magdalene, the woman who stayed at the tomb, was the one who first announced the resurrection of Jesus. Without her witness, we may have never read the words of Paul or of Peter.
I ask you then to stay a moment. There is much joy to be felt today but it can wait. Let us stay for just a moment at that tomb. If we listen carefully, perhaps Jesus will come to each of us and speak. Then we will know that Jesus rose from the dead for everyone and most of all for you. Amen.