Bob Saik

Bob Saik

I remember as a child being friends with a boy named Chris.  Chris came from a family of 11 children.  I knew that Chris and his family were not wealthy.  As I remember, Chris’s dad worked as a janitor, an important profession but not one that paid a lot of money.  One day, Chris invited me over to dinner.  I remember sitting at a very large table with lots of children and having a good time.  What I most remember that evening is that we ate sloppy joes on a hamburger bun.  Each child was given one sloppy joe.  I also remember that there was one extra sloppy joe left and it was offered to me.  I think even to this day how others in the family probably needed the last sloppy joe more than I did but I thought it was such a generous gift to give it to me, their guest.  A small gesture but very meaningful.

Many years later, Jan and I went to Honduras to visit an Episcopal boarding school in the capital city of Tegucigalpa.  While we were there our group hosted a few selected students for a meal out on the town.  We went to McDonald’s.  One of the students sat across from us.  After eating a few bites of his sandwich, he wrapped it back in the package and put it to the side.  I asked him why he wasn’t eating the rest and he said that he was saving it for his brother who was not able to come on our trip.  He was so thoughtful to give a part of his lunch to his brother.  It was a small gesture but I remember it even today. 

In the gospel from John we hear the story of the feeding of the five thousand.  You and I have heard this story many times.  It is one of the few gospel stories that I remember reading in church when I was a child.  This story is the only miracle performed by Jesus that is found in all four gospels.   It must have been one of the most important stories told by the followers of Jesus.  I am sure it was told in every oral tradition passed down by his followers.  

The Feeding of the Five Thousand speaks about the blessings that Jesus heaped upon the people who came to him. He had compassion for all.  It is a sign of how God cares for us.  We know that God is all powerful.   We know that the miraculous intervention of God is not only possible, but it is something that the people of that time expected. They were not surprised. It is similar to the passage from 2 Kings when Elisha was able to feed so many with the help of God. 

It is a good day to offer praise to God.  Psalm 145 offers a series of testimonies about the wonders of God and all that God does for us.  The Lord is faithful, The Lord is righteous and loving, The Lord upholds all those who fall; he lifts up those who are bowed down.  The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord, and you give them their food in due season.  The Psalm, 2 Kings, and the gospel are both about the glory of God.  Since we all know this story so well, let’s consider some other messages beyond just the glory of God.  How does Jesus use our gifts?  Let’s focus on the young boy and consider how the boy’s gift of two fish and five loaves of bread made everything else possible.   What expectations did this day create for the people there and how might we understand their reaction? 

In the lesson, Jesus asked a question for which he already had the answer, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”  I think Jesus wanted the apostles to feel the responsibility for caring for all the followers of Jesus.  Andrew tried to help, there is a boy with some food.  It is almost as if Andrew is reaching out for an answer to Jesus.  I hear Andrew saying, “We only have a little, will it help?”  The magic of this miracle is that with only a little, Jesus performed miracles.  The young boy gave all that he had to Jesus.  Did he wonder if he would get any food for himself?  He did it willingly.  and Jesus did so much with what Andrew found and the boy gave, 

Pope Francis offered these thoughts about miracles a couple of years ago.  “What do you think God is more likely to do, miraculously drop food where there is starvation or inspire people to help their neighbors solve their problems?  I like to think that both are possible. But if you choose the latter, how can we help (through the Holy Spirit) in all the places that we touch: our parks, our cities, our church, and more?  Let us give what we can.  We may think it is not much.  Let us give anyway.  Perhaps our gift will be matched by another.  Maybe our gift will encourage another to give. Together our gift is a lot.  God will do great things with our gifts. 

We know that the need for food is significant.  The United Food Bank has posted on its website that there are 470,000 hungry children.  That may be the number of hungry children in the area that the United Food Bank serves. They also post that they hand out 75,000 meals per day.  So many in this congregation have been generous when it comes to feeding the hungry.  Thank you. 

Let’s take a few minutes to think about how the people responded to the compassion of Jesus and his feeding of so many.  They were amazed by what Jesus had done, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”  Jesus was there for them when they needed it.  But they wanted more than a prophet, didn’t they.   The crowd wanted to make him king we are told.  So much did they want Jesus to be their king that Jesus had to go and hide, to stay away from everyone.  We know that Jesus didn’t come to be the king of any country on earth.  He is the king of heaven.  Jesus never fit into the perfect mold that people wanted him to be and we should be careful not to put him into our mold either.

Jesus does so much for us.  I think of a quote from the Narnia books by C. S. Lewis.  Listen to what the lion Aslan does for the people Narnia. “Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight, At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more. When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death, And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.”  So, Jesus is our Lord and Savior.  He comforts us, strengthens us, heals us and gives us peace. 

As I said let’s not make Jesus into something he is not nor should we want Jesus to be something just because it makes us more comfortable.  Jesus did not come to fix every problem we have in the world.   Jesus is about bringing us closer to God.  Jesus is about expecting us to step away from sin and step to God.  Jesus is about expecting us to love our neighbors.  He is about expecting us to forgive people.  He is about asking us to visit the sick, those in prison and taking care of the needy.  One of the commentators I read this week pointed out that the boy brought loaves of barley. Barley rather than wheat was thought to be a food for the poor.  Jesus was feeding everyone but he had a special place for the poor.   You see, Jesus doesn’t make our lives easy. 

I am reminded of another note that C. S. Lewis wrote about Aslan, the lion in the Narnia series. “He's wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”  Jesus didn’t do everything the way people expected him to do.  He spoke about the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Our Presiding Bishop is fond of talking about how Jesus turned the world upside down. He encourages us to do the same.  I like this thought from Bishop Curry, “Our mission is not only to change the world, but to share in God’s work of turning the world upside down, transforming and transfiguring it from the nightmare it can be into the dream God destines it to be.”  

Today’s gospel is a beautiful story of the miraculous power of Jesus.  It is a reminder that God cares for us and loves us.  What might this message be saying to you?  It may be asking you to think about how you love your neighbor.  I hope you also remember that Jesus doesn’t always fit in to the box that we wish him to be in.  He may give us comfort, but he also challenges us to be something much bigger.  He encourages us to reach and to dream big and to help him make this a world where God lives in all people.   Amen. 

 

 

 

This story comes from a mother.  I want to share it in her own words. Years ago, when our daughters were very young, we'd drop them off at our church's Children's Chapel on Sundays before the service. One Sunday, just as I was about to open the door to the small chapel, the priest came rushing up in full vestments. He said he had an emergency and asked if I'd speak to the children at their story time. He said the subject was the Twenty-third Psalm.  But just as I was about to get up from the back row and talk about the good shepherd, the priest burst into the room and signaled to me that he would be able to do the story time after all.

He told the children about sheep, that they weren't smart and needed lots of guidance, and that a shepherd's job was to stay close to the sheep, protect them from wild animals and keep them from wandering off and doing dumb things that would get them hurt or killed. He pointed to the little children in the room and said that they were the sheep and needed lots of guidance.

Then the minister put his hands out to the side, palms up in a dramatic gesture, and with raised eyebrows said to the children, "If you are the sheep then who is the shepherd?" He was obviously indicating himself.

A silence of a few seconds followed. Then a young visitor said, " Jesus, Jesus is the shepherd." The young priest, obviously caught by surprise, said to the boy, "Well, then, who am I?" The little boy frowned thoughtfully and then said with a shrug, "I guess you must be a sheep dog.”

Children often teach us important lessons, don’t they?  Perhaps the priest  in the story needed a little humility.  He certainly received it from the young boy.  It is a reminder that all things come from God.  We should never take our eyes off the blessings we receive from Jesus.

Scripture is filled with references to shepherds.   Psalm 23 begins with the words, “The Lord is my Shepherd”.  God was the shepherd of the people of Israel.   In the New Testament, Jesus spoke in parables about the role of the shepherd.  We all seek the good shepherd even in the leadership of humans.  I ask you to reflect with me on the leaders who are called to be good shepherds, to God’s presence with us on our journey and to the comfort that only God can give.

Jeremiah stood with a long line of prophets who spoke out against the political leaders of their time.  Woe to those shepherds who scatter the flock, he wrote. Matt Skinner, a professor of New Testament shared some examples of leaders who were disparaged in the Bible.

  • The idolatrous pretense of Pharaoh and his imitators
  • The final verse of the book of Judges expresses despair over the lack of a good king.
  • Micah and Amos are other prophets who joined Jeremiah in complaints about leaders.
  • Political figures exposed by apocalyptic seers such as Daniel who showed them to be fools and monsters
  • The Gospels’ depictions of Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, and Pontius Pilate as cunning and ruthless in their authority to decide life and death”
  • Jesus himself often despaired the religious leaders especially the scribes and the pharisees.

What were the scripture writers looking for in a leader?  Matt Skinner wrote  “Among the many factors that contribute to the Bible’s criticisms of leadership is a deep concern about the danger that festers when a people—whether a nation, a community, a congregation, or a family—have no shared vision, no commitment to common values, no concern for neighbors, no basis for trusting others.

I wonder if Jesus were around today if he would choose to speak out against the leaders in our society.   Scripture writers might have found their own reasons to complain about current day leaders. We know our job is not to complain but to reconcile.  Ephesians says “in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Perhaps we should focus on breaking down the walls.

Jesus is our example of the good leader, the good shepherd.  Before today’s lesson, Jesus had sent out his apostles to preach the good news to others.  He gave them a clear mission and clear direction. They were to take nothing with them and if they were not welcome they should just shake the dust off of their sandals and continue.

I wonder what it was like for the apostles when they first preached.  Maybe they felt a sense of accomplishment for a job well done. They may have been hungry and tired from traveling and talking.  They must have felt rejection and possibly fear that they would be physically harmed.  Upon their return, they shared their experiences with Jesus.  Then, Jesus invited them to go to a quiet place where they can rest.

Just as Jesus called his disciples to lead, we are all called to help foster a community with a common faith and commitment to our fellow worshippers, places where we care for our neighbors.  Some people actively evangelize, inviting others to join us in our spiritual community.  Others may simply show by example how a Christian should live.  It can be hard work to create loving communities. 

It doesn’t require a lot of people to build great places of faith.  As I was reminded recently, Jesus picked twelve apostles to build a community of followers.  Now there are billions of people who follow Jesus.  Our community of faith may be small or large but every step we take makes a difference. 

Psalm 23 expresses the words of God’s presence on our journey, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me.”   The followers of Jesus referred to themselves as people of the way, people of the journey.   We know the journey of the Israelites.   They found freedom from the Pharaoh but thy walked in the desert for forty years.  One commentator described it as “Israel’s national journey of deliverance, wilderness, and emergence in the land”.  Their arrival in Israel did not end their journeys.  Many years later, Jeremiah was upset about the kings of Israel who did not protect the people from the invasion of powerful armies.  Jeremiah was also upset about the invading kings who took the people from their homeland into exile in Babylon.  Jeremiah offered words of encouragement. He promised that God would bring the people of Israel back together.  God would help the people of Israel to be fruitful and multiply.  God would find leaders to care for them.  God did not forget them, God helped them on their journey.  

What has your journey been like?  Has it been filled with joy and gladness?  Or has it been sorrowful and a place of struggle? God is with us on our individual journeys and with us on journeys that we take as a community.  Saint Teresa of Avila expressed it so simply, “The feeling remains that God is on the journey too”.  We are not alone.

Psalm 23 does speak of God’s presence.  It reminds us of God’s comfort “your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”  God’s comfort comes to us many times and in many ways.  In Isaiah 40 God expects leaders to bring comfort to God’s people.  “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.”  God will see to it that the people find comfort.  Listen to this from 2 Corinthians, “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” God lifts us up.

 

I know that we always need God’s comfort, but I so appreciate it now.  We have come through so much and there is still uncertainty about what is to come.  I need God’s comfort more than ever.

 

The companion word for me in the Gospel is rest.  Jesus told the apostles they had done their work, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”  When our work is done for the day, when the difficult task is complete, let us go and find our rest with Jesus. 

 

Psalm 37 encourages us to rest in the Lord.  It can be translated as be still in the Lord, wait patiently for the Lord.  My favorite verse about rest comes  from the Gospel of Matthew, “‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

 

Jesus called us to build loving communities.  Jesus is present with us as we do God’s work.  And Jesus calls us to find rest in his loving arms.  The rest is needed.  Often it doesn’t last long.  Jesus took his apostles out to find some rest, but the needs of the people continued.  They found Jesus and asked him to heal the sick.  Our journey is a lifelong one and may have only moments of rest.  That is why we should enjoy the times of rest.  We may once again be called to care for others and to proclaim God’s glory.  We will almost certainly enter into a new time of stress or struggle.  Our journey, our search for God, is never over. Let us be thankful that Jesus is our shepherd. Let us be thankful for his presence with us.  Let us be thankful that God give us comfort and peace and rest.  Amen.

A man stood in front of a judge arguing that he should be excused from a parking ticket.  He had parked in a handicapped spot, despite not having a sticker or a visible handicap. The man claimed he’d meant to park for just a moment to go into a restaurant to bring his mother a glass of water (she was dehydrated, he explained). But when he was on his way out, he saw someone choking and felt obliged to administer the Heimlich maneuver. The only problem was when the judge asked him how one does the Heimlich maneuver, the man had not a clue.  The judge told him to pay the fine.  Sometimes the job of a judge is easy as in this case.  It was clear that the man had not told the whole truth.  Other times finding justice is difficult for a judge and for us.  How might our lessons help us to find justice?  

Our responsibility to seek justice for all people is clearly spelled out in the Bible.  In Chapter 6 of the book of Micah, we are told, “and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  In Psalm 10, the psalmist calls out, “O Lord, you will strengthen their heart, to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed.”  In the 23rd chapter of Matthew, Jesus admonished religious leaders, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”

In our own baptismal covenant, the question is asked, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”  And our response is “I will with God’s help.”  You see, doing justice is not really an option for Christians.  The hard part is to figure out what is just.  Sometimes it is easy, sometimes it is difficult.  Sometimes it takes understanding and sometimes it takes work.  

In our lessons for today, there is disagreement about justice.  Remember, when the book of Amos was written, Israel had split into two kingdoms.  The Kingdom of Israel was in the north and the kingdom of Judah was in the south.  Amos was a farmer from the southern kingdom of Judah who went to the northern kingdom to denounce the morality of the leaders there.  He especially sought justice for the poor and proclaimed that the elders “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth”.  Pretty strong words, I would say.  You can understand why the priest at Bethel told Amos to go back to his own country and prophesy there.  Who was this foreigner who thought he could speak against the king?  Yet, Amos insisted that he had been sent by God.

Amos and Amaziah clashed over a question of what is justice?  It is easy to think of Amos as a lone individual seeking justice for the poor.  And there is truth in that statement.  Amaziah served an institution of religious worship in support of political institutions.  Justice for him was to support the king.  But Amos was part of an institution as well.  The prophets were accepted as people with a specific vocation, people who followed God’s word.  There are times when institutions clash over issues of justice.  There are also times when each of us individually should remind institutions of their responsibilities to the poor and the oppressed. We should work for justice.   

The gospel is another case of individuals speaking out.  John the Baptist sought justice, he preached against Herod for marrying his brother’s wife.  John was killed for speaking out.  Now Herod is worried.  Herod feared that Jesus was the resurrection of John.  Jesus also preached justice.  He preached in favor of the poor and the oppressed.  He denounced the actions of leaders who were not caring for the needy.  Jesus was also killed. There was good reason for Herod to fear the work of John and Jesus for they both sought justice and punishment for leaders who failed to care for the people.  

There are many places where we should seek justice.  I am thinking about the challenges of homeless people in the heat.  Jan told me that it is very dangerous for people to be out in the weather when evening temperatures do not go down to 85 or less.  It seems that people lose 2 liters of water during the night in these temperatures.  We should always seek justice for the poor, the homeless, the underfed and others. 

Another place where we struggle to know what is just is the issue of racism.  The Episcopal Church has done a lot of work in this area.  My intention is to share what is happening in this area and to let you know about things that are to come.  I am well aware that the issue has significant political ramifications.  We argue about critical race theory even as we don’t share a common understanding of what it means.  We disagree about Black Lives Matter and defunding the police.  The Episcopal Church is not asking anyone to take a particular position on these issues but rather inviting us to learn from history together and to share our own experiences and perspectives in an open forum with each other.

I would hope that all of us here today seek to accept all peoples, regardless of race.  I think everyone here would say they are not racist.  But racism can be a complex issue and I think we might find common ground through study and discussion.  

The Episcopal Church has been working on issues of racism since 1988, long before our latest differences came about.  In the 2020 Diocesan Convention, a policy was passed.  Clergy and lay leaders are expected to take Anti-Racism training as part of their leadership roles. The Diocese of Arizona has nearly completed the training and they will begin to roll it out in the fall. 

During this year, I learned about a program called Sacred Ground which was developed by the national church.  Sacred Ground is meant to create a space for people of many different backgrounds to learn and to share perspectives on racism.  It is non-judgmental. Sacred ground is a program that looks into the challenges faced by people of all kinds, whites, blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asians.   About ten people have joined me in what has become a wonderful dialogue about the issues.   It is so refreshing to find a group and a way to discuss topics like this.  We discussed the harsh treatment of European immigrants when they arrived in this land and how they were forced to give up their traditions and accept common beliefs.  We learned about the struggles that Native people faced soon after they welcomed Europeans to the northeastern part of the country.  We studied the history of black people both as slaves and after the Civil War.  We learned about the challenges faced by Hispanic or Latino cultures.  All of these sessions have given our group the opportunity to share some of our own perspectives about race in a comfortable space without judgement from others.  If any of you wish to learn more about Sacred ground, let me know. 

The experience of Chinese people who came to the United States starting around 1840 in California was something I knew little about.  We learned that Asians, especially Chinese, were subjected to so many oppressive laws that were later declared unconstitutional including a foreign miner’s tax which meant the Chinese paid nearly all the taxes charged to miners, and a Cubic Air Ordinance which limited the Chinese from gathering.  We also read about how Asian Americans were treated after World War II.  As the United States sought to be the leader of the free world and to court the favor of the Chinese, leaders in our country spoke positively about Asians.  Asian people soon were accepted.  We now understand Asians as educated and hardworking people.  That comes in part because of things leaders said about them in the Fifties and Sixties.  I better understand why I have held this belief that Asia people are hardworking and better educated for my entire life.  That is why Chris Whitehead and other teachers have suggested to me several times how important it to search for our truth not relying on a single source for our information.  I have only discussed two possible areas for us to consider as we seek justice.  I am sure you could identify many more. 

Scripture encourages us to seek justice for everyone.  Yet, we often disagree about what constitutes justice.  If we all saw justice in the same way, we wouldn’t need the courts to help us figure it out.  We also know that some people, just like the man who tried to get out of the ticket for parking in a handicap spot, try to bend the scales of justices in their direction.  I suggest that seeking justice means seeking God’s will for our world.  As we struggle, let us turn to God, let us remember the gifts that Jesus has given us as told in the letter to the Ephesians.  We are destined as God’s children through the work of Jesus.  We have been redeemed through his blood and forgiven for our trespasses.  We have received wisdom and understanding. As we seek justice let us remember the prayer from today’s collect, “O Lord, grant that we may know and understand the things we ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them”.  Amen. 

 

I have been thinking this week about heroes and heroines. A heroine is someone we admire or idealize for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.  It seems to me that we have put aside many of the people we thought were heroes as we learned more about them.  Where might we find a hero these days?  I don’t think we would turn to politics as that is such a divisive place.  Perhaps we could turn to sports.  The Phoenix basketball team has given the people of this area something to root about and maybe we would find a hero there.  As we look across other areas of interest such as religion or literature or art or music, perhaps you have some favorites, but I just find it difficult to name someone that everyone would say is a hero. 

Instead, I find our heroes in the common folk, people whose names we may not even know.  I think about the medical people who worked so hard when the pandemic was at full strength and hospitals were overcrowded.  I think about teachers who found ways to help their students in spite of the challenges of remote learning.  I think of the unnamed scientists who helped develop the vaccine.  And I think of people, especially at food pantries, who helped provide food when the need was overwhelming.

Today in the gospel we learn about two people who made important choices.  They are models to us, examples of how we might express our faith.  They remind us to trust in God. They are important because their actions help us to learn about Jesus and his compassion, his love and his powerful healing presence. They may not be heroes in the traditional sense, but I think we should be thankful for their witness and the message that they have left for us. 

We actually know the names of one of these characters.  His name was Jairus, the leader of the synagogue.  Other church leaders in Jesus’ time were opposed to his work and his teachings.  Some thought he came from the devil.   Jairus knew all of this but chose to express his faith in Jesus anyway.  He came to Jesus while Jesus was in the midst of a crowd and asked for healing for his daughter.   Jesus dropped whatever he was planning to do, took pity on Jairus.

It was a day for Jesus to be interrupted for just as he started to go see Jairus’ daughter, something happened.  A woman, whose name we don’t know, touched his cloak and she was healed.  The woman’s actions took great faith and courage.  She was required by her faith tradition to stay away from other people.  She was considered unclean.  She was strictly forbidden from touching anyone.  She tried to follow the rules but those rules had not helped her find a solution.  No doctors could solve her problem.  Was it her desperation, her willingness to try anything to find a cure for her problem?  Or was it a faith in God and a faith in Jesus that caused her to turn to Jesus for healing? 

Jesus knew that he had been touched and that some power went out from him.  And when the woman confessed to what she had done, Jesus confirmed that it was her faith that allowed the healing to occur. Jesus then returned to the task of healing the leader’s daughter.  People told him it was too late, but Jesus went anyway and he revived the girl.  

We learn from these two miracles that the power of Jesus to heal had no boundaries.  His healing was given to another person even though he did not make it happen consciously. His desire to heal did not require any specific action on his part.  And we also learn in this passage that Jesus was able to heal someone whom everyone thought was dead.

Do these two stories help you to see more clearly the power of Jesus and the incredible faith of two people?  We probably wouldn’t have chosen these two people out of a crowd to teach us about faith.  And yet here they are giving us a chance to learn more about how Jesus expects us to use our faith and more about how faith can make a difference in our lives.  Both were certainly willing to ask Jesus for help. 

I also feel that we learn about Jesus’ willingness to help.  He could have turned down Jairus because of his estranged relationship with Jewish leaders.  Jesus could have said I have other things to do.  But neither answer was ever the way that Jesus chose.  He always wanted to help people.  He always wanted people to feel God’s love and one of the most powerful ways for that to happen is through healing. 

The reading from Lamentations reminds us of these characteristics of God.      

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,

his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning. 

Jesus lived that words of Lamentations always.  

How might we respond to this lesson in Mark?  The first thing we learn is to ask God for what we want.  Each of the people in today’s passage chose to put their faith in God.  In so doing they had to reject some accepted practices and teachings of their time.  Neither was certain that Jesus was going to help them.  But they asked anyway.  And that is what we should do also. Ask God for help and do it over and over again.  It may be for healing for ourselves and it may be healing for someone else.  We could ask God for forgiveness or we could ask for reconciliation with another.  As I said, we don’t know whether the exact request we make will be answered in the way we wish.  But we can be certain that God hears our prayer.  And we can trust in God to love us. 

C. S. Lewis suggested that we consider the characteristics of God when we think about miracles, “Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.” Miracles occur because of who God is.  

We know that God answers many prayers.  It may be something simple like finding a parking place in a crowded lot.  Or it could be a healing miracle.  Many of us know people who have been healed when the human prognosis was glum. Even those can be miracles.  But sometimes, healing defies our best explanation.  I have a friend who has been dealing with pancreatic cancer for four and a half years.  While we know he won’t live forever, we sure can say he has beaten the odds.  Jan and I have a niece whose daughter survived a brain tumor even though the doctors thought she wouldn’t make it.  I am sure that some of the people who survived the building collapse in Miami feel as if it was a miracle that they came out alive.  Many of you have shared miracles that happened in your life.  I believe that miracles do occur and I believe that God is a part of the miracle. I also know of situations where we have asked God for help and it doesn’t seem to happen.  I don’t know how to explain the difference. It may seem arbitrary how God chooses one and doesn’t help another.  I am only left with trusting what God decides.  It is as the reading from Lamentations said today,

“Although he causes grief, he will have compassion

according to the abundance of his steadfast love;

for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.”

Even the reading from 2nd Corinthians expresses the love of God.  It was written this way, “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” Jesus always reached out with love and compassion.

There was a 20th century English writer named G. K. Chesterton who said this about miracles, “The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them.”  Saint Augustine also wrote about miracles, “Miracles are not in contradiction to nature. They are only in contradiction with what we know of nature.”  Perhaps someday we will understand the natural event that created any given miracle. 

Wise and well-known people have expressed their belief in miracles.  People have shared examples of miracles in books and movies.  Normal people have told stories of miracles. All kinds of people ask God for help every day.  I say that God listens to every prayer.  Let us have total faith, trust and belief in God.  Each one of us should feel comfortable praying in whatever way works for us and believing that God answers our prayers.  We should seek solutions to our issues using our own logic and skilled professionals.  But we can also turn to God in faith and trust asking God to help us discern the best actions we can take and asking God to heal us in every way.  Amen. 

 

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. 

 

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.