Last week, I introduced a theme for our Advent season. The theme is tilling the soil. On Monday, I watched two powerful horses plow the ground in our new Chile garden. I once again experienced how hard the top layer of the ground is here. The horses traversed the ground many times, digging through that top crusty layer until they found the soft and rich soil beneath. This week, I feel that tilling the soil means allowing God to work in God’s way and time to make us whole people. We want to allow God to break through that hard crust we have developed, the protection that we have created to keep ourselves from being hurt. We want to let God find that fertile layer of our souls that lies beneath.
All of us are made in the image of God. We were created to live as God’s children. Theologian John Philip Newell wrote about this in Christ of the Celts. He struggled with the idea of original sin. Newell believed that we weren’t created as sinners but rather carried God inside ourselves. God’s goodness is deep inside. He wrote, “wisdom is deep within us, deeper than the ignorance of what we have done or become.” Newell said similar things about having God’s passion for justice and righteousness and God’s love is deep within us. Today I ask you to consider how you connect again with the core of your being, that part of us that mirrors God so closely. We may have lost contact with that core as it has been covered over by years of neglect, even years of selfish action. We seek to allow God to dig through the crust that has covered our souls and find that freshness beneath.
There are times we question where God is in our lives. We want God to swoop down and correct all that has gone wrong and we want that to happen now. When God’s work is not obvious to us, we worry. Christians have had this reaction from the very beginning. The author of 2nd Peter must have been responding to a community expecting Jesus to return quickly and restore their lives to peace and tranquility. We are so like them in many ways asking when God will correct all the evil. We can mask the feelings of disappointment when God does not appear.
The author of 2nd Peter gives us one explanation. “With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” We really do think of ourselves first and continue to ask God why things we want cannot happen immediately. Yet we know that God works on God’s time.
How can we understand God’s time? It might help to consider how short human life is especially compared to the length of time scientists tell us the universe has existed and the earth has flourished. Astronomers recently reported that they had measured the impact of two stars that collided 130 million years ago. Scientists estimate that the Grand Canyon started to form some 6 million years ago. We see the Grand Canyon as it is now but our view is like a single snapshot not a picture of what happened over so many years. Geology and astronomy help me to understand just a little about God’s time. I know God can do anything but it’s hard to see God’s work throughout the ages.
Still, we are inpatient. We wish that Christmas would hurry up and come. We want to see the baby Jesus lying in a manger. We want to be with our family and share presents and a lovely dinner. Is there another choice? We could chose to enjoy the experience of Advent, the anticipation, the preparation, the waiting, and the gradual change. For in the waiting and looking, perhaps we will allow God into our souls.
As I read the Scriptures for this week, I felt the powerful images presented to us. Isaiah provides metaphors for us of God’s work. God leveling out the rough places. People are like grass. They wither and fade away but God’s word will stand forever. God will feed his flock like a shepherd. It sounded like poetry to me.
I am not an avid reader of poetry. But I remembered some favorite poets like John Dunne and Robert Frost. What poetry inspires you? Poets often present us with images and I found something helped me think about God’s time and our time in a set of poems by T S Eliot called the four quartets. They were written just before and during the Second World War. The first, Burnt Norton, begins like this
“Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future,
and time future contained in time past” and later
“Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.”
I am sure that others have a better sense of the meaning of this poem. I hear it saying that we are made up of all the things that have happened throughout our lives. Humanity is made up of all things that have happened before us. History is present today in our lives. Later in the poem, Eliot speaks of a garden which has fallen into decay. Yet in the midst of the garden are the memories of better times. If we have fallen into decay in our lives, then Advent is a good time to remember what we were like earlier and remember that our former self is still inside of us. I believe that God works in us throughout our lives. We may just not feel it or see it. God is waiting for the chance to work magic in our souls again if we will only let God in.
When we listen to Scripture we hear of God’s marvelous work. “Comfort, O comfort, my people”. Yes, God will give us comfort. For the Jewish people of Isaiah’s time, comfort was release from the bondage of sin and the bondage of exile. It was a comfort that could only come to them when God brought them home once again. Home is a special place for all of us. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her penalty is paid”. God forgave their sins. For the Jewish people, sin is both a communal act and a personal act. God forgave the sins of those who had come before and those who had sinned now. We have forgiveness from God as well.“Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” God has the power to change the world. God made the lives of the Israelites better and as they returned from exile in Babylon, they were so ecstatic in their freedom, a gift from God, that their trip back to Jerusalem was easy, joyful.
The Psalm offers a special note of God’s power and grace given to us. “I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people.”
Today, we celebrate the second Sunday of Advent. We pray that God will give us a peace that is beyond measure. It is a peace that passes all understanding. It is a peace that we wish to hold in our hearts forever.
I often think about our lives as a journey. We journey through work and family and most especially in our faith. I don’t think anyone’s journey with God is constant, correct, perfect. We fall from the straight and narrow at various times along the way. This Advent, I hope that you will find some time to pause and reflect on your journey, where you have been and where you are now. The last of T S Eliot’s four quartets is called Little Gidding which was the site of a 17th century Anglican monastery. This quote comes from Sparknotes. “The poem (Little Gidding) considers those who have come to the monastery, who come only ‘to kneel / Where prayer has been valid.’ It is here that man can encounter the ‘intersection of the timeless’ with the present moment, often by heeding the words of the dead, whose speech is given a vitality by a burning fire.”
Is it possible that you might hear the voice of God’s truth in that place where prayer is valid, in a person that inspires you, perhaps even a prophet like John the Baptist, calling from the desert. May you find the timeless truth of God in your reflection. May you let God till your soil until God finds the fruitful soul beneath. And when that happens, I believe that you will know God’s peace. Amen.
I have always been amazed by the work of a farmer. And I know several people in this congregation who grew up in a farming family or worked as a farmer, earning their livelihood growing crops. I think farmers are gamblers. They risk so much on the vagaries of the weather and the price they will get for their crops. Diseases and creatures feast on their crops reducing their yield. Through all of this uncertainty, farmers live in hope that their efforts will be fruitful. Despite the risk they face, each year they break ground, plowing their fields. The people who work in our Chile garden are somewhat similar. This past year bacteria attacked the Chile plants. It killed many of them. The disease did not affect the chile we harvested. It just impacted the amount of Chile powder we could process and offer for sale. Our farmers learned that we needed to rotate the crops. So, the vestry decided that we would take some of the land behind the parish hall and create a new plot to grow chile, a place where the bacteria has not yet grown. But plowing this new plot was not easy. It was not until Bob Despegliare took matters into his own hands and rented a tractor that we were able to break ground. Since then others have continued to prepare the land for new chile plants. I would like to draw a parallel between the work of the farmers in preparing their soil and our Christian efforts during this Advent season. The word Advent means coming. Jesus is coming soon and we prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus. Just as the farmer prepares the soil for planting, we prepare our hearts and minds for this year’s coming of Jesus. That is why I have chosen to use the phrase “tilling the soil” as our theme for this advent season. We break through the dirt and dust, the sins that have covered our souls. We break through our human failings as we prepare. We have hope that Jesus will be here soon. I grew up in the Midwest and late spring was the time that farmers tilled their fields. I often considered it to be the beginning of a new year. But time is marked differently here in the valley. We prepare the soil earlier than in other climates. There are many ways that we mark the beginning of a New Year. The most common is January 1st, the calendar turns over to something new. But the beginning of an academic year and the beginning of a fiscal year can differ from the calendar year. Advent marks the beginning of a new Church or liturgical year. Each of these new starts helps us to consider what we must do to prepare for the coming year. Advent comes one month before our calendar changes to the new year but still it is a time to think of new beginnings, new starts, preparing anew. How will you till the soil and prepare your heart for this new year, this coming of Jesus? For the children that are here with us, each Christmas they have experienced feels like something new, something exciting. But those of us who have been around a bit longer have experienced the birth of Jesus many times. What makes it new this year? Perhaps that is why the theme of tilling the soil works so well. Each year the farmer plants and each year, we need to turn over the feelings of our soul, to start something different, to prepare again for the coming harvest, to get ready for the coming of Christ. The reading from Isaiah puts a slightly different spin on the issue saying “But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.” It is as if God disappeared from the people of Israel. And later, “for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” The Psalm has a similar tone when it says, “O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angered despite the prayers of your people?” The people felt deserted by God and called upon God to return. Perhaps that is another good way to think about this coming of Christ. Of course, God is always there. We have just lost sight of God. But in our humanity, we act as if God is the one who has left. We say that God has left us because of our sin. And yet it is really the other way around. We have left God because of our sin. That’s why, in this Advent season, we seek to prepare ourselves. We need to plow away the things that keep us from God. We need to break the soil of our resentment and the blame that we place on God. We need to find a way to cleanse ourselves again so that we can allow God back in our lives. The theme for Advent today is hope. As we prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus, we look forward to his coming with hope. Hope can be difficult in times of trouble. When Paul left the church community he founded in Corinth, they were grounded in their faith and several leaders had come forth giving Paul confidence that the community would continue to be faithful followers. But that Christian community encountered great challenges after he left. They were divided by class and some even refused to come together at the Lord’s table. Many had returned to the ways of sin. Paul wanted them to remember that hope was one of the gifts that they had in Jesus. Jesus had been with them before and Jesus was with them now and Jesus would come again. Their gifts would give them strength as they await the return of Jesus. It is as if Paul were speaking to us today. Our divisions are different and involve not this church but our broader community. We know that Jesus has given us the strength to live our lives in his name and we know that Jesus came to be with us. But we may have strayed just a little. Today, we remember that we too have been given gifts. Our gifts will carry us through this time of preparation. Our gifts give us hope. As we are reminded today, the Israelites struggled to find God in their lives. Because of their sin, they thought God had left them, was angry with them, and was hidden from them. In Paul’s time, the people had been strong in their faith but had lost their sense of Christian community. Some had also turned to sin. But they knew and we know also, that God has never left us. God is just waiting for us to return. So, we prepare, we once again till the soil scraping away the crust of sin so that we may experience God freshened and renewed. What might we do to prepare for the coming of Jesus once again. Some will choose to follow a daily devotion that is put together specifically for Advent. Others will chose to have an Advent wreath and offer special prayers at mealtime. When our daughter was a child, she loved to hang objects on a felt wall hanging. Each day, she would add a new ornament to the felt Christmas tree hanging and we would discuss the meaning of Christmas. Others may choose to set aside some time in prayer or reflection. Still others may choose to volunteer with an organization that helps the needy. Another way to prepare ourselves is to be fully present as we worship God together. I read a reflection by Karoline Lewis suggesting that Advent was a time to look for God in our church lives. If we stay awake as the gospel suggests, perhaps we will experience the revelation of God. Perhaps God will arrive in our time and place. We may experience the power of God that transforms our lives through Jesus Christ. God will direct us to find in ourselves and in our community all that is good and true. We may come to the full realization that Jesus came before now and will come again. Jesus is also with us now while we await his coming again. Whatever you do, seek to place yourself in God’s presence. All of the things we do to prepare, to till our soil, are just reminders that we wish to live our lives with God now and as we look with hope towards his coming again. Amen.
There is a beer commercial that has been running recently that is set in the court of a king in the middle ages. One person brings a gift up to the king and it is a case of the beer which is being advertised. The king is pleased. Another person does the same. Then a third person presents a gift of some home made wine in a beautiful container. This last gift is rejected by the king and the person who brought the gift is sent to prison with a sentence of some terrible punishment. The commercial plays on our sense that kingly judgment has often been offered on the whimsy of the king and not particularly just. I would say it is a direct contrast to our readings.
Trying to understand what the monarchy meant in the time of Jesus can be difficult. In our time, most kings and queens hold a more ceremonial position. There are a few absolute monarchs in the world today but we hear little about them. Many of us are enamored by the ruling family of Great Britain. We often see them visiting and supporting people who are in the hospital or going to an event to help a non profit organization. We just don’t have much experience with a king or queen that rules over a country with total authority.
For the people of Israel, kings were much more important and personal. They had been looking for a Messiah ever since the time of King David, almost 1,000 years, and they had lived for many years under foreign rule. For them, kings were in total control of their lives. They had the power to put people in jail, to put people to death, to conscript them into the army, to take away their land. No decision was beyond their control. When Matthew wrote these words about Jesus coming back to be the King of the Universe, it spoke directly to the people of his time. His followers knew that Jesus would be coming again and be their Messiah.
Jesus never acted like a king as we know them. First, his kingship is not of the earth. Jesus was not a military leader or a rich person or even a famous temple priest. Jesus was not born to a wealthy family, but rather was born in a stable and had to flee from the king who threatened his life. When Peter declared that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus immediately told all of his followers that he would go to Jerusalem and be killed. I love the story in the gospel of John where Pilate asks Jesus “Are you the King of the Jews?’ And Jesus responds with a question something like, ”Who told you that?” Pilate later says, “So you are a king?” and Jesus replies, “I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Truth can be so difficult to find sometimes. I wonder how we can find the truth in the world today. Perhaps we should look to Jesus. None of the ways of Jesus sound like a king as we understand it.
In our readings, we hear about the judgment that all will receive. In Ezekiel, God says I “will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy”. I presume that the fat and strong are those who took advantage of others. After hearing from Ezekiel, it is no surprise that Jesus cares for those who struggle. In the Gospel, the sheep will be separated from the goats. I learned this week that those who cared for both sheep and goats did separate them every night. The sheep liked to sleep out in the open but the goats needed shelter to keep warm. Separating the sheep and the goats made sense then. People today often speak about the judgment, the wrath of the God of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scripture. Ezekiel described God as caring for the weak. And in our gospel, God’s wrath is reserved for those who have sinned against God.
How many of us have a reason to fear God’s judgment? On the surface, we might think about the things that we have done wrong, all the sins we have committed. I have a more optimistic view. We have asked for God’s forgiveness for our sins, we have promised that we will do better and we have worked to live a life following the leadership of Jesus. But the devil is always around us, tempting us in many ways, trying to rip us from the arms of Jesus. Perhaps that is what causes us to fear God’s judgment.
What is more striking to me is not God’s judgment but the choice Jesus makes about what is valued. We knew Jesus didn’t value money or nice clothes or wonderful gifts. Instead, he cared about how much we have helped one another. He speaks specifically of those who have been starving or have no clothes or are in jail. You might say that he is the king of people who are downtrodden or lowly rather than the king of the wealthy or self centered. This is a totally different kind of king. It is a day to be surprised once more by the shift that Jesus makes from the kings we are familiar with.
It is a little surprising that Jesus chose this way to judge humans. Yes, it is contained in the second of the most important commandments, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. But this passage doesn’t mention judging us for how we love God. It does not mention other commandments like honoring your father and mother. I think Jesus chose to judge us this way because of his own experience. He chose to come to earth and to experience humanity personally. We don’t know whether Jesus ever found himself homeless, without clothes and without food but I would not be surprised. We do know that he was captured and tortured and put to death so we can understand how he would feel about those in prison.
If we truly believe what Matthew has written, then we know what we must do. We don’t go looking for Jesus in the courts of the king or in the wealthy places. Jesus, our king, is found in the midst of the outcast, the hungry, the naked and those in prison. Sometimes, our salvation is found in the people of Jesus. A few weeks ago, someone encouraged us to go to see the movie, “The Same Kind of Different as Me”. A wealthy art dealer, someone who had turned from God, a man who had turned on his wife and his father, was encouraged to change his ways. His wife dragged him to a place that fed the homeless in the worst part of town. He had no interest in being there. The man had no interest in meeting one of the homeless men. But he eventually found a friend in that homeless gentleman. This homeless man taught him a lot about life and about God. The homeless man helped him find himself and supported him in times of grief. Together these two men raised millions of dollars for homeless people in the US. There are times when we can learn from poor people. They can teach us and we can become even better people than we are today. That is why I encourage you to seek God in the smiles of others, especially those whom we help.
And more than the question of judgement, I hope you remember the kind of person Jesus was, the kind of king Jesus became. He is the king of each and every person. I remember the words of C. S. Lewis from last week’s adult formation, “When Christ died, He died for you individually just as much as if you'd been the only (man) HUMAN in the world”. Jesus is your personal king. He is there for you when all seems lost. He is there for you when you are afraid of the terrible violence we see all around us. Jesus is there for you when you don’t know where to turn next.
It is common for people to bring gifts to the king. Today, as we celebrate Jesus as our king, I ask you to consider what gift you will bring to him. Christmas is one month away. It is not too soon to think about our gifts and it is not too soon to give it early if we wish. It is really quite simple. All that Jesus wants from us is that we open our hearts to him and we care for one another. Amen.
People have a tendency to dwell on the end of the world. Books have been written about it and movie after movie has been made about what is going to happen. There are some references to the end of the world in the Bible. The book of Daniel in the Hebrew Scripture and the Book of Revelation in the New Testament are good examples. Revelation, in particular, speaks of the pitched battle that will occur between the forces of good and evil and does so in the strongest of images.
Jesus spoke about the end of the world. In a couple of weeks we will read about the judgment on the last day. Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats and the way we treat each other is the basis for the decision Jesus will make about whether we are welcomed into heaven. But our readings today speak of the end of the world with less fighting and violence than all of those movies or of Revelation. Today we hear about being lifted up to Jesus and about a wonderful banquet.
How does the second coming of Jesus affect our faith and our actions today? The Christians of Paul’s time thought that Jesus would return to earth while they were still alive. They were worried about those who had already died. Paul reassured them that Christ will raise the dead as well as the living. The dead will be taken up first. Those that are alive will rise up and meet Jesus in the air. All followers will be reunited. This event will be accompanied by trumpets and archangels will be seen. What a lovely image for us to hear today. Paul’s conclusion is that all who have lived in Christ will be raised. He was confident in that because of the love of Jesus. Paul even wrote that he wanted them to encourage each other, to comfort each other with these words about God’s love.
Our sense of heaven has evolved and we often speak of joining our loved ones when we die. Perhaps our understanding has grown because of the writing of Paul. Our gospel lesson invites us to think about the church community as the bride and Jesus as the bridegroom. The coming kingdom of God is like a joyful wedding banquet. It will not be some huge battle but more like a celebration. I like that much better than the violence found in movies. As bridesmaids we are to be prepared at all times for the second coming of Jesus. Another way to think about this lesson is that we never know when we are going to die and we always want to be ready, to find ourselves in a holy place, to find ourselves with Jesus so that we can join the other saints in heaven when that day comes. It is as if we are all boy scouts and we should follow their motto, “Be prepared”.
Haven’t most of us stopped waiting? Jesus has not come back for a very long time and in spite of those who say the end of the world is coming soon, we really have no idea when Jesus will come back most likely not in our lifetime. That is why the most important words Jesus gives us is that the bridegroom has been delayed. We accept that Jesus has not come back yet but that doesn’t change our expectation that he will return. Worrying about the end of the world coming is not a healthy way to live. I find it difficult to be motivated by the fact that God will judge me when I die. I don’t think we should live in fear that we will make a mistake and not be in God’s grace at the end of our life. Something so distant, so far away that it is hard to prepare for.
I am reminded of some management training that I received many years ago. It was all about what makes people tick and about how to help motivate employees. The training suggested that people are best motivated when they know exactly what they face in the short term. The expression was that people will work on things that are personal, immediate and certain. Each of us prefers to pay attention to things that impact us as individuals. Even athletes know that while they play for a team their own actions matter a great deal. It is harder to envision that my actions will impact the outcome of a large corporation. Folks are more likely to work on something when the result is immediate. Finally, we are all willing to work on things when the outcome is certain or predictable. Imagine what it is like when you go bowling. Each time that you roll the bowling ball down the lane, you get immediate feedback about how well you did. You trust that the pins will fall if you hit them correctly. The results are personal, immediate and certain. On the other hand, a goal that is delayed or has a gamble associated with the outcome, is not very motivating. Imagine if you will, a smoker. At any given time, a smoker can decided that the possibility of dying from having one cigarette is not very significant. After all, the possibility of getting sick from smoking may happen a long time in the future. And after all, there are a few people who never do get lung cancer even though they may have smoked all of their life.
You see, it is a gamble as to whether or not I will survive and one cigarette does not change the outcome. Most smokers are more motivated by the satisfaction they get from that one cigarette because they know that the result of having that one cigarette is an immediate and certain satisfaction. That is why I worry about how we will interpret this parable. If the only way you think about this parable is that Jesus is telling you to be ready for the second coming, I don’t think that you will change your behavior in any way. Certainly it is better to be prepared. I could never give a sermon if I didn’t prepare. I just think we have to have some immediate feedback about the value of preparedness.
The feeling that I get when I have finished writing a sermon is so good, a sense of accomplishment. You see, just the writing of the sermon is a positive experience. I believe the same is true in our relationship with Jesus. When I find myself in God’s presence, when I am able to follow what I understand to be God’s will, then a sense of peace and comfort comes over me. Yes, I have some wish inside that I will be ready for the day I die, but the feeling I get today is much more valuable.
In the parable, some are identified as the wise bridesmaids for they brought along extra oil. Is that why they got into the banquet? I mean they were selfish, they refused to share their oil with the other less prepared bridesmaids. Jesus is telling us that the Last Judgement is too late to help others such as our neighbor so I want us to always think of our neighbor throughout our life. There must be something else going on here. I believe it is in the presence of the wise bridesmaids when the bridegroom came. You see, the foolish bridesmaids left. It is as if they left the presence of Jesus while the wise bridesmaids remained. The wise ones always sought to be there when Jesus came. I like to think that their satisfaction was not the welcoming into the banquet but the happiness that they felt throughout their time of preparation. For us, then, it is about the comfort and peace that we feel knowing that Jesus is with us always. I say this many times but I think it is about the love and grace that we receive each day from Jesus. Reinhold Niebuhr once said, that “Only a combination of serenity and preparedness can do justice to the whole of our life”. He encouraged us to remember that “both tomorrow and today are in the hands of God”. Let us be prepared for each day. Let us experience Jesus each day. Let us not live in fear about the bad things that will come but rather in joyful hope that the best is yet to come. It will be a time when heaven and earth will be united and a great party will begin. Amen.
Today, we remember saints past and present. I hope you do so with great joy. We joy in their ability to live holy lives, we are thankful for the example they give us and we are hopeful that we can live like them. Sometimes, when we think of saints, we remember people who were persecuted. I think of saints like Stephen who was stoned to death or Perpetua who was mauled by animals in the arena, or perhaps Eric Lidell, a missionary, who died in a concentration camp in World War Two. Maybe you think of quiet, solitary people, like Catherine of Sienna who spent much of her life in a darkened room in prayer and meditation, or Dame Julian who lived her life as a recluse in Norwich. We think somehow that the life of a saint is sad, lonely or depressing. But it is not always so. Many saints were joyful, even funny. They often poked fun at themselves and their human failings.
I found some saintly humor in an article by the Reverend James Martin. In the fourth century, the famed theologian Augustine of Hippo once prayed, “Lord, give me chastity… but not yet”. A little known saint named Philip of Neri lived in the 16th century. He once shaved off half of his beard and went out in public. He said, “Christian joy is a gift from God, flowing from a good conscience”. When a young priest asked Philip what prayer would be the most appropriate to say for a couple after a wedding Mass, the future saint said, “A prayer for peace.” Here is a story about Pope John the 23rd. “the pope visited a Roman hospital called the Hospital of the Holy Spirit. Shortly after entering, he was introduced to the sister who ran the hospital.
“Holy Father,” she exclaimed, “I am the superior of the Holy Spirit.”
“Well, I must say, you’re lucky,” said the pope, delighted. “I’m only the Vicar of Christ!”
I share these stories to remind you that saints come in all types and sizes and colors and attitudes. You do not have to be persecuted to become a saint and you don’t have to live a solitary life either. You can be joyful and funny. Today is also a day to remember loved ones who have gone before us. Many of these people are just ordinary, unknown, normal people who lived their lives as part of the Jesus movement.
The scriptures for today were selected to help us focus on the lives of saints. In Revelation, we are given hope and we look forward to the glory of that heavenly kingdom. Many saints went through an ordeal just as Revelation indicates. All of us have struggles in our lives. The saints come to the throne of God and they join together in worshipping God as one unit. Someone pointed out to me the words in our collect: as followers of Jesus we are knit together in one community as members of the body of Christ. We come here to Transfiguration intertwined and connected, supporting each other and praising God together.
Revelation also offers us words of comfort. “Jesus is our shepherd, he will guide us to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Can you feel God’s presence in your life, wiping away your tears?
Comfort is offered to us in the Psalm, “those who seek the Lord lack nothing that is good. The Lord ransoms the life of his servants, and none will be punished who trust in him.”
We hear it often in scripture that we are God’s children. But I ask you today to consider those words of 1 John, all of us are God’s children. We are blessed and when we put ourselves in the hands of Jesus and follow him, we will be pure in our hearts. Our sins will be washed away.
Just as our other readings offer words of comfort so do the beatitudes. ’Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. If you are in mourning, perhaps over the loss of a loved one, this reading is for you. God blesses you and wants you to know that God is with you.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you …Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven”. If you have been attacked or maligned or feel as if the world is against you, God is ready to take you up into God’s kingdom. God cares for the saints, God cares for the followers of Jesus. Our loved ones that have gone before us are cared for by God. It is a source of comfort.
This week, I have been thinking about the various ways to consider our gospel reading of the Beatitudes. One day I found it to be comforting, another day I found it to be challenging, and one day I found it to be about God’s kingdom. Each perspective has the support of various theologians. I believe that God speaks to us in a way that we need to hear his message and that is different for every person. How is God speaking to you?
The Beatitudes challenge us to live our lives in a certain way. Blessed are those that hunger and thirst for righteousness. Just as the Good Samaritan went out of his way to help someone who had been left for dead, we may have to go beyond our normal limits, for those who have been mistreated and wronged. Blessed are the merciful. We must be sensitive to the misery that surrounds us and respond with grateful hearts. After all, we might be where the other person is if not for the blessings we have already received from God. Blessed are the meek. Meek in this case means that we are to be humble, not prideful. Blessed are the pure of heart. Now that one is virtually impossible. All of us are sinners. Yet, the more we stay away from our temptations, the more we focus on Jesus, the better are our chances. The goals are lofty and difficult to achieve. I don’t think Jesus wants us to be discouraged. It is as if Jesus wants us to follow in the path of the saints. Saints are people who made mistakes, people who sinned. We just strive to be a little better than we are today and know that God will accept us as we are.
There is one final way for you to consider these beatitudes. Jesus often turns the world upside down. These beatitudes challenge our world view. For example, our world view is that nice guys finish last. But Jesus said blessed are the meek. Isn’t Jesus asking us too reconsider what we have been taught about the meek. Our world view is that you must have a positive attitude in order to succeed. Jesus said, blessed are the poor in spirit. God’s kingdom is different than the one we encounter on earth. In God’s kingdom, the meek will inherit the earth. Our world view is that we must be stronger than everyone else so we will not be harmed. But Jesus said, Blessed are the merciful. It is just another example of how God’s kingdom will be different than what we have accepted.
Many people think we should seek power, success, fame or wealth. Jesus may be telling us that there is another way. God’s way is different. A former Lutheran professor, David Lose, wrote that this is less about a particular ethic and more about God’s in-breaking kingdom, a promise that God’s kingdom is real and transformative. David invites us to imagine that kingdom, different than the one we experience. It is not about working harder to follow the rules but more about having a new heart, ”one created by God’s own promise to continue to surprise us by who is blessed, who is loved by God”.
When we are able to set our hearts on God’s kingdom, then we no longer feel that we have lost our loved ones. Rather, we celebrate because they have come to that place where God blesses those whom we cannot bless on earth. They are not far off in our memory and love. Rather they can now shower us with love that we find difficult to understand because of how we see things on earth.
When all is said and done, I prefer that last view of the beatitudes. We should be comforted today. We should try to live our lives as each blessing suggests. But those two things are difficult to achieve. Let’s instead look forward with joyful anticipation to God’s kingdom, seeking to bring it to earth and ready to receive it when we die. Let’s celebrate with all the saints, both here on earth and there in heaven and together sing, “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might
be to our God forever and ever”. Amen.
Today, I would like to begin with a confession of sorts. There are times when I say yes but then I don’t really do the work. I think my intentions are good but I often get distracted or put off what I say I will do and then it never gets finished.
So, for example, I promised my wife that I would cut up some boxes and put them in recycling but I forgot and didn’t get that done. I have said that I will send a note to someone or call someone and I forget. My intentions are good but my follow through is not always so good.
The gospel for today caused me to think about this issue. Let me give you another example. On Friday and Saturday, a group of us attended the diocesan convention. It was wonderful to join with other Episcopalians and celebrate our ministry and to decide what we are called to do.
One of the activities of convention is to discuss resolutions, proposals for our common life. I must admit that it is not my favorite time. I find our resolutions to be nice words that often don’t change anything. And then I realized that I may be the problem.
There was a resolution that created an expectation that our church would minister to the Native American community. I think it is such an important ministry. God bless those who are a part of it. Arizona has the largest number of native people in the United States. I would hope that we seek to understand and assist the indigenous people in whatever way they find helpful. But the resolution as submitted didn’t seem to change anything. And after all we connect with the native people in several ways, through the products that we grow in our Chili garden and also, I hope, through our outreach programs.
So, I thought to myself that I would agree with the resolution and then not do anything. And that’s when I thought of the gospel and the story of the son who said he would go and work in the vineyard and then didn’t. I decided I should try a different approach. I have asked a Navajo person to help me construct a prayer that we can offer for Native Americans. And I asked two Episcopal deacons who are native Americans to come and visit us here at Transfiguration. Maybe that will happen next Sunday. I want to do something not just say I will.
Given my own experience this week and thinking that I may not be the only one who sometimes promises and doesn’t do the work I would ask you to consider your promises to God. Has there ever been a time when you promised to follow our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and not done the work? I am not speaking just of some sin, doing something you shouldn’t do, falling into a sin that you thought you had overcome. We all do that. We ask for forgiveness and try to change. I am also asking about the acts that perhaps we should do but have not completed.
Let us take a moment and consider the stories we find in scripture. The story about Moses and the Israelites in the desert is a good example. God had delivered them out of Egypt. God had taken care of them to this point. But now they were complaining to Moses and complaining about God. Their faith and trust in God seemed to be short lived. They wanted God to take care of all of their problems and seemed unwilling to stick with God when trouble arose. They said they would follow but wanted to quit when it became difficult.
In the gospel, Jesus told the parable of two sons. One said that he would not go work in the vineyard but did. The other said he would but did not.
Which one did the will of his Father?
Let me provide a little context. The Jewish people believed that God had offered the Law to all people but only the Nation of Israel accepted it. They said yes. But most of the Prophets in the time before Jesus preached that the people of Israel had not followed God’s wishes. Just like the second son, they said they would go but did not.
Jesus continues this line of prophetic thought. In this case, his argument is directed towards the chief priests and elders, the ones who would eventually have Jesus killed. They were the ones who wanted everyone to follow the Law. But they didn’t here the voice of John the Baptist. They didn’t heed John’s words to repent. They obeyed the word of the Law but did not live according to the meaning of the Law. Instead, John the Baptist converted the tax collectors and the prostitutes. They may have been sinners before but now they repented and returned to the Lord. They had said no but followed God’s wishes anyway. They accepted the teachings of John. Sadly, the chief priests were not swayed by the way these former sinners responded to John’s preaching. They did not accept what John had to say.
What does this passage mean to us. Well, in the first place, isn’t it a warning to organized churches? That is us but the way. We must be careful to always seek God. We should not think that simply coming to church on Sunday means that we are doing what God wants. We are to work in the vineyard outside of the church. And we must not think we are the only ones that have the answers for we might learn that there is a John the Baptist out there who is telling us to repent and return to the Lord.
The words of Jesus are also personal, something for each of us to consider. Have we said yes to Jesus but not done the work in God’s Kingdom. There are many ways to look at the work we are called to do but today I just ask you to consider what have we done for our neighbors.
Have any of you said that you wanted to help the victims of the hurricanes that have ravaged the US mainland and the Caribbean but haven’t yet done anything? Isn’t that just like the son who said yes but didn’t?
This weekend at Diocesan Convention the theme was ministering on the margins. It was a discussion about all those people who are on the edges of society, the ones who need help but often are not seen. We heard a powerful presentation from Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest who started Thistle farms, a place to help woman who were the victims of trafficking and abuse. We had the opportunity to hear about others such as the poor, the imprisoned and the racially marginalized, and others that we might not think about, the disabled, the chronically ill and members of the LGBTQ community.
Our congregation does reach out to some in these communities and I think it is wonderful. But how often do we sit down and listen to their stories? When have we sat with them, shared a meal and treated them as if they were equals? Perhaps we can help them to feel more a part of the community and perhaps we might learn something from these marginalized people.
Paul encouraged the people of Philippi to act this way. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Paul wants us to care for others and he believed that when we acted that way we were following in the ways of Jesus. He wrote, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”. Paul said it was all about love.
For me, today is about asking ourselves if we are following Jesus, if we are doing what Jesus did. It is more than saying we will be followers of Jesus. Yes, it is about talking the talk. It is also about walking the walk. Mother Theresa offered this, “Following Jesus is simple, but not easy. Love until it hurts, and then love more”. The gospel of John says it so clearly, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” I invite you to join me as I work to live out my commitment to Jesus.
May we all do the work of God in the kingdom and share God’s love with everyone. Amen.
For those of you who love to drink wine, the last two weeks of gospel stories have been just for you. For they have been about the vineyard. Last week, the Father asked his two sons to go and work in the vineyard. One did and one did not. This week’s parable is about the bad tenants in the vineyard. Vineyards had a special significance to the people of Israel. Isaiah wrote that the vineyard is God’s place given for the people of Israel but they had not treated it with respect and care. A vineyard was a sign of God’s kingdom. A vineyard is a sign that God loves us and cares for us, a gift to us from God. A vineyard is a place we are called to do God’s work.
The story here is easy to interpret. The vineyard was taken over by the bad tenants and they did not respect the owner. They even rejected the owner's son. Jesus told the Jewish leaders that they would reject him just as they did many prophets before him. So others will be given the vineyard. It would be easy to dismiss this gospel because we are believers, we have accepted Jesus, not rejected him. But I find the message of this gospel to be about the fact that the vineyard belongs to God, this earth belongs to God and we are to care for it as God would want us to. So, our theme is about working in the vineyard. This week, I am focused on how hard it is to make a difference in God’s vineyard.
And I am saddened as I meditate about God’s vineyard. Sometimes as a Christian member of society I find myself uncertain about what to do and how I should be involved. I feel that way today as I consider all the events that have happened. On the other hand, I find myself consoled by God’s love for us all and I find hope in the promise that Jesus made to us.
I learned this week that a vineyard is a sign of stability for is takes at least three years and a significant investment before the grapes are ready to be harvested. You would only do that in a place where there is peace and tranquility. Don’t we all look for that place of peace and don’t we work to make this vineyard a place of comfort. For we wish to bring God’s kingdom to earth now. And yet, this week, bringing God’s kingdom here on earth seems so far away. My mind keeps coming back to the horrible mass shootings in Las Vegas. Why does it have to be so. It seems like we are so far from God’s peace on earth right now and so far from people behaving as if they were followers of Jesus right now. How do we care for God’s vineyard amongst so much tragedy and so much divisiveness?
We are devastated by the loss of life in Las Vegas. We grieve for those that died and their families. And we are fearful. We worry about whether we can be safe in large crowds, whether our life too might be snuffed out. And in the aftermath of the tragedy, we find ourselves divided. This week our arguments are about gun control. I wish I knew the answer about gun violence. You see, I grew up in a household without any guns. My uncle killed himself with a gun and my mother became deathly afraid of any gun. When my father served in the military, he wasn’t allowed to bring his service revolver into the house. So, guns never meant anything to me. And yet, I have had several friends to whom guns mean so much. I know how much it means for them to use their guns to go hunting. I know that they appreciate the chance to shoot their guns in practice. I know people who want their guns for safety. I even have gone skeet shooting and understand how careful the guns owners are about safety issues.
So, I am not here to take away guns from people. In fact, I believe it is impossible. There are well over 300 million guns in the United States and we have no chance to take all of those guns away from good people much less from bad people. So, I am just saddened. Where is the vineyard, God’s kingdom on earth?
This week, I spoke with a man who was in the service during the Vietnam war. He reminded me of the strife that existed between the blacks and the whites who served in Vietnam. And he told me that when he returned to the United States at the end of his tour of duty, he went to a bar in his uniform and was attacked by three men who jumped him even though he was not the cause of their angst. Perhaps our country is not as divided now as it was during the Vietnam War days. Still, when can we build God’s kingdom here on earth?
But in the midst of my sadness, I was lifted up as I heard the stories of the bravery, selflessness and care that folks had for others during and after that terrible 10 minutes in Las Vegas. I heard the story of the man who was killed as he covered his wife so that she would not be hurt. I watched the news story of the man who put the injured in his pick up truck and took them to a place where they could be helped. I know that people lined up and waited for hours to donate blood for victims. And I listened to a woman tell the story of leaving her post as a waitress and sitting with a man as he died in her arms. It was someone that she did not know. But she stayed with that man for four hours, sharing the sad news with his friends and relatives. She wanted to be with him until someone he knew could be there. I am sure that you have other incredible stories of people caring for others
So, in the midst of tragedy and division, there is hope. That is why I think it is so important to share our stories of kindness. I ask you to tell me of the times that people cared for one another so that we do not become callous. Let us not think the world is hopeless. Many people are out their showing that they are working in the vineyard seeking to bring God’s kingdom to earth. We can make the vineyard fruitful.
I was encouraged also this week as I thought about Saint Francis of Assisi. Today, we have the blessing of the animals in honor of Saint Francis whose feast day was Wednesday the fourth. As a young man, Francis tried serve as a military person and fought several battles but he ended up choosing a different way. Francis stopped serving in the military. He gave up his earthly wealth and all his goods to try to live a life of Christ. Today, we celebrate Francis for his love of and care for creation.
But it is not just these stories that cause us to understand Francis’ care for creation. Francis believed strongly in the relationship between humans and all other creatures. Francis seemed to have a special way of interacting with animals, just as we realize how important our pets are to us. Francis offered this comparison:
“If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”
So, in honor of Francis and as encouragement for us to continue our efforts to bring God’s kingdom to earth, I ask you to join me in the prayer of Saint Francis. You can find it on page 833 of the Book of Common Prayer in your pews. It is prayer number 62.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Just the other day, I was with a group of friends from my college days. One of the organizers of the event asked me to offer a blessing before the meal. It is just one of the common things that happens to a priest. After the meal, I had someone come up to me and say, I guess we are different because I am an agnostic. I heard the statement as a challenge and my response was that I was not trying to convert him. After wards, I decided that I was not helpful. I thought it would have been better to say that we are not so different you know. For all of us at different times in our lives have questions about our beliefs and our faith. Once again, today’s scripture causes us to question one of our commonly held expectations. This time it is about fairness.
Our sense of fairness usually is tested when someone mistreats another human being or when something bad happens. There have been more than ten little children killed in swimming pool accidents in the Phoenix metropolitan area this year. It doesn’t seem fair. Many times it seems that the so-called bad people come out on top. It doesn’t seem fair. It might even become personal. I think I have done a lot of work but someone else is recognized and congratulated on their accomplishments and I am not. It isn’t fair.
And how about the questions we ask of God. Why did God let the hurricanes cause so much damage and kill so many people? Why did God let that earthquake kill so many people in Mexico? It doesn’t seem fair that humans experience such tragedy.
But today we must confront the issue from the other side for we are brought far to face with God’s compassion and generosity. In today’s parable, Jesus tells us that many people will be accepted into God’s kingdom. The reward will be the same for people who have been faithful for their entire life and those who only come to God during their last breath. The landlord in the parable asks two questions of the workers, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Can we take a few moments and deal with those two questions? Are we envious of others who are accepted by God? Do we struggle with God’s abundant mercy?
Ok, I know the answers because I have given them myself. Whenever someone says life isn’t fair, our immediate response is that’s right life isn’t fair. All of us have so many examples of times when life wasn’t fair that we just say, that is right life isn’t fair. But, don’t we still wish that is was? Don’t we still believe that it should be? I do. Debie Thomas writes for an online web magazine called Journey with Jesus. She wrote this “we know how the world is supposed to work. Time is money, and fair is fair. Equal pay for equal work is fair. Equal pay for unequal work is NOT fair.” I have the answers to that question as well. God’s ways are not our ways. We cannot understand how God works. Good answers. Let’s try to dig a little deeper.
Whenever I hear this story about the workers in the vineyard, I always imagine that I was one of the first workers in God’s kingdom. I have been a believer for my entire life. I say to myself that I have worked to follow God’s will in this world. I have tried to care for others. Yes, I sometimes think that God isn’t fair for having accepted those who have not been as faithful as I have been.
Perhaps it is helpful to ask why did some come to God so late? Debie Thomas wrote this about the parable of the laborers in the vineyard story and how it might apply in today’s world. “Why did some laborers end up unemployed until 5pm? The parable is very clear: because no one would hire them. Perhaps they weren’t as literate, educated, or skilled as their competition. Perhaps they had children to care for at home. Maybe they had transportation difficulties. Maybe they were disabled or didn’t have greencards or suffered discrimination. Whatever the case may be, the landowner doesn’t ask these laborers to defend themselves. He just makes sure that every worker ends the day with the dignity and security of a living wage — the capacity to go home that night and feed his family.”
Is it possible that some come to understand God later in their life for totally understandable reasons? Perhaps they had a learning disability or were not in a place where they heard God’s message. When we think like this it becomes harder and harder to judge them harshly.
It is so easy for our judgment to be clouded, to be biased because we don’t see the whole story. So, when I am judgmental about others, I realize that kind of thinking is just envy and envy is a sin. I realize that I am judging myself and judging others and that is not my job. Envy can make us bitter. Bitterness is not a good trait for anyone. I think it is hard to be non judgmental, it is hard to understand how God acts.
How about the possibility that we are really not the workers who came to the vineyard early but rather those who came late? While I think I have been faithful perhaps I have not. Then, wouldn’t I be excited to hear these words, to know that God is generous, that we will be included in those who are accepted into heaven in spite of what we have done?
I tried to find some examples of generosity that might help us understand God’s actions better. I am thinking of the ladies of our congregation who give so much for this congregation and for needy people in our community. I was thankful yesterday that they hosted another fabulous reception after the memorial service for Nanci Ahern. The food was plentiful. The ladies are hospitable and generous.
Or how about some financially successful business people who have become philanthropists. I thought of Bill Gates. A year ago Bloomberg reported Mr. Gates, to date, "has donated more than $30 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which so far has given away $35 billion in grants to fight hunger, disease and poverty”. Aug 22, 2016
In 2015 Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder and chief executive of Facebook, announced that he and his wife would give 99 percent of their Facebook shares “during our lives” — holdings currently worth more than $45 billion — to charitable purposes. Dec 1, 2015
In 2006, Warren Buffett announced that he would gradually give away the majority of his fortune to charity, he wasn't kidding. In July of this year, the billionaire investor donated another 18.6 million Class B shares of Berkshire Hathaway worth $3.17 billion to five different foundations. That puts his total charitable contribution to the organizations at $27.54 billion in just over ten years.
Certainly this are great examples of generosity but they don’t seem comparable to what God does for each of us. For God gives us something that money cannot buy. God gives us eternal life.
Another important message that we can take away from this lesson is that none of us is worthy of God’s generosity. Or perhaps a better way to say it is all of us are worthy of God’s generosity.
In one of my scriptural commentaries I found this “God never gives any of us what we think is our due. God gives, not out of any real need for our services, but because the nature of God is love. And the nature of love is to be giving. 1st John has a verse that goes like this, “Not that we loved God but that God loved us.” For that we must be eternally thankful, for the Divine gift always exceeds anything we can do or imagine.”
You know when you really think about it, it is better that God is the one who makes the judgements. If we were the ones to decide we would probably make a mess of things. I think today is one of those times that we just accept God’s generosity and be thankful. Let us seek to avoid envy and bitterness. Let us just put the questions about fairness to the side. After all, Can’t God do what God wants with what belongs to God? Amen.